Category Archives: Composites

Blobulous Revisited – Part 1

It’s pretty amazing what you can accomplish with just a little bit of effort.  Below you’ll see a star trail formed using the Blobulous technique that I described in an earlier column on Advanced Star Trail Tricks.  There are many ways to achieve this effect. The method I described in the prior article – adding the last frame using Screen or Add blending – works especially well if the skies are dark. But here, I used high ISO shots about an hour before moonrise. Because of the high ISO exposures with a soon to rise moon the sky was blue not completely dark.  Adding the last frame to the stack as described earlier will work but it makes the Milky Way blow out and the sky overbright. I wanted the Milky Way to remain noticeable.


Selecting Images to Work With

There are few important things to note here. The radio telescope tracks the sky and slews from location to location causing blur. Each 20 second exposure was shot at ISO 3200, f/2.8 using a 15mm fish-eye lens on a Canon 5D Mark II. I carefully picked a range of images where the start of the sequence through to the end of the sequence included only images where the dish did not move “too far”. The next four frames show how dramatically the dish moved in subsequent shots. Had I included them it would have made quite a mess.


The dish moves far in 80 seconds…

To say it clearly: looking at the individual frames is what allowed me to zero in on the specific images I planned to stack. After selecting the range of images (C_072887 to C_072935),  I stacked them using good ‘ol brightness mode stacking. You can stack using a ton of methods but our favorite, of course, is to use the Advanced Stacker+ from though the free TEST Stacker can do the job, as can a variety of free tools that we describe in this article and in our Star Trails Webinar.

To create the shot below on the RIGHT you’ll need Photoshop or some equally featured program that allows layering and masking like GIMP. Even the lowly, stunted Photoshop Elements will do the trick. After doing a normal brighten mode stack, the output looks like what you see on the left.  After some image manipulation magic, we achieve the result on the right.


Before (left) and After (right)


It would be tedious to show step by step what I did, so I will start with a “one shot” view. You’ll notice there are 9 layers that contribute to the final image.  The top – SLC-SCA – is obvious, it’s my watermark.

Results with all layers shown.

Results with all layers shown.

However you can also see the brighten mode stack (at the bottom), and a copy of that same stack with a layer mask.  If you look carefully it’s pretty obvious that the black on the mask corresponds to the upper part of the moving dish.  Sharp eyes will notice two additional blacked out parts corresponding to the other radio dishes.  Notice that above the stacked layer is a single frame: C_072934 – the next to last image from the set used in the stack. All the layers above the single frame are adjustments to correct color, white balance, hot pixels (the Heal layer), and to do some sharpening.


The single frame (934) is blended in Lighten mode with the stack. The stack is at 36% opacity.

The essential bit of magic here is that the Brighten layer is only used at 36% opacity. 36% was chosen by eye. I slowly reduced the opacity until the Milky Way became noticeable rather than a blur and yet the star trails remained noticeable.

The image was nearly complete by painting out (excluding) the blurred stack areas using a black brush at 100% opacity with a small amount of feathering – i.e. a brush that was not 100% hard.  It’s easy to paint on the mask and watch how the blurry dish from the stack is replaced by the non-blurry single image from C_072934.  If you’re wondering why I didn’t use the final image, C_072935, it’s because it was a tiny bit blurrier than the preceding image.

The rest of the adjustments are straight forward – they were all meant to fix contrast, darken the overbright areas and then correct for the color saturation increase that occurs when you darken an area with color.

We cover complete details in the PhotoManipulation webinar series.

Here is the image obtained from the next set of exposures after the dramatic dish move. This image used the “Streaks” stacking method available in the Advanced Stacker, but is otherwise identical in creation.


For yet one more take – using yet another Advanced Stacker Mode (long streaks), there is this.

Long Streak Runnin'

In the next column I’ll show all the steps I took to produce the first image on this page.


More Star Stacking Tricks: Use the Bridge

Red Rock Cometary [C_009865-76+79brC]
Perhaps the most popular thing we’ve done at StarCircleAcademy is to provide a stacking action for Photoshop.  What can you do with it? Alas, you can’t use it to end hunger, or create world peace. However, the action allows you to automate the task of creating star trails from individual images. You can create the trails from JPGs, TIFFs, or even RAW files in fact from any file that Photoshop is able to load.

You have to capture the images in the first place, so we humbly suggest you begin with understanding How to expose, how to shoot, what settings to use, and even what to consider to create a more compelling image. Or if this is all new, start at the beginning and learn about night exposures and the kinds of star shots that are possible.

Beacon [C_069244-92]

Curious about the circle? It is formed by shooting north in the Northern latitudes.

