The Battle of AI: Adobe Sky Replacement vs. Luminar 4 AI Sky Replacement

Recently, in conjunction with the October 2020 Adobe MAX Creativity Conference, Adobe released the eagerly awaited version of Photoshop version 22.0, which comes with quite a few new features, many of which are powered by AI. 

Sky Replacement

One of the most anticipated features in Photoshop is their AI-powered Sky Replacement. While I don’t generally replace skies, I do take low-ISO night or “blue hour” twilight photos of the foreground, then take successive “stacked” photos of the night sky, and then blend them together. This can be time-consuming, so I am always interested in ways to quicken the process. 

Luminar 4 AI Sky Replacement vs. Adobe Sky Replacement

I’ve used Luminar 4’s AI Sky Replacement to do “drop in” my own sky before. I was curious as to how it would compare with Photoshop Sky Replacement.

Luminar 4 can only use JPG or TIFF files. There is no such limitation with Adobe. When used in Photoshop, Luminar 4 will create another layer. Photoshop offers the choice of creating another layer or a duplicate layer, including all the masks and the layer of the sky that come with it.

Another difference is that Photoshop version 22 has so far been absurdly slow for almost every function on my 2017 iMac with 40 GB of RAM. Photoshop 2020 was also very slow. Luminar 4, and for that matter, Photoshop 2019, run very quickly. Not everyone experiences this, but it’s worth mentioning.

First example – night photo

I began with a photo that I took of an unprocessed 3 minute low-ISO photo of a radio telescope taken at night. Luminar 4 struggled with identifying the night sky. How would Adobe fare?

Adobe recognized the night sky as being a sky, but struggled to determine what was sky and what was not. And as previously mentioned, I had the choice of creating a duplicate layer, which would allow me to tweak the layer further in a non-destructive manner. In this example, I chose one of Adobe’s skies, as numerous skies come with the program.

Above, you can see that Luminar’s Sky Replacement feature is ghosted. It could not recognize the night sky at all.

Second example – blue hour photo

I chose a “blue hour” photo of a lake in the Eastern Sierras, taken not long after the sun had set. I decided that this time, I would “drop in” one of my skies, a “stacked” Milky Way photo taken with the same setup later that evening.

Adobe performed quite admirably here, dropping in the sky, although I did have to adjust the size slightly to get it to match. This was easily done.

Next was Luminar 4. Luminar recognized the sky but struggled with both the blending of the sky itself as well as the horizon. Luminar struggles with darker skies. If I had increased the brightness of the Eastern Sierras photos by a stop or two, it would have been fine.

Third example – day photo with lots of trees

All examples of both programs use day photos for sky replacement. And for good reason. Both their AI recognize it very well. But how would they recognize something complicated such as trees with lots of fine leaves? 

I used a bright day photo of the forest in Mount Pinos in the mountains north of Los Angeles as the base photo. I decided to use the same Milky Way photo as the previous attempt. This would look incredibly fake. However, I felt the darkness would create greater contrast. We could then  examine the blend by zooming in close to see what was happening with the leaves of the trees.

Adobe’s Sky Replacement didn’t struggle to determine where the sky was here. First appearances looked good.

Next was Luminar 4. This also performed admirably. Although a little darker than the Adobe version, this could have been easily adjusted by using a slider. First appearances also looked good!

I’m ready for my close-up!

For Instagram or Facebook, either sky replacement would look good. But what if we zoomed in? What if we printed this at 100%? For this, I zoomed in to 200% so you could see the masking in detail. 

Looking closely at the details of the leaves and branches in the Photoshop version above, we can see that it’s generally quite good, but that some of the branches and leaves are missing.

Examining Luminar 4’s version above, we can see that the leaves and branches are noticeably more intact. The mask, even zoomed in at 200%, is quite good.

Which one is better?

 I don’t know that there is a clear, definitive winner here. We all love “bottom line” answers, and I would give you one if I had one.

For day photos, Luminar 4 created a better mask. It requires JPGs, although in practice, I doubt this will matter with almost anyone.

However, for night photos, Luminar 4 struggled immensely. Photoshop was able to create a mask even with the very dark night photo of the radio telescope, no easy feat. And with the ability to duplicate layers, one could work on the mask some more to get it to blend better.

I for one am happy to have both. And with LuminarAI and subsequent versions of Photoshop looming on the horizon, I’d say that things are looking good. Whatever your position on sky replacement, we all can agree that if AI can make our repetitive or time-consuming tasks faster, then we all win.

