Nothing is easy, if it were easy then everybody would be doing it, so any success is a reward in itself.
It’s the same with aircraft night photography, most pictures are failures, trial and error forms a major part of ones workflow and last nights shoot was no exception but I have come away from the shoot that bit more knowledgeable, so that when I return the next time I will have a much better chance of succeeding.
The clocks have gone back and we are now plunging headfirst into winter. The long dark winter nights are a boon for night photographers in general, and for me as I don’t have to stay up to late for it to get dark enough to shoot. Being a morning person, I rise early so I can turn this to my advantage and shoot in the morning and to be honest I prefer it for another reason that I will go into later.
If you want to give this night photography lark a bash what equipment should you have?
Apart from a camera, the next most important thing is a tripod. A good sturdy one is essential, otherwise you are wasting your time with night photography. The next most important thing for me is a cable release, so that I can fire the shutter without touching the camera avoiding a source of camera shake.
A torch is another essential, although I prefer to work as much in the dark as possible saving my night vision. Head torches are nice, even ones with red LEDs to save your night vision but I don’t use one preferring to save my night vision, although they do come in handy when you need to work with both hands. I used the small LED torch last night that I keep in my camera bag for such occasions even then. the light was heavily shielded by my fingers, so only a small part of the light escaped. Only enough for me to see the timer on the top LCD screen on my camera and nothing more.
During long exposures, you need to avoid stray light entering into the back of the camera through the eye piece. My camera has a shield that I can lower blocking off the eye piece. If your camera does not have one, a flattened out blob of Blu-tak placed over the eye piece will do the job just as well.
A hot-shoe spirit level is another handy item. My camera has an internal level, otherwise I would be using one. Horizons are hard to see at night, and if you can do anything in camera which will save you time in post production, then it is worth doing.
The last item is a timer of some kind. For a while I used to use a proper stop watch, which was good, then an Interalometer and I would have been using it last night had I been able to find it! So my main source of timing was done with the timer on the top LCD panel of my camera and or with my iPhone. I much prefer the camera timer.
The most important item that is hardly ever stated in night aircraft photography is planning. Hardly any of my night shots are done without some form of planning beforehand. The most important reason is safety. Things are very different at night. An area that you would consider safe in daylight may not be so in darkness. I shoot alone, so where I go is very important. Rough ground and dodgy ground are no-go areas at night, well in the evenings anyway. I actually feel much safer at 6AM that I do at 6PM because most scallywags are asleep come the morning, well that’s my theory. So scout your location out in the daylight first. That’s what I was doing yesterday afternoon on the south bank of the River Forth.
I would have gone there had it not for the unforeseen circumstance of the flare at Mossmorran being lit. It’s one thing shooting with the light of a full moon but another thing looking into a massive flame. So Plan A was shelved for another day and Plan B at Burntisland had to be used.
Another aspect to planning is knowing where the aircraft will be. I have studied the arrival and departure charts for airports to see where the routes are and to give last night as an example, 06 departures from Edinburgh will either go straight out or most will turn over the river then head west along the north bank of the Forth. So I already knew where they would be before I set up the camera to take the first picture.
We now get to the less glamorous part, the theory.
You need to be able to understand the relationship between shutter speed (time), aperture (how much light) and ISO (sensitivity) to get the best out of night photography. From planning and observation, under normal conditions aircraft at Edinburgh will be spaced two minutes apart and what I wanted was a single light trail, so two minutes was going to be my desired exposure time. To this end I eventually selected 100 ISO for the camera sensitivity. The next part was selecting an aperture so that I would get enough light to capture the aircraft but not so much that I would over expose the whole shot and loose the light trail.
You need to be able to think in terms if increasing and decreasing, halving and doubling exposures, you can not rely on the camera doing anything for you.
Final items to consider, before you start to press the shutter button, despite all the technology that is built into a camera, the best thing to do when night shooting is to use manual exposure and focus. You need to be in full control of the exposure, so manually setting the shutter speed, aperture and ISO is a must. Also, the last thing that you want to happen when you press the shutter button is for the camera to refocus, so your lens must be set to manual focus and if your lens (or camera) has image stabilisation, then turn this off too. You won’t be the first person that has ruined an entire nights worth of shooting because you forgot to turn the image stabilisation off.
Manually focusing has its own problems. If you are lucky, you may be able to auto focus on a light and then lock the focus off. I was unable to do this last night and failed miserably when I forgot the lesson of my last night shoot and that was to bring a pair of reading glasses with me.
NOTE – I will give the exposure details but they are only for example, they will most likely not work for your camera.
Time to check the focus. To start with, I set the camera to 30 seconds as it is the longest exposure time, merely a quick and dirty way of getting started.
My lack of reading glasses lost this shot, it’s out of focus. More squinting to come up with this.
At this point I decided to go wider to 24mm and recompose. You will note how much mess the ship going up river makes of the exposure. It forms the dominant element in the scene, taking your attention away from the subject, which is the aircraft light trail.
This is a test shot, I have went down to 100 ISO and halved the sensitivity and the amount of light.
Another test shot same settings, refined the focus a little more.
Changing from 30 seconds shutter speed, to Bulb Mode, increasing the exposure time to a target time of 100 seconds. This increases the exposure one and a half times, 120 seconds would be the next full stop of exposure. The 100 seconds, was an arbitrary figure and precise exposure times are no longer important when you go past 60 seconds so a few seconds either side will not make that much difference.
