Night photography in the junkyard: Mixing moonlight and city lights

My night photos straddle a weird line between documentary and art. I'm exposing and post-processing for an open, descriptive look. I want enough contrast to show form, but try not to be overly dramatic. The rich, saturated color palette has been tuned to represent how I saw the scene. Yes, it's an artistic interpretation, but hopefully more reality based than lurid.

To achieve this look, my exposure times for full moon photos away from city lights are typically 5 minutes at f/8, ISO 200. This creates a balanced histogram that can sometimes look like daylight straight out of the camera. That's fine, because darkening the image in post-production tends to hide noise.

Clever title referring to the drought - by Joe Reifer

The Valley Junkyard is an urban location that's still large enough to let the moon light the subject. The city lights do have an influence, especially on the tone and color of the sky. The image above is 3 stacked exposures of 3 minutes at f/9.5, ISO 200. That's 1.5 stops darker than a typical full moon shot.

The extra brightness in the sky can make post-processing a little bit tougher. I often use Lightroom to develop for the foreground, and bring the image into Photoshop to darken the sky using a Curve with a Layer Mask. This process is faster, easier, and more flexible than making selective sky adjustments in Lightroom.

valleyjunkyard_20140908_008m_LABw.jpg

The truck image above is a stack of 8 exposures - each one is 2.5 minutes at f/8, ISO 200. This achieves 20 minute star trails without needing to run in-camera noise reduction. The truck image also benefitted from a Curves layer to darken the sky. I really enjoy the complementary colors of blue and orange. I usually do some minor Saturation and Luminance adjustments in the HSL panel in Lightroom. The real magic of refining the color palette happens in Photoshop using Selective Color, or Curves with a LAB color space conversion. You can see these techniques in action at my night photography workshops.

I'm still experimenting with the post-processing on the image above. I shot a 5 image bracket of 23 seconds, 45 seconds, 1.5 minutes, 3 minutes, and 6 minutes at f/9.5, ISO 200. I used the 6 minute exposure for the sky/stars, and a blend of the 3 minute exposure and HDR file for the foreground. I also used the HDR file to recover some highlight detail along the horizon. The feel of the lighting is soft and quiet.

The gas pumps image is still undergoing some fine tuning. I shot 9 exposures - each one was 3 minutes at f/8, ISO 200. Seven of those images were used for the 21 minute star trails above. I omitted 2 images because the clouds were too dense, creating gaps in the star trails. Stacking star trails with fast moving clouds can create the ribbed effect that's prominent in the upper right. This image will benefit from some more fiddling with the sky colors, and some selective tone adjustments on the pumps.

I hope these meditations on shooting and post-processing under mixed lighting conditions are helpful. Stay tuned for some brand new 360 panoramas from the Valley Junkyard.

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B&H Travel Series: How to Shoot 360-Degree Panoramas

B&H Photo just published an article that I wrote on How to Shoot 360-Degree Panoramas. This 360 pano article is part of the B&H Travel Series. I cover everything from iPhone panorama apps to professional panoramic heads. Thanks to night photographer and B&H marketing guru Gabriel Biderman for this opportunity to inspire more people to shoot 360s. Enjoy!

B&H Travel Series: How to Shoot 360-Degree Panoramas
B&H Travel Series: How to Shoot 360-Degree Panoramas
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Shooting and processing HDR night photography from Mare Island

Mare Island crane D3 and dry dock
Mare Island crane D3 and dry dock

The Nocturnes head honcho Tim Baskerville lives on Mare Island, and has been hosting occasional night photography events there since 2006. Mare Island Naval Shipyard was established in 1854, and decommissioned in 1996. A wide variety of old buildings and dry docks remain. Mare Island has enough lighting for night photography whether there is a full moon or not. The mixed lighting conditions can be challenging for night photography. Below are four images from last Saturday's adventure, along with notes about how to shoot and process HDR night photography. The dry docks and cranes at Mare Island are always a interesting subject for night photography. Unfortunately, these areas are fenced, which makes getting a good camera position tough. A lot of photographers at the event marveled at my solution to this problem. I have a Gitzo 3541XLS tripod (now the Gitzo 3542XLS) that goes up to 6.6 feet tall. Add the height of the ballhead and camera, and you can easily shoot over a standard fence, which is how I got this shot.

The image is composed of a five shot bracket of 8 seconds, 15 seconds, 30 seconds, 1 minute, and 2 minutes at f/8, ISO 200. The 5 images were blended together using Exposure Fusion in Photomatix. Then I brought the blended image into Photoshop. Using a layer mask, I used the foreground from the blended HDR image, and the sky from the 2 minute exposure.

