Tag Archives: tripod

Time Stacks

One of the great things about developing a repertoire of tools  and tricks for processing photos is applying those tools in creative ways. While we were furiously working on Advanced Stacker PLUS for creating star trails and processing night sky images, one clever fellow: Matt Molloy gained great acclaim by stacking sunset and sunrise shots of clouds skittering across the sky. Matt Molloy coined the phrase Time Stacks for that type of image.

Phoenix Leaping

Phoenix Leaping – 20 separate frames combined in Lighten Mode plus an extra foreground frame.

Where Steven lives in the Silicon Valley, it is difficult to get good conditions for clouds. Indeed, the San Francisco Bay Area has so many blue sky days that having clouds is a stretch – in the Bay Area the options are either low thick clouds (fog), or zero clouds. However occasionally conditions are right – or Steven travels where conditions are right – for creating these shots. Of note are dry climates with mountains and high winds during seasons with moderate moisture in the air. In March in Palm Springs, California, for example Steven watched as clouds formed due to the uplift of the Mt. San Jacinto mountain range and dissipated quickly as the young cloud wandered eastward away from the peak. Literally you could watch clouds form and dissolve in a matter of minutes. In the image above, you’ll notice that some low clouds moved slowly and didn’t dissipate. Because the denser low clouds were in the shadow of the mountain they grew dark and ominous.  You can see more variations on the same theme by checking out this set of images.

Exit Criteria

Exit Criteria – Alviso, California on one of the few days when clouds were present

What Conditions and Equipment Do I Need?

  1. You need partially cloudy skies and the clouds can not be slow creepers. The clouds should be vigorous sailors. How fast? Fast enough to cross a significant field of view in about 20 to 30 minutes. They need to move into an open area of the sky – clouds moving over other clouds won’t be as interesting.
  2. Like any compelling shot, the frame should include a worthwhile foreground.
  3. And finally, it helps if these conditions all occur near sunset or sunrise so you can get extra color in the shot.


  • You will definitely want to use an Intervalometer (or an on-board Intervalometer if your camera has one). Shooting at regular intervals results in a more pleasing outcome.
  • A sturdy tripod is also a must.

What Settings Should I Use?

  1. Select a moderate aperture (f/8, for example), and a low ISO (200). The goal is to get a shot that is relatively long to get a little cloud blur from the cloud motion.
  2. Since most interesting results occur right at or after sunset, start the exposures at 1 to 2 stops over exposed. Subsequent shots will get darker and finally dark to a point where the images will be too dark  to use (e.g. 2 stops under exposed).
  3. While it may be tempting to adjust the exposure during shooting, we have found that strategy does not work well.  You never really know which shots you will want to combine. Therefore it is best to do large sets (40-50 exposures) all using the same settings.
  4. Change settings (and optionally re-orient your camera), then get another substantial sequence.
  5. Be sure to include an exposure optimized for the foreground in the beginning and/or at the end of each sequence.

The trickiest part is selecting the interval between shots. The speed of the clouds across the frame is the key here – and that can vary dramatically depending on your conditions. One possible method is to shoot once every other second, then cull out the interval that works best (which could be 10 or 20 second intervals), but a less memory and processing intensive approach may be to use 5 or 10 second intervals between shots (or longer if your clouds are sluggish).

Also keep in mind that not all clouds will move at the same speed (or in the same direction!), nor will they be illuminated alike.

How Do I Process the Shots?

This is actually the easy part: use the same tools you would use to create star trails. That is, stack the images in Lighten mode. Understand that if clouds move over clouds the net result is sometimes quite unexpected – the brighter clouds (regardless of color) win.

How Processing Was Completed (Click for larger image)

Above is a snapshot illustrating how this shot (62 frames in the life of clouds) was finished in Photoshop. Two image contrast enhancements were added. The bottom layer is the stacked (lighten mode) image, the next image up is the intentionally over-exposed foreground. Notice that the “Darken bright foreground” is linked to effect ONLY the foreground image. Also note that darkening, and in many cases increasing contrast has the affect of increasing color saturation. No saturation or vibrance enhancements were done here. As with Star Trails, we also recommend that you do not alter any of your shots before you stack them – stack them in their raw form with NO adjustments. The result will look flat until you apply manual corrections and curves, but by not altering your shots before hand, the stack will work better and you are far less likely to introduce strange artifacts.

