Tag Archives: free

The Six Month Sabbatical

It is amazing how a planned six month sabbatical turned into 14 months. We decided to retreat from our teaching and photography schedule for the first six months of 2015. Family and work issues lengthened that to 11 months… and well, it has taken another several months to get back on our feet.

And we are re-starting with a Free “Exploring Night Photography” class that extends from April 6th, to May 25th, 2016.  However before I even started writing this column the class was full. The class would not help many of you since it is being taught in Los Gatos, California, with thanks to Venture Christian Church for providing the venue.

But there is good news: in the coming weeks we will be publishing the material we use in the class HERE on the website.  The class is aimed at DSLR photographers who have gotten out of “Automatic” mode at least once, but that is the only real requirement.

Here is the course description:


You’ve got a Digital, Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) camera, and you are getting fairly good at it. Now it is time to try something new and creative: photos taken at night. Night photos can reveal the amazing majesty of the night sky (Isaiah 40:26). You will learn how to photograph in low-light using your DSLR. Along the way you will learn a little about the night sky and several photography techniques that will aid all of your photography efforts. Most of all you’ll be amazed at how much there is in the dark that remains unseen without the aid of a camera. You just might unleash a creative direction you may have never considered. This is a hands-on course. You will be taking photos on the very first session of the course, so bring all the equipment listed in the prerequisites.


  • Must have a DSLR camera (smart phones are not acceptable)
  • Must understand the basics of exposures – i.e. the relationship between f-stop (aperture), sensitivity and exposure length, and have shot photographs in some mode other than “Automatic”.
  • Your camera’s operators manual

Also recommended are:

  • A tripod- strongly recommended!
  • A remote release (cable)
  • An Intervalometer (Steven will have some to loan)
  • Extra batteries
  • Memory card(s)


Teacher Bio

Steven Christenson is the founder and teacher of StarCircleAcademy.com, and winner of the 2010 Greenwich Observatory “Astronomy Photographer of the Year”, and a runner up in 2012. His work has been published as album covers, in the Economist and Backpacker Magazine and even featured on local TV stations. Steven specializes in “Landscape Astrophotography” a field that is easily approachable by anyone with a DSLR camera and a tripod.  You can read his instructive columns on his website (StarCircleAcademy.com).

What you will miss is the hands-on portion, of course, and the relentlessly punny style of Steven’s teaching, but the good news is that the discussion, resource list and class exercises will be right here for you to follow along.

And, it is not too late to influence what we cover… So feel free to ask any beginnerish questions here and we will either respond directly or include that material in what we publish here on the web.

Hope your skies are dark and clear, and the stars smile for you!

Now Open: The Store

So many of our students at our webinars and workshops as well as our website visitors ask us about our Notes, Instructional Videos and Photoshop additions that it was time to make it possible to deliver them.  So we created a digital store integrated with this blog.  In fact, we’ve only had the store open for two weeks and already we have a clear bestseller:

Advanced Stacker PLUS [14E] with Online Video and Notes
Includes the even EASIER to install Advanced Photoshop action set version 14E, an unlimited viewing online video on creating star trails, notes (PDF) on creating star trails and practice files. The video is 2 hours long. This action is power. You can create star trails, cloud timestacks and stack images with a minimum of effort and a maximum of control. You can create "comets", "midgets" streaks and much more. And you can create intermediate files along the way to put interesting motion effects into your timelapse. Compatible with Photoshop CS6 (standard or extended), CC, CC 2014-2018. While we have every reason to believe compatibility with CS3, CS4, CS5, and CS5.5 still works, we have no means to test these.
**NOTE: MAC Users with Yosemite or El Capitan, or Sierra and PS CC 2015 or later are reporting installation problems. We recommend you do NOT purchase this product until we have been able to resolve this issue. NOTE: We believe ASP DOES work properly with High Sierra and CS6 and CC 2018.
NOT Compatible with Photoshop Elements, or Lightroom. Please specify your primary OS and Photoshop version when ordering. You will receive links to both Mac and Windows installers.

Making It So

But making it so was not a straight line path from where we were to where we wanted to go. We toyed with a variety of things to create a store. Using PayPal buttons directly – simple and maddeningly painful at the same time, using ZenCart, and looking at a few others solutions.