Natural Looking HDR

<rant> HDR is a dirty word (or dirty acroynm) in some circles, due to rampant abuse of HDR software. I used to blend exposures on a layer mask to make sure my photos looked like photos instead of clown puke. Over the last few years I've realized that HDR can be used for very natural looking results. I want my photographs to look like photographs, not some bad Photoshop filter from the 1990's. Anyhow, HDR can save you a lot of time when you're shooting at night under mixed lighting conditions. If you're interested in learning HDR techniques, I highly recommend Christian Bloch's The HDRI Handbook 2.0. Even experienced HDR shooters will pick up some great techniques from this book. </rant> Let's continue with some more night photography examples.

Mare Island crane truck C5 at night
Mare Island crane truck C5 at night

My compositional style typically favors the grand view instead of detail shots. I did two different setups for the picture of this truck, and ended up liking the tighter framing above. This image is a three shot bracket of 24 seconds, 46 seconds, and 2 minutes at f/9.5, ISO 200. The three images were merged to HDR in Photoshop, and the resulting 32-bit TIFF file was processed in Lightroom. The light in the window at the bottom right was blown out, even in the shortest exposure. I was planning to shoot a few shorter exposures, but I had to move my tripod. I was setup in the middle of the road, and a car drove through before I could finish. The bright area could be adjusted by simply using the clone stamp to bring some tonal value back in the bottom window panes, although I'm not sure that it bothers me.

Mare Island buoys and cranes at night
Mare Island buoys and cranes at night

I scouted this shot during a walk at sunset, and was happy with how dark and mysterious the area looked at night. Shooting this image proved to be complicated because a bright orange building light behind me kept turning off and on every 2-3 minutes. I ended up with a five shot bracket of 15 seconds, 30 seconds, 1 minute, and 2 minutes at f/9.5, ISO 200. The fifth shot was also 2 minutes at f/9.5, but at ISO 400.

The building light was on for a few seconds in a couple of the exposures. I thought this might help with a little bit of fill light, but it ended up making the resulting colors look weird when I merged to HDR in Photoshop. The Photomatix Fusion results looked better, but the image still had a slight HDR look. I used the 2 minute exposure for the sky, and tried layering the HDR version on top for more foreground detail. The tone of the image looked just about right, but the color in the buoys still looked a little bit off. I switched the HDR image layer with the foreground detail to Luminosity Blend Mode -- problem solved! The tone looked good, and the colors looked natural.

Mare Island night geometry with Orion's Belt
Mare Island night geometry with Orion's Belt

The hardest part of this shot was smelling the fumes from the nearby buildings that are used to paint large pipes. The foreground is a four shot bracket of 45 seconds, 90 seconds, 3 minutes, and 6 minutes at f/9.5, ISO 200. After reviewing the bracketed shots on the back of the camera, I noticed that Orion's Belt would be in a good position in the sky soon. I waited a few minutes, and then made a 10 minute exposure at f/11, ISO 100. The 5 shot bracket was blended with Exposure Fusion in Photomatix. The foreground is the HDR image, and the sky is from the 10 minute exposure.

I hope these shooting and post-processing details are useful for those who are interested in shooting HDR at night. You can see bigger versions of these photos, and more night photography of Mare Island on my website.

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Target Display Mode: Using an iMac as a 2nd monitor for a MacBook Pro or MacBook Air

I have a mid-2011 27" iMac as a home computer, a 13" MacBook Air as a travel computer, and recently got a 13" MacBook Pro Retina as a work machine. I was thinking about getting a second monitor for using the MacBook Pro at home, but it turns out I can just use my 27" iMac as a second monitor. The secret? Target Display Mode and a Thunderbolt cable. If you're using a MacBook Pro as your main computer, but still have one of the iMac models below, Target Display Mode will help you breathe new life into your old machine. All you need is either a Mini DisplayPort or Thunderbolt cable. This makes an older iMac a great backup computer that doubles as a second monitor.

Target Display Mode Compatibility

How To Turn On Target Display Mode

To use your iMac as a second monitor:

  1. Turn on both machines
  2. Connect the cable
  3. Press Command-F2 on the keyboard of your iMac *If you're using F1, F2, as standard function keys, then use Command-Fn-F2 *Some older keyboards may not activate Target Display Mode. I'm using a newer standard Mac wired keyboard and it works great.

To exit Target Display Mode, just hit Command-F2 again or detach the cable. If one of the computers goes into sleep mode, that will also exit Target Display Mode.

