Monday, January 11, 2016

Increasing Star Glow

Stars over "The Fortress" - Bryce Canyon NP ~ © Royce Bair (click to enlarge images)
Stars over "The Fortress" - Bryce Canyon NP - with a Tiffen Double Fog 3 filter
The three brightest stars and planet appearing here are (L-R): Arcturus, Mars and Spica.
Canon 5D Mk3 • Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 • f/2.0 • 13 sec • ISO 3200 ~ © Royce Bair
Same as above, but with light painting add to enhance recognition. Note: although this was done
in a single exposure, the slight blurring and loss of contrast to The Fortress (from the fog filter),
persuaded me to use a second exposure of The Fortress, without the fog filter, and combine
it with the sky (see text below) ~ © Royce Bair
There are three ways to increase star glow in your NightScape photos: 1. Atmospheric conditions, such as thin cloud cover will give this effect, but this is unpredictable and impossible to control. 2. Post processing with software, i.e. StarSpikes Pro 3 plug-in filter for Photoshop. Their Soft Flare Intensity control sets the soft glow intensity around each star that you select. This process is somewhat laborious and can be a little unnatural, depending on your skill level. 3. Filtering over the lens when you shoot. The Tiffen Double Fog 3 filter gives the most natural glow of any filter I've ever used. The filter causes only the brightest stars to flare and glow, and has little effect on the dimmer stars. (It actually has a somewhat reverse effect on the dimmer stars, causing them to diminish slightly —which is exactly what thin cloud cover will do in real life.)

The are two disadvantages I find with the Tiffen Double Fog 3 filter: 1. Some ultra-wide angle lenses, Rokinon 14mm and the Nikkor 14-24mm do not accept filters; and 2. there is a slight loss in sharpness when using the filter. This loss of sharpness is most noticeable in foreground objects. In the top two photos there is a line of snow cover on the formation. This snow line has lost some definition and contrast in the image using the filter. In the two cropped enlargements below, you can see some edge blurring in the filtered image. In an image that I took that had light painting of the formation, this blurring and loss of contrast was more pronounced. This problem is eliminated by taking two shots (with and without filtration), and combining the filtered sky with the unfiltered landscape in post, albeit with some extra work.

Cropped and enlarged view of fog filtered image ~ © Royce Bair
Cropped and enlarged view of non-filtered image ~ © Royce Bair


Thursday, January 7, 2016

Ben Canales: A Sense of Imagination and Wonder

"Make a Wish" - starry night at Crater Lake, Oregon ~ © Ben Canales (click image for a larger view)
"In our youth, the stars were fertilizer for stories and adventures. Shooting stars became wishes. We didn’t know it, but the crazy talk and thoughts, ...with no limit in that big sky, were our dreams forming."   So wrote Ben Canales, describing a photo that went on to win National Geographic's Travel Photo of the Year in 2011 —a big wake up call to the public reaction for night images. (Click the Nat'l Geo link to see behind-the-scenes details about Ben's prep for this shot.) Editor's Note: This January 16, 2013 article is being re-published to coincide with an Instagram "NightScaper" feature I'm doing today on Ben.

Finding satisfaction in night photography: Ben's night pictures started as an attempt to capture and share the things he was seeing that others had never experienced under proper dark skies (Canales is originally from New Jersey). "I love the sense of discovery in night shooting. I never know what a place will look like under the stars until I actually go out there and shoot it. My camera becomes [my] night vision goggles to literally see into the dark. That aspect of 'what's out there' gets me going every time. I also love the difficulty of it. I get bored easily, so the challenge of shooting in the dark keeps me engaged and interested." Ben finds it fascinating to be able to shape 'reality' as he wants to, using light and darkness.

"History Reflected" - Lost Lake, Oregon ~ © Ben Canales
Early photo history: Back in 2010, Ben had his camera on a tripod to shoot a sunset while camping by hot springs. The sunset came and went, and rather than break down the gear, he jumped back into the hot spring. "I was mesmerized with the stars as the sky darkened and got excited to try and take a picture of the stars. I had no clue what I was doing."

Luckily, Ben figured out that he needed as much light as possible in manual mode. The first shot was an out of focus, straight up view of the stars; but his jaw literally dropped when he saw more stars on the back of his camera than his eyes could see! "A few shots later, when I saw the Milky Way resolve out of the image, I freaked out! Talk about the joy of discovery," laughs Ben.

