Author Archives: Steven Christenson

What Makes An Image Memorable?

Perhaps the highest praise Steven gets as a speaker is this:

Wow, his passion is infectious. I’m now eager to try night photography.”

Almost every photographer makes pictures to SHARE with others so praise of passion is high praise, indeed. Not everyone will have similar interests or feel the connection you feel with your work, but there are some questions you can ask yourself to strengthen the broader appeal of your work, that is, make your image more memorable.

My friend and mentor, Kip Evans sold his photography from a gallery in Carmel, California. One of his laments to me was: I don’t really sell what I find beautiful and compelling, I mostly sell what others have a connection to – often touristy things like images of the Golden Gate Bridge. What drew us into Kip’s gallery was an image of a large breaking wave called Winter Swell. We have print of Winter Swell hanging in our bedroom (and so does at least one coastal hotel).

        Kip Evans: Winter Swell

My wife loves waves – and I share her affinity. She will stand in awe and clap as huge surf crashes on to our coast. There is a visceral connection with the spectacle and power of the scene.

If we spend a little time thinking about what causes that kind of connection, we can endeavor to put elements of it in our work.


From my perspective, images need the following:

  • Scale that inspires awe, grandeur
  • Connectedness – intimacy in the viewer caused by an emotive reaction to the image
  • Interest – an alignment with the passions of the viewer – even if only tangential
  • Revelation – an innovative view that illuminates something either unnoticed or unseeable.

Of course these characteristics are inter-related and if only two of the four are strongly present that may be enough to wow the viewer.

Vote!

Before you move on to the explanations, consider the following 4 images. Decide which image is the one that best reveals scale, the one that speaks to you (connects with you), the one that is most in line with your interests, and the one that reveals something you’ve not seen or understood before. The answer to each question may be a different image. Indeed, we would love it if you’d answer the four questions in the polls below… If you want to elaborate or leave a comment listing your choices (e.g. “A,B,B,D”) that’s fine, too. And yes, we realize we have mixed in a photo of a cute dog that has nothing to do with Night Photography.

The images are
A: Sky from Orion to the Pleiades, B: Trona Pinnacles with Orion and Canis Major, C: Mount Whitney in Moonlight; D: Pierre Grazin’ in the Grass.

WHICH IMAGE:

... most shows Scale or Grandeur
... draws you the most?
... aligns with YOUR interests
... gives a unique/new insight

 

Revelation

Fortunately for Night Photography, the last part – Revelation – is the easiest. Few people have seen a truly dark sky with starry heavens. If you can connect the viewer by linking Earth and Heaven you can draw people in.  Even fewer people realize that the Milky Way is awesome, and that stars have discernible colors. It is not hard to enchant viewers with a revelatory image.

Revelation can take many forms, however. For example: showing an unfamiliar but interesting place, illustrating a relationship that was not obvious before, revealing unexpected or unobserved colors or details. The camera is very good at seeing color, even in dim light – so it’s almost easy to be revelatory in a night image. In my opinion the single most significant mistake that people make in night images is in not selecting or not providing sufficient interest in the foreground – either because the foreground is boring, or because it is not well enough illuminated to speak on its own. My personal bias is to tune out a photo of a car under the stars, for example, unless the car is really, really sexy looking. My wife, who is a car fan, feels a little differently. I am also not a fan of junkyard scenes with garish colors, but my judgments (biases) are not about revelation, but about Interest.

Perhaps one of the revelatory aspects of image D is the “on-eye-level-ness” with a furry little creature.

Photon Worshippers **Winner Astronomy Photographer of the Year, 2010 - People and Space **

Photon Worshippers **Winner Astronomy Photographer of the Year, 2010 – People and Space **

Interest

How many images of sunsets have you seen? Most of them are immediately emotive, colorful, and often compelling… but are they different enough to hold your interest?

