The 5 Most Used Photo Enhancement Techniques – Part 3

Out Darn Spots – Cropping

Beware cropping too soon. It is an easy way to get rid of problematic areas of the frame, but might bite back!

One obvious way to remove encumbrances is to crop them out. As tempting as it seems to crop the photo first, we generally leave cropping to the end of the effort for several reasons which we enumerate here:

  1. Sometimes clients (i.e. you) want an image in a different format. Instead of 14×11 you may want it in 20×16. If we crop it first, we are deciding the display format without thinking it through. Sometimes the ratio will be obvious due to the subject, but usually there is some room to play. We prefer to keep our options open until the end.
  2. By cropping out edges, we may be throwing away good sources for cloning out defects, or making cloning and healing harder because operations at the edge of the frame are not as neat.
  3. Care should be taken to not have details at the edge of the frame. What happens, for example, if you are asked to make a canvas wrap of your image (in our Half Dome example, the hiker would be perilously wrapped at the edge).
  4. More than once we have discovered that a portrait mode image worked better in landscape and vice-versa.

It IS true that if we do not crop early we may end up wasting effort on portions of the image we ultimately will discard. Sometimes it is obvious that a portion of the image is unusable and will be cropped. Once we cropped out two figures at the summit of Half Dome to focus attention on the landscape. We later discovered that a tiny figure at the edge of the scene provided both scale and human interest. The California Wine Institute probably would not have been interested in the person-less scene.

Dawn sky atop Half Dome [9753]

Closely related to the cropping problem, is the compositional decision when the photo is taken. We have learned the hard way that its good to leave room around the edges of the frame – one never knows how much space will be needed after cropping to a specific size.

We will not spend much time on cropping, except to restate our premise that cropping is something you should NOT do until you are ready to print or display your image. Secondly, you will find it advantageous to crop in a STANDARD ratio if you expect to frame or mount your images.

In Lightroom, the crop tool is found just to the left of the Spot Healing tool (see below). In both Lightroom and Photoshop the crop tool is overloaded. It can crop, rotate and straighten (and in Photoshop the crop tool also resizes!). Perhaps the best advice we have is to use a pre-set Aspect ratio. You can also add your own ratio(s).

LR_Croptool

Our next bit of advice with respect to cropping: in Photoshop we do not recommend cropping and resizing as one operation. Crop using a “ratio” and only later should you resize, that is, keep as much of the image intact as possible for as long as possible.

Our last bit of advice on cropping: if you DO crop an image in Photoshop, when you save it, include the image pixel dimensions.  Nothing is quite as frustrating as saving a cropped image and destroying the original! Our practice is to always save cropped images in a subfolder named “Exported”.

We could conduct a diatribe about “DPI” and “PPI” and explain why those are pretty useless things in most contexts, but we will not!

Healing Out Dust Spots, Hot Spots and Unwanted Things

Perhaps one of the easiest tools to use in Lightroom (and Photoshop) is the Clone/Healing tool. Unfortunately, you need Lightroom 5 to get the features shown here.

LR_CloneHealTool

The “Spot Removal Tool” in Lightroom can Clone or Heal

Most of the time you will want to HEAL rather than clone.  Clone, as it sounds makes a copy of the source over the destination.  To heal or clone you click the spot healing tool, adjust the size and then click the area of the image with the problem. Lightroom will select what it thinks is a similar area from somewhere else in the photo. You can drag the “similar area” selection somewhere else if the selected area does not make sense (such as picking a fence to replace a grassy spot).  Generally it is best to make the brush only as large as needed. If a line is to be healed out clicking and dragging often works.

Heal out A Satellite Streak in Lightroom

Heal out A Satellite Streak in Lightroom

After dragging along the unwanted satellite trail in the photo above, Lightroom finds a matching area of the sky. In this case the area Lightroom chose will duplicate stars, so we drag the handle of the chosen area to a blank sky.  Note that the blob at the upper left indicates the area used to heal the area at the end of the white arrow.

