Tag Archives: tripod

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. 

Astro101: Checklist

From the simple to the extraordinarly complex here is a list of things to take when you venture out to do astrophotography:

Starter Kit – Camera & Tripod

  • Camera
  • Wide field, fast lens (40 degrees or more, f/1.8)
  • Sturdy Tripod
  • Intervalometer – though a simple remote push button will work, too.
  • Memory cards
  • Batteries (plenty)
  • Binoculars
  • Green Laser (optional), see Target that Fuzzy
  • Planisphere / star chart / smart app like Star Walk.
  • Red head lamp / flashlight with red cellophane over them.

That’s about it.  This approach allow visual observation, and photographs of large areas of e.g. the Milky Way.

Intermediate Kit

Starter kit plus:

  • Intervalometer
  • Equatorial Drive + Polar scope + batteries  (Polarie for example)
  • Head/mount to put the camera on the Equatorial drive.
  • Stadium cushion or garden kneeler
  • Telephoto lens (zoom or prime)
  • Bahtinov Mask (focus aid)

Serious Intermediate Kit

All of the above plus:

  • Deep cycle marine battery (or astro power kit)
  • Laptop with imaging aid program (e.g. BackyardEOS, MaximDL, …)
  • BIG battery for your camera (or converter to use astro power kit)
  • Voltage inverter to power the laptop
  • Red cellophane to cover the laptop screen
  • Small folding table
  • Folding chair
  • Power strip, extension cords
  • Power inverter (convert 12 VDC to AC)
  • Modest sized apochromatic refactor, mounting rings, extensions, eyepieces, star diagonal, dual speed focuser, dovetail plate, heads up finder.
  • Optional: GoTo solution for the mount

Sold Out Astroimager

  • Large APOchromatic refractor or Reflector
  • Massive mount with GoTo control
  • Astro CCD image camera with thermo electric cooling
  • Filters for Hydrogen Alpha, Oxygen, etc.
  • Finder scope
  • Guide scope and autoguider
  • Lots of $$$$.
  • Large car to drive it around.
  • (optional) Sherpa to lift it all.

For more information, please attend a Webinar!  See the training list here, or see all events here.

Collecting and Processing Images

I have a Canon, and an windows machine. These two things together mean that I can use BackyardEOS ($25) to aid in the focusing and capture of night sky images; and I can use Deep Sky Stacker (Free!) to process my images.  Deep Sky Stacker takes some patience to learn, but it is mostly automated.

I understand “Keith’s Image Stacker” ($15) is available for Mac people – though apparently it’s not quite as powerful or as widely used as DeepSkyStacker.

Pricier and more complete options include ImagePlus, MaximDL, and much more. For a full list of options, prices and features, please see Jerry Lodriguss’s site.

 

Creating a Night Panorama

Asylum at the Sea

That’s it. You just found the perfect composition but there is a problem. The interesting bit does not fit with the other interesting bits.  So you sacrifice and change to a wider angle lens but that does not improve the shot. In fact, you can’t get an image wide enough or tall enough. Let’s change our frame of reference for a moment because not many people think about the ability of panoramas to connect the foreground to the heavens.

Although taking truly panoramic star circles is next to impossible within a reasonable budget, you can connect the earth with the sky with a little bit of planning and some tricks to aid in your alignment later in the process.

We are proposing a vertorama that is a “vertical panorama” to extend our photo to the ground and blend it into the star trail on top.  Our approach will be to shoot in landscape mode and tilt our camera up as we progress.   We can take a series of two or three shots but it will look odd if the star trails don’t extend into the edges of solid land (lower portions).  We also have to make sure that we don’t end the last frame too high as this leaves the star trail disconnected from the ground (lower) images.

Gear

The minimum amount of gear required is a camera a tripod and an interval timer.  However the whole process is going to get much easier if we have a method to align the “no parallax point” with the axis of rotation.  Huh? What did you just say…If you didn’t get that last sentence I suggest you read our primer articles on panoramas here and here or by following links out to other resources.