People are all over the map in interests: favorite colors, past-times, subjects, hobbies … It is impossible to create an image that will be interesting to everyone. The point here is to think about your audience.  The photo that won Astronomy Photographer of the Year in 2010 (above) garnered interest because it was not a run-of-the-mill, same as everyone else night sky photo indeed it wasn’t a night sky photo at all! The image was something that I calculated would be of interest to judges in the UK. In the UK Stonehenge is an ancient, human-made edifice apparently built to measure seasons. My Photon Worshipper image is of a natural formation that does a similar thing – it only forms a beam of light during the winter solstice.  The image is also unlike the many existing images of the same phenomenon: it is a different view, and includes people to give it human scale.

Scale / Grandeur

Likewise my runner-up image in 2012 (below) was arguably the least well executed of my awarded work: focus is soft, color is off. But the scale and human interest of Lost In Yosemite is hard to miss. The contrast of tiny figures – once you recognize them as people – against towering trees and an immense sky was not lost on the judges.

I love this photo because it illustrates how humbling, even frightening, both the natural world and the cold depths of space can be for us as tiny, fragile human beings. ~ Olivia Johnson

Lost in Yosemite [C_033706] Runner Up - Astronomy Photographer of the Year, 2012

Lost in Yosemite: Two tiny hikers in flashlight against the enormity of the environment.

If you’ve seen it in person the scale of the Grand Canyon is inspiring. If you’ve seen it in photos, the Grand Canyon is LESS impressive. Why? My thought is that most photos lack human-scaled perspective of the kind in Lost in Yosemite above. Image A, above, is an image in which you likely found no sense of scale – unless you’re an astronomer. Image C shows rugged mountains (Mount Whitney, in fact). Hikers and mountaineers will implicitly understand the scale. Image B, however has formations that are of indeterminate size unless you have first-hand experience with them. Image D also gives scale clues… You see the size of the ears in proportion to the dog (named Pierre), and the size of the dog in proportion to the grass and flowers. But it’s not likely that it was the scale or size revelation of the dog that drew you in, is it?  If you found affinity with Pierre, it’s because you have – or had – a pet you are fond of, or wished that you had a pet. But we will address connectedness in a moment.

My suggestion is to be sure that something in your image imparts an easily recognizable scale.  In fact, putting a human in the shot can be powerful – Ben Canales won a National Geographic competition with an image featuring himself and Crater Lake – and a bit of whimsy.

Connectedness

Connectedness, or perhaps better term intimacy is not a single characteristic. By connectedness, I mean that involuntary emotive sense of drawing your attention – either as awwwww or that’s beautiful, or that’s disgusting, or my heart hurts. Sunsets, puppies, and kittens are perhaps the most photographed items of all. Why? Because most of them come laden with affection and fond memories – or sadness, or whimsy.  I immediately feel connectedness with well crafted night skies because I have many fond memories of sitting out in the dark under a horizon-to-horizon Milky Way.

I am reminded that compared to the enormity of the sky I feel small, but somehow embedded in that smallness is always a feeling of importance and one-ness with nature.

I assert that connectedness is usually a product of scale, revelation and interest, but connectedness can also occur spontaneously out of past experience and the human condition. My wife would put it this way:

Life is not measured by the breaths you take, but by the moments that take your breath away.

Technical Competency

I gave thought to avoiding discussion of this important aspect of an image. Some of my most viewed, appreciated and commented images are NOT images that exhibit technical mastery! I purposely chose images B and C because they are older work, and lack technical robustness. Indeed, I have much better images from Trona Pinnacles (Image B), but none have been as popular as image B!

In summary, while technical mastery is a great goal to seek, if you work too hard on making your image sharp, color balanced, and so on, you may neglect choosing environments and images that have more compelling characteristics: Scale, Interest, Connectedness and Revelation.

So What is My Favorite Image – And Why?

If you’ve been paying attention you’ll understand that images, like aromas, colors and words carry different weights due to our personal experiences. I always gravitate to the image below. It’s my wife on our last evening in Santorini, Greece.  We had just finished a fantastic meal, I had given her that ring, and our view was awesome. And, it happens to be a sunset I shot with my cell phone.

Last Evening in Santorini

You probably wanted to know what’s my favorite Night Image, though.  It’s hard to choose, but it’s probably one of these two. I’ve never uploaded the first one, though it’s predecessor was released.

