Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Finding Ansel's Tripod Holes in Grand Teton

Teton Range and Milky Way from the Snake River Overlook, Grand Teton Nat'l Park ~ © Royce Bair [click on image to enlarge]
Aligning the Milky Way with the Grand Teton: For years I've dreamed of taking a Milky Way "NightScape" over the Grand Teton peak —especially one from Ansel Adams' viewpoint that he used to make his famous Tetons and the Snake River. That view, including a visitor's information plaque about Ansel's photo is located at the Snake River Overlook just off Highway 26/89/191.

Ansel Adam's famous 1941 B/W photo, Teton and the Snake River was taken from a position that is now a park pullout called the Snake River Overlook.
To make that Teton alignment with the Milky Way required that I wait until September when the brightest portion or core of the Milky Way rotates into almost a due West position. Although the core moves from East to West about 15º per hour during each night, it still doesn't move far enough to the West without the additional rotation provided by the seasons (averaging about 30º East to West movement per month). Planning for Milky Way alignment can be accomplished with applications i.e. Photopills, Sky Guide or Stellarium.

Even though the bright core of the Milky Way is just below the horizon, “The Great Rift” (where the MW splits and forms the “Sea of Darkness”) rises dramatically over the Tetons. This photo was taken with my Canon 5DM3, using a Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 @ f/2 • 13 sec • ISO 6400 for the sky • blended with a 2nd exposure for the foreground @ f/2.8 for 240 sec • ISO 3200 (using the camera’s “Long Exposure Noise Reduction” function to prevent noise build up during exposures that last over 30 seconds).

Note the silhouette of the Tetons on the horizon —shown from the perspective of the Snake River Overlook [click on image to enlarge].
Seasonal Changes: This graphic also shows the seasonal changes to the "posture" of the Milky Way in much of the Northern Hemisphere. In the early Spring, the Milky Way is very horizontal during most of the Astronomical Dusk (the darkest part of the night). By mid Summer it is in its most vertical position during most of the night. In mid June, the core is in its highest position. By Fall, it's posture is leaning more to the West and its core dipping below the horizon by mid evening. By mid December, the core or Central Bulge of the Milky Way will never make it above the horizon (during the Astronomical Dusk) until late February.

Tree Trimming Needed? Despite all my planning and the impact of the Milky Way, my photo lacks the beautiful snow pack that disappears from the mountains by August. But even more noticeable is the growth of the trees that has occurred since Adams took his photograph in 1941. This new grow has obscured much of the Snake River.

Some Grand Teton park visitors have wondered if the park should trim these trees similar to what is being done in Yosemite. Under Yosemite’s “Scenic Vista Management Plan” young trees are being removed that block the historic views that John Muir and Ansel Adams rhapsodized about when they first saw Yosemite in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. What’s your opinion?

Ansel Adams' beautiful "S" curve composition with the Snake River is almost completely obscured in my photo due to recent tree growth [click on image to enlarge]. 


Monday, May 23, 2016

View of the Milky Way with Your Naked Eye

Milky Way over The Watchman - Zion National Park, Utah. Light on mountain is light pollution from nearby Springdale city street lights ~ © Royce Bair

Simulated naked eye view
Histogram of a "naked eye" exposure
What the eye sees vs. what the camera sees. When people see my NightScapes for the first time the most common question is, "Is that what the Milky Way really looks like with your naked eye? Can you really see that many stars in the night sky?" The answer is, "Yes and no." You really can see it quite clearly with your naked eye (if you are in an area with very little light pollution), it's just not as bright as I can see with my camera.

The reason is because my camera is manually controlled to take the images at a longer exposure (typically 8 to 30 seconds, depending on the lens I'm using), so it gathers more light for its sensor than my eyes can. Also, the human eye has an iris aperture that is rated at about f/4.0, whereas my typical night photography lens is rated at f/2.8 or wider (letting in twice as much light to the sensor).

