How to create star trails in Photoshop in three easy steps

You can create star trails in Photoshop in three easy steps. It’s really quite easy!

Star trails are magical. They show the celestial movements of the stars over a long period of time. And they’re easy to create.

You’ve taken some photos of the night sky in succession, one right after another, using a tripod to keep everything steady. And now you want to use Photoshop to “stack” them to make them into larger star trails. Photoshop has some nice advantages for “stacking”, and I’ll point some of these out near the end.

1. Stack your photos

Load files into stack screenshot.
Load files into stack. We’re gonna create some star trails!

Simply go to “File”. Select “Scripts”. Then select “Load Files into Stack” as shown above. 

2.) Select which files you want stacked

Dialogue box for stacking
Dialogue box for selecting the files you want to “stack” into star trails.

This too is straightforward. Hit the “Browse” button. Then simply navigate to where your files are and select them and hit “OK”. You don’t need to check any of the boxes below assuming that your camera and tripod did not move.

3.) Let the stars shine through!

Photoshop will stack all of your photos. If you had printed all of your individual photos, it would be as if they were all stacked on top of each other in one neat pile. Photoshop is just doing this digitally. Lean back and relax. If you have lots of photos and a slow computer, go get a drink.

Photoshop Layers lighten.
Hey, alright! Photoshop has stacked your photos! But now we need to change the opacity of the Layers from “Normal” to “Lighten”.

Once Photoshop is done, you’ll think, “Okay….I see all the layers of photos on the bottom right side….but I don’t see any star trails!” And you wouldn’t see them if you had stacked all your printed photos one on top of the other either. 

But here in Photoshop, we can turn our stacked “digital papers” (our layers, in other words) into “magic paper”. Cool, huh? 

First, highlight all the layers except the very bottom layer. 

Then go to the Layers Tab just above where all your images are stacked; You’ll see a pulldown menu that says “Normal”. Change that to “Lighten”. Wow! Let the stars shine through!

Photoshop Layers lighten.
Instant star trails! I never get tired of seeing how it all comes together. Where the red arrow is pointing, you change that from “Normal” to “Lighten”, then lean back and smile. Yeah. You just created some star trails!

If you look at this photo above, you can see some airplane trails and some lights from me mistakenly shining the light into the camera while illuminating the giant dragon sculpture. Next we will discuss how to get rid of that.

Bonus Tip: getting rid of airplane trails or unwanted lights

Some people don’t want airplanes in their star trails. Or maybe you mistakenly shine a light in the camera and you don’t want that. This bonus section is for you. This is one of the nice aspects of using Photoshop.

A lot of people choose not to do this. That’s okay. It’s your photo. You’re in charge. You do what you want.

Photoshop masks
The red arrow is pointing to Layer Masks. Here, I’ve created a lot of Layer Masks, one for each Layer, mostly to get rid of lots of airplane trails. There were probably ten airplanes that flew through while I created this image because this location is directly in the flight path of San Diego. I also got rid of some inadvertent lights while light painting and my ghostly shadow image from standing in place a little too long.

But if you want to try this, you can rid yourself of them by creating Layer Masks. Those are those white rectangles to the right of the layers in our example below. 

Creating Layer Masks so we can mask out unwanted stuff

Select one layer that has the airplane trails or unwanted light that you don’t want. You’ll create a Layer Mask that will block this out. Go to the top menu. “Choose Layer” > “Layer Mask” > “Reveal All”. This should produce a white rectangle to the right of your selected layer.

Then select the Brush tool. This is located on the left side of the image. Choose the black color. Make sure that the white Layer Mask is selected instead of the actual layer itself. Then simply start painting away on the area that you want concealed. You should see the unwanted item begin to disappear. The black color stops that one part of the image from shining through! It’s like magic!

Rattledragon star trails photo
The enormous rattledragon sculpture in Borrego Springs, California. The sculpture was created by Ricardo Breceda. This image is 28 minutes total exposure. Each individual photo was a two-minute exposure at f/6.3 and ISO 200. The star trails are relatively straight because I am zooming in from farther away and we are not facing directly north or south, so they tend to be straighter and longer when they are farther from the North or South Celestial Poles.