Variations on Time Stacks

Of course your Time Stacks do not have to be daylight subjects like this solar eclipse which was shot with a solar filter for all the shots except the last which was taken at sunset.

Annular Eclipse Sequence [C_040079+5s]

Time stacks can also include night events like a lunar eclipse

Plan C: San Jose City Hall Eclipse Sequence

Get creative and try other Time Stacks and share with us what you get as a result via comments!

Want to see the technique preferred by Matt Molloy, master time stacker? See his tutorial here.

You Need a Good Head and Great Legs

Me (to wife): “My head is unstable and I have ordered a new, $300 one.”
(wife): “I knew about the instability, but I didn’t realize you could buy a new one.”

Tripod and Panoramic Head in action

If you search around the internet you will find plenty of product reviews. One of the best reviews I ever read said something like this: “Save one thousand dollars by buying the right gear now instead of later”. He proceeded to describe how cheap tripod legs and cheap heads ended up costing more than had he bought the good gear from the beginning.

Wait, “heads?”, “legs?”

There are four parts to a tripod that are important to get right: legs, head, release, mounting plate.


But First… A Short Commercial

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays! Harold Davis and I will be conducting a workshop that you may want to attend. Registration is through Harold’s web site.

Tripod Anatomy

  1. Legs – The part that touches the ground, and yes the bottom of the legs is called the feet.
  2. Head – The part that is attached to the top of the legs and provides the ability to rotate and tilt the camera at various angles.
  3. (Quick) Release system – The method by which the Head can attach to the camera via…
  4. Quick Release plate – the part that you attach to the camera and mate to the release system. You can directly screw your camera on to many different heads, but you do not want to do that because it is really, really inconvenient.

If any bit of those is wrong, you have an unstable or even equipment-hazardous situation. Trust me, I started with “K-Mart” tripods (had 3 – each of which didn’t last long), 2 Manfrotto aluminum tripods (one is broken), and ONE Gitzo carbon fiber tripod. I have also owned at least 9 different heads including a pan-tilt head, SunFoto, Manfroto, Acratech, and a gaggle of off brands. The ball heads were bought for various purposes. I have also dealt with 3 different kinds of attachment systems: direct screw-in to the camera (really inconvenient), Manfroto style plate clamp (better), and Arca Swiss clamp (best of the bunch). I have also used a gaggle of different “quick release” plates from cheap off-the shelf, to custom made for my camera(s), including L-Brackets.

Trial By Fire

Trust me when I tell you I have discovered a lot of what not to buy, and can say confidently that if you want a stable, good quality camera support system you need to get all four components right. And doubly so for night photography where long exposures REQUIRE a tripod or other solid support system. My tripods have been to the top of Half Dome, Mount Whitney and Clouds Rest. I have used the “legs” as a walking stick to keep me from falling into rivers and ravines, to test stability of the ground before taking a step.

Many Paths to Failure – Plate and Clamps

Let me provide some examples of the myriad of ways things can go wrong: all of them have happened to me, by the way.

If the quick release plate is attached with a low quality screw or bolt… the bolt could snap and your camera and lens will tumble to the ground.

If the quick release plate is difficult to get a snug fit (or requires a special tool that you do not have with you), your camera will wobble or twist in the breeze no matter how stable everything else is.

If the plate is difficult to get into the latch (release clamp), you may think you have it ready to go, only to see your camera fall off the tripod onto the ground or down a granite staircase.

If the plate you have on the camera does not mate with the clamp on your tripod… oops. You’ve lugged your equipment for nothing.

If everything is solid except the clamp does not snug down well, you have wobble and ruined photos.

… and we have not even gotten to the head or the legs yet!

More Failure: Head and Legs

If your head requires superhuman strength to keep it from creeping under the weight of your camera and lens (or super human strength to undo it)… you get either painful fingers or a “sinking” camera angle.

