• Astro
  • holding each other
  • Stars
  • Soft Light
  • Night Time
  • night
  • Natural Light
  • natural frames
  • intimate
  • full body
  • Astrophotography
  • Evening
  • Desert
  • Dark
  • Center Framed
  • calm
  • Blue Hour
  • Back lit
  • Wide

The story behind the image

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I am so excited to share this information with you guys – what took me a long time to learn on my own, finding software and apps to help my planning, and composition I can just teach you here without too much of the trial and error! These shots might seem really stressful at first, but just go out and test with the tools and advice I will give you :) You will even find your own camera and composition preferences apart from my own and what a neat photo to give your couples if you are doing an elopement or night/morning shoot!

I have always loved astrophotography, and Joshua Tree National Park was designated an International Dark Sky Park by the International Dark-Sky Association in 2017 – which means it is a really great place to capture the Milky Way. It is harder to capture the Milky Way in areas near bigger towns or cities.

This shot was taken in March in the chilly early morning hours at Joshua Tree State Park, CA and is a blended image – the Milky Way was captured earlier around 5:30am, and the couple between 6:30-7:15am once more light from the sun was up. I scouted the area the night before, a place that was away from larger points of interest in the park, away from lights, close by the road so we didn’t have to walk far in the dark, checked that no hills would be blocking the view of the Milky Way and a place that had strong / aesthetically pleasing Joshua Trees. I also had to make sure that I would have my camera and tripod facing the couple the right way, since the Milky Way and sun dictate completely how you align your shot. It is always a good idea to scout the area before you have to take the shots, to make sure the terrain is safe as well. Since it was March and I am in the northern hemisphere, these photos were taken in the morning. During the summer in the northern hemisphere the Milky Way rises earlier and earlier, so you would actually take the Milky Way shots at night instead of the morning during that time of year. It also depends on your latitude and longitude, but I will get to that later with an easy app you can use to figure out the correct times!
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Describe how you spoke to your subject(s)

During sessions when it is colder, it is easier to do more photographs of the couple getting close than to have them too far apart. Using their own bodies to warm each other makes for really intimate shots. I simply asked them to lean their heads together softly, to kiss her hands, and to just be close to each other.

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What did you say?

Lean your heads together softly and hold hands. Gently kiss her hands, bringing them up to your lips then away from you

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Tone of Directions



For these types of images, planning is key! It completely depends what direction you are facing, what time of the morning / night it is, what hemisphere you are in, what the weather conditions are, where the moon is and the light pollution around you. If you live in a humid climate, this also makes it difficult to see clearly into the night. However if you just want a star lit sky, it can be much easier! This Milky Way photo was taken around 5:30am and the image of the couple captured between the times of blue hour and golden hour. The “galactic core” of the milky way was SE this night. The galactic core is literally just the core of our galaxy and therefore is the brightest part – I always love aiming my camera right at the core, or slightly off to the side for a nice “rule of thirds” composition, placing the core off to the side in my shot! I also wanted an area with Joshua Trees to add contrast to the night sky and add even more interest around the couple, framing them perfectly between a group of trees.

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Center Framed


Describe how you spoke to your subject(s)

For the couple’s portrait: I focused on the couples heads. They were far enough away and since it was a landscape shot focusing anywhere on their bodies is sufficient. If I were closer up, I would be focusing on their eyes. I used a tripod and used autofocus for the initial focus, and then turned the focus toggle on the lens to manual. I did this so that if the couple moved, the camera would not try and focus on the area behind them or to the trees to the sides of them. I could then take as many captures as I wanted even if they moved slightly. This works out best if it is a couple’s landscape portrait!

For the Milky Way: I focused on a star with autofocus, and then turned the focus toggle on the lens to manual. This means you have locked into focus on the night sky! It might take awhile to find a star bright enough to focus on, and it doesn’t have to be exactly in the final composition frame that you are trying to set up. You just need to set up the focus to the sky. In scenarios where the sky is too bright and I can not focus on a star, I focus on a distant object instead and then cut to manual focus right after I have my focus. Again, once focus is set I place the camera onto the tripod being careful not to bump the focus ring.

For my settings on the Milky Way, since I was in a bortle class 1-2 zone (the bortle scale is just a “darkness” scale, as you go up further that means there is more light pollution. A class 10 would be really high light pollution, class 1 is very dark) I was able to capture the Milky Way extremely well with these settings:
Shutter: 8″ (second exposure)
Aperture: f/1.8
ISO: 1250 ( I always start the ISO at 1250 for these kinds of shots on my Canon and go from there. On Sony cameras, you need to start the ISO a little higher at maybe 2200, I have noticed a big difference)
White balance: Auto, but you can play around with this either with a different white balance or just edit it in post.

