Tag Archives: stars

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

Blobulous Revisited – Part 2

Last installment we covered the basic idea behind creating a star trail where a foreground element is moving. In this case the moving element is a radio telescope peering into the sky to discover planets and black holes.  A normal “lighten mode” stack produces the image at the left, below, while with just a little bit of work we can get the image on the right.


To recap, we use a single frame from the sequence and some careful masking to remove the blurred part of the image. For effect, we also don’t use the stack in 100% mode. See the prior article for details.

In this article we’ll show you step-by-step how we achieved the total look.

Of course we start with the stack.


Then we layer in a copy of the stack and a single frame (the last or nearly last frame).


Here we have set the background (stack) to 36% Opacity, effectively darkening it. The single frame is 100% opacity and in Lighten blend mode. What we want to do is to remove the blurred part by replacing it with the unblurred single image. It’s easy to do. Select the STACK, create a “Reveal All” mask, and then go to town painting black on it (be sure to select the MASK, not the image). When done, the mask we create will look something like this:


Notice how we used a slightly soft brush to “blend” the background and the still frame. We could stop right there, but I notice that the ground and the telescopes are a bit too bright, and I’d like to make the stars pop out. So the next course of action is to apply a curve, select the “Increase Contrast” option. Here I’ve adjusted the result just slightly.


Next we want to tone down the bright stuff. We add another adjustment layer, and a “Hide All” mask and then paint white back on the mask to tone down what we want. You’ll notice that in the process, the colors intensify a bit.


The next step we’ll want to take is to reduce the saturation – our radio telescope is moving from white to yellow. So the next step is to add a Hue and Saturation layer. As before we mask off everything, and then paint in only the radio telescope. We could cheat and use the same mask from the Brighten stack layer – and just invert it, but it’s not a complicated thing like a tree, so it’s pretty easy to change the mask to only operate on the radio dish and pedestal.  At the left, you can see how strongly we moved the saturation – and we upped the brightness a bit, too.


If we didn’t mask off the telescope and instead applied the saturation adjustments globally, we’d see this – not what we want. (Shift-Click on the mask turns it on or off – in this case we see that the mask is off by the red X through it)


You won’t notice in the small size, but the large image has a number of Hot Pixels (red, and blue) that stand out. To solve this problem we use “Alt-Ctl-Shift-E” (Command-Option-Shift E for you Mac-o-philes) to make a copy of the layer. I named the layer “Heal” because I then used the spot healing tool to fix up those little problems.  I recommend making the healing tool diameter just slightly larger than the area to be healed.


To make the Radio dish pop just a little more, a little sharpening is in order. In fact, sharpening the ground will work, too.  Duplicate the Healed layer (Ctl-J or Command-J). Name it Sharpen then use Filter -> Sharpen -> Smart Sharpen.  However I don’t like sharpening my stars, they look harsh. As before we’ll create a Hide-All mask for our Sharpened layer and use a white brush to reveal the areas we want to have sharpened. This is called selective sharpening.  In the small image here, the effect is not as obvious as in the larger image.


To get just a bit more pop, a little more contrast is in order. I created a curve and pulled up the midtones a fair amount while making minor negative adjustments to the highlights and the darks.  But, that adjustment brightened some areas a bit too much so I created a reveal-all layer mask and painted black on the areas that were then too bright.


Et Voila, we’re done!


Astrophotography – The Polarie

We have a once-in-a-while webinar on beginning Astrophotography. The purpose of the webinar is to get people acquainted with the tools and techniques required to delve into this interesting genre of night photography.  As we teach in that webinar the single most important piece of equipment you can buy is an Equatorial Mount.  An Equatorial mount is an apparatus that counteracts the rotation of the earth so that your camera can peer at the same place in the sky for long enough to capture an image without streaks. There are many equatorial mounts that range in price from almost nothing (and not even worth nothing) to more expensive than logic would dictate.  For more background please see our survey of Astrophotography Gear.

One of the newer pieces of equipment in the arsenal is a less-than three pound piece of gear called a Polarie.  Here is what it looks like with a ball head attached to its face.

Polarie – Close Up

What Polarie Can Do

As noted earlier, the primary purpose of Polarie is to counteract the effect of the earth’s rotation so that objects in the night sky can be exposed longer without getting streaking. Below are examples of 42 second exposures using an effective focal length of 215 mm. The image at the left is with the Polarie turned on in normal mode, the middle image is the same length exposure but in 1/2 speed mode, and the right is what you get if you use no tracking at all.

Polarie Test - Telephoto

Tracking is less critical when shooting with wider angle lenses. I ran a test with a 200mm telephoto lens because it is a more difficult scenario. For example when shooting the Milky Way, an effective focal length of 10 to 50mm makes more sense.

A Critical Look At Polarie

I purchased only the Polarie unit (about $400 USD) not any of the accessories. The unit is deceptively heavy at almost 3 pounds but at that weight it is still – and by far – the lightest equatorial mount you can find. The only other device in its weight class at present is the Astrotrac with a starting price about twice as much. The Astrotrac does come with a better tripod mount, however at a total cost of around $1300 USD.  I paired up the Polarie with my Canon 50D and the 70-200 f/4 lens.  The addition of a Giottos ball head brings the total weight of the equipment attached to Polarie to about 6 pounds.

The Positives

  • Inexpensive
  • Good instruction manual
  • Mostly easy to set up and to use
  • Suitable for a beginner
  • Good power for the price.
  • Can be powered with mini USB (or two AA batteries). Claimed life is 4 hours on AA batteries but mine lasted at least 6 hours using rechargeable batteries.
  • Compact and MUCH lighter than almost everything else.
  • Can be used in Northern or Southern latitudes.
  • Tracks at star, solar or lunar rates (and yes, they are all different) as well as a 1/2 speed rate which should be good for Landscape Astrophotography.

