It seems like many of our readers really loved our new idea (big thanks to John Bosley for suggesting it!) with the “how was this picture taken” series, since we had huge feedback and lots of interesting discussions. I must apologize for not being able to provide the answer to our first exercise sooner, as I have been swamped with the workshops I am conducting in the mountains. We will try to post answers sooner to such series in the future! Let’s take another look at the image in question and this time I will start off by revealing some useful EXIF data on the same image to kick off the answer:
Although many thought that the image was captured with either a Nikon DSLR or a Sony A7-series mirrorless camera, you can see that it was certainly not the case – I captured it with the Canon 5DS R. Lens and focal length info was also quite a bit off, with a lot of readers thinking that I used a super wide angle lens at 14mm focal length or so – I used the 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM at the widest focal length of 24mm. You would be surprised to see how wide 24mm really looks, particularly in a vertical image like this. A number of our readers, particularly well-versed in astrophotography, were pretty close in guessing the exposure – as you can see, the image was shot wide open at f/2.8, ISO 3200. Although I was not specifically aiming to stay within the “500 rule”, I ended up with a 20 second exposure, which worked out pretty well. If you don’t know what the 500 rule is, it is fairly simple: you divide the number 500 by the focal length you are shooting at to yield the longest shutter speed you should use before stars become star trails. So in the above case when I was shooting at 24mm, the longest shutter speed / exposure time I should have used was roughly 20 seconds, which is pretty much what I ended up doing. Anything longer than 20 seconds would have resulted in more noticeable star trails.
The next big question is the moon and that’s where most people got it wrong. A lot of readers thought the shot was a composite image, saying that it would be impossible to yield a single exposure with both the moon and the Milky Way in the same shot. Certainly not the case – it is a single exposure! I don’t blame them, as that’s what I used to think as well. Turns out that it all depends on the moon phase. If the moon is full, it is often too bright to make anything visible in the sky, let alone capture it. But if one looked at the time I posted the article and the clue I left there, saying that I captured it “a couple of days ago”, they would have found out that the moon could not have been possibly full in mid-September. And if one previously photographed bright objects appearing in the frame, they would know that the smaller the light source, the higher is the chance to get a nice-looking “burst” in the image. In some cases, it even works when using wide apertures! The final image would not reveal the size or shape of the bright light source – it would appear just as a blob. That’s what happened in this shot. I photographed the moon wide open at f/2.8 and since the moon was relatively small both in terms of its relative size in the frame for the focal length of 24mm and in terms of the smaller area of the light side of the moon, it appeared as a bright source of light photographed at a small aperture like f/16. But can you imagine trying to capture a night scene like this at f/16? I was at f/2.8, only wishing that I had something faster with me for the Canon 5DS R! Four stops is a huge number – that’s ISO 3,200 vs ISO 51,200 – impossible to handle in terms of noise for practically any modern digital camera. It would have looked bad even resized to a much smaller version!
From there, the next question was the trees. They looked pretty bright for a night shot, which is impossible to achieve, unless there was some sort of light reaching the trees directly. Lots of different options were presented by the readers, including using car headlights to illuminate the trees. Unfortunately, that was not the case – the trees were definitely light-painted, but with nothing more than a single flashlight in my hand. Take a look at the original RAW image with a few adjustments:
As you can see, the original RAW file looked pretty good already. I did make a few changes in Lightroom before taking the file into Photoshop, but most of those settings were not trivial. Highlights were reduced by -40, shadow recovery pushed to +75 and a bit of clarity was added for the “pop”.
But doing so introduced a pretty nasty issue – lots of noise in the shadows. Canon’s dynamic range had a hard time handling the extra noise that came with a long exposure shot like this. So I had to resort to adding a couple of noise-free areas from the earlier shot, which was taken before it got pretty dark:
Now you can probably tell that this image was not just a random shot at night – it was certainly planned. Having gone out without much luck the previous night, some of the guys from our team really wanted to get back with some nice images of the Milky Way the next day. So we used a couple of apps like Star Walk and The Photographer’s Ephemeris to find out where the Milky Way would show up from and where the moon would be in the sky. The idea was to combine the fall colors with the beautiful night sky, so after we settled on a nice area, the next step was to find a good “V” spot where we could place the Milky Way. Kudos to Spencer Cox for finding a nice spot, because that’s where we ended up setting up our tripods. From there, it was a matter of capturing a shot before it got too dark as a potential foreground replacement, and leaving the tripods in place without touching them, until it got really dark. I ended up not using the full image above, because it looked pretty flat, since the light was all over the place. Instead, I chose to primarily use the original light-painted foreground, as it had two light sources – rim light from the moon on the top of the branches, and the primary light from the flashlight I was using to illuminate the trees.
From there, I fired up Photoshop and worked a little bit on the Milky Way. I masked out the Milky Way area and applied curves and sharpening to bring out those details and nebula clouds. I then slightly cropped, removed the visible flare from the moon and cleaned up the rest of the image. Here are the before and after shots:
As you can see, the result is a bit nicer in comparison. The foreground looked more complete and brighter too, which is what I was trying to achieve.
Hope this was useful. We will post more content like this for our readers to learn from soon! Looking forward to more “how this photograph was taken” articles, hopefully from other team members at PL.