This is where the Intervalometer comes into its own, as you can use it to set long exposure times, without needing to refer to a timer or a stop watch.
This one is much better we are getting there
The first successful shot. You will notice that I have caught an aircraft landing as well as departing. The light trail of the departing aircraft stops short of the right hand frame, so I need to do something about that.
(With hindsight I should have concentrated on this exposure but if you don’t make mistakes then you will never learn.)
A test shot and a double Doh! Reduced the exposure time slightly and decreased the aperture to f/11. I should have increased the exposure time instead of decreasing it. What was I saying about knowing about the halving and doubling of things?
Caught a light trail of a departing aircraft but no overall change.
The two minute exposure time, overall the shot is under exposed but I am happy.
Another departing aircraft, Next,
Things went quiet, so I tried placing a white balance device that I have over the lens and going for a test shot. My intention was to see if I could null out the yellow cast from the clouds, (in Lightroom) however I aborted this as another aircraft departed, Next,
This is what I want. Next,
Again on the right track, Next,
This one went straight out and I was unsure where the edge of the frame was, so I lengthened the exposure to compensate.
This was the final shot, I felt that I had done enough from this location and it was time to move on, however by this time it was past 9PM and not worth doing anymore, so I called it a night and headed home.
The last shot leads me on to another point. It is beneficial to know where the edges of the cameras frames are. On reflection, I should have noted that the Hillend ski lift to the left is a prominent marker and from there the lights of Burntisland bottom left. The three towers of the new Forth Crossing bridge are unmissable markers to the right. Knowing where the top frame is important, helpful and damn near impossible to guess. Sometimes I lower the torch, while looking through the viewfinder so see where it comes into view and then note a prominent landmark where the edge of the frame will be.
The end results
So out of fourteen exposures, I only had only four usable light trails.
These were imported into Lightroom for post processing work. The White balance is usually the first thing that I correct as it will nullify the yellow light on the clouds. The standard trick to to manually select 3400 or 3200 Kelvin. You can do this in camera and I would have done it had I remembered, it’s not a problem when you shoot RAWs.
In the end I ended up sampling the gable end of the house in the foreground, which worked out at 2400 Kelvin and I liked the look, so I kept it.
I am re-evaluating my Lightroom workflow and doing things slightly different to my normal workflow. Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw has a top to bottom work pattern, however the new workflow is not in sequence. (Workflow – the way in which things are done with a particular program) and did not touch the Exposure slider at all, adjusting the Whites up from the 3/4 tone to the mid tone region and bring the Blacks up to reduce the amount of clipped tones, the Highlights were brought down to -100 and a little increase in the Shadows. I also made Clarity and Vibrance adjustments.
The other thing that I done was to apply a “stored” custom colour profile that I had made at night for another shoot. It made a small improvement to the overall colour.
Considering myself as an amateur photographer rather than someone who photographs aircraft and that has allowed me to broaden my horizons, venturing into astro-photography, photographing the stars and making light trails, so I imported the four pictures into a program called Startrails and combined all four into one, which was my ultimate goal of the evening.
It picked up a little bit of a magenta colour cast but I’m happy with the overall result.
And now I am going to divulge a secret. The way to get the best out of light trail photography in general is to photograph movement. An aircraft flying in a straight line does not make for an interesting light trail photo but add movement into the mix and you will have a more interesting end result.
This is where planning and observation really pays off.
Having divulged the secret, I will now tell you the downside of night photography, out of all that work, unless you have differing light trails you can only effectively use one photo from the shoot because the next one is the same as the first, which is the same as the next and viewers turn away very quickly from uninteresting repetitious photographs.
It also helps if you are able to think on your feet and make decisions quickly. If something is not working out then change it until it works better. In this case you only have two minutes between departing aircraft to do something differently.
At the end of the day, you have to be able to learn lessons and come back with a better idea of how to improve things. My lessons learned were :-
1) That straight out departures are a dead loss
2) That aircraft all more or less turn at the same place (Planning and observation.)
3) That clouds kill the second part of the light trail.
What to do is recompose and zoom in. Easier said than done but if you look closely you will see two red lights on the far shore to the left of where they turn, it may be Corstorphine Hill, so the next time I shoot from here that will be my reference point for the left hand frame. The Forth Crossing is too good not to use, although I may just crop that out, staying slightly to the left of the lit towers. The Burntisland Road at the bottom will form the bottom reference point allowing me more sky to play with.
Lastly, try and re-shoot when there is less clouds in the sky, which is easier said than done.
Now to this end I have make some notes, which I can refer to later. I keep notes on my phone, which has Microsoft OneNote installed. My note has the starting exposure settings of 100 ISO, 120 seconds at f/16, (Less clouds will mean less light so I may have to increase the aperture to f/8 but trial and error) and the following sketch.
From this I will have my frame lines and reference points, even the red and green channel markers, all of which form a good starting point for another and hopefully more successful night shoot. But there’s one thing for sure….
Before you pack your camera away at the end of the shoot REMEMBER so set it back to normal daytime use. The number of times that I have picked up the camera to use it following a night shoot and found something important to be switched off or changed is not real.
Also, if it is cold outside during the shoot, pack the camera away in the bag and when bringing it indoors, WAIT an hour or so for the contents to slowly warm up, otherwise everything will be coated in condensation. You could remove the memory cards before hand… but remember to insert a fresh one!