Photo Tip: 3 Steps To Star Trails with Comet-Like Tails!!! Big Bend in Zion National Park

Big Bend Star Trails

A lot of you have asked how I create star trails that look like comets, so I’m gonna write about it, and that’s very sweet of me. ¬†ūüėÄ

I will discuss how to do this in Photoshop because, well, this is how I do it, but also, to the best of my knowledge, automated stacking programs such as startrails.exe ain’t gonna let you do this. ¬†In case it matters, I’m using Photoshop CS4, but you should be able to do this in any version of PS that allows you to stack. ¬†Awright… we’re just three steps from star trails with comet tail bliss!!

This tutorial assumes that you know how to take and process photos into star trails already. ¬†If you don’t,¬†visit here.

1. ¬†CREATE STACK:¬†In Photoshop, you select File > Scripts > Load Files Into Stack, and then select the files you wish to stack and follow the prompts accordingly. This will result in a HUGE .PSD file, with 50, 80, 120 layers, however many you loaded. ¬†And if you’re like me, they’ll be TIFFs. ¬†16-bit TIFFs. ¬†Yeah. ¬†Have patience knowing that your computer is working very hard to make you happy right now.

2. ¬†ADJUST LAYERS:¬†¬†In the MODE PANEL WINDOW (which is the window that controls the Layers, etc. at the bottom right), change each layer from ‚ÄúNormal‚ÄĚ to ‚ÄúLighten‚ÄĚ.
Some people occasionally use one of the other ones (such as screen, color dodge, linear dodge, lighter color), but “Lighten” is the most common, so whaddaya say we stick with it, cool? ¬†Do this for each Layer. ¬†Yup. ¬†That’s a lot. ¬†You can probably find a Photoshop Action for this if you Google around. ¬†And for that matter, you can probably find it for much of this star trails or comet tail creating process. ¬†Or you could create it yourself. ¬†I have not yet. ¬†No, I don’t know why I haven’t.

3. ¬†ADJUST OPACITY: ¬†Have you gotten carpal tunnel syndrome changing all your layers to ¬†“Lighten”? ¬†Great. ¬†Now, you can exacerbate that further by changing all of your layers’ Opacity. ¬†Y’see, the opacity defaults to 100% for each layer, so right now, you should have “normal” star trails that look like curved lines. ¬†What I do by this point is I make a flattened TIFF file of this in case I decide later that I really do want to have “regular” star trails.

Okay, back to adjusting opacity. ¬†Right next to the pulldown menu on the MODE PANEL WINDOW where you just changed all your layers from “Normal” to “Lighten” is another smaller pulldown menu that says “Opacity”. ¬†It defaults to 100%. ¬†So what you’re going to do is start from the top, and one by one, change each layers’ opacity to…well, something less than 100%. ¬†You start at 100% and gradually reduce the opacity until the last layer has a really low opacity, like 2% or 5% or whatever you think looks great. ¬†As you go along, you’ll slowly see the star trails begin transforming into comet trails, although the last part will remain full and bright until you adjust the very last Layer. ¬†After that, you should see the results of all that clicking. ¬†You should see each trail looking like a comet tail.

ADDENDUM (Summer 2013):
Beginning this summer, I began using a Photoshop action called Star Circle Academy Advanced Stacker PLUS. ¬†My workflow is now the following: ¬†I treat each individual photo first, cloning out unwanted airplane trails. ¬†Then I use the Advanced Stacker PLUS to create comet-like star trails. ¬†If it’s not aesthetically how I want it to look, then I will create the comet-like trails “by hand” as described above.


So hey, about this photo….here’s a little more about how it came to be! ¬†I’m one of these people who are fascinated by the creative process, so I get into this kinda thing!

For this photo, I had to move the camera a couple of times. The moon seemed to be turbo-charged, cruising across the canyon sky too quickly. I moved the camera further over to the right, also a great view, and felt satisfied. I had The Organ bracketed by the Great White Thrown on the left and Angels Landing on the right, and all seemed good.

I had seen another photo of this taken by a photographer, one of the Milky Way. He and his son had set up this elaborate array of strobe lights, constant incandescent lights, and dish reflectors – all in all, five lights, placed 500 to 700 feet away from the camera, with strobes set to trigger via radio command. It was quite a setup.