If you have already used the Stacking Action as we previously described you are all set to put on your big-boy pants and do more advanced stacking tricks using, of all things, the lowly Adobe Bridge. Bridge is a lighter weight version of Lightroom (sort of) and it comes with Photoshop and other Adobe products for no extra fee.

Why would you want to use Adobe Bridge as the front end?

  1. Bridge allows you to do mass corrections to raw files before they are used by Photoshop. Anything that Adobe Camera Raw can do, Bridge can do to a number of files all at once.
  2. Bridge has an operation called, uhm, “Stacking” which is a way to group images together in a nice memorable way.
  3. Bridge allows you to SEE and select specific files to operate upon – unlike the “folder” method you may have been using previously.
  4. Bridge is relatively lightweight and doesn’t need preloading as Lightroom does.

It is slightly more complicated to use Bridge for stacking, but do not worry. We will make it as simple as possible.

Suppose you have a number of files to stack and they are located in a single directory along with a number of files that you don’t want to stack. Below I’ve navigated to a big directory full of CR2 (Canon Raw Files) and I’ve used the Ctl Key to select the first four images of a star trail sequence.


As is my customary practice I used a number of colors and lighting methods to begin my star trail and I can tell I don’t like C_066715 or C_066716 (which is too green).  So instead I’ll start with image C_066717.CR2.  Scanning forward, the clouds start to become a problem by image C_066739 so I have picked images 717 through 738.  I won’t be describing how to use it here, but if you look on the lower left side of the Adobe Bridge screen there is a “Filter” window where you can choose images based on ISO, exposure time, keywords, etc.  That may come in handy if you want to only select the 24 second exposures in a sequence.

Getting back to my quest… Though I don’t have to, I will mark the images I’ve selected as a stack.  NOTE: Images can only be in one stack.


And then I will select ONE of the images to decide what “develop settings” to apply. That is, what to do with the image before stacking it.

AdobeStackSelect.bmpHere is where I’ll give you a hint to keep you from banging your head on the wall. If you click the “image” of the stack you will only select the first image.  However if you click on the count of images (where the yellow arrow points) it will select the whole stack. Here I’m selecting only the first image by double clicking it. My primary interest is getting the color balance about right.  There are lots of ways to adjust the white balance including using the white balance tool or adjusting the color temperature. This is also a potential departure point because there are two ways I might want to address my set of images:

  • I may want a nice clean star trail with gaps as small as possible, OR
  • I may want to produce individual frames for an animation or timelapse.


If my goal is a star trail, then I will set all of the sliders to zero, set noise reduction to zero, and set the curve to “linear”. About the only thing I’m likely to do is vignette correction – leave lens correction for later, it may cause bad things. In fact, I have created an ACR preset to do exactly that I call it “linear”.  If, however, my goal is a timelapse, I’ll try to beautify the image as much as possible including sharpening, noise reduction, and exposure corrections.

For this example, I am taking the beauty route. I made the adjustments I want and saved the settings as a preset called “TronaStack”.  Next I will apply those settings to all of the images in my stack.  What really happens is that Adobe Bridge creates sidecar (XMP) files for each of the images and re-renders the file in Bridge to approximate the changes.

Mass Applying Settings


With all the raw settings applied, I want to do the stacking operations exactly as described here – but we will be using “Bridge” as the source.


NOTE: Your menu might look a little different especially if you haven’t installed Dr. Brown’s Services.  As you might have guessed, using “Photoshop -> Batch” invokes Photoshop.  The next screen you see will look familiar except you’ll notice the Source is Bridge.


As the instructions state, you should run the “Do This First” operation. It creates a properly sized black background using the dimensions of the first photo in the stack.  You then re-run it with the operation you want. Here I’m using the comet stacking option of the Advanced Stacker.  It is important to make note of the output options. If you don’t override them, the intermediate result will be written over itself repeatedly.


The Advanced StarCircleAcademy Stacking actions will create “Comet_” documents but you’ll need to add a unique number as shown above. If you don’t like the base name, you can substitute whatever you like instead of “Document Name” above. E.g. “MySequence”. I often set the starting serial number to the first image number in the stack since I try to make sure I uniquely number every image I capture.

After stacking the output appears in the “C:\tmp\StackTest” folder like this:


What is especially cool is that I’ve directly stacked the RAW files into “comets” for an animated sequence.  I could then create a timelapse out of those images if I wish.  Of course there is one hitch. The huge files are too large to easily create a meaningful timelapse. It would be so much nicer if all the images were straightened, downsized and cropped to a specific format like 1920 x 1080 (HD) or 800 x 600. That is a topic for another column, but Adobe Camera Raw can do the trick. And it’s also possible to do the deed with the Advanced Stacking action.

If you’re wondering how you can get your hands on the Advanced Stacking Action with comets and more see the Store.

