Intervalometers Made Easy for Night Photography

Inexpensive Indispensable Intervalometers

Intervalometers are inexpensive and invaluable, so why not throw one or two of these in your bag?
But what is it? Basically a remote shutter release that offers more controls, an intervalometer allows you to tell the camera shutter when to shoot, how long the shutter should stay open, and how long the the shutter should remain closed until it opens again. Night photographers use these to create star trails, time-lapse, a succession of images to “stack” to reduce noise in high-ISO photos, and more while avoiding vibrations.
Intervalometers come in different forms, including wired and wireless, with some allowing you to control your camera using an app on your smartphone. I use a wired intervalometer because they inexpensive and  very reliable.
Above: this is my trusty Vello Shutterboss II for my Pentax K-1, hence the punny “Kentax” name. Never run away from a great pun.

Understanding the Settings of an Intervalometer

Let’s go over some of the settings so we can better understand what they are and why we use them. I use a wired Vello Shutterboss II, and many wired intervalometers currently available have similar or identical controls. Look for the black horizontal line, which tells us which setting we are viewing or adjusting.

Self (Self-Timer Delayed Release)

The first setting is the self-timer. This allows you to set the amount of time it takes for the camera to initiate the sequence you have programmed into the intervalometer. This helps us from anything from doing selfies to getting into position to light paint a tree or an abandoned building. This intervalometer allows you to set the time anywhere from one second to 99 hours, 59 minutes and 59 seconds. Wow!  Below, it is set to 0 seconds, so the camera will start clicking right away.

Long (Timed Exposure Length)

How long do you want each exposure to be? Right here is where you set it! This one is set for 2 minutes. This is especially handy because most cameras have a maximum exposure length of 30 seconds and offer a limited amount of long exposure times. Intervalometers allow you to specify a shot between 1 second and 99 hours, 59 minutes and 59 seconds. And yes, that means that you cannot photograph anything shorter than 1 second.


The interval setting allows you to control the time period between two or more shots. If you want to do time-lapses, perhaps you might want some time to pass between shots. On the other hand, if you want to do star trails for “stacking” later, you want the shortest possible time between shots. The interval shown below is set to one second, the shortest time between shots possible on most intervalometers.

No. (Number)

The number simply stands for how many photos you wish to take in your sequence of shots. Below, I have this set for 10 consecutive shots. You may set it anywhere from 1 shot to 999 shots. After running the sequence, the camera will stop unless set it to infinity. This is typically signified by two dashes ( — ). On this setting, your camera will shoot and shoot and shoot….

How Night Photographers Use an Intervalometer

Now that we know what the four basic settings are (I’m not going to go over whether you want a beep or not), let’s apply this to some real-life night photography scenarios.

Star Trails

Many night photographers love to show the perceived movement of the stars caused by the earth’s rotation of long periods of time. Taking a succession of shots and “stacking” them together for post-processing is a great way of achieving this while minimizing noise. In the photo above, I set my intervalometer at 4 minutes and photographed the starry night sky for 2 hours in total.
The settings would have looked like this:
Self (Self-Timer Delayed Release): 0 seconds
Long (Timed Exposure Length): 4 minutes
Interval: 1 second (the shortest length of time possible between shots so that the gap between shots is kept to a minimum since I want smooth, uninterrupted star trails)
No. (Number): 30
The shorter period of time also help retain the true colors of the stars instead of making them all look white, which is, believe it or not, caused by overexposure. Yes, it is technically possible to overexpose something as faint as stars.

Stacking To Reduce Noise for Milky Ways

Many night photographers are turning to their intervalometers to take 15-20 photos in succession to reduce noise for their high-ISO Milky Way photos. For the above photo of a lake in the Eastern Sierras, I set my intervalometer to take photos for 20 seconds each. I took 31 photos in total.
For this photo, the settings are:
Self (Self-Timer Delayed Release): 0 seconds (this actually doesn’t matter as far as the outcome of the photo is concerned)
Long (Timed Exposure Length): 20 seconds
Interval: 1 second (the shortest length of time possible between shots because I want these to be as close as possible in succession so that Starry Landscape Stacker can interpolate the data effectively and reduce noise)
No. (Number): 31 (the slightly strange number tells me that I most likely set the device to click away on “infinity” while I grabbed a snack!)

