Category Archives: Image

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)

Rocky Mtns

Rocky Mountains by Bob Gibbon

The Chalice by John Mu

The Chalice by John Mumaw

Church by Bob Edwards

Church by Bob Edwards

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


Starflight over Pointy Land

Starflight over Pointy Land by Steven Christenson

Chapel in Starlight by Keith Doucet

Chapel in Starlight by Keith Doucet

How to Not Lose (Much) Sleep

Save the Wonder II [C_070237]

If you want to catch the good stuff… like a meteor shower, or the Milky Way rising in Spring you have to be up in the wee hours. After midnight up to perhaps sunrise.  There are some tricks to pulling this off without collapsing – or worse, falling asleep at the wheel.  One problem with doing night photography is that motels and hotels aren’t particularly suited to the night photographer who would prefer to get to bed after breakfast and sleep until dinner – you often end up paying for two days worth of room that you only use for 8 hours!

So here are some ways you can “Store up Sleep” to support your night habit.

The No Stay Method

  • Get plenty of sleep in the afternoon.
  • Drive from home to the event.
  • Do the shooting
  • Get Breakfast
  • Nap on a cot, pad or bench
  • Drive back home, stopping to rest or nap as needed.

Obviously you can try to get to the shooting location sooner, but for most people it’s not safe to not get proper rest especially if you’re driving.  For example, if I know I want to shoot a milky way rise – I work backward from my arrival time.  Let’s say I need to be on site at 3:00 am and it is a 5 hour drive. That means I will want to hit the road at 10:00 pm. It might sound scary to drive from 10 pm to 3 am, but if you’re properly rested you may find the lack of traffic refreshing and the travel time that much quicker – I do this all the time!  To pull this off, see my “Body Clock Reprogramming” method.

Stay and Play method

  • Arrive in the early afternoon.
  • Check in to an area hotel, motel or campsite.
  • Get lunch.
  • Retire EARLY for sleep.
  • Get up EARLY (depends how far away you are from the location) Perhaps a 2:30 AM or earlier.
  • Do the shooting.
  • Get Breakfast
  • Get back to the hotel in time for at least an hour or two (or ask for late checkout)
  • Check out and go home… or stay another night.

Body Clock Reprogramming

A lot of people claim that they can’t sleep during the day. Hogwash, I say.  If I know I’m going to do a long weekend of night shooting, I can push my body clock around a little – in spite of my day job. For example, if I know I’ll be shooting mostly in the pre-dawn hours, starting on Wednesday, I’ll go to bed an hour earlier and get up one or two hours earlier. If you don’t get out of bed until 9:00 am… you’ll have to start reprogramming on MONDAY.  Do this each day before the trip – go to bed an hour or two earlier and get up an hour or two earlier the following morning.  If you normally arise at 6:30 (like I do), after two days you will find you’re easily awake at 2:30 AM – perfect!  And a day later you won’t have much trouble getting up at midnight and plowing through perfectly perky until well after breakfast.   Just remember to avoid caffeine and stimulants!  By the way, altering your body clock like this is a great way to get ready for an upcoming trip to another time zone.

If you can’t push your body clock that far, then plan to sleep or nap at your shooting location. I usually bring a fully reclining chair, a comfortable pillow and TWO sleeping bags – one very warm one, one that is only meant to take the chill off. I can then either sleep out-of-doors, or if necessary in my car.  This works well if I’m running a timelapse or star trail – the intervalometer does all the work. In fact, while I was taking the shots for this timelapse/startrail:

The Cove [C_071837-940br]

I was a dozen feet from my camera in my car out of the wind checking the progress every once in a while on my CamRanger. I didn’t have to leave the car except to change batteries or memory cards!  I didn’t have to use the CamRanger, of course, an intervalometer is just fine. There is an advantage to using a Canon for unattended operation, however. That red “exposing light” on the back of the camera can be seen from a long way off. I can easily and quickly take a look and know that the camera is doing its thing. With the Nikon, you have to watch carefully for the “green flash” as it writes to the memory card – if you have 6 minute exposures, you may have to wait a LONG time.  The CamRanger makes it a bit easier because I can also check the images, and the camera battery status, and memory card status remotely.

Leave The Gear

Oh, and there is one more way: set your camera up, leave, and come back for it. I usually aim to return BEFORE dawn because few humans bother to be out before the sun is up. My gear has been left alone in the wild quite often.  Of course I’ve already triple checked and prepared for the weather conditions and I place my camera where it’s not easily located – except by me. It’s a good idea to triple check all your settings. More than once I’ve left and upon return found I forgot a setting. For a belt and suspenders approach, I also keep track of the camera’s exact location with a GPS or by “dropping a pin” on my iPhone. Of course the downside here is you may need a huge memory card, a super strong battery, and you can’t have too much separation anxiety about leaving your gear. It won’t do you any good if you leave and DON’T get any sleep because you fear for the safety of your gear.  Trust me, your gear is braver than you are!

