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Trouble with Long Exposures – Part 2 of 2

In the previous article I discussed 4 of the 6 most common problems that occur with long exposures.  Those problems are:

  1. Poor Focus
  2. Dim Stars (low contrast)
  3. Strange Colors
  4. Purple or Pink Glow

In this installment we tackle these two issues

  1. Gaps in Star Trails
  2. Lots of Noise (Colored Speckles)

Gaps in Star Trails

To oversimplify a bit there are four causes for gaps in star trails created from successive exposures:

  1. Camera limitations
  2. Camera or intervalometer misconfiguration
  3. Processing choices
  4. Weather conditions

Camera limitations: I described this issue in my article “How long does a 30 second exposure take?”  All the Canon cameras I own – including the top of the line 5D Mark II require 32.8 seconds to complete a single 30 second exposure. Well there you go: almost 3 seconds of time where there is no exposure. This problem can be compounded by two common misconfiguration blunders:

  • Failing to allow enough time between exposures when using an intervalometer. Or using the wrong drive mode on the camera.
  • Failing to turn off long exposure noise reduction.

To avoid intervalometer misconfiguration I operate in either continuous exposure mode or bulb mode. I use continuous exposure mode when my exposures will be many and a maximum of 30 seconds – e.g. when trying to capture meteors or planning for a time-lapse animation. In continuous exposure mode I set my intervalometer with a start delay and then program an exposure time of several hours… AND I put my camera in Manual, high-speed continuous exposure mode with a typical exposure of 30 seconds. You do not really need an intervalometer for this – a locking cable release is sufficient.

When I operate in bulb mode, I try to get a moderately long exposure. Usually in the 4 to 10 minute range depending on the sky conditions. In this setup it is very important to put the camera in Bulb exposure and program the intervalometer to leave a 3 second gap between one exposure and the next. I have recently discovered, however that the Canon 5D Mark II will work with my intervalometer set to 1 second intervals. That’s goodness. I am still trying to work out whether the problem is due more to the timer or the camera. I do know that in continuous exposure mode all my cameras require 32.8 seconds per each 30 second exposure. Failure to allow a long enough pause between exposures can cause unexpected results.

Photo 1: For the first half of the evening I mistakenly left long exposure noise reduction on. The result was that half of my shots occured at every-other eight minute intervals.

The “dotted lines” in the circle above were caused by leaving on long exposure noise reduction. The result was that the intervalometer timed an 8 minute exposure, waited three seconds and then pressed the shutter for the next 8 minute exposure. However 3 seconds after the exposure completed it was still doing long exposure noise reduction so that cycle was skipped until the intervalometer released the shutter for the next 3 second “off” interval.

I have gotten into the habit of setting my exposure length to 3 seconds less than what I want… e.g. 9:57 for a 10 minute exposure. I then set a 3 second inter-shot interval. I used to set a 10 minute exposure plus a 3 second gap – but the predictability of starting a new exposure every 10 minutes makes it easier to monitor what is going on.

Another cause for gaps: changing the battery. I can offer the following important tidbits when you need to change the battery.

  • Do not wait for your battery to be exhausted. A partial exposure may not stack well or be completely written to your card. Battery exhaustion will likely occur at an inopportune time.
  • Have everything at hand in advance of the change. For example, keep the battery in your front pocket where your body heat will keep it warm.
  • Practice a battery change BEFORE you start your exposures. Only by practice beforehand will you be able to discover that the battery compartment is blocked by your tripod, or impossible to reach, etc.
  • When you DO change batteries beware! Your camera settings may change dramatically!

Processing choices you make when stacking the star trails also affect whether your gaps will be inconspicuous. Do not do any sharpening until you complete your stacking – and even then avoid sharpening the star trails themselves. The method used to stack trails is significant. However, I have observed that people do not notice gaps even in this image of 19 8-minute exposures printed out at 20×30 inches.

Photo 2: Even though it is composed of 19 eight minute exposures the gaps are never noticed even when printed at 20x30.

