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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

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: 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

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

 

 

How I got the photo: Owens Valley Radio Telescope Milky Way

Luck sometimes favors the prepared. I had put all my ducks in a row. I had contacted Cal Tech to obtain permission to photograph Owens Valley Radio Telescope near Bishop, CA. They had contacted security to let them know it was okay. But I couldn’t control the weather.

Fires and lightning storms

But it was about to be scuttled. To the south, the Sierras near Whitney Portal were on fire, creating tons of smoke and haze in the sky. To the east and the north, there was an enormous lightning storm over the White Mountains that were clouding the skies.
I set up my camera and tested it for exposure. I wanted my composition to look different from every other photo of these large dish telescopes. I wanted to create a fisheye photo of two telescopes, one in each corner. And I wanted the Milky Way to cut through the middle. Very specific, sure, but very possible. If the skies would cooperate.

Hungry gnats

And would I manage to survive? Hungry gnats buzzed aggressively at me. Although a hot summer day, I was already wearing boots, thick pants, a hoodie, and a cap to protect myself from the gnats, putting my hands under sleeves. But still they hungrily attacked.

Patience is a virtue

For long periods of time, nothing. Then I saw a clearing in the clouds ahead. It looked like it was coming my way. I triggered my intervalometer, setting it to take 20 photos in succession. I raced around and illuminated the two radio telescopes from an angle, being careful not to blow out the details and create some shadow for depth. Click! Click! Click! For between five and ten minutes, there was enough of an opening in the sky to make the Milky Way visible. And just as quickly, the skies closed

Details, details

To create this photo, I used a Nikon D750 with a Rokinon 12mm f/2.8 fisheye lens. I took 20 photos and “stacked” them later in Starry Landscape Stacker to reduce camera noise. Each of the 20 photos had an exposure of 15 seconds at f/2.8 with an ISO of 6400. July 2018.

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