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Fountain Paint Pots - Yellowstone National Park

JM: How long did it take you to get the hang of doing night images?
LJ: From the time I picked up my first DSLR in 2015, I have wanted to shoot the night skies. Youtube is full of helpful videos. That Fall, I started on this journey. My first attempts were poor as focusing was a challenge and my compositions were laughable! It took a couple years for me to be confident in how the images would turn out. Each time I go out to shoot, my planning, composition, lighting and color improves.

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Grand Prismatic Pool - Yellowstone National Park

JM: I notice that many of your images are over 20 seconds. Are you seeing trails in the images when you blow them up large?
LJ: The truck and the two track through the sage are both longer exposure images and, yes, they are both noisy and have coma near the edges. Editor's note - Coma is short for Comatic Aberration. Coma is an optical aberration that results in off-axis points of light appearing comet-shaped.** This was reduced when I switched to both a full frame camera body and a lower f/stop lens. I now shoot a D750 Nikon camera with a Nikkor 20mm f/1.8 prime lens for night photography. In addition, I now shoot this lens at f/2.0 or f/2.8 to reduce coma even more.

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Comet Neowise with Old Faithful erupting - Yellowstone National Park

JM: What software are you using for stacking the images?
LJ: I use StarryLandscapeStacker

JM: Can you talk more about the process of how you put together a ‘stacked’ image?
LJ: Oh boy, this is a HUGE question to answer. Hopefully I answer this correctly as I just began stacking 18 months ago.
In the beginning I tended to lower my ISO to reduce the exposure time and hopefully noise. This turned out to be the incorrect approach as you need enough light for the core to show. I believe you increase noise when moving the exposure slider up too much. Using a stacking program allows you to shoot at a higher ISO, resulting in a brighter image with significantly reduced noise and greater tonal range.

In StarryLandscapeStacker you take 3-5 light images that are exactly the same. If creating a panorama then each panel needs 3-5 light images. You then put your lens cap on and shoot 5 dark images for each light image. When editing you run each set of panels through the stacker program, finally merging the stacked panels of the panorama in the program of your choice. I use LrC or Photoshop.

*All images must have the exact same settings to work in the program.

Some things I do to make this easier:
1. I do not use the noise reduction offered through my camera as this doubles the exposure time and time is important with star movement. I do like to capture as much of the sky as possible so when shooting with my 20mm fixed lens I frequently shoot panoramas.
2. I use a Luxli Viola2 to light up the foreground. This is a low level light that varies from 1-100 in strength as well as changing the warmth of the light. Using low level light keeps each image consistent for stacking.
3. I always focus on a star for shooting as this generally allows for clarity throughout the image.

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Silex Spring - Fountain Paint Pots, Yellowstone National Park

JM: Let’s talk about composition for a minute. Many night photography images I see on the web – even from very accomplished photographers, have really muddy foregrounds without clear points of focus. Do you have any tips to making solid compositions in very poor light?

LJ: First of all, both PhotoPills and Stellarium are apps that I keep on my phone. For people who are brand new to night photography, these apps have many features and will allow you to locate the Milky Way hours, days or months ahead of time. Another app that I will soon add to my phone is Onx. This program shows property lines and who owns the property around you at any time.

I feel that an appealing composition is equally as important in night photography as it is in the daytime. Often times I will be driving around with my photo buddies and see a striking location for a later shoot. I can simply look at my compass or open PhotoPills, drop a pin, set the date & time then turn to see the composition. This method will also let you know if you need to expand your image with a panorama to capture everything you want. Sometimes I take several daytime test shots to see which composition really speaks to me.

If I am in a new location at night, I look for a feature and check PhotoPills for the core location. Then I take a test shot at a very high ISO and long exposure time to see the foreground composition well. I don’t care what the sky looks like at this point as I just want to see what’s out there. Just shift and move to find my best available shot!

While in Nova Scotia my friend and I simply drove around looking for dark sky and anything appealing!

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Ranch Truck Under the Stars - Sedan, Montana

LJ: The truck shot was very early in my photography journey and was a previously unknown location. We had a blast moving around, trying different angles.
The trail through the sagebrush was at the end of a long evening as the core was setting. My friends were already packed up and in the truck…and as usual I was last in. I turned around for a last look and in the truck tail lights I saw what I thought was the best shot of the night. After 2-3 minutes everyone was scrambling out of the truck and shooting the very same image.

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Yellowstone River, Paradise Valley, Montana

LJ: When shooting Silex Springs and taking a midnight walk on the boardwalk, I saw the root with all of the texture and airglow reflection. Happy accident. And, doesn’t everybody love the texture at Grand Prismatic. Using texture as a leading line is frequently done in the daytime so why not at night?

Just an aside…I love shooting in Yellowstone at night. After posting some images on a FB page, a ranger friend got after me for using light. I do want to be clear that it IS permissible to use light for night photography in the park. It is NOT permissible to use light for shining animals. This can cause quite a confusion so I always carry a copy of the park regulations with me.

JM: I want to thank Lori Jacobs for taking the time with us to put together this very informative article. Want to see more of her work? Come join our private Facebook Group.


**Definition of Coma came from PhotographyLife.com - https://photographylife.com/what-is-coma