I thought I would share this just for fun. I finished this after I created the examples above, experimenting with both Photoshop and Luminar 4. This is a photo of the radio telescope facing north. This is a version of the first photo combined with “stacked’ photos of the starry night sky to reduce noise reduction. I masked this using a combination of Starry Landscape Stacker and Photoshop CC 2019.

 

VISIT ME, VISIT ME!

MY WEBSITE:
Head on over to the Ken Lee Photography website to purchase books or look at night photography and long exposure photos.  My latest book, “Abandoned Southern California: The Slowing of Time” is available there and Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Target, Booktopia, Books A Million, IBS, and Aladin. If you enjoy the book, please leave a nice review.

SOCIAL MEDIA:
Ken Lee Photography Facebook Page (poke your head in, say hi, and “like” the page if you would, uh, like)
Instagram

PODCAST:
Behind the Shot video podcast – interview February 2020

VIDEO INTERVIEW:
Conversation about night photography and my book with Lance Keimig of National Park At Night

ARTICLES:
A Photographer Captures Haunting Nighttime Images of Abandoned Buildings, Planes, and Cars in the American Southwest – Business Insider by Erin McDowell
A Photographer Explores Southern California’s Desert Ruins – Los Angeles Magazine article by Chris Nichols

 

How not to smash your lens and knees: don’t be like me

Think of this as a public service announcement. Today, I’m going to discuss how to avoid smashing your equipment, day or night. I’m not a great example of this, so this is one of those cases where you should do as I say, not as I do!

Above: right after creating this photo, I walked around back. And that’s when I got close and intimate with the dirt in a hurry. And look, we’ll go over something technical just for fun. This was photographed with a Nikon D750 and a dust-free Rokinon 12mm f/2.8 fisheye lens. This exposure is 24 minutes total “stacked”. Each photo was 3 minutes at f/2.8 ISO 200, and I illuminated the interior and exterior of the building with a ProtoMachines LED2 handheld light painting device. There. Technical stuff.

Tripping the light fantastic

I walk around in the dark a lot. And I do so in abandoned areas and out on uneven ground in nature.

The chances of tripping, knocking over something, or getting snagged by something grows exponentially great. Perhaps even more so if you get excited and don’t pay as much attention as you should. Like me.

Have a nice trip, see you next fall!

As I was walking around, I stepped over a beam on the ground. It was an eighty-foot beam. It had nothing protruding throughout its entire expanse….except one. And I found it.

I tripped over the nine inch metal part. But it got better. I caught myself, only to find that my shoelace had caught around it. I went down like a felled tree, smashing my left knee and the camera.  And my flashlight too. BOOOOOM!

Now, I’m going to tell you several things that I often do that I did not do here.

Cover up

Your lenses come with lens caps. Use them! Especially if your lens has a bulbous front element that sticks out, like my Rokinon 12mm f/2.8 fisheye does. When you move around, put the lens cap back on!

Somehow, miraculously, I didn’t scratch the lens at all. I did spend over 20 minutes carefully brushing the dirt out from the lens, camera, and everywhere else, though. But I could have scratched the lens very easily.

Don’t be like me.

Knee Pads

When you are wandering around dark areas with lots of debris, it’s a good idea to wear knee pads. Not only would this have protected me from bruising my knee, but this would have enabled me to get some support and kneel much easier.

I have a pair of kneepads. They’re quite good. They’re quite comfortable.

And they’re quite useless if I don’t wear them.

Don’t be like me.

Shoelaces

I was wearing big boots. That’s good for abandoned areas.

What’s not so great is having the big giant loops of the laces sticking out. Tuck those things in! I often do. Just not this particular evening.

Don’t be like me.

VISIT ME, VISIT ME!

MY WEBSITE:
Head on over to the Ken Lee Photography website to purchase books or look at night photography and long exposure photos.  My latest book, “Abandoned Southern California: The Slowing of Time” is available there and Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Target, Booktopia, Books A Million, IBS, and Aladin. If you enjoy the book, please leave a nice review.

SOCIAL MEDIA:
Ken Lee Photography Facebook Page (poke your head in, say hi, and “like” the page if you would, uh, like)
Instagram

PODCAST:
Behind the Shot video podcast – interview February 2020

ARTICLES:
A Photographer Captures Haunting Nighttime Images of Abandoned Buildings, Planes, and Cars in the American Southwest – Business Insider by Erin McDowell
A Photographer Explores Southern California’s Desert Ruins – Los Angeles Magazine article by Chris Nichols

 

How I got the photo: Rag doll atop a tricycle in a ghost town

Sometimes, spooky, creepy Halloween-type photos walk up to you with a demonic smile and say, “Hey, I’ve got it half set up for you! Bring it home!” And so it was at this Arizona ghost town. I was walking around at night with one of the volunteers who stays at the ghost town. I came across this scene with this red-headed rag doll sitting atop a tricycle. The universe had smiled upon me. I was meant to take this photo.

