Photography – Kamil Sustiak’s night shot

Kamil Sustiak kicks off his new photography column with an explanation of how he captured Kerrin Gale climbing below a star-spangled sky

Camera settings for the successful shot: Canon 5D MK III, 16-35 F2.8L, F3.2/20s, ISO 4000
Lights: Canon Speedlite 580ex remotely triggered with two PocketWizard TT5s and a headtorch attached to a human for light-painting the rear cave.

'Nailed it!' When everything goes right; Kerrin Gale on the Professional (28), Gateway, Blue Mountains, with the stars reminding us we are on Earth, in the Milky Way, somewhere in the Universe.

‘Nailed it!’ When everything goes right; Kerrin Gale on the Professional (28), Gateway, Blue Mountains, with the stars reminding us we are on Earth, in the Milky Way, somewhere in the Universe.

‘Three, two, one… now!!’ Doug gives slack and somewhere in the total darkness above us Kerrin dynos for an ‘invisible’ hold – at the same time a burst of flashes illuminates the arches all around us. The moment is too brief to appreciate the beauty of this place. The moon has already set and the only objects our eyes can rest on are the distant stars, an important element of the photo we are trying to create. Ten seconds of waiting for the exposure to finish before the image appears on the camera screen…

‘Shit! Where is Kerrin?’

‘Hey Kerrin, any chance you could do that move again? The stars are brilliant, and I am sure you would look great too, but I just cannot see you on the screen.’

At this point I think Kerrin is already used to these night photo shenanigans. While she is getting ready for yet another blindfolded crazy move, my brain is searching through the flaky library of night photography tricks trying to find the right tweak to make Kerrin visible. In my mind, the picture is always a masterpiece, then the reality hits.

Night photography is like painting except you start with a black canvas and use light instead of brushes to reveal the scene. It sounds romantic but try to add a caffeinated climber doing a dynamic move in the dark and it usually ends up in a shit-fight. The goal is to make the stars bright enough to add that necessary wow factor while having the climber sharp enough to keep magazine editors happy.

My mind finally sorted out the mess and pulled up the next trick. Bump up the ISO, open up the aperture, reduce the shutter time a bit. ‘Three, two, one … now’. Ten seconds later… wow, that is much better.

‘Hey Kerrin would it be possible to flag out your left leg a bit more? Three, two, one… sweet.’

‘And how about light painting the rear cave with a headtorch?’ adds Doug, the patient belayer and creative director of this crazy shoot.

‘Three, two, one…’ Poor Kerrin. I wish I could say these night photos are taken while the climbers casually send their projects, but I guess you are already getting the point. Half an hour later we are all happy with the image.

And for those interested in the geeky aspects of the shoot and how this photo was actually taken. There are two approaches. Firstly, you can take two pictures with different exposures and combine them in Photoshop, however, that eliminates all the fun above.

The other way is to somehow get it all to work within one exposure. The trick is to balance out the available light from the moon and stars with the lights you bring, headtorches, flashes, strobes etc. The main thing to remember is that you control the flash light with your aperture settings and the ambient light with your shutter speed. Crank up the ISO as high as you are comfortable (i.e. 3200 – 6000 ISO on my canon 5D MK III) and shoot for glory. Start simple with just one light source and when you are feeling brave keep adding lights until you are happy with the results. In this particular case I set the ISO to 4000. I was then adjusting the power on the main flash and the aperture until I was happy with the exposure of the climber and the rock in the foreground. The key is to find a way to get the flash off your camera and position it to illuminate the main subject from one side. This way you will end up with attractive shadows that reveal the texture of the rock. As the flash burst is very brief it will freeze the movement of the climber. Once you have that part sorted, you can start experimenting with your shutter speed to figure out how much light from the stars you need to let in to get the overall exposure right. Usually, a shutter exposure of between eight and 30 seconds should do the job. In our case, we also light-painted the rear cave with one of our headtorches to add extra depth to the image.

So there you go, if it all sounds too confusing, go out and experiment. You can apply the same principles to any night photography scene. Once you are happy with your technique the second challenge comes in – introduce your climbing mates to your newly discovered love of spending the nights out. I am sure they will love it. Did I also mention the best conditions for shooting stars are usually freezing temps?

Behind the curtain are the frames that didn’t quite work out …

Where is Kerrin? Time to crank up the power on the flash.

‘Where is Kerrin?’ Time to crank up the power on the flash.

'We are getting there but I wanted to show more of the rock to balance out the dark sky with the foreground.'

‘We are getting there but I wanted to show more of the rock to balance out the dark sky with the foreground.’

Composition was changed a bit to show more of the sky. The foreground is exposed well but the second cave is too dark to add depth to the scene.

Composition was changed a bit to show more of the sky. The foreground is exposed well but the second cave is too dark to add depth to the scene.

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