“South Side,” Red Rock Canyon State Park, California

“Like Grains of Sand,” Pfeiffer State Beach, Big Sur, California

If you ask my wife the same question about my images, I am pretty sure she would pick this one:

Famous III [C_035478]

This is all part of a larger talk I am planning for a local Astronomy Club.  I appreciate your votes on the images above so I have a good set of data to go on. Also, please comment on an image that really inspired you – mine or anyone elses!

Darken Mode Stack Tip Using AdvancedStacker PLUS 18

Published: March 15, 2018

The new Advanced Stacker PLUS 18 is our attempt to make processing simpler. One of the things we find we often do is run multiple stacks (Lighten, Darken, Streaks, etc) to determine which effect(s) work the best. Well, we did something for the first time that worked REALLY well, so we will start by sharing that, even though Advanced Stacker PLUS 18 is not yet ready for publication.

In a nutshell, we created this:

Orion, Falling

From this:

Long Streaks Stack Result – no modifications  f/4, ISO 1600, 15 Seconds. Nikon D600, 24mm x 250

There are several obvious differences between these images.

  1. Because there was strong moonlight (and other light), the sky is over-bright and lacks contrast.
  2. The wind together with surrounding lighting (including flashing red lights from a passing fire truck) caused strange artifacts in the palm trees.
  3. Different colored light sources lit the palm trees differently (notice the really cyan colored palm fronds in the second tree from the left).
  4. There was utility wiring intruding into the image.

The Processing

Stacker 18 allows you to simultaneously stack in multiple modes. For example, to create this effort I used Lighten, Long Streaks, Darkest, and Average modes. I ended up NOT using Lighten or Average modes in this case. Is there extra overhead keeping more stacks? Yes, there is. However we’ve paired down the stacks to as few frames as possible to keep the overall footprint low.

Once the stacking had finished, the result of the Long Streaks was a bit unappetizing due to the red and other artifacts in the trees (see second image). However the Darkest mode stack effectively removes all of the stars – and as it happens, all of the strange highlights in the trees.  First we applied a Curves adjustment layer to the Long Streaks and darkened it.

Blending a Clean Foreground with the Star Trails

Darkest Stack results

The next operation was to find a way to blend the darkest mode stack (right) with the Long Streaks stack while preserving the star trails  and getting the cleaner looking foreground.

 

Duplicate the Darkest mode result (it’s a single layer) on to the Long Streaks stack. Then drag the darkest mode stack to the top layer. Set the new layer blend mode to normal, 100%.

Next we need to mask out the sky of the Darkest stack so that the long streaks will show through. The tool for that is to use Select -> Color Range. Holding down the shift key allows you to click multiple areas of the sky to add to the selection. You can vary the fuzziness of the selection to determine how closely the color has to match the sample. The mask will probably need some manual cleanup afterward, but as you can tell from the selection in the image below, just clicking different areas in the sky produced almost exactly what is desired.

Photoshop Color Range Selection

After pressing OK you get a selection. The next step is Layer -> Create Layer Mask from Selection -> Hide Selection Once you have a mask, you can paint on it to clean up any artifacts. Adjust the opacity of the darkest layer to make it “look right”. In this example, the combined image looked best at about 93% opacity.

Correcting “Off” Colors Due to Light Source Issues

The penultimate step was to create a Hue and Saturation adjustment layer. Lock the adjustment to the Darkest layer (hold the Alt/Option key and click on the boundary between the adjustment and the darkest layer). Then click the “Finger selection”  (just below the word Presets). Now there is an eye-dropper which you use to select the color that needs correction. In this case, clicking the dropper on the cyan colored palm frond is the right move. Adjust the saturation slider way down, lightness down, and fiddle with the hue to make the bizarre color more natural.

Aggressively toning down the cyan colored palm fronds

Removing Wires (and other distractions)

Finally we also used the Spot Healing Brush tool to “heal out” the utility wires. Here is a short-cut for healing out a straight line. Click the beginning of the area with the spot healing brush, then hold shift and click the end of the line. Shift causes the brush to be applied in a straight line between the first and second clicked points. The shift-trick works with almost all brushes. Two other tricks with the spot healing brush tool are to:

  • Start where the surrounding area has a predictable substitution (not a busy area) and work outward from there
  • Use as small a brush as you reasonably can

For example you can adjust the spot healing tool brush size to about double the width of the utility line, then click the healing brush tool where the arrows point below. Next work your way outward toward the tree on one side, then the other.