Never Dangle Your Intervalometer

I’ll leave you with this important bit of advice: never let your intervalometer dangle from your camera. Several things happen, none of them good.

The intervalometer jack may get pulled out of the camera

This may stop the entire shooting process you’ve set into motion. You don’t want that to happen, do you? No. No, you don’t.

The intervalometer may swing

This isn’t so great either. It doesn’t take much wind to get your intervalometer to star tapping against the tripod and cause shakes and vibrations.

The intervalometer cable will weaken

This occurs over time when the cable gets increasingly stressed. As it is, this is a common point of failure for intervalometers, so why hasten its death?


Pro Tip: Velcro to the Rescue!

I would never leave you hanging (apologies for the pun). There’s a easy solution, and it’s called Velcro. Yes, that’s right, add a strip of Velcro to the back of your device and to your tripod leg. No more swinging.

I hope this helps. If you have questions, please leave them in the comments below!



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.

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

Behind the Shot video podcast – interview February 2020

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



Photo Tip of the Month: Avoid These Four Mistakes If Your Camera Gets Wet!

My loss is your gain.  Hopefully.  We’re going to discuss keeping your camera dry while photographing around splashing water this month.  I want to be up front here:  I am not an expert at this, as you shall quickly read!  But if I can help people by having them avoid the mistakes that I made, that would be great.

Please click on the photo to see it.  The algorithms for making the photo smaller seem to also make it appear blurry.  Thanks!

Title: Bowling Ball Beach 2
Info: Nikon D90, Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 lens, Feisol tripod, f/14, ISO 200, 10-second exposure, which makes the movement of the water look mystical. This was possibly the last photo that I took with my D90, although it looks good that a camera technician can resurrect it now.
Photography: Ken Lee
Location: Bowling Ball Beach, Mendocino County, California, USA

Shortly after I took this photo, I was splashed with water.  These large round rocks in a row create odd, unexpected, and surprisingly high splashes, and even though I had a Ralph’s paper bag around my Nikon D90 camera, it still got wet.

Mistake 1:  A Ralph’s plastic bag is not enough.  Use something more like a Op-Tech rain-sleeve. If you don’t get one of these, you can also use a shower cap in a pinch.  Save those shower caps if you stay at a hotel.  There are more expensive albeit more effective options, but since we’re discussing occasional splashing water from waves, I’ll stay with these suggestions.

I wiped off the camera with a towel.  It didn’t seem like that much water, so I fired up the camera again and kept shooting for another half an hour.

Mistake 2:  You can’t fry your camera’s circuits if there’s no juice. Turning on the camera, in other words, can fry your circuit-board or other parts if the salt water has entered the camera.

After half an hour of shooting, my camera began failing.  The shutter wouldn’t close.  Or wouldn’t shoot.  Then, the LED monitor began failing.  I left the beach and headed back to the hotel room, realizing that I had made a mistake, and opened up the camera, taking the battery and SD card out, took the lens off, and put it in front of a heater while I called a camera store to find out what to do and began scouring the internet for tips on drying a camera.

Mistake 3:  The camera salesman said that I shouldn’t put the camera in front of a heater. I never found out why.  Maybe you know.  I don’t.  But I saw one reference on the internet for getting dirt in the camera.  Now, to be fair, I had placed the camera in front of a fake fireplace, so it wasn’t blowing air.  But the best way to dry a digital camera, according to the salesperson and some articles I’ve found on the internet, is to submerge it in dry (duh!) rice and keep it there for 3-7 days.  Other people recommend placing the camera in a zip-loc bag with silica packets, which will also draw the moisture out.  I store my microphones in containers with these.

I ran to the market and purchased some rice, emptied a bag, and completely submerged the camera, but only after I found that I had made yet another mistake, which were beginning to pile up in a relatively short period of time.

Mistake 4:  Don’t forget to take off the LED cover.  I had forgotten to do this, but right before I put the camera in, realized that there was moisture trapped underneath.  My camera had gotten doused worse than I thought.

Now, what was worse than getting the camera wet was getting it wet with salt water.  Salt water is extremely corrosive.  Some people recommend that you attempt to disassemble the camera, quickly rinse all of the parts, and even more quickly dry that.  Since I’m not even close to an expert, I cannot recommend this, nor have I ever done it.  But the point being that if you can try and get the salt water off, that would be best.