Ultimately we wanted something relatively simple. Something that could handle a small, but growing array of products – all digital, and that would be relatively easy to integrate into the BLOG without breaking off limbs or snapping frazzled nerves. We settled on WP E-Store. It’s neither flawless nor as spectacularly simple to get working as we would want it to be, but it is well featured and well supported.

I should probably make a note that I, Steven, am capable of twiddling with HTML, circumspect of all CSS (because I’ve never found it to be pleasant to deal with), able to write JavaScript and PHP when needed – but prefer not to. If none of that makes sense to you, that might be fine unless you decide to embark on creating a store because I’ve already learned that I have needed all those skills in some form already.

We want a store secure against theft, hacks and intrusion, that is easy to use and easy to configure. We also want to offer discounts to people who attend our Webinars and Workshops as well as repeat customers. Using PayPal directly proved unmanageable. Our store also needs to manage the digital content that gets created on an almost daily basis. We had no expectation or illusion that we would sell prints or images through this store. In fact, Steven has a well featured means for selling hard goods through ZenFolio. Interestingly most Steven’s print sales occur in the United Kingdom – likely because they see Steven’s images in the Royal Observatory. ZenFolio is great for selling prints and mounted images – even iPhone cases!

WP eStore

What we like about WP eStore is that it does handle the key things we want: digital sales through PayPal (and credit cards), and secure encrypted links for digital goods and a nice simple interface for our clients and customers.

What WP eStore lacks, however are a number of things including a simple way to process refunds (always a painful thing through PayPal), more configurability of the display of products and the shopping cart and a few gotchas in the way you configure products. For example, with WP eStore you can specify a “thumbnail” image for a product – but by default the thumbnail will be clickable and go to the thumbnail image. That’s completely silly.

Of course since we purchased WP eStore we’ve also noticed a lot of other competitors, including WooCommerce which looks snazzy, but it appears you get nickeled and dimed to death to get all the pieces together.

Biggest Obstacle

The biggest impediment to our eStore is our theme.  Theme? Yes, the page layouts are controlled by a WordPress theme. Unfortunately the theme we like is not as customizable as we’d like. That spiffy graphic at the top, for example clutters up the store so we are planning to either switch themes or hack up the Twenty-Ten theme we are using.

What is Ahead?

One day we hope to also offer free and paid Webinar registration through the store. And perhaps even workshops, too. Please check out our store. Here is another resource of interest:

>Photography with Harold Davis obviously this is Harold’s spot and covers much more than night photography.

Oh, and if you would like to see if a Webinar will work for you and your set up, you can join a FREE webinar to kick the tires on March 12, 2013. We hope to see you there!

Total Lunar Eclipse and San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge

As many of you are aware Star Circle Academy has been hosting webinars devoted to “Catching the Moon” in a creative way – and many other topics including Astrophotography. Catching the moon near a landmark is not simple, and conditions are seldom ideal … but on the morning of December 10, 2011 a total lunar eclipse will be visible from much of the US including Hawaii.

The full moon rising behind Lick Observatory, Mount Hamilton, San Jose, California

Normally I’d keep all the details to myself so as to avoid throngs of photographers trying to fit into an itty bitty space. But while I am off in Washington, DC catching my “Landmark” photo people in and around San Francisco have a GREAT opportunity to catch the eclipsed moon over the Golden Gate Bridge. And the good news is that the location you need to be in is big and broad and can accommodate a LOT of people. So we decided to let you all in on this great opportunity!

While you do not have to do so, we’d appreciate it if you would sign up and indicate whether you are coming so that Eric Harness will know to look for you.

All the details can be found hereevents.starcircleacademy.com/events/42862122

If you sign up, you’ll be shown exactly where to meet Eric. If you just want to go on your own – no problem, there is enough information in the write up. Do remember to bring a tripod, a telephoto lens (whatever you have is good), and dress warmly and in layers. Now all you have to do is to keep the legendary fog at bay.

Many happy photons from us to you this Holiday Season!

Airplane Transits the Partially Eclipsed Moon

Oh, and please post your best shot into the photo pool after the event!  We appreciate it!

