Learn the basics of shooting nightscape and time-lapse images with my three new video tutorials.
In these comprehensive and free tutorials I take you from “field to final,” to illustrate tips and techniques for shooting the sky at night.
At sites in southern Alberta I first explain how to shoot the images. Then back at the computer I step you through how to process non-destructively, using images I shot that night in the field.
Tutorial #1 – The Northern Lights
This 24-minute tutorial takes you from a shoot at a lakeside site in southern Alberta on a night with a fine aurora display, through to the steps to processing a still image and assembling a time-lapse movie.
Tutorial #2 – Moonlit Nightscapes
This 28-minute tutorial takes you from a shoot at Waterton Lakes National Park on a bright moonlit night, to the steps for processing nightscapes using Camera Raw and Photoshop, with smart filters, adjustment layers and masks.
Tutorial #3 – Star Trails
This 35-minute tutorial takes you from a shoot at summer solstice at Dinosaur Provincial Park, then through the steps for stacking star trail stills and assembling star trail time-lapse movies, using specialized programs such as StarStaX and the Advanced Stacker Plus actions for Photoshop.
As always, enlarge to full screen for the HD versions. These are also viewable at my Vimeo channel.
In a “10 Steps” tutorial I review my tips for going from “raw to rave” in processing a nightscape or time-lapse sequence.
NOTE: Click on any of the screen shots below for a full-res version that will be easier to see.
In my preferred “workflow,” Steps 1 through 6 can be performed in either Photoshop (using its ancillary programs Bridge and Adobe Camera Raw) or in Adobe Lightroom. The Develop module of Lightroom is identical to Adobe Camera Raw (ACR for short).
However, my illustrations show Adobe Bridge, Camera Raw and Photoshop CC 2014. Turn to Photoshop to perform advanced filtering, masking and stacking (Steps 7 to 10).
To use Lightroom to assemble a time-lapse movie from processed Raw frames you need the third-party program LRTimelapse, described below. Otherwise, you need to export frames from Lightroom – or from Photoshop – as “intermediate” JPGs (see Step 6), then use other third party programs to assemble them into movies (Step 10B).
Step 1 – Bridge or Lightroom – Import & Select
Use Adobe Bridge (shown above) or Lightroom to import the images from your camera’s card.
As you do so you can add “metadata” to each image – your personal information, copyright, keywords, etc. As you import, you can also choose to convert and save images into the open and more universal Adobe DNG format, rather than keep them in the camera’s proprietary Raw format.
Once imported, you can review images, keeping the best and tossing the rest. Mark images with star ratings or colour labels, and group images together (called “stacking” in Bridge), such as frames for a panorama or “high dynamic range” set.
Always save images to both your working drive and to an external drive (which itself should automatically back up to yet another external drive). Never, ever save images to only one location.
Step 2 – Adobe Camera Raw or Lightroom – Basics
Open the Raw files you want to process. From Bridge, double click on raw images and they will open in ACR. In Lightroom select the images and switch to its Develop module.
In Adobe Camera Raw be sure to first set the Workflow Preset (the blue link at the bottom of the screen) to 16 bits/channel and ProPhoto RGB colour space, for maximum tonal range. This is a one-time setting. Lightroom defaults to 16-bit and the AdobeRGB colour space.
The Basics panel (the first tab) allows you to fix Exposure and White Balance. For the latter, use the White Balance Tool (the eyedropper, keyboard shortcut I) to click on an area that should be neutral in colour.
You can adjust Contrast, and recover details in the Highlights and Shadows (turn the latter up to show details in starlit landscapes). Clarity and Vibrance improves midrange contrast and colour intensity.
Use Command/Control Z to Undo, or double click on a slider to snap it back to zero. Or under the pull-down menu in the Presets tab go to Camera Raw Defaults to set all back to zero.
Step 3 – Adobe Camera Raw or Lightroom – Detail
The Detail panel allows you to set the noise reduction and sharpness as you like it, one of the benefits of shooting Raw.