Planning a Shot

By this time I am assuming that you have read all of the prior articles on shot planning and alignment.  If not they can be found here, here, and here.  Now that we are up to date on planning and alignment we can get into the gory details. We are going to have to take some additional steps to help in the alignment in post processing.

I can get obsessive about the details but I want to do it right not get back to my computer to discover I spent 4 hours in the cold, dark night with stars and nothing interesting in the foreground.  I begin with an idea of how I want the image to look then I walk around with a compass and the local north declination adjustment to fine tune where the center of rotation will be in my final image. I set up my tripod where my chosen foreground will be in  alignment with Polaris (aka The North Star). Before I take the first photo I know where Polaris is going to appear in my frame. When I am really particular I will use a laser line to insure I have the object exactly where I want it in the photo.  I then level the tripod and assemble the pano head.  I use the pano head to determine the elevation of the north star this helps me know exactly how high the star with be in the sky.  This helps me to see where the star circle is going to be in the photo.  [Editor’s comment: If you know the angle of view of your lens you can determine the altitude of the north star by using your camera’s field of view as a measurement]. Knowing how high Polaris is in the sky will help me to determine the overlap I need to include all of the elements in the photo I want.  This all may seem like over-kill but to go home and thinking you have an image of a lifetime only to find you have a dud is not fun.

Shooting (and Bracketing)

I take a lot of photos with different settings until the blue period ends and the stars begin to appear. I make sure that I take a lot of bracketed shots that have 30% to 50%  of overlap. Having plenty for foreground images to choose from later is going to be very helpful when merging the final images.   Once I am satisfied I have enough images the next step is to lock the camera and tripod down tight to take the series of star trail photos.  If I didn’t get to my intended location in time and still want to get foreground shots it is still possible. Darkness merely means that my foreground exposures are going to have to be long, perhaps very long. Alternatively I can light the foreground with a flash light, strobe, or fire or I will let you borrow some light from my moon. 🙂

These are some of the images the top and bottom of the vertorama. I took right before the blue period ended. You can see the various bracketing and over lapping I did.

 

Post Process

I assume that you already know how to process your star shots into star trails. If you need a refresher check out Steven’s articles on star trail creation.  I like to do a few different versions of the with stars because I like to include different amounts of blue and so I have an easier time blending them in later in the stitching process.

Just some of the Star Circles I generated using different amounts of blue period photos.Combining a star circle with a foreground can be done with several different stitching engines, I prefer PTgui, however for other stitching engines the workflow is similar. Your images may be bright enough to do the whole process with Photoshop’s stitching or in Microsoft ICE engine but if you are blending in photos to get a darker sky then Photoshop might be a dud.  Also these stitching programs will not allow you to add control points to help align and warp the image to the background and let me be the first to  say the alignment and warping the foreground image is not fun or easy.

Import your Images

I like to import a lot of different bracketed images into the stitching engine just so I can have some variety to work with.  Also it will allow me the automatically find control points on overlapping images and then tell the software that the other images have zero pixel shift from that image in the bracket series.  This allows me to save time by putting control points on only the images that are dark or match the star circle image.   Thus I can align and blend the pano in one step then use Photoshop to blend in the stars.

Once imported click the align images,  did it work…if so hooray!! You now only have a small amount of clean up to do (skip down to the projection part of the article).  If not then you have to add some control points and align the images yourself.  Control points are areas on an image that match in overlapping images the software needs to know these areas to know how to warp adjacent images to stitch them together.  So lets look at how PTgui does this.  Below is a screen shot of PTgui’s control point placement feature.

Control points selected between the star circle image and the bright forground image. I pick areas in the image that have 1) sharp contrast, 2) Jagged edges and 3) don’t move.

All you have to do is open the adjacent images at the seam and then zoom in to find distinct points that match.  I like to use object with good contrast and unique shapes to help guide my cursor to a pixel accurate match.

In the image above you can see that the transition between the rock and the sky is the area of overlap.  I follow the rock edge because of the contrast between the sky and the rock but also it has bumps that are easily distinguishable between the top and the bottom photos. Once I have these set I do the same for the star trail photo see below.