Upon getting home, I took my camera to the local camera store.  They have a reputation for good service and have a good technician.  Their technician said that I had fried a circuit board, which would cost US$71 dollars, and that there would be a labor charge of about US$95.  So for a little under US$170, it appears that my D90 will be resurrected.  And while that’s a lot of money, it’s still cheaper than replacing it.

And for the rest of the trip, I used the Op/Tech 18″ SLR Rainsleeve with another camera while photographing the coastline near Santa Cruz, which worked well, although I had difficulty viewing the LED monitor.

Equipment:  Nikon D90, Nikon 18-200mm VR II Nikkor Telephoto Zoom Lens, Nikon SB-600 Speedlight, Sto-Fen Flash Diffuser.

Photo Tip of the Month: Exposing For Sky And Sea (Dynamic Range Without HDR Software)

You’re at the coast taking photos.  If you expose for the sky, the water, the cliffs, the rocks, the foreground becomes too dark.  If you expose for the foreground, the sky becomes blown out and appears like a white or gray blob.

What to do?  Ask a photographer from the 1850s!

Please click on the photo to see it.  The algorithms for making the photo smaller seem to also make it appear blurry.  Thanks!

Title: The Secret Coast
Info: Nikon D7000, Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 with B+W 1.8 ND filter. ISO 400, 8 second exposure, f/14.
Photography: Ken Lee
Location: Los Angeles County, California, USA

You could use a graduated neutral density filter to make the sky darker.  This works very well if the horizon is flat and doesn’t have rocks or mountains.

You could use Photomatix or another kind of HDR software.  A lot of people do.

But if you don’t have HDR software or flat horizons or graduated neutral density filters, all is not lost.  There’s a technique for doing it “by hand” that I believe creates a very natural look and can be done in many photo editors that can create layers, using a technique that was developed well over a hundred and fifty years ago!  Read on, my friend, read on!

Combining two exposures together
One way of dealing with dynamic range is to create two versions of the same photograph. That’s what was done with the photo above, a long exposure photo of eight seconds in which I exposed for the foreground.

Here’s how I created it:

1.  I created two versions of the same photo.  Using View NX 2, which I use for my RAW photos, I created a second version of the photo in which I lowered the exposure slightly, revealing the true colors of the sky.  I don’t make the sky too dark because otherwise the final result can look abnormal.  Maybe -1.0 exposure.  Play around with this and do it by feel.

I could have also used another photo of the same scene altogether that was exposed for the sky, which I’ve done for other photos.  Either way works. Create one exposed for the sky first, name it “sky”, and convert to TIFF. Then change your settings so that it’s exposed for the sea, rename it “sea”, and convert to TIFF.  We’re naming something meaningful simply so it’s easier to spot later.

2.  I combined the two TIFFs together as layers.  In Photoshop CS4, I opened the two TIFF files I had just created.  While viewing my “sea” TIFF – in other words, the photo in which I exposed the photo for the water, rocks, and foreground – I selected “all” (on a Mac, “Apple” + “A”; on a PC, “Control” + “A”), then copied it (Mac “Apple” + “C”; PC “Control” + “C”).

I then clicked on the other TIFF labeled “sky” – in other words, the photo in which I exposed for the sky – and pasted the “sea” photo in (Mac “Apple” + “V”; PC “Control” + “V”).  I could now only see the “sea” photo that was exposed for the foreground only.  The Layers Menu now showed two layers, the background being the “sky” photo. Cool. On all my versions of Photoshop, the Layers Menu has always defaulted to the lower right corner of the monitor in the event that you have difficulty locating it.

3.  I erased part the top layer to reveal the sky. It’s really that simple.  In Photoshop CS4, I selected the Eraser Tool, which should be found on the upper left side in a vertical bank of tools.  I like to use the Brush Tool, altering the size of the Brush depending on what I am doing, and starting off with 100% opacity and 100% flow.  You can change these as you see fit on the upper left corner in the horizontally-oriented taskbar of Photoshop.

So what I did was first select a very large brush, and at 100% opacity, kept erasing to reveal the ideally-exposed sky in the background layer underneath. As I got closer to the horizon or the rock, I made the brush size considerably smaller and changed the opacity to 50% to blend the borders better.