Sometimes when we run workshops, we take turns guarding the gear for one another, so you can also agree to leave a guard soldier behind if you shoot with buddies.  Just be sure to be kind to your guard – they will likely be grumpy.

Road Trip: Eastern Sierra, California

Do you know how to get permission” … is how it began.  And this question set in motion a two-and-a-half day trek with 16 hours (800 miles) of driving plus the usual sleepless nights.  The first night found us shivering at Mono Lake.  I knew it would be cold, but it was colder than I anticipated and my 7 layers of clothes were just barely keeping the frigidity at bay.  Unfortunately due to a low fog that crept in and the aforementioned bracing cold, we were unable to hang out until moonrise which that night was to be at 12:20 am.

Takeaway: Always be prepared for 20 degrees lower temperature than the forecast!

After sleeping in, and grabbing breakfast we took a long drive to Bishop by going through Benton and stopping at several Petroglyph sites.  There were some remarkable locations I’d never seen before along the route, including a place that looks strongly like the formations at Alabama Hills.  Unfortunately the photos I took with my Spyglass application were never saved… we’ll be talking about Spyglass in the future, so stay tuned.

Andy stares down #13

Andy stares down #13 as the sun sets.

The second evening we found ourselves at 7,200 feet elevation where clear skies turn a noticeable purple after sunset. But I talked Mr. Mean 🙂 into remaining until at least moonrise which on that night followed the rise of Sagittarius.

The Milky Way rises over the 10.4 meter radio telescopes at Cedar Flat, California.

The Milky Way rises over the 10.4 meter radio telescopes at Cedar Flat, California.

Here is a short timelapse from which the above is taken:

Awake All Night (PS CS6 version) from Steven Christenson

For a slightly different take including an additional sequence, see here.

The Route

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WIth Tioga pass closed, we traveled through Sonora Pass on the way out and by accident through Carson Pass on the way back.  There was precious little snow anywhere except in Carson Pass.  The area around Caples Lake was particularly nice.

Caples Lake, Ebbetts Pass, California. This is a little bay in the lake the lakes is MUCH larger.

Caples Lake, Ebbetts Pass, California. This is a little bay in the lake. Caples Lakes is MUCH larger.

The shoreline of Mono Lake with a large Tufa formation and stars of the North Western skies.

The shoreline of Mono Lake with a large Tufa formation and stars of the north western skies.

By the way, I’ve referred to Andy as Mr. Mean only because he was insistent that I not pay for the gasoline for this long trip.  I don’t think he really has a mean bone in his body. Meanwhile, you might want to check out his antics on his blog: PhotoshopScaresMe.com

Star Trail Creation – Step By Step

Originally Published: November 19, 2012
Last Revised: March 3, 2017

I dredged this one up out of the archives. Many people ask me “how do you do those star trails, Steven.”  If you want a grand overview of the process, my Treatise on Star Trails is a good read. However here I reveal step-by-step how I create a star trail image from the first shots to the finished image. The method shown below is for creating simple (lighten mode) star trails. If you want to do some fancy effects, please take a look at our Advanced Stacker Plus.

Here we go.

South Side [C_009842-75br]

Photo 1: Quickly stacked image which is a composite of thirty-three 6-minute 500 ISO exposures and one 30 second, ISO 2000 exposure.

The above is my first quick attempt at creating a star trail, and following is summary of how I created it.

It starts with the test image and continues with the exposure set. For background on how to navigate the various shooting choices, see: the summary Stacker’s Checklist. The theory about selecting exposures may help.  And there is a two-part series that addresses the difficulties you may encounter. See Part 1 and Part 2. If you’re curious how I get the stars to form circles, this article will provide the information.

I usually start with a short (30 second or less), high ISO exposure to gauge several things: 1. How well framed my subject is, 2. How sharp the focus is, and 3. What I may need to adjust to control the sky-glow.

Photo 2: First, image: ISO 2000, f/2.8, 30 seconds.

After taking the first image, I realized two things: one is that the trucks passing were providing helpful light on my foreground – but not always illuminating the entire thing.  The other is that the exposure (ISO 2000, f/2.8, 30 seconds) was under exposed.  I needed to at least double the exposure to 1 minute. Let me stop for a moment. Those of you who don’t do much night photography are thinking “Whoa from 30 seconds to 1 minute is a huge difference.”  But no, it’s not. It’s only one f-stop. It is no different from changing a daylight exposure from 1/200 of a second to 1/100 of a second.

Starting with an exposure at 1 minute, 2000 ISO f/2.8 as a starting point I calculated an  ISO 500, 6 minute exposures at f/3.5. Here is how: A 1 minute exposure at ISO 2000 is equivalent to a 4 minute exposure at ISO 500 (500 is 1/4 of 2000).  Changing the aperture from f/2.8 to f/3.5 drops the light by about 33%, so I increased the exposure from 4 to 6 minutes.