If the tensioning on the head is either locked-like-super-glue or floppy-as-a-wet-rag, you may either have to give up aiming the shot as you want, miss the shot, or have the rig flop over when the camera does. And the flopping camera may pinch your hand, or mash your fingers or smack you in the face (Reminder: All these have happened to me!)

Even if the leg locks seem to be working well, unusually cold (or hot) weather may render the locks ineffective and your tripod may slowly – or suddenly – fall over.

If the legs cannot be adjusted wide-enough or accurately-enough or low-enough, a breeze or strong gust of wind may blow your rig over.

If the fully extended legs are so short that you fully extend the center column to keep from hunching over and hurting your back – you have turned your tripod into a wide-stance monopod that may not be able to bear the load.

If your center column has a tightening collar or wing nut directly below the weight of your camera, you may accidentally over loosen the column causing the camera to slide down and pinch the living daylights out of your hand.

If your legs are spindly, they may induce vibration, or just snap when you accidentally bump them.

… I could go on … but I am hoping you understand how hard knocks, broken lenses, and broken tripod components all add up to a severe lack of enthusiasm for all but the best built of components.


So here is where you might expect me to make recommendations, right? I usually avoid making recommendations because gear changes, and people have different reasons for choosing what they do. My criteria are pretty simple: I want stability, versatility, durability, and light-weight – in about that order.  While the first three seem to be pretty obvious criteria, the light-weight aspect was something I learned over time, too. It was a chore to lug my > 8 pound aluminum leg Manfrotto with a Manfrotto head to the top of Half Dome. By comparison my < 4.5 pound Gitzo plus Acratech head seemed like a feather. Manfrotto made a smart move when they bought Gitzo.

You might have noticed that I did not list price as important. It used to be, but too many failed choices made me realize that choices that are less than great become costlier in the long run.  In a similar vein I bought half a dozen sleeping bags hoping to get something lightweight and WARM until I finally spent almost $300 on a bag (Big Agnes Lost Ranger) and pad that provided the most comfortable, warm sleep – and was also lightweight. I’ve spent more for a single night in a hotel than for the sleeping bag, but that bag has kept me snoozing on many chilly nights in the wilderness. Indeed one night I had TWO cheap sleeping bags nested inside one another while in a tent in Grandview Campground at 8,600 feet on White Mountain and I was still shivering. The next time I went with my Big Agnes. The night was even colder, but I was snug as a bug in a rug.

I had similar experiences with camera backpacks. I liked the design of a Tamron bag. It lasted about a year until the zipper broke. The second bag lasted less than a year. By contrast, my F-stop Tilopa bag has been all over the world over 4 years now – sometimes as my primary and only luggage. To say I’m happy with its durability would be an understatement – and that it cost me 4 times as much as one Tamron bag ($320 vs $95), means I’ve broken even so far – without the inconvenience of dealing with broken gear.

What About A Ball Head And Tripod Legs?

Acratech GPS-s

  • Acratech Head (pretty much any one), but the GP-s is a nicely designed lightweight capable head unless you have a huge camera.
  • Gitzo carbon fiber legs, but NOT the Traveler series which is too flimsy and too short.
    I specifically recommend the Mountaineer Series 2. It is the best trade-off between weight, stability and usable height.  If you’re willing to pay a penalty in extra pounds, the Systematic series (3, 4, or 5) are good except for two things: The Systematic doesn’t have a center column and sometimes that column is useful – like when trying to shoot straight up since the camera may end up hanging partially below the level of the head. The other thing about a series 5 Systemic that bothered me was that I was shocked to discover that the leg locks must be untightened in a specific order to fold it all up because if an upper leg is not tight, the lock on the lower leg will just spin. The mountaineer doesn’t require that silliness.
  • Really Right Stuff with carbon fiber legs. Pretty much all of them are well done, light and sturdy.  The RRS ball heads are good too, it’s just that they are all heavy, heavy, heavy.

But, but those are expensive choices! Yes. I suppose paying $430 USD for a good head and $950 USD for good legs sounds like an excessive amount of money. But: how much did your camera and lens cost? How much will your back thank you for carrying a smaller load?  And finally, how much are you willing to risk watching your camera and lens flop over in a gust of wind?