Setting up for snickering

Using a Feisol CT-3372 tripod, I positioned a Nikon D610 at “eye level”, using a Rokinon 12mm f/2.8 fisheye lens to make the scene look even weirder.  I did admittedly position the rag doll so she would be peering straight into the camera. While I did so, the volunteer started half-chuckling, half-snickering, saying, “You are one sick person. I love it!”

I wanted the room dark. There’s a fine line between a dark image and underexposure. I was going to try and walk that tightrope while still giving the shadows some detail.

Lighting it up

Then I took my ProtoMachines LED2 and used a white light from the right side to illuminate part of the rag doll, keeping the left side in shadow. I did this from a low vantage point so I would also create texture on the wooden floor. I handheld the ProtoMachines, as I almost always do, so I could light quickly and efficiently while the camera shutter was open.

I switched the ProtoMachines to a red light and briefly illuminated the circular Polly Gas sign in the back. With photos like this, any time I can make something look weirder, I’m all for it!

I chose to do a 61 second exposure, as I wanted to keep everything relatively dark while keeping detail in the shadows instead of being completely black.

When the volunteer peered into the LED monitor to view this photo, he cocked his head back and laughed. We had answered the smile of the universe, and all was good.

VISIT ME, VISIT ME!

MY WEBSITE:
Head on over to the Ken Lee Photography website to purchase books or look at night photography and long exposure photos.  My latest book, “Abandoned Southern California: The Slowing of Time” is available there and Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Target, Booktopia, Books A Million, IBS, and Aladin. If you enjoy the book, please leave a nice review.

SOCIAL MEDIA:
Ken Lee Photography Facebook Page (poke your head in, say hi, and “like” the page if you would, uh, like)
Instagram

PODCAST:
Behind the Shot video podcast – interview February 2020

VIDEO INTERVIEW:
Conversation about night photography and my book with Lance Keimig of National Park At Night

ARTICLES:
A Photographer Captures Haunting Nighttime Images of Abandoned Buildings, Planes, and Cars in the American Southwest – Business Insider by Erin McDowell
A Photographer Explores Southern California’s Desert Ruins – Los Angeles Magazine article by Chris Nichols

 

 

Why I love Google Maps

I use Google Maps to find interesting landscape and abandoned areas that I want to photograph. Here’s just a few of the ways that I use the mobile app.

Finding locations

Although you most certainly could find locations and examine them on your phone, I find it’s more efficient on a desktop or laptop. I mark areas of interest, “star” them, and they sync with the app after a short while.
Above: an example of the starred areas of interest that sync on Google Maps.

Offline maps

One of the bonuses of Google Maps is that I can download a map. This not only saves on cellular data usage, it also allows me to navigate when there is no cell signal. You heard that right. I should say right here that while it works almost all the time, it does occasionally glitch. I like to have a back-up, whether that’s a paper map or another app such as ViewRanger that also has the coordinates and a downloaded map.

Above: you can access the offline map area by tapping your icon on the upper right, then tapping on “Offline Maps”.

After downloading your map, you can access this whether you have cellular data or cellphone coverage at all because of your phone’s built-in GPS.

Satellite View

Both the website and the Google Maps app have satellite view. This enables you to zoom in close and see the lay of the land. This can be particularly handy for getting to see where everything is or where the sun is going to hit it. I’ve sometimes almost felt like I had already visited a place when I showed up because I could imagine it clearly.

 

Google Maps lists

On both the website and the app, I can create saved places and assign them to lists. Then I can access the list any time I want. I have lists for specific regions as well as for trips, as you can see above. And as you can also see, the lists and sites that I mark don’t have to be public. Mine are private.

Contained in this lists, as shown above, is additional information. Some of it, such as with more well-known tourist places such as the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns in Death Valley above, already have information. Or you can write your own information and put in photos yourself.

VISIT ME, VISIT ME!

MY WEBSITE:
Head on over to the Ken Lee Photography website to purchase books or look at night photography and long exposure photos.  My latest book, “Abandoned Southern California: The Slowing of Time” is available there and Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Target, Booktopia, Books A Million, IBS, and Aladin. If you enjoy the book, please leave a nice review.

