Night photography is not a simple matter of easily capturing beautiful images. If this sounds ignorant of the seemingly infinite number of stunning night images by photographers all over the world, I have some bad news for you. You have been viewing “tricks” of long exposure and edited manipulations.
When you see images of dramatic colors in the night sky or rich-color landscapes under the moon or starlight, you are seeing a manipulation of the camera and/or Photoshop. In short, all images captured during night photography must be manipulated. (I’ll concede that photography of the colliding gaseous particles that make up the Aurora borealis is the sole exception.)
It’s a problem concerning what can be perceived by the human eye versus the camera. Photography is “painting by light” and at night the amount of light that bounces off a subject (which is why we see things in the first place) is so severely limited that our eyes cannot see what a camera records when collecting that bounced light during long exposures (or when similar results are replicated though other manipulations). Or to put it another way, at night the color is there but without the benefit of a lengthy exposure via a camera you aren’t going to see it.
In the image above I have attempted to closely approximate what it is like to view the stars over the Chisos Mountains at night. In reality the best the human eye can hope for is a black to grayish mountain range and a rich depth of ink-black sky scattered with pinpoints of stars. What you would actually see is a completely black mountain range without any definition of detail except for a subtle, almost 3D depth of perception between the mountains and the sky.
So I have tried to closely approximate that experience by first photographing the scene with the camera’s aperture widely open (to admit in as much light in as possible). Secondly, I extended the duration of the photograph (the duration of time necessary to capture the image) to just over a minute. The result was a remarkably accurate rendering of the mountains’ coloring (relatively speaking when it comes to night photography). It also somewhat preserved the stars but shifted the sky to dark blue. None of these results, however, are close to the limitations of what you would actually see with your own eyes.
To somewhat closely approximate the actual scene, I subdued the color, shifted the sky to black and greatly enhanced the stars. I didn’t want to get too far away from the fact that normally none of this detail would be visible at night, but I also wanted to convey the depth of field one experiences when seeing the blackness of the mountain range against the star-strewn night sky. Thus on the one hand the image isn’t what you would see, but on the other hand it sufficiently demonstrates one aspect of what you would see.
You will also notice that the stars (or at least some of them) appear elongated. Whenever you see this in any photograph it is caused by the movement of the earth during the time that it took to take the exposure.
The original image is a Tagged Image Format File (TIFF) with a file data size of 35.1 megabytes (MB).
For display on this web site the TIFF was duplicated and the duplicate re-formatted as a Joint Photographic Experts Group (JPG/JPEG) image with a file data size of 1.25 MB. To approximate detail visible at the time of capture the image was sharpened as necessary and resampled via the Photoshop Bicubic Sharpen algorithm. The re-sampling increases the image resolution from 300 Dots Per Square Inch (DPI) to 360 DPI.
Unless otherwise noted the image was corrected to offset color shift and balance. This restores black (shadows), white (highlights) and neutral gray (neutral mid-tones).
• An unnumbered image is the only one of the subject matter.
• A number corresponds to the sequential order in a subject-matter-related sequence.
• The letter “B” indicates color correction to approximate what was visible when the image was captured.
• The letter “C” indicates enhancement beyond an approximation of what was visible at the time of capture.