Category Archives: Photo Tip

Down with the Noise!

Published: December 10, 2017

Clouds, Coast and Milky Way (vertorama)

We need to start with a definition.  What is noise?  A reasonable, widely excepted definition is that noise is any artifact or defect that reduces the overall fidelity of an image. But this definition is too broad because defects like glare and chromatic aberration would be included. Glare and chromatic aberration are caused by the optical system, not by the sensor. So a better definition is needed.

Noise Means: Variations in luminance (brightness) and chrominance (color) in an image that are not in the object being imaged and not caused by the optical system. These variations generally are perceived as colored speckles and resemble grain in film photography.

There are, however, many types of noise – each having different causes and thus different solutions.

Astonishing Fact Number 1

Every image has noise!  Indeed, noise often aids in creating sharpness.

Astonishing Fact Number 2

Usually the problem is not noise but with noise that overwhelms the “signal”.

The Five Kinds of Noise

There is not just one kind of noise. There are five. Ok, there are actually MORE than five kinds of noise, but here are the most significant ordered from most to least likely to overwhelm a night image.

  • Random (quantum effect) noise.
  • Fixed pattern noise (banding)
  • Stuck (Hot Pixel) Noise
  • Offset noise
  • Shot Noise – applies to very dim subjects and shadows

You may see different terminology in other articles. For example “Fixed Pattern Noise” is often used to describe stuck/hot pixels.  For me “stuck pixels” while often annoying are one of the easiest to control using “dark frames” – or with newer cameras, require NO work. More on that in a moment.  Let’s briefly address each kind of noise, what causes it, and how to best prevent it.

Random Noise

Despite what you may have been lead to believe, random noise IS random. Speckles can appear anywhere on your image in light or dark areas. These speckles are caused by *random* quantum effects.  Electromagnetic induction, electro magnetic fields, gamma rays, sunspots, static charges, impurities in the electronic substrate, and blind bad luck. ALL of these effects are magnified by heat which is the single nastiest mafioso of noise. Longer exposures produce more noise. And “Dark Frame Subtraction” (an element of Long Exposure Noise Reduction aka LENR) can do *nothing* to alleviate random noise. Soon however we will tell you how to reduce noise the way an astrophotographer does.

Fixed Pattern Noise (e.g. Banding)

The more you push an image, the more likely you are to see vertical or horizontal banding – or both.  Pushing refers to high ISO sensitivity or large increases in exposure in post processing. Pushing also refers to using lower quality sensors at well above their quantum efficiency – which we will explain in a moment.  As with random noise higher ambient temperatures can intensify this type of noise.  Another example of fixed pattern noise refers to pink, purple or overly bright areas in an image. Early cameras were particularly prone to this form of noise because the electronics of the camera were unevenly heating the sensor – and as has been pointed out above, temperature is the enemy of a clean image.

Stuck / Hot Pixels

To be precise, it’s usually not “pixels” that are stuck or hot – it’s sensels. Because each pixel is comprised of two green, one blue and one red sensel it’s often easy to tell which of the sensels is defective by observing the color of the pixel. If red – the red sensel is registering a value higher than it should. “Stuck” sensels usually result from one of the following causes:

  1. Measurement errors in the electronics (e.g. photon collector doesn’t empty properly, current leakage), or an unusually high offset bias.
  2. Physical damage to the filter (lens) over the sensel – usually at manufacturing time.

Often the higher the ISO, the more offensive a stuck pixel appears – however stuck pixels which are present in every frame can be removed using dark frame subtraction, and indeed modern cameras can remove these automatically. Dark frame reduction is something the camera does when it does “Long Exposure Noise Reduction”.  Sometimes resetting the camera can dramatically reduce the hot pixels. The method for resetting a camera varies, but on many Canon cameras, the prescribed method is to use the manual “sensor clean mode” -> Now and leave it in that mode (with no lens attached) for at least a minute before turning off the power.  Also note that heat often exacerbates the stuck pixel problem, too.

Tip 1: “Reset your camera after it has temperature stabilized and before shooting. Usually this is a simple as “Clean Sensor -> Now” Many modern cameras make note of the stuck pixels and will automatically remove them for you!