I write what I know – not what people or manufacturers or merchants ASK me to write. I paid retail price to purchase all the gear I’ve discussed. In other words, these are honest, unbiased, hard won evaluations of various gear. If you can purchase this gear at a local store, I recommend that you do so. You may spend a little more, but there is serious value to talking to real people, testing out gear in person, and in keeping a local business viable.

One Reason To Consider the Alabama Hills Workshop... The awesome landscapes

Exploring Night Photography: Lesson 6 BEST TIPS

Band of Techies by Steven Christenson on 500px.com

Twilight Panorama of the San Francisco Bay

Last week we talked about photo processing.  This week is the last week of the in-person course.

The topics covered in class included Astrophotography, suggestions on what equipment NOT to get for Astrophotography. We also discussed the limitations of Lightroom and Photoshop (see Lesson 5) because we did not cover them all in the last class.

To conclude our lesson series we present our greatest tips.  Many of the tips you may be familiar with – especially if you have been with us on a workshop. Some tips will be a surprise.

Our Best Night Photography Tips

  1. Shine a bright flashlight through your viewfinder at night and it will show you what is in your shot. Much easier to figure out where the edges of your frame are when it is too dark to see well.
  2. A flashlight will not illuminate the sky where your shot is constrained by your lens, but a bright green laser through the viewfinder can accomplish that!
  3. Put glow sticks or LED slap bracelets around your tripod at night. Not only can you find your gear easily, but others are less likely to trip over it.
  4. Have a blue LED light that you need to make less “cold”? Bounce it off the palm of your hand… or a warm colored shirt.
  5. Want to see well in the dark? Don’t wear a head lamp! Shadows and contours are hard to see when the light is coming from close to your eyes. Instead keep a DIM light at waist level. Bright lights ruin your night vision. And headlamps make it painful to talk to one another… you ruin their night vision when you look at them.
  6. Before you spend the effort traveling for night photographs, consult the weather and the moon phase.
  7. It is astonishing how much you can pre-plan a shot without having to go the location… hint: learn to use Google Maps + Street View!
  8. Don’t overlook the hundreds of tips we have for you here on this site… the search box is your friend.
  9. Dark skies are good… but better is to know which direction you want the sky to be dark so you can make the right compromises.
  10. Sometimes being behind a hill is a great help to prevent unwanted stray light.
  11. Want to photograph (or see) the best part of the Milky Way? You need to know when it is up. A planisphere (rotating star chart) is your best bet.
  12. Velcro is a great way to keep things handy and secure on your tripod. Velcro your intervalometer to your tripod.
  13. Lens hood – use one all the time to protect your lens and prevent stray light from causing glare.
  14. Do not use any filters – especially not a clear or “ultraviolet” filter. All filters make your image less desirable by causing extra surfaces that can reflect light and cause glare. Our only exception to this rule are 1: polarizing filters – which are useless at night, and 2: a filter to seal your lens in really nasty environments like rain and blowing sand.
  15. Test your tripod stability before you move away from it. If your tripod is secure, take a few steps back and make sure the center column is vertical.  It is common to set a tripod up so that it leans in a way that makes it vulnerable to a fall.
  16. Another tripod tip: on a hill or slope, put two legs on the downhill side, one on the uphill side.
  17. Short straps (or no straps) on your camera is better for stability if there is any wind at all. We have personally seen cameras thrown over by wind gusts.
  18. Do not cheap out on a tripod. A sturdy tripod is more valuable for night photography than a “better” camera.
  19. The histogram is your friend. Be sure to check it before you conclude your shot is a good one.
  20. If your tripod has a hook below the center column hang your camera bag on it for even more stability. Be sure you’ve taken out all you need before you start shooting. Oh, and this may NOT work well if it is really windy or your pack is light.
  21. Study the place you plan to go during the daylight. It is not fun falling in holes or stepping on nasty things while wandering in the dark.
  22. Take a friend along for added safety, camaraderie and comfort. Also you do not have to outrun a bear, you just have to outrun your friend. 😉  [Do NOT try to run from a bear, by the way. That just makes you look tastier]
  23. A ball head works a lot better for night photography than a pan-tilt head. But get a sturdy head! It is useless having a sturdy tripod with a head that can not stay put.
  24. If there is anyone who may care: tell where you are going and when you expect to be back. Stick to the plan, too.
  25. Do not assume you will have cell service – some of the most amazing places to photograph have no cell coverage at all. Oh, and your battery might die.
  26. Overshoot. It is so much better to have two or three times as many shots as you think you will need than to find out you did not even get one quite right.
  27. When shooting sequences or panoramas… use your lens cap between sets so you can figure out when one set ends and another begins. Take it one step further and do what we do: use your hand forming an E, N, W, or pointing down to indicate the direction you are facing when you take the shot.
  28. Dark gloves make great “emergency stray-light reduction” devices – and they can keep your hands warm, too.
  29. It will always seem colder at night than the temperature might indicate. Dress in layers.
  30. Planning to leave your camera shooting for a long sequence and walk away? Use a GPS to record the camera location (you can do this using most cell phone map software, too).
  31. Respect people and their property. Ask for permission. You may be amazed how much farther courtesy and thoughtfulness will get you than being an intentional trespasser.