SOCIAL MEDIA:
Ken Lee Photography Facebook Page (poke your head in, say hi, and “like” the page if you would, uh, like)
Instagram

PODCAST:
Behind the Shot video podcast – interview February 2020

ARTICLES:
A Photographer Captures Haunting Nighttime Images of Abandoned Buildings, Planes, and Cars in the American Southwest – Business Insider by Erin McDowell
A Photographer Explores Southern California’s Desert Ruins – Los Angeles Magazine article by Chris Nichols

 

 

How I got the photo: Spooky ghost on a swing set

My friend has six acres of property pressed up against Topanga State Park in California. I visited there in September, eager to create a spooky ghost photo for the holiday using a form of photography called “light writing”. It doesn’t take much equipment. You need some cheap lights and a camera with manual control. A tripod or stable surface is helpful too, of course.

Inexpensive lights

I used EL Wire, otherwise known as electroluminescent wire. This is a thin copper wire coated in a phosphor that produces light when an alternating current from a battery is put through it. It’s very portable and very inexpensive. 

I also grabbed a red LED head lamp out of my backpack.

 

Eerie swing set

I set up around an old rusty swing set. The setting, after all, had to be spooky.

 

Here’s how I did it

I set up my Nikon D610 on a tripod and focused on the swing set since that’s where the ghost was going to be. In manual mode, I held the shutter open. Then the fun began.

Holding a white EL wire by the swing, I activated it and waved it back and forth gently to create the head, arms, and body of the ghost that would register in the camera. I then took my LED head lamp and activated it briefly two times, one for each eye, where I had just “placed” the ghostly head.

After that, I illuminated the swing set and the trees and grass just a little bit, just to give it a little bit of texture. I did this with a ProtoMachines LED2 using a warm white light, but you can do this with any LED flashlight.

After that, I simply walked over and shut the camera off. The total exposure was 182 seconds.

Camera settings

Nikon D610, AF-S Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8G ED lens at 14mm. 182s f/8 ISO 200 White Balance of 4000K.

VISIT ME, VISIT ME!

MY WEBSITE:
Head on over to the Ken Lee Photography website to purchase books or look at night photography and long exposure photos.  My latest book, “Abandoned Southern California: The Slowing of Time” is available there and Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Target, Booktopia, Books A Million, IBS, and Aladin. If you enjoy the book, please leave a nice review.

SOCIAL MEDIA:
Ken Lee Photography Facebook Page (poke your head in, say hi, and “like” the page if you would, uh, like)
Instagram

PODCAST:
Behind the Shot video podcast – interview February 2020

ARTICLES:
A Photographer Captures Haunting Nighttime Images of Abandoned Buildings, Planes, and Cars in the American Southwest – Business Insider by Erin McDowell
A Photographer Explores Southern California’s Desert Ruins – Los Angeles Magazine article by Chris Nichols

 

Opinion: is processing cheating?

“The camera cannot lie.”

Near the beginning of photography, this often said in magazines and elsewhere. But is is true? And what role does processing take in this?

What is purity?

There is this almost purist sort of bent among some photographers, where the general belief is that film is somehow more truthful, and that processing a digital image is somehow more deceitful. Several years ago, in fact, some photographers described images they posted as “SOOC” (straight out of camera”), almost as a badge of honor.

But I believe we often forget that many photographers sent their film to a lab, where a technician made decisions about exposure, color, and artistry for them.

And I believe we also forget that photographing “SOOC” simply means that the camera makes processing decisions for them and bakes them into a JPG.

I believe we forget that film photographers often manipulated a negative quite a bit.

 

“The negative is the equivalent of the composer’s score, and the print the performance.” – Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams would spend as long as eight hours in the darkroom on a single image. Dodging, burning…what he did was rather complicated, and often involved very specific notes and intent.

 

HDR

Then there’s HDR. High Dynamic Range. Most people associate this with a program like Photoshop. And many first attempts were garish, often overdone for a grungy effect. But when was the first HDR?

1857. That is the first known attempt that I know of, long before Photoshop, Windows 10, or USB cables. This was a photograph by pioneering French photographer Gustave Le Gray. He combined two negatives, one exposed for the sky, the other for the sea.

 

Processing

Is eight hours of processing negatives  “bad”?

Is HDR “bad”?

In night photography, processing surely has become more complicated. A lot of the processing is done in an effort to minimize noise and bring out stars. Is this sort of processing bad?

Purity and realism are moving targets. If spending eight hours in a darkroom, using HDR techniques, or reducing noise makes things look or feel more like the actual experience, does this make processing “bad”?

 

What is realism in photography?

