Category Archives: Star Trails

Back In The Saddle

It is premature to say we are back in the saddle after a long hiatus, but Steven Christenson did recently join forces with his mentor: Harold Davis for another “Dark of the Moon” Shoot in the Eastern Sierras. We have plans in motion to do more workshops like this beginning in 2018 (planning date is early September).

Harold and Steven at Lathe Arch. Photo by Julian Köpke.

As is our custom, we arrive early and re-scout our planned locations during daylight – as well as checking other potential locations. Not every location is suitable for our participants. Some locations are too dangerous, or too difficult to reach due to vehicle clearance or hiking distances or too small to accommodate participants. One pretty place that fails some of those tests is Steven’s favorite spot he calls Pointy Land.

Pointyland Redux

Three shot panorama of “Pointy Land” in Alabama Hills, California

Give Us A Tip, Will You?

On the optional last night we went to a place that while large in area and easily accessible is not able to accommodate many photographers jockeying for the premium views. Such a place is the Lady Boot Arch below.

It seems appropriate to leave you with a processing tip (thanks for asking). The shot below was created from two exposures. The filename we gave it is LaserBoot_C-5550+75.psd The name serves to identity both the photo AND the two images (C-5550 and C-5575) that we used to create it.

Laser Boot

Layers and Adjustments

Here is what the processing looked like from the “Layer Palette” of the image above.

Alignment Headaches

The tricky part in assembling the images was that the ball head had a problem. The head was not stable and it rotated left and right slightly between shots. We had to figure out how to align the images.  Here are some things that DID NOT work:

  • Using Lightroom Photomerge. (“Sorry at least 40% image overlap must be present”)
  • Using Photoshop Merge to HDR Pro. “Composite mode” balked that the photos could not be merged, while the “Automatic mode” produced an image like the one below.
  • Using Photoshop Align Layers – “Not possible”

Photoshop could not figure out how to align the two nearly identical images. The laser and lit foreground confused it.

So how did I get them to align? Selection, slight rotation and “nudging”.  Since there was a lot of green bleed on the laser image (C-5575), I masked off that bleed – look at the layer mask on the bottom image in the “Photoshop Layers” image above.

Merging Images

To make it simple to merge the laser image with the light painted foreground, I:

  1.  Used the “Quick Selection tool” on the sky of the laser image,
  2.  Deleted the sky. Delete? Yeah, just the delete key. That operation makes the selection go bye-bye and become transparent. The same effect can be done using the Eraser tool, but that is just too much work!
    Note: I should have first duplicated the layer in case I needed to do more work on it.
  3. Set the lighted foreground (C-5550) to Lighten mode. Removing a potentially conflicting sky from the image below results in an accurate sky that did not need much cleanup.

We show one of the adjustments (Sky Color Correction). The actual curve(s) to use depend on the sky you start with. A careful observer will notice a lot of Curves Adjustment Layers. Curves can do almost everything all the other adjustments can do (lighten / darken / contrast / white balance and much more) so I recommend learning how to use Curves. Indeed we use curves so much that the Advanced Stacker Plus has a dedicated hot key: F9 to create a custom contrast enhancement adjustment layer.

Once the masking and adjustments were all just as I wanted, the almost last step is to do Ctl-Alt-Shift-E (Cmd+Alt+Shift+E for Mac people). That finger twister is a little noticed but VERY handy shortcut that does the same thing as “Flatten image” – but it does the flatten to a new layer and leaves everything else alone. If for some reason the finger-twister does nothing, be sure to select a visible document layer – not an adjustment layer. After the magic twister sequence, drag the newly created layer to the top.

I name the final layer: combined/heal. On that layer any distractions can be cleaned up using the spot healing brush. In Laser Boot photo there were a few hot pixels and some distracting marks on the rock that needed attention.  If there is some significant noise reduction to do the heal layer can be cloned again and Noise reduction applied.

A Parting Image

We like this image created the second night of the workshop. This is a conventional star trail, but apparently Flickr-ites loved it. It became Steven’s most popular image ever.

Reaching for the Sky

Not surprisingly, the image was created using the same foreground/background blending technique described earlier.  The background was stacked with Advanced Stacker PLUS. But there was not any movement, so it was easy to combine the two shots.  If you’d like to see another gorgeous view of this landscape from a different perspective, check out Harold Davis’ shot: Forgotten Kingdom (and read about it on his blog)

Steven in Galen’s Arch with composite Milky Way background. Foreground by Julian Köpke.

Wait, looks like we have two more images for you. The image above is a complete cheat: a combination of an iPhone daylight shot by Julian Köpke, and one of the pieces of the Milky Way we shot for the image below. We make no guarantee that the sky can be oriented like that in the arch. We included the above shot because it used the same foreground/background blending technique we just discussed – but with a bit more manual mask painting.