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Demolition Video: CSU East Bay Warren Hall Building Implosion

Built in 1971, the 13-story Warren Hall Building on the CSU East Bay campus was right on top of the Hayward Fault. Due to seismic safety concerns, Warren Hall was imploded yesterday at 9 a.m. using 1,100 charges.

I got stuck in traffic and was running late getting to the demolition. Realizing there was no way I'd make it to the recommended viewing spot at the Kmart parking lot in time, I pulled into a strip mall and parked in front of a donut shop and cash for gold store. With only minutes to spare, I put my Sony RX100 on a Nodal Ninja carbon fiber pole, pressed record, and stood on the corner with a crowd of onlookers.

Technical Details: I shot the video at 60p on the RX100, which becomes 30p in an editing program. The 60p setting is best for slow motion, and the shutter should be set to 1/60. For regular footage, the 60i setting has a lot more data. This is somewhat unintuitive because 60p is 28mbps and 60i is 24mbps. Run Gun Shoot has a great post about the RX100 video settings.

For a quick lo-fi edit, I took the MTS (AVCHD) video file and created a 720p mp4 using HandBrake. I dropped the mp4 into iMovie, and sped up the beginning and end of the footage 4x's. The demolition itself was slowed down to half speed. I mixed in some music by Gong, and kept the native audio at 50% volume.

Voilà - 53 seconds of gongs, screeching, and a building falling down in slow motion.

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Muffler Man HDR 360 Pole Panorama

Muffler Man HDR 360 Pole Panorama

Muffler Man HDR 360 Pole Panorama

Up in California's Gold Country, the former site of Sierra Equipment is now the Community Hope Thrift Store -- and they still have the impressive muffler man! This 360 panorama was shot using a Nodal Ninja carbon fiber pole with an R1 pano head. A three shot bracket was taken at each camera position. I used a natural looking fusion setting in Photomatix to blend the exposures, PTGui to stitch the pano, Photoshop for image enhancement, and Pano2VR for output.

Stitching power lines in 360 panoramas using PTGui Pro

Special thanks to 360 pano expert John Houghton for his advice on how to get the power lines to stitch together.

  1. Stitch and optimize the panorama using your regular workflow.
  2. Use the show seams view in the Panorama Editor to see where the power lines will join across images.
  3. Temporarily switch the Editor to rectilinear to view the power lines as straight as possible.
  4. Using the masks feature in PTGui Pro, adjust the join area to be across a straight section of the power lines.
  5. Open the control points tab and select the two images where the power lines will join.
  6. Under CP type on the bottom left, select new line (t3).
  7. Add t3 points on the same power line, on each side of where they join across images. You can add multiple t3 points to define the line.
  8. Optional: Add another set of t4 points along a different line. Add t5 points along yet another line, etc.
  9. Go to the Optimizer tab, and select Optimize using: Panorama Tools in the bottom left, and then click Run Optimizer.

Hopefully your power lines will now stitch correctly. You may need to use Puppet Warp and the clone stamp in Photoshop to make things perfect.

If you're using viewpoint optimization to add a nadir to your panorama

  1. Delete all of the new line control points. Optional: Save off a version of your PTGui project file first.
  2. The muffler man pano was 4 around + 1 down. On the Optimization tab, I unchecked all of the optimization parameters for images 0-3, so as not to disturb the alignment in the next step.
  3. Uncheck the lens parameters for image 4 (the nadir), and turn on viewpoint optimization for this image.
  4. Switch to Optimize using: PTGui, and click Run Optimizer to put the nadir shot into place.
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Panorama Stitching Challenge: Telephone Wires and Parallax

Night Photography: Panorama Stitching Challenge
Night Photography: Panorama Stitching Challenge

The 8-shot panorama above features telephone lines that are not stitching correctly in Photoshop CS6 or PTGui 9 with the standard software settings. The images were shot with an 18mm Olympus lens mounted vertically on a 5D Mark II. The camera was on a nodal slide, but the setting wasn't perfect. The power lines were also moving in the wind. 

You can download a zipped folder with 2000x3000 jpeg versions of all 8 images (33MB download).

Do you have a good panorama stitching technique for correcting parallax error in long sections of telephone wires? The warp tool and masking in Photoshop is too tedious. There has to be a better way. Thanks for taking the time to give this stitch a try -- I'll be curious to see if anyone has a good way to fix the wires!