Is spending eight hours in a darkroom to dodge and burn an image any more unrealistic than using a fisheye lens to warp a scene unnaturally?

Is HDR any more unrealistic than “freezing” a waterfall at 1/1000 of a second so we can see the individual droplets of water, something that does not look or feel like the actual experience?

Is reducing noise in a dark photograph any more unrealistic than photographing a street scene for a split second in a grainy black-and-white image?

Genres like photojournalism or sports photography aside, should the goal of photography even be to make an image look or feel like the actual experience?

What do you think? I’ll leave you with this quote to give you some food for thought.

“A photograph is not necessarily a lie, but it isn’t the truth either. It’s more like a fleeting, subjective impression.” ― John Berger

Stacking images for brilliant Milky Way photos

Stacking for night sky images

You might hear the term “stacking” in photography. One can stack for focusing or perspective or star trails. This, however, is stacking for starry night skies, including the Milky Way.

The idea here is to take several photos, one right after another, to reduce digital noise that generally occurs when pushing the camera’s sensitivity higher and higher. Then we throw the images into an app such as Starry Landscape Stacker (Mac) or Sequator (PC). The app will perform its mathematics magic to make life easy for you. It will identify the stars on each of your images, align them, and then stack them.

Above: Both images are zoomed in at 200% after they have been prepped for maximum ugliness in Lightroom (more on that later). The first image is a noisier single exposure image. The second image is the image that has been stacked in Starry Landscape Stacker. You can see that it is a noticeably cleaner image.

You may stack them in Photoshop, but these programs simplify the process and are either inexpensive or free. I’ll use Starry Landscape Stacker as the example since I have a Mac. However, the process is about the same for Sequator. Let’s check it out!

 

Out in the field

Yes, we will start with what you do with your camera first. After all, it’s photography, isn’t it? You will photograph the Milky Way with your tripod-mounted camera, taking photos one right after the other. Click! Click! Click! Click!

I like to take at least 15 photos, usually doing between 20-25. The more photos you take, the greater the noise reduction. To a point, anyway. 25 is good. Three, not so much. In this example, I did 20.

 

Prepping the sky images

At home, prep your sky photos. Unfortunately, you sort of need to make them look like rubbish. You may prep them in Lightroom or some other photo editor.  Starry Landscape Stacker has an easy-to-follow tutorial, which you should watch before using.  The basics are below.

Do the following:

-Use Custom WB to keep the photos consistent
-Increase Brightness
-Decrease Contrast
-Increase Blacks (look at left side of histogram)
-Remove Lens Vignetting and Chromatic Aberration
-Mild Color Noise Reduction

Avoid the following:

-Auto White Balance for each photo
-Adding Contrast, Clarity, and DeHaze.
-Adding color through Vibrance, Saturation, and HSL
-Brightening through Highlights and Whites
-Applying lens distortion corrections

You can perform all these later.

After prepping all identically, export these hideous looking images as 16-bit TIFF files. They will then be ready for stacking!

 

Stacking the sky images

In Starry Landscape Stacker, select your ugly looking TIFF files.

An image will appear. The stars will trail and it will be covered in red dots. How fun!

 

Fun with red dots

Your sky should be covered with red dots, each one allegedly representing a star.

You’re going to add more stars. Add some more quickly around the edges of the sky and along the foreground and anywhere else there are stars. Above, I’ve also added some more in the arch of the rock formation. When you are finished, click “Find Sky”.

 

Blue sky mask

Clicking “Find Sky” will result in a blue mask in what Starry Landscape Stacker thinks is the night sky. If the mask is wrong, paint in more of the sky or erase it from the foreground.  You can zoom in to see the actual pixels and control the size of the brush, similar to other photo editing programs.

When satisfied, click “Align and Save”. You will see the program aligning the images with one particular image, which will show in a task bar. This typically does not take very long.

 

The stacked image

After processing, your app will align all the stars and produce an image that should look like your single Milky Way photos, only with a little less noise. That wasn’t so hard, was it?

Go ahead and save your final output image as a 16-bit TIFF file. Starry Landscape Stacker will give you several different options depending on which algorithm you prefer. Toggle back and forth between several of the different options to see what is most appealing.

Looking for distortion and anomalies

I don’t always save the image using the same algorithms. Sometimes, I prefer a different one from what I’ve used before. Look very closely, especially along the horizon line, to see what appeals to you. If the program or your mask creates anomalies or distortions, it will typically be just above the horizon line. If you’re not sure, you can always save several of the choices and closely examine them later.

If it’s an issue with your mask, the program allows you to go back and work on the mask some more, saving what you had previously.

