NP101: What Makes a Great Nightscape Photo?

I love capturing beautiful nightscape photography, and I’m always happy to share what I know and what I learn. I’m keen to inspire others to head outside and look up at the sky, and to photograph the sky.

So I’ve started a series of posts with the theme ‘Nightscape Photography 101‘ – sharing tips and tricks to help you take better nightscape photos.

In this sixth article in the series, I’m going to share with you the secrets of What Makes a Great Nightscape Photo. I’ll discuss the elements that make up a great nightscape photo, and the factors you’ll need to consider and control to transform your nightscape photos from good to great!

What Makes a Great Nightscape Photo?

What Makes a Great Nightscape Photo?

So what makes a great nightscape photo? Almost anyone these days can plonk a DSLR on a tripod, point it at the sky, and with some fairly standard camera settings for nightscapes (like the recipe I give you in The Fundamentals of Nightscape Photography), capture a nightscape image.

However there’s a few things that, when combined well, give that ‘wow‘ factor in a nightscape photo.

The Foreground

In my opinion, the foreground is probably the most underestimated aspect of a great nightscape photo. There’s been plenty of images of the sky with the camera pointed straight up, but adding a beautiful foreground gives the sky context – it gives it a time and place in our world.

Source of Light

Source of Light. BlogBuy this Print.

No doubt some people are fortunate to either live in, or be able to travel to, beautiful natural landscapes that lend themselves so well to nightscapes. Whether it’s huge mountain ranges, lakes, seas, deserts, or even the countryside where dark skies are virtually in every direction. Add in a nice night sky scene and it’s well on its way to a great photo.

Tell me – what’s more interesting in a nightscape photo?

  • Part of the top of a roof of a house, or some stars reflecting off a lake, dam or river?
  • A plain boring tree in your backyard, or a dead tree with skeleton branches in the middle of a field?
  • A street with power poles and power lines, or a vast mountain range or beach scene?

The answers are obvious, right?

Milky Way Rising over Lostock Dam

Milky Way Rising over Lostock Dam. Blog.

So what I’m saying is, be prepared to travel or find the best foregrounds you can get to. If you don’t live in one of those spectacular locations or can’t travel long distances, then scout out locations nearby and find something interesting or beautiful to frame in your shot.

The Sky

It goes without saying, it’s not a nightscape if there’s no night sky! But the best ones have something extra – whether it’s a beautiful conjunction of the Moon and Planets, or the Milky Way galaxy, a shooting star, a recognisable constellation, etc.

Within Reach

Within Reach. Blog. Buy this Print.

Dark skies certainly help – especially if you’re going for a Milky Way image, or star trails – so certainly don’t rule out travelling to more remote locations to get dark skies.

The sky doesn’t have to be perfectly clear either. Some great nightscape photos have clouds, which can help to add depth to the photo – even more so with timelapses.

Star Streaks

Star Streaks (20 minute single exposure). Blog. Clouds add depth to the scene.

The Composition

Just like normal photography, composition matters. Is there drama? Are you telling a story? What are you trying to convey with your composition?

Comet PanSTARRS over Gosford Waterfront

Comet PanSTARRS over Gosford Waterfront. Blog.

The rule of thirds still holds true for nightscape photography, but in most cases you would want 1/3rd foreground and 2/3rd sky. Of course that’s a guideline and not a rule. It’s also acceptable to have less foreground and more sky, or more foreground and less sky – as long as the composition is still strong enough that the foreground doesn’t feel like it doesn’t belong there.

Capture Stars Self Portrait

Capture Stars Self Portrait. Blog.

How do you get better at composition? That’s a tough one. Some people just have ‘the eye’ for composition. If that’s not you, you just have to work harder at it. Experiment, emulate.

The Processing

Capturing the image is only part of the story. With nightscapes, processing is even more important. Whilst today’s DSLR’s are more sensitive than ever, what comes out of the camera can still be quite faint and require processing to make it pop. Especially when we’re working with high ISO’s like we do for nightscapes, there can also be a lot of grain in our images.

Unprocessed and Processed 'Source of Light'

Unprocessed and Processed ‘Source of Light’

In the image above, the top half is completely unprocessed, straight out of the camera. The bottom half has been processed with noise reduction, cropping and cloning, saturation, levels, curves, colour balance, warp and star spikes. It was processed back in July 2012; if I was to process it again now, I’d probably do some elements differently and bring out the Milky Way more. I’m always learning, refining my technique and my style also changes over time.