This part is hard to describe and takes some experimentation and patience, as you’ll probably need to zoom in on your photo near the horizon or edges to really see what you are doing.  This is art, after all, and how you do this depends on your taste and aesthetic.  Make sure you keep saving the image as you go in case Photoshop crashes and you lose all your work.  I personally like to blend the area where the water meets the sky a little bit rather than attempting a hard, discrete “line” of erasure.  Again, this is about aesthetics.  It’s art, so do it as you feel it looks and feels best.

When you’re finished, you should have a nicely blended image in which the sky looks like what you remembered, and not a white blown-out blob, and the foreground is nicely exposed as you originally did it.  Blending them artfully with the eraser is key.  Once you do this once or twice, you’ll get the hang ouf it and be able to do it quite nicely.

This technique is seriously old school!
Think dealing with dynamic range like this is relatively new?  Would you be surprised if I told you that Gustave Le Gray were doing this in the 1850s?  That’s right, the idea of combining more than one exposure was pioneered way back when your great-great-great grandfather was just a gleam in his pappy’s eye.  Le Gray combined two negatives for the very same reason I have here, using one negative for the sky and another for the sea, and then combining them into one photo (positive).

Some people have this attitude that this is fake and you shouldn’t Photoshop.  But if so, people have been faking it for quite some time.  No, we’re just exposing for the sky and for the sea.  And I would submit to you that a photo of a sky looking like a white blog instead of the deep blues and yellows that I saw would be unrealistic.

Thank you for reading, and thank you if you comment below!!!

Equipment:  Nikon D7000, Tokina AT-X 116

Photo Tip: How To Take Long Exposure Photos of the People and the Sea During The Day

…and unfortunately for me, without a tripod!!!

Title: Sonoma, The Timeless Sea I

6-second long exposure shot, with my friends staying verrry still! Nikon D90, 18-200mm Nikkor VR at 32mm, F/29 ISO 200 for 6 seconds, two Tiffen 0.9 neutral density filters, camera on flat rock (forgot my tripod!). Photograph: Ken Lee. Location: Salt Point, Sonoma County, California, USA

Tip 1.  Have a better memory than me.  I forgot the tripod when I went to the ocean.  Fortunately Adam (pictured) found some relatively flat rocks for me to place the camera.  See?  This blog is already useful.

Tip 2.  Reduce Incoming Light.  Use an external filter called a neutral density filter.  These are like sunglasses for your camera, and reduce incoming light without affecting the color.  Cool.  I stacked two Tiffen ND filters together to double the amount of light being reduced, but you don’t have to do that if you have either an adjustable neutral density filter or one that is simply darker.  I just happen to own two of these.

Now, you can also reduce the amount of light coming in by reducing the aperture of your camera.  For this photo, I set the camera to f/29, a super tiny opening, and set the ISO for 200 so it wouldn’t be ultra sensitive to light.  Then I experimented around with the shutter speed.  The longest I could go was 6 seconds on this very bright day, but sometimes, I can get away with as long as ten seconds with those two filters.  Again, if you have darker filters than what I have, you can keep the shutter open for considerably longer.

Tip 3. Soft things help steady the camera if you have no tripod. Adam found some rocks nearby.  They weren’t quite flat enough, so I asked one of the kids for some clothing.  I forget, I may have used a hat or a hoodie, I don’t remember, but it helped balance the camera so I could help frame the subjects and keep the image relatively flat (almost…I leveled the horizon just a wee bit in Photoshop).

Tip 4.  Count Down!  The last time I did this, the subjects were far away, so I didn’t count down, and what happened occasionally was that the kids would turn around prematurely, wondering if I were finished.  This time, they were much closer, so I counted down:  “6…5…4…” so they’d have a sense of how long they had to stay still.  It worked.  When you can photograph 3 year old kids staying still for six seconds, you’re probably doing something right.  😀

Tip 5.  Cheat.  Because the day was foggy, the sky was very very white.  At first, I kept it white, as I don’t tend to monkey around with coloring my photos in Photoshop.  But after a while, I decided to add a graduated neutral density filter using Nik Software Efex Pro, adding a little blue to the sky, which looks a little better and helps add a nice highlight around the subjects as a bonus.

If you look closely, you can see what my friends are looking at:  some harbor seals laying on the rocks by the water.  They look like they were laying very still as well.  Tip 4 works really well, even for seals.

