Night shooting with long exposures involves a whole lot of photographic challenges, but when you get it right, the reward is more than worth the effort.
This picture was taken long after sunset at Cape Zanpa in Okinawa Japan. This might be one of the most photographed lighthouses in the world, so getting a truly original picture takes a bit of forethought... and ideally a full frame camera with a decent kit of lenses. Don't get me wrong. It's possible to get some very good long exposure shots with a point and shoot on manual settings, but it really helps to have a camera capable of shooting at relatively high ISO settings, a full frame sensor to collect as much light as possible and lenses like the 14mm f/2.8 prime I used to take the photo above.
This is really a simple shot. I opened the aperture to its widest setting, framed the shot, then guessed based on experience what ISO and shutter speed to use, settling on 800 and 15 seconds respectively. That worked like a charm. If it didn't, I'd just shoot again until I got it right.
I took a bunch of brackets at different ISO settings and shutter speeds to get different cloud patterns. Too short and the sky is underexposed. Too long and the cloud streaks turn into haze and the stars turn into lines. This is the shot from this series I liked best.
Post processing of this shot was a simple matter of using a brush tool in Lightroom to bring up the foreground exposure slightly, then using a gradient filter on the sky to bring up the contrast. Shooting raw, I set the while balance in post to match the color temperature of the light house so that the sky behind it would be a deep blue. I used the blue HSL slider to further increase the saturation of the sky, but only at a very conservative setting, or the stars and wispy clouds would disappear.
The next shot presented more of a post processing challenge.
This image was lit with moonlight. This is a 60 second exposure on ISO 1,000 using a 24-70mm lens at its widest setting. This (intentionally) produced an image that was overexposed by about 1.5 stops. I brought it down in Lightroom using the Exposure slider, the applied a gradient filter to the sky to increase contrast. I also used a gradient filter on the foreground to reduce exposure, since the full moon was so bright.
I also straightened this image to make the lighthouse and the monument vertical, since the distortion produced by the 24mm lens made them both lean in toward the centre. This meant that the bottom corners of the image got cut off at an angle, so to compensate, I used photoshop to fill them in using the content aware setting. The bushes and ground are the kind of patters that reproduce easily, and the corners at the bottom did not contain key information, so I don't call this "cheating."
In next image, I got to have a bit of fun.
My friend went looking for a tighter frame of the lighthouse and I decided to take a shot of him taking his shot. Luckily for me, and airplane was on approach to Naha airport to the south. On a 30 second exposure, he made it all the way out of the frame and left me with a wonderful streak across my photo. The truth is we waited for the plane to enter the frame thinking it would only make it part way across, but it was moving faster than we thought. The effect is truly dazzling!
Then my friend's wife showed up with curry for both of us and started doing yoga behind us. I suggested that she do some poses in the frame and she happily agreed. We waited for another aircraft, and this was the amazing result.
The thing every photographer needs to remember about night shooting is that the magic doesn't always happen. The clouds, the moon and the wind direction all came together to make these shots possible. Equipment is helpful, skill is important, patience is essential... and luck is indispensable!
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