It’s really that easy. If you don’t like it, hit “Undo” (or paint over what you did after selecting a white color). 

Additional tips

Layer Masks can be used to get rid of “hot spots” from your light painting as well. Or shadows. Really, anything that only exists on one layer, you can eliminate non-destructively. If you don’t like it later, go back and change it.

VISIT ME, VISIT ME!

BOOKS AND PRINTS:
Head on over to the Ken Lee Photography website to purchase books or look at night photography and long exposure prints and more.  My books are 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, thanks!

NIGHTAXIANS VIDEO YOUTUBE PODCAST:

Night photographers Tim Little, Mike Cooper and I all use Pentax gear. We discuss this, gear, adventures, light painting, lenses, night photography, creativity, and more in this ongoing YouTube podcast. Subscribe and watch to the Nightaxians today!

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 PRESENTATION:

How We Got the Shots: Five Photographers, Five Stories – Night Photo Summit 2022

VIDEO INTERVIEW:

Ken Lee’s Abandoned Trains Planes and Automobiles with Tim Little of Cape Nights Photography
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: A weird teleportation device?

We encountered this unusual structure in a ghost town in the Sonoran Desert. Here’s how I got this unusual night photo.

night photo of abandoned smelter
Is it an abandoned smelter? Or an ancient teleportation device? You decide!

Imagination run amok

During the waning light of the sun, my friend Mike Cooper and I came across this unusual structure. This was a 100-year old smelter. But to me, who watches a lot of “Star Trek”, I instead thought of it as some sort of weird transporter. This is what would inform the way I went about photographing it.

I find that when photographing at night, looking at things as if they were something else often makes for more creative photographs. For example, instead of a wrecked car, I might look at it like a strange space monster. Instead of a tree, it might be a giant human-shaped inflatable wind puppet. This smelter would be an eerily glowing teleportation device.

Setting up the photo

behind the scenes smelter
Behind the scenes, photographing an abandoned giant smelter in a ghost town in the Sonoran Desert.

When it grew dark, I placed my Pentax K-1 camera directly in front of the smelter, using a Feisol CT-3342 tripod for stability. I took great care to make sure it was centered. I thought it might look more odd and “sci-fi” with a straight centered photo. I focused on the building itself by shining some light and using auto-focus. I use this technique quite a bit for night photography. 

Checking out the smelter

The smelter is a very large structure. Someone had placed a wooden pallet in front, presumably to climb in. I climbed up the pallet, considering everything carefully. It was dark. But more than that, my vision was not great, as I was experiencing flashes and floaters as well as increasingly hazy vision. Soon after this trip, I had surgery for a detached retina.

Mike had successfully climbed in and out to illuminate this from the interior. I battled my impulse to also climb inside, deciding not to do it, given my wonky vision.

Lighting the interior

I had to devise another way to make it look like the interior was glowing with an eerie energy, ready to “beam” someone to a distant land or spaceship. I decided that I would remove the pallet, hop up on one of the stones hidden behind the creosote plant, and wave my ProtoMachines LED2 light painting device back and forth to pick up the texture inside, blocking the light with my body. Then, still blocking the light, I would wave it up and down around the sides of the opening to make it look like the light was emanating from within.

I ended up doing this with numerous colors so I could picture how it looked. I did red, blue, green, and warm white. I ultimately decided on a color known among a few of us as Gas Station Teal (™), developed by night photographer Tim Little.

Lighting the exterior 

I used a warm white light. Using a 90-degree angle from the structure, I skimmed the light gently on the front to pick up some of the texture. This also made the smelter “pop” a little more compared to the rest of the photo.

Streaks of light

I let the star trails streak across the sky. I did this by taking two minute exposures and letting the camera run for twelve minutes straight. The star trails would be reasonably long since I was using a Pentax 28-105mm f/3.5-5.6 lens at a focal length of 34mm. After all, the longer the focal length, the more I am zoomed in on everything – including the stars. When I would share the photo later, I would propose that the streaks of light may have been created during the dematerialization process. I did have two people “correct” me, saying that they thought it were star trails. There’s no fooling some people.