Have a tip you think is really super helpful? Please comment below!

Last Week’s Homework

Photo edit a “better” foreground into a star trail image.

Final Homework

  1. Comment below with what you’d like to learn about next.
  2. Get creative and leave us a comment below with a link to your super image.
  3. Comment below with the best tip you have learned about doing night photography.


Heaven Light by Steven Christenson

Milky Way and Waterfall – we talked about how to get the Milky Way aligned where you want it. 

Astro101: Checklist

From the simple to the extraordinarly complex here is a list of things to take when you venture out to do astrophotography:

Starter Kit – Camera & Tripod

  • Camera
  • Wide field, fast lens (40 degrees or more, f/1.8)
  • Sturdy Tripod
  • Intervalometer – though a simple remote push button will work, too.
  • Memory cards
  • Batteries (plenty)
  • Binoculars
  • Green Laser (optional), see Target that Fuzzy
  • Planisphere / star chart / smart app like Star Walk.
  • Red head lamp / flashlight with red cellophane over them.

That’s about it.  This approach allow visual observation, and photographs of large areas of e.g. the Milky Way.

Intermediate Kit

Starter kit plus:

  • Intervalometer
  • Equatorial Drive + Polar scope + batteries  (Polarie for example)
  • Head/mount to put the camera on the Equatorial drive.
  • Stadium cushion or garden kneeler
  • Telephoto lens (zoom or prime)
  • Bahtinov Mask (focus aid)

Serious Intermediate Kit

All of the above plus:

  • Deep cycle marine battery (or astro power kit)
  • Laptop with imaging aid program (e.g. BackyardEOS, MaximDL, …)
  • BIG battery for your camera (or converter to use astro power kit)
  • Voltage inverter to power the laptop
  • Red cellophane to cover the laptop screen
  • Small folding table
  • Folding chair
  • Power strip, extension cords
  • Power inverter (convert 12 VDC to AC)
  • Modest sized apochromatic refactor, mounting rings, extensions, eyepieces, star diagonal, dual speed focuser, dovetail plate, heads up finder.
  • Optional: GoTo solution for the mount

Sold Out Astroimager

  • Large APOchromatic refractor or Reflector
  • Massive mount with GoTo control
  • Astro CCD image camera with thermo electric cooling
  • Filters for Hydrogen Alpha, Oxygen, etc.
  • Finder scope
  • Guide scope and autoguider
  • Lots of $$$$.
  • Large car to drive it around.
  • (optional) Sherpa to lift it all.

For more information, please attend a Webinar!  See the training list here, or see all events here.

Collecting and Processing Images

I have a Canon, and an windows machine. These two things together mean that I can use BackyardEOS ($25) to aid in the focusing and capture of night sky images; and I can use Deep Sky Stacker (Free!) to process my images.  Deep Sky Stacker takes some patience to learn, but it is mostly automated.

I understand “Keith’s Image Stacker” ($15) is available for Mac people – though apparently it’s not quite as powerful or as widely used as DeepSkyStacker.

Pricier and more complete options include ImagePlus, MaximDL, and much more. For a full list of options, prices and features, please see Jerry Lodriguss’s site.