Ever since I returned to landscape photography in 2008, I have been amazed by the places I’ve visited in my journeys through my original home state of Maine, and my current home state of New Hampshire. Screw Auger Falls in Maine’s Grafton Notch State Park, almost straddling the border of the two states, is a great example of this.
I was here for the first time in the spring of 2013 and fell in love with the look of the gorge and instantly knew I had to come back later in the year for night shooting, when the Milky Way would be positioned over the center of the gorge. So I returned at the end of September of 2013 to capture both the Milky Way over the falls and some autumn color in the same shot. When I was there in the spring I forgot to take a compass reading on the direction looking up the gorge from the viewpoint at the end of it, so I tried to look at satellite maps to get an idea of the orientation of the gorge, but they were not detailed enough. I didn’t want to miss seeing the Milky Way line up with the gorge, so to play it safe I arrived at the location around 9:30pm. The Milky Way was still far from where it needed to be, which gave me plenty of time to get foreground exposures, as the Milky Way didn’t line up until 11:30pm.
For landscape astrophotography like this, I always blend multiple exposures together to get the entire scene in focus and well-exposed. I use a Nikon D800E, and for night photography I use the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 lens. The sky exposure was taken at ISO 3200, 25 seconds, f/2.8, 14mm. Exposing longer than that would result in more visible star trails, so I try to balance star trails with an acceptable noise level in the sky. Because the sky exposure is focused at infinity to get the stars in focus, the foreground is out of focus, and not only that but it is completely dark. So in order to get a clean and sharp foreground, I take multiple exposures at different focusing distances, usually at a lower ISO and for much longer exposure times. In this case, while I was waiting for the Milky Way to move into position, I tried many shots using light painting (shining a flashlight on the foreground) at various exposure times, ISOs, and f-stops, trying to see if I could light up the foreground in a way that I liked.
But as is often the case, I didn’t like the results of the light painting. I don’t use light painting too much, it can lead to glare on wet rocks, or harsh shadows, or the opposite problem of flat lighting if you can’t get the right angle. On the other hand it can be quite useful and sometimes it works out well, but in this case I opted for a very long exposure of the foreground at ISO 1600 for 20 minutes (1200 seconds), f/2.8, 14mm. (I also almost always use my camera’s built-in long-exposure noise reduction to do dark frame subtraction to reduce hot pixels, which meant the camera had to take another 20 minute exposure with the shutter closed, so this single foreground exposure took 40 minutes.) I was very happy with the result except for one problem: I had put hand warmers inside a wool sock and wrapped that around the lens to keep dew off the lens. I used a sock to keep the warmers from drying out too fast, which tends to happen when chemical hand warmers are directly exposed to the air… they last longer in a pocket. This worked but I didn’t position the sock perfectly and didn’t do a good enough test shot with the sock on the lens, so the sock cut off the corners of the frame. Not wanting to take another 20 minute exposure if I could avoid it, I was lucky enough to find one of my light painting exposures that had a good exposure of the rocks in the foreground corners of the image. The light painting wasn’t harsh in that part of the exposure, so I knew I could blend in the foreground corners from that exposure.
So after 2 hours at the location, I finally had all the exposures I needed to create the final image: the sky at ISO 3200, f/2.8, 25 seconds; the foreground at ISO 1600, f/2.8, 20 minutes (1200 seconds); the foreground corner rocks at ISO 1000, f/8, 60 seconds, with light painting; and another foreground exposure that helped blend the horizon at ISO 1000, f/2.8, 5 minutes (300 seconds). All exposures were shot at 14mm.
I prepped the images in Lightroom, doing the basic capture adjustments such as white balance, sharpening, lens corrections, adjusting exposure, etc. Then I blended the 4 exposures in Photoshop using manual blending with layer masking, including the use of a luminosity mask to blend the trees from the foreground shot with the sky, then brought that image into Lightroom for final creative adjustments. – Adam Woodworth
This image is available as a print here. See more of Woodworth’s photography at his website, www.AdamWoodworth.com. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Google+ and 500px. To learn more about Woodworth’s landscape astrophotography process you can find his tutorial “Introduction to Landscape Astrophotography” on the Luminous Landscape at http://www.luminous-landscape.com/essays/night_sky___astrophotography.shtml – He also has a video tutorial on exposure blending with night images on Photoshop at YouTube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7k5bRHegiXA
Equipment and settings: Nikon D800E camera, AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm f/2.8G ED wide angle zoom lens at 14mm – (Nighttime Sky Exposure) – 25-second exposure @ f/2.8 – ISO 3200 – (Foreground Exposure) – 20-minute exposure (with additional Noise Reduction (NR) 20-minute exposure) @ f/2.8 – ISO 1600 – Post Processing: Adobe Lightroom – basic adjustments – Adobe Photoshop – Layer Masking and Image Blending for multiple exposures