Adding Special Touches to Your Astro Landscape

1000 ISO, f/2, 3 minute exposure with some augmented stars

Because stars are pinpoints of light, the camera does not capture them as our eyes see them. To our eyes, brighter stars stand out more noticeably than dimmer ones. At a workshop in Alabama Hills, one of the participants, Julian Köpke, was using a diffusion filter so the stars captured would look more like you see with the naked eye. Sometimes nature provides its own diffusion filter in the form of high, thin cirrus clouds as shown below. The large bright orb is the star Sirius in the constellation Canus Major (Big Dog). The orange star near the top of the frame is Betelgeuse in the constellation Orion. One nice thing about the blur that the clouds added is the star color is more noticeable. But the diffusion here is not uniform because the belt stars (Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka) and “corner” stars (Bellatrix, Rigel, Saiph) in Orion are all noticeably brighter than the surrounding stars while in this photo only Betelgeuse and Rigel stand out.

Dog Star [C_065586]

You can create a make-shift diffusion filter by shooting through a nylon stocking – or buy a diffusion filter. The disadvantages of using a filter are that everything is blurred – including the foreground and you reduce the amount of light collected. Most night sky photographers try to avoid clouds and you will get an image like this:

The moon and Teapot Asterism in Sagittarius – over Lone Pine Peak – as shot.

When what you had in mind is something like this:

Same Photo as above, but with the Teapot Asterism in Sagittarius enhanced.

How to Bring Out Star Color And Enhance The Apparent Star Size

Our Advanced Stacker Plus has two built-in ways to increase star brightness. We call those Bump Up and Pump Up the stars. Bump Up creates a small blur by literally duplicating the shot , nudging the duplicate(s) and recombining .  Pump Up is more sophisticated and tries to find the stars so it can then apply enhancements to just the stars. But there is a new tool in the arsenal that I have begun using: Star Spikes Pro from ProDigital Software.  Version 4 is the latest as of this writing.

NOTE: Star Spikes Pro and HLVG described later are currently only available on Windows machines.

You can use the Star Spikes Pro plugin to add diffraction spikes and diffusion. The most common diffraction spikes you see with stars are due to obstructions in the telescope used to photograph them and many people come to think of the spikes as evidence of astrophotography.  You can create diffraction spikes easily on your own.- just stop down your aperture;  however stopping down to make stars create those spikes will not work well.

The first time I tried to use Star Spikes Pro it did not quite work as I expected.

Look hard. Star Spikes Pro decided the moon was a huge star outclassing all others.

Indeed it took me a bit to realize what was going on. The good news is it was easy to work around. The huge moon looks like a huge star to Star Spikes Pro – and that makes perfect sense since the plugin is usually used with Astrophotography that does not involve landscapes.

Here is how I made it work as I wanted and limited the effect to just the desired stars.

Layer Palette and Steps to Enhance The Teapot Asterism

Above left is the layer palette. Look carefully and you may spot the fix. After loading the image (1) I first duplicated the original and called the new layer Heal (2). I then did minor contrast adjustments, used the healing brush to remove hot pixels and other offenses (short satellite trail). Next I duplicated the Heal to another layer (3) and fed it into Hasta La Vista Green – a free plugin written by Rogelio Bernal Andreo of DeepSkyColors. HLVG removes green which is an unnatural sky color usually caused by RGB artifacts. HLVG operates on the entire layer and does not know the difference between land and sky. To leave the natural green in my landscape I used the quick selection tool, dragged it across the sky followed by Select -> Modify -> Expand 4 pixels. Then I created a Layer Mask using “Reveal Selection” (4). That made the foreground come back to its normal state. If you look carefully you will notice I also used a white brush to add some of that green removal back onto the mountain by painting on the HLVG layer mask (4).

The next operation was a finger twisting sequence that has no menu equivalent: Ctrl-Alt-Shift-E (on Mac that’s Command-Option-Shift-E). What that sequence does is “flatten” all the visible layers and create a NEW layer in the process (5). That layer I called Input to SSP.  Since I had discovered that Star Spikes Pro was confused by the moon (and could be confused by the foreground), I used the quick selection tool again and brushed it across the foreground. By default using the quick select tool again ADDs to the current selection so I brushed it around inside the moon and its halo. At this point I did not need to create another layer (Ctrl-J/Command-J or Duplicate Layer) but I did so that it was easy to see what happens next. After creating the new layer I selected it and used the delete key. Delete removes the selection making it transparent – that is the foreground and moon were now gone (6).