Heal a segment, Lightroom

Heal a segment, Lightroom

Done Healing

After dragging the source area click Done to complete the healing

And when done, click “Done”. If the healing looks bad, you can delete and try again. Healing out spots in Lightroom is a little more tedious than doing so in Photoshop in part because having overlapping healing areas is difficult in Lightroom.  In Photoshop, we strongly recommend creating a separate layer to do healing on – but wait until near the end of your processing to do so!  The easiest way to create the layer to heal on is with the magic key sequence Control-Alt-Shift-E  (Command-Option-Shift-E on the Mac). That key sequence effectively does a “merge visible layers” but creates a new layer as a result.  If there is only one layer use Control-J (Command-J) instead.

Healing In Photoshop

Photoshop Spot Healing Tool

Photoshop Spot Healing Tool

There are MANY tools for “healing” in Photoshop.  There are also two flavors of the “Clone” stamp tool found under a separate palette. To choose the spot healing tool, click J (Shift-j) until it looks like a bandage with a dotted selection behind it.  You can also right-click the tool and select as shown above.  If you use the OTHER version of the bandage (healing tool) you must first select the area to use as the source using alt-click (Option-click on a Mac). In our experience it is seldom necessary to select the source so that extra step is wasted effort.  To heal in a straight line in Photoshop, click the first location then hold down the shift key and click the second region.  The shift-key trick works for most Photoshop operations like brush strokes, too. The shift trick does not work in Lightroom 5.2

There are some settings for the healing tool so if things get weird, double-check the tool bar at the top – make sure it is Normal mode.

Photoshop (CC) Healing Tool Settings

Photoshop (CC) Spot Healing Tool Settings

As a final step we regularly “heal” out hot pixels from our final night image. The Photoshop spot healing tool is very easy to use even if there are a hundred spots to fix. While it might be tempting to rely on noise reduction to solve the hot pixel problem, significant blurring occurs.

If you have a particularly difficult healing problem there are yet more advanced techniques, for example you can use the Clone or the Patch tool. Generally you will use the healing tool when you want to make the area being fixed look like the rest of the image and you will use the clone tool when you need to duplicate a texture or remove a larger hindrance.  For example I found it was easier to clone out the glowing orange highway safety cone that someone (or something) had cast into the brush just above where my name is in the image below.

Dream Highway [C_071601]

 

If there is interest we can cover how we handled a severely over exposed area in this image by using the patch healing tool.

The area at the left was over exposed so I used the "bump" rock in the right hand third to fix it. This is "rough"

The area at the left was over exposed so I used the boulder in the right hand third to fix it. This is “rough”

Looking for the prior two articles? Check Part 1 and Part 2.

Philosophy of Advanced Stacker PLUS

ASP14e-500

Coming soon…

Our 14e release is imminent. But after looking at our survey results and the most recently reported issues, we thought it wise to provide some hints to help you use the current software and to help you understand tradeoffs we made.

Our most commonly reported issue is something we struggled with. In an attempt to help users understand features we caused confusion. What are we talking about?  There are pop up windows: some of which should be Continued some of which should be Stopped. The only notification tool that works across all versions of Photoshop reliably doesn’t allow much customization, so when confronted with each of these dialogs, its understandable why some people click Stop when they should Continue and click Continue when they should Stop. The pop-up window below was the worst. We added highlighting to make it easy to see the difference, but we can’t use color or graphics on the actual pop-up without creating compatibility problems.  Do you notice the difference?

ASP14d_NotStop

This dialog indicates that the Watermark Alignment is not set… click CONTINUE

ASP14d_DoStop

If you stop on the first dialog, the layers needed to do stacking are not created and you will get errors the first of which is usually “Move is not currently available”

Move Not Available

Move Not Available

Once there is any kind of error it’s time to Stop and restart because manipulating layers in Photoshop is a little fragile.  The good news is the first pop-up can be turned off. The better news is that in 14e we have already turned it off for you. In fact in 14e we’ve trimmed down interaction as much as possible but still kept the awesome extra features.  Here is how to turn off the first pop-up (the one regarding Watermark Alignment) in version 14d and earlier.

