Finding infinity: seven ways to focus on the night stars

Getting sharp, pin-point stars for a starry sky or the Milky Way may be the hardest part of night photography. However, I’ll try and make it methodical and easy. I’ll discuss seven methods.

 

Focusing on a distant object during the day

The easiest way to do this is to go out some time when there’s some daylight and focus on something extremely far away. Choose the mountains or the clouds.  It may be right at the lens’ infinity marking.  Or slightly to the right.  Or slightly to the left.  Regardless, mark that setting if you can with a grease pen. Or better yet, tape the focus ring down with gaffer’s tape so it will not budge. Now you’re ready for the night.

 

Focusing on a distant object at night

Some people will have a friend stand at least fifty feet away and hold up a light. Then they will adjust their focus manually until the light looks like a pinpoint. If you don’t have a friend nearby, lean a flashlight against a tree or rock. This is far enough away that your lens should perceive this as infinity. This method also works well.

 

Focusing on the moon

Photographing while the moon is out? You’ll get less stars, but on the other hand, the moon may beautifully illuminate the foreground.  Aim your camera so the moon appears in the center. Use auto focus. The moon should be plenty bright enough for your auto-focus to work. If not, go ahead and switch to manual focus and then focus on the moon. You may do this via Live View or looking through the viewfinder.

 

Adjusting using your LED

Set it to where you believe infinity is based on the markings on your lens. Zoom in a star using your LED. Then adjust your lens accordingly. This may take a while.  This is easier with some cameras than others. Be patient.  You want the stars to be as sharp as possible. This method can be more accurate than the first two methods, but takes more patience.

 

Made from 20 light frames (captured with a NIKON CORPORATION camera) by Starry Landscape Stacker 1.6.1. Algorithm: Median

 

Adjusting using Live View

This is similar to the above method, but is generally easier to see than zooming in with an LED.  Zoom in to a star using Live View. Adjust the focus of your lens manually until it looks very sharp. This should go rather quickly, and is considerably faster and easier than using your LED. If this option is available to you, I would recommend doing this first. It is easy and arguably the most accurate of the ones listed.

 

Lens filters that help you focus

These are filters that use diffraction methods to nail focus. if you want to know more, search Bahtinov filters,  SharpStar2, or similar variations on this theme.

 

Using a lens with true infinity

Some manual lens have a hard stop for infinity. For many of these lens, this may actually represent their true infinity. You won’t know until you test. Other lenses, such as the Irix 15mm f/2.4, have a detent for true infinity. This make adjusting for infinity incredibly simple and easy.

 

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

 

The power of vignettes: directing the light

Directing the light

A good composition is about directing the viewer through the image. And one of the many ways that effective photographers do this is by directing the light. Vignettes are a powerful tool in doing this. And best of all, it’s easy to do!

 

What’s a vignette?

A vignette is simply a reduction of an image’s brightness or saturation around the edges when compared to the center of the image.  A vignette might occur “naturally” through the lens you use, particularly if you photograph with a very wide aperture. Or we can add it easily through post-processing. I’ll show you how to do the latter to direct the light toward what you want the viewer to see.

 

It is easy to create vignettes!

In this example, I will use Adobe Lightroom Classic. However, you can use just about any program and achieve the same vignettes. I will show you using an example of a night photo. However, you may apply vignettes to any kind of photo. It is up to you!

 

Above, there already appears to be a little bit of vignetting in the original photo. However, the main reason the subject is brighter is because I lit the car grille during the exposure. I let everything else become a little more underexposed. The lights in the distance are more or less in the center, and also aid in creating interest near the center. I have placed the brightest part of the sky directly over the highest part of the car grille for maximum effect.

 

Creating a vignette using Adobe Lightroom

Above, under the effects panel, there are controls for “post-crop vignetting”. You probably already know what to do! Mess around with the controls and get something you like. I find that for most applications, a small amount of vignetting is all that is needed. Most of the time, you might not want to draw attention to the fact that there is vignetting. Subtlety is key. Here, the amount is just a little.

I have also increased the feathering. This controls how gradually the vignette darkens.

See how easy that was?