Summary

Here is a summary of the steps taken – not including the palm frond “naturalization” or spot healing described above.One more trick worth noting… the histogram shown on the Curves adjustment will give you a clue what may need adjustment.

Want to know what we consider the top 5 most used photo editing skills? Read here (and part 2 and part 3).

Time Stacks

Published: March 6, 2018

One of the great things about developing a repertoire of tools  and tricks for processing photos is applying those tools in creative ways. While we were furiously working on Advanced Stacker PLUS for creating star trails and processing night sky images, one clever fellow: Matt Molloy gained great acclaim by stacking sunset and sunrise shots of clouds skittering across the sky. Matt Molloy coined the phrase Time Stacks for that type of image.

Phoenix Leaping

Phoenix Leaping – 20 separate frames combined in Lighten Mode plus an extra foreground frame.

Where Steven lives in the Silicon Valley, it is difficult to get good conditions for clouds. Indeed, the San Francisco Bay Area has so many blue sky days that having clouds is a stretch – in the Bay Area the options are either low thick clouds (fog), or zero clouds. However occasionally conditions are right – or Steven travels where conditions are right – for creating these shots. Of note are dry climates with mountains and high winds during seasons with moderate moisture in the air. In March in Palm Springs, California, for example Steven watched as clouds formed due to the uplift of the Mt. San Jacinto mountain range and dissipated quickly as the young cloud wandered eastward away from the peak. Literally you could watch clouds form and dissolve in a matter of minutes. In the image above, you’ll notice that some low clouds moved slowly and didn’t dissipate. Because the denser low clouds were in the shadow of the mountain they grew dark and ominous.  You can see more variations on the same theme by checking out this set of images.

Exit Criteria

Exit Criteria – Alviso, California on one of the few days when clouds were present

What Conditions and Equipment Do I Need?

  1. You need partially cloudy skies and the clouds can not be slow creepers. The clouds should be vigorous sailors. How fast? Fast enough to cross a significant field of view in about 20 to 30 minutes. They need to move into an open area of the sky – clouds moving over other clouds won’t be as interesting.
  2. Like any compelling shot, the frame should include a worthwhile foreground.
  3. And finally, it helps if these conditions all occur near sunset or sunrise so you can get extra color in the shot.

Equipment

  • You will definitely want to use an Intervalometer (or an on-board Intervalometer if your camera has one). Shooting at regular intervals results in a more pleasing outcome.
  • A sturdy tripod is also a must.

What Settings Should I Use?

  1. Select a moderate aperture (f/8, for example), and a low ISO (200). The goal is to get a shot that is relatively long to get a little cloud blur from the cloud motion.
  2. Since most interesting results occur right at or after sunset, start the exposures at 1 to 2 stops over exposed. Subsequent shots will get darker and finally dark to a point where the images will be too dark  to use (e.g. 2 stops under exposed).
  3. While it may be tempting to adjust the exposure during shooting, we have found that strategy does not work well.  You never really know which shots you will want to combine. Therefore it is best to do large sets (40-50 exposures) all using the same settings.
  4. Change settings (and optionally re-orient your camera), then get another substantial sequence.
  5. Be sure to include an exposure optimized for the foreground in the beginning and/or at the end of each sequence.

The trickiest part is selecting the interval between shots. The speed of the clouds across the frame is the key here – and that can vary dramatically depending on your conditions. One possible method is to shoot once every other second, then cull out the interval that works best (which could be 10 or 20 second intervals), but a less memory and processing intensive approach may be to use 5 or 10 second intervals between shots (or longer if your clouds are sluggish).

Also keep in mind that not all clouds will move at the same speed (or in the same direction!), nor will they be illuminated alike.

How Do I Process the Shots?