Can I Use Mini Bridge?

Well, yes, you can, though Mini Bridge only works if Bridge is open so it’s not really very mini!


Advanced Star Trail Tricks

Published: Oct 11, 2012
Last Update: April 26, 2016

I have been playing with Star Trail processing for quite a while.  Ever since I wrote the StarCircleAcademy Stacking Action I’ve been tweaking processing to try different things. Sometimes failure is inevitable, sometimes… well, you’ll see.

First, you may want to look back through my earlier columns on shooting and processing star trails because this is not a primer on star trails – it builds on what I’ve previously written and this is not a good place to try to understand what stacking is.

Second, please understand that I use a variety of tools but almost all of my more successful endeavors end up as layers that are combined in Photoshop (CS5 at the moment).  You could combine your layers in GIMP if you don’t have Photoshop, but you’ll be out of luck if you try to use Lightroom.

Here are my star trail effects:

  1. Smoothee – Averaged sky and/or foreground to reduce the grittiness that sometimes results from brighten stacks. I’ve been espousing this for quite a while. See the Simple Astrophotography Processing Technique.
  2. Blobulous – stars at the beginning (or end) of a trail are made to stand out from the rest of the trail.
  3. Comets – star trails appear to grow brighter and the end of the trail looks like the nucleus of a comet.
  4. Streakers – Like comet only the trails are longer
  5. Blackened – A clever trick removes sky glow from light pollution, the moon, or twilight.

And of course you can make “Blobulous Comets” and “Blobulous Streakers” and “Blackened Smoothee Comets” and more.

Building Blocks

To creatively combine exposures, I usually create the following stacked frames.

  • Dark (Darken in Image Stacker/StarStax)
    The darkest elements emerge – especially the hot pixels
  • Brighten (aka lighten) stack
    The Brightest of everything is present, including hot pixel and more noticeable noise
  • Average
    Contrast is reduced, smoothness increased.
  • Additive (called “Stack” in Image Stacker)
    Hot pixels become really bright.
  • Scaled (called Stack/Average in Image Stacker)
    Allows some increase in brightness but more smoothness, too. Experiment with different divisors.

Normally I create all of these combinations using Image Stacker against my JPG files because it is really easy to do.  I end up with a set of frames something like these although I’ve significantly brightened them so that they are easier to see.


In a Nutshell: Combine the Average stack over the Brighten stack using Normal mode at 45% opacity.

I’ll start with the Smoothee technique since it’s probably the easiest to do and perhaps the easiest to understand.  The problem with “Brightness” (or lighten as it’s called in Photoshop) is that it will also pick up all the hot pixels, and the brightest bits of noise.  Averaging on the other hand tends to smooth out everything except for truly hot pixels since most noise is random. By putting an averaged stack as a layer over the brighten stack and then adjusting the blending modes and opacity you get a smoother sky and foreground.  Exactly what settings to use depend on the images, but surprisingly many of the blending modes for the Average layer work here including Darken, Multiply, Overlay, and Normal. The starting place for Opacity is about 45%.

Hint: You can also use an Additive stack instead of the average stack but usually only the Normal blend mode will work.  For even more fun combine the Additive stack and the Average stack.

For additional smoothness you can also subtract the “Darken Stack” while adjusting the opacity to prevent halos and weirdness.


In a Nutshell: Add one of the single frames more than once.

What do “Blobs” look like? Like this…

“Fat Star” processing.

There are two ways to produce “Blobs”. One way is to add “Comets” to a smoothed star trail. The other is to simply pick an image (usually the last one in the set) and add it in using “Add” or “Screen” mode. To make the blob more pronounced duplicate the last frame so it’s added twice. BUT remember when you add in any single image the hot pixels are going to come out… and even more so if you add an image twice.

Comets and Streakers

These two techniques require some fancy stacking techniques. Fortunately I’ve created an action to do all the fancy stuff.  I’ll be rolling out the action and the explanation to my Photo Manipulation Webinar participants first <NOTE: The Advanced Stacker PLUS action has been released and is available for purchase in our store>.

Oh, here is a peak at what the Comet action looks like:

What's The Point?

And here is what an animation of comets might look like:



I know you’re going to ask so let me save you some typing. Except for the “Comet” image above, all images used in these illustrations were taken during the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Workshop in the Patriarch Grove on White Mountain, East of Bishop, California.

The 34 or so images that I’ve combined in the examples above were all taken with the following settings: Canon 50D, ISO 400, f/3.5, 79 seconds, 10-22mm lens at 15mm.

Dark Frames And Your Night Photography

In an upcoming webinar (Down with the Noise) I explain a lot about noise: causes, contravention and cures. This is a bit of a prelude and addresses the questions:

  1. What is a dark frame?
  2. What do I do with my dark frame?
  3. What do I do if I don’t have dark frame(s)?

What Is a Dark Frame?