 

An example of heavy-handed vignetting and hard feathering

Just for fun, I thought I would create an extreme example of vignetting. As you cay see, the Amount Slider has been moved to the left considerably. And so has the Feathering Slider. This is the opposite of a very gradual, subtle gradation from light to dark. For some photos, this might work. For most, probably not.

 

Vignette controls may already be on your phone!

You don’t need to have Lightroom, Photoshop, Luminar, Affinity, or other programs to create vignettes. There’s a great chance that you have controls for this on your phone already. Most phones already have simple photo editing features. See if you have one on your phone. The Photos app on iPhones, for instance, have the capability to create vignettes easily, similar to what I’ve shown here.

Directing the light to the subject

Subconsciously, the eyes of the viewers tend to go toward the brighter, more colorful parts of an image. Vignettes are one more tool in a photographer’s bag of tricks for doing so. It also has the subtle effect of almost cradling or framing the image.

What sort of photos do you think can benefit from vignettes? Portraits? Sports? Birds? Wedding?  Fine art?

When you next look at photos, see if the photographer has used vignettes to direct your light toward the subject.

 

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

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 I created the mask: blending blue hour and Milky Way photos in Photoshop

If you’re a night photographer like me, you’d rather be out photographing than fiddling with Photoshop. But if we are going to create our best work, some time in the digital darkroom is needed. One of the more time-consuming aspects of post-processing for me has been creating Layer Masks to blend night photos of the sky and earth.
However, I believe I’ve found two methods that are quick and easy. But let’s explain what sort of photos we are blending first…and why.

Photographing Milky Way photos with low noise

The enemy of high-ISO Milky Way photos is noise. However, we can borrow a method from astronomers called stacking to reduce noise. Stacking is a process in which the photographer numerous photos in succession and then utilizes a program to easily track stars on multiple images, align stars and stack them.

How do we create low-noise foregrounds in Milky Way images?

The issue: while star stacking programs are great at reducing noise in the sky, we want low-noise foregrounds too.
Two common methods of creating low-noise foregrounds are photographing the scene during “blue hour” (half an hour or so after the sun has set) and light painting (illuminating the scene with your own light).
Both techniques use low ISOs, and both can be quite effective. Which one you choose depends on circumstances and aesthetics. And both methods involve keeping the camera and tripod setup exactly the same for every shot. In the case of the “blue hour” set up, that involves keeping the setup in the same place for possibly several hours.
For this article, we will use a “blue hour” example to demonstrate how to blend a Milky Way with our low-noise foreground easily.

Blending the Milky Way with the low-noise foreground: method one

Above is the stacked, unprocessed photo of the Milky Way sky in Mammoth Lakes, CA. I began with this as my background layer in Photoshop.

Above is a photo of my low-ISO “blue hour” photo. I brought this in as a layer over the top of the background layer. Then I made two copies of this above for a total of four layers, three of them identical.

Creating a stark black and white image

Above: On the very top copied layer, I boosted the contrast and brightened the “blue hour” image substantially. I wanted to create a black and white Layer Mask, after all.

Going black and white

Above: I then turned the image black and white (“Image” > “Adjustments” > “Black & White”). You can see my settings in the image above. I was trying to get the sky as white as possible and the foreground as dark as possible while still keeping the fine details in the trees.
Above: I boosted the contrast and brightness again to make the scene look even more like a Layer Mask. I may not have needed to do this if I had taken a photo while the sun was out.

Paint it black

Above: I took a black paint brush and began painting the area around the trees, including the lighter colored tree trunks and the structure, leaving the details of the leaves alone.

Above: the mountains had snow on them, so they did not turn dark. However, they are part of the foreground. Black paint brush to the rescue. I painted the mountains black as well.

 

Above: I continued the process of painting everything black. Here, the brush is larger because I have already painted the detail-oriented parts by the trees and mountains.

Above: almost done!

 

Creating a mask

Above: As you can see from the Layer Section inserted here, I began creating the mask. Here’s how I did it.

1.  I copied the entire black and white layer that you have just created. I am on a Mac, so I use “Command A” to select everything, creating the “marching ants” on the periphery, and then “Command C” fo copying the selection.