(Mostly) Free Tools for Star Trails and Star Circles

Planning Tools


  • There are lots of resources for weather, but I prefer ones that predict a few days in advance and provide an hour-by-hour forecast. In that category, I find Wunderground.com to be the best for multi-day forecasts. Wunderground’s forecasts include the temperature, wind speed and direction, percentage of cloud cover, probability of precipitation and the dew point throughout the day. And the “wundermap” of IR and visible radar is a great help, too – it even includes nearby weather stations, and webcams where available.
  • It is hard to beat ClearSkyChart – if there is a nearby astronomy observing area, that is – for predictions for the next 36 hours.  It is a little “busy” to see a Clear Sky chart, but once it is understood it is a great tool. Hint: Darker everything is good.

Location & Celestial Alignments

There are many online communities for finding and discussing photo locations.  I explain one method I use for finding photogenic locations in the video below.

  • The Photographer’s Ephemeris – free (and priceless!). Knowing the moon phase as well as the rise and set times of the sun, and moon is very helpful. I use a variety of tools for this, but TPE is the most useful by far- and there is an iPhone version as well (which is more difficult to use than the desktop version,  unfortunately). Below is a video demonstrating how I use TPE.
  • Sun and Moon Data (Monthly Calendar) – free (web resource). Knowing when the brightest lights in the sky will rise and set, and when twilight occurs is very important. Even better still, is this resource for printing out the vital data for an entire month.

Image Tools

Photo Management

  • Picasa3

It is hard to beat Picasa3 for a quality tool that works on Windows and Mac. The tool includes keyword searches, galleries, organization in albums and/or by folders and much more. Picasa3 is JPEG centric but it does recognize almost all formats – including RAW, and keeps the original files so that destructive edits are not so destructive.  I use it mostly for displaying and selecting photos, exporting them and uploading them to Flickr with the Flickr upload plugin. To use the Flickr Uploader plugin, the Flickr Uploadr tool is needed.  Other features of Picasa3 that I find very useful are the “CD Burn”, the Movie Creator, and the Text tool.  The image straightener tool is the simplest, cleanest method for fixing tilted horizons. I also use the export feature to add my copyright onto downsized images for export to Flickr or other sites.  Picasa3 does SO much more as well. And it is free! Free, I tell ‘ya!

  • Lightroom

I have no experience with Lightroom. I can’t bring myself to pay $200 for something Picasa3 already does very well and for free – and especially after shelling out mucho dinero for Photoshop.

Stacking (Combining) Images

For Windows based machines:

  • Image Stacker by Tawbaware – at $17 this is easily my favorite because of its versatility and speed. It is also well supported by Max Lyons. I highly recommend it.  Look below for a tutorial.
  • Startrails.exe – free. English and German versions. No updates in many years and it has a few “issues”. Hard to beat the price, though! It does handle dark frames better than Image Stacker. The tutorial below also shows startrails.exe.

For multiple computer types – including PC and Macintosh

  • DeepSkyStacker – free. Hard core tool for astrophotography and not particularly useful for star trails.
  • PixInsight – 171 euros. No experience. Looks daunting and again, geared toward astrophotography rather than star trails.
  • Adobe Photoshop – ($varies). The Extended version Statistic script is handy for stacking. Otherwise it is a tedious and slow tool (IMHO) for stacking.
  • GIMP – free. An open, free alternative to Photoshop. Trying to assemble all of the plugins and prerequisites to get the tool to do stacking is not worth the effort. GIMP under the covers is also an 8-bit per color editor so loses some fidelity. On the other hand, I find GIMP much, much easier to use for typical masking and combining of images.
  • Picasa3 – free. Yes, even Picasa3 can stack images using a “collage” in “Multi-exposure” mode. But the results are not all that spectacular. A plugin for Picasa3 could make nearly all the other tools unnecessary.

For a tutorial on using Image Stacker and/or StarTrails.exe please see here:




I can usually load Picasa3 make my simple adjustment and save the file before Photoshop has finished loading itself and an image.

  • Picasa3 – free. Very easy and fast to do simple spot touch ups, color balance, horizon corrections and tonal adjustments.
  • Photoshop – ($varies). More complicated adjustments like removing aircraft trails, combining images (hand HDR) are better left to Photoshop.

Image Manipulation

  • Photoshop – ($varies). The swiss army knife, atomic weapon, and grapefruit spoon of photo manipulation.
  • GIMP – free. In many ways easier to use then PS.
  • FSResizer – resize, frame, add copyright information.  A specialty tool, but a quick and handy one.