Aligning the Star trail image with the photos from the blue period

I will align the star circle photo with the corresponding photo of my foreground just so I have less stitching errors and it is easier to align.  Again if the star circle is light enough then these images may automatically align.

Projection and orientation

Once all of the images have control points then I will go and see how the preview of the image looks in the panorama editor.

Looking at the stiched images in the panorama editor for the first time to see the errors in overlap and the corrections needed to correct the distortion.

You can see the top and bottom images of the vertorama are properly aligned at this point don’t worry about the blending we will handle that later in photoshop.  Two things are very off, causing distortion of the star circle 1) the projection and the vertical height of the image.  The projection is the way the images are projected on to the inside of a sphere during the alignment.  If you are interested in the types of projections  (and there are many in the image below) and how the distortion affects the overlap and warping of your image more info can be found here. I am not interested in the type or how it works in this case I am just worried about what looks right.  For most vertorama star circle images the “Rectilinear” projection often looks the best but is not always the case.

Correcting the projetion to make the photo appear flat and not as distorted at the edges.

We can quickly correct the oblong star circle by moving the top image toward the bottom. This will change the amount of space that is blank but once we crop the image those areas will not longer be visible anyway.

Changed to rectilinear and moved the whole image down. You can see I changed the vertical FOV with the slider on the right (right red arrow) I changed the projection at the top to rectilinear. and the line in the middle shows the movement of the image down.

 Outputting the files

Once you are satisfied with the preview the next step is to use the image optimizer to hone the control points to reduce the error.  It is so easy I am not even going to include a photo just click and tab and click optimize.  It will give you a rating “very good”, “good”, “not bad”, etc.  then suggest some corrections my usual experience is just accept them they more often help then harm.

The only step left is the output the files and then mask them in photoshop.  Go to the “Create Panorama” tab and preview the settings.  You can see the settings I use is to output the images as a “.psb” for use in photoshop but you can output what ever you would like.  The most important is to output into 16bit layers under the “LDR file format” or “HDR file format” settings. This is shown in the screen shot below.   Since the blending is going to  cancel out some of the stars the aligned images need to be output in seperate files so.  I will uncheck the image that represents the aligned star circle in the screen shot below this is “Image 6” the rest of the images are the aligned HDR brackets.  Then I will name the file something like “file….SC_BKGD” were file is the former file name and the “SC_BKGD” stands for “Star circle Background”.

Outputing the top and bottom layers

Once this is done stitching I output the star circle image alone.  So in this example I would un-check the boxes next to images 0-5 and only output image 6.   So once all of these images are outputted I select them and open them as layers in photo shop.  If your blending went well in PTgui then  great skip the next step and forward on to the next.  If the blending shows seams or other artifacts of stitching follow then next steps.

If the blending was bad then go back to PTgui mask out the areas the blending did not work so well if you have PTgui version 9, if not then output all of the layers and we will mask and clone in photoshop.  I picked this example specially because I had blending issues in the past so if you have blending issues you will know how to approach them.

This is my stitched Foreground and star circle images notice the two red arrows are places where the blending did not work so well

The first thing to try since the layers are aligned is the auto blend layers under the Edit menu.  Select the top and the bottom then navigate up to “Edit” and click under “auto blend layers”

 

This is the first tool I reach for when blending is the auto blend layers. Once the layers are aligned (and HDR-processed) thanks to PTgui the blending in Photoshop is usually easy.

If the auto blend function does not work it is time for some good old fashion hand blending. I will open the individual blend layers and the PTgui blended photo with blending issues.  I will use the photo with blending issues as the background and layer over the top the individual planes to blend by using a mask to gradually make the layers more transparent using a big soft brush.  I slowly make the seam fade or use the surrounding colors to add detail.  I will also use the clone stamp to replicate areas like clouds and blend them into each other.  This takes a lot of patience and practice to make some areas look “normal” but keep zooming in and out to see what affect you are having on the whole photo and local areas.