2. Then I clicked on the layer just below the black and white layer. I created a Layer Mask (“Layer” > “Layer Mask” > “Reveal All”), and then clicked on the new Layer Mask to select it.

3. I hit “Alt-Click” to bring the Layer Mask up on the main screen. Then I selected everything (“Command A”) so that the “marching ants” were again surrounding the image. Then I pasted (“Command V”). This made the mask look identical to the layer above. But wait…I had one more tiny step!

4. I inverted the mask by hitting “Command I”. The black and white parts traded places. All was good.

I no longer needed that top layer. I could delete it since I had my Layer Mask.

 

Bringing it together

Above: this image shows what my high-ISO sky looked like with my “blue hour” foreground.

Now, obviously, you can tell they were taken at different times. From here, I would need to process both the foreground and the sky to make them look more cohesive and natural. How you do that is up to you. I find that this can differ dramatically from photo to photo.

I processed the sky separately initially, creating more of a blue sky and bringing out the detail of the stars. I also decided to have more of a blue with the foreground as well. Then I began processing them together to have them “gel” more together, eventually ending up with the final photo.

 

The importance of increasing contrast and brightness

I began greatly increasing the contrast and brightness to create masks after I had begun attempting to use Luminar 4’s AI Sky Replacement Algorithm and seeing that it worked better if I did so while also experimenting on creating Layer Masks in Photoshop. However, after watching a very useful YouTube tutorial by Michigan Milkyway entitled “Tree masking for tracked night sky images in Photoshop”, I realized that I had to boost the contrast and brightness far more than what I was doing for either method.

 

Blending the Milky Way with the low-noise foreground: method two

I promised that I would show you two methods. This other method simply uses Luminar 4’s AI Sky Replacement. This works magically well with day photos and reasonably bright blue hour photos. However, its algorithms struggle with night sky photos unless you treat them beforehand by greatly boosting the contrast and brightness or exposing greatly to the right in the first place.

Above: in Luminar 4, I opened up the photo of the “blue hour” foreground and opened “AI Sky Replacement”.

 

Above: in AI Sky Replacement, I loaded a custom sky, which of course was my own high-ISO sky. After that, I adjusted the “Horizon Position” slider so I could actually see the Milky Way sky, and then made several other adjustments to create a good, seamless mask and create various aesthetic adjustments. This process took less than a minute.

 

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

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 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

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

 

Photographing the Perseid meteor shower

The Perseids are often the most spectacular meteor shower in the Northern Hemisphere due to frequency as well as its appearance in August. There are typically about 100 visible meteors per hour on average, although this obviously depends on your weather and light conditions. Generally speaking, you want to head out late at night but still before sunrise, and obviously, away from light pollution as much as possible. If possible, also go out when the waning moon is not in the sky. You may still see meteors even with the moon, but of course, you are trying to maximize your chances of seeing meteors.

The radiant, where the meteors originate, will be more or less north, drifting northeast. However, you do not necessarily need to face north or northeast. In fact, other parts of the sky may feature longer meteor streaks.

Above: Manzanar, Owens Valley, CA. Nikon D750/Irix 15mm f/2.4 lens. 20 second exposure at f/2.4 ISO 4000.

How to photograph the meteor shower

I would suggest approaching your meteor shower photography as you would photographing the starry sky while keeping the stars as pinpoints. If you have an ultra wide angle lens, such as around 14mm or 15mm, I would suggest using that, as you will increase your chances of photographing a meteor. And I don’t have to mention that you should use a tripod, right?

Above: this is one of my oldest night photos, this one taken in Vasquez Rocks in Agua Dulce CA, where Captain Kirk battled the Gorn. This was taken with a Nikon D7000 and Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 lens. 30 second exposure f/2.8 ISO 1600.

Camera settings

Try for something like a 20 to 30 second exposure. Use the widest aperture that looks good. Something like f/2.8 works great. And use an ISO of 16o0 to 6400, depending on how dark the sky is and how much ambient light there. Take several photos and make certain your settings are to your liking!

Focusing

Focusing is the same as if you were photographing stars or the Milky Way. Infinity, right? Turn off your auto-focus. You won’t need that. Now turn on Live View and find a star. Zoom in on that using Live Focus. Manually twist your focus ring on the lens until that star looks sharp and like a pinpoint and not an amorphous blob.