A dark frame is one or more images taken at the same exposure length, ISO and ambient temperature as the light (normal) frames but with the lens or body cap on the camera to prevent any light from reaching the sensor. When doing many kinds of night and low light photography dark frames can be quite helpful. And when doing star trails or other night imagery dark frames may save your bacon. A dark frame is what your camera does after a long exposure when long exposure noise reduction is turned on. But you’ll be far more efficient if you take those frames yourself. If you’re taking 100 light frames, e.g. for a star trail, you can take 3 or four dark frames and waste 50% less time (and not have gaps!)

Contrary to popular belief dark frames and long exposure noise reduction do little to reduce the random noise that is present in every exposure. That random noise is most pernicious in dark photos and shadow areas.  Dark frames, however are good for the following things:

  1. Reducing or eliminating hot pixels and amp glow
  2. Removing any “bias” in your image – that is bringing the black back.
    Want me to translate that: an unexposed area on your sensor should read as “0,0,0”  for Red, Green and Blue but I will bet you you don’t get zero!

This would probably be a good place to show you what a dark frame looks like. But you’ll be disappointed. Dark frames are usually quite black.  So instead of showing you JUST the dark frame, here is the dark frame boosted to show the speckles from hell – though they may not be obvious. Here I have made the speckles more obvious by boosting the darks using Curves in Photoshop. At this level of detail there are not any obvious hot pixels.

Dark Frame Overview – Boosted to show details. Note where the markers are – they are shown in the next frames.

And next is the same dark frame zoomed to 3200% unaltered. Hover your cursor over the image to see the same area boosted using curves.

Single Dark Frame (Linear Mode) Unmodified – or cursor over to see boosted version.

When inspected carefully, and with the dark level significantly increased it is possible to notice the hot pixels and possibly banding in a dark frame.  While there were plenty of red speckles and obviously green and blue as well in my stable of dark frames, the “hot pixels” didn’t leap out at me.  If you look carefully at the image you’ll notice I also used the color sampler tool to provide RGB values for 3 different locations on the image.  Of note is location 1 where the R (red) value is 14.  What is particularly worrisome about that value is that even after the entire frame has been boosted to the equivalent of 1.6 stops, you’ll notice that a value of 14 is still larger than all three colors at spot 3. After boosting, that red pixel really stands out with a value of 44.  Our first take away is that boosting the brightness boosts the noise.  The second thing to notice is that the red spot is NOT a hot pixel.  How do we know? Compare 4 dark frames (all boosted)

Boosted Dark Frame                             Click these–>   Frame 1 ~ Frame 2 ~ Frame 3 ~ Frame 4

Takeaway 2: There really is randomness!

Now that we have noticed the randomness, we realize that if we average enough of these frames together we can get the average “bias” – that is the amount of offset above zero in the image.  And if there are hot pixels, the good news is they will be in there too.

But How Do I Use a Dark Frame?

The simplest answer is to feed your dark frame(s) to a program that already knows what to do with them like StarStax, StarTrails or Image Stacker.  But you can do it yourself, and perhaps more elegantly using Photoshop.  How?  Place the dark frame as a layer over the image you want to correct and change the blend mode to Subtract (or difference). Adjust the opacity of the blend until it looks just right.

But I Did Not Take a Dark Frame, Now What?

All is not lost. If you have enough frames you can create a unique kind of dark frame. I took over 300 28-second exposure for a star trail along Lake Gaston in North Carolina.

In the image below I created the top frame using the Brighten mode in StarStax. I could just as easily have created the top frame using the StarCircleAcademy Stacking Action.

I used Darken mode to create the middle frame by feeding it my 100 darkest images. Using Darken mode as the stacking option means that hot or stuck pixels that are in every image as well as the lowest value of sky glow will be collected into a single result.

I then loaded the light (Brighten Mode) and the dark (Darken mode) frames into Photoshop. I placed the dark image over the brighten stack and changed the blend mode to Subtract.

What Happened Here?
Dark Frame Substitute process

Several interesting things happened:

  1. The hot pixels were almost completely annihilated
  2. The sky gradient caused by lights glowing in the distance was also almost eliminated.
  3. The contrast in the sky and elsewhere was improved
  4. The red bias on the railing was mostly removed.

A few less desirable things happened, too. The bright red glow on the railing once subtracted caused some of the railing to turn green. And the subtraction created some “holes” and “halos” in the image – especially where the brightest lights are found.  With some minor touch up, most of those issues can easily be fixed.

Is this the end? By no means! There are a LOT more interesting techniques to follow. Stay tuned.

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