Offset Noise

The process of measuring each sensel involves an imprecise analog to digital conversion. The measurement phase can introduce its own error called bias. Rather than reading an unexposed (black) sensel as a zero, some sensels may read 2, some 4 and others 7.  This offset noise is also managed pretty well by LENR and except when it is really bad, is not significant.  Merely darkening the darkest pixels may be sufficient to hide offset noise.

Shot Noise

This is a curious name but it refers to the fact that photons (light) do not arrive at a regular rate – especially for dark subjects like dim stars or the darkest of shadows. Since the camera collects and counts photons, variations in the rate of arrival of photons results in speckling. However normally shot noise is minimal and not noticeable. Shot noise is usually noticed only when severely underexposing or by aggressively brightening underexposed areas.

 

Noise Reduction Methods (Pre and Post Shot)
Type of Noise Pre-Shot  Post Processing
Stuck Pixel(s) Cooler, Camera Reset, LENR Dark Frame Subtraction
Random Cooler, Shorter Averaging, DeNoise, ACR
Banding Cooler DeNoise, ACR
Shot Longer Exposure
Offset LENR Dark Frame Subtraction

 

Looking Noise in the Face

Zooming in on a dark frame – one taken with the lens cap on shows the nature of noise. First is a dark frame without any adjustments.  Some red and green noise is barely discernible.

Dark Frame 1 - Linear Mode, Unmodified

Dark Frame 1 – Linear Mode, Unmodified

Looking at the same frame with an adjustment to boost the saturation and brightness, the nature of random noise is more obvious.

Same Single Dark Frame Boosted with curve to show content.

Same Single Dark Frame Boosted with curve to show content.

Notice how the noise is different in the same area of another frame.

DarkFrame2Boosted

For more examples of noise in dark frames, see this article.

Noise Reduction – The Environment

Sadly, one of the most significant sources of noise is heat – the heat in the air.  Shooting in the desert at 100 degrees Farenheit will always create far more noise than shooting at 30 degrees F below zero.  Can you help the problem by cooling the camera? Yes you can!  Gary Honis built a cooler for his camera (used for astrophotography) and got quite impressively better results. His chart of noise pixels is no longer on the site, but it dropped from thousands of bits of noise to to tens by cooling his camera 40 degrees Farenheit. However beware that if you also cool the lens you’re likely to get dew.  And if you have an open system like in Gary’s Telescope scenario, you may get dew on your sensor, too.  Not surprisingly ALL high-end cameras for astrophotography are cooled. The most extreme are cooled with liquid nitrogen!

The second take-away is this:

Tip 2: If possible, opt for shooting in cooler climes.  If you’re shooting the Milky Way, for example, you can check a Planisphere and you’ll find that you can get the same star configuration at different times of the night in different parts of the year.

 

Noise Reduction – A Better Sensor

You may have seen some velvety smooth night images produced by top of the line cameras and may be wondering if you can achieve such results with your middle of the line equipment. Unfortunately the answer is mostly no.  Generally speaking two things dramatically affect the amount of noise produced in a camera’s sensor with regard to night and low-light images and those are:

  • Sensor density: the more sensels you pack into a given amount of space the less light they receive. Set out a thimble and a bathtub in a rainstorm and it will be no surprise to find far less water accumulates in the thimble than the bathtub. The smaller, closely packed sensels in high megapixel crop-factor cameras have a distinct disadvantage over the relatively lower density, larger real-estate full frame cameras.
  • Sensor design: Modern camera sensels are spaced more closely together so they waste less light. They are also more efficient.  Better sensors also have higher “full well” capacities – that is they can count more photons more accurately before filling up or spilling over. Because of better sensor design it is possible for a higher megapixel sensor to outperform a lower megapixel sensor of the same size.

There is one other measure of a sensor that keeps getting better: it’s quantum efficiency.  In an ideal sensor each photon will increase the count of the sensel it strikes by exactly one.  The efficiency of a sensor can be determined by calculating its “ISO at Unity Gain”.  The higher the number, the better the sensor performance.  DxO Mark calculates approximately this value and represents it as the ISO value in its “Sport/Low Light” rating.  For daylight subjects with gadzillions of photons flying a great picture doesn’t require a high efficiency sensor. But in low light every photon should be counted!

Here are the top 3 Full Frame or crop cameras (plus #4, the one I chose) ranked by ISO of the “Sports Score” (a good approximation of the quantum efficiency) and initial price as of November 16, 2017. Click the image to see the latest chart and to find your own camera.