I therefore was extremely surprised when I shined my Dorcy flashlight on The Organ and found that I could actually illuminate it even though it was monstrously huge and fairly far away. And sure, while the Dorcy is a very strong flashlight, almost like holding a car headlight in your hand, it still seemed absurd that I could do this. So I took one photo relatively early on, illuminating The Organ, and then began taking the sequence of shots to stack into a star trails photo, eventually blending the two together in Photoshop.

Title: Big Bend Star Trails
Info: Nikon D7000, Tokina 11-16mm lens. This is a combination of 54 individual photos, with each one 30 seconds, f/2.8 ISO 125, all stacked together for a total of 27 minutes. The photo of the stacked photos was blended with another photo of the foreground, consisting of The Organ (center), Great White Throne (left) and Angels Landing (right), which was shot at 52 seconds f/2.8 ISO 250. The Organ was light painted with a Dorcy spotlight. Taken around 10 pm 22 March 2013.
Photographer: Ken Lee
Location: Zion National Park, Utah U.S.A.

Equipment:  Nikon D7000, Tokina AT-X 116, Feisol tripod.

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). We discuss long exposure, night sky, star trails, and coastal long exposure photography, as well as lots of other things, so I hope you can join us!

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




Save Marine Wildlife, Vote For Mendocino Bowling Ball Beach Coast Photo!

Vote for my photo, and save marine wildlife!  Win-win!!  Yippeee!!!!

Bowling Ball Beach 2

Ocean Conservancy is having a contest to raise money to save marine wildlife.  My photo is in the contest.  Please vote today and save our friends in the sea.

Along Came A Spider – Night Photo of Spider in Web

Click on image to see much clearer.  Thanks!
Title: Along Came A Spider
Info: Nikon D7000, Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 lens. 1/40s, f/3.2, ISO 1250. Lit with porch light and backlit with my Energizer headlamp.
Photography: Ken Lee
Location: my backyard

For the past two years, a spider has created a very large circular web from our orange tree to the bird house. ¬†This time, I thought I’d photograph it. ¬†This was no easy feat, of course. It was dark. ¬†And the web kept swaying, making it almost impossible to focus.


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.

Mobius Arch Star Trails, Alabama Hills

Light painting and “stacked” multiple exposures during a hot night in the desert near Lone Pine, California. ¬†The stacking was done in Photoshop CS4 to have a little more control over the light painting and to reduce noise. ¬†This also marks the first time I used Noise Ninja to clean up the noise. ¬†While it wasn’t bad at all, I felt that a little cleaning up was better, so I selectively “de-noised” parts of the photo via layer masking.

Title: Mobius Arch Polaris Star Trail
Info: Nikon D90, Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 lens, Feisol tripod. 65 minutes total, composed of 130 30-second photos, all ISO 1600, f/4.5. Light painted with my handy head lamp.
Photography: Ken Lee
Location: Alabama Hills near Lone Pine, California, USA.

A hot evening, especially when running around “light painting”. But I also had a chance to lay on my back and watch the stars. I actually began dozing off when a car pulled up. You can see some of the light from the head lights on the arch.

The swirling stars are magical, a result of the long exposure of the camera capturing the movement of the stars. Polaris, the North Star, is in the middle, and all the stars appear to rotate around it, this movement, of course, primarily a result of the rotation of the earth.

Bodie Ghost Town Wagon Wheel

On this post, I’m going to discuss Bodie, one of the most fantastic ghost towns I’ve ever seen, more than this photo specifically. ¬†Bodie, north of Mono Lake, was a mining town, and one of the first towns to get alternating current electricity from Westinghouse, several years before the White House.

Bodie was infamous as a dangerous town, and the “badman from Bodie” was that era’s “bogey man”. Bad men, whiskey, whoring, gambling and more were endemic to Bodie. The Bodie brochure says that “by 1879, Bodie boasted a population of 10,000 and was second to none for wickedness, badmen, and ‘the worst climate out of doors’ One little girl, whose family was taking her to the remote and infamous town, wrote in her diary: ‘Goodbye God, I’m going to Bodie.’ The phrase came to be known throughout the West.”