The purpose of the image above isn’t to go into detail about the processing techniques (that will come in a future article), but to highlight the importance of processing.

Good processing or bad processing, or even over-processing, can make or break a nightscape image.  What’s the right amount of:

  • Noise reduction and light pollution reduction (if required),
  • White balance and colour balance adjustments,
  • Levels and curves, saturation, contrast, etc.
Left: Noise at ISO6400, straight out of the camera. Right: After Topaz De-Noise.

Left: Noise at ISO6400, straight out of the camera. Right: After Topaz De-Noise.

In the image above, it shows the type of results you can get using modern noise reduction plugins. You have full control over how much, or how little, it reduces it.

What about the foreground? Is it too dark? Too light? Do you need to do any masking to process the sky separately from the foreground? Did you take multiple shots at different exposures, or process your raw in multiple ways and want to create a composite?

Cape Leveque at Night

Cape Leveque at Night. Blog.

In the shot above, the moonlit foreground had to be processed separately from the sky. The contrast and saturation adjustments to make the sky pop, often make the foreground overly saturated or dark or contrasty. By duplicating your base layer and using masks to mask out the foreground, you can process the sky and foreground separately. You just have to ensure the scene still looks natural.

I’ve often seen what would be an excellent nightscape photo, with all the elements to make it ‘wow’, let down by bad processing (not enough, or over processing).

Of course, it’s a timely reminder that processing (lack of, or over-processing) is a very personal taste, it’s very subjective – so it might take some experimentation to find what works for you – what you like and is also popular with your audience.

Presentation

This could be included as part of Processing, but it’s so important it’s worth having as it’s own section. Too often I’ve seen images presented with horrible compression artifacts (the most major error), but bad presentation could also include timelapses that are too slow, massive watermarks across images, little or no details about the image etc.

Setting Milkyway and the SMC at the Bungle Bungles

Setting Milkyway and the SMC at the Bungle Bungles. Blog / Story.

To me, a great nightscape image is presented well, at the right size with no (or little) jpeg compression artifacts. Some will have a link to a higher resolution image, there’ll be details about the image, maybe a story, something that helps set the scene. Those last few points are no doubt subjective, and the image certainly should be able to stand on its own without any accompanying text, but in my experience, people usually love to read a story behind it and certainly other photographers are keen to know about your capture settings or other details about the image.

I hope this post sharing the secrets of What Makes a Great Nightscape Photo helps you understand the compositional elements and factors you need to transform your nightscape photos from good to great! In the coming posts, we’ll talk about everything you ever wanted to know about nightscapes, including:

  • capture techniques for the different types of nightscapes
  • processing tips and tricks
  • focusing at night
  • noise reduction techniques
  • my thoughts about what makes a good nightscape photographer

and much more.

Please feel free to ask questions in the comments section below. Let me know your challenges and frustrations and questions about nightscape photography, and I’ll add them to the list of topics I’ll cover!

Make sure you don’t miss any posts in this Nightscape Photography 101 series!

I hope you will enjoy this series and your feedback and comments will always be welcome. Please share with your friends too!

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4 Responses to “NP101: What Makes a Great Nightscape Photo?”

  1. Neil sumners says:

    thanks once more mike for inside information. I was struggling with processing night sky but have taken out a trial of Topaz de-noise – will see how processing goes tonight.

  2. […]  If you’re planning on shooting nightscapes, then hopefully you’ve read my article on What Makes a Great Nightscape Photo – foreground interest and dark skies are among the top criteria you’ll be looking […]

  3. Andreas says:

    Hi Mike! I just stumbled over your blog and couldn’t stop reading for an hour now… :) Thank you for your amazing work, I’m deeply impressed by your pictures as well as by this blog and all the background information you provide. If I’m allowed I’d like to ask a question with regard to foreground: One of the obvious tips for nightscape photography is to find as dark a spot as possible in order to ensure best star visibility. Now on the other hand this means that foreground lighting will be a big issue, at least this is my experience. Even extremely long exposures (in addition to the limited star exposure) will not produce a foreground that has similar details or colour as in your pictures. In the past I’ve tried to overcome this by lightpainting specific foreground elements of interest, but this of course will not yield an evenly lit foreground. Therefore I’d like to ask if you take the foreground photo before it gets really dark and make a composite image in post or if you have any other tricks to achieve these results. Many thanks in advance and please excuse my English, obviosuly I’m not a native speaker. ;)

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