This is actually the easy part: use the same tools you would use to create star trails. That is, stack the images in Lighten mode. Understand that if clouds move over clouds the net result is sometimes quite unexpected – the brighter clouds (regardless of color) win.

How Processing Was Completed (Click for larger image)

Above is a snapshot illustrating how this shot (62 frames in the life of clouds) was finished in Photoshop. Two image contrast enhancements were added. The bottom layer is the stacked (lighten mode) image, the next image up is the intentionally over-exposed foreground. Notice that the “Darken bright foreground” is linked to effect ONLY the foreground image. Also note that darkening, and in many cases increasing contrast has the affect of increasing color saturation. No saturation or vibrance enhancements were done here. As with Star Trails, we also recommend that you do not alter any of your shots before you stack them – stack them in their raw form with NO adjustments. The result will look flat until you apply manual corrections and curves, but by not altering your shots before hand, the stack will work better and you are far less likely to introduce strange artifacts.

Variations on Time Stacks

Of course your Time Stacks do not have to be daylight subjects like this solar eclipse which was shot with a solar filter for all the shots except the last which was taken at sunset.

Annular Eclipse Sequence [C_040079+5s]

Time stacks can also include night events like a lunar eclipse

Plan C: San Jose City Hall Eclipse Sequence

Get creative and try other Time Stacks and share with us what you get as a result via comments!

Want to see the technique preferred by Matt Molloy, master time stacker? See his tutorial here.

Not Eclipsed!

Published: February 6, 2018

The total Lunar Eclipse of February, 2018 reminded me of my travails from my first effort to shoot an eclipse in 2010.

My First Eclipse Attempt: 2010

In December 2010, I was crestfallen to see the weather reports. The last total eclipse of the moon visible from North America until 2014… and the weather everywhere within a reasonable 3-4 hour drive was predicted to be 90% clouds and worse. It seemed my eclipse was going to be eclipsed by cloud cover.

At about 9:15 PM, PST on December 20th, however, I looked up and saw… THE MOON!  Sure, it was scintillating in a little sucker hole playing with me. But I decided to play along. I hastily hauled out the Canon 5D Mark II, the 70-200mm f/4 IS L lens, the 1.4x Telextender, and the Gitzo carbon fiber tripod. Why those? Because that’s what I found first.

My equipment was scattered about in my office still recovering from the wet weather from earlier in San Jose. Indeed, I did not find the batteries for my Canon 50D camera.

By the time I got set up, I realized that the moon would very soon be contacting the earth’s umbra (darkest part of the shadow). So I quickly got to shooting what I could. Never mind that it was cold and I was not dressed properly.  Soon enough the clouds would come and I could dart into the house to hurriedly collect what I was missing.  The first shot I got was with the moon in the earth’s penumbra. Not particularly remarkable, unfortunately.

Through various breaks in the clouds I was able to get photos from first umbra contact all the way up to totality. Including a serendipitous shot of an airplane headed, probably, to the San Francisco airport or some other place to the north west.

Airplane Transits the Partially Eclipsed Moon
Airplane Transits the Partially Eclipsed Moon

What settings did I use for these shots? f/7.1, ISO 200, and 1/400 of a second exposures. Why so fast? Because, my friends, the moon is BRIGHT. Even partially eclipsed, even already in earths penumbra it is a big bright object. Shooting the moon is a definitive case where your camera absolutely cannot get the right exposure if left to itself. A good exposure must be manually set. I arrived at my settings by a few quick trials. I started at about 1/200th at f/5.6 and noticed that I was getting some over exposed areas (on my LCD screen the overexposed pixels blink white). I then decreased the aperture and continued to tweak the focus.

I wanted the moon images to be as well exposed as possible – especially knowing that the thin clouds were going to dim the image. My goal was to get detail in the moon, I did not care about the clouds or stars. In fact it is impossible – except at a very slender crescent or during a total eclipse to get detail in the moon AND also show stars in the sky. Why? Because the moon is so, SO bright.

I definitely made a slew of mistakes. The most significant one is that I should have put the telephoto lens on my 50D body which is a 1.6 crop camera. Had I done that all my moon images would have been about twice the size of what I actually got. Not having my camera all packed away in my bag meant some lost opportunities here.

