Referencing this Death Valley image by Marc Adamus:

Is this lit by flash, LED panel, or flashlight?

I like the lighting, and am trying to achieve a similar result, but problems...

  1. Sekonic L-558 incident meter misbehaves with LED panels and flashlights.
  2. To match each tree, should I meter each tree and match the exposure? I'm combining multiple shots later as layers.
  3. How would one calculate proper exposure for a 15, 20, 30 second exposure with either a flashlight or LED panel?
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    What makes you think any such light painting technique was used? I've taken similar images where the terrestrial objects were illuminated by a very distant street light. The color of the trees in the foreground certainly make it look like a sodium vapor light was illuminating them. If the air is very dry, as it is in Death Valley most of the time, and there's not much wind blowing dust around you wouldn't lose a lot of contrast in areas of the sky away from the distant artificial light source. – Michael C Oct 22 '16 at 23:55
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    The uniformity of the illumination on all of the trees and the gradual drop-off of the brightness of each tree that is further from the light source also suggest a single, uniform light source that illuminated everything for the same time interval, presumably the entire exposure. – Michael C Oct 22 '16 at 23:58
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    @benrudgers If that was light from the sun even the very dry air in Death Valley would scatter way too much of it and the Milky Way would not be visible. And it shouldn't be a composite considering Nat Geo's editorial policies. – Michael C Oct 23 '16 at 0:00
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    The same would probably be true if the bright light source in the FoV was the moon. It looks more like very distant light pollution reflecting off rare (for Death Valley) clouds. – Michael C Oct 23 '16 at 0:02
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    @benrudgers agreed with Michael. Also, the background hills/horizon would be lit by the sunrise just as the trees would. Either there's a single light several meters to the right of and behind the camera, or there's a nearby street light / parking lot light illuminating the trees. Because the star trails aren't very long, the exposure is probably no more than about 30 seconds (depending on the lens FoV, and sensor size). – scottbb Oct 23 '16 at 0:51

It looks to me, the photographer used a strobe flash off camera and posssibly laid on the ground or maybe on a chair set at wide to normal aimed at the two middle palms taken on a B (bulb setting) for about 30 to 60 seconds at either 400iso @ f1.4 lens opening or 1600iso at f1.4 lens opening.


While the foreground group of trees is painted more than the background trees even 150ft behind, I would say it is not ambient urban lights. My guess is because of it's broad yet limited range, uniform intensity, and angle of lighting it was most likely a quick flash from incandescent headlights (yellowish coloring, possibly dirty too) placed several yards behind the camera.

Tripod, cable release, long exposure, run to the car, flash the headlights..


I cannot bet on it but it is very likely that the trees are lighted up either with the low sun or with the clouds diffusing the light from sun shining behind the horizon (you can see some clouds on the photograph) - the shadows areund tree details are made by something shining from horizon.

The scene is additionally backlit by the moon - the shadows from trees are soft.

The photograph might be composed from two separate exposures — the sky and the foreground — and merged accordingly but it is not clear whether it is required or not. If there were two exposures they could be made with big interval - one before the sun went down and one after the twilight. If there are specific NatGeo's policies preventing the compositing the photographer might have used the camera's double exposure function which was introduced recently.

I think that the lighting is not artificial: neither the electric lights (the sodium lighting kills almost all chromaticity even if the photograph is white balanced but the colours of trees are definitely distinguishable) nor the flash (the light is too warm and does not seem to be white-balanced in post-processingб there are also some deep shadows around details of trees which photographer could have avoided if they used artificial lighting).

TL;DR: you can make amazing photographs without strobes. :)

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