Weather conditions can also introduce gaps. In a truly dark sky where clouds are not lit by city glow, moonlight or twilight, clouds become “black holes” and block starlight. Low or fast moving clouds can obscure some, most or all of one or more images in the set. This can be perplexing if you happen to be sleeping during exposures which started and ended with clear skies.  Another problem is dew which may form a fog that diminishes or eliminates some or all of the exposures. Vigilance with a rag, the use of a hood or a dew heater are your only weapons against dew.

Lots of Noise (Speckled Colors)

I purposefully left the noise in Photo 1. It’s quite noticeable in the rock silhouette at the lower right and appears mostly as red specs. Annoying? Well, yes, but it is not the end of the world.  In order of effectiveness here are your best approaches to keep the noise manageable:

  1. Shoot at a lower ISO (100 or 200)
  2. Shoot and stack shorter exposures – longer exposures generate more noise.
  3. Capture the foreground and the star trails separately. A better lit foreground will exhibit less noise.
  4. Shoot during colder seasons – lower temperatures result in lower noise.
  5. Control stray light with a lens hood – and close or cover your viewfinder while exposing.
  6. Use high ISO noise reduction
  7. Use noise reduction post processing tools. Chrominance noise is usually most in need of correction.
  8. Use long exposure noise reduction.

Hopefully you noticed that long exposure noise reduction (LENR) is last on the list. If you are trying to stack star trails it is impossible to get continuous trails with LENR on. It is also the least effective unless you are only going to shoot one shot.

Before we go much further, it is worthwhile to note that there are 4 causes of “noise” and each has a different source. The random speckles are usually what is meant by noise. Those random speckles are created by heat, limitations in the electronics, and things as bizarre as electromagnetic phenomenon like sunspots. No kidding. True noise is by nature random and LENR can not do a thing to combat random noise except to diminish it by reducing the luminance of the offending pixels – which also reduces the sharpness of your image. But there are 3 other kinds of noise that are not random though often lumped into the same general category: hot/stuck or degraded pixels, local heat noise (sometimes called amp glow), and high ISO noise. LENR is effective for these because they are not random.

Hot or stuck pixels usually appear as bright pink, red, blue, green, white or purple spots. They are caused by either electronic problems on the sensor chip or by the dyes used to detect the color.  A pixel detects the intensity of the color red by use of a red dye (inkjet droplet) over a sensor site. If that red dye is insufficiently thick, or missing altogether then that pixel location will always read hot if there is any light falling on it – and if the problem is electronic it may read hot even if no light is striking it. Dead or degraded pixels are just the opposite. Too much dye or dead electronics at a pixel site. Degraded pixels are stuck black or darker than the surrounding pixels and are seldom if ever noticed in night photography.

Locally caused heat noise is noticeable in some cameras and is due to the heat of electronics in proximity to the sensor. In my opinion this problem is a design flaw in the camera. However this kind of noise is repeatable so LENR can help correct it. The “Pink or Purple Glow” that results from this flaw was discussed in Part 1.

High ISO noise has an understandable parallel in the world of audio. Take nearly any cheap radio. Turn it up. At some point the sound will become distorted and harsh. This harshness is because there are limitations in the signal, the amplifier circuitry and the speaker used to produce the sound.  Increasing the ISO in your camera is the photographic equivalent of the audio scenario.  At some point amplifying the light measurements made at each pixel makes the noise more obvious.

Trouble with Long Exposures – Part 1 of 2.

I administer a group on Flickr called “Star Trails” and moderate a group called “Best of Star Trails“. The good news is there is a constant source of new exciting photography there… and a fair number of beginners facing some common problems. Some of the problems are due to limitations in the camera, and some are due to the selection of exposure time, ISO, f-stop or focus. Some are due to cockpit errors of the kind I described in my August 13th article: Many Paths to Failure regarding unattended shooting with an intervalometer. This list is in addition to those problems and in a way is a bit more fundamental.

Common problems are:

  1. Poor Focus
  2. Dim Stars (low contrast)
  3. Strange Colors
  4. Purple or Pink Glow
  5. Gaps in Star Trails – see part 2.
  6. Lots of Noise (Colored Speckles) – see part 2.

Let’s tackle those one at a time.

