Tag Archives: blending

Stacking: the Overloaded Word That Needs Explanation

The current rage of “stacked Milky Way” (or night sky) captures is quite different from the star trail or timestacks style of captures. Huh? The words stack and stacking are overloaded with many different meanings. Let’s see if we can add some precision and clarification.

Here are some of the variations possible:

  • Auto Blend Layers with Stacking: Used for macro/focus stacking, HDR, and generic image blending – NOT for astro images!
  • Lighten Mode Stacking: Creating Star Trails!
  • Statistics Mode Blending (Stacking): Can perform the same operation as Lighten Mode Stacking when the option “Maximum” is used, however Statistics are heavy weight and more complicated to do in our opinion.
  • Align and Stack: Deep sky astrophotography using several images taken one after another as quickly as possible. Photoshop doesn’t do this well, but we describe how in the next section. Align is the distinguishing word here.
  • Tracked Stacked Images: For still astrophotography images with less noise and greater detail. A device is required that tracks the sky rotation – the word tracked is the key here.

    Adobe Lightroom and Adobe Bridge “Stacking”

  • Group into Stack:  Not stacking at all! It really just means “create a group”.

The above is NOT an exhaustive list of the kinds of stacking you may hear about!

Stacking Types Explained

Group into Stack

Let’s start with the easy one: Stacking may mean add to group. In Lightroom and Adobe Bridge you can pick several photos and the options  Stacking -> Group into Stack. Or pick several photos and either Photo Merge to HDR or Panorama with the “Create Stack” option checked. In this context, Stacking and Stack just means group.  Unfortunately a photo can only appear in one stack, and you cannot stack photos from different folders together.

Why would you want a photo to appear in two (or more) stacks groups? Here is an example where I used a single top shot and created two different panoramas.

Panoramas 1 and 2 were both created using image 3 (608095.NEF) but when panorama 2 was created, image 3 was removed from the stack (group) for 1 and added to the stack (group) with 2. Furthermore, you can see that the panorama and the two photos used to create it were all added into the group (notice the last image says 3 of 3).

Blend Layers using Lighten Mode

Stacking may mean blend photos in lighten or darken blend mode – examples are star trails and timestacks. In this usage, the lightest (or darkest) of all the pixels in each image is selected. This is the kind of stacking that AdvancedStacker Plus does. Below is an example of taking several images that we collected over time with long delays between each exposure causing the “dotted” appearance of the star trail.

Several layers of images taken at intervals all set to blend mode “Lighten”

Align and Blend Stacking

Stacking can ALSO mean ALIGN and blend images with median, mean (aka average) or more sophisticated algorithms. Indeed astroimagers have been doing this style of blending for years using techniques that involve “star registration” (aligning stars with stars) and some pretty fancy stacking algorithms like Alpha-Kappa Median Clipping and Entropy Weighted Average. The key point here is the alignment. Indeed, here at StarCircleAcademy, we’ve explained how you can brighten and reduce noise in your foreground using simple astrophotography processing techniques.  See below for how to accomplish Align and Blend Stacking in Photoshop, and plenty of warnings about why this method is very likely to FAIL using Photoshop as the tool.

You may also see references to tracked, stacked images. These are the same as “align and blend” just described, except that to capture the image, the camera is guided by an external device (or by some fancy internal hardware), to allow longer exposures of the stars without getting unintentional trailing (smears) of stars.

The takeaway is that not all stacking is created equal. You need to know the context to understand what is meant by the word: stacking.

Focus Stacking / Auto Blend Layers

In Photoshop there is Edit -> Auto-Blend Layers -> Stack Images this is yet another kind of stacking (focus stacking) and despite the wording is NOT the kind of operation needed to ALIGN and Blend astro images. If you don’t believe us, give it a try and you’ll see it will do very weird things with your layers. Below are the same images as earlier. Note the bizarre masks it created to do the blending.

Edit -> Auto-Blend Layers -> Stack Images makes a mess. We told you so! Click to see a bigger image.

Aligned, Stacked Starry Landscape Images

While it would probably be better to make this a separate article in itself, we found it painful enough that we don’t recommend bothering – and yet we proceed to explain HOW to do it anyway!

If you want the cleanest possible images, you’ll – of course – want to reduce the overall noise  and bring out details by using many images instead of one. This approach is not all puppies and kittens. Here are some of the pitfalls:

  1. The direction of sky movement relative to the ground has a significant influence on the quality of the result (as well as the order chosen for alignment). In general, setting constellations are better than rising ones.
  2. Most of the existing tutorials will assume that you have a recent (CC) version of Photoshop with statistics and an an “Auto Align” that properly manages masked regions.
  3. Some of the tutorials we’ve observed are more cumbersome than they need be. There are plenty of hotkeys and mouse shortcuts to make the process go pretty quickly.
  4. More than 10 or so images can become quite demanding on machine resources.
  5. The complexity of your foreground will also affect the outcome. A clean, crisp separation between sky and land is preferable. Trees, poles, wires, and other things that extend through the sky are problematic.
  6. Lens distortion can also adversely affect the outcome.

