How to Add More Interest to Your Astrophotography With Light Painting

How to Add More Interest to Your Astrophotography With Light Painting

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Photographing the night sky is a lot of fun and can result in some stunning photographs. You don’t need to look far to find some incredible, out-of-this-world astrophotography.

As the low-light performance of cameras continues to improve, astrophotography has come within reach of more photographers.

joshua tree astrophotography light painting

You may have tried your hand at photographing the stars and the Milky Way, or you may be fantasizing about going out to play while the world sleeps. If you aren’t new to astrophotography, you’ve likely found that it isn’t as easy as you might think. Even with the right gear, it takes a lot of practice and can be incredibly frustrating at times.

Even if you’ve managed to come home with some sharp, well-exposed images of the stars, you may be wondering what’s missing. What are so many night sky photos missing? It’s easy to get so focused on photographing the sky that you can forget that it’s the earth that makes them interesting.

Adding Interest to Your Night Sky Photos

One of the best things you can do to add depth to a landscape photo is include some foreground interest. Astrophotography is no different.

This is why you’ll find that some of the most stunning astrophotos include natural or man-made elements like rock formations, lighthouses, or old barns.

beach astrophotography light painting

BEFORE: A 20-second exposure using only ambient light.

beach astrophotography light painting

AFTER: The same scene with the sand illuminated by light painting with the screen on my phone.

You may have already tried including some foreground interest into your night sky photos. The problem is that the best places for astrophotography are the darkest places. As far away from light pollution as possible, with little or no moonlight. Unfortunately, this means there is very little ambient light to illuminate the foreground that you’re trying to include.

One simple solution is called light painting. It comes in many forms and can be done using many different techniques. The basic principle is that you add light to parts of the scene to illuminate them. It can not only transform your astrophotography, it’s also a lot of fun.

The best part is that you don’t need any fancy or expensive gear. All you need is a light source. You can use anything you have lying around. A flashlight, light bar, camping lamp, your phone, or your car’s headlights. I’ve even seen people using a drone. I always take a headlamp so I can see what I’m doing so that often does the trick.

How to Paint With Light

Light painting isn’t difficult, in fact, it’s really easy. Once you have your camera set up and ready to go, take a photo of the scene with ambient light to make sure you’ve exposed for the sky and stars.

When you’re happy with your settings, either you or a buddy will use the light source to paint light onto the foreground elements that you want to illuminate. Start by painting a small amount of light into the scene, then check the image. You’ll rarely get it right the first time.

camping astrophotography light painting

BEFORE: A 25-second exposure of a camping scene with the light of the fire and an LED placed inside the tent.

camping astrophotography light painting

AFTER: The same scene with the vehicle illuminated by my headlamp to the right of the scene.

Take multiple exposures, slowly painting in more light as necessary. Try experimenting with painting from various angles to see how it changes the way the foreground looks. Don’t be afraid to walk into the frame. With exposure times of 20-30 seconds, you won’t be visible as long as you keep moving. Just be careful not to shine the light source into the lens. I find wearing black helps you stay invisible.

As you’re photographing tiny amounts of ambient light, you’ll find it’s easy to overdo it with the light painting and overexpose the foreground. Less is more with this technique. If you find the foreground is too bright, paint less light in or use a light source that isn’t as bright. I find the light from the screen on my phone works well. It also allows you to choose the color of the light.

As with any form of photography, don’t forget that off-camera light (light coming from the sides of the scene) gives a much more pleasing look and creates depth in your photos. Instead of standing behind your camera and light painting while the shutter is open, move off to the side or walk through the scene to vary the angles of the direction of the light. Just be sure to check where you’re walking first!

tree astrophotography light painting

BEFORE: A tree silhouetted against the light of the Milky Way.

tree astrophotography light painting

AFTER: I used a camping light to paint the edge of the tree with light, helping to give the scene some depth and lead the viewer’s eye into the stars.

Post-Processing Astrophotography Images

When it comes time to edit your photos, the more frames you have to work with the better. You may find that there’s one exposure where you nailed the exposure and light painting in one frame, in which case you can go ahead with post-processing it.

In the more likely scenario that you like different parts of different frames, which you can easily blend together in Photoshop to create a composite.

This is where your base exposure with no added light will come in handy. Go through and select the images that you want to create the composite with, including the base exposure, then use this digital blending technique to combine them in Photoshop. I like to do a basic edit to the images in Lightroom before exporting to Photoshop, then I add final touches after blending them into one image.

joshua tree astrophotography light painting

BEFORE: Rocks and Joshua trees are slightly illuminated by the ambient light pollution.

joshua tree astrophotography light painting

AFTER: The same rocks and trees painted with light from my flashlight as I walked through the scene.

It’s easier than you think

Light painting may seem like a complex photographic technique, but it’s actually quite simple. It can take your astrophotography from good to great, and you’ll find the process is very enjoyable, even addictive!

Next time you head out into the night with camera in hand, pack an extra flashlight and give light painting a try. You’ll be glad you did.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Rowan Sims is a landscape and travel photographer from New Zealand. He loves to combine his passion for photography and travel while teaching people how to take awesome travel photos. Follow him on Instagram or over on his travel photography blog.

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  • guitardude

    Thanks for the article.

    My first attempt at photographing the Milky Way was limited to a single night and having the MW almost directly overhead. Getting the MW in context with the landscape was a bit difficult, so I simply snapped it through some trees, which I painted with my head lamp. 25s exposure with about 2s of light painting. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/78cf701bc00c8bd81e4656484514b62ef1353126af909025f3abb3ff8165b95e.jpg

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  • Thanks for sharing this. It’s always hard to include foreground elements in the scene when the milky way is high in the sky. It’s a good idea to try to time it when it’s closer to the horizon. Of course, that isn’t always possible, so you do what you can.

  • PA

    Piloting a drone at night is illegal in the U.S. You might want to remove the drone reference to avoid encouraging others.

    There probably should also be some mention of common-sense courtesy when light-painting when other photographers are present.

  • This article was written for photographers around the world, not just in the US. It’s up to individual drone pilots to know the laws in their own country.

  • PA

    Yes, but they’re not likely to know them for countries they may visit. Simply deleting the reference seemed simple enough, but if that does not sit right with you, then a mention that it could be illegal in some localities would be prudent.

    And if that’s the only complaint I have, that means you did a pretty good job on the article. Thanks.

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