Stacking the six photos

I took the six photos and “stacked” them in Adobe Photoshop, changing the blending mode to “lighten”. This allows the lighter parts, including the light painting and star trails, to shine through all together as if it had been a single photo with a twelve-minute exposure. You can also “stack” photos in this manner using StarStax, a free program for Mac, PC, and Linux.

We encountered this unusual structure in a ghost town in the Sonoran Desert. Here’s how I got this unusual night photo.

night photo of abandoned smelter
Is it an abandoned smelter? Or an ancient teleportation device? You decide!

Imagination run amok

During the waning light of the sun, my friend Mike Cooper and I came across this unusual structure. This was a 100-year old smelter. But to me, who watches a lot of “Star Trek”, I instead thought of it as some sort of weird transporter. This is what would inform the way I went about photographing it.

I find that when photographing at night, looking at things as if they were something else often makes for more creative photographs. For example, instead of a wrecked car, I might look at it like a strange space monster. Instead of a tree, it might be a giant human-shaped inflatable wind puppet. This smelter would be an eerily glowing teleportation device.

Setting up the photo

behind the scenes smelter
Behind the scenes, photographing an abandoned giant smelter in a ghost town in the Sonoran Desert.

When it grew dark, I placed my Pentax K-1 camera directly in front of the smelter, using a Feisol CT-3342 tripod for stability. I took great care to make sure it was centered. I thought it might look more odd and “sci-fi” with a straight centered photo. I focused on the building itself by shining some light and using auto-focus. I use this technique quite a bit for night photography. 

Checking out the smelter

The smelter is a very large structure. Someone had placed a wooden pallet in front, presumably to climb in. I climbed up the pallet, considering everything carefully. It was dark. But more than that, my vision was not great, as I was experiencing flashes and floaters as well as increasingly hazy vision. Soon after this trip, I had surgery for a detached retina.

Mike had successfully climbed in and out to illuminate this from the interior. I battled my impulse to also climb inside, deciding not to do it, given my wonky vision.

Lighting the interior

I had to devise another way to make it look like the interior was glowing with an eerie energy, ready to “beam” someone to a distant land or spaceship. I decided that I would remove the pallet, hop up on one of the stones hidden behind the creosote plant, and wave my ProtoMachines LED2 light painting device back and forth to pick up the texture inside, blocking the light with my body. Then, still blocking the light, I would wave it up and down around the sides of the opening to make it look like the light was emanating from within.

I ended up doing this with numerous colors so I could picture how it looked. I did red, blue, green, and warm white. I ultimately decided on a color known among a few of us as Gas Station Teal (™), developed by night photographer Tim Little.

Lighting the exterior 

I used a warm white light. Using a 90-degree angle from the structure, I skimmed the light gently on the front to pick up some of the texture. This also made the smelter “pop” a little more compared to the rest of the photo.

Streaks of light

I let the star trails streak across the sky. I did this by taking two minute exposures and letting the camera run for twelve minutes straight. The star trails would be reasonably long since I was using a Pentax 28-105mm f/3.5-5.6 lens at a focal length of 34mm. After all, the longer the focal length, the more I am zoomed in on everything – including the stars. When I would share the photo later, I would propose that the streaks of light may have been created during the dematerialization process. I did have two people “correct” me, saying that they thought it were star trails. There’s no fooling some people.

Stacking the six photos

I took the six photos and “stacked” them in Adobe Photoshop, changing the blending mode to “lighten”. This allows the lighter parts, including the light painting and star trails, to shine through all together as if it had been a single photo with a twelve-minute exposure. You can also “stack” photos in this manner using StarStax, a free program for Mac, PC, and Linux.

We encountered this unusual structure in a ghost town in the Sonoran Desert. Here’s how I got this unusual night photo.

night photo of abandoned smelter
Is it an abandoned smelter? Or an ancient teleportation device? You decide!

Imagination run amok

During the waning light of the sun, my friend Mike Cooper and I came across this unusual structure. This was a 100-year old smelter. But to me, who watches a lot of “Star Trek”, I instead thought of it as some sort of weird transporter. This is what would inform the way I went about photographing it.

I find that when photographing at night, looking at things as if they were something else often makes for more creative photographs. For example, instead of a wrecked car, I might look at it like a strange space monster. Instead of a tree, it might be a giant human-shaped inflatable wind puppet. This smelter would be an eerily glowing teleportation device.