Generally, settings of Sharpness: Amount 25, Radius 1 work well. Turn up Masking while holding the Option/Alt key to see what areas will be sharpened (they appear in white). There’s no need to sharpen blank, noisy sky, just the edge detail.
Setting Noise Reduction: Luminance to 30 to 50 and Color to 25, with others sliders left to their defaults works well for all but the noisiest of images. Luminance affects the overall graininess of the image. Color, also called chrominance, affects the coloured speckling. Turning the latter up too high wipes out star colours.
Turn up Color Smoothness, however, if the image has lots of large scale colour blotchiness.
Zoom in to at least 100% to see the effect of all noise reduction settings. Adobe Camera Raw and Lightroom have the best noise reduction in the business. Without it your images will be far noisier than they need to be.
Step 4 – Adobe Camera Raw or Lightroom – Lens Correction
Wide angle lenses, especially when used at fast apertures, suffer a lot from light falloff at the corners (called vignetting). There’s no need to have photos looking as if they were taken through a dark tunnel.
ACR or Lightroom can automatically detect what lens you used and apply a lens correction to brighten the corners, plus correct for other flaws such as chromatic aberration and lens distortion.
Use the Color tab to “Remove Chromatic Aberration” and dial up the Defringe sliders.
For lenses not in the database (manual lenses like the Rokinons and Samyangs will not be included, nor will any telescopes) use the Manual tab to dial in your own vignetting correction. This can take some trial-and-error to get right, but once you have it, save it as a Preset to apply in future to all photos from that lens or telescope.
I usually apply Lens Corrections as a first step, but sometimes find I have to back it off it as I boost the contrast under Basics.
Step 5 – Bridge or Lightroom – Copy & Paste
For a small number of images you could open them all, then Select All in ACR to apply the same settings to all images at the same time.
Or you can adjust one, then Select All and hit Synchronize.
Another method useful for processing dozens or hundreds of frames from a star trail or time-lapse set is to choose one representative image and process it. Then in Bridge choose Edit>Develop Settings>Copy Camera Raw Settings. If you are in Lightroom’s Library module, choose Photo>Develop Settings>Copy Settings.
With either program you can also right-click on an image to get to the same choices. Then select all the other images in the set (Command/Control A) and use the same menus to Paste Settings.
A dialog box comes up for choosing what settings you wish to transfer.
If you cropped the image (a good idea for images destined for an HD movie with a 16:9 aspect ratio), pick that option as well. In moments all your images get processed with identical settings. Nice!
Step 6 – Lightroom or Photoshop – Export
You now have a set of developed Raw images. However, the actual Raw files are never altered. They remain raw!
Instead, with Adobe Camera Raw the information on how you processed the images is stored in the “sidecar” XMP text files that live in the same folder as the Raw files.
In Lightroom’s case your settings are stored in its own database, unless you choose Metadata>Save Metadata to File (Command/Control S). In that case, Lightroom also writes the changes to the same XMP sidecar files.
To convert the images into final Photoshop PSDs, TIFFs or JPGs you have a couple of choices. In Lightroom go to the Library module and choose Export. It’s an easy way to export and convert hundreds of images, perhaps into a folder of smaller JPGs needed for assembling a time-lapse movie.
To do that from within Adobe Bridge, select the images, then go to Tools>Photoshop>Image Processor. The dialogue box allows you to choose how and where to export the images. Photoshop then opens, processes, and exports each image.
Step 7 – Photoshop – Smart Filters
For a folder of images intended to be stacked into star trails (Step 10A) or time-lapse movies (Step 10B), you’re done processing.
But individual nightscape images can often benefit from more advanced work in Photoshop. The next steps make use of a non-destructive workflow, allowing you to alter settings at any time after the fact. At no time do we actually change pixels.
One secret to doing that is to open an image in Photoshop and then select Layer>Smart Objects>Convert to Smart Object. Or go to Filter>Convert for Smart Filters.
OR … better yet, back in Adobe Camera Raw hold down the Shift key while clicking the Open Image button, so it becomes Open Object. That image will then open in Photoshop already as a Smart Object, which you can re-open and re-edit in ACR at any time later should you wish.