Equipment:  Nikon D90, Nikon 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G AF-S ED VR II Nikkor Telephoto Zoom Lens, Tiffen 72mm Neutral Density 0.9 Filter, Nikon MC-DC2 Remote Release Cord for Nikon Digital SLR Cameras, and sadly, no tripod!

Photo Tip: 5 Steps To Creating Star Trails Photos (Includes Stacking in Photoshop)

If you take night photos, you’ve just doubled the amount of time you can take photos.  I’ll tell you how I created these star trails photo through “stacking”, or combining multiple images into one.  It’s not the only way.  There are even easier ways.  But this method gives you a lot of control and quality that dedicated star trail stacking programs don’t seem to offer.


Above:  Temple Tree Star Trails.  While this also uses the stacking process described here, I’ve also altered the opacity of the layers to give the star trails a comet-like effect. I will describe this in a May 2013 post. Zion National Park, Utah. This photo was selected as one of the Daily Dozen by National Geographic.

Trona Glow Star Trails

This photo was taken in Trona Pinnacles in the Mojave Desert in California, and was featured in a number of places, also winning the Los Angeles Times Photo of the Year in the Travel Section as an Editor’s Choice. It is a 50-minute exposure in total, stacked in Photoshop CS4.

Noise is the enemy of night photography.  Keeping your shutter open for long periods of time is more likely to introduce noise.  Stacking photos was originally developed as a technique in digital astrophotography to reduce noise, but of course, as more artistic photographers can use this technique too.

* A camera that with a manual exposure mode that lets you set shutter speed, aperture, and ISO with a Bulb Setting, or at the very least, allows you to set the shutter speed for 30 seconds, and preferably, a camera that shoots in RAW so you can control the processing (but if you can’t, shoot at the highest resolution JPG setting you can).  Most DSLRs will fit the bill, but there are some compact digital cameras that also have these features.

* Lots of batteries for your camera.  Long exposures can really wear down your batteries.

* A remote cable shutter release so you don’t shake the camera by pressing the button

* A tripod for keeping the camera as still as possible.  I used my Dad’s heavy 1970s Sears tripod, which was hard to lug around and got really cold on winter desert nights, but finally got a Feisol carbon fiber tripod with a Photo Clam ball head, which is easier to set up and adjust.


This is a star trails, showing the celestial movements of the stars over Borrego Springs, CA. The total exposure is 27 minutes, using stacked photos, each of them 30 seconds in length. The horse sculptures were created by sculptor Ricardo Breceda.

* A wide-angle lens.  While you can photograph star trails with just about any lens, a wide angle shows a broader view of what we are seeing, are a bit more forgiving about focusing (which is challenging in night photography), and shows more curvature in the star trails, something I absolutely love. But I’ve shot with other lens too.  Depends on what you are going for.

* a red LED light so you can fiddle without adversely affecting things or experiencing glaring white light.

* An interval timer for your camera.  Really, this should be considered equipment that you need.  Why?  It’s difficult to create a set of images that can be stacked without one of these due to not being able to time your exposures accurately enough over a long time manually. I’ll tell you how I got around this even though it’s probably not considered ideal. Also, since I wrote this in June 2012, I’ve also begun using an app called TriggerTrap, which runs in Android and iOS smartphones, using the smartphone as an intervalometer, among other things. It’s super easy to use.

* Mag lights, flashlights, LED lights, ProtoMachines LED2, or other light sources for light painting the foreground.  Sometimes you might not want a super dark foreground.  Consider “light painting” the foreground!  It’s also a lot of fun and passes the time quickly!  But having the foreground as a silhouette can often be quite striking as well.  You’re the artist.  It’s your call!


Above: Trinity Star Trails.  While this uses the stacking process described here, I’ve also altered the opacity of the layers to give the star trails a comet-like effect. I will describe this in a May 2013 post. Joshua Tree National Park, California.

I look for an interesting foreground.  Star trails are not so interesting artistically by themselves, in my opinion.  Like any photo, it should be about the overall composition.

I often like to face the camera north.  This is because I like to capture the star trails swirling around the north star.  Polaris, or the North Star, remains stationary and in a star trails photograph, the stars will appear to swirl around it.  If you’re in the Northern Hemisphere, locate the North Star by finding the Big Dipper, the grouping of seven stars that looks like a ladle.  The two stars forming the end of the Big Dipper’s bowl point directly at the North Star.  The North Star is the end of the handle of the Little Dipper.  Or you can use your iPhone GPS or a compass.

