Introduction: Creating Nighttime Photos

Picture of Creating Nighttime Photos
Ever wonder how photographers create perfect exposures in nighttime photos without losing details in the sky?  Read on to find out how they do it!

  • camera
  • tripod
  • cable release
  • flashlight
  • Photoshop (or similar editing program)


Step 1: Exposing

Picture of Exposing

The first step is taking the initial photographs, (you'll notice that's plural).

In order to get the proper exposure for all three areas of the photograph, the background, mid ground and foreground, you actually have to take three separate photos.  The easiest way to do this is to use a tripod and cable release for your camera.

Once you have figured out the crop you want, first expose for the sky, or background.  This is where the cable release will come in handy.  Because the exposure time is going to be longer than a simple snapshot to capture all the details in the stars, you're not going to want your camera to move at all, and the cable release will prevent any vibrations or camera shake that might be caused by the user.  Don't worry about the rest of the photograph being underexposed, just concentrate on the exposure you want for the sky.

After you've exposed for the sky, get ready to take a separate photo for the mid ground.  Be sure not to move the tripod or lens in any way, the photographs need to be from the exact same positioning and crop for this to work. 

     *In this particular example that I am showing, I actually created some of the light on the mountain to lessen the exposure time for the mid ground.  To do this, I had a friend standing behind the van out of view with a flashlight shining it back and forth on the mountain to give it some shadows and brighten up the exposure.

Once the exposure for the mid ground is taken, continue on with exposing the foreground in the same way.  Be sure to expose for your main subject, which in this case, is the van.  

     *To make the tents in the background look like they are glowing, I had someone sit in each tent and flash a portable strobe a few times for each. 

Final result:  3 separately exposed photographs.

**Unfortunately I was unable to find my original "mid ground" photo, which is why there are only two exposures shown above.  :/

Step 2: Putting the Photographs Together

Picture of Putting the Photographs Together

Once you've gotten your three exposures, the next step is to take them into photoshop to create one single image. 

Create one photoshop file with the three images you have taken, set into layers.  Whatever layer is on top is the layer you will see, however the layer order doesn't matter due to the fact that they will eventually be combined anyway.

Step 3: Making the Image

Picture of Making the Image

The next step is simple:

Go to your layers pallete and in the blend mode menu, select "soft light."  This will combine the layers in a way that blends the three photographs together with the correct exposure for each part. 

     *You might need to do each layer separately, meaning you would have to select the second layer and put it on the "soft light" blend mode, and then afterwards select the third layer and put that one on "soft light" blend mode.

Step 4: Final Touches

Picture of Final Touches

In some cases, you may need to create a masking layer and paint in any detail that was left out from one or more of the layers.  In the particular example I used, I did not have to do this.

If something is missing from one part of your photograph and you'd like to put it back in, simply hit the "mask" icon at the bottom of the layers pallete.  This will make a white box pop up next to the image icon on the layer you are on.  Making sure that that white box is selected, you can paint with either black or white using the paint brush tool and bring back whatever forgotten detail was missed during the original blend.

**Remember, when masking, black conceals and white reveals, meaning that if you paint with black, you are painting something out, and if you are painting with white you are "erasing" a top layer to reveal what is underneath.

Once these details have been pieced together, you have a finished photo!


superdave5481 (author)2012-11-16

Hey Kathy, I have a few cameras and love to do photography. My best nighttime pictures came from my SLR film camera on a tripod with shutter release. But the cameras I use exclusively now are digital and have no shutter release port that I know of that a cable can attach to. Perhaps the button and the correct settings will do it well enough?

You're actually going to have to buy a special shutter release for a digital camera, but if you don't have a DSLR, you might not be able to use it. If all else fails, I find that the self timer usually works pretty well unless you're on bulb as you will be needing to hit the button to stop exposing.

djimdy (author)KathyTackettPhoto2012-11-25

hitting the button isn't a problem if you use the "hat trick" and cover the lens with a hat before touching the button.
You should be able to do this same shot in one go and without Photoshop by timing the hat going on and off several times.

mr fat (author)2012-11-16

very good work!

pmann1 (author)2012-11-16

Nice work, Kathy. Beautiful photo, by the way! I always struggle with night-time photography. Mind you, I don't have a nice DSLR - just a small Powershot G7 Thanks for the pointers.

Rainh2o (author)2012-11-13

good can also do it the old fashion way, before have to be quick and use a flash and paint the different parts of your shot...I use to do this with an old cannon AE1, never looked as nice though...

If only film weren't so expensive for us artists. :( I haven't used my film cameras in far too long...

I have a nice 35mm film SLR, and a so-so digital. Just this week I decided to dig up my SLR and shoot a couple of rolls. I sent them to mPix (postage free...kind of...$0.19 per frame includes the mailer), within a couple of days the digital images were available for download, no extra charge. Prints cost extra, of course, but I think it's a bargain...a good way to get digital images with a film SLR!

The price of one roll isn't the problem, its how much I'm going to want to develop. I also tend to use a 4 x 5 from time to time and Polaroids are $80 for a box of 20.

nerdyH (author)2012-11-15

For those of us using the free GIMP instead of photoshop, there's no "blend" menu. Still, don't let that stop you! First, open your various layers open (I like to use Gimp's "open as layers" feature). Put the one with the middle ground on top, and the sky below that, and the foreground at the bottom of the stack. Now, add a layer mask to the top layer (the middle ground). Get your gradient tool, and set it to "Foreground to transparency." Now add a few gradients until the sky is showing through nicely. Apply the mask and merge down... then repeat the process from the ground up to blend in the foreground layer. Enjoy! :-)

DragonDon (author)nerdyH2012-11-15

I was wondering about this very thing, thanks!

cstgwr (author)2012-11-15

Kathy, Thank you for the clear, concise instuctable. I've been experimenting with night sky time-lapsed photography but have not attempted something like this. Can't wait to try this out.

KathyTackettPhoto (author)cstgwr2012-11-15

Glad I can help, I'd love to see what you come up with when you get the chance. :)

tseay (author)2012-11-15

Hmmm..... what kind of lighting did you have for the car exposure? Looks like a spot light pointing down. Is it shopped that way?

KathyTackettPhoto (author)tseay2012-11-15

It's actually the overhead light from the car itself, which certainly was conveniant. :)

mediabeing (author)2012-11-15

Separate. Not Seperate. Remember a PARing knife. SePARate.
I'm being positive and constructive here.

Thank you and corrected. :)

askjerry (author)2012-11-15

I would not have thought to to this... the final result is nothing less than stunning. I really must try it... I'm thinking a night sky with lightning would make for some pretty interesting images.

Sounds interesting! If you end up doing it, I'd love to see the results. :)

Dominic Bender (author)2012-11-13

The result looks great, but ouit of curiosity, could you share the three pictures you used completely? I'd like to see what those parts with the "wrong" exposure look like.

Ok, as per your request, here are the original photos. This was a pretty old project though, so unfortunately, I was unable to find the middle ground exposure. I think it got lost somewhere in the abyss that is my external hard drive. :/

Interresting, at least for me as a photographically inexperienced person. It makes me want to experiment with exposure times and such, but I'm rather uncertain whether my digital camera (which was not exactly pricey) can handle that...

What kind of camera do you have? Most DSLR cameras are pretty good with long exposures of 5-7 minutes, (after that, they can get a little noise distortion). Point and shoots, maybe not so much.

Sure, I'll try to remember to put them up later tonight. :)

blkhawk (author)2012-11-13

Your final photo composition is amazing!

Why thank you!

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