Focus is Poor

Poor focus is a topic unto itself which I covered in My Camera Can Not Focus in the Dark – And Neither Can I! But there are a few other causes besides having an incorrect focus. Additional problems that may create noticeable lack of sharpness:

  • An unsteady tripod (often noticeable when there is wind). And it may not just be the tripod. Check the quick mount plate and the tension on the knobs.
  • Condensation (that is dew) on the lens. Use a lens hood (helps), and if really bad a lens heater.

Stars Are Not Very Bright

Often the lack of stars is due to an unnecessarily small aperture. Selecting a smaller aperture can help with your image, too. Here are some examples. First is an example from Miguel Leiva:

Photo 1: f/18, ISO 100 for 30 minutes.

???? Trails of Moon, Venus & Jupiter over the Nepean River 30/11/08

Photo 2:  f/20 ISO 400.

In Photo 1 a small aperture allows greater depth of field so that focus is sharp from the foreground to infinity but that small aperture also diminishes the contrast in the stars. Taken to an extreme a high f-stop (tiny aperture) with stars can produce an effect like that in Photo 2 by Vincent Miu which was a runner up in the 2009 Astronomy Photographer of the Year contest.  The very small aperture, f/20, eliminates all but the brightest elements from the night sky.

While a tiny aperture reduces the number of stars captured, a large aperture (small f-stop number) and/or a high ISO results in many more visible stars especially when the sky is dark. Compare these shots:

Cone Heads STILL in Awe [22012-2362]

Photo 3: f/3.5 at ISO 640: A lot of stars make for a pleasantly dizzying image.

(son of) Bristlecone Pine Star Circle

Photo 4:  f/4 ISO 100

Photo 3 was shot at f/3.5 ISO 640, while Photo 4 was f/4, ISO 100. Both  include about the the same star field but  many more stars are present in the higher ISO shot.  Even if you are not trying to reduce the number of stars in the field, you might be forced to use a smaller aperture to get more depth of field.  Another common problem that causes reduction in contrast is sky glow. When the sky itself begins to lighten you can be sure that the stars will not contrast well.  The best way to control this is to take shorter exposures and later at night – or on a clearer night (cold winter nights produce the clearest skies). The moon is also a huge source of glow. Treat the glowing moon just as you do artificial light glow – reduce your exposure length (and ISO) to take pictures when the moon is strong. But do not give up just because you can barely make out stars in your night sky – the camera can see them better than you can!  Photo 6 is a perfect example. The city glow made it impossible to see more than 8 or 9 stars toward the north and yet the star trails are quite present.

Colors are Strange

Many people are surprised to see that the stars in their photos are different colors: red, orange, yellow, blue and white. Those are the natural colors of the stars. People are also surprised to see a blue sky however even modest amounts of moonlight or a very long enough exposure will result in blue sky! Unfortunately sometimes the stars or the sky are unnaturally colored. Usually the culprit is one or more of these factors:

  1. Incorrect white balance setting (I recommend “Daylight”)
  2. The presence of artificial light.
Pleasanton Circular File [5_018700-20]

Photo 5: White balance problem due to different types of light. In this image I compromised to keep the colors on the land as natural as possible.

Getting the white balance right is not hard except when there is lot of artificial light – streetlights, city glow, etc. Unfortunately there are many different types of lights each with their own color characteristics. The popular low pressure sodium vapor lights are nearly monochromatic yellow-brown in color. There is really no way to get a naturally colored look when sodium lights predominate the scene. Florescent, tungsten, LED, and other light types all differ in their color profiles and when several different sources are in play for a scene it gets harder to keep a natural looking scene.

Sometimes when handed lemons you can make lemonade as in Photo 6. I could not correct for the predominate sodium vapor lights so instead of fighting I adjusted the color temperature to make the foreground elements look as natural as I could and did not worry that the stars became white – most people think of them as white anyway. It certainly helps that the image also includes a portion of twilight illumination to help keep the scene realistic looking.

A City and A Mountain. Part A [5_024371-434g]

Photo 6: When corrected for the sodium vapor lights the mountain looks almost natural, but the stars have lost their color.