I try to make sure that if the moon is out, it won’t shine into my lens for the duration of my shot.

And finally, I try to choose a location far enough from the road so cars wouldn’t shine their headlights on my foreground or be interrupted.

And it probably goes without saying that the less “light pollution” from light sources, the better you can see stars.  You can scout locations in the United States from this website, the Dark Sky Finder.

I use my Feisol tripod, double-check to make certain everything is tight and locked down, and if around sand, jam it down into the sand hard.  After all, we certainly don’t want any movement from the camera. If it’s windy, I’ll hang one of my packs on the center hook to give my setup more weight.

There’s a few ways to focus.  One obvious way is to set up while it’s still light and use your Auto-Focus.  You can also take some photos now and blend in the twilight photos with your star trails.  If you focus while it is dark, you may shine your flashlight at the foreground object, use your AF as usual, then switch to manual so your camera doesn’t “hunt”.

And yet another way is to try and find true infinity on your lens.  This method is excellent for getting the stars as sharp as possible, and is particularly good if the foreground elements are 20 feet (7 or 8 meters) away.  However, each lens is different, and finding true true infinity may sometimes not even be on the “infinity” mark, or may be on different parts of the “infinity” mark.  If using this last method, you may need to take multiple photos and zoom in on them on your LED to determine what is the sharpest, or use Live View and zoom in on the stars if you can to make certain they are the sharpest.

Remember before I told you that an interval timer should probably be considered essential equipment?  Sure.  But they can also be expensive.  Getting a good one can often be $100 or $200.  At any rate, I didn’t have one, but needed to time exposures accurately so the exposures would be consistent.  What to do?  Well, it turns out that when my remote cable shutter release is locked and the camera is not in Bulb Mode, the camera will keep shooting over and over if set to continuous drive mode.  So I set my camera for 30 seconds, the longest shutter speed it allows before Bulb Mode, then lock the shutter release. (note: since I wrote this in June 2012, I’ve also begun using TriggerTrap, an app that runs in iOS and Android smartphones, using the smartphone as an intervalometer, trigger, and other things. It’s super easy to use, connecting to the camera with a dongle. Google this for further information).

Click….click….click….click….time to lay back, look at the stars and soak in the beauty of it all.

I also make sure to shut off the in-camera long exposure noise reduction when shooting for “stacked” photos.  Why?  It takes the same amount of time to reduce the noise in the photo as the exposure.  In other words, if I shoot for 30 seconds, the camera takes an additional 30 seconds to apply noise reduction.  This would leave gaps in the star trails. But as I mentioned, the process of stacking photos reduces the amount of noise, so I didn’t get worked up about this.

If you’ve been reading this blog, you know that I love this Michael Kenna quote: “Getting photographs is not the most important thing. For me it’s the act of photographing. It’s enlightening, therapeutic and satisfying, because the very process forces me to connect with the world. When you make four-hour exposures in the middle of the night, you inevitably slow down and begin to observe and appreciate more what’s going on around you. In our fast-paced, modern world, it’s a luxury to be able to watch the stars move across the sky.”

If you wish, you may also take a dark frame image by putting my lens cap on to make sure no light was coming in and took one photo.  Why? Noise reduction.  In Photoshop or another photo editing program, you can add the dark frame photo as a new layer, then change the blend type to “difference”. Next add your foreground image as a layer, create a black mask and paint in the foreground, and adjust to taste. I haven’t really used this, but it’s something you could do if you find it helps.

Big Bend Star Trails

Above:  Big Bend Star Trails.  While this also uses the stacking process described here, I’ve also altered the opacity of the layers to give the star trails a comet-like effect. I will describe this in a May 2013 post.  Zion National Park, Utah.

Now, back in the digital darkroom, it’s time to make our star trails photo come to life!  Here’s how I’ve been processing my photos in Photoshop CS4 so far.