The image below is a Milky Way from horizon to horizon. North East is at the top, South West at the bottom.  We included this image here because … we like it.

Overarching Majesty

One of the reasons we like this image is that the Milky Way is natural – not processed to death.  We could have cloned out the camera, but thought it provided a nice context.


Publish Date: 29-November-2016

I, Steven, have recently completed one of my bucket list items… capturing stars and astro landscapes aboard a cruise ship. My interest in the idea is based on several observations:

  1. Night photography can be about movement – like star trails, for example – and cruise ships move.
  2. Cruise ships go to and through some of the darkest spots on earth – far away from any land producing artificial light
  3. Being aboard a ship means NOT having to drive anywhere or fly anywhere. Bed, food, drink and entertainment are never farther away than the length of a football field.
  4. I can still spend time with my family rather than alone in the wilderness because… we are all in the same “wilderness” at the same time.


My particular cruise was aboard the Brilliance of the Seas by Royal Carribbean. The ship departed from Tampa, Florida to Key West, then to Cozumel and back to Tampa. The good news is the things I feared most did not happen: I only gained 1.5 pounds and none of my equipment fell into the sea. I also had no motion sickness – though some I traveled with were uncomfortable in what were relatively light seas.

Sunrises, Sunsets and TimeStacks

It does not have to be all about night photography, right?  My travel from the West Coast to the East Coast for the cruise made it a lot easier for me to be awake at sunset and near impossible to greet a sunrise.
Sunset Reversal

Location Is Important

These two trails were taken on different days (one when the ship was cruising south, another two nights later when cruising north). Both were taken from Deck 5 with no moon. The first trail was from near the bow (front of the ship), the other from off the stern (back).

South Bound

South bound star trails from near the bow of the ship** Please read below for how I got here… it is an important detail.

Stern Seas

Looking south from the stern of a north bound cruise – with unfortunate clouds – but look at all the motion!  That bright  streak (and the cloud illuminated above it) are another passing cruise ship.

The ship was steadier when southbound – thus the first star trail looks pretty normal. The second one from the stern of the ship looks like a seismograph! Want to get a feel for the motion from the stern? Watch the video.

Tips and Insights

I did not meet any resistance or complaints from the crew or passengers using my tripod on deck. That is in part because I was mostly using it at night and had already scouted out areas to place it. My first recommendation is to …


First scout your vessel thoroughly… do this before embarking (using deck plans available on the internet), then during the first day, and at night.  I discovered that a passageway open during the day, was gated at night. Unfortunately, that passage led to the darkest part of the ship. More about this in a minute.

Too Little Darkness on Board

Cruise ships are floating cities, and like cities, lights are everywhere and unavoidable. Onboard the Brilliance there were 2 darkish places to go and one dark place where I could not go*. One darkish spot was the top deck toward the bow. There are lights everywhere, but if you shield your eyes and moved deck chairs to cover over some of the bulkhead lights you could make out stars. What I could see, however, was nowhere near the glory that I’ve seen in even moderately rural areas. A darkish spot – mentioned by guest relations, was the starboard (right hand) side of deck 5 near the stern (back of the boat). Again, lots of lights everywhere, but that area was dark enough that with some eye shielding I could easily make out Orion.

See the next photo to see just how much light a ship casts about… the moon illuminated the sky as well – but you wouldn’t be able to see even this many stars by eye in a dark clear sky in any normal area of the ship.

Over the Railing

The light from the ship illuminates the water around it, while the moon illuminates the sky (Cuba is glowing in the distance). Notice how the ship’s pitching and rolling turned stars into squiggles.

Getting Where it Is Really Dark

You may be wondering how I pulled off the photography on the bow given that the passageway was barred at night. It happened innocently. I took advantage of a quirk on the Brilliance of the Seas. In the theater on the ship on the upper level there are what are best described as “box” seats adjacent to the wings of the stage. That area has nearby doors, one marked “Exit” the others are marked crew only. I took the “Exit” and it put me out by the passage to the Helicopter landing pad on the bow of the ship.  There was then another “gate” barring access to the helicopter landing area itself – but it was plenty dark up front. I swung my tripod up on the helopad area and controlled it with my intervalometer being careful to create as little light as possible. That’s how I got images for the first of two star trails above. I then stood at the outer rail of the helipad and took a panorama of the bridge area. Straight up and forward were MUCH darker.

Much of the crew area and the wheel house spanning the entire front of the ship is kept dark with little extra light.

Much of the crew area and the wheel house spanning the entire front of the ship is kept dark with minimal extra light. Note how much light there is on the top deck where you can see silhouettes of passengers through the glass. This is a stitched 4-shot panorama.