 

Saving the stacked image

When satisfied, go ahead and click “Align and Composite”. This will also save the image with and without a mask. I don’t usually don’t end up using the mask because I create my own masks for blending in low-ISO foregrounds (and this will probably be another article in the not-so-distant future).

 

 

Further post-processing

Above is the completely processed photo.

In post-processing, you can bring out quite a bit of the stars through careful use of contrast, color correction, de-hazing, clarity, and detail. Remember, the other photo had all this turned down to help Starry Landscape Tracker do its magic. Now it’s time to turn them back up to make the image look better. Don’t overdo it.

I also sharpened the image. And I altered the color of the sky from its bland color to more of a blue because it looked more aesthetically pleasing against the rock formation than a warmer night sky for this particular photo. This is admittedly not accurate. The sky was not blue that evening. But for this photo, it felt right. And since I had taken several photos of the arch this evening, it also helped to differentiate it somewhat.

I ended up cropping it to a square for personal aesthetics, so this isn’t perhaps the best example since the stars are not quite as sharp as other photos I took during the same evening. But nonetheless, it gives you an idea of what you can do with stacking software. As mentioned above, this is blended with a low-ISO foreground.  I also light painted this for additional drama.

This is another photo with more of a black sky that was taken just before the photo we were discussing. The same process was used all the way through as well.

I hope this helped describe the process of stacking and encourages you to go out and try one of these programs for yourself.

 

VISIT ME, VISIT ME!

MY WEBSITE:
Head on over to the Ken Lee Photography website to purchase books or look at night photography and long exposure photos.  My latest book, “Abandoned Southern California: The Slowing of Time” is available there and Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Target, Booktopia, Books A Million, IBS, and Aladin. If you enjoy the book, please leave a nice review.

SOCIAL MEDIA:
Ken Lee Photography Facebook Page (poke your head in, say hi, and “like” the page if you would, uh, like)
Instagram

PODCAST:
Behind the Shot video podcast – interview February 2020

ARTICLES:
A Photographer Captures Haunting Nighttime Images of Abandoned Buildings, Planes, and Cars in the American Southwest – Business Insider by Erin McDowell
A Photographer Explores Southern California’s Desert Ruins – Los Angeles Magazine article by Chris Nichols

 

 

Lens choices for night photography

What lens is good for night photography?  It turns out there’s quite a few. And not all of them are crazy expensive.
Please not that I am not discussing astrophotography, deep-space photography of celestial objects, or photos involving an equatorial mount or tracker. Those would have different considerations. I will give examples based on a full frame sensor. Focal lengths for APS-C sensors would be correspondingly smaller. However, the general approach would be the same.

Wide aperture

The speed of a lens refers to how large its maximum diameter is. A lens with a larger maximum aperture is called a “fast lens” because it can achieve the same exposure with a faster shutter speed. Generally speaking, most night photographers also prefer a lens with a larger aperture such as f/2.8, f/2.4 or even wider. This lets in more light. This lets in more light. This is especially crucial if you are interested in photographing stars, which are quite faint.
However, for night photography during a full moon, such as when one is photographing abandoned areas over the course of several minutes or more, a wide aperture lens is not necessary. Many people photograph at f/8 ISO 200 during this time. In one of my examples, I use a long zoom lens of 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6 at f/8 for a night photo. And in other examples, I also f/8 for night photos.

Ultra wide angle lens

The most common choice is an ultra wide angle lens. This allows you to include much of the night sky. Also, if you wish to photograph the stars as pinpoints, such as the case with the Milky Way, an ultra wide angle lens allows you to use longer exposure lengths without overt trailing of the stars.
Above: this image was created with a Pentax 15-30 f/2.8 ultra wide angle lens at 15mm. This is the launch area of an abandoned missile base overlooking Los Angeles. This was a three minute exposure at f/8 ISO 200. Although this is considered a “fast” lens at f/2.8, I wanted to show that night photos can be created at much smaller apertures such as f/8. This has the added bonus of having a broader depth of field, keeping more of the scene sharp and in focus. During full moon photography, you can use the auto-focus feature quite often. You may also use a bright flashlight to illuminate a foreground object and use auto-focus.
Above: this Milky Way photo in the Mojave Desert was photographed with an Irix 15mm f/2.4 prime ultra wide angle manual focus lens.  This lens has an added feature of having a detent at infinity, allowing the photographer to instantly lock the focus to infinity, which are of course ideal for photographing stars. For the night sky part of the photo, I used an exposure of 20 seconds at f/2.5 at ISO 4000 (although I did stack this numerous times to lessen the amount of noise, but those were the settings for the night sky). If photographing Milky Ways is your thing but you don’t have the budget for one of the other more expensive zoom lens, this is a great choice. Rokinon and Laowa also make ultra wide angle lenses that are worthy of consideration and are not crazy expensive. The Blackstone sells for under $700, while the Firefly is typically under $450. Also, it’s considerably lighter than its ultra wide zoom lens counterparts and does not have a bulbous front element, which means that it accepts screw-on filters.
Above: this photo in Joshua Tree National Park was taken with a Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 ultra wide lens. This is also quite a sharp lens, and like the aforementioned 15-30mm f/2.8 lens, has auto-focus. The settings for this photo were five photos stacked for a total of 15 minutes. Each of the five photos was a three-minute exposure at f/8 ISO 400.