I also thought  that perhaps the 5D would have been a good choice to get a sequence of shots showing the progression of the eclipse. The idea was to get the moon in the bottom corner of the frame and take a series of shots as it moved to the upper left of the frame. This also did not work for several reasons. The first problem was that the cloud “holes” came at irregular intervals – so spreading them across the frame evenly was not going to happen. The second problem was purely my failure to correctly guess the path the moon would follow in the sky.  Had I been a little smarter I’d have switched lenses when I realized the timelapse path was not going to work. But instead I tried again a few times.

I also realized that when the eclipse was total, the moon was going to be quite dim and the superior high ISO performance of the 5D II was needed. For the totally eclipsed shot, the ISO was ramped all the way up to 1600 and the exposure dropped from 1/400 to 1/6 of a second. That is a HUGE difference. The slower exposure meant that details in the moon would be blurred and the stars at this telephoto range would become dashes rather than dots.

Jewel [C_029690]
Nearly Total – With enough bright area left to form a halo in the clouds

Epilogue:  February, 2018

Sadly I was NOT much better prepared. After studying the weather forecasts, I headed to the coast where it is often really yucky with fog, low clouds, and on-shore winds that bring dampness and salt spray. It was surprisingly clear. My goal was to take a series of shots showing the progression of the eclipse ending at sunrise with the moon hovering over the Pigeon Point Lighthouse. I had done all the calculations as we cover in our Catching the Moon Webinar. (And also somewhat described here)

I imagined something like this effort, but better done.
Plan C: San Jose City Hall Eclipse Sequence

As it came about in 2014, we had to go with plan C due to weather. So I was excited that the weather forecast for the coast was much better in February, 2018. Some oversights on preparation conspired against me. I had not jotted down the proper GPS location and on site I had no cell signal, so couldn’t (re)calculate the spot. That left me wandering about trying to find the little tree and path that was featured on the satellite view… and NOT finding it.

Instead I ended up wandering into a thicket of brush that had an abrupt downward slope. That was fall number 1. Several efforts (and falls) later I tried setting my tripod down THROUGH the gorse all around… only to snap the leg off of my tripod. Now I needed to take  trek back to the car for my backup tripod. (Fortunately I had one!).

Since I got a late start, I scrambled to try to get a couple of series of panoramas on which to overlay the moon trajectory. However the moon was already in complete eclipse by the time I had everything set up. It was only then that I realized I was not getting the details I wanted out of the moon. I was using a 70mm f/4 lens, and the long exposures were streaking the stars and blurring the moon. So while I did get a FEW shots, they weren’t the ones I had imagined. My problem, in a nutshell, was that I was trying to get the moon AND the stars … which I did, but at the cost of streaking and blurring.

Orb to Rule the Night

By the time twilight started to appear, it was obvious that my location was about 1/4 mile distant from where I wanted to be… the little tree that I thought might form the right edge of my panorama was far off. The moon was NOT going to land anywhere near the Pigeon Point Lighthouse, so I packed up and ran up Highway 1 closer to the calculated location. I had to abandon the sequence plans, throw on the big tele-extender and HOPE the moon would survive visibility through the now obvious off-shore fog bank. Of course it didn’t. It fizzled as it got near the target.  I did get a consolation prize of sorts, though. This image hit 80 THOUSAND views in a few days – becoming my most popular photo on Flickr EVER. Sadly it’s not the image I imagined.

It's A Little Bit Broken
Photo from the end of the total eclipse of February, 2018

What Did I Learn?

To get a decent eclipsed moon shot with details, either you need a very fast telephoto lens, or to use a mount to track the moon. I also need to be willing to lose more sleep. I woke up at 3:00 AM, but the 90 minute drive meant that the umbral (dark part) of the eclipse would be starting as I arrived.

I also realized that if I’m going to spend the better part of a day mapping out the moon trajectory toward a landmark like the Pigeon Point Lighthouse, I’d do well to record some GPS locations (where to park, where to stand), and even get a Google map pre-downloaded.

Hopefully you, dear reader, will learn from my mistakes because you won’t have enough time to make them all yourself!