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Anatomy of a Nightscape, Episode I: In the River at Midnight

In previous posts, I’ve described at length many of the techniques I use to shoot nightscapes. In this tutorial series, I’d like to keep things much shorter and pick apart some of my photos with minimal step-by-step instructions. The shot we’ll be going over this time was taken on the Santa Barbara River in New Mexico.

Gear

Camera: Canon EOS 6D
Lens: Rokinon 14mm F/2.8
Tripod: Manfrotto 290XPRO3 with Ball Head
Tracker: iOptron SkyTracker v2
Other: 3 Legged Thing QR11-LC Universal L Bracket

Software

Planning: SkySafari 5 Pro, timeanddate.com
Shooting: Polar FinderDSLRController
Editing: Adobe Lightroom 6, GIMP 2.9 (dev version)

Location

Santa Barbara River, Carson National Forest, New Mexico. I positioned the tripod in the middle of the river for the shot, just above the dry rock furthest to the left in the picture below.

Step-by-Step

  1. Plan trip to campground near new moon phase.
  2. Scout location after arrival during daylight hours.
  3. Assemble tripod, tracker, L Bracket, and Camera on dry land.
  4. Wait for dark!
  5. Change into sandals and shorts.
  6. Carefully move entire camera tripod setup to middle of river (it was only knee-deep and not swift).
  7. Polar-align SkyTracker using Polar Finder app.
  8. Connect DSLRController to EOS 6D over WiFi.
  9. Set Camera to Bulb Mode.
  10. While waiting for the Milky Way to move into position, and with the tracker turned off:
    – Set aperture to F/2.8, camera to ISO 6400.
    – Focus lens on the foreground.
    – Shoot 150-second exposure using DSLRController app’s Timed Bulb Shot feature.
  11. After the Milky Way is in position, with the tracker turned on at 0.5X:
    – Keep aperture at F/2.8, camera at ISO 6400.
    – Focus lens on the stars.
    – Shoot 45-second exposure using DSLRController app’s Timed Bulb Shot feature.
  12. Carefully move gear back to dry land and disassemble (the water was cold and my legs were pretty stiff after standing in it for 30 minutes).
  13. Put gear away in a safe, dry place, hit the tent for some shuteye.
  14. Return home.
  15. Process sky and foreground shots in Lightroom 6.
    – Take care to keep color temperature/saturation similar between foreground and sky shots.
  16. Export sky and foreground to 16-bit TIFFs.
  17. Using TIFFs from LR6, perform manual exposure compositing in GIMP.
  18. Export composite GIMP image to TIFF.

Final Thoughts

If I could go back and shoot this again, I think I’d try setting up before dark and shoot the river during twilight. The river water was super clear and the rocks in the bottom of it would have made the foreground a lot more interesting. Unfortunately, there’s just no way you can get enough exposure time to pull that kind of detail out of the foreground after dark on a moonless night. Even so, I’m happy with how this turned out and look forward to trying something like it again in the future.

What do you think? Let me know in the comments below!

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