Category Archives: Photoshop

Darken Mode Stack Tip Using AdvancedStacker PLUS 15

The new Advanced Stacker PLUS 15 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 15 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 15 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.


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).

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.

Exploring Night Photography Lesson 5: Photo Processing

Published:  May 4, 2016
Last Update: May 10, 2016

Homework assignment: Star Trails. This was created using StarStax with 150 exposures of ISO 800, f/4, 15 seconds.

Homework assignment: Star Trails. This was created using StarStax with 270 exposures of ISO 800, f/4, 15 seconds. What are those things where the arrows are pointing, and what is the circled constellation?

Last week in lesson 4 the subject was star trails. We continue that theme this week and fill in with some material that you may have learned the hard way.

What settings?

Last week’s assignment was:

  • Weather Permitting, get at least 20 minutes worth of star trails. First determine what the best starting exposure is, then take 20 minutes worth.

I chose to take about 270, 15-second exposures at f/4, ISO 800 for my star trails using an intervalometer trick that I demonstrated in class. That nets over an hours worth of exposures. But how did I come up with those settings?  It was a little bit experience, and a little bit application of the principle taught in the very first homework: namely try and see!  But how did I decide what evening I would try to get star trails?  The weather needed to be right, so the germaine question is:

When will the weather be right for star trails?

Well, we strongly recommend See our article about how to use the information. Indeed, we like it so much, we even created a page with forecasts for places we often find ourselves going.

Weather, check. Settings, check. Now what?

Wait, what about the moon? We need to know when it rises and sets. A full moon washes out a lot of the night sky and makes for unpleasant star trails.  There are many places to determine what the moon situation is like, but I like to use The Photographer’s Ephemeris (either the App, or the online version).

Next we need to review the Stacker’s Checklist both to be sure we have all the gear and that we know what we are doing. Best is to run through it at home. Is it surprising that there are SO MANY steps? Sorry, but they are there to prevent you from making all the mistakes we’ve made.

In class we reviewed our homework (star trails) from the last assignment and discussed hits and misses.  Finally we got to the meat:

Photo Processing

It would be foolish to attempt to describe everything we did in class… especially since we have so many articles here describing how to photo process your shots (and webinars and recordings, too – oh my!)

But we demonstrated three things:

  1. Super simple Panorama creation using “Image Composite Editor” from Microsoft. Yep. You have to have a Windows machine to use it… but it’s free and SUPER simple and more effective than anything we’ve managed to get out of Photoshop or Lightroom.
  2. What Lightroom is good for… cataloging your images. And what it’s NOT good for: complex multi-image editing – for example star trails and image combinations.
  3. The three most powerful and useful elements of Photoshop:
    1.  Layers – This is the real meat of Photoshop together with blend modes which mathematically combine layers.
    2.  Masks – Masks allow you to change the way layers and adjustments get combined by “masking” out some of the changes.
    3.  Adjustments:  Curves – Curves are the best tool to learn since nearly everything you can do with the other tools can be done with curves… and if you get the hang of it, curves are actually easier to understand.

We also demonstrated Adobe Bridge which is a “lighter weight” version of Lightroom – one that doesn’t require any importing. And we spilled the beans that “Adobe Camera Raw” is the guts of Lightroom. And that Lightroom adjustments are really just like what you can do in Photoshop… with some of the magic, and much of the versatility – and also much of the complexity removed.

We also explained why RAW is the way to go, and why RAW is ugly (short reason: the camera does not see the way we do it just records heaps of numbers).

We did not do this in class, but we covered much of the ground:

12 Minute Star Trail using Advanced Stacker PLUS version14D from Steven Christenson on Vimeo.


Top Six Questions We Answered About Lightroom

  1.  If I use Lightroom to catalog and organize my images (keywords, etc) am I forever wedded to Lightroom?
    Practically, yes. We used to use Picasa and did our organizing and cataloging there…. unfortunately Picasa was discontinued and Lightroom had no way to import the data. If you stop paying for your Lightroom Cloud edition, you may be stuck as we do not know of a tool that can digest your Lightroom catalog.  SOLUTION: BUY Lightroom, don’t just subscribe. This is not so true about Photoshop, by the way, many tools can import Photoshop files.
  2. Is there anything particularly painful about Lightroom I should beware of?
    Yes. Lots! When your image library gets large, managing images is unwieldy, especially if you want to use multiple computers and multiple storage devices to hold those images.
  3. Is Lightroom good for Night Photography images?  Not particularly. Most of the power of manipulating night images is found in Photoshop (averaging, stacking, compositing). Lightroom can not composite images, for example.
  4. Is Lightroom hard to use? Yes. No. Maybe. We think it is powerful and much easier to use than Photoshop. But there is still lots of learning and ample room to do the wrong thing.
  5. Should I import everything I shoot?
    Yes… and No. The smaller the image library the easier it is to keep organized. Of course if you delete the very images you later want you will have paid a price for your anti-hoarding behavior.  We do believe it is reasonable to throw away .JPGs if you are keeping the RAW files. And those fringe images that you are likely to never use – well you are likely to never need them.
  6. Can I do everything in Photoshop that I can in Lightroom?  Yes, mostly. Photoshop has no image organization tools, but yes, you can make all the adjustments in Photoshop that you can do in Lightroom… only it will be harder to do and may be harder to apply to multiple images at once.

Oh, by the way, the official name of Lightroom is “Adobe Photoshop Lightroom” just to confuse everyone.

What Are the Top 4 Things to Know About Photoshop?

  1.  Photoshop is the lingua franca of photo editors. Nearly every other tool does not come close in the level of acceptance and use. Widespread use does not mean Photoshop is the best tool. Remember how VHS beat Beta? These days video tape is hardly even used! Photoshop has been around a long time and has a LOT of baggage. Photoshop is built to do a lot of things way beyond photo editing (scientific analysis, animation, typography to name a few). Because Photoshop has been around so long, the tooling is unnatural .  We started with Paint Shop Pro and found it much, much less confusing.
  2.  Is there an alternative to Photoshop?
    Yes, there is the free Gimp, and many others. Unfortunately as we have noted above, those tools are not as widely used so getting help with them is harder.
  3.  Do you have any suggestions on what I should learn first?
    Why yes, thanks for asking. We have a series of articles on that:  We call the series “The Most Used Image Editing Techniques” and it comes in three parts: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.  The one we used the most is the “Simple Astrophotography” Trick to reduce noise.  We also like this trick to select a foreground (it’s used in the video above) and use it a lot.

Homework Assignment

  •  Fire up Photoshop and try to duplicate this image:
Final image with replaced foreground

Final image with replaced foreground

Super big hint… all the files you need and the process to accomplish the task is described in this article: Foreground-o-Matic.

  • Use the same technique on your own image(s) to pick a more interesting foreground image from a “stack” (sequence) of images.

Feel free to comment below if you know the answers to the questions we asked in the first image above. We will reveal the answers in the next article.