And there is yet one more way to solve the color problem; but you will have to do some editing. To fix different color lights you can color balance each element separately and then combine the elements into one image. For example using “Daylight” white balance for the star trails and “Tungsten” for the street scene may produce a natural and pleasing looking photograph. Photo 6, above was manipulated in a similar way. Once it became completely dark the glow from the city lights caused flaring and ghosting. The solution was to choose one properly exposed frame from twilight and layer that on top. Layering like this is easier if you have an overexposed daylight shot that you can use as a mask. More on that in the Night Photography Workshop

There is Pink or Purple at the Edges

Some cameras, particularly older models may suffer from “amp noise”. The glow or noise is usually visible at the corners or edges of the photograph and usually only with longish exposures (over 8 minutes). Here is an example from Ethan Doerr of what “amp noise” may look like.

star trails

Photo 7: Amp noise is prominent in this photo taken on a Nikon D80 with a 572 minute exposure at 100 ISO. Nikon: D80, D90, D40, D200, D3000, and possibly other cameras may exhibit similar anomalies. Photo by Ethan Doerr – used with permission

If your camera is subject to amp glow there are some tactics you can try. The simplest is to keep your exposures short and stack them. Or perhaps allow the camera to cool down from time to time. Or only shoot in Antarctica ;-).

For more Trouble with Long Exposures see Part 2.

How long does a 30 second exposure take?

This seems like a trick question akin to “How long did the Hundred Years War last?” (116 years, it turns out) or “Who is buried in Grant’s Tomb?”. Ulysses Grant is not buried, but entombed (above ground) and he shares that space with his wife, Julia. So while the question seemed to provide the answer – like these two seemingly obvious cases, the 30 second exposure, it turns out does not take 30 seconds.

I have 3 DSLR cameras: a Canon 40D, a 50D and a 5D Mark II.  In “high speed continuous exposure mode” the 40D can shoot 6.5 frames per SECOND – that’s faster than anyone can say “click” six times.  The 50D tops out a 6.3 fps (frames per second), and the 5DII is a still-speedy 3.9 fps.

But I take long exposures in night environments. A 30, 60, or even 480 second exposure is not unusual in my nocturnal world. Surprisingly my cameras that can take 3.9 to 6.5 frames per second under good light, actually take an average of 32.6 seconds for each 30 second exposure when in high-speed continuous mode and it seems to not matter at all whether the exposures are RAW or JPG, whether the card is a speedy one – a 30Mb/second or a paltry 8 Mb/second.

How is it that a 30 second exposure takes 32.6 seconds? I asked Canon about that and didn’t get a very good answer. Something about “longer exposures take longer to process.” Indeed, some sleuthing and testing reveals that on average as exposures go longer than 1 second, they incur a penalty between shots of about 10%.  Two 20 second exposures take about 21.8 seconds. Two 30 second exposures take 65.8 seconds (not 60). Fortunately after 30 seconds, the penalty remains at about 2.8 seconds and does not increase farther.

Why does that matter you might ask?

It may matter a lot. A meteor streaks by every minute or so under a great meteor shower like the Perseids which peaks on August 12/13. A typical Perseid shower tosses out a meteor once a minute on average. Taking continuous 30 second exposures means about 10% of the possible streaks will be missed.  We *could*  take longer exposures, but then two things happen that are not so much fun.

  1. The stars begin to noticeably streak.
  2. Sky glow and light pollution begin to decrease the contrast between the stars and meteors and the dark sky.

What’s more, the delay between shots also means that a plane flying across the sky will have gaps in successive images. When joining the images together (stacking) the star trails formed by their motion may have gaps as well even though those gaps may not be readily obvious. In the image below, the gaps are not very noticeable until you see the larger sizes.

Granite Park Star Trail – 59 minutes with “gaps”

As a result of the “processing delay” it is necessary to change the way images are captured.

  • A delay of 3 seconds may need to be be included when attempting to take successive exposures using a timer on a Canon body. UPDATE: The Canon 5D Mk II apparently is able to buffer the writing to the card so that a second shot can be started with a delay of only one second – however if you use the continuous drive mode a 2.8 second delay is introduced.
  • We will want to shoot a long as we reasonably can so there will be fewer gaps.

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