# Plan C: How To Plan a Time Sequence Shot

If you missed the last total lunar eclipse, don’t worry. You’ll have another chance in October, 2014. For that, I’m grateful since as you can see I had some problems with my apparatus (the CamRanger). The battery failed after the 7th shot of the moon you see below, and then it stopped working again after 3 more shots, and needed to be slayed and restarted just as the moon was transitioning to fully eclipsed.

But this column is not about our troubles, it is about how I planned for the lunar eclipse shot you see below.

The planning began with a list of possible foreground subjects. The San Jose City Hall Rotunda was “Plan C” and the least well researched of my plans. What were plan A and B? Those were one of my favorite lighthouses and a favorite landmark in San Francisco, California. For each arrangement I had to:

1. Calculate where to stand to make sure the moon would be in an interesting phase above the object. The plan required solving these problems
1. Determine how high in the sky the moon would be (to know what viewing angle was best)
2. Determine which DIRECTION I needed to face to capture the moon.
3. Determine how “wide” a lens I needed to get the sequence I wanted.
2. Monitor the weather at each location.

After planning all that was left was to make a last-minute decision where the most likely target would have favorable conditions and make any final on-site adjustments.  I had a Plan D, too… but it was also in San Jose so it would have only been chosen had I found some serious obstacle at the City Hall rotunda.

## Calculating the Angles

Determining the angles needed is pretty simple. I used The Photographer’s Ephemeris including all the nifty tricks we teach in our Catching the Moon Webinar. Below you can see a screen shot from the Photographer’s Ephemeris which shows the moon altitude and direction at the beginning of the eclipse. I also moved the time ahead to show the same for the middle of the eclipse.  The moon’s altitude angle (32 to 41 degrees) gave me an idea how close to be to the rotunda to get the moon overhead.  Lower angles allow me to get farther away which allows me to photograph the moon larger relative to the foreground object. This eclipse, however, and the one in October will have the moon high overhead.

## Coming up with a Foreground

There is no good substitute for knowing what interesting foregrounds are possible. And also knowing which direction(s) you should be facing.  I knew that the San Jose City Hall Rotunda was generally easterly because I had watched a sun rise through it. I also knew that the eclipse would be at maximum when the moon was in the southern sky so I knew that the range was SE to S directionally.  You can see a diagram from The Photographer’s Ephemeris below for more complete planning.

## Calculating Where to Stand

I had to know approximately how tall the foreground object is. For the San Jose City Hall I flat-out guessed.  I found the overall height of the building through Google, and I guess the Rotunda was 60 to 80 feet tall.   My original calculations had me much closer to the building… it was only when I got on site that I realized that there were adaptations that needed to be made.

## Watching the Weather

Remember that the Rotunda was plan C.  I kept a close eye on the weather for each of the planned sites.  My favorite weather app is provided by weather.gov – in particular the hourly graphs. We talked about this tool in detail in a prior column.  Why do I like it so much? Because it gives me numbers instead of “partly cloudy”.  It was pretty obvious that the coastal region for Plan A, and the San Francisco Landmark (plan B) were likely to have bad weather – both fog and clouds. Indeed my friends who headed those directions were frustrated by poor visibility.  We had clouds passing through San Jose, but as the weather predictions had read: it got clearest right near totality, and overall was not a hindrance.

When I first got to the site, I realized that the Rotunda was taller than I thought. I set up across the street in order to be able to have the moon over the Rotunda… but there were other problems, too. One of the problems is the floodlight on the top of the building. Another was a street light just to the right of where the red marker is in the graph below. These are problems that would only reveal themselves if you visit at night!

And then there are all of those flag posts.  My original guess at the Rotunda Height would have allowed me to stand between the fountain (brown area) and the building… but that clearly didn’t work as the rotunda was too high.  Setting up across the street (and very low) also had its challenges… namely buses and cars that came regularly.  I also realized that I had miscalculated the eclipse time by an hour (forgot it was now daylight savings time).  The miscalculation turned out to be a good thing as it left plenty of time to move around.  It would seem the ideal spot was in the MIDDLE of Santa Clara Street, but that wouldn’t have worked, of course.  Eventually I picked the spot with the red marker as a compromise between altitude of the moon above the structure, removing the glare from the tower lights, the wash-out of the street light, and the many flag poles in the way.