Aligned Stacking Procedure

  1. Load all the photos as layers in Photoshop.
  2. Heal out airplane and satellite trails from each layer.
  3. Select all the layers and add to a group named “Sky
  4. Right click the Sky Group and duplicate the whole group as “Foreground”
  5. Select all the layers in Foreground.  Use Layer -> Smart Object -> Convert to Smart Object.
  6. Select Layer -> Smart Object -> Stack Mode -> Mean
  7. Duplicate Mean using Ctl-Alt-Shift-E (Command-Option-Shift-E on MAC). Label the newly created layer “Mean” and turn it off.
  8. Select all layers in Sky. Set blend mode to “Lighten” and observe the direction of star movement against the ground.
  9. Be sure the image with stars nearest the ground is at the BOTTOM of the stack. The bottom layer will be your base for alignment. You can drag layers around, or Layer -> Arrange -> Reverse may do the trick.
  10. Create a mask keeping as much of the sky as is easy to do but that DOESN’T include any ground  or fixed location objects. IMPORTANT: Be sure the mask doesn’t have holes in it, including at the bottom corners. Click the layer mask, hold down the Alt (Option) key and drag the mask to the next sky layer. Repeat until all sky images are masked with the same mask.
  11. Select the bottom layer and lock it  (Layers -> Lock Layers -> check Position -> Ok)
  12. Select all the sky layers.
  13. Chose Edit -> Auto Align Layers -> Auto
  14. When alignment is done, set blend mode for all sky layers to Darken. If stars are disappearing in the result image, that’s bad.
    1. If alignment is great everywhere, that is you have plenty of stars, you’re done. But it probably won’t be. So…
    2. Duplicate the current layers to a NEW document – call it whatever you want, but perhaps “Left looks good” makes sense.
    3. Open the history palette and click just above the “Align Layers” item (to restore to before the alignment was done). Lock the TOP layer (see item 11) and repeat steps 12-14.
    4. If a large portion of the image still has streaks in some quadrant, try undoing align, undoing the lock and re-aligning.
    5. If you’re still getting a significant amount of streaking you can also try Auto Align -> Reposition rather than auto.

      Q: Why do I have disappearing stars?
      A: The reason they are disappearing is because they are not aligned. In Darken mode, the darker sky “wins” out over the several stars. This COULD be a good thing in other situations, but not here!

      Q: If I went through the trouble of doing all this alignment, why is it still “off”?
      A: Photoshop isn’t optimized to align stars. Secondly, lens distortion makes a star move non-uniformly across the sensor. And third: stars at different declinations (celestial latitudes) travel at different speeds across the field. To eliminate streaks, the best solution is to track the sky.

  15. Take the aligned sky, delete all the layer masks. With all the aligned sky layers selected, create a smart Object.
  16. Do the same Stack Mode “Mean” trick for the sky smart object that you previously did for the foreground.
  17. The rest is pretty straight forward. Turn the foreground (mean) back on. Use a selection to reveal only the foreground and apply that to the Foreground Group.
  18. Adjust contrast, color balance, vibrance, etc. to your satisfaction.
  19. Save the kit and caboodle.

Does all this seem too complicated? Well, then perhaps you might consider using these tools instead. They do most of the hard work for you and they KNOW the difference between stars and foreground (usually because you help them know).

  • On a Mac: Starry Landscape Stacker – from the Mac App Store
  • On a PC: Sequator – do a Google Search to download it.

By the way there are many astro processing tools, like Deep Sky Stacker – but most/all of them expect that your images will have NO foreground or non-moving objects like wires in them.

Advanced Star Trail Tricks

Published: Oct 11, 2012
Last Update: February 14, 2018 (remove Flash)

I have been playing with Star Trail processing for quite a while.  Ever since I wrote the StarCircleAcademy Stacking Action I’ve been tweaking processing to try different things. Sometimes failure is inevitable, sometimes… well, you’ll see.

First, you may want to look back through my earlier columns on shooting and processing star trails because this is not a primer on star trails – it builds on what I’ve previously written and this is not a good place to try to understand what stacking is.

Second, please understand that I use a variety of tools but almost all of my more successful endeavors end up as layers that are combined in Photoshop (CS5 at the moment).  You could combine your layers in GIMP if you don’t have Photoshop, but you’ll be out of luck if you try to use Lightroom.