Fisheye

A fisheye can be a great choice. Many fisheye lens have a 180-degree view and therefore, if pointed straight up, can photograph the entire night sky. Or they can create very distorted, creative images.
Above: this image was created with a Rokinon 12mm f/2.8 fisheye lens. Instant weirdness. A fisheye can help an image stand out from a crowd by offering a different perspective. Also, a lens like this Rokinon is relatively inexpensive compared to the other lenses I am discussing here. This sells for approximately $400.

Longer focal lengths

It’s perfectly okay to use longer focal lengths as well. The stars will trail much faster because you are zoomed in on them and everything else more, but this is perfectly normal. Longer lens can be great for “compressing” the scene, making the background elements look larger and creating drama. And if some of these background elements are stars, fantastic.
Above: this is a night photo using a longer focal length. This is a Nikon 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6 zoom lens. I wanted to “compress” the background cliff so it would seem even larger. This is a 20 minute exposure in total, “stacking” five photos together. Each individual stacked photo was a four-minute exposure at f/8 ISO 800. Like some of the other examples, I was able to use the auto-focus feature of this lens by illuminating the house with a flashlight first.

Choices, choices

Like anything else, you would choose a lens for its overall usefulness as well as your personal aesthetics. Not everyone, for instance, might want to photograph with a fisheye or a long lens. Or perhaps not everyone might want to have really wide angles all the time. How do you want to present the world?

 

VISIT ME, VISIT ME!

MY WEBSITE:
Head on over to the Ken Lee Photography website to purchase books or look at night photography and long exposure photos.  My latest book, “Abandoned Southern California: The Slowing of Time” is available there and Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Target, Booktopia, Books A Million, IBS, and Aladin. If you enjoy the book, please leave a nice review.

SOCIAL MEDIA:
Ken Lee Photography Facebook Page (poke your head in, say hi, and “like” the page if you would, uh, like)
Instagram

PODCAST:
Behind the Shot video podcast – interview February 2020

ARTICLES:
A Photographer Captures Haunting Nighttime Images of Abandoned Buildings, Planes, and Cars in the American Southwest – Business Insider by Erin McDowell
A Photographer Explores Southern California’s Desert Ruins – Los Angeles Magazine article by Chris Nichols

 

 

How I got the photo: the Car Forest night photo

I wanted a vivid, bold composition of a subject that had been photographed a fair amount by other night photographers. This was photographed at a desert art installation known as the International Car Forest of the Last Church outside Goldfield, NV, a field of old cars that are wildly painted and jammed into the ground at unlikely angles. This was created by Michael “Mark” Rippie and painted by Chad Sorg. Chad had encouraged me to create night photos here.

Bang! Bang!

Out in the Mojave Desert, strange things happen. The still, quiet evening was suddenly shattered by a sudden loud slamming sound, followed by some sort of braying. I whirled around to find several burros circling each other in a cloud of dust, slamming into each other periodically.

Batman tilt

To set the composition apart, I thought a Dutch Angle was in order. When I employ this technique, I want it to be really crooked so there can be no doubt. Full-on 1960s Batman crooked. And I want it to add drama. Lots of drama. I placed the camera so that the bus would block the nearly full moon, using it to backlight the bus and illuminate the clouds that would serve to frame the bus.

Color choice

I decided that a deep blue, which would match really well with the rich blue sky, would match beautifully. I used an Nikon SB-600 speedlight, firing it manually quite a few times. To get the blue color, I used a blue colored theatrical gel secured over the light.

I decided to “light paint” the exterior a lighter blue, which would make it appear to glow a bit rather than accentuating how old and weathered it was. I did this with an LED flashlight covered by a light blue plastic bag to soften the light.