Setting up the photo

behind the scenes smelter
Behind the scenes, photographing an abandoned giant smelter in a ghost town in the Sonoran Desert.

When it grew dark, I placed my Pentax K-1 camera directly in front of the smelter, using a Feisol CT-3342 tripod for stability. I took great care to make sure it was centered. I thought it might look more odd and “sci-fi” with a straight centered photo. I focused on the building itself by shining some light and using auto-focus. I use this technique quite a bit for night photography. 

Checking out the smelter

The smelter is a very large structure. Someone had placed a wooden pallet in front, presumably to climb in. I climbed up the pallet, considering everything carefully. It was dark. But more than that, my vision was not great, as I was experiencing flashes and floaters as well as increasingly hazy vision. Soon after this trip, I had surgery for a detached retina.

Mike had successfully climbed in and out to illuminate this from the interior. I battled my impulse to also climb inside, deciding not to do it, given my wonky vision.

Lighting the interior

I had to devise another way to make it look like the interior was glowing with an eerie energy, ready to “beam” someone to a distant land or spaceship. I decided that I would remove the pallet, hop up on one of the stones hidden behind the creosote plant, and wave my ProtoMachines LED2 light painting device back and forth to pick up the texture inside, blocking the light with my body. Then, still blocking the light, I would wave it up and down around the sides of the opening to make it look like the light was emanating from within.

I ended up doing this with numerous colors so I could picture how it looked. I did red, blue, green, and warm white. I ultimately decided on a color known among a few of us as Gas Station Teal (™), developed by night photographer Tim Little.

Lighting the exterior 

I used a warm white light. Using a 90-degree angle from the structure, I skimmed the light gently on the front to pick up some of the texture. This also made the smelter “pop” a little more compared to the rest of the photo.

Streaks of light

I let the star trails streak across the sky. I did this by taking two minute exposures and letting the camera run for twelve minutes straight. The star trails would be reasonably long since I was using a Pentax 28-105mm f/3.5-5.6 lens at a focal length of 34mm. After all, the longer the focal length, the more I am zoomed in on everything – including the stars. When I would share the photo later, I would propose that the streaks of light may have been created during the dematerialization process. I did have two people “correct” me, saying that they thought it were star trails. There’s no fooling some people.

Stacking the six photos

I took the six photos and “stacked” them in Adobe Photoshop, changing the blending mode to “lighten”. This allows the lighter parts, including the light painting and star trails, to shine through all together as if it had been a single photo with a twelve-minute exposure. You can also “stack” photos in this manner using StarStax, a free program for Mac, PC, and Linux.

We encountered this unusual structure in a ghost town in the Sonoran Desert. Here’s how I got this unusual night photo.

Abandoned smelter night photo
Is it an abandoned smelter? Or an ancient teleportation device? You decide!

Imagination run amok

During the waning light of the sun, my friend Mike Cooper and I came across this unusual structure. This was a 100-year old smelter. But to me, who watches a lot of “Star Trek”, I instead thought of it as some sort of weird transporter. This is what would inform the way I went about photographing it.

I find that when photographing at night, looking at things as if they were something else often makes for more creative photographs. For example, instead of a wrecked car, I might look at it like a strange space monster. Instead of a tree, it might be a giant human-shaped inflatable wind puppet. This smelter would be an eerily glowing teleportation device.

Setting up the photo

Behind the scenes, photographing an abandoned giant smelter in a ghost town in the Sonoran Desert.

When it grew dark, I placed my Pentax K-1 camera directly in front of the smelter, using a Feisol CT-3342 tripod for stability. I took great care to make sure it was centered. I thought it might look more odd and “sci-fi” with a straight centered photo. I focused on the building itself by shining some light and using auto-focus. I use this technique quite a bit for night photography. 

Checking out the smelter

The smelter is a very large structure. Someone had placed a wooden pallet in front, presumably to climb in. I climbed up the pallet, considering everything carefully. It was dark. But more than that, my vision was not great, as I was experiencing flashes and floaters as well as increasingly hazy vision. Soon after this trip, I had surgery for a detached retina.

Mike had successfully climbed in and out to illuminate this from the interior. I battled my impulse to also climb inside, deciding not to do it, given my wonky vision.