1.  PROCESS AND CONVERT NEF FILES TO TIFF: I typically batch-process RAW (NEF) photos in Nikon ViewNX 2 and output them all to TIFF 16-bit files, but of course, process your RAWs however you need to.  I select all the photos, apply adjustments and settings, processing them all the same, sharpening them slightly and adjusting the white balance.  I also rename any photos that had something different about them, marking them if they have a line from an airplane to call attention to it later in the stacking process so I could spot them and adjust or erase them if I wish.

2.  CREATE STACK: In Photoshop, I select File > Scripts > Load Files Into Stack, and then select my PSD files I wanted to stack.  I do not have Photoshop Extended, which has a “Statistics” option that offers greater variety).  This results in an absurdly large file of something like 6G.  When I do this, I have many PSD files that are 73-77MG each, after all!  Relax.  The computer may take a while to process this large of a file.

3.  ADJUST LAYERS:  In the MODE PANEL WINDOW (which is the window that controls the Layers, etc. at the bottom right), I change each layer from “Normal” to “Lighten” or one of the other ones (such as screen, color dodge, linear dodge, lighter color).   You can also create a Photoshop Action to do this if you wish to lessen the chance of carpal tunnel!    I use a Layer Mask and use the Brush Tool on the left to brush away anything I do want.

4.  OUTPUT IMAGE AS FLATTENED HIGH-RES TIFF:  After adjusting layers to your artistic satisfaction, you can output the image as a flattened image with no layers, preferably a high-res TIFF.  From here, you can perform the usual adjustments if you wish, such as dodging, burning, sharpening, or final color adjustments if you wish, just like any other photo.

5.  SAVING THE ORIGINAL .PSD LAYERED FILE:  I’m going to mention this in case it applies to you.  Photoshop CS4 cannot save this large of a group of files if it’s over 2G, so I chose to merge the layers (Image > Merge) to keep it.  I merged four layers at a time.  Since each was a 30 second exposure, merging four layers equaled 2 minutes, still rather manageable, reducing the file size to a quarter of it’s original size of 6G.

StarStax: Since I originally wrote this in June 2012, I’ve begun using StarStax, freeware for Mac OS X, Linux, and Windows. It creates star trails with comet-like tails, and offers gap-filling. It’s also absurdly easy to use. Take the photos as described above, throw ’em in here, and see what it can do. I now try this first, and if I can’t produce what I am envisioning, then I go to Photoshop and stack using the process described above.

If you have suggestions for how I did it, please leave a comment!  I’m not approaching this as an authority, but more as a photographer who has now done it and is really happy with the results!   If you use this technique from reading this blog, please feel free to leave a link to your star trails photo in the comments section! Thanks so much for reading!!

EXTRA: Just because I’m utterly sweet, I am going to show you with an example of a 33-minute exposure at ISO 200, f/11.  You can clearly see the noise. The discoloration is due to the camera sensor overheating since I was shooting on a hot night.  This is what stacking can avoid:

Noisy 33-minute f/11 ISO 200 exposure of star trails

The evening was fairly warm, which accounts for some of the overheating of the sensor.  Some photographers put ice packs wrapped in plastic or other things to prevent the sensor from overheating and thus creating extra noise and discoloration.

The photo below is much better, a far less noisy 14-minute f/2.8 ISO 200 photo:

Joshua Tree Star Trails, Single Long Exposure with Light Painting, 28 April 2012

Single exposures can be beautiful.  It has a lighter ethereal quality that the stacked photo doesn’t have, and also doesn’t have noise issues due to the shorter exposure time.

Noise is the enemy of night photography.

There have been times in which I’ve been able to get away with longer exposures, having done 34-minute exposures without much of an issue in colder weather.  Like anything else, there are many variables.

I hope this helps.  If you have questions (or corrections), please ask in the comments section below!  Thanks for reading!!!!


Equipment:  Nikon D7000 and a Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 lens for Trinity Star Trails and the photos from Zion National Park.  Nikon D90, Nikon 18-200mm VR II Nikkor Telephoto Zoom Lens for all else.

You can see more of these photos here  on my Ken Lee Photography Facebook Page (poke your head in, say hi, and “like” the page if you would, uh, like).

And you can go to the Ken Lee Photography website, which has more photos from Ken Lee.  Thank you very much for visiting!

Tip of the Month: 7 Tips For Beautiful Waterfall Photos!

Cathedral Falls, West Virginia
Cathedral Falls, West Virginia, Nikon D90, 18-200mm lens, 18mm, f/22, 1.6 seconds.  West Virginia has at least 3500 waterfalls.