I set my camera to record in RAW and my interval timer to take 5 minute, 59 second exposures every 6 minutes. I pulled out my reclining beach chair, a sleeping bag and slept while the camera clicked.  Below are a few of the shots. Note how the light changes from passing trucks!  You can also see the counter-clockwise rotation of the Milky Way. The last shot was taken as twilight approached is too bright to use because the sky is losing contrast and the light on the cliff is looking flat. I did not include that last shot in the stack.

Photo 3: Collage of some of the photos used in the stack.

I downloaded all the images from my card to my Incoming folder which is organized by date.  I used Digital Photo Professional to pull up the images, applied a bit of contrast enhancement, a slight exposure increase (1/3 of an f-stop), and a very slight noise control over the entire image. I exported in Landscape style which adds a slight saturation increase (Photoshop Saturation and Vividness) and modest sharpening. I cloned the recipe to all the photos and exported them into a “RedRockEast” folder in a temporary directory.  I could have done all these things with ACR (Adobe Camera Raw) or Lightroom.  In this case I didn’t have to do any white balance adjustments because I had preset the camera to approximately 4100K.

I then dragged and dropped all the exported (JPG) images onto Image Stacker which took about 3 seconds per image – less than two minutes to create a result. My option for Image Stacker was “Brighten” mode. I could have used the Star Circle Academy Stacking Action in Photoshop instead and the result would have been identical.  The stacking action takes about the same amount of time, but is more versatile and can even use raw images. (Note: StarStax is a program that supports Mac, Unix and Windows and works well, too!)

Photo 4: First Results stacking 34 images in Image Stacker by Tawbaware – this is effectively a 3 hour, 24 minute exposure.

The result was a little dark and flat so I used Picasa 3 to increase the exposure (called Fill Light), highlights and shadows – each by about 1/4 of the scale, and I warmed the photo by slightly tweaking the white balance (Color Temperature). That was all I needed to get the image shown in Photo 1.

Screen Shot 1: Picasa Adjustments

One obvious problem with the result is that the combination of the early short exposure with the sequence of shots left a gap. There really was no reason to include the first shot.

I want the cliff to pop a bit better, so my next course of action was to work on improving the foreground.  I found all the brightest shots of the cliff face (e.g. when the trucks were lighting them), and combined them using additive stacking to brighten them and averaging to reduce the noise. Remember that “brighten mode” (Lighten in Photoshop) does not brighten anything – what it actually does is select the brightest pixels at each location from each of the images in the stack.  The brightest pixels may also be noise! Using averaging reduces the noise significantly – but it will not remove “hot” pixels; we will address those later.  Fortunately Image Stacker has an option to stack and average. All you need do is specify the divisor.  If you have 10 images and specify a divisor of 10 then you are simply averaging. But if you specify a divisor of, say 5, then you are averaging AND effectively increasing the brightness by about 1 stop.  I used 12 images and a divisor of 3. And I made the same adjustment to the result in Picasa as I showed in Screen Shot 1. But I wasn’t happy with the result – the foreground still wasn’t bright enough.

Next I took 10 of the brightest images and Stacked them (additive).  After tweaking shadows and brightness in Picasa I got this:

Photo 4: Additive stack of 10 images.

Now my foreground is better, but I have created a new problem. The sky is over-bright and the hot pixels and the noise are significant as shown in a 100% crop below.

Screen Shot 2: 100% view showing Hot Pixels and noise (white speckles)

The hot pixels here have a purple fringe to them. Sometimes hot pixels are tinged red, green, blue, white or gray. I will fix hot pixels in my next to last step using the clone stamp (Picasa’s retouch) or the healing brush in Photoshop.

While the noise is obvious at 100% I think it will be fine so I am not going to address it.  If I later find the noise intolerable I will go back and stack more images and average them. Or I may return to the original images and apply stronger noise reduction in Digital Photo Professional and re-export them.

My next task is to remove the over-bright sky from the Photo 4, above. Sky removal is rather easy with the wand selection tool in Photoshop. I select all the sky and fill with black after making a few more tweaks to contrast and color.

Photo 5: Sky removed and replaced with black.

Since I now have a black sky version with the foreground as I like it, I can include this frame in any other stacks I make, and my foreground will be just as I want it. If I were working entirely in Photoshop, I would not have to fill with black, I could just use the result as a layer with only the foreground revealed by a mask.

To complete the process, I restacked 33 images together with the sky-less foreground image (Photo 5). Some more minor shadow and color temperature tweaks and some spot corrections of the few hot pixels (there were about 15), an addition of my copyright and this is the result:

Photo 6: Final Image

Since I had all the images for the stack, I was challenged on Flickr to also make a time-lapse video. This video below also helps to illustrate how stacking works. I collected the original thirty-three 6 minute exposures and cropped them to HD format (1920 x 1080). I then created and a sequence of stacked images using the intermediates option of Star Circle Academy Stacking action and joined them into an animation complete with a lovely snippet of the song Kidstuff by Acoustic Alchemy. In my next column, I’ll show how to create the time-lapse animation.

Red Rock Dancing *Explored 03-03-2011*

If you would like hands on experience and instruction, you can join us at a StarCircleAcademy Workshop