Either way, with the image as a Smart Object, you can now apply useful filters such as Reduce Noise, Smart Sharpen, and Dust & Scratches, plus third-party filters such as Nik Software’s Dfine 2 Noise Reduction, all non-destructively as “smart filters.” They can be re-adjusted or turned off at any time.
Step 8 – Photoshop – Adjustment Layers
The other secret to non-destructive processing is to apply adjustment layers.
Go to Layer>New Adjustment Layer, or click on any of the icons in the Adjustments panel. If that panel is not visible at right, then under the Window menu check “Adjustments.”
This panel is where you can alter the colour balance, the brightness and contrast, the vibrancy, and many other choices. I find Selective Color most useful for tweaking colour.
Curves allows you to bring up detail in dark areas. Levels allows setting the black and white points, and overall contrast.
The beauty of adjustment layers is that you can click on the layer’s little icon and bring up the dialog box for changing the setting at any time. You never permanently alter pixels.
The image adjustment “Shadows & Highlights” is also immensely useful, but appears as a smart filter, not as an adjustment layer. It’s one of the prime tools for creating images with great detail in scenes lit only by starlight.
Step 9 – Photoshop – Masks
The power of adjustment layers is that you can apply them to just portions of an image. This is useful in nightscapes where the sky and ground often need different processing.
To create a mask first select the region you want to work on. Try the Quick Selection Tool (found near the top of the Tool palette at left). Use it to brush across the sky, or the ground, so that the entire area is outlined by “marching ants.”
Use the Refine Edge option to tweak the selection by brushing across intricate areas such as tree branches.
Once you have an area selected, hit one of the Adjustments to add an adjustment layer with the mask automatically applied. Double click on the mask to tweak it: hit Mask Edge to clean up the edge, or turn up the Feather to blur the edge.
To apply the same mask to another adjustment layer, drag the mask from one layer to another while holding down the Option/Alt key.
Invert the mask (or select it and hit Command/Control I) to apply it to the other half of the image. Paint the mask with black or white brushes if you need manually alter it. Remember – black “conceals,” while white “reveals.”
When done, be sure to always save the image as a layered “master” .PSD file.
Never, ever flatten and save – that will wipe out all your non-destructive filters and adjustment layers.
If you need to save the image as a JPG for social mediia or emailing, then Flatten and Save As … Or use Photoshop’s File>Export>Export As .. function.
Step 10A – Photoshop or 3rd Party Programs – Stack for Star Trails
One popular way to shoot images of stars trailing in arcs across the sky is to shoot dozens or hundreds of well-exposed frames at a fairly high ISO and wide aperture, and at a shutter speed no longer than 30 to 60 seconds. You then “stack” the images to create the equivalent of one frame shot for many minutes, if not an hour or more. The image above is an example.
There are several ways to stack.
From within Photoshop CC (or using an Extended version of the older CS5 or CS6) one method is to go to File>Scripts>Statistics. In the dialog box, drill down to the images you wish to stack (put them all in one folder) and choose Stack Mode: Maximum, and uncheck “Attempt to Automatically Align.” The result is a huge (!) smart object. This method works best on just a few dozen images. In this case, you’ll need to use Layers>Flatten to reduce its size.
Other options for stacking hundreds of images include the free program StarStax (Windows and Mac), which requires a folder of “intermediate” TIFFs or JPGs. See Step 6 above.
Step 10B – Photoshop or 3rd Party Programs – Assemble for Movies
The same folder of images taken for star trail stacking can also be turned into a time-lapse movie. Instead of stacking the images on top of one another in space, you string them together one after the other in time.
There are many methods for assembling movies. Free or low cost programs such as Quicktime 7 Pro, Time-Lapse Assembler, Sequence (a Mac program shown above), VirtualDub, or Time-Lapse Tool can do the job, all offering options for the final movie’s format.
Generally, an HD video of 1920×1080 pixels in the H264 format, or “codec,” is best, rendered at 15 to 30 frames per second.