Packing for the Cruise

For a 5 day cruise, I took one camera, two smaller lenses batteries and a tripod. I packed almost all of my clothing for the trip inside a single large (carry-on size) bag with some extras in a small carry on “personal item”. That packing arrangement works great for short trips. To accommodate “Formal Night” I stole some space in my wife’s luggage for dress shoes and a suit.

Would You Like To See Celestial Delights On a Cruise?

Knowing that many travelers have never seen a properly dark night sky, I contacted Royal Caribbean and let them know I thought a potentially great ship resource was untapped. If you had a chance to view incredibly dark skies on board your cruise ship, would you relish that opportunity?  Please let us know in a comment below or on our Facebook Page. Perhaps the cruise line will contract SCA to teach night photography in addition to the many other courses on board. I, for one, would love to get on a dark deck and stare up into the Geminid meteor shower – or view the Milky Way at its finest.!

Exploring Night Photography Lesson 5: Photo Processing

Published:  May 4, 2016
Last Update: May 10, 2016

Homework assignment: Star Trails. This was created using StarStax with 150 exposures of ISO 800, f/4, 15 seconds.

Homework assignment: Star Trails. This was created using StarStax with 270 exposures of ISO 800, f/4, 15 seconds. What are those things where the arrows are pointing, and what is the circled constellation?

Last week in lesson 4 the subject was star trails. We continue that theme this week and fill in with some material that you may have learned the hard way.

What settings?

Last week’s assignment was:

  • Weather Permitting, get at least 20 minutes worth of star trails. First determine what the best starting exposure is, then take 20 minutes worth.

I chose to take about 270, 15-second exposures at f/4, ISO 800 for my star trails using an intervalometer trick that I demonstrated in class. That nets over an hours worth of exposures. But how did I come up with those settings?  It was a little bit experience, and a little bit application of the principle taught in the very first homework: namely try and see!  But how did I decide what evening I would try to get star trails?  The weather needed to be right, so the germaine question is:

When will the weather be right for star trails?

Well, we strongly recommend See our article about how to use the information. Indeed, we like it so much, we even created a page with forecasts for places we often find ourselves going.

Weather, check. Settings, check. Now what?

Wait, what about the moon? We need to know when it rises and sets. A full moon washes out a lot of the night sky and makes for unpleasant star trails.  There are many places to determine what the moon situation is like, but I like to use The Photographer’s Ephemeris (either the App, or the online version).

Next we need to review the Stacker’s Checklist both to be sure we have all the gear and that we know what we are doing. Best is to run through it at home. Is it surprising that there are SO MANY steps? Sorry, but they are there to prevent you from making all the mistakes we’ve made.

In class we reviewed our homework (star trails) from the last assignment and discussed hits and misses.  Finally we got to the meat:

Photo Processing

It would be foolish to attempt to describe everything we did in class… especially since we have so many articles here describing how to photo process your shots (and webinars and recordings, too – oh my!)

But we demonstrated three things:

  1. Super simple Panorama creation using “Image Composite Editor” from Microsoft. Yep. You have to have a Windows machine to use it… but it’s free and SUPER simple and more effective than anything we’ve managed to get out of Photoshop or Lightroom.
  2. What Lightroom is good for… cataloging your images. And what it’s NOT good for: complex multi-image editing – for example star trails and image combinations.
  3. The three most powerful and useful elements of Photoshop:
    1.  Layers – This is the real meat of Photoshop together with blend modes which mathematically combine layers.
    2.  Masks – Masks allow you to change the way layers and adjustments get combined by “masking” out some of the changes.
    3.  Adjustments:  Curves – Curves are the best tool to learn since nearly everything you can do with the other tools can be done with curves… and if you get the hang of it, curves are actually easier to understand.

We also demonstrated Adobe Bridge which is a “lighter weight” version of Lightroom – one that doesn’t require any importing. And we spilled the beans that “Adobe Camera Raw” is the guts of Lightroom. And that Lightroom adjustments are really just like what you can do in Photoshop… with some of the magic, and much of the versatility – and also much of the complexity removed.

We also explained why RAW is the way to go, and why RAW is ugly (short reason: the camera does not see the way we do it just records heaps of numbers).

