Dealing with light pollution

Ideas for better photos in not so great places

Have you ever been pissed, because you were not able to shoot these great Instagram/flickr/500px-like starspheres? Never seen the Milky Way in persona? Welcome to the club!
I am living in South Germany: 50% in the Black Forest and 50% in Eastern Bavaria. But even the BLACK Forest is not black at all in the night because of a lot urban aggregations in the near.
A very nice tool, I use quite often is the superb Light Pollution Map where you can estimate if you even have a slight chance to see the night sky as it used to be before the invention of electric light. The German newspaper Die Zeit also published a map of Germany quite recently where they provide also quite a detailled overview for Germany (Link)

To put a long story short: If you live in Europe (or near the large towns in Northern America/South East) you must find other scenarios to photograph than the cheesy milky way above untouched nature. Period. And this does not mean something bad, because all photo communities are flooded with all the same postcard stuff and nobody even takes a secound look at all. The next pics were taken in South Germany and are my humble attempt to compensate the light pollution by taking more creative or experimental pictures.

Status Quo: The best what is achievable

So here is a classic photo I took near the Alps. I think I retrieved as much of the night sky as possible without some special tools like the Astro Trail etc.

Lightpollution 01

I think the light pollution of the city in the far right is obvious. Also the lack of definition in the star patterns bothers me. You can not see a shape that comes even near the Milky Way. This picture is not extremely bad, but it is definetly not worth to be shown as a work of art.

How to make it better?

First of all: You have to find a better subject to photograph – try to get rid of these landscape-down/sky-up pictures. For example you can use some features of your zoom lens (yes, you heard right: get out your never used kit-lens with the wide zoom range) and do something that is called "zoom-burst" with a long term exposure (25-30 sec.) and turning the zoom on your lens slowly from tele to wide in this time. You will get some stuff similar to this:

Lightpollution 02

Even this quite well know method can lead to more interesting images of your starscape. Pretty neat. But let's have a look what is also possible. The next idea I had was not to play with some camera/lens settings but rather to use the tripod itself to create something new. (Yes, you will need a tripod anyway if you want to photograph the stars.)

Because I had only my panoramic head on my Manfrotto (Actually I was on the way to get some nice landscape sunset panoramas and not prepared for some night exposures) so I decided to use this tool for some nice experiments. The most interesting result was a long time exposure while moving the camera around the yaw axis and pointing the lens straigt up into the sky (90° pitch).

"Yaw"? "Pitch"? If you do not remember exactly what that means, take a look at my little cheatsheet:

Pitch roll yaw: The name of the 3D axes

What you will get is something that looks like this (without post processing noise reduction):

Lightpollution 03

With this technique you can somehow "fake" the extreme time consuming photo style of "star trail" pictures as long as you don't have some elements in your exposure that have to remain fixed (e.g. trees, rocks, etc.).
If you turn your pitch angle to lesser numbers (e.g. 70°) you can create some three dimensional looking scenarios like this:

Lightpollution 04

OK, Done. And now?

The shown picture are artsy and quite abstract. If you want to emphasize that the starbursts and star trails are made of "real" stars and not some CGI you can combine some pictures by blending them together in photoshop. For the next picture I used a shot of the milky way (my only one in this night, with A LOT of post processing) for the fixed landscape and the other two dynamic pictures for the rest of the shot.

But first things first: The "fixed" milky way picture:

Lightpollution 05 and Milky Way in the Forest

And now we combine the three shots all together into one single image. One of my – not yet so final – results looks like this:

Lightpollution 06


Yes, you will have to put effort in the shots, but fiddling with the tools you have can also be a lot of fun. And, remember kids: The only difference between fiddling around and science is to write it down.
I am also aware that these pictures are fake if you take photography seriously in the old style. But, to be honest: A lot of published pictures are so overprocessed and photoshopped that I think that there is only a small difference between our work here and the millions of cheesy community-landscapes. So keep it easy, folks.