If only my CamRanger had cooperated, I’d have had a continuous sequence of shots of the moon passing over the Rotunda.  There is always October… and maybe Plan A will work for that!

Of course that’s not ALL that was required to get the shot. I also had to composite each of the moon shots into their proper locations. I did that by first taking a panorama of the area, then making sure that when the exposures began I had a piece of the rotunda in each shot so I could properly align the moon over its actual location.  The creation of the image used the Easy HDR method we have previously described.

# Where to Go for Dark Skies?

No matter where you live on earth you have a chance to witness the incredible experience of watching bits of space debris streak through our atmosphere and create cosmic fireworks. In an older column I described How to Photograph Meteors – it is a daunting and luck laden process. Here I want to give some useful hints about WHERE to go to get the best view. These same hints may also help you find a location to view the Milky Way.

What I am not planning to tell you is where *I* would go because many of you are reading from all over the world and it would be little help to you for me to mention Yosemite, or Windy Hill Open Space Preserve.  Instead, what I want to do is to give you the insight to figure out where the best place is for YOU.  Here are the parameters to weigh:

1. Goals
2. Weather
3. Accessibility
4. Distance
5. Darkness

## Goals

It might seem strange, but I pick different locations depending on what it is I want. If I just want to watch meteors then I will pick a place that may compromise the other factors.  Assuming my goal is to photograph meteors, I have a second important decision: Do I want meteors, or do I want meteors in the context of a landscape?  For me the answer is almost always in the context of a landscape for the reasons I illuminated in this article.  In my opinion a shot of a meteor might be interesting, but a shot of a meteor over a lovely mountain, lake or landmark is WAY more interesting. For example compare the two photos below. The first shot is an Iridium flare (not a meteor, though it looks like one). The second is definitely a meteor. Which one is the most interesting? Yeah, the second one!

The next part of the goal is to figure out WHICH direction the landmark needs to be.  For example the Geminid Meteor shower is one of the few showers where the “radiant point” is visible all night long. But that also means that it may be best to shoot East after sunset, or West before sunrise and around midnight you’ll want to point south when the constellation will be high in the sky.  Of course meteors appear anywhere in the sky, but I like to keep a part of the radiant in my shots.

Once I’ve figured out which direction I’d like to face, only then can I start including and excluding locations. Of course an ideal place would allow me to face ANY direction, but the truth is not many ideal places are left in the world.

## Weather

Now that I know which direction I’d like to face, I have to decide how much I am worried about bad weather.  Out here on the US West Coast a drive of 4 hours will get me to a mountain – the Sierras, 5 to 7 hours can take me to a desert area where it will generally be clear – but often windy, and a shorter drive will get me to a coastal area that may be fog plagued in some seasons.  In short, I would like to be as certain as I can about the weather conditions and thus will always have a plan B.  I have previously discussed the tools I use to track and plan for the weather.

## Accessibility

While I would love to pass the time at a High Sierra location watching a meteor shower (awesome!), it might be really impractical or impossible for me to get there with my equipment in the dead of winter – even if the weather itself is not the problem. Road closures, park closures, etc. may interfere.  If I want to take friends or clients I need to restrict the amount of schlepping and walking required.  Some areas, like state, county and local parks which might be ideal are usually CLOSED, locked and gated at night.  National Parks and BLM designated land are generally open at night so rank high on my favorite places list.

Not only should my desired location be easy to get to by car but I would prefer a short walk to a safe location, and preferably in an area that has little or no car travel at night to ruin my night vision or my night shots.  Sometimes little intangibles like the direction and slope of any nearby roads makes a big difference. If a location is the top of the hill but a road points directly at it means I probably want to be on the other side of that hill to prevent the intrusion of headlights.  The arch shot above is an example of that hazard – a bend in the road causes cars to sweep their headlights across the landscape at that location.

It’s also unwise to attempt to use private land without permission. Being an unwelcome guest could result in embarrassment, hassle or hazard!

## Distance

I have already touched upon this, but by distance I really mean time, effort and cost to reach the location. Since meteor showers occur annually, I am less inclined to make a huge effort if the circumstances do not look like they will be ideal.  On the other hand, I had no problem driving 1,000 miles roundtrip to put myself in the path of the Transit of Venus – an event that will not happen again in my lifetime (or yours).