The Negatives

  • The back plate can be unscrewed to peer through the axis of the motor and also houses a built-in magnetic compass but the plate is almost flush to the Polarie body and it is quite hard to grip.
  • The inclinometer (angle measurement device on the side) seems like a good idea except that the markings are so small and coarse that to my eyes it is illegible.  The lighted inclinometer *might* help if the North Star is obscured by trees or such.
  • The front plate has a 1/4″ retractable bolt and attaches awkwardly to the motor plate with two thumbscrews that are hard to reach once a head is on the motor plate. I would have preferred that Polarie supply a 1/4 to 3/8″ adapter since most good heads attach via 3/8″ bolts.
  • The battery compartment door is a nail buster to open.
  • Since Polarie will certainly be used with a DSLR camera, Vixen really missed an opportunity to add a remote release cord – I see no jack for one.
  • Not sure what the point of the flash shoe is. I do see the Vixen has another (much larger) inclinometer that can be attached there, but you may be able to do better using an application on your smart phone.
  • The optional polar alignment scope is expensive, and bulky. It’s also complicated to operate because you must remove the ball head and camera from the device. BUT the weight of the camera and ball head is likely to create enough “sag” that the careful measurements will be wasted.  We like the SkyTracker much better in this regard.

There is a sight hole to line up Polaris – the North star. I used only that method to align Polarie and got fair results. To get really long exposures one of two methods will need to be undertaken to increase the alignment accuracy: either invest in a Polarie polar alignment scope at almost double the cost or do drift alignment. Drift alignment is not simple and probably would frustrate the aspiring astrophotographer. The Polarie can be purchased with an optional ratcheting tripod base which might be a good idea, however the stated load capacity of the bundled tripod seems too low to use with a heavy camera.


Remember that you will need at least two heads and you’ll want them both to be ball heads for optimum configurability. The head on the tripod should be sturdy – see below for why.  Below I refer to tripod head – the apparatus that joins the tripod to the Polarie, and to the Polarie head – which is the hardware used to attach a camera to the Polarie.

Problem Areas

In addition to the negatives listed above, there are several other sources of problems including every point where one element attaches to another. For example: the Polarie base if not attached securely to the tripod head can rotate.  If using quick release plates the attachment point creates another source of rotation. If the camera is not securely attached to the Polarie head rotation can occur there, too. All the pieces together may severely tax a cheap tripod head making it difficult to hold up or adjust the load.  In my configuration I found I had to allow some slouching – meaning I had to adjust the camera so it was pointing slightly above my target and then tighten the head so that it would settle to the right place.

What Can You Do With A Polarie?

Maybe we should have put this section first! Some of these things can only be done with a Polarie are highlighted in RED.

  • Point the Polarie straight up and use it as an automatic panning motor for a time-lapse.
  • Align Polarie and take a series of shots of the night sky – the sky will stay in the same place in every shot – and any minor movement can be compensated for using Astrophotography procedures.
  • Outfit your lens with a solar filter and track the sun (e.g. for photographing eclipses or solar activity)
  • Track the moon e.g. to catch the space station flying across its face, the slow creep of the terminator, or just to get a time-lapse as the moon sets or rises.
  • Double your exposure on a landscape astrophotography shot by using 1/2 speed mode.

For more hints tips and examples on how to use Polarie, stay tuned to this channel!

My first test of the Polarie was to track the radiant point of the Orionid Meteor shower. My attempt was mostly a bust due to clouds, however note how stable the time-lapse is – and remember this spans almost 14 minutes of real-time.

Here are two more ways I’ve used the Polarie – as a horizontal panning device

As a sky tracking device

Bump up Those Stars

After publishing the article on the 600 Rule (and why it’s a lousy rule), I was heavily prodded by a reader who insisted that a 4, 5 or six pixel star streak is not noticeable and not to worry. My counter argument is: “it all depends!”  A larger print (greater magnification) will reveal the streak.  But that got me to thinking – and dangerous things happen when I start thinking.

How Do I Boost the Visibility of My Stars?

The obvious answer is to bump up the brightness and the contrast – but that creates other problems – including magnifying the noise. But there is a simple way to boost those stars – at a relatively low image quality cost.  And this method may very well remove some of the dash like appearance of a star in a longish exposure.

Are you ready? In Photoshop duplicate the layer. Select the duplicate layer. Activate the Move tool. Hold down the control (windows) or option (Mac) key and click the up (or down) arrow key exactly once. Photoshop calls this maneuver a “nudge”  Now change the blend mode to Lighten, 100%.

What do you get? Here is the original.



Now watch as we perform the “bump” (cursor over the image to see what was bumped)

Why Does this Trick Work?

Actually, your first question might be: why doesn’t my image get blurrier? The answer is that it does but you probably won’t notice even if you print the image LARGE. You can counteract blurry by masking off everything that is not sky in the nudged layer.  The reason that the stars seem to be brighter is that you’ve added more bright pixels in nearly the same location. The eye sees more light where every star is. If you look closely you may also notice that some other features get brighter too – the snag (dead tree) at the far right and the waterfall. To see the change in foreground details compare the Original with the Up One images.  Then compare the Up One with the Down One. In the Down One image I masked off any area that is not in the sky and as a result the tree and waterfall brightness do not change.

Perhaps you’re asking a different question like:

PS My thanks to Tiberiu Tesileanu whose questions and comments lead me to experiment with the “bump” strategy.