Histogram of raw camera exposure
Raw camera exposure
Above, is a simulated view of what my eye saw of the Milky Way over The Watchman in Zion National Park — this is about two stops darker than what my camera recorded (to the right), using an f/2.8 aperture setting, an exposure time of 15 seconds, and an ISO of 6400 or 8000. (Notice that the "toe" of the exposure histogram is just passing the midway point, whereas the toe of the simulated "naked eye" exposure histogram doesn't even come close to the midway point. This exposure is two stops less than what it should be —post production corrections can correct a 1-stop underexposure, but not a 2-stop underexposure. This means that if you only have an f/3.5 or f/4.0 lens; or your camera only goes to ISO 3200, you're still going to get an acceptable exposure, that's within the range of post production correction —provided you shoot in the camera "raw" mode, which typically has 16-bits of information, rather than the camera JPEG mode which carries only 8-bits of information per color channel. Here's a tutorial I created on the benefits of 16-bits raw images vs. 8-bits images.)

Post Production: The raw camera image has all the brightness and detail needed for a great photo, but it is flat or lacking in contrast. My final NightScape images are created in post production with very simple steps in Photoshop. All the stars are there in the camera's raw image, but a contrast gain in the sky is necessary to make them more apparent. My goal is give the same clarity you expect to see in an astronomical observatory (taken with a huge telescope) image, but with a wide-field view, coupled with an interesting landscape feature in the foreground — something the big telescopes cannot do!

After adding curve adj.
"S" shaped adjustment curve
The powerful "S" Curve. Here's the main Photoshop post production step I use to increase the contrast in the sky: I first select the sky, using the Magic Wand tool (I usually have to do a little Laso tool work to get all the bright stars into the selection). I then create a channel of the selection that I can use later. The second and main step is to turn that saved selection into a "Curves" Adjustment Layer that I can add a contrast-increasing "S" shaped adjustment curve. (The shape of this curve is controlled by the two anchor points so that the curve pinches or brightens the large highlight area to the right of the histogram "mountain", and darkens the shadow area to its left.) The more vertical the line becomes between the two anchor points, the more your contrast gain.

Slight color changes via Curves
Sky Color Balance. Every evening sky has a difference color to it, depending on the atmospheric conditions for that night. Some photographers shoot in the "AWB" Auto White Balance mode, which produces somewhat of a neutral coloration to the sky. Some will use a daylight White Balance (about 5250º K), giving a much warmer tone to the sky. Others will use the "Tungsten" (or incandescent) setting (about 3200º K) for a deep blue look. Although all of these settings can later be adjusted in Adobe Photoshop's RAW Converter, I prefer to set my Kelvin to 3800º. This setting usually give me the most natural look to my night sky.

Final, minor color changes can be made in Photoshop's Curves to the the red, green, and blue channels (represented by the three diagonal colored lines). Be careful to not over do this — as a little color goes a long way. The final coloration depends on what you remember seeing in the sky that night.

Adjusting the landscape. The final step is to use the same saved sky selection (channel) and inverse it so that it is now selecting the mountains, instead of the sky. Once this is done, another Adjustment Layer (you can use "Levels", or "Curves", but Curves is more powerful) is created from that selection in order to change the color of the sodium vapor lights (coming about a mile away from Springdale city) —so that The Watchman mountain is a more pleasing "red rock" sandstone color.

Histogram after all adjustments
Extended tonal range. The purpose of all these adjustments is to not only increase the contrast of the sky, but to extend the tonal range of the final image. Compare the histogram on the right to the histogram of the raw camera  exposure, above. Note: The "S" curve contrast adjustment naturally increases color saturation and vibrance. In most cases you will not have to artificially add more.

Compare: In the image below you can quickly compare the differences between the "naked eye" simulation, the "raw camera" exposure, the "S"-curve adjustment, and the final image —with the extended tonal range of its histogram.