Stop the Pop

Stop the Pop – disable the “Stop” step in Align My Watermark

Power of the Batch

The Advanced Stacker PLUS derives much of it’s power from two key things: Photoshop’s ability to batch process images AND Photoshop’s ability to open just about any image format on the planet.  Batch processing works because it is possible to use File -> Automate -> Batch to hurl a handful or a folder full of images at customized scripts and actions.  While Adobe Photoshop Elements has a “batch processor” there is no way to do operations other than those that are built-in to the software and that’s why ASP doesn’t support Elements.

One of the weaknesses of using Photoshop’s captive power is that it requires exploiting the tool in ways that are “allowed”.  While we like Adobe Photoshop CC, there are still many people who are very happy with older, non-cloud versions of Photoshop like CS3 or CS4.  We chose to not abandon that 35% of our customers so we support ALL CS versions of Photoshop on both Mac and PC. and that means we limit our actions and scripts to features that are common across all those versions and platforms. Readers may not be aware, for example, that while Adobe has published tools for customizing the interface, those tools have generally only supported the “latest” version of software. Indeed one of the most used tools (Configurator) has been abandoned and is no longer supported.

Another tradeoff has been in how we document our features. For example the File -> Automate -> Batch method of stacking a folder full of files is workable, if inelegant. But we use the Photoshop Bridge method of feeding the stacker and like it much more for several significant reasons.  One huge advantage of using Bridge is that you can actually see the content of the files. Another obvious advantage is that you are not constrained by what’s in your folder. If you have 29 shots from one sequence and 120 of another sequence you don’t have to split those shots between folders. And, in fact, with Bridge to select files you don’t have to use the same stacking method for all the files of one set, or have files from only one folder!

A word about 14E

As noted above, version 14E is imminent. Surprisingly the biggest obstacle has not been the additional features, the primary obstacle has been packaging and delivering the content. Windows 8.1 and Mac OSX 10.9 have gotten very protective of their machines and throw up many roadblocks to try to keep your machine safe from viruses and trojans. This means we had to invest $1500 dollars to become an LLC, get signed up for the Mac developer plan, get a Mac code signing certificate and get a code signing certificate for Windows, too! That doesn’t include acquiring a Mac or polishing the scripts and installers on each machine. Here is what the problem looks like on a Windows PC using Internet Explorer without signed code (it’s just as bad with Safari on Mac).

ASP_IE_RunAnyway

In fact, on both machines even though the code is signed (proving its provenance), you are still likely to get a warning like “This is not a commonly downloaded file”. It might be easier if we could email it to you, right? Except that Google, Yahoo and many others will not deliver an email that includes any executable content.

Both PCs and Macs have reached this point described in a Mac advertisement from 2009 that pokes fun at Vista’s intrusive safety system. Guess what… both machines are becoming like this because there are so many, uh, jerks out there eager to harm you electronically.

Our holy grail has been to create a single deliverable package that works both on a PC and on your Mac that we can document clearly, simply and as completely as possible.  That was probably too high a goal.

What’s coming in 14e?

  • Installation now is as simple as clicking.
  • EXIF data for the first image is preserved
  • New stacking mode of Ultra Streaks
  • Streamlined pop-ups to the minimum
  • Fully supports paths on both PC and Mac
  • Installation works for ALL versions of Photoshop CS you have installed on your machine
  • A price increase. But current owners will get the upgrade for free.
  • Some features we’re keeping under wraps for now.

Planispheres (Star Maps): Paper or Electronic?

A topic that comes up a lot is discussion about what makes a good astronomy helper application. Whenever we suggest purchasing a paper Planisphere our critics remind us that they are not necessary because “there is a great app” to do that.

Planisphere

We take exception to the “there is an app for that” assertion… but perhaps not for the obvious reason. In fact we DO use several apps for forecasting and navigating the night sky. But ultimately we find the good old fashioned planisphere to be the most effective for most of what we want to do. We’ll make the case for a paper (or plastic) planisphere in a moment.

Why Do We Want Something Besides our Eyes?