After more research on the Internet, Canales realized this was a barely explored style of photography. It held an untapped potential of discovery, and the challenge to come up with new techniques was extremely captivating for him. About a month later Ben had a traumatic work injury that chopped off a finger and mutilated the others on his left hand! In the down time of rehab that summer, a friend was kind enough to lend him their Canon 30D and he went full time into obsessive exploring and learning night photography.

Behind the Scenes: Concerning the above photo, Ben writes: "The experience of this night was personally unforgettable. I was literally moved to tears when I stepped to the waters edge and saw the scene I was standing in front of. I literally got choked up. Technically, it was the first time using [a] fast 24mm f/1.4 lens, where I realized the game changing power of more light in regards to the Milky Way."

"Sometimes Alone" ~ © Ben Canales — "My new personal favorite. It's so different than my usual of glowing tents, houses, big mountain ranges. The emptiness and [the] intimacy keeps me loving this shot."
 Challenges: Canales faces many challenges in his style of night photography.  In the beginning, it was camera quality. "I used to do s-o-o-o-o much work in post to manage high ISO noise, but now that's quickly becoming a thing of the past. Three cheers for Lightroom 4!," says Ben.  He learned night shooting on a Canon 30D, and when he was able to move up to a Canon 5D Mark II, it literally blew his mind how much better the High ISO was from this camera. The 5D Mark III and 1Dx have gone levels higher.  But other challenges still remain. Among them are:
  • Weather. (Ben lives in the Pacific Northwest, so 8 of 12 months are cloudy and rainy. It's frustrating to be limited to mostly summer shooting.)
  • Locations. Gas is getting expensive! Most people don't realize the cost of driving 2-4 hours away to get a few night pictures. 
  • Lighting the human element (tent, cabin, car, person). 
  • Shooting all night and then trying to functioning as a regular person the rest of the week!
Favorite tools: In the beginning, Ben was always on Stellarium. It was immensely helpful to figure out how the night sky worked and learn the patterns (Canales strongly encourages new shooters to check out this site). Other pieces of equipment he finds it hard to be without:
  • Headlamp! To light those foregrounds and people.
  • A glowing tent (to take pics of — working all night, I never get to sleep in them ;-)
  • 5 hour energy drink
"Finding Oregon" — click image to see the video
Time lapse work: Ben currently lives in Portland, Oregon and works at Uncage the Soul Productions, where he is highly involved with time lapse. Time lapse work has opened all sorts of new doors for Canales. Much of this is the result of teaming up with Uncage the Soul Productions.

Ben originally told them his idea of going around Oregon to make a time lapse video and the team rallied around him to make it happen. They initially did a two-week road trip to make this film. It was an exhausting labor of love, but very rewarding to see it come to life. "Finding Oregon" was produced without an assignment, but has become wildly popular on the Net, helping them to get real, paying jobs. (Here's a behind-the-scenes video presentation Ben and John Walker did at the 2012 TEDxPortland, where you can see Ben "in-person", see their equipment in action, hear the challenges they faced on "Finding Oregon", and their latest film, "Finding Portland".)

You can see more of Ben Canales' photography and purchase prints at his website.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Grand Canyon Milky Way Photography Workshop

Starry Night Photography and Colorado River Rafting in the Grand Canyon — all in one photo workshop. This could be the trip of a lifetime! Our adventure is scheduled for September 20-23, 2016.

Everything is provided for in this workshop: prepared meals, air transfers from Las Vegas to the river and back, camping equipment, entertainment, and dedicated photo instruction by NightScape Photographer, Royce Bair.

For more information on our itinerary and costs, go to this NightScape Photography Meetup page.

All three of these Milky Way "NightScapes" used a 2nd exposure technique to add starlight detail to the foreground. Learn how on this page and in my workshops ~ all images © Royce Bair

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The Winter Milky Way

A Saguaro cactus in Organ Pipe Cactus Nat'l Monument rakes this December Milky Way sky. Note the Pleiades constellation at the top, the Sirius star near the horizon and the Orion constellation in the middle. Topaz Star Effects was used to give a "Christmas" twinkle to one of the stars. Camera is pointing to the southeast at about 11:00 pm. © Greg Ness
The Winter Milky Way. Most astro-landscape photographers will tell you to put your camera away when winter comes, as the Milky Way sky is too dark and uninteresting. That's partly true, if you're only interested in photographing the Milky Way's bright, Central Bulge. But, as you can see in Greg Ness' above photo, there's still plenty of excitement in the winter sky!