We did not do this in class, but we covered much of the ground:

12 Minute Star Trail using Advanced Stacker PLUS version14D from Steven Christenson on Vimeo.


Top Six Questions We Answered About Lightroom

  1.  If I use Lightroom to catalog and organize my images (keywords, etc) am I forever wedded to Lightroom?
    Practically, yes. We used to use Picasa and did our organizing and cataloging there…. unfortunately Picasa was discontinued and Lightroom had no way to import the data. If you stop paying for your Lightroom Cloud edition, you may be stuck as we do not know of a tool that can digest your Lightroom catalog.  SOLUTION: BUY Lightroom, don’t just subscribe. This is not so true about Photoshop, by the way, many tools can import Photoshop files.
  2. Is there anything particularly painful about Lightroom I should beware of?
    Yes. Lots! When your image library gets large, managing images is unwieldy, especially if you want to use multiple computers and multiple storage devices to hold those images.
  3. Is Lightroom good for Night Photography images?  Not particularly. Most of the power of manipulating night images is found in Photoshop (averaging, stacking, compositing). Lightroom can not composite images, for example.
  4. Is Lightroom hard to use? Yes. No. Maybe. We think it is powerful and much easier to use than Photoshop. But there is still lots of learning and ample room to do the wrong thing.
  5. Should I import everything I shoot?
    Yes… and No. The smaller the image library the easier it is to keep organized. Of course if you delete the very images you later want you will have paid a price for your anti-hoarding behavior.  We do believe it is reasonable to throw away .JPGs if you are keeping the RAW files. And those fringe images that you are likely to never use – well you are likely to never need them.
  6. Can I do everything in Photoshop that I can in Lightroom?  Yes, mostly. Photoshop has no image organization tools, but yes, you can make all the adjustments in Photoshop that you can do in Lightroom… only it will be harder to do and may be harder to apply to multiple images at once.

Oh, by the way, the official name of Lightroom is “Adobe Photoshop Lightroom” just to confuse everyone.

What Are the Top 4 Things to Know About Photoshop?

  1.  Photoshop is the lingua franca of photo editors. Nearly every other tool does not come close in the level of acceptance and use. Widespread use does not mean Photoshop is the best tool. Remember how VHS beat Beta? These days video tape is hardly even used! Photoshop has been around a long time and has a LOT of baggage. Photoshop is built to do a lot of things way beyond photo editing (scientific analysis, animation, typography to name a few). Because Photoshop has been around so long, the tooling is unnatural .  We started with Paint Shop Pro and found it much, much less confusing.
  2.  Is there an alternative to Photoshop?
    Yes, there is the free Gimp, and many others. Unfortunately as we have noted above, those tools are not as widely used so getting help with them is harder.
  3.  Do you have any suggestions on what I should learn first?
    Why yes, thanks for asking. We have a series of articles on that:  We call the series “The Most Used Image Editing Techniques” and it comes in three parts: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.  The one we used the most is the “Simple Astrophotography” Trick to reduce noise.  We also like this trick to select a foreground (it’s used in the video above) and use it a lot.

Homework Assignment

  •  Fire up Photoshop and try to duplicate this image:
Final image with replaced foreground

Final image with replaced foreground

Super big hint… all the files you need and the process to accomplish the task is described in this article: Foreground-o-Matic.

  • Use the same technique on your own image(s) to pick a more interesting foreground image from a “stack” (sequence) of images.

Feel free to comment below if you know the answers to the questions we asked in the first image above. We will reveal the answers in the next article.

Look What You Did!

First we really appreciate the mastery of Matt Molloy who has been using the Advanced Stacker PLUS to reach creative new heights in “TimeStacks”.  This is one of his images below in which he stacks part of the image with Comet mode, and the rest with lighten mode. Click the image to read more.

Reach for the Clouds by Matt Molloy

Reach for the Clouds by Matt Molloy

We invited users of the Advanced Stacker PLUS to give us feedback on their experiences with our Photoshop Add-in. We asked folks is if they had an image that they made with the software that they’d like us to see. Wow. We are impressed! Take a look for yourself. We used the links provided so none of the images shown are on our server. In other words, if an image does not load properly, there is nothing we at StarCircleAcademy can do to fix the issue.  Where possible, clicking the image will take you to the photographer’s site.

Version 14E is available now, by the way.

If your image appears here and you’d rather it did not, let us know and we’ll remove it.

Exit Criteria

Exit Criteria by Steven Christenson (channeling Matt Molloy)

'Aurora Star Trails' - Trwyn Du, Anglesey

Aurora Star Trails by Adrian Kingsley Hughes

Rocky Mtns

Rocky Mountains by Bob Gibbon

The Chalice by John Mu

The Chalice by John Mumaw

Gulf of Mexico

Gulf of Mexico by John C. Struck

Church by Bob Edwards

Church by Bob Edwards

OG PIER 1 by Daniel P Studios

OG PIER 1 by Daniel P Studios

Lassen Campfire Pano 1

Lassen Campfire Pano 1

Red River Camping Spot Star Trails by Jeff Stephens

Red River Camping Spot Star Trails by Jeff Stephens

Milky Way Star Trails

Milky Way Star Trails by Beau Liddell

Stow Time Stall by Brian Drourr

Stow Time Stall by Brian Drourr

Starflight over Pointy Land

Starflight over Pointy Land by Steven Christenson

Chapel in Starlight by Keith Doucet

Chapel in Starlight by Keith Doucet