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.

Bowling Ball Beach Photo Featured in Los Angeles Times!

One of my photos of Bowling Ball Beach in Mendocino County has been featured in the LA Times as a Reader’s Summer Vacation Favorite!

Equipment:  Nikon D7000, Tokina AT-X 116


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