Next up: let Star Spikes Pro loose on the image. First deselect (Ctrl-D Command-D) or Select -> Deselect), and feed the sky layer to Star Spikes Pro via Filter -> ProDigital Software -> Star Spikes Pro.  The defaults for SSP produced the image below (I’ve zoomed in on the teapot asterism)

I felt the color was a bit too strong, and I did not want the diffraction spikes. The next step was to select “Advanced” – just below Settings, set the Primary quantity to zero. Next was the Secondary tab where I reduced the quantity to 44, the intensity I bumped up to 23. Soft flare I set quantity to 12, bumped up the intensity, dialed down the size a little and dialed down the Hue to -21. These adjustments were all based on eyeballing the image and were made for aesthetic appeal.  After all the adjustments looked about right, I saved the settings as a new adjustment I called “DiffusionOnly”. Finally I clicked OK and my layer was all nicely done by the SSP filter.

The filter processed a few more stars than I intended to augment. The simple solution was to create a “Reveal All Layer Mask”, select a brush, the color black and paint out all the effects I did not want on the layer mask (7).

The final operation was to use an Adjustment Layer (8) to increase the contrast and restrict that adjustment to the sky (where you see white) and tone the adjustment down a little with a low-flow back brush on one area that looked a little too dark.

The topmost layer in the layer palette is my watermark.

There Is An Easier Way!

With some experimentation, and some coaching from the plugin author I discovered that Star Spikes Pro has several features that make the process easier than I imagined. Instead of creating the transparency (deleting the moon and landscape) I only needed to select the area I wanted Star Spikes Pro to operate on.

Also, instead of masking off the stars I did not want affected after the fact, Star Spikes Pro has two tools to greatly simplify things the: “Hide” tool to turn off any effect that I did not want, and the “Show” tool to turn the effect on.

 

Star Spikes Pro limited to specific section of the sky via a selection and using the Hide tool to turn off an effect.

 

The net is that you can get that nice diffusion effect for your stars without having to compromise by shooting through a diffusion filter. However if you DO want to try a diffusion filter, I recommend you take two shots quickly. One with the filter off, one with the filter on. You can then place the diffused shot over the normal shot. Set the diffused shot to Lighten and mask in (or out) the areas where you want the diffusion to show through.

If you’re wondering whether there is a way to get the diffusion effect on a Mac or without purchasing Star Spikes Pro, there is, but it requires a lot of Photoshop twiddling and it is not anywhere near as pleasant as using ProDigital Software’s Star Spikes Pro.

Disclaimer and Book

I am not affiliated with ProDigital Sofware. I am a happy customer of Star Spikes Pro (and another product called Astronomy Tools). I was not paid, or encouraged to write about the product. I chose to because it is that good. Rogelio Bernal Andreo  author of Hasta La Vista Green and purveyor of DeepSkyColors is a friend and a multi-multi award-winning astrophotographer. He has a Kickstarter Project that I recommend you look into called Notes From the Stars

Notes from The Stars: 10 Award Winning Authors

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.

Cruising

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.

brillianceoftheseas

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 …

Scout!

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 6 BEST TIPS

Band of Techies by Steven Christenson on 500px.com

Twilight Panorama of the San Francisco Bay

Last week we talked about photo processing.  This week is the last week of the in-person course.

The topics covered in class included Astrophotography, suggestions on what equipment NOT to get for Astrophotography. We also discussed the limitations of Lightroom and Photoshop (see Lesson 5) because we did not cover them all in the last class.

To conclude our lesson series we present our greatest tips.  Many of the tips you may be familiar with – especially if you have been with us on a workshop. Some tips will be a surprise.