DxO Mark “Sports” Score by Cost

Tip 3: Learn what your camera quantum efficiency is and shoot near or below that ISO level. Selecting a higher ISO than the quantum efficiency magnifies the noise, while a lower ISO tosses out good data.

Noise Reduction – Software

There are many ways to use software to reduce noise in an image. Tools like Canon’s Digital Photo Professional (DPP), Adobe’s Camera Raw (ACR), Lightroom – which uses the ACR component, and many plugins and filters within Photoshop.  Keep in mind that no noise reduction technique will result in keeping a perfectly sharp image – all methods blur the result.  TopazLabs DeNoise (and inFocus) product claim to have deconvolution techniques to keep edges sharp. The good news is that a slightly blurred sky – like clouds, looks quite natural. What is my preferred method?

  1. Ignore it!  That’s right. Many images that appear noisy when pixel peeped are really quite fine for reproduction at reasonable sizes and viewing distances – especially if no overly aggressive brightening or contrast enhancements are done.
  2. Adobe Camera Raw: I use ACR when the noise is fairly low.  ACR does a suprisingly good job of removing noise if you bump the “Luminance” and “Color” Noise reduction sliders to the right and turn down the Luminance Detail and Color Detail sliders. How much depends on the image and how desperate you are to save it.  NOTE: Lightroom’s controls are the same as those in ACR except that you can selectively apply noise reduction which is preferable. Being too aggressive with the Color noise may eliminate your star colors, so beware!
  3. Use a Photoshop Plugin.  There are a kajillion ways to reduce noise within Photoshop – after ACR – including the “Despeckle”, “Dust and Scratches” and “Reduce Noise” filters (and more). But we find that in Photoshop all the built in ways are underwhelming.  I have tried several plugins including DFine (Nik Software), DeNoise (Topaz), and a few others.  The one that wins for me is TopazLabs DeNoise.  Below are samples of the original, and the DeNoised versions.  I think the result speaks for itself.  But note that I *intentionally* used an artificially high ISO to increase the noise.  A better ISO for the Canon 5D II would be about 1600 ISO – a little less than its 1815 rating by DxO Mark Sports score.

C_061861b_orig C_061861b_deband

Here is a closer crop of the areas most changed by the noise reduction:

The original image and two attempts at noise reduction. Notice that some areas (X) remain problematic

A good noise reduction strategy is to NOT denoise everything.  Duplicate the image to another layer in Photoshop. Apply noise reduction to that layer and then use a layer mask to reveal the noise reduction selectively. In the example above, masking off the Topaz Denoise on the tree would have left a sharper tree.

 

Median / Averaging To Reduce Noise

Yet another noise reduction method – useful for random noise is to do median (using Statistics in CS Advanced or Photoshop CC) or averaging of shots.

On the left is a single 25,600 ISO exposure. On the right, 15 shots averaged but with no other noise reduction attempted.

Hopefully you remember that there are many different kinds of noise. The techniques described above are used for controlling both random noise and stuck pixel noise. But stuck pixels can be managed by doing your own “dark frame subtraction“.

 

Resources:

 

Adding Special Touches to Your Astro Landscape

Published: November 6, 2107

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

Published: October 30, 2017

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.

Cruising

Publish Date: 29-November-2016

I, Steven, have recently completed one of my bucket list items… capturing stars and astro landscapes aboard a cruise ship. My interest in the idea is based on several observations:

  1. Night photography can be about movement – like star trails, for example – and cruise ships move.
  2. Cruise ships go to and through some of the darkest spots on earth – far away from any land producing artificial light
  3. Being aboard a ship means NOT having to drive anywhere or fly anywhere. Bed, food, drink and entertainment are never farther away than the length of a football field.
  4. I can still spend time with my family rather than alone in the wilderness because… we are all in the same “wilderness” at the same time.

brillianceoftheseas

My particular cruise was aboard the Brilliance of the Seas by Royal Carribbean. The ship departed from Tampa, Florida to Key West, then to Cozumel and back to Tampa. The good news is the things I feared most did not happen: I only gained 1.5 pounds and none of my equipment fell into the sea. I also had no motion sickness – though some I traveled with were uncomfortable in what were relatively light seas.