Is there anyone who doesn’t love waterfalls?  Okay, maybe besides that one cranky great-uncle?  By request, I’m going to cover the best tips for getting gorgeous waterfall photos!

1.  Slow Shutter Speed. This is up to you and your tastes.  If you want to “freeze-frame” the spray, the specific waves, the droplets of water, you want a really fast shutter speed.  Once in a while, I like this to capture the power or drama of the falls.

Or do you prefer a soft, silky, ethereal feel of the water?  This is usually my preference.  If so, you want a slow shutter speed.  I shoot waterfalls, depending on the light, anywhere from 1/2 second to 1.6 seconds, using a low ISO.  But how can you shoot this slowly?

Upper Yosemite Falls
The Mighty Upper Yosemite Falls.  Although I generally prefer to shoot waterfalls using a slow shutter speed, there are sometimes in which I prefer a fast shutter speed to capture the individual waves and spray of the water, which can sometimes add more drama.

2.  Use a tripod.  You knew that, didn’t you?  This’ll keep everything sharp – except for everything that’s moving, of course. I like to use a Nikon MC-DC2 Remote Release Cord to further minimize camera shake, which can be introduced if you are touching the shutter button on your camera.

If you are hiking, use either a lightweight carbon fiber tripod or, like I did for the Cathedral Falls photo, a Joby Gorillapod.  It lightens the load and allows you to take photos of beautiful waterfalls, even if they are miles along the trail.

3.  Filters.  If the light is bright, you may not be able to slow down the shutter speed to 1/2 second or more. So, what to do?  You can screw on a neutral density filter or a polarizing filter to let in less light.  Cool, huh? For this photo, I used a polarizing filter because I left the neutral density filters at home.  Using a combination of the polarizing filter and a really small aperture allowed me to get a shutter speed as slow as 1/6 seconds.

4.  Figure Out The Best Time To Shoot!  When’s the best season?  When does the foliage look the best?  When does the water flow?  Might it look really cool in winter? Often, spring or fall is the best time for water flow, while the winter or summer may hardly have anything at all.

The time of day matters too.  The harsh light of day may not be the most flattering.  but certain times of the day may not be so great either if there’s strong contrast from trees or foliage overhead, with “hot spots” from the sun mixed with shade form the leaves and branches or trees. Most of the time, early morning or late afternoon is best.  Cloudy, foggy, or misty days can also provide good light for photographing waterfalls. But talking to people, checking out the falls, and otherwise doing research is best, particularly if you’re visiting.  Figure out when the light looks the best, or the most dramatic. Popular places like Yosemite often have a lot of information online or in photography books.

5.  Take Photos at Different Exposures and Shutter Speeds.  You never know what you might really like when you get home.  Experiment.  I mess with the shutter speeds, taking them from very fast shutter speeds to as long as 5 seconds or more, although for slow shutter speeds, I usually end up going for somewhere around 1/2 second to 1.6 seconds.  But not always.

6.  Small Apertures.  Consider using small aperture settings when shooting waterfalls.  Why?  As I mentioned, it lights in less light, handy if you are trying to achieve that silky smooth look of the water.  But more than that, what it allows you to do is keep more of the waterfall and surrounding landscape in focus.  This allows you to have a greater depth of field and keep the foreground elements as well as the leaves and trees around the waterfall, as well as the top of the waterfall, in focus.  My very small aperture of f/22 is a little smaller than most people do, but I did that because it was relatively bright and I wanted to get the shutter speed slower.  But experimenting with apertures between f6.3-f/13 in most cases will do the trick.

7.  Bring Microfiber Cloths and Plastic Bags.  Indispensable when you’re shooting around spraying water. You can use a plastic bag to cover the camera until you are ready to shoot. Using your lens hood can sometimes keep some of the water droplets (or sun) off the lens as well.

When I was shooting Cathedral Falls, most of the water on my lens came from a little boy who suddenly chose to throw rocks in the water pools right in front of my camera while his mother looked on and did nothing.  Because I’m helpful, I gave her some tips on parenting.

Equipment:  Nikon D90, Nikon 18-200mm VR II Nikkor Telephoto Zoom Lens, Nikon SB-600 Speedlight, Sto-Fen Flash Diffuser.