Let’s start with determining why we want something to help us with our night sky navigation. Some scenarios to consider include:

  1. We are a beginner and we really don’t know Canis Major from Major Appliances.
  2. We have some familiarity with some of the constellations, but we want to learn more.
  3. We want to take a shot with a particular sky object behind a particular landmark.
  4. Even though we know the night sky pretty well, we still need to be able to find faint objects, or find objects in less than dark skies – the Milky Way, for example is difficult to see unless conditions are good and the sky is dark.
  5. We are going to go to an unfamiliar place with a latitude that is very different from where we normally gaze at the night sky.
  6. We want to know where to look to observe a particular phenomenon like the Geminid Meteor shower.

Can’t I Do that with an App?

It might seem that and android, iPad or iPhone app is the best tool since you can take it with you.  And that MIGHT be right except for the following significant problems:

  1. Unless you keep the app brightness really low or use it in a “dark sky mode” (usually dim red), you’ll damage your night vision making it difficult or impossible to see dimmer objects in the night sky.
  2. If you’re trying to find the Milky Way (the dense part in Sagittarius) but you try to use the app during a period when the Milky Way is not visible. No matter what time of night you enter, you won’t see the Milky Way (e.g. November through January).
  3. The representation on the app is often NOTHING like what it may look to your eye in your location. Every app suffers from this problem in one way or another. Some apps make the Milky Way in Canis Major appear to be incredulous – actually its very sedate there.
  4. You want an idea when it will be BEST to get the Milky Way aligned over your target. But on an App you will need to determine the time manually.
  5. If you mistakenly trust the app to tell you where it’s pointing you may be surprised how wrong it can be. Due to iPhone, Android, and iPad hardware limitations, a handheld app could be anywhere from close enough to off by 180 degrees!  It will be even worse if for some reason your App is configured for the wrong timezone, or the wrong GPS location.
  6. Dead battery. If you have to choose between enough battery to make an emergency call or figuring out your night sky… well, we recommend saving the battery.
  7. Most apps show only a fractional portion of the sky… which may confuse anyone who is not already familiar with the sky.

So while we freely admit that we like and use the following applications, we prefer a paper/plastic Planisphere.

  • Stellarium – FREE runs on Mac, PC and Linux.  We like it because it has excellent sky condition simulations that help give a realistic view of the night sky.  It won’t show you dim stars under bright moonlight unless you ask it to. It can also track comets and satellites. What we don’t like is that it is fidgety to configure.
  • StarMap by Fredd software for the iPhone/iPad. We like this one because it’s quite complete. It is well organized to show you, for example, what meteor showers are visible, what “dimmer” objects you can find, and has a simple interface for adjusting the sky brightness or the time of day. What we don’t like: we like to call the constellations by their scientific (and we believe) more common names.  Herdsman?  That’s Bootes. Big Dog? That’s Canis Major, thank you.  Note there are TWO versions of this App, unless you’re a serious astronomer, the less expensive one will work.
  • GoSkyWatch – admittedly we like it because we got it as a free app through Starbucks app of the week but we think its worth the price anyway! We like that it’s pretty versatile, when you point it at the sky it gives the altitude and azimuth (elevation angle and compass direction) which can come in quite handy – even though as we’ve already noted the compass direction is probably wrong! Zero in on an object and it will give you and idea what it looks like. We like that it’s Milky Way representation – while overly bright is pretty close to what it looks like. You won’t confuse Canis Major with Sagittarius, for example. It also includes a great assortment of dim objects and shows constellations with “good names” not just the “common name”. It also has a night mode to conserve your night vision.  It doesn’t have meteor showers or satellites, however.

What We Don’t Like

We’re not fond of anything we haven’t listed. Not that there aren’t better apps, but every one we’ve tried falls short in some way. Take for example, SkySafari.

SkySafari for example, is mostly a disappointment. Not only are there 12 different versions for iOS that range in price from $1 to $40, but the app doesn’t do a good job simulating the night sky, prefers to show useless images of the mythological constellations (which fortunately can be turned off) and shows a garish orange Milky Way which might be exciting to look at except that it will never look like what the app reveals.  SkySafari also doesn’t adjust for the effects of twilight or moonlight.

SkySafari does have some nice information about each object in its database, but the database is not searchable.  If you’re interested, for example in M101 you’ll have to scroll all the way to the bottom of the Messier Catalog page.  If you want to catch a glimpse of the ISS (Zarya/Space Station) you’ll have to slog through the Satellites page.