Here are my star trail effects:

  1. Smoothee – Averaged sky and/or foreground to reduce the grittiness that sometimes results from brighten stacks. I’ve been espousing this for quite a while. See the Simple Astrophotography Processing Technique.
  2. Blobulous – stars at the beginning (or end) of a trail are made to stand out from the rest of the trail.
  3. Comets – star trails appear to grow brighter and the end of the trail looks like the nucleus of a comet.
  4. Streakers – Like comet only the trails are longer
  5. Blackened – A clever trick removes sky glow from light pollution, the moon, or twilight.

And of course you can make “Blobulous Comets” and “Blobulous Streakers” and “Blackened Smoothee Comets” and more.

Building Blocks

To creatively combine exposures, I usually create the following stacked frames.

  • Dark (Darken in Image Stacker/StarStax)
    The darkest elements emerge – especially the hot pixels
  • Brighten (aka lighten) stack
    The Brightest of everything is present, including hot pixel and more noticeable noise
  • Average
    Contrast is reduced, smoothness increased.
  • Additive (called “Stack” in Image Stacker)
    Hot pixels become really bright.
  • Scaled (called Stack/Average in Image Stacker)
    Allows some increase in brightness but more smoothness, too. Experiment with different divisors.

Normally I create all of these combinations using Image Stacker against my JPG files because it is really easy to do.  I end up with a set of frames something like these although I’ve significantly brightened them so that they are easier to see.


In a Nutshell: Combine the Average stack over the Brighten stack using Normal mode at 45% opacity.

I’ll start with the Smoothee technique since it’s probably the easiest to do and perhaps the easiest to understand.  The problem with “Brightness” (or lighten as it’s called in Photoshop) is that it will also pick up all the hot pixels, and the brightest bits of noise.  Averaging on the other hand tends to smooth out everything except for truly hot pixels since most noise is random. By putting an averaged stack as a layer over the brighten stack and then adjusting the blending modes and opacity you get a smoother sky and foreground.  Exactly what settings to use depend on the images, but surprisingly many of the blending modes for the Average layer work here including Darken, Multiply, Overlay, and Normal. The starting place for Opacity is about 45%.

Hint: You can also use an Additive stack instead of the average stack but usually only the Normal blend mode will work.  For even more fun combine the Additive stack and the Average stack.

For additional smoothness you can also subtract the “Darken Stack” while adjusting the opacity to prevent halos and weirdness.


In a Nutshell: Add one of the single frames more than once.

What do “Blobs” look like? Like this…

“Fat Star” processing.

There are two ways to produce “Blobs”. One way is to add “Comets” to a smoothed star trail. The other is to simply pick an image (usually the last one in the set) and add it in using “Add” or “Screen” mode. To make the blob more pronounced duplicate the last frame so it’s added twice. BUT remember when you add in any single image the hot pixels are going to come out… and even more so if you add an image twice.

Comets and Streakers

These two techniques require some fancy stacking techniques. Fortunately I’ve created an action to do all the fancy stuff.  I’ll be rolling out the action and the explanation to my Photo Manipulation Webinar participants first <NOTE: The Advanced Stacker PLUS action has been released and is available for purchase in our store>.

Oh, here is a peak at what the Comet action looks like:

What's The Point?

And here is what an animation of comets might look like:

Star Rise



I know you’re going to ask so let me save you some typing. Except for the “Comet” image above, all images used in these illustrations were taken during the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Workshop in the Patriarch Grove on White Mountain, East of Bishop, California.

The 34 or so images that I’ve combined in the examples above were all taken with the following settings: Canon 50D, ISO 400, f/3.5, 79 seconds, 10-22mm lens at 15mm.

Sequenced Shots (How To)

How on earth did I end up with this:

Annular Eclipse Sequence [C_040079+fives]

What I started with was lots of shots that looked liked these first three images – i.e not much of anything.

As I went along I ended up combining the “specks” into the image at the lower left. I combined the sequence with a shot taken just after sunset (middle bottom) and the result is as shown in the lower right.

We will soon provide the explanation of how to create the result. First we would like to give some clues about how the shot was planned – because, as it turns out, planning is an important part of all sequences like this one!

Avoidable Technical Content

The May 20, Annular Solar eclipse was well documented. Particularly handy is Nasa’s map based application. Choose a spot on earth by clicking on the map and some useful data pops up:

See those highlighted numbers… they tell you that when the eclipse starts it will be 31.5 degrees high in the sky, and when it ends it will be 5 degrees high – about 27 degrees top to bottom.  Allowing another 5 degrees above and say 10 below we need an image that spans 42 degrees in one direction.  Looking at the Azi numbers  The eclipse begins at 270 degrees (due west) and ends at 292.2 degrees (WNW).  So to take that all in and allow a little breathing room we need about 30 degrees.   Thus we know our field of view needs to be somewhere around 42 degrees vertically and 30 degrees horizontally. Already it sounds like we would prefer portrait mode to keep the sun/moon as large as possible. Using one of the many online tools, like the Angular Field of View Calculator by Tawbaware. Canon people might prefer the “easy to click, but perhaps not so easy to understand Canon equipment specific calculator.”