Most movie assembly programs will need to work from a folder of JPGs of the right size, produced using one of the choices listed under Step 6: Export.
But … you can also use Photoshop to assemble a movie.
Choose the Window>Workspace>Motion to bring up a video timeline. Then File>Open to drill to your folder of processed and down-sized JPG files. Select one image, then check “Image Sequence.” Choose the frame rate (15 to 30 fps is best). Then go to File>Export>Render Video to turn the resulting file into a final H264 or Quicktime movie suitable for use in other movie editing programs.
Advanced Techniques: Using LRTimelapse
The workflow I’ve outlined works great when you can apply the same development settings to all the images in a folder. For star trail and time-lapse sequences shot once it gets dark and under similar lighting conditions that will be the case.
But if the Moon rises or sets during the shoot, or if you are taking a much more demanding sequence that runs from sunset to night, the same settings won’t work for all frames.
The answer is to turn to the program LRTimelapse (100 Euros for the standard version, and available in a free but limited trial copy). LRTimelapse works with either Lightroom or Bridge/Adobe Camera Raw.
To use it you process just a few selected “keyframes” – at least two, at the start and end of the sequence, and perhaps other frames throughout the sequence, processing them so each frame looks great. You read that processing data into LRTimelapse and, like magic, it interpolates your settings, creating a folder of images with every setting changing incrementally from frame to frame, something you could never do by hand.
It can then work with Lightroom to export the frames out to a video in formats from HD up to 4K in size. For serious time-lapse work, LRTimelapse is an essential tool.
Much, much more information and tutorials are included in my multimedia Apple eBook, linked to below.
But I hope this quick tutorial helps in providing you with tips to make your images and movies even better! If you found it useful, please feel free to share a link to this blog page through your social media channels. Thanks!
My multiple-exposure composite shows the complete September 27, 2015 total lunar eclipse to true scale, with the Moon accurately depicted in size and position in the sky.
From my location at Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park in southern Alberta, Canada, the Moon rose in the east at lower left already in partial eclipse.
As it rose it moved into Earth’s shadow and became more red, while the sky darkened from twilight to night, bringing out the stars.
Then, as the Moon continued to rise higher it emerged from Earth’s shadow, at upper right, and returned to a brilliant Full Moon again, here overexposed and now illuminating the landscape with moonlight.
The disks of the Moon become overexposed in my composite as the sky darkened because I was setting exposures to show the sky and landscape well, not just the Moon itself. That’s because I shot these frames – and many more! – primarily for use as a time-lapse movie where I wanted the entire scene well exposed in each frame.
Indeed, for this still-image composite of the eclipse from beginning to end, I used just 40 frames taken at 5-minute intervals, selected from 530 I shot, taken at 15- to 30-second intervals for the full time-lapse sequence.
All were taken with a fixed camera, a Canon 6D, with a 35mm lens, to nicely frame the entire path of the Moon, from moonrise at lower left, until it exited the frame at top right, as the partial eclipse was ending.
In the interest of full disclosure, the ground comes from a blend of three frames taken at the beginning, middle, and end of the sequence, and so is partly lit by twilight and moonlight, to reveal the ground detail better than in the single starlit frame from mid-eclipse. Lights at lower left are from the Park’s campground.
The background sky comes from a blend of two exposures: one from the middle of the eclipse when the sky was darkest, and one from the end of the eclipse when the sky was now lit deep blue. The stars come from the mid-eclipse frame, a 30-second exposure.
MY RANT FOR REALITY
So, yes, this is certainly a composite assembled in Photoshop – a contrast to the old days of film where one might attempt such an image just by exposing the same piece of film multiple times, usually with little success.
However … the difference between this image and most you’ve seen on the web of this and other eclipses, is that the size of the Moon and its path across the sky are accurate, because all the images for this composite were taken with the same lens using a camera that did not move during the 3-hour eclipse.
This is how big the Moon actually appeared in the sky in relation to the ground and how it moved across the sky during the eclipse, in what is essentially a straight line, not a giant curving arc as in many viral eclipse images.