Why We Like the Planisphere

In this day and age it’s pretty normal for people to navigate by GPS, not by map or even by written instructions. It’s convenient to rely on devices. But we have driven to places and had NO idea how we got there except that “Mr. Carson” – our pet name for our British Accented “voice” – told us where to turn. In other words, we accomplished the goal of getting somewhere, but not really learning the geography, or even getting a good sense of direction. And we trust our GPS at a potential cost: the instructions could be WRONG, or dangerous, and our device might die. True story, we accidentally wiped our handheld GPS track when our goal was to return through a heavily fogged in trail at night – depriving us of the very bit of information that we needed!  We lived, obviously, but took several wrong turns as a result.

First we like the Planisphere because it is indeed a Map.

You can study the Planisphere day or night and observe what constellations are near other constellations.  A planisphere is in fact a rotating map. Unlike directions to grandma’s house, the appearance of the night sky changes minute by minute and season by season because of the earth’s rotation and the earths path around the sun.  While you know you can always turn left to get to grandma’s house, what you want to find in the night sky may in fact be “upside down” from what you remember 3 months or six hours ago.

From a larger map like a Planisphere you’ll discover that lining up Rigel to Betelgeuse (in Orion) and keeping straight will get you to Castor and Pollux in Gemini.  Following Orion’s “belt stars” toward the Rigel side will get you to Taurus and from there if you keeping going you’ll find the Pleiades… and so on. You’ll learn that you can navigate to the stars WITH the stars.

A Planisphere is also a Chart of Dates

A Planisphere also has a very powerful do-it-once approach to aligning things in the night sky.  Spin the wheel to the sky configuration you wish and you can read around the edges every time of night over about 5 months in which the sky will appear in the same configuration!  No app we’ve seen does that!  In fact, we use the Planisphere to decide when the Milky Way will appear over our favorite waterfall or when Andromeda will be high in the night sky so we can snap it’s picture with the minimum amount of atmospheric distortion. The planisphere doesn’t tell us about the moon, but it does give us all the dates we have to work with.

Planispheres are Hard to Misconfigure

Unlike an app which must know your correct location and timezone (and you’d be surprised to learn how often those are quite wrong), a Planisphere is based on your local time. The only parameter you have to get right is to match your latitude with the proper Planisphere chart. If you live in San Francisco, you’ll want a chart that is valid from 30-40 degrees, not one that is 40-50 degrees and thus more suitable to Seattle residents. The most often made mistake on a Planisphere is to not subtract an hour from the time shown on the chart during daylight savings time. Some charts have the daylight savings time equivalent printed on them, but if not, just remember that during the summer if the watch reads 9 PM, you dial the chart to 8 PM.  The universe does not suddenly lurch 15 degrees when we decide to artificially set the time ahead an hour!

The one unfortunate thing about planispheres is that not all are created equal. We prefer DH Chandler’s LARGE charts because they are double sided and have less distortion than the single-sided charts. While it might be counter-intuitive to create a chart of black dots on a white background to represent the stars, it’s actually easier to read at night with a red flashlight than a chart with white stars on a black background.  You can get DH Chandler’s charts from Amazon for about $13 and from many other retailers.  If you join us for any of our events, we always have a supply on hand for our students.

By the way, our next event still has some space left:

June 20-22 Landscape Astrophotography and Astrophotography in Alabama Hills.
Guardian of Forever

Plan C: How To Plan a Time Sequence Shot

If you missed the last total lunar eclipse, don’t worry. You’ll have another chance in October, 2014. For that, I’m grateful since as you can see I had some problems with my apparatus (the CamRanger). The battery failed after the 7th shot of the moon you see below, and then it stopped working again after 3 more shots, and needed to be slayed and restarted just as the moon was transitioning to fully eclipsed.

But this column is not about our troubles, it is about how I planned for the lunar eclipse shot you see below.