On a full frame camera, the 50 mm lens comes out to 39 x 27 degrees. which would just fit the whole sequence.  I decided to use my 70mm lens – because I already had a solar filter for it. My plan was to wait until I could catch the sun in the upper left of the frame and the foreground I wanted at the bottom. When the sun arrived, I slapped on the solar filter and started automatic 30 second intervals between exposures.

Or Just Go with Luck

Perhaps my first attempt was not so well planned.

Mamma Glows, Baby Shines

I was too interested in keeping Mt Tamalpais in the picture and ALMOST didn’t get the whole moonset. I know better now! Over three years ago I described how I created the image.  The technique is an extension of my previously described Easy HDR method.

To Be Continued…

In Part 2 of this article, we will show you a few helpful little addenda to make the process easier to manage. We will reveal a Photoshop-only method to approach the problem, AND for good measure a nifty tool to make it easy as pie.

Meanwhile if you are intrigued by the moon, you might want to join us from WHEREVER you are on one of our fun, informative, and oh so reasonably priced Moonatic Webinars.  Or maybe the next Photo Manipulation webinar is just your size.

Easy (HDR) Blending with Stacking Software

I’ve been teaching a “Catching the Moon” webinar approximately monthly. The focus of that course is to teach how to properly expose for the moon, how to catch the moon aligned with your favorite landmark, and how to determine the optimum light scenarios.  The webinar is based on my Alignment 1 and Alignment 2 articles with a healthy dose of additional material including some private material for students only.

One of the most difficult aspects of getting a moon alignment is that there is a pretty small optimum time window for getting an exposure.  Shooting earlier or later makes the foreground illumination and the moon illumination all but impossible to get both exposed properly in a single shot.

Here is an example of a single shot where the lighting was pretty close to perfect (though you can see the moon is a bit over exposed).

A Perfect 10 [5_057646]

However later that evening the sunset occurred quite a while before moon rise, so the sky and foreground were much darker.  The photographer faces a conundrum. Expose for the foreground or expose to preserve moon features.

On the left is a 30 second exposure prior to moon rise (though a tiny bit of the moon is in fact visible). On the right a 1/25th of a second exposure. Both taken on a tripod at f/9, ISO 250, 444mm effective focal length.  The problem is that a longer exposure renders the moon as a white featureless blob or streak (see below for an example). However exposing for the moon as on the right renders the foreground all but invisible.

What to Do?

There are a couple of simple alternatives. One is to bring both images into Photoshop. Make both images layers, the moon on top of the background and combine the two images using “Lighten” blending mode.  That will work very well and it’s essentially what happens when using the StarCircleAcademy Stacking Action. But that action, and even Photoshop are overkill for this situation.

Free Solution!

Fortunately Markus Enzweiler offers a free solution called StarStax that runs on Windows, Linux and Mac that makes it trivially simple to combine these two exposures – assuming they were taken on a tripod and the zoom, focus and direction does not change between shots.  StarStax is tailored to stacking star trails, but it does the same operation that Photoshop (and Image Stacker and StarTrails.de do).

And fortunately you can make it do a little more with almost no extra effort… as in this example. When the first image was taken it was quite dark and required a long exposure to capture foreground details.  Then all the moon images were taken with identical settings using an intervalometer.  It’s interesting to note how the moon darkens and deepens in color as it sinks in the atmosphere.

Project Impact [5_057573-615br]

So how do you create the simple or “stacked” motion images?  Easy.

 And here is the result.

Obviously to create a descending or ascending moon sequence you merely need to combine exposures taken at the appropriate interval. What is that interval? The moon travels roughly its diameter in two minutes. About 2 minutes, 14 seconds to be more precise.  I recommend taking exposures twice or four times as often as that, however and just use every-other or every fourth shot.

Since I took a simple approach to blend the images I also elected to go simple in presentation. Rather than fight the many different colors inherent in urban night scenes, I used Picasa3 to convert to monochrome, crop and frame the combined image – here using an earlier shot than the “Golf Ball on a Tee” shot above.

In the Evening [5_057775+92]

Here is one last example of a descending crescent moon combined using Photoshop. Here I didn’t wait a full moon diameter time between images because it was a crescent moon:

Mamma Glows, Baby Shines

 This also illustrates why taking more frequent exposures gives more creative latitude.