If this doesn’t work, get a friend to stand about 50 feet away with a headlamp and hold it still. Then focus on the headlamp, doing the same thing. Take a few test shots and zoom in to make sure that the stars are in focus. Good? Then tape down the focus ring if you wish with some gaffer’s tape to make sure that your focus doesn’t change through an accidental bump.

Above: A June meteor streaking across the night sky in the South Sierras in CA. Pentax K-1 with a 15-30mm f/2.8 lens. 15 second exposure f/2.8 ISO 3200. 

Keep your camera clicking away

You can’t wait for a meteor to streak across the sky and then try to trigger your camera. It would already be too late!

The secret is to keep your camera continuously clicking, then lean back and enjoy the meteor shower.

The other secret? Turn off Long Exposure Noise Reduction (LENR) on your camera. Why? Because it will pause for the length of the exposure to apply noise reduction, and we don’t really want that here. We want the camera to continuously photograph.

We will discuss two ways your camera continually taking photos.

Wired remote shutter release

Use a cheap remote shutter release. These cost only about $12. You can get one that attaches to your camera via a cable. Set your camera to Continuous Burst mode. This is the same mode that allows you to shoot rapid-fire sequences like what sports photographers do. We night photographers can use these too, but in slow motion.

Simply set your camera to your ideal settings, such as a 20-30 second exposure, f/2.8 and ISO of 1600-6400, depending on how bright the scene is (or how wide your aperture is). Lock down your remote shutter release. This should keep your camera clicking merrily away, taking one photo after another. Many cameras have a limit of 100 consecutive photos, so be aware of that, and set a timer if you wish. Then simply start it up again.

Use an intervalometer

Your camera may have an intervalometer built in. Or you can purchase an external intervalometer and attach it to your camera. There are myriad options including bluetooth camera controllers as well. You can set the time of exposure, time between each photo (which should be as short as possible, typically one second), and how many individual photos you wish to photograph.

Wow, I have a lot of photos!

You may have hundreds of photos. That’s alright. It’s digital. Just make sure you have a good sized memory card.

Scroll through and find the ones that have meteors. Meteors don’t blink and they usually are tapered, looking like streaks.

Above: This is a 31-minute star trails photo with one of the Lyrid meteors, captured in 2014 at Vasquez Rocks in CA. Each individual photo was 30 seconds in length at f/3.2 with an ISO of 1600.

Don’t delete any of those photos either. If for some reason the meteors have been shy and didn’t show up in your photos, turn them into a time-lapse! Or star trails! Or both!

Quick checklist

-Camera with manual settings and your widest lens with a large aperture

-Remote shutter release or intervalometer

-tripod

-gaffer’s tape (I like orange colored tape so I can see it at night)

-headlamp (try to use this as little as possible to preserve your night vision; use a red headlamp if possible)

-lawn chair

-favorite beverage

-snacks

-friends

 

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

 

 

Road trip! How to find the best places for dark sky night photos!

Although stunning photos can be made near a full moon, most night photographers wish to photograph the Milky Way or photograph as many stars in the night sky as possible. And why not? It’s breath-taking. I never tire of seeing the Milky Way.
Road trips are exciting. The long drives, strange music, late night taco stands, the fascinating conversations. But if you do a little bit of homework, you can take a good road trip and make it epic.
You don’t need to plan everything to within an inch of its life either. Allow for fun, spontaneity, and exploration while still knowing that at a certain time at a certain place, you can create a photograph that will put a smile on your face.
Let’s start with dark skies first.
According to National Geographic, 80 percent of the planet’s land areas—and 99 percent of the population of the United States and Europe – live under light-polluted skies that blot out the Milky Way. Naturally, the first order of business is to get away from light pollution.
But how do we do this? I’ll use an example of a photo I took in 2014 of the Delicate Arch in Arches National Park in Utah, shown in the header and the last photograph, as an example of how I planned.

