Call of the Wild

This is one of my most popular images and has received many honors, including First Place Award Winner, Outdoor Scenes, 11th Annual New Mexico Magazine Photo Contest; Photo of The Month and Cover Photo, Nature Photographer Online Magazine; and finalist, the 3rd Annual Sony Art of Expression Contest. I will detail the making of this image in this post. The image was taken with my Canon 5D Mark II and Canon 17-40mm F4 L lens.

Bisti Badland is a wildness area located in the high desert of New Mexico. This remote area offers some of the most unique and interesting scenery on the planet.  The strange and haunting beauty of the landscape is beyond description.  Camping under the stars, surrounded by the surreal hoodoos and other rock formations, was such an unforgettable experience.

I wanted to record my experience of this magic location, and my picture should be more than just pretty landscape photograph.  It must tell a story. As a result, the location of the tent is very important, since the environment tells a lot about the unusual geographic features for this area.  My photog buddy John Fan and I carefully selected a camp site. We pre-visualized the result before the camp was set up. Of course the location has to be flat so we could sleep, however, I also wanted the final picture to include some of the representing hoodoos and hills, and our location must have these features.

 (a)     Determining the Exposure values for the sky
Modern digital cameras need a combination of large aperture, high ISO, and long exposure, to properly capture the stars of the night sky.  Because the earth is rotating, if the exposure period is too long, the stars will not be recorded as sharp dots. They become unsightly mini star-trails. To determine my exposure time, I normally rely on the so called 500 rule:

Exposure Time (in seconds)  <=  500 / focal length (in millimeters)

Since I wanted to capture the night sky, the tent, and the surrounding environment at the same time in order to tell the story, I decided to use a 17-mm wide-angle lens.  As a result, my exposure time was set to 500/17 = 30 seconds.

Please note that the rule is just guidance.  If you plan to produce huge, 60-inch fine-art quality prints, than you should use even shorter exposure times.  On the other hand, if your photos are only used for web viewing, you can get away with longer shutter speeds. Moreover, if you point the camera toward North Pole (or South Pole) you can use longer exposure times, as stars near the North Pole and South Pole show less apparent movements than those near the equator do.

My final exposure parameters were 17mm, ISO 4000, F/4 (the maximum aperture of my Canon 17-40L lens) , 30 seconds.

(b)    Capture the features on the ground

The above-mentioned parameters work great for the night sky.  However, the landscape was too dark to be recorded using such an exposure combination.  The area is relatively small, and in theory I could have used a few strategically placed lamps to illuminate the scene so the landscape could be captured with the stars in a single exposure. However, the use of high ISO and a wide-open aperture would have resulted poor image quality.  The ground would have been grainy, noisy, and not as sharp as it should be. While it is relatively easy to reduce the noise in the sky, it is very difficult to clean up the landscape portion without sacrificing the image details. Such single-frame techniques may be OK for a small size magazine picture or web picture, but they are often not adequate for fine-art large prints.

I decided to use the double frame technique by taking two exposures and blending them together in post processing.  The first exposure was taken at night when I could clearly see the Galaxy. I carefully positioned the camera such at the direction and locations of the Milky Way, as well as the position of tent, were ideal.  I made my first exposure, using the parameters mentioned above, to capture the stars.  I then left the camera on the tripod, and went into the tent to sleep — it is such a remote place and nobody was around, so I didn’t have to worry about the safety of the equipment.   My alarm clock woke me up very early the next morning, long before the sunrise. I made the second exposure to capture the landscape. I used ISO 100, F/11 and 4 seconds to ensure the optimal image quality.

 (c)    Lighting the Tent

The key to the success of this picture was the lighting of the tent properly.   If you have a companion, you ask him/her to turn on a warm-colored camp light inside the tent when you make the long exposure. By changing how long the light is on, you can control the brightness of the light.

I used another approach.  I used a Canon 580EX flash with double CTO (Color Temperature Orange) gels. The CTOs changes the bluish light of the flash to lovely, warm light.  The 580EX was placed inside the tent as was remotely triggered by the camera with a pair of PocketWizard MiniTT1/FlexTT5.  The solution works well if you travel alone.


The two exposures were captured in RAW format.  They were opened in Adobe Lightroom. I chose the fluorescent white balance so the night sky and stars have a cool blue tone.  I then exported the two images to TIFF files.

The TIFF files were opened in Photoshop and copied into two layers of a single file. The bottom layer contains the night shot (the first exposure). The top layer contains the second exposure taken at dawn. I then selected the sky of the second exposure, deleted the sky, and merged the two layers.


Most of my work is landscape photography, which emphasize the majestic beauty of nature.  However, in this photo, my goal was to tell a story of our relationship with the nature and our needs for wilderness.  I hope that I have succeeded to some extent, and I am glad that many of my readers, editors, and judges like this photo.


Stars and Milky Way photographs are become incredibly popular recently, and they can become a visual cliché if not done properly.  Remember that in a “starscape” photo, the role of the stars and the Milky Way are just like that of clouds in a regular, daytime landscape image.  Nice clouds are important but not enough. You need beautiful landscape and great composition to make a memorable landscape image.  I often joke with my friends that “Milky Way is the new cloud in landscape photography”.

If you want your image to standout, your picture must be able to evoke our deep feeling about nature.  You must tell a story, or must show some mesmerizing landscape, under the velvet sky and brilliant stars.

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