Lighting the interior

I had to devise another way to make it look like the interior was glowing with an eerie energy, ready to “beam” someone to a distant land or spaceship. I decided that I would remove the pallet, hop up on one of the stones hidden behind the creosote plant, and wave my ProtoMachines LED2 light painting device back and forth to pick up the texture inside, blocking the light with my body. Then, still blocking the light, I would wave it up and down around the sides of the opening to make it look like the light was emanating from within.

I ended up doing this with numerous colors so I could picture how it looked. I did red, blue, green, and warm white. I ultimately decided on a color known among a few of us as Gas Station Teal (™), developed by night photographer Tim Little.

Lighting the exterior 

I used a warm white light. Using a 90-degree angle from the structure, I skimmed the light gently on the front to pick up some of the texture. This also made the smelter “pop” a little more compared to the rest of the photo.

Streaks of light

I let the star trails streak across the sky. I did this by taking two minute exposures and letting the camera run for twelve minutes straight. The star trails would be reasonably long since I was using a Pentax 28-105mm f/3.5-5.6 lens at a focal length of 34mm. After all, the longer the focal length, the more I am zoomed in on everything – including the stars. When I would share the photo later, I would propose that the streaks of light may have been created during the dematerialization process. I did have two people “correct” me, saying that they thought it were star trails. There’s no fooling some people.

Stacking the six photos

I took the six photos and “stacked” them in Adobe Photoshop, changing the blending mode to “lighten”. This allows the lighter parts, including the light painting and star trails, to shine through all together as if it had been a single photo with a twelve-minute exposure. You can also “stack” photos in this manner using StarStax, a free program for Mac, PC, and Linux.

VISIT ME, VISIT ME!

BOOKS AND PRINTS:
Head on over to the Ken Lee Photography website to purchase books or look at night photography and long exposure prints and more.  My books are 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, thanks!

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 PRESENTATION:

How We Got the Shots: Five Photographers, Five Stories – Night Photo Summit 2022

VIDEO INTERVIEW:

Ken Lee’s Abandoned Trains Planes and Automobiles with Tim Little of Cape Nights Photography
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 Battle of AI: Adobe Sky Replacement vs. Luminar 4 AI Sky Replacement

Recently, in conjunction with the October 2020 Adobe MAX Creativity Conference, Adobe released the eagerly awaited version of Photoshop version 22.0, which comes with quite a few new features, many of which are powered by AI. 

Sky Replacement

One of the most anticipated features in Photoshop is their AI-powered Sky Replacement. While I don’t generally replace skies, I do take low-ISO night or “blue hour” twilight photos of the foreground, then take successive “stacked” photos of the night sky, and then blend them together. This can be time-consuming, so I am always interested in ways to quicken the process. 

Luminar 4 AI Sky Replacement vs. Adobe Sky Replacement

I’ve used Luminar 4’s AI Sky Replacement to do “drop in” my own sky before. I was curious as to how it would compare with Photoshop Sky Replacement.

Luminar 4 can only use JPG or TIFF files. There is no such limitation with Adobe. When used in Photoshop, Luminar 4 will create another layer. Photoshop offers the choice of creating another layer or a duplicate layer, including all the masks and the layer of the sky that come with it.

Another difference is that Photoshop version 22 has so far been absurdly slow for almost every function on my 2017 iMac with 40 GB of RAM. Photoshop 2020 was also very slow. Luminar 4, and for that matter, Photoshop 2019, run very quickly. Not everyone experiences this, but it’s worth mentioning.

First example – night photo

I began with a photo that I took of an unprocessed 3 minute low-ISO photo of a radio telescope taken at night. Luminar 4 struggled with identifying the night sky. How would Adobe fare?

Adobe recognized the night sky as being a sky, but struggled to determine what was sky and what was not. And as previously mentioned, I had the choice of creating a duplicate layer, which would allow me to tweak the layer further in a non-destructive manner. In this example, I chose one of Adobe’s skies, as numerous skies come with the program.

Above, you can see that Luminar’s Sky Replacement feature is ghosted. It could not recognize the night sky at all.

