Skyscapes, vertoramas, and drones — make these night photography trends your own
The Finnish night photographer Mikko Lagerstedt is a master at using Photoshop and Lightroom to emphasize the contrast between light and dark throughout his images.
Mikko Lagerstedt’s career as a photographer began while driving to a relative’s cabin on a wet summer day. The Finnish native came across a misty field cut through with rays of sun. Pulling over, he got out and stared, transfixed. “At that moment, I knew that this emotional connection was something I wanted to start capturing,” he said.
For Manfred Teh, the moment came with a lightning strike. The Leeds local had been experimenting with his new DSLR camera — a Christmas gift from his parents — when a bolt sliced the skyline directly in front of him. “There was no subject, no leading lines — nothing like that,” he said. All that would come later. He just knew he was hooked.
To this day, both remain fixated on this interplay on light and dark, gravitating to the drama of night photography to document a world that evolving camera technology and editing software have helped to unveil.
Read on to discover some of their favorite types of night shots, and how they go about capturing them.
Drone long exposures
Looking at Teh’s work, it’s easy to see the imprint of that fateful lightning bolt from years ago. Lines of brilliant light bifurcate photo after photo — only these days, he’s not relying on nature to provide the magic. Instead, Teh prefers to create his own source of light using an LED-enabled drone.
Manfred Teh used a drone and long exposure to create this surreal image, which he then edited in Lightroom to bring out the figure’s red coat and the cooler colors of the surrounding night.
Teh begins by scouting, typically during the day, a location with a compelling composition. Among the elements he’s always on the lookout for are dramatic horizontal or vertical leading lines. Imposing towers standing alone in open fields are among his favorite subjects, with waterfalls and shorelines coming in close behind.
Once he knows where and what he wants to shoot, it’s simply a matter of figuring out how to frame it with his light. Halos crown trees and monuments. Beams emerge from the hands of distant figures standing atop rock formations and below stone archways. The effect is equal parts moody and mystical.
To capture these images, Teh uses the widest aperture lens possible and sets his ISO as low as it will go. His camera ready, he is free to get his drone in place. Only then does he start shooting, using a shutter speed that gives him enough time to paint the air above his subject with his drone’s light — usually five or more seconds.
Back at his computer, Teh gets to work in Lightroom, adjusting the white balance, contrast, highlights and shadows to get the visual differentiation he wants. If he’s done his field work right, he barely needs to touch the exposure slider — the brightness is already just where he wants it. Finally, he’s able to move on to hue and saturation. “My emphasis is more toward the blues and the cold side,” he said. “That’s the inspiration I’m drawing from.”
When it comes to nighttime light sources, Lagerstedt tends to be more traditional. Milky Ways and icy moons provide a dramatic backdrop to much of his work — his reward for braving Finland’s freezing winter nights. “It’s too bright here in the summer to capture any night skies,” he explains.
Once on-site, he begins by locating a foreground. Favorite go-tos include naked trees and forgotten boats, craggy cliffs, and boulders leading out to sea. Other times barren streets guide the eye toward a star-dusted horizon. “When the composition is good, you can feel it,” he said.
Lagerstedt used three different exposures, all captured in the exact same location, to create this image. To combine them he began by importing them into Lightroom, where he applied the same adjustments to color and white balance to all three using Lightroom’s sync feature. He then opened them in Photoshop, where he layered and masked the images. Finally, he sent this layered version back to Lightroom for a few final edits, including applying a preset of his own making designed to add an atmospheric touch.
With his foreground and background in place, he is then free to focus on his camera settings. He sets his ISO to 6400 or 8000 and his F-stop to 2.8 or lower when capturing night skies, allowing for a long exposure of roughly 30 seconds. Living so far north means Lagerstedt has a front row seat to the northern lights. Capturing these fast-moving ribbons of light requires a shorter exposure — just five seconds or so.
Lagerstedt captured this image on a frigid night in northern Finland before editing it in Lightroom using the color and effects tools, as well as a graduated filter to darken the sky.
Next comes editing. Lagerstedt generally avoids stitching together landscapes and skies from separate photoshoots. Instead, he takes what his lens can get and boosts it using Lightroom. Graduated filters allow him to darken the sky and “pop the stars.” The same goes for the dehaze and clarity tools. Meanwhile, he relies heavily on the white balance sliders to mute any yellows or greens that might have crept in. The result is a cold, steely gray he can then apply to other images using Lightroom’s sync feature.
A favorite among architecture photographers, vertoramas — vertical panoramas — allow photographers to combine images of a single object or place to create more height. For Lagerstedt, they are means for marrying his shots of dramatic night skies with the dreamy wintery landscapes they illuminate.
Lagerstedt captured this view with two exposures, combining them in Photoshop to create a so-called “vertorama.” He then used Lightroom’s effects and color tools to help draw out the contrast between the northern lights and surrounding night.
Creating these composites requires taking two exposures — one pointed up at the sky, and one at the expanse underneath. The trick is to time the exposures so that he doesn’t have to adjust the brightness of either too much in Lightroom before combining them in Photoshop using layers and masks. This often means sitting and waiting up to five minutes for his downward-looking exposures to form — an experience Lagerstedt says can often feel as surreal as the result. “When the image finally appears it feels like magic,” he said.
As a finishing touch, he removes any white spots the camera sensor might have created during these longer exposures using Photoshop’s healing brush.
Exploring the night
Rapidly advancing technology has given today’s photographers unprecedented access to the world that emerges only when the sun disappears. To those looking to explore this new frontier, both Lagerstedt and Teh agree: Look to whatever light you can find (or create). Beyond that, there’s nothing to do but experiment, said Lagerstedt — experiment, and unplug.
“Try not to spam yourself with too many different types of photos,” he said, explaining that he avoids spending too much time on Instagram. “Take breaks from social media. That way you can be confident that what you’re creating is your own.”