I recently took a small group of photographers on a winter workshop into the southern Arizona desert to prove this point — planning around the unique winter cycles of the Milky Way, and light painting the foreground features where needed.

This animated GIF shows the northeastern end of the Milky Way starting on the first day of Autumn (Sept. 21) and ending on the first day of Winter (Dec. 21). Each of the 92 frames in this animation were captured at the same time each night (11:00 pm). You'll note that Sirius doesn't appear above the horizon until the winter months. The Orion constellation, with its 3-star belt and stunning nebula, becomes beautifully centered in the southeastern sky. [Animation credit: Royce Bair, using screen captures from the planetarium program, Stellarium.]
Although the bright Central Bulge of the Milky Way is no longer above the horizon, early evening views (about 8:30 pm) of the northwestern night sky shows off the full length of the Milky Way's "Great Rift" — that Dark River that runs through one-third of the Milky Way's span. Milky Way and Organ Pipe Cactus photo by © Michael Braunstein
In this Sept 21st through December 21st animated GIF, the bright core of the Milky Way moves from the SSW to SWS before the Central Bulge disappears below the horizon. By the first day of Winter, only the Great Rift is still showing above the horizon in the western sky —but isolated, it make a very dramatic statement! These 92 frame sequences were all taken from 10:00 pm Stellarium screen captures. Your best views of the Great Rift will be during the beginning of the Astronomical Dusk (about 2-3 hours after the winter sunset). [Animation credit: Royce Bair]
Note: All examples are based on Northern Hemisphere positions between the 45th and 35th parallel.

Monday, December 7, 2015

NightScaper Gallery and Collaborative

Thomas Moulton Barn on "Mormon Row" in Grand Teton National Park ~ © Ryan Stafford
Additional post processing support by Royce Bair
(Click image to enlarge, then use arrow keys to toggle between images)
Ryan's original image, with limited post processing
"NightScaper" is a new feature on my Instagram profile (@roycebairphoto), where I showcase two or more night photographs each week from other photographers on Instagram. Starting today, I'm also doing collaborative support, where I will offer additional post processing help to images I feel have outstanding merit, but may shine even more with the right post processing techniques.

F.Y.I. This is the backside of the Thomas A. Moulton barn (so Ryan could align it with a mid-June Milky Way). This barn celebrated its 100th birthday last year (built in 1914), and had its roof replaced this year. It is one of two historic barns built by the Moultons on "Mormon Row", in the Antelope Flats area of Grand Teton National Park. Both barns are historically maintained by the park service.

Post Processing Techniques in Photoshop: 1) Processing of the sky is done by selecting the sky, using the technique found on pages 128-130 of my ebook, then applying a contrast increasing "S" Curves similar to the one in this tutorial. This not only enhances the Milky Way, but preserves the green airglow at the bottom of the sky, near the barn.

2) Changing the barn to a more natural color is done by selecting the barn with the polygonal Lasso tool (very easy because the barn has straight sides). After the barn is selected, a 16-pixel feathered edge is added to the bottom of the selection, where the barn meets the grass. Equal amounts of yellow and magenta are added to the barn selection, using the Curves adjustment, to cancel out the blue-green color of the wood (probably due to unfiltered LED lighting).

3) Eliminating the foreground "hot" spot.. One of the things I suggest NOT to do in my ebook is to light paint FROM the camera position (see page 91). However, when it becomes necessary (i.e. when you can't move away from the camera to do your light painting AND release the camera's shutter), you must find a way to eliminate the "hot" foreground in post. The fastest and smoothest way to do this is draw a rising, half-moon shape selection with your Lasso tool around the brightest portion of the grass and feather that selection about 400 pixels (based on a 6000 x 4000 pixel image). Using the Curves adjustment, you can then darken that feathered selection of grass.