Plan C: San Jose City Hall Eclipse Sequence

 

The planning began with a list of possible foreground subjects. The San Jose City Hall Rotunda was “Plan C” and the least well researched of my plans. What were plan A and B? Those were one of my favorite lighthouses and a favorite landmark in San Francisco, California. For each arrangement I had to:

  1. Calculate where to stand to make sure the moon would be in an interesting phase above the object. The plan required solving these problems
    1. Determine how high in the sky the moon would be (to know what viewing angle was best)
    2. Determine which DIRECTION I needed to face to capture the moon.
    3. Determine how “wide” a lens I needed to get the sequence I wanted.
  2. Monitor the weather at each location.

After planning all that was left was to make a last-minute decision where the most likely target would have favorable conditions and make any final on-site adjustments.  I had a Plan D, too… but it was also in San Jose so it would have only been chosen had I found some serious obstacle at the City Hall rotunda.

San Jose City Hall Panorama

Calculating the Angles

Determining the angles needed is pretty simple. I used The Photographer’s Ephemeris including all the nifty tricks we teach in our Catching the Moon Webinar. Below you can see a screen shot from the Photographer’s Ephemeris which shows the moon altitude and direction at the beginning of the eclipse. I also moved the time ahead to show the same for the middle of the eclipse.  The moon’s altitude angle (32 to 41 degrees) gave me an idea how close to be to the rotunda to get the moon overhead.  Lower angles allow me to get farther away which allows me to photograph the moon larger relative to the foreground object. This eclipse, however, and the one in October will have the moon high overhead.

Coming up with a Foreground

There is no good substitute for knowing what interesting foregrounds are possible. And also knowing which direction(s) you should be facing.  I knew that the San Jose City Hall Rotunda was generally easterly because I had watched a sun rise through it. I also knew that the eclipse would be at maximum when the moon was in the southern sky so I knew that the range was SE to S directionally.  You can see a diagram from The Photographer’s Ephemeris below for more complete planning.

Calculating Where to Stand

I had to know approximately how tall the foreground object is. For the San Jose City Hall I flat-out guessed.  I found the overall height of the building through Google, and I guess the Rotunda was 60 to 80 feet tall.   My original calculations had me much closer to the building… it was only when I got on site that I realized that there were adaptations that needed to be made.

Watching the Weather

Remember that the Rotunda was plan C.  I kept a close eye on the weather for each of the planned sites.  My favorite weather app is provided by weather.gov – in particular the hourly graphs. We talked about this tool in detail in a prior column.  Why do I like it so much? Because it gives me numbers instead of “partly cloudy”.  It was pretty obvious that the coastal region for Plan A, and the San Francisco Landmark (plan B) were likely to have bad weather – both fog and clouds. Indeed my friends who headed those directions were frustrated by poor visibility.  We had clouds passing through San Jose, but as the weather predictions had read: it got clearest right near totality, and overall was not a hindrance.

Last Minute Adaptation

When I first got to the site, I realized that the Rotunda was taller than I thought. I set up across the street in order to be able to have the moon over the Rotunda… but there were other problems, too. One of the problems is the floodlight on the top of the building. Another was a street light just to the right of where the red marker is in the graph below. These are problems that would only reveal themselves if you visit at night!

And then there are all of those flag posts.  My original guess at the Rotunda Height would have allowed me to stand between the fountain (brown area) and the building… but that clearly didn’t work as the rotunda was too high.  Setting up across the street (and very low) also had its challenges… namely buses and cars that came regularly.  I also realized that I had miscalculated the eclipse time by an hour (forgot it was now daylight savings time).  The miscalculation turned out to be a good thing as it left plenty of time to move around.  It would seem the ideal spot was in the MIDDLE of Santa Clara Street, but that wouldn’t have worked, of course.  Eventually I picked the spot with the red marker as a compromise between altitude of the moon above the structure, removing the glare from the tower lights, the wash-out of the street light, and the many flag poles in the way.

Planning Moonrise

If only my CamRanger had cooperated, I’d have had a continuous sequence of shots of the moon passing over the Rotunda.  There is always October… and maybe Plan A will work for that!

Of course that’s not ALL that was required to get the shot. I also had to composite each of the moon shots into their proper locations. I did that by first taking a panorama of the area, then making sure that when the exposures began I had a piece of the rotunda in each shot so I could properly align the moon over its actual location.  The creation of the image used the Easy HDR method we have previously described.