## Darkness

The one commodity that we are perhaps in the least supply of is darkness. So many cities, so much light pollution. But I do not need TOTAL darkness. If I have decided the best view is to the south, I just need to make sure no major cities lie south of my location. If my intended view is east, then I want mountains or distance to insulate me from the glow of light pollution to my east.  Unfortunately darkness is also a function of weather.  Humidity, clouds, water vapor and air particulates can turn a generally dark location into an awful mess through the effect of human-made light sources. A place that is clear and dark during most of the winter might be horrible in the balmy summer.

Prior experience is often the best indicator of where deepest darkness is found. Sometimes the easiest way to find a dark place is to simply look at a map – making note of the terrain and where the cities are in relation to your desired direction of view.  There is a dark sky locator that may help as well.  And you can do your part by joining the International Dark Sky Association and being an advocate for responsible lighting ordinances. I am a member.

# Putting it All Together

You’ve probably already figured out that finding a combination of an interesting foreground that is easily accessible but a not too distant place with reliable weather is no small feat.  Some people think that if you go where astronomers like to go you’ll get all the right stuff. But that’s not true. Astronomers do care about almost all of these things, but the one thing that matters little to an astronomer is the landscape.  Astronomers are looking at the sky so a featureless high plateau is just fine. Oh, and if you want to light paint your foreground, you will really tick off astronomers!

So now you may have also surmised why I do not freely share my hard found locations. BUT if you join me on a workshop or webinar you will find out!

Published: Oct 11, 2012
Last Update: May 2, 2021 (remove obsolete)

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.

## Smoothee

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.

## Blobulous

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 – but it has been withdrawn from sale because it became too tedious to keep it up to date (especially on a Mac).

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

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

## Settings

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.

# If You Want a Better Star Trail…

When I went the Department of Motor Vehicles in Raleigh, North Carolina there was a sign next to the camera that was a bit harsh for the genteel south, especially if you did not have much of a sense of humor.  The sign read:

If you want a better picture bring a better face.”

I doubt the sign is still there, but the thought is more profound than it may seem at first blush. Beware because you are about to read something that might disturb you just as the DMV sign caused some people to sneer while others, like me laughed.

Pictures of star trails (like the one at left) are BORING. Ho Hum. Yes, taking star trail photos is technically a bit challenging. And it is also interesting – for a short while – to the photographer and even friends of the photographer. But really, what do you have? White, and sometimes colored lines across a frame. It’s the KNOWING that those are stars and the photo represents time that starts the mind in motion.

I may form a strong emotional connection to a photo of my cat  but that does not mean it’s a good picture. It means I have a strong bond to MY cat. Something compelling and visual must be present for my cat photo to be interesting to someone else.  (PS I don’t have a cat – my wife is allergic to them).

To me, a star trail must attach earth and sky, tell a story, suggest something of wonder or awe or longing.  That is why for the better part of 2 years I’ve been collecting star trails in a gallery on Flickr called “The Best of Star Trails.” I am the primary judge of what makes it in to the photo pool so the photos reflect my opinion. But if you look through those photos you should notice something. Actually two things.

1. Almost every image has more than lines in the sky – there is also light on something in the foreground.
2. Most of the images would be interesting even if there were no stars or star trails at all.

I have never set out to capture a star trail where the sole goal was a star trail. I always attempt to marry an interesting foreground with the sky.  The more interesting the foreground, the more interesting the photo, at least that’s the way I see it.

Here are a few more tips – your mileage may vary:

• Don’t “center” the circle of a circular star trail. Leave it off to the left or right to strengthen an image (e.g. like the rule of thirds).
• Leave some breathing space around the center point.  This usually means super wide angle lens unless you are shooting at a low latitude.
• It doesn’t have to be a circular star trail to be interesting!
• The moon can be your friend.

Mauna Kea, Hawaii, moonlit, 7 hours of exposures.

What about you? What makes a star trail shot interesting to you?  Please comment, we’d love to hear from you.

Red Rock Canyon State Park, California. The star trails are dense because a very high ISO was used.