Second example – blue hour photo

I chose a “blue hour” photo of a lake in the Eastern Sierras, taken not long after the sun had set. I decided that this time, I would “drop in” one of my skies, a “stacked” Milky Way photo taken with the same setup later that evening.

Adobe performed quite admirably here, dropping in the sky, although I did have to adjust the size slightly to get it to match. This was easily done.

Next was Luminar 4. Luminar recognized the sky but struggled with both the blending of the sky itself as well as the horizon. Luminar struggles with darker skies. If I had increased the brightness of the Eastern Sierras photos by a stop or two, it would have been fine.

Third example – day photo with lots of trees

All examples of both programs use day photos for sky replacement. And for good reason. Both their AI recognize it very well. But how would they recognize something complicated such as trees with lots of fine leaves? 

I used a bright day photo of the forest in Mount Pinos in the mountains north of Los Angeles as the base photo. I decided to use the same Milky Way photo as the previous attempt. This would look incredibly fake. However, I felt the darkness would create greater contrast. We could then  examine the blend by zooming in close to see what was happening with the leaves of the trees.

Adobe’s Sky Replacement didn’t struggle to determine where the sky was here. First appearances looked good.

Next was Luminar 4. This also performed admirably. Although a little darker than the Adobe version, this could have been easily adjusted by using a slider. First appearances also looked good!

I’m ready for my close-up!

For Instagram or Facebook, either sky replacement would look good. But what if we zoomed in? What if we printed this at 100%? For this, I zoomed in to 200% so you could see the masking in detail. 

Looking closely at the details of the leaves and branches in the Photoshop version above, we can see that it’s generally quite good, but that some of the branches and leaves are missing.

Examining Luminar 4’s version above, we can see that the leaves and branches are noticeably more intact. The mask, even zoomed in at 200%, is quite good.

Which one is better?

 I don’t know that there is a clear, definitive winner here. We all love “bottom line” answers, and I would give you one if I had one.

For day photos, Luminar 4 created a better mask. It requires JPGs, although in practice, I doubt this will matter with almost anyone.

However, for night photos, Luminar 4 struggled immensely. Photoshop was able to create a mask even with the very dark night photo of the radio telescope, no easy feat. And with the ability to duplicate layers, one could work on the mask some more to get it to blend better.

I for one am happy to have both. And with LuminarAI and subsequent versions of Photoshop looming on the horizon, I’d say that things are looking good. Whatever your position on sky replacement, we all can agree that if AI can make our repetitive or time-consuming tasks faster, then we all win.

I thought I would share this just for fun. I finished this after I created the examples above, experimenting with both Photoshop and Luminar 4. This is a photo of the radio telescope facing north. This is a version of the first photo combined with “stacked’ photos of the starry night sky to reduce noise reduction. I masked this using a combination of Starry Landscape Stacker and Photoshop CC 2019.

 

VISIT ME, VISIT ME!

MY WEBSITE:
Head on over to the Ken Lee Photography website to purchase books or look at night photography and long exposure photos.  My latest book, “Abandoned Southern California: The Slowing of Time” is available there and Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Target, Booktopia, Books A Million, IBS, and Aladin. If you enjoy the book, please leave a nice review.

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

PODCAST:
Behind the Shot video podcast – interview February 2020

VIDEO INTERVIEW:
Conversation about night photography and my book with Lance Keimig of National Park At Night

ARTICLES:
A Photographer Captures Haunting Nighttime Images of Abandoned Buildings, Planes, and Cars in the American Southwest – Business Insider by Erin McDowell
A Photographer Explores Southern California’s Desert Ruins – Los Angeles Magazine article by Chris Nichols

 

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

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

Photographing Milky Way photos with low noise

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creating a stark black and white image

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

Going black and white

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

Paint it black

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

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

 

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

Above: almost done!

 

Creating a mask

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Bringing it together

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

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

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

 

The importance of increasing contrast and brightness

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

VISIT ME, VISIT ME!

MY WEBSITE:
Head on over to the Ken Lee Photography website to purchase books or look at night photography and long exposure photos.  My latest book, “Abandoned Southern California: The Slowing of Time” is available there and Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Target, Booktopia, Books A Million, IBS, and Aladin. If you enjoy the book, please leave a nice review.

