Backcountry Night Photographs

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    Nick Smolinske
    BPL Member


    Locale: Rogue Panda Designs

    Thought I'd share some from my latest obsession – night photography. I really enjoy the combination of planning, technical skill and artistic composition that this shots require. Everything was taken with a Ricoh GR. If anyone else does night photography in the backcountry, post your own!

    SF Peaks
    Pre-sunrise star trails on the San Francisco Peaks. My first, and still the best.

    Star trails a few days ago from the Grand Canyon, just before the big snowfall.

    Pothole star trails
    A Pothole on the Esplanade, GC

    Milky way
    Same location as the previous photo

    CO River
    The Colorado River at Toltec Beach, GC

    Desert View
    Shot from Desert View, GC

    Nick Smolinske
    BPL Member


    Locale: Rogue Panda Designs

    And a couple nights ago in the Grapevine Mesa Joshua Tree Forest:

    JT in the moon light

    Jonathan Chin
    BPL Member


    Locale: Northwoods

    Wow, those are some great shots! What's camera/lens system are you using?

    Richard May
    BPL Member


    Locale: Nature Deficit Disorder

    Those are some really great pictures!

    BPL Member


    Locale: SE USA


    So good that I'm speechless.

    Nico .
    BPL Member


    Locale: Los Padres National Forest

    Some nice shots in there. I've been playing around with some night photography and star trails but haven't ended up with anything yet I'm willing to share.

    There's a delicate balance in there of letting in enough light so that the foreground is visible and not lost in the dark and shadows, without blowing out the whole photo from too much ambient light. It's amazing how even the "glow" from a distant city on the horizon can have a big effect on images when the shutter is left open for hours.

    Just curious… are you using a particular software to "layer" multiple exposures to create the star trails or are you just relying on a single (extended) exposure in-camera? I've heard/seen folks doing it both ways. As I understand it, the layering method is useful for avoiding noise in the final images and allowing you to expose different images at different apertures so you can retain more detail in the foreground.

    Would also be curious to hear what aperture and shutter speed you're using.

    Keep up the good work… looking forward to seeing more as you continue to progress with these images.

    Nick Smolinske
    BPL Member


    Locale: Rogue Panda Designs

    Thanks all. It's fun to make these! So the shots were all taken with a Ricoh GR. Some of the shots had the Ricoh wide angle adapter on the camera, and some not. I used a Trailpix tripod for all shots.

    As for stacking images, I do that every time. I usually shoot 25 seconds at ISO 100, f/2.8. But I don't hesitate to stop down and use higher ISOs if I need more depth of field. I've found ways to correct for that noise (see below). Make sure if you're not shooting in RAW that your white balance is set

    Now things get really technical, and once I have a bit more experience I'd like to write a tutorial for this (and maybe some scripts for windows users?). But basically I do the stars/sky and the foreground separately, but using the same original exposures.

    For the stars I stack the shots with StarStax, as I've found it to be the fastest program out there. If necessary I'll remove planes or meteors from the source images by painting over them in black (the black will never show up in the StarStax output).

    Some of my shots I've done this and gotten good results as-is, but I find the foreground quality is generally lacking, so I try to improve upon it, generally with median filtering. Boosting a single source image and trying to get good color out of it is generally a loosing proposition, but the average of several images yields much better results. This is a good demonstration of the power of the median average for noise reduction.

    I like to use the moon as my light source. So I go through and find where I think the moonlight is at its best, and take a bunch of images from that time (say, 9). It's important that the number is odd rather than even. Then I subtract dark frames from the shots and average them together with a median filter. I use imagemagick, a command-line program. I don't know of any easier-to-use apps to do this, unless I get around to writing a script for it (maybe try Deep Sky Stacker?). Sometimes I add pairs of images together to get brighter ones before I take the median.

    Anyway, once you have a good foreground and good stars, you have to create a mask to separate the two. Sometimes this is easy, and sometimes it's hard. For the first shot I posted I just used a gradient and that worked fine. For the joshua tree I used the blue/yellow channel (in LAB mode) of the foreground shot, which has better separation of the sky than anything else I found. I played around with levels until I had the outline nice and sharp.

    Hope that's not too much detail! I'll have to write a lengthier blog post about this stuff, once I get my process dialed down a bit more.

    Owen McMurrey


    Locale: SE US

    "So the shots were all taken with a Ricoh GR."
    And that's a P&S camera, right?
    Sounds really complicated for someone whose sole image adjustments are cropping and downsizing, but the results are great!

    Ha! My only camera "trick" was facing a headlamp with a neutral emitter down trying to make it look like I was being lit up by the moon with my old waterproof P&S :)

    Nick Smolinske
    BPL Member


    Locale: Rogue Panda Designs

    Owen: The Ricoh GR is a compact camera, but it has an APS-C sensor (equivalent to most DSLRs) and a very sharp lens – so as long as you're ok with the fixed focal length it's effectively a DSLR.

    I imagine you'd have quite a hard time getting these shots with a smaller sensor, but the median filtering is really quite effective so you might be able to pull some good data out of it. I'll have to give it a try sometime.

    Nick Smolinske
    BPL Member


    Locale: Rogue Panda Designs

    And another one from the J-tree night. Took forever for me to get happy with it, but it's ready to print now. :)

    Joshua trees in da moonlight

    Nick Smolinske
    BPL Member


    Locale: Rogue Panda Designs

    More than a year later and I finally got another shot worth sharing.  This one from the Escalante route in the Grand Canyon:

    I only got seven 5-minute exposures before clouds moved in, but I used a circular motion blur to extend the trails slightly and I think the result is worthy of printing.

    drew doty
    BPL Member


    I also own the wide angle adapter.  I didn’t bring it on my last trip but did bring some ND filters to get some silky smooth water photos. I love your shot of wotan’s throne and vishnu!



    Here is one I took with my GR ii

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