Posted on Leave a comment

Anatomy of a Nightscape, Episode II: Smartphone Scene Lighting

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 near Cabezon Peak in the New Mexico desert.


Camera: Canon EOS 6D
Lens: Rokinon 14mm F/2.8
Tripod: Manfrotto 190X with Ball Head
Tracker: iOptron SkyTracker v2
Other: 3 Legged Thing QR11-LC Universal L Bracket (for portrait version of the shot)


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


Cabezon Peak, New Mexico. Unfortunately, by the time we arrived on site, it was already getting pretty dark, so I don’t have a good shot of the scene itself this time. I’ve been to Cabezon many times before, so this is one of those rare cases where I didn’t spend a whole lot of time up front finding an interesting scene to shoot. If you’re going to a new place for the first time, you should always spend some time during daylight hours to scout out an interesting scene beforehand.


  1. Find an interesting tree to shoot, and watch out for snakes and cactii! This is the desert afterall 🙂
  2. Set up tripod with SkyTracker mounted.
  3. Attach ball head, camera, and lens to SkyTracker, but don’t worry about alignment quite yet.
  4. Move tripod/tracker/camera assembly around until the desired shot framing has been achieved.
  5. Polar-align the tracker now.
  6. Reposition camera to restore desired shot framing.
  7. Set camera to Manual Mode and ISO 6400.
  8. Set aperture to F/4
  9. Using a smartphone flashlight, focus camera on the foreground.
  10. Connect smartphone to camera via WiFi, then start up DSLR-Controller.
  11. With the tracker turned off, shoot your foreground exposure:
    – Keep aperture set at F/4
    – Set ISO to 1600
    – Set exposure time to 30 seconds
    – Use smartphone flashlight to light up the scene. For this shot, I stood still and kept the flashlight on for only 5 seconds.
  12. Set aperture to F/2.8.
  13. Refocus on a star using Live View.
  14. Set camera to Bulb Mode.
  15. Set tracker to 0.5X tracking rate.
  16. With the tracker turned on, shoot your sky exposure:
    – Set ISO to 3200 or 6400.
    – Use DSLRController’s Timed Bulb Feature to shoot a 45-second exposure.
    – Do not use your phone’s flashlight to illuminate the scene (you already did this).
  17. If you’d like to shoot the scene again in Portrait mode, take the camera off of the tracker, install your L-Bracket, and remount the camera. Repeat steps 4 through 16.
  18. Back at home, process sky and foreground shots in Lightroom 6.
    – If you moved the camera at all between shots, you may need to align them first in GIMP.
    – Use Radial Filters in Lightroom to achieve desired foreground lighting emphasis.
    – Take care to keep color temperature/saturation similar between foreground and sky shots.
  19. Export sky and foreground to 16-bit TIFFs.
  20. Using exported TIFFs from Lightoom, perform manual exposure compositing in GIMP.
  21. Export composite GIMP image to TIFF.

Final Thoughts

I’m quite pleased with how easy it is to achieve a pleasant foreground look with nothing more than a smartphone flashlight. You don’t need an expensive/complicated light rig for these single-frame shots, so you can literally do them anywhere your feet can carry you. However, if you want to shoot these kinds of scenes in a panorama, you might need something a little more elaborate to ensure that the lighting stays exactly the same between successive shots in the panorama. I’m going to try this next time I go out, so stay tuned for Episode III!

Until then, I’d love to hear your thoughts, so feel free to drop me a note in the comments below!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.