Photographs don't just happen. They all require varying degrees of four decision-making processes.
When you look at this photograph you see a starry sky, car light trails and a few trees. As the photographer, I see weeks of planning, two nights in sub-zero weather and about two hours of post-processing. I've seen similar types of images and several weeks ago I had the idea to try one for myself. Several things needed to come together that would help in its creation. I needed a highway with a bit of an S-curve, an elevated position to shoot it from, very little light pollution, and of course, a clear starry night.
I scouted out a few locations and decided on this section of highway about a 15-minute drive from my home. Now I just needed clear skies.
It is quite difficult to compose a shot in complete darkness. Even with my headlamp I couldn't tell if I was positioning the highway in the correct spot or if my horizon was level. Test shots were necessary. I was also aiming for a bottom-weighted image that would help show off the expanse of the night sky. (The stars at the top of the image were right above my head!)
On the first night I went out at 9 p.m. in -23 Celsius cold. I parked my vehicle on the nearest side road and hiked through the snow to the location I had scouted out. I took several photos, played with camera settings and then waited. I waited, and waited, and waited. I waited for two hours and during that time only one car went by. Unfortunately my camera was processing a long exposure shot I had just taken so I missed it. A few swear words later I pulled my tripod out of the snow and decided to try again the next night.
This time I went out a bit earlier and didn't have to wait long before I was able to capture the lights of a car heading down the highway. The photograph below shows that image.
I was using my Olympus 12-40mm PRO lens, which is a great lens for landscapes, but I wasn't capturing the expanse of sky that I wanted. From my experiments the night before, I knew that a larger panorama would be needed. I began taking shots in a grid formation.
In a future post I will talk more about camera settings for night photography, but for now, here is a rundown of the important settings used for this image:
The final image was a combination of 12 separate photographs. Before trying to create the panorama each image was fine-tuned in Lightroom. The sky was brightened to bring out the colours of the Milky Way and a Curves adjustment was added to accentuate each pinpoint of starlight.
Putting together a large-scale panorama can be a challenge. Photoshop can do this automatically but I have had mixed results when I leave it completely up to the program. For this image I imported all 12 photos into one file and began manually aligning each overlapped area as best as I could. Then Photoshop did the blending to eliminate harsh edges between each image.
Finally I cropped the image to eliminate the uneven edges and tweaked the overall exposure.
My fingers have now thawed out to the point that I can get back out there and do some more night shots.
Peter Baumgarten is a professional photographer and educator. He is also an Olympus Visionary and NiSi Official Photographer.