How meeting a night photographer cost me $500

During this photo shoot, I ran into another night photographer named Ron Pinkerton. He showed me a ProtoMachines LED2, a device specifically designed to for light painting and night photography. I was intrigued, and watched as he demonstrated it and methodically went about light painting.

I told Ron, “Thanks! You just cost me $500!” I purchased one six months later and have never stopped using it since. However, I do still keep the LED flashlights and speedlight in the back of the car. You never know what may happen.

What did I use?

Info: Nikon D610 DSLR camera and  a AF-S Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8G ED lens at 14mm. The exposure was 146 seconds, the aperture was f/8, and the ISO was 400.

VISIT ME, VISIT ME!

MY WEBSITE:
Head on over to the Ken Lee Photography website to purchase books or look at night photography and long exposure photos.  My latest book, “Abandoned Southern California: The Slowing of Time” is available there and Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Target, Booktopia, Books A Million, IBS, and Aladin. If you enjoy the book, please leave a nice review.

SOCIAL MEDIA:
Ken Lee Photography Facebook Page (poke your head in, say hi, and “like” the page if you would, uh, like)
Instagram

PODCAST:
Behind the Shot video podcast – interview February 2020

ARTICLES:
A Photographer Captures Haunting Nighttime Images of Abandoned Buildings, Planes, and Cars in the American Southwest – Business Insider by Erin McDowell
A Photographer Explores Southern California’s Desert Ruins – Los Angeles Magazine article by Chris Nichols

 

The amazing app for clouds and weather, day or night

I get asked about what mobile apps I use for night photography regularly. When I mention that one of my favorites is Clear Outside, most people have never heard of it.
However, I app-solutely (um, sorry) love this app and find it extremely accurate. In fact, several of my non-night photography friends use it to gauge accurate weather. Oh, and it’s free. Yes, free. Let’s find out what it does.

Is it, well, clear outside?

Yes, you guessed it, it determines cloud cover. What I love about this app is that it describes not only total amount of clouds, but also low, medium, and high clouds. This is valuable because each has very different qualities for photographing at night. Or day. Want a beautiful fiery sunset? A partially cloudy forecast might grant your wish. Want epic streaking clouds moving past? Maybe fast moving clouds is the answer. Want clear skies for Milky Way? This will tell you if tonight’s the night.

As you can see above, the morning is rather clear, but it gets rather cloudy, especially by noon.

What about other locations?

Press “Locations” and the “+” sign and type in a location. Yes, you may type in longitude and latitude as well. This is especially fantastic if you want an extremely precise location. Above are some of my commonly used locations. You may delete these at any time.

What else does Clear Outside tell us?

The above screenshot shows the conditions for Mammoth Lakes, California. It’s quite clear. It gives the number on the 9-point numeric Bortle Scale (1 is almost no light pollution, and 9 is a brightly lit inner urban area). The color indicates civil, nautical, astronomical darkness. It even shows us when the International Space Station (I.S.S.) is flying past. But that’s not all.

Above, this app also tells us about moon phase, when the sun and moon rise, fog, chance of rain, wind, temperature, dew point, and humidity. These are all relevant to night photography or astronomy, of course, but are helpful day or night. If it’s particularly humid but cold, one might want to bring along items to prevent condensation on the lens.

Clear Outside also has a website

You may also access Clear Outside through a browser at clearoutside.com. Like its Android and iOS app counterparts, it defaults to Exeter, Devon UK. I have not found a way to make either default to another location. However, that’s easily rectified by the push of a button.

I would love it if the apps were able to sync with the website, but there are no provisions to log in. On a desktop, what I’ve done is keyed in specific locations and saved them as bookmark links. Obviously on the app, you can store specific locations.

The price for iOS or android apps? Free. The benefit? Priceless. Bravo, First Light Optics. Take a bow.

 

VISIT ME, VISIT ME!

MY WEBSITE:
Head on over to the Ken Lee Photography website to purchase books or look at night photography and long exposure photos.  My latest book, “Abandoned Southern California: The Slowing of Time” is available there and Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Target, Booktopia, Books A Million, IBS, and Aladin. If you enjoy the book, please leave a nice review.

SOCIAL MEDIA:
Ken Lee Photography Facebook Page (poke your head in, say hi, and “like” the page if you would, uh, like)
Instagram

PODCAST:
Behind the Shot video podcast – interview February 2020

ARTICLES:
A Photographer Captures Haunting Nighttime Images of Abandoned Buildings, Planes, and Cars in the American Southwest – Business Insider by Erin McDowell
A Photographer Explores Southern California’s Desert Ruins – Los Angeles Magazine article by Chris Nichols