Adding the Star Circle

Once the blending the top and bottom image is finished the star circle can be added.  Since you exported it as a separate layer out of PTgui this can be brought into photoshop as a layer in the document.  Opening the photo as a layer then by changing its blend mode to lighten or screen blend mode then bright stars will out shine the dark background.  Thus adding the star circle to the finished photo was easy.  Don’t forget to mask out some of the areas were affected by the screen blend.  Say in cases of light pollution the foreground might be brighter then they should be.  Crop then your done.

Final image

This is the final image after the stars are added as a background layer and blended in using the screen blend mode.

Thanks for reading, as always comments and questions are encouraged.  If you have found this interesting please forward to your friends and follow us on Facebook. If you are interested in this topic (panoramas), night photography, shot planning, or super cool post processing techniques come and join us for a workshop.

 

Stacker’s Checklist

Note: Items in RED are suggestions and may be changed based on circumstances at the scene.

Site Selection

  • Sunrise, Sunset, Moonrise, Moonset and moon phase all known.
  • Safe area, travel paths known

Equipment

  • Camera, tripod, release plate, camera batteries, memory card, lens, intervalometer + batteries, lens hood, rain protection, headlamp, flashlight/torch, and items for light painting.

On Site

  • Tripod set up – no leaning (center column should be vertical) – leg locks tightened.
  • Camera aimed, leveled.
  • Camera locked onto tripod. Head tightened.
  • Tripod weighted/secure and everything is wobble free. Keep the tripod low and out of the wind for best stability. Do not extend the center column.
  • Neck strap removed or secured to prevent wind throw. Intervalometer and any other cord, or wiring also secure. Velcro on the intervalometer and the tripod leg is a handy trick.
  • Save GPS coordinates and/or mark site with glow stick / other?

Camera Settings

  • Manual Mode, Bulb exposure
  • ISO 200  (varies but from 100 to 800)
  • Single Exposure
  • LCD brightness down
  • Image review time off
  • Record in RAW
  • White Balance = daylight (Auto not recommended)
  • Aperture f/4 (f/2.8 to f/7.1)
  • Auto focus OFF
  • Image stabilizer (vibration reduction) OFF
  • Long Exposure Noise Reduction OFF
  • Mirror Lockup OFF
  • Auto Exposure Bracketing OFF

Timer Setup & Test

  • No delay, length of exposure = 1:59 minutes (adjust based on conditions. A 2 minute total interval is a good starting point), interval = 1 second, Num exposures >= 120
  • Timer cabled to camera
  • Test sequence (lens cap on) – Verify that second shot starts before canceling.

Focus & Final Framing

  • Check image composition, field of view.
  • Set camera to Aperture priority mode (not needed if it is already dark)
  • Take several bracketed shots in daylight or twilight: if it is already dark take a high ISO “range finding” shot. E.g. 2000 ISO for 30 seconds.
  • Pixel peep and adjust focus until sharp.

Battery and Card Shuffle

  • Remove memory card and insert second card. Format new card in camera.
  • Take second set of bracketed shots.
  • Return camera to Manual/Bulb mode.
  • Turn off camera and remove battery.
  • Reinsert battery (or insert fresh battery).
  • Verify that all settings are correct (See Camera Settings, above)

Final Steps

  • Check for wobble. Start by lightly jostling the camera, tripod, center column and even walking around in the area to make sure no movement occurs.
  • Set DELAY on interval timer appropriately (at least 5 seconds).  Goal is to start and/or end in twilight.
  • Secure cables for timer, external batteries (and neck strap). Do not block battery or memory card access.
  • Switch to aperture priority mode (so that your manual settings do not change), take a single image and re-verify focus. If already dark, take a high-ISO range finding shot for this task.
  • Switch back to Manual/Bulb.
  • Verify all camera settings as described in Camera Settings
  • Start Timer and verify that the timer is running.
  • If practical wait for first two shots to complete.
  • NOTE: You can leave the lens cap on for the first few exposure to collect DARK frames.

My thanks to Mike W. for comments and improvements to this checklist.

Additional References