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

PODCAST:
Behind the Shot video podcast – interview February 2020

VIDEO INTERVIEW:
Conversation about night photography and my book with Lance Keimig of National Park At Night

ARTICLES:
A Photographer Captures Haunting Nighttime Images of Abandoned Buildings, Planes, and Cars in the American Southwest – Business Insider by Erin McDowell
A Photographer Explores Southern California’s Desert Ruins – Los Angeles Magazine article by Chris Nichols

 

 

Surrealistic Art in the Nevada Night Sky

Saluting The Night Sky (6871)


The Car Forest is an art installation outside Goldfield, Nevada. I drove up from Beatty to photograph here on a gorgeous evening, surrounded by braying and sometimes galloping burros. Many of these cars were repainted since my last visit, some for the better, and some by idiots.
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This is a real night photo. I illuminated the exterior and interior with a hand-held ProtoMachines LED2 flashlight while the shutter was open on my tripod-mounted camera. This is not a post-processing creation. No pixels were harmed during the creation of this photo. 😀
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Nikon D610/14-24mm f/2.8 lens. The long exposure photo is 21 minutes total “stacking” three photos, each 7 minutes f/8 ISO 200 on 2017-06-11 00:03.
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#kenlee #kenleephotography #slowshutter #amazing_longexpo #longexphunter #longexpoelite #longexposure_shots #nightscaper #supreme_nightshots #ig_astrophotography #super_photolongexpo #long_exposure #nightscaper #nightphotography #longexposure #startrails #lightpainting #nevada #carforest

Long Exposure Night Photo with Light Painting

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

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 Caoifornia’s Desert Ruins – Los Angeles Magazine article by Chris Nichols

 

Reflection of a Convict – Lake Reflections At Night

Reflection Of A Convict (8011)


During the day, we ran into talented night photographer and all-around great guy Ron Pinkerton and Deanna while about to rent a kayak. It was quite a surprise to run into friends hours away from home. We paddled around Lake Convict, CA and later, met for a delicious dinner at the Restaurant At Convict Lake. I returned in the evening and met up with Ron. The scene we wanted to photograph was blotted out by the moon, but I found this beautiful reflection of one of the mountains in the water, and decided to do a simple star trails photograph instead. I also photographed a version of this with the stars as pinpoints.
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Nikon D610/Nikon 28-300mm lens. 1 hour total from “stacked” images, each one 3 minutes f/8 ISO 800. 2017-08-01 22:35.
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IG – @kenleephotography
fb – kenleephotography
500px – kenleephotography
~~
#kenlee #kenleephotography #slowshutter #amazing_longexpo #longexphunter #longexpoelite #longexposure_shots #nightscaper #supreme_nightshots #ig_astrophotography #super_photolongexpo #long_exposure #nightscaper #nightphotography #longexposure #convictlake #sierras

Long Exposure Night Photo with Light Painting

VISIT ME, VISIT ME!
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), on 500px, or my Ken Lee Google+ Page. 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!

 

Carrara Goggles – Ghost Towns of Nevada At Night!

Carrara Goggles (1604)
When I first saw this from the inside, they reminded me of goggles. How long this will remain standing, I’m not sure. Carrara is a failed cement plant down the mountain from where marble was discovered near Beatty, Nevada. This was photographed on a windy night, and surprisingly cold for June.

This is a real night photo. I illuminated the interior with a red light from several angles as well as the building in the back with a hand-held ProtoMachines LED2 flashlight while the shutter was open on my tripod-mounted camera. This is not a post-processing creation. No pixels were harmed during the creation of this photo. 😀 Initially unbeknownst to me, night photographer Kevin Balluff photographed this beautifully from a similar vantage point earlier than I did, and also with red light, so this is another variation for your enjoyment. 🙂
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IG: @kenleephotography
FB: facebook.com/kenleephotography
500px: 500px.com/kenleephotography
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Nikon D7000/Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 lens. The long exposure photo is 333 seconds at f/8 ISO 200 on 2017-06-12 01:13.