The brochure also states, “killings occurred with monotonous regularity, sometimes becoming almost daily events. The fire bell, which tolled the ages of the deceased when they were buried, rang often and long. Robberies, stage holdups and street fights provided variety, and the town’s 65 saloons offered many opportunities for relaxation after hard days of work in the mines. The Reverend F.M. Warrington saw it in 1881 as ‘a sea of sin, lashed by the tempests of lust and passion.'”

A ranger at Bodie told two stories.

One was of two men who got in a fight outside a saloon. Standing only 6-8 feet apart, each drew six-shooters on the other, emptying their bullets…none of them striking their adversary.

Another was of theft. Trees do not grow near Bodie, and in the extremely cold, windy winters at 8600 feet, wood was a very scarce and expensive commodity. So one person was dismayed to find that his stash of firewood kept getting smaller and smaller. To address this, he placed some black powder in one hollowed out log, and placed it back on the pile. Later that evening, a neighbor’s house exploded furiously, so much so that it could be heard miles away. His wood was never stolen again.

Oh, and yes, this is a photography blog, so the photo. ¬†I’ve been using the Tokina 11-16mm since April, and absolutely love it. ¬†This one was simple. ¬†I just got down on my stomach, focused on the wagon wheel, and went for it. ¬†No processing except for a little sharpening and contrast, the usual things that you do with a RAW file. ¬†There were no filters used. ¬†I don’t have a circular polarizer for the wide-angle because it creates bands, so yes, the sky really was that blue.

Equipment:  Nikon D90, Tokina AT-X 116 Pro DX AF 11-16mm f/2.8 Lens For Nikon

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

Bowling Ball Beach – Long Exposure Photo of the California Coast

Bowling Ball Beach, Mendocino County, near Point Arena.

Please click on the photo to view it.  The algorithms for making it smaller seem to make it look blurry.  Thanks.

I mentioned to you that this trip, in contrast to the previous Alabama Hills/395 trip, was full of difficulty, didn’t I? The bulk of it began today.

I covered the camera with a plastic bag from Ralph’s, set up the tripod and got down low to photograph these incredible rocks, which were often in rows, very unusual. But such unusual formations produce unusual splashes. Five minutes in, I suddenly got nailed with water suddenly splashing very high up, surprising me. The water had gotten past the plastic bag I had wrapped around the camera. It didn’t look that bad, so I went back, wiped it off with a towel, and continued shooting.

That was to be¬†Mistake #1: If your camera gets wet, do not turn it on again. You cannot fry a circuit if it doesn’t have any juice.

Title: Bowling Ball Beach 1
Info: Nikon D90, Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 lens, Feisol tripod, f/14, ISO 200, 10-second exposure
Photography: Ken Lee
Location: Bowling Ball Beach, Mendocino County, California, USA

The ebb and flow of the tide, when photographed for ten seconds, creates a misty otherworldly look. It’s a very calming, peaceful sort of look, ironic to me since I find long exposure photography at the coast to be anything but peaceful, contending with splashing water, high winds, salt water and sand pelting my camera, lens fogging up, the tide shifting the sand underneath the tripod, difficulty setting up shots, and other things. ¬†It’s not the actual photography itself, but more the peripheral aspects that seem challenging to me.¬†But that’s part of the reason I went on this trip: gaining experience in this kind of photography.

The Secret Coast: Where Is This???

Where is this?  Any guesses?

This is in the same location as the previous post. You can see more photos on my Eleven Shadows Virtual Photo Album page.

(Please click on the photo to see it properly – it always seems to look blurry when viewed here on the blog)

Title: The Secret Coast
Info: Nikon D7000, Tokina AT-X 116 11-16mm f/2.8 with B+W 77mm ND 1.8 filter, ISO 400, 6 second exposure, f/14.
Photography: Ken Lee
Location: ???

The challenge, as with the previous Mystery of the Secret Cave photo, is to try and keep the tripod still when the ocean water is ebbing and flowing, pulling on the tripod, pulling the soft wet sand away from the tripod and wrapping seaweed around the tripod legs!  I always jam the tripod in as hard as possible, and this certainly helps, although of course not always!

See if you can guess where this photo and the previous one were taken.  I think it may surprise some of you!  Thanks!

Equipment:  Nikon D7000, Tokina AT-X 116, Feisol Travel CT-3441S Rapid 4-Section Carbon Traveler Tripod