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Focus Mode

Single Shot

Focus POints

Single Focus Point

Focused on

The couple's bodies

Equipment &

Canon EOS 6D Mark I
Sigma 14mm f/1.8 DG HSM Art
1/125 @ f/1.8 ISO250 WB-Auto

The way the EXIF is written out follows the common photographic method (with the inclusion of White Balance at the end). Here it is broken down:

Shutter Speed @ Aperture ISO White Balance.

Light & Weather

For the couple’s portrait: I shot within the timeframe of blue hour and golden hour. In my opinion, it is best to not let the sun peak up over the horizon or else you would have flaring on the couple or shadows. Take this into account if there is a hill or mountain in the backdrop too blocking the sun, you could wait longer and not have to take the photos right at this time. I have never used articifial lighting for these types of images, since I edit them to be darker post edit – it is best to not use any extra light sources that might cast shadows on the couple’s face and cause the night time edit to look very unnatural.

For the Milky Way photo: Be as far away from any light pollution or moon pollution as possible. The AR portion of the Photo Pills app can help you to accurately see where the moon is at the time you want to take the Milky Way shot. If it is in the way, you will have to move to a different day.

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Light Type

Natural Light

Time of day




Editing Workflow

How did you edit this image?

Lightroom Process:
For the Milky Way Photo: I used my LH-Astro 1 preset. There isn’t a whole lot of adjusting I did to the preset, that is the best thing about shooting in a consistently dark area. Same colors in the sky, same absence of lighting. I have gone through different stages of how I like to edit the Milky Way and couples portraits and for this image I went with toned down teals, purples, dark blues and blacks for the milky way.

For the couples:
I only stayed in the “basics” area of lightroom and did some simple adjustments to make it look like “night time”. Lowering the exposure and lowering the highlights.

Photoshop process:
For this specific image, I placed the image of the couple as the base layer. Then I layered on my Milky Way photo on top of that and turned the blending mode to “screen”. I erased the part of the milky way that overlapped over the couple (now there is a handy little “Select and Mask, then Select Subject” which would have been very helpful to me the past few years!). I also added a little more brightness to the Milky Way image in here by creating a “clipping mask” over the Milky Way image, so the brightness would not effect the couples photo. I didn’t need to do this in photoshop, I just decided once I had the couple and Milky Way shot together I observed that the stars could be brighter!

Lightroom round 2 process:
The final image was great, but I wanted to add a slight vintage/ warm tone to the entire image now that it had all come together. So I brought the final photoshop jpeg back into lightroom and edited the basics, tone curve, individual color’s saturation and luminance levels, and made the midtones more teal, shadows yellow, highlights more blue. This was a lot of trial and error, so don’t be discouraged if it isn’t turning out how you like it! Eventually when I find a pattern I will make a preset for these types of “Lightroom round 2” final compositions but I am not there yet. If it makes you feel better… I had 3 of these images in Lightroom and tried with 3 different ones to get the right edit that I wanted. I usually don’t put that much work into these but I knew this was going to be one of my favorite images. A lot of times I still just play around with editing, I like too many styles and can not pick just one!

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Editing Software
Adobe Lightroom Classic
Preset Used


The most challenging things I faced with this shot: just the planning of it all! I was flying out of state, to an area I was unfamiliar with, and had to hit the ground running and do a lot of pre planning before I had even arrived. I would not do anything differently, maybe just check my manual settings more on my camera while the sun was rising. You can kind of get excited taking a lot of photos and forget to adjust your manual settings as the light gets brighter on the couple in the morning/ or darker on them if the sun is setting. I made that mistake on some of the photos from this session. It was also really cold and I wish I would have brought a blanket for the bride and a way to make warm water – I think it would have been a better client experience! But clients who generally want these kinds of sessions know that they are going to be thrown into the elements, but I would make this clear to them as well.

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I used the Photo Pills app and online resources to make sure that I was well prepared before the date. And once I realized my manual settings had been wrong as the sun was becoming brighter, I quickly changed them.

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Location Name

Joshua Tree National Park

Location aDDRESS

Joshua Tree, CA 92252

Loation Type



United States

I learned that planning is really the key to success for these types of photos but this is also juxtaposed with going with the flow! You can’t control if there are clouds in the sky, no parking spots when you arrive, etc. It is always good to have at least one backup location I have found. I think the best way for other photographers to approach this is to try and do some styled shoots first with friends or even just try to shoot the Milky Way and get good at that before offering this service to clients. It is a lot of trial and error, but the Photo Pills app and help a lot in planning in conjunction with checking the weather. Maybe even stay in the area for a few days in case you do run into bad weather. Deserts are my favorite because of their dryness and usually are pretty rural. Also be sure to have a lens that has a wide aperture! I would not use a lens with an aperture over f/1.8. My preference is f/1.2 or f/1.4 which really brings in a lot of light.

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