#kenlee #kenleephotography #slowshutter #amazing_longexpo #longexphunter #longexpoelite #longexposure_shots #nightscaper #supreme_nightshots #ig_astrophotography #super_photolongexpo #long_exposure #nightscaper #nightphotography #longexposure #startrails #lightpainting #nevada #carrara #beatty

Long Exposure Night Photo with Light Painting

VISIT ME, VISIT ME!
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), on 500px, or my Ken Lee Google+ Page. 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!

 

Bedrock City Star Trails – Roadside Attraction Kitsch Like You’ve Never Seen It!

Bedrock City Star Trails (1455)


I came across Bedrock City as a kid on the way to the Grand Canyon, and first photographed it at night in 2015. It felt great to return here. I also got to meet the owner briefly. Bedrock City, Arizona is a roadside attraction, a recreation of The Flintstones’ town. I photographed this on a cool, quiet evening, with the sound of coyotes howling in the distance.
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This is a real night photo. I illuminated the exterior and interior with a hand-held ProtoMachines LED2 flashlight while the shutter was open on my tripod-mounted camera. This is not a post-processing creation. No pixels were harmed during the creation of this photo. 😀
~~
Nikon D7000/Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 lens. The long exposure photo is 50 minutes total, with one hundred images “stacked” as a composite, each 30 seconds f/8 ISO 1000 on 2017-06-07 23:55.
~~
IG: @kenleephotography
FB: facebook.com/kenleephotography
500px: 500px.com/kenleephotography
~~
#kenlee #kenleephotography #slowshutter #amazing_longexpo #longexphunter #longexpoelite #longexposure_shots #nightscaper #supreme_nightshots #ig_astrophotography #super_photolongexpo #long_exposure #nightscaper #nightphotography #longexposure #startrails #lightpainting #bedrockcity #arizona

Long Exposure Night Photo with Light Painting

VISIT ME, VISIT ME!
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), on 500px, or my Ken Lee Google+ Page. 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!

 

The Glow of the Grand Canyon – Beautiful Arizona Sunset!

The Glow of the Grand Canyon (6670)


Deserts can have some of the most spectacular sunsets. The Grand Canyon, Arizona, during sunset. But you knew that, didn’t you? I had gotten back from a hike, got back to the car, and ran to the nearest lookout that seemed halfway decent. Several other people wielding tripods also were running. I bracketed five photos, shooting them at different exposures, and blended them together manually so that it looks more like what you see in person. I call this “Intelligent HDR”. 😀
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Nikon D610/14-24mm f/2.8 lens @ 1/2-1/15th second f/8 ISO 400 on 2017-06-08 19:47.
~~
IG: @kenleephotography
FB: facebook.com/kenleephotography
500px: 500px.com/kenleephotography
~~
#kenlee #kenleephotography #slowshutter #amazing_longexpo #longexphunter #longexpoelite #longexposure_shots #nightscaper #supreme_nightshots #ig_astrophotography #super_photolongexpo #long_exposure #nightscaper #nightphotography #longexposure #startrails #arizona #grandcanyon

 Long Exposure Night Photo with Light Painting

VISIT ME, VISIT ME!
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), on 500px, or my Ken Lee Google+ Page. 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!

 

Molino De Viento De Las Estrellas-Joshua Tree National Park Under The Starry Skies!

Molino De Viento De Las Estrellas (7633)


Joshua Tree National Park, CA is my spiritual home for night photography, so every summer, I try to visit at least once to photograph the Milky Way. I used a Pinout remote controller/app to set and trigger the camera. You totally can share this using the FB share button.
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Esta foto es de anoche, una noche hermosa en el desierto. Un viejo molino de viento abandonado en Joshua Tree National Park en California.
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Nikon D610/Irix 15mm f/2.4 lens @ 15 seconds f/2.4 ISO 5000 on 2017-07-25.
~~
IG – @kenleephotography
fb – kenleephotography
500px – kenleephotography
~~
#kenlee #kenleephotography #slowshutter #amazing_longexpo #longexphunter #longexpoelite #longexposure_shots #nightscaper #supreme_nightshots #ig_astrophotography #super_photolongexpo #long_exposure #nightscaper #nightphotography #longexposure #milkyway #joshuatree #joshuatreenationalpark #findyourpark #jtnp

Long Exposure Night Photo with Light Painting

VISIT ME, VISIT ME!
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), on 500px, or my Ken Lee Google+ Page. 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!