And, sorry if the size of the Moon seems disappointingly small, but it is small! This is what a lunar eclipse really looks like to correct scale.
By comparison, many lunar eclipse composites you’ve seen are made of giant moons shot with a telephoto lens that the photographer then pasted into a wide-angle sky scene, often badly, and pasted in locations on the frame that usually bear no resemblance to where the Moon actually was in the sky, but are just placed where the photographer thought would look the nicest.
You would never, ever do that for any other form of landscape photography, at least not without having your reputation tarnished. But with the Moon it seems anything is permitted, even amongst professional landscape photographers.
No, you cannot just place a Moon anywhere you like in your image, eclipse or no eclipse, then pass it off as a real image. Fantasy art perhaps. Fine. But not a photograph of nature.
Sorry for the rant, but I prefer accuracy over fantasy in such lunar eclipse scenes, which means NOT having monster-sized red Moons looming out of proportion and in the wrong place over a landscape. Use Photoshop to inform, not deceive.
It was a good year for Perseid meteors, as they shot across the sky in abundance on dark-of-the-Moon nights.
Last week, August 11 and 12 proved to be superb for weather in southern Alberta, with clear skies and warm temperatures perfect for a night of watching and shooting meteors.
On both nights I had identical camera rigs running, all from my rural backyard. These images are from the peak night, Wednesday, August 12.
The main image at top is with a 15mm ultra wide lens, on a camera that was tracking the sky as it turned. Like many meteor photos these days it is a layered stack of many images, in this case 35, to put as many meteors as possible onto one frame.
While the result does illustrate the effect of meteors streaking away from the radiant point, here in Perseus, it does lend a false impression of what the shower was like. It took me 3.5 hours of shooting to capture all of those meteors.
Note the aurora as well.
With this camera I used a wide 14mm lens, but with the camera on a fixed tripod. I again blended frames, 16 of them, to show the meteors radiating from Perseus.
Because the camera was not tracking the sky, later in Photoshop I rotated each frame relative to a lower “base-level” image, rotating them around Polaris at top as the sky does, in order to line up the stars and have the meteors appear in their correct position relative to the background stars and radiant point.
Note the errant bright “sporadic” meteor not part of the shower.
Camera number 3 was aimed straight up for 3.5 hours, toward Cygnus and the Summer Triangle, in hopes of nabbing that brilliant fireball streaking down the Milky Way. I got a nice “rain of meteors” effect but the bright bolide meteor eluded me.
This was certainly the best year for the Perseids in some time, with it coinciding with New Moon.
Later this year, the Geminids will also put on a good show at nearly New Moon, on the nights of December 13 and 14. So if you liked, or missed, the Perseids, take note of the dates in December.
However, for many of us, a Geminid watch is a very, cold and snowy affair!
The Big Dipper and the Pole Star shine above the moonlit historic Hearst Church.
Tuesday was a productive evening of shooting in the moonlight. One of the best from the night pictures the Hearst Church in the rustic town of Pinos Altos in the Gila Forest of southern New Mexico.
The Big Dipper stars shine at right, with the Pointer stars in the Bowl aiming at Polaris above the Church. Illumination is from a waxing quarter Moon and from some decorative lights in the yard next door across the street.
The Hearst Church was opened in May 1898 and indeed is named for the famous Hearst family. Money to build the church was raised by the local mining families with a major donation from Phoebe Hearst, wife of the mining magnate and senator George Hearst. Phoebe was also mother to newspaper tychoon William Randolph Hearst, the inspiration for Orson Welles’ movie Citizen Kane. Gold that decorates Hearst’s mansion in California came from the family mine near Pinos Altos.
As the mining boom went bust the Methodist church lost its pastor then its congregation. It is now an art gallery and home to the Grant County Art Guild. See their website for details on the historic church.
While I know many of my blog’s followers enjoy the photos for their own sake, lots of folks also like to learn more about the technical aspects of the images.
So with this blog, and selected others in future, I’ll present a bit more of the “how-to” information.