Click to enlarge.
Here is another comparison of the camera RAW exposure vs. simple post processing via the "S" curve in a Photoshop "Curves" Adjustment Layer:

Click to enlarge
My eBook, Milky Way NightScapes, provides additional post processing instruction in its 4th chapter.


Monday, May 16, 2016

Mars Over Metate Arch

A thin cloud layer near the horizon causes Saturn, Mars and Antares to glow just above Metate Arch. (One exposure with a Canon 5DM3, Tamron 15-30mm @ 15mm, f/2.8, 25 sec, ISO 6400, WB 3800ºK, 3 stationary lights filtered to 3200ºK.) ~ © Royce Bair (click to enlarge)
Mars over Metate Arch, Devil’s Garden, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah. I took this 11 days ago (on May 5, 2016) from the “back” side of the arch (compare with the “front” side image at the bottom of this post). This is such a unique and extremely dark, Bortle-1 Class area.

This cropped enlargement of the top image shows the alignment of Mars, Saturn and Antares. A thin cloud layer near the horizon causes the stars and planets to glow more than normal. ~ © Royce Bair 
Look this month for Mars and Saturn near Antares, the brightest star in the constellation Scorpius the Scorpion. They make a noticeable triangle on the sky’s dome.

This illustration by Mikhail Chubarets shows how large Mars will be this month, with its largest and brightest on May 22 (click to enlarge).
By the time Mars reaches its crest of brightness in late May, it will have quadrupled in brilliance since the beginning of April. Currently, Mars is nearly as brilliant as Jupiter! Mars has greater swings in brilliance than any other solar system planet, except for Mercury. At is brightest, Mars shines some 80 times more brilliantly than at its faintest. This is Mars’ month, the best month in two years to watch the red planet!

Why is Mars getting so bright? For most of the past two years, Earth has been fleeing ahead of Mars in orbit. Mars orbits just one step outward from us, and we move slightly faster in orbit, and – about every two years – we catch up to Mars again and pass between it and the sun. That’ll happen next in late May, 2016. Astronomers will say that Mars is in opposition to the sun around that time.

Opposition of Mars and Saturn for 2016 in the Constellations of Libra and Scorpius from LarryKoehn on Vimeo.

Opposition occurs when a planet is in line with the earth and the Sun. This year, Mars will be at opposition on May 22nd followed by Saturn on June 3rd. Opposition of a planet also means the planet can be seen all night long from sunset to sunrise. Mars this year will come as close as 47 million miles to Earth in May.

The "Front" side of Metate Arch, or the side that most people see first, when walking through Devil's Garden. This side faces north, where the stars are stunning, but the Milky Way's Central Bulge never appears ~ © Royce Bair


Monday, April 25, 2016

Spectacular Stars - Utah's Stellar Views

“Are we doing enough to protect our dark skies?”  That’s the audio lead-in used in the video promo for this mini-documentary on KSL-TV. John Hollenhorst (KSL's Science & Nature Specialist) and videographer, Ken Fall followed us (Charli, Teresa, Joe, Michael and I) around this past March in Bryce Canyon National Park at 3:00 AM. It was about 20ºF, and we’re all bundled up, so don't expect a fashion show! But you will see some beautiful Milky Way skies, with stunning western foregrounds; and you'll learn how the park service and some cities like Flagstaff, AZ are working to protect our dark skies from light pollution.

Photographed in Utah's High Uintas Wilderness Area, this is one of the many photos used in this KSL mini documentary. The orange-red glow to the right is light pollution coming from Salt Lake City metro, about 60 miles away. ~ © Royce Bair

Watch it here: Here's the complete transcript and the 5-minute video of the program that aired on April 25th: Dark Skies: 'Half the park is after dark'.