If you saved your feathered selection as an channel or layer mask, it would look something like this.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Long-Distance Light Painting

A March Milky Way over Agathla Peak, Arizona - light painted from a distance of almost one mile ~ © Royce Bair
Long-Distance Light Painting usually requires the use of a spotlight. These lights use parabolic shaped reflectors to throw a narrow, concentrated beam of light over great distances. Because the beam is so narrow, the light must be keep moving, with overlapping brush-like strokes ("painting") during the camera exposure, otherwise the illumination of the distant object will be uneven.

Lights for light painting: #3, 4, 6, and 8 are spotlights — ranging from 1-million candlepower (#8) to 18-million candlepower (#3). This large spotlight was used to light paint Agathla Peak. Taken from page 77 of my ebook, "Milky Way NightScapes". (Click to enlarge.)
NOTE: a complete list of Light Painting Tutorials can be found here on this blog (scroll down to see all of them).

Angle of Light: In order to achieve a three-dimensional effect for your distant feature, the light painting is best done from a somewhat perpendicular angle to the camera. Flat, uninteresting lighting happens when one paints from behind or close to the camera.

The Glare Factor: Powerful spotlights are so intense that they will light up any dust or moisture in the air and cause it to reflect back into the eyes of the one doing the light painting —so much that they can barely see the distant feature they are painting. When this happens, communication and feedback with the person at the camera position is essential in order to produce effective and even light painting. Over long distances, this communication is usually done best with hand-held two-way radios, equipped with VOX or voice-activated control.

Calculating the Exposure: Top NightScape photographers usually try to do their light paint during the exposure for the sky, or a single exposure that includes incorporates both the sky and the lighted foreground feature. This requires that the light intensity match the brightness of the sky. If the exposure for the sky lasts 30 seconds (i.e., f/2.8, 30 seconds @ ISO 4000), then the light painting time must be adjusted to match that exposure. If distances are short, and the intensity of the light is high, light painting time may be only 5 to 10 seconds. With longer distances, the light painting time may often need to be increased to the full 30 seconds.

In the case of the Agathla Peak photo, a 24mm lens was used, requiring a shorter sky exposure (under 15 seconds, in order to prevent star trailing). Because of the nearly 1-mile distance and the shortness of the exposure (13 seconds), the intensity of the light source had to be increased to the use of a huge, 18-million candlepower spotlight.

One can get closer to the foreground feature to reduce the need for a more powerful light source, but not too close. If you get too close to your feature, the portions closest to the light may burn out (too light), and the portions furthest away may be too dark in your light painting. By keeping your lighting distance about four times greater than the size of your feature, you reduce the light falloff ratio. (In this Agathla Peak setup, the 1,500-ft. feature required that I be about 6,000 feet away —I chose a modest compromise of 5,000 feet.)

One Exposure or Multiple? Even if one wants to produce the NightScape photo in just one exposure (hey, it's a pride thing), multiple takes or exposures will often be preferred in order to increase one's chances for success. Blending the foreground portion of several exposures (via Photoshop layers) will enable you to even out your lighting, especially as distances increase and the glare factor escalates.

When light painting long-distance features, it's important to take several exposures. The foreground portions can later be blended together in post and improve the evenness of your lighting. Taken from page 104 of my ebook, "Milky Way NightScapes". (Click to enlarge.)
Stay in One Place: In order to blend foreground portions later in post processing, you must remain in one place —otherwise your image portions will not register or align. Since sky conditions are also constantly changing, you'll also improve your chances for a successful image by staying put and not moving your camera or tripod. This will allow you to pick and choose the best skies to blend with the best foreground exposures.

Staying in one place will increase your chances for a successful image combination of sky and foreground. Taken from page 105 of my ebook, "Milky Way NightScapes". (Click to enlarge.)
The final image combined the best sky (with light pollution from the town of Kayenta removed) with a foreground blend of the three best peak light paintings. Exposure for each image was 13 seconds (f/2.0, ISO 4000), using a 24mm lens on a Canon 5D Mark III. Light painting was for the full 13 seconds exposure. Taken from page 106 of my "Milky Way NightScapes" ebook. (Click to enlarge.)

Monday, November 16, 2015

Tribute to Paris

Taken during the "Blue Hour" twilight ~ © Royce Bair
Our hearts and prayers go out for the people of France!

I took this photo last Fall during a workshop I was co-teaching called, “3 Nights in Paris”. The Fontaine du Trocadéro is in the foreground. Taken with a Canon 5D Mk3 and a 24mm Canon lens (f/8, 1-sec, ISO 100).