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Tips & Tricks

Beginner Astrophotography: How To Create Portraits Under The Stars – Part 2 Compositing

By Matthew Saville on January 19th 2015

Beginner Astrophotography: How To Create Portraits Under The Stars – Part 2 Compositing

We’re continuing our three-part series on how to create awesome portraits at night, under the stars!

In part one of this series, we talked about how to create a single exposure that has a starry sky and yet still delivers sharp portraits.  To check out the part one video, click HERE.

Unfortunately, sometimes we need to create two exposures and merge them in post-production.  This is especially true if you want to create images that don’t just capture a few stars at dusk, but actually get the whole Milky Way in view!

slr-lounge-portraits-under-the-stars-photos-07Nikon D800E, Rokinon 14mm f/2.8, FotoPro C5C Tripod
(Two) Nikon SB80DX, Radiopopper JRX triggers 

To be honest, I think it’s sort of annoying when photographers complain “it’s all been done before.” In a sense, sure it has, but you can always find new ways to shoot the same thing, or find new things to add to the same job, etc.

Few types of photography prove this more than astro-landscape and portrait photography. 5-10 years ago, certain images were simply impossible to accomplish, or at least extremely time-consuming and intensive both to capture and to edit.

Now, with just a few simple tricks and a minimal amount of gear, we can create stunning portraits in almost any lighting conditions. Alright, let’s get to the video!

Watch ‘How To Create Portraits Under The Stars – Part 2 Compositing’

Original Images

slr-lounge-portraits-under-the-stars-photos-02 Nikon D800E, Rokinon 14mm f/2.8, FotoPro C5C Tripod,
2 sec @ f/3.5 & ISO 800, one flash on the right at ~1/32 power,
one flash hidden behind at ~1/32 power

slr-lounge-portraits-under-the-stars-photos-03Nikon D800E, Rokinon 14mm f/2.8, FotoPro C5C Tripod,
30 sec @ f/3.5 & ISO 800, no flash

In these two images, we accomplish our two separate objectives.  One image delivers a proper exposure of the couple, at a shutter speed that doesn’t allow any ambient light to blur their faces, while the other image delivers a proper exposure for the stars / sky, even though the highlights are blown out and the couple’s face is blurry.

At this point, it is a simple task of post-producing the two images so that they match overall as much as possible, and then layering them together in Photoshop.

If you don’t process the images similarly enough, when you layer them in Photoshop the results will look totally fake. What I do is I completely disregard noise and blur and blown highlights, and process the two images to look like this:

 Processed Images, Separate

slr-lounge-portraits-under-the-stars-photos-01 slr-lounge-portraits-under-the-stars-photos-04

Once the images look like this, layering and masking them in Photoshop becomes much easier, while delivering more realistic results, too!

If you don’t believe me, here’s a screenshot of how simple the final layer mask was:


This goes a long way towards making your job easier.  Any time you have to mask something with pin-point accuracy, you’ll turn a job that should have looked perfect in five minutes into a job that still doesn’t look right after twenty minutes.

Things To Remember

Shutter Speed

Your choice of shutter speed depends entirely on the ambient light.  If you’re shooting in pitch-darkness on a moonless night, for example, you could just create a single 30 second exposure, and manually pop your flash at your leisure to create an exposure for your subjects.  As long as their heads / bodies are framed against a dark background, and not the sky, they’ll appear perfectly illuminated without any ghost shadows or blur.

Ambient Light

Oppositely, if you have any ambient light whatsoever, which is the case 99% of the time in my experience, you’re going to have to play it much safer with your shutter speeds.  Depending on how dark it is, I wouldn’t use a shutter speed much longer than 1-2 seconds.

Why Not Video Light?

Or, if you’re really brave and want to use a video light / flashlight to illuminate your subjects, you’re going to be extremely restricted with shutter speeds. You’ll want to aim for 1/30 sec. or 1/60 sec, even with a tripod.  Or if your posing allows your subjects to hold very still, (if they’re embracing each other), then you might be able to get away with a 1/4 or 1/8 sec shutter speed.  This is why I prefer to use flash for these types of images- as long as the ambient light isn’t a problem, you have much more flexibility with your shutter speed.

slr-lounge-portraits-under-the-stars-photos-09Just a little bit more work in Lightroom, and…

slr-lounge-portraits-under-the-stars-photos-07Voila!  An image that is possible with literally any modern digital camera.

In our next and final video, we’ll wrap things up with a few tips on how to overcome some of the challenges of shooting in this type of environment, such as how to nail focus, and how to avoid motion blur in your subjects, or how to remove it in post-production if necessary. Stay tuned!

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. Ed Rhodes

    So will part 3 ever happen? Loved the first two!

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  2. Graham Curran

    Excellent tutorial, thanks Matthew.

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  3. David Charles

    Thanks for the tutorial! Really excited to give this a try soon. Unfortunately we don’t get many clear nights here in Upstate NY, and especially not during snow storms, ha! I’ll have to keep my eyes out for some clear skies though in the coming months.

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    • Matthew Saville

      Oh boy David, yeah how is that snow storm turning out? Everything OK over there?

      Don’t worry, the milky way isn’t that exciting in the winter anyways; our night sky doesn’t “point” at the center of the galaxy during the winter, the summer sky has much better views of the milky way. So, stay warm indoors and go head out somewhere with less light pollution in the spring! :-)

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  4. Gurmit Saini


    that is a brilliant article and like to attempt something like this on my next wedding. Also will be love to see any article on how you shoot wedding reception images in terms of setup, lighting, etc.

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  5. Clare Havill

    Great info, will need to try this out in a Dark Sky zone.

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  6. Ian Sanderson

    (apologies for misspelling your name too)

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  7. Ian Sanderson

    Great article Mathew

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  8. Murray Severn

    Great info in this! Now I can try and get the night shots with my kids that I’ve had in mind for ages, but have been unsure about the process.

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    Great video been waiting since the first and you always seem to do the impossible great work Matt

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  10. Dana aja

    My classmate’s half-sister makes $83 an hour on the internet . She has been without a job for 10 months but last month her paycheck was $21991 just working on the internet for a few hours. try this link…


    Plz don’t include word OK

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  11. Brandon Dewey

    Great article and thank you for the tips!

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  12. Dre Rolle

    :) Another spectacular tutorial, please don’t make me/us wait another month for the final part >_<

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    • Matthew Saville

      Hi Dre! I’d put it at the front of my recording list if I could, but the final video will require the cooperation of both weather and models… ;-)

      Stay tuned!


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  13. Kamuela Moniz

    Very nice! I need to try this out.

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  14. Kaitlyn McLachlan

    Was this taken super early in the morning or something? How’d you get the milky way positioned in so well? I’m sort of assuming they didn’t go out for a 3am shoot…

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    • Matthew Saville

      The positioning of the milky way also varies by the time of year, and it is in this position at a relatively decent hour later in the summer. I think this was in late August, at about 10 PM, in Southern California. :-)

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  15. Greg Silver

    Another GREAT article. I agree – I don’t buy into that ‘It’s all been done before’ mentality. There will be plenty of WOW moments in my lifetime whether or not I create them.

    Call me crazy – but I often get just as excited over the anticipation of a shot then the actual picture itself.

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  16. Ashton Pal

    These articles are very helpful. I saved this for later and when I can actually get out of the city to try this. Thanks for the post.

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  17. Ed Rhodes

    Awesome! I’ve been waiting for part two. Thanks for putting this together!

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