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Tips & Tricks

Astro-Landscape Portraiture: How To Create Portraits Under The Stars – Part 1

By Matthew Saville on December 8th 2014

In this video, we’re going to start a mini-series about shooting portraits at night, under the stars.  There are many different ways you can do this, but for starters, we’ll just talk about creating a single exposure that has sharp, well-exposed stars, and a steady, blur-free subject that is also nicely illuminated.  In future videos, we’ll talk more about creating multiple exposures, and other techniques for creating astro-landscape portraiture.  Enjoy!

Equipment Used:

Camera Gear You’ll Need:

  • Any recent camera
    A full-frame camera is nice, but not at all necessary.  As long as your camera sensor was produced in the last few years, you should be able to pull off images similar to this.
  • A wide lens that goes to f/2.8 or faster
    An f/3.5 aperture kit lens can do in a pinch, if you’re learning, but when you get serious, you should find yourself either an f/2.8 or f/1.4 (etc) fast, wide angle lens for this type of work.
  • A solid tripod
    If your tripod is a little wimpy, that’s OK. Just make sure you set your camera to 2 sec. timer so that you don’t introduce any camera shake into your images
  • A flash / wireless flash system
    An on-camera flash can be used, if you bounce it off a nearby object / reflector, but I prefer to just use off-camera flash.

Key Tips To Remember:

  • Darkness on your subjects is critical
    For this flash technique to work, you need some serious darkness.  If you don’t have to use flashlights to see where you’re going (or focus your lens!), then it’s not dark enough.
  • Avoid direct flash – it’s too bright!
    If you have an f/1.4 lens that you want to use, or a camera that is really cutting-edge and you feel comfortable shooting it at ISO 6400 or higher, you’ll have a hard time getting your flash power low enough to avoid completely “exploding” your subjects to white oblivion! Find ways to diffuse or “knock down” the brightness overall.
  • Hold still, and shoot multiple shots!
    Have your subjects pose in a manner that allows them to help each other hold still, especially when standing.  Then, be sure to capture multiple images and review them at 100% zoom.  If your flash is creating sharpness on faces, but subject movement is causing a dark ghosting effect around the edges, don’t worry, that’s relatively easy to remove in Photoshop, especially if you have multiple images to use as source material for cloning or masking.
  • Avoid light pollution
    It goes without saying, that you’re not going to get many stars in a downtown city environment.  However, you’d be surprised at just how many stars “show up” if you find even just the slightest bit of darkness near where you live!  Be safe though, and don’t go anywhere risky.  Here in Southern California, the beach is always a safe bet.


Original, un-edited image:

Star Portrait Single Exposure-unedited

Final image edited using the SLR Lounge Preset System V6:

Star Portrait Single Exposure-edited

Additional Tutorials:

How to shoot portraits at very slow shutter speeds

How to create a ghost-like 15-minute self portrait

Inspirational Star Photography by Ben Canales – The Star Trail

Thanks everybody for watching!  If you’re curious about shooting portraits at night or under the stars, stay tuned for a few more tutorials on this subject, and feel free to comment below if you have any questions.

Take care, and happy clicking!

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Matthew Saville is a full-time wedding photographer at Lin & Jirsa Photography, and a senior editor & writer at SLR Lounge.

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Q&A Discussions

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  1. Bob Davis

    Nice video…Thanks

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  2. Basit Zargar

    Thanks for this nice article

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  3. Ed Rhodes

    Awesome, great video! when does part 2 come out?

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    • Matthew Saville

      Soon! I just finished capturing a few more images that I’ll be using in the next couple videos. Stay tuned…

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  4. Joram J

    Nice!! I tried it some time ago on 24mm/1 sec/iso3200. It didn’t give the result that i wanted, so i toke a second image without a flash, but with 5 sec shuttertime, and blended them in PS together. Next time i will try with my new 17-40mm lens.

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    Great video Matt I really loved the result and I love the slrlounge preset system……and cheers to the Rokinon lenses I love the smooth focus ring on my 16mm

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  6. Fabio Porta

    Can’t wait for the next episode!

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  7. Stan Rogers

    You might want to look at ND gels (for speedlights, a 20″x24″ sheet gel is pretty much a lifetime supply, and will set you back less than $10). A 0.9 gel will take your YN560III’s power range down to (effectively) 1/8 to 1/512, which ought to let you do direct flash (with a grid or snoot or what have you) at any ISO that still produces recognisable pictures. (Unless you’re using a 645Z, in which case you might want to double up on the gels if you want, like, the Milky Way in the background.)