Our Best Night Photography Tips

  1. Shine a bright flashlight through your viewfinder at night and it will show you what is in your shot. Much easier to figure out where the edges of your frame are when it is too dark to see well.
  2. A flashlight will not illuminate the sky where your shot is constrained by your lens, but a bright green laser through the viewfinder can accomplish that!
  3. Put glow sticks or LED slap bracelets around your tripod at night. Not only can you find your gear easily, but others are less likely to trip over it.
  4. Have a blue LED light that you need to make less “cold”? Bounce it off the palm of your hand… or a warm colored shirt.
  5. Want to see well in the dark? Don’t wear a head lamp! Shadows and contours are hard to see when the light is coming from close to your eyes. Instead keep a DIM light at waist level. Bright lights ruin your night vision. And headlamps make it painful to talk to one another… you ruin their night vision when you look at them.
  6. Before you spend the effort traveling for night photographs, consult the weather and the moon phase.
  7. It is astonishing how much you can pre-plan a shot without having to go the location… hint: learn to use Google Maps + Street View!
  8. Don’t overlook the hundreds of tips we have for you here on this site… the search box is your friend.
  9. Dark skies are good… but better is to know which direction you want the sky to be dark so you can make the right compromises.
  10. Sometimes being behind a hill is a great help to prevent unwanted stray light.
  11. Want to photograph (or see) the best part of the Milky Way? You need to know when it is up. A planisphere (rotating star chart) is your best bet.
  12. Velcro is a great way to keep things handy and secure on your tripod. Velcro your intervalometer to your tripod.
  13. Lens hood – use one all the time to protect your lens and prevent stray light from causing glare.
  14. Do not use any filters – especially not a clear or “ultraviolet” filter. All filters make your image less desirable by causing extra surfaces that can reflect light and cause glare. Our only exception to this rule are 1: polarizing filters – which are useless at night, and 2: a filter to seal your lens in really nasty environments like rain and blowing sand.
  15. Test your tripod stability before you move away from it. If your tripod is secure, take a few steps back and make sure the center column is vertical.  It is common to set a tripod up so that it leans in a way that makes it vulnerable to a fall.
  16. Another tripod tip: on a hill or slope, put two legs on the downhill side, one on the uphill side.
  17. Short straps (or no straps) on your camera is better for stability if there is any wind at all. We have personally seen cameras thrown over by wind gusts.
  18. Do not cheap out on a tripod. A sturdy tripod is more valuable for night photography than a “better” camera.
  19. The histogram is your friend. Be sure to check it before you conclude your shot is a good one.
  20. If your tripod has a hook below the center column hang your camera bag on it for even more stability. Be sure you’ve taken out all you need before you start shooting. Oh, and this may NOT work well if it is really windy or your pack is light.
  21. Study the place you plan to go during the daylight. It is not fun falling in holes or stepping on nasty things while wandering in the dark.
  22. Take a friend along for added safety, camaraderie and comfort. Also you do not have to outrun a bear, you just have to outrun your friend. 😉  [Do NOT try to run from a bear, by the way. That just makes you look tastier]
  23. A ball head works a lot better for night photography than a pan-tilt head. But get a sturdy head! It is useless having a sturdy tripod with a head that can not stay put.
  24. If there is anyone who may care: tell where you are going and when you expect to be back. Stick to the plan, too.
  25. Do not assume you will have cell service – some of the most amazing places to photograph have no cell coverage at all. Oh, and your battery might die.
  26. Overshoot. It is so much better to have two or three times as many shots as you think you will need than to find out you did not even get one quite right.
  27. When shooting sequences or panoramas… use your lens cap between sets so you can figure out when one set ends and another begins. Take it one step further and do what we do: use your hand forming an E, N, W, or pointing down to indicate the direction you are facing when you take the shot.
  28. Dark gloves make great “emergency stray-light reduction” devices – and they can keep your hands warm, too.
  29. It will always seem colder at night than the temperature might indicate. Dress in layers.
  30. Planning to leave your camera shooting for a long sequence and walk away? Use a GPS to record the camera location (you can do this using most cell phone map software, too).
  31. Respect people and their property. Ask for permission. You may be amazed how much farther courtesy and thoughtfulness will get you than being an intentional trespasser.

Have a tip you think is really super helpful? Please comment below!

Last Week’s Homework

Photo edit a “better” foreground into a star trail image.

Final Homework

  1. Comment below with what you’d like to learn about next.
  2. Get creative and leave us a comment below with a link to your super image.
  3. Comment below with the best tip you have learned about doing night photography.

 

Heaven Light by Steven Christenson

Milky Way and Waterfall – we talked about how to get the Milky Way aligned where you want it.