Thursday, April 21, 2016

VIEW Intervalometer: Auto Ramping, Instant Preview, WiFi Remote

VIEW is a smart auto ramping intervalometer that's also a portal to your camera. You can setup and preview time-lapse from the VIEW or your smartphone. My friend, David Shogren, introduced me to this new product last week, and I felt it merited mention in this blog. The auto exposure ramping feature, alone, makes this a valuable accessory for me.

VIEW is a new Kickstarter project by Elijah Parker. As of April 21st, 283 backers have pledged almost $94,000 of its $100,000 funding goal, with 8 days to go until April 29th. Building on the experience and success of Elihah’s original Timelapse+ Intervalometer, the new VIEW intervalometer redefines the category offering a whole new set of features.

Preview your time-lapse - even before it's done! Have you ever been tired of waiting for a time-lapse to complete and packed up early only to discover after hours of processing that it was just becoming good when you stopped?  With the VIEW intervalometer you can see what you're getting, while it's still going.  This means you can end it with confidence knowing you have the results you wanted, or find renewed patience after seeing things are just getting started.

Intelligent Automatic Ramping. This is the clincher for me: The VIEW intervalometer can automatically ramp the exposure by analyzing the exposure value of each image and feeding it through a sophisticated algorithm to deliver perfect results for sunset, sunrise, milky-way or all of the above and more!

Features Already Complete & Working

Planned by the time it ships
  • Interface Refinement
  • Sony Alpha Support
  • Focus Ramping
  • Bulb Ramping
  • ND filter support
  • Motion (NMX) Integration (connect via bluetooth or USB)
  • Long-term time-lapse / scheduling options (e.g., weekdays 9am-5pm)
  • HDR Photography / HDR Time-lapse

VIEW Prototype Product Review: Ron Risman of Timelapse Workshops gives an excellent review of the VIEW, using a prototype model. He has also published a recent Vimeo video showing its auto ramping abilities.

Pledgers of $340 or more will receive the VIEW Intervalometer sometime in August 2016. Like all Kickstarter projects, no monies are actually transferred unless the project meets its minimum funding goal ($100K in this case).

Friday, March 25, 2016

Free Photo Software - Google's Nik Collection

Google's Nik Collection of photography software is now free! Starting March 24, 2016 Google has dropped the price of the Nik Collection, a suite of seven advanced desktop plug-ins, from $149 to nothing. The collection of Analog Efex Pro, Color Efex Pro, Silver Efex Pro, Viveza, HDR Efex Pro, Sharpener Pro and Dfine is now totally free to download. All of the plug-ins work in Photoshop, Lightroom and Aperture. Except for HDR Efex Pro, the plug-ins also work with Adobe Elements 9 through 13. If you purchased the Nik Collection in 2016, you will receive a full refund, which Google will automatically issue back to their customers in the coming days.

Originally valued at $499: Nik is the German company behind popular mobile app Snapseed. Before the company was bought in 2012 by Google, Nik sold the collection for $499. Right after Google acquired Nik it dropped the price of the collection to $149. Now it's free.

Dfine is the Best Noise Reduction Software for High ISO Astro-Landscape Images. Dfine 2.0 is part of the Nik Collection. Back in 2010 you could purchase this plug-in separately from Nik for $199. Even at this price, I often recommended it to other nightscape photographers. I believe it outperforms other noise reduction software products, including the popular DeNoise by Topaz.

Beyond the Details adjustment in ARC: Although powerful noise reduction is available through the Adobe Camera Raw Converter Detail menu (refer to pages 120-124 in my Milky Way NightScapes e-Book), Dfine is a must for the final touch-up work. That's because the night sky often needs additional noise reduction after all the post processing is done. So much contrast is added to the sky to make the Milky Way "pop" that any noise left over from the Detail adjustments is accentuated and must be reduced by Dfine.

I often use Dfine much more on the sky than on the foreground (which is easy to do with Photoshop's selection masks). There are two reasons: 1.) The foreground usually requires much less post processing contrast, so noise is not increased as much as the night sky. 2.) Foregrounds often have details (rocks and plants) that help to hide noise.


Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Tracking the Stars with Rick Parchen

"Mt. Shuksan Reflection" - Click image to enlarge and see the low-noise quality due to tracking ~ © Rick Parchen

Rick Parchen is one of several astro-landscape photographers who are using star trackers or equatorial tracking mounts to improve the quality of their night sky exposures. Tracking allows one to use longer exposures without producing star trails. Instead of using ultra high ISOs and large apertures to reduce their exposure time, photographers can use a tracker to lengthen the exposure time and use smaller apertures. With a tracker, a photographer is able to align his camera to Polaris, the North Star; and a built in servo motor keeps the camera tracking the stars at the same speed the earth rotates. Editor's Note: Rick was one of the early pioneers in astro-landscape "tracking" photography. This post originally appeared in October 2013. 

The old way: Astro-photographers have been using equatorial mounts for decades to photograph the stars through their telescopes, but early astro-landscape photographers who included a landscape feature in the foreground didn't use these mounts because tracking the stars cause the landscape to blur! The standard solution has been to keep exposures at 30 seconds or less, following the "600 Rule" —requiring very high ISO settings that produced noisy images. (Additionally, equatorial mounts for telescopes were expensive and too bulky to carry into remote areas.)

A new approach: Because of the recent popularity of nightscape photography, newer mount designs, just for cameras, have appeared that are smaller and less expensive. Using these smaller and cheaper trackers, a new breed of astro-landscape photographers are taking a tracked exposure for the sky (referred to as "wide-field astrophotography"), a second exposure for the landscape (without tracking), and then blending the two in post-processing.

In "Mt. Shuksan Reflection", Rick used a SkyTracker camera mount for his sky exposure, then turned it off for the ground exposure. The photo is actually a 3-image composite panorama (three for the sky and three for the ground). Each sky exposure was 3 minutes @ f/4, ISO 800, using a Samyang 14mm f/2.8 lens on a Canon 6D, mounted to a SkyTracker. Each ground exposure was 3 minutes @ f/5.6, ISO 400, with the SkyTracker turned off. Lighting of the ground came from a little moonlight (about to set) and supplemented in the foreground with LED's from multiple headlamps, coming from different positions. Initial processing was in Lightroom 5. Sky and ground pano exposures were stitched together in PTGUI, with final processing and the alignment of the sky and ground in Photoshop CS6.

Editor's Note: Another inexpensive and compact tracker is the Polarie Star Tracker from Vixen Optics. And, if you're handy with tools, you can build your own "barn door" tracking platform. (I believe all of these trackers are accurate enough for tracking stars with a normal to wide angle lens, without the need of a spotting scope attachment —which is only necessary if you are using a telephoto lens on your camera.) Both the SkyTracker and the Polarie come with Polar sight holes. The SkyTrack includes a Polar scope for greater alignment accuracy, whereas the Polarie's Polar Axis Scope is a $129 add-on accessory. The instruction manuals for the SkyTracker and the Polarie should help you decide which unit is best for you. The Orion Telescope people produce two inexpensive equatorial mounts that are adaptable for astro-landscape photography. Their manual tabletop model is under $70, and their motorized unit is under $180. (You may wish to throw away their low-quality tripods and attach the units to your regular camera tripod.)

Another view: "Path to Mt. Shuksan" ~ © Rick Pachen

Rick Parchen is a Seattle-based landscape photographer who has an appetite to travel to the world and share the extraordinary view with others. "I started this adventure seven years ago and only find myself more enveloped in chasing light and setting my work apart from others. I'll travel for weeks at a time, research for months, drive thousands of miles, and walk to near exhaustion all for the potential of a perfect image. But my passion goes far beyond just seeking the sights; the real pleasure comes when viewing the art in print and putting it on display for others to enjoy." More of Rick's photography can be seen on his Facebook page, and at his website.