Sunrises, Sunsets and TimeStacks

It does not have to be all about night photography, right?  My travel from the West Coast to the East Coast for the cruise made it a lot easier for me to be awake at sunset and near impossible to greet a sunrise.
Sunset Reversal

Location Is Important

These two trails were taken on different days (one when the ship was cruising south, another two nights later when cruising north). Both were taken from Deck 5 with no moon. The first trail was from near the bow (front of the ship), the other from off the stern (back).

South Bound

South bound star trails from near the bow of the ship** Please read below for how I got here… it is an important detail.

Stern Seas

Looking south from the stern of a north bound cruise – with unfortunate clouds – but look at all the motion!  That bright  streak (and the cloud illuminated above it) are another passing cruise ship.

The ship was steadier when southbound – thus the first star trail looks pretty normal. The second one from the stern of the ship looks like a seismograph! Want to get a feel for the motion from the stern? Watch the video.

Tips and Insights

I did not meet any resistance or complaints from the crew or passengers using my tripod on deck. That is in part because I was mostly using it at night and had already scouted out areas to place it. My first recommendation is to …

Scout!

First scout your vessel thoroughly… do this before embarking (using deck plans available on the internet), then during the first day, and at night.  I discovered that a passageway open during the day, was gated at night. Unfortunately, that passage led to the darkest part of the ship. More about this in a minute.

Too Little Darkness on Board

Cruise ships are floating cities, and like cities, lights are everywhere and unavoidable. Onboard the Brilliance there were 2 darkish places to go and one dark place where I could not go*. One darkish spot was the top deck toward the bow. There are lights everywhere, but if you shield your eyes and moved deck chairs to cover over some of the bulkhead lights you could make out stars. What I could see, however, was nowhere near the glory that I’ve seen in even moderately rural areas. A darkish spot – mentioned by guest relations, was the starboard (right hand) side of deck 5 near the stern (back of the boat). Again, lots of lights everywhere, but that area was dark enough that with some eye shielding I could easily make out Orion.

See the next photo to see just how much light a ship casts about… the moon illuminated the sky as well – but you wouldn’t be able to see even this many stars by eye in a dark clear sky in any normal area of the ship.

Over the Railing

The light from the ship illuminates the water around it, while the moon illuminates the sky (Cuba is glowing in the distance). Notice how the ship’s pitching and rolling turned stars into squiggles.

Getting Where it Is Really Dark

You may be wondering how I pulled off the photography on the bow given that the passageway was barred at night. It happened innocently. I took advantage of a quirk on the Brilliance of the Seas. In the theater on the ship on the upper level there are what are best described as “box” seats adjacent to the wings of the stage. That area has nearby doors, one marked “Exit” the others are marked crew only. I took the “Exit” and it put me out by the passage to the Helicopter landing pad on the bow of the ship.  There was then another “gate” barring access to the helicopter landing area itself – but it was plenty dark up front. I swung my tripod up on the helopad area and controlled it with my intervalometer being careful to create as little light as possible. That’s how I got images for the first of two star trails above. I then stood at the outer rail of the helipad and took a panorama of the bridge area. Straight up and forward were MUCH darker.

Much of the crew area and the wheel house spanning the entire front of the ship is kept dark with little extra light.

Much of the crew area and the wheel house spanning the entire front of the ship is kept dark with minimal extra light. Note how much light there is on the top deck where you can see silhouettes of passengers through the glass. This is a stitched 4-shot panorama.

Packing for the Cruise

For a 5 day cruise, I took one camera, two smaller lenses batteries and a tripod. I packed almost all of my clothing for the trip inside a single large (carry-on size) bag with some extras in a small carry on “personal item”. That packing arrangement works great for short trips. To accommodate “Formal Night” I stole some space in my wife’s luggage for dress shoes and a suit.

Would You Like To See Celestial Delights On a Cruise?

Knowing that many travelers have never seen a properly dark night sky, I contacted Royal Caribbean and let them know I thought a potentially great ship resource was untapped. If you had a chance to view incredibly dark skies on board your cruise ship, would you relish that opportunity?  Please let us know in a comment below or on our Facebook Page. Perhaps the cruise line will contract SCA to teach night photography in addition to the many other courses on board. I, for one, would love to get on a dark deck and stare up into the Geminid meteor shower – or view the Milky Way at its finest.!