Finding dark sky areas

The first place I would direct someone to is the International Dark Sky Association, who encourage communities, parks and protected areas around the world to preserve and protect dark sites through responsible lighting policies and public education. They have a map that allows you to find many dark places around the globe.
Another useful site is Dark Site Finder. They also offer a useful tip, noting that it is difficult for many to get away completely from light pollution, but to consider photographing in areas where the sky is sufficiently dark in the desired direction. For example, if you wish to photograph the core of the Milky Way, you can look for places that are dark to the south.

Finding places of interest

Within these dark places, consider what makes a strong foreground. In my opinion, the most interesting night photos are usually ones that have strong subjects, providing context, a perfect marriage of earth and sky.
I would recommend doing a search in the dark sky areas, keeping notes about what seems appealing. This can be a lot of work, perhaps even more so if you want to photograph subjects that are original and relatively unknown. You can go down “rabbit holes” that consume hours of your time.

Google Maps

I often begin my searches by looking around the dark sky area chosen on Google Maps. Google Maps often points out the areas of interest. Sometimes, you may see a camera icon. Click on that and this often produces photos submitted by various Google users. This gives you an idea of what it looks like.
I will often change the map to satellite view. This gives me an idea of what the terrain looks like and provides further context and visual information.
I like to zoom in and look around. You can look at the orientation and figure how which way it is facing and get a strong idea of the surroundings. I wanted a photo of the otherworldly Delicate Arch, but I wanted to look up at it while facing more or less south. The screen shot above shows you the valuable visual information that one can gain from zooming in using its satellite view.

Social media sites

I often will check social media or photography sites such as Flickr, 500px, Instagram, and Facebook. I particularly find Flickr and Facebook useful because they encourage a lot of interaction through their groups. I can often contact the people who created the photographs. I’ve even met up with some of the photographers, making new friends and having a local “tour guides” of sorts. Fantastic!
Groups on Flickr or Facebook can be surprisingly specific, and sometimes, scrolling through that area can yield valuable and current information about accessibility and provide more photos. I often join these groups to participate in the discussion. Because I love photographing abandoned areas, all this information and interacting with others can really help here as well. I received some information about the trails leading up to Delicate Arch, including one area where the trail narrowed to about six feet, with a sheer drop on one side. Yikes!

Determining compositions in advance

Sometimes it’s possible to determine compositions in advance, particularly if you are photographing with specific celestial events in mind. For example, I wanted to photograph tDelicate Arch . But I wanted to do so with it framing the core of the Milky Way through a vantage point that I had never seen anyone else photograph before.
Through a combination of The Photographer’s Ephemeris and PhotoPills, i was able to determine that the Milky Way would drift further south and be in the position I wanted by approximately 11:00 pm. Both apps also informed me that there would be no moon in the sky to blot out the stars. From this, I had specific times and dates to make this happen! Both apps help you plan outdoor photography, showing you how light will fall on the subject for day or night in any location on earth. PhotoPills is an actual photographer’s planner which does the above but also helps you to calculate camera settings and much much more.

Winging it

There’s nothing like doing it “old school” and winging it. I love to explore during the day, hiking or driving around, serving sort of as a scouting mission. I’ve found many great places this way. And even more so, there’s nothing like going to a dark sky area and being in the moment, reacting to what makes you gasp with amazement. For locations like this, I love to choose generally inspiring areas. For me, since I am located in Southern California, those areas include the numerous National Parks in south Utah, Grand Canyon, Joshua Tree National Park, Salton Sea, White Mountains, and the Sierra Nevadas.

About the photo

This is the photo that I planned, which I’ve called “Door to Infinity”. As you can see, I achieve my vision, managing to create a photo looking up, the arch framing the magnificent Milky Way. I discovered why I had never seen a photo like this before. At night, it is terrifying to be perched on a ledge below this. You can slip and fall into a large rocky “bowl” or have your equipment slide down, ensuring certain ruin for either. I can safely say that although I am happy to have created the photo, I will never do that again.

I “light painted” the arch with a small Streamlight LED flashlight to keep it from appearing as a silhouette. I created this in June 2014, before the Park banned “light painting” at night. This was photographed with a Nikon D610 and a Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8G ED lens at 14mm. I used a 20 second exposure at f/2.8 with an ISO of 4000. It is a single exposure.

 

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