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    • Matthew Saville

      Hey Stan,

      I actually do carry ND gels, but sometimes I find this trick to be more efficient with my time. Mainly because I can adjust the flash power from my camera position, with the Yongnuo 560 iii flashes, …it’s just so easy to try pointing the flash at various nearby objects and seeing what happens! :-)

      I do highly recommend having ND gels on hand though, for when the situation demands it. Very, very useful for folks who shoot in low-light such as this, and I should have mentioned it in the video!

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  8. Vince Arredondo

    Hi Matt. Very useful video. You were using Yongnuo flashes, how you like them? Are those your main flashes for a wedding day?

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    • Matthew Saville

      Hi Vince,

      Yep after my RadioPopper + Nikon SB80 system got destroyed by a wave on the beach a couple months ago, I made the switch to Yongnuo 560 iii’s and got their 560-TX controller. So far, I am extremely happy with the 2-flash kit I got, and plan to buy two more 560 iii’s before next season starts.

      Once you have the ability to control flash power from your camera, it seems downright silly or even stupid to use any other system that forces you to walk over to your flashes, or yell out to your assistant, to change flash power. Plus I can now change the flash zoom remotely, too!

      I’ll be publishing a review of the Yongnuo 560 iii’s soon!


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  9. Heshan Fernando

    Hi Matthew, thanks for the nice tutorial. I’m curious what time of day this was shot? I can’t believe the background was so well lit with just one second exposure!

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    • Matthew Saville


      The sunset was still fading; but it was a whole hour after sunset. At that exposure, the horizon will still be quite warm / bright, and the light pollution will be about the same brightness if it is in the distance.

      Another 20-30 mins, however, and I would have certainly bumped up my exposure to 2, 4, or 8 seconds in order to get the stars looking better. But that usually means that I have to do two exposures, one for the sky and one for the couple, and then merge the two. Stay tuned for the next episode of this mini series!


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  10. Peter-Jon Harding

    I love Rokinon lens

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    • Matthew Saville

      Me too! I wish they’d make a 16mm f/2.8 prime that can take 77mm front filters, (or 17mm, anything to avoid 82mm filters!) …I’d trade my 14mm prime for that in a heartbeat!

      I had previously hoped for an 18mm f/2 or something from Rokinon, but having just gotten my hands on the Nikon 20mm f/1.8 G, that quest is now over… :-)

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  11. Mark C

    Nice tutorial! Thanks for sharing. Have you ever considered using a video light to illuminate the couple? I wonder if this would be easier than bouncing the flash to reduce its power/soften the light.

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    • Matthew Saville

      Hi Mark,

      Yes I do use video lights, but only if my shutter speed is going to be nice and fast. Like, 1/15 or 1/30 sec, and even that’s kinda slow if the couple is jittery. I just find that using flash gives me a far higher keeper rate, plain and simple. :-)


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  12. Kerry Brown

    Great video. Quick question, are the presets you used in this tutorial all included in the SLR Presets package for $149 and if so are there easy to follow instructions for downloading and installing?

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    • Matthew Saville

      Hi Kerry! Yes, the SLR Lounge preset system includes everything that I used in this video. For specialty images like this, I often fine-tune the presets, but just watch the video a few times and you’ll see how things work. :-)

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  13. Sven Stork

    Great tutorial. You mentioned that you couldn’t find a Rokinon/Samyang 14 mm lens profile for Nikon. I have on on my webpage you can try out:

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    • Matthew Saville

      Hi Sven! Does this profile recognize apertures? The problem with the Canon one is, as with all Canon non-chipped lenses, they have to guess which aperture you’re using. Since aperture info is available on Nikon, I’ve been hoping for a profile that corrects vignetting accurately for each aperture.

      I’ll give it a try, thanks!

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    • Matthew Saville

      It works quite well, Sven, I’m impressed! I believe I came upon your website earlier, and attempted to download your D600 profile, but it didn’t work. For some reason it works now! Awesome!


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  14. Mac MacDonald

    Thanks so much for sharing. Very informative!

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  15. Greg Faulkner

    Great article Matty, thanks

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  16. Dre Rolle

    Awesome video. I cant wait to practice this over the weekend.

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  17. Greg Silver

    Great tips – plus I love the fact you show us the original photo so we can see the before and after. It’s always inspiring to see what you can do through some simple editing.

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  18. David Hill

    Matthew. Thats really helpful. Thanks for sharing. Best wishes. David.

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