How the Image Was Shot and Processed
Taking the image could not have been simpler. It is a single 45-second exposure at f/2.8 with the 24mm lens and Canon 6D at ISO 800, on a static tripod, about as basic as you get for nightscape shooting. There is no fancy stacking or compositing.
The trick is still in the processing, however. Here is a breakdown of the Photoshop CC 2014 file and its various layers. Every aspect of the processing is non-destructive. No pixels were ever harmed in the process. Every adjustment can be tweaked and modified after the fact.
< Star spikes top layer added with “Astronomy Tools” actions from Noel Carboni.
< Sharpening layer created from stamping the final layers into one layer using the Command-Option-Shift-E command, then a High Pass filter applied, blended with Soft Light and masked to sharpen just the ground.
< Adjustment layers for colour, brightness & contrast, and levels, applied to the sky and ground separately with masks, created using Quick Selection Tool and Refine Edge.
< A Clone & Heal layer for wiping out the power lines & power pole, using the Patch & Spot Healing Tools.
< The base image, opened from the developed Raw file as a Smart Object, with noise reduction and sharpening applied as Smart Filters.
I know this won’t explain all the processing steps but I hope it provides some idea of what goes into a nightscape.
All this and much more will be explained in an upcoming half-day “Photoshop for Astronomy” Workshop I’m presenting Saturday, May 9. If you are in the Calgary, Alberta area, consider joining us. For details and to register, see the All-Star Telescope web page.
Also, my ebook featured below has all the details on shooting and processing images like these.
Here are both the heart and the soul of Cassiopeia the Queen.
Two days ago I posted an image of the Soul Nebula. Now, here is the matching Heart Nebula, in a mosaic of the glorious region of the Milky Way called the Heart and Soul Nebulas located in the constellation of Cassiopeia.
They are otherwise respectively called IC 1805 and IC 1848. Amid the swirls of nebulosity are numerous clusters of stars, such as NGC 1027 just above centre. The separate patch of nebulosity at upper right is NGC 896.
I shot the frames for this 3-segment mosaic over two nights, with one segment taken from the frames that made up the previous post. Plus I shot two others to span the region of the Milky Way that is about seven degrees long, a binocular field.
Each of the 3 segments is a stack of 12 frames, with each frame a 6-minute exposure. I used the filter-modified Canon 5D MkII and shot through the TMB 92mm apo refractor at f/4.4. All processing was in Photoshop, including the mosaic assembly.
In all, it’s the best image I’ve taken of this much-shot area of the sky. It really brings out the diversity in star colours, and sky colours, from the dusty orange-brown region at left, to the inky dark dustless region at far right.
The Soul Nebula glows from within the constellation of Cassiopeia the Queen.
I shot this image last night, capturing an object prosaically known as IC 1848, but more popularly called the Soul Nebula.
It is often depicted framed with a companion nebula just “off camera” here to the right, called the Heart Nebula. Thus they are the Heart and Soul. Both shine on the eastern side of Cassiopeia the Queen.
Here I’m framing just the Soul, taking in some of the faint nebulosity to the left of the main nebula, including a tiny object called IC 289, a star-like planetary nebula at upper left.
I like this image for its variety of subtle colours, not only the reds and magentas in the bright nebula, but also in the dark sky around it from dim dust adding faint yellows, browns and even a touch of green.
The Soul Nebula lies 6,500 light years away in the Perseus Arm, the next spiral arm out from ours in the Milky Way. On northern autumn nights this region of the sky and Milky Way lies high overhead.
For the technically minded:
The image is a stack of 20 six-minute exposures, taken with a filter-modified Canon 5D Mark II at ISO 800. I was shooting through one of my favourite telescopes for deep-sky photography, the TMB (Thomas M. Back-designed) 92mm apo refractor, working at a fast f/4.4 using a Borg 0.85x field flattener and focal reducer.
I used one of Noel Carboni’s “Astronomy Tools” Photoshop actions to add the “diffraction spikes” on the stars. They are artificial (refractors don’t produce spikes on stars) but they add a photogenic touch to a rich starfield.
I shot this from the backyard of my New Mexico winter home.