Update: Below are 2 techniques to solve the powerline panorama problem:

1. Puppet Warp to the rescue -- Over on fredmiranda.com, a photographer from Mexico who goes by the name Eyeball provided an excellent step-by-step technique for fixing power lines using Puppet Warp:

  • Do a copy merge of a section of the power line up to the break. You want to select a long enough piece of the line that the slight change in direction won't be noticed.
  • Paste to a new layer.
  • Do an Edit>Puppet Warp on the layer with the piece of power line. Select a pivot point at each end of the segment as close to the line as possible.
  • Move the end of the line to eliminate the discontinuity.
  • Accept the Puppet Warp change.
  • Use a quick clone edit to remove any fuzziness around where the line connects.

2. PTGui's horizontal control points -- On panoguide.com, photographer John Houghton from the UK provided a PTGui technique using horizontal control points and an optimizer plugin for PTGui from 2001. This also worked quite nicely. John went the extra mile and provided a PTGui file so I could see his technique.

One thing I love about panoramas is the wonderful community of photographers who will go out of their way to help you. Thanks to Eyeball and John for their help with the powerline panorama problem. Cheers!

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Night photography: The bug-eyed robot overlord of Paul's Junkyard

The bug-eyed robot overlord of Paul's Junkyard -- by Joe Reifer
The bug-eyed robot overlord of Paul's Junkyard -- by Joe Reifer

Exposure and noise reduction settings for star trail stacking

Five exposures of 6 minutes at f/8, ISO 200 were stacked for star trails. When you make multiple exposures for star trails, the interval between each shot must be 1 second or less, so there are no breaks in the trails. You can light paint during the exposures, but you won't be able to review the results on the back of the camera until the stacking is done.

The 6 minute exposure time was selected because f/8 is the optimum aperture for both sharpness and depth of field. The 5D Mark II can make clean 6 minute exposures with in-camera noise reduction (LENR) turned off as long as the temperature is under about 60°. Shooting with LENR turned off is much more efficient because you don't need to wait for noise reduction to run after every shot. This also helps conserve your battery.

Start with the light painting, and leave one dark

When you're doing a series of light painted exposures with stacked star trails, it's a good idea to not light paint on one of the images. This moonlight only image will give you a base for adjusting the lighting in post-processing if necessary. The recommended shooting strategy for a shot like the one above is to do a series of shorter exposures for light painting first. The process of light painting and then reviewing the image on the LCD allows you time to really assess your lighting and composition. Once you've nailed the light painting, you can decide if you want to commit the time necessary to fill the sky with star trails, or move on to another shot.

Shorter exposures for light painting

In this case, I actually started the series of star trail stacking images, and went to help someone with another shot. I was confident that I liked the composition, and knew I could come back to add the light painting. Half an hour later, I reviewed the moonlit images on the LCD. I made three additional exposures of 3 minutes at f/8, ISO 200 for light painting. I didn't worry about the interval between exposures, because these additional shots were only for the foreground subject, not the sky. The shorter exposure time of 3 minutes allowed me to work faster, and made the light painting more contrasty because there is 1 stop less moonlight on the foreground.

The star trail images were stacked in Photoshop using the Lighten blending mode, and the best of the 3 light painting exposures was added to the foreground using a layer mask. Bringing the light painting in on a mask allowed me to make subtle adjustments to the lighting.

Explain the light painting and win a print

Can you tell where I stood to do the light painting? The first person to correctly answer the question in the comments wins a small print of the image.

Hint: Almost all of the lighting was done from one position, and a little bit of fill was done from a second position. Look at the shadows, and explain what was lit from where.

The print will be a 6" x 9" image on 8" x 10" paper. Lower 48 only.

Update: The image was primarily lit from camera right at a 45° angle from the right of the machine using a Streamlight Stinger flashlight and a piece of Cinefoil to control spill. The tires would have been completely black without light painting, and required quite a bit of light. The shadow on the circular piece between the tires, and the shadow on the left front tires are the key to lighting direction. The interior was lit from the same position, and I pivoted slightly to add a little bit of fill to the tires on the right. A small amount of fill was added from camera left to the muffler area and the 2 metal pieces that stick out above the windshield.

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Night photography: Dodge Charger light painting step-by-step

Headlights and interior - Dodge Charger light painting - by Michael Bertrand
Headlights and interior - Dodge Charger light painting - by Michael Bertrand

During the Paul's Junkyard Night Photography workshop, I worked with photographer Michael Bertrand on light painting a cool old Dodge Charger. Having someone stand at the camera position while you test your light painting is a big time saver. Instead of waiting 2-3 minutes to see the results of each lighting experiment, I was able to give Mike feedback right away on the angle and intensity of the light. He did all of the hard work, I just stood behind the camera and watched. Let's take a step-by-step look at Mike's shot.

Step 1 - Headlights and interior

Mike wanted to light the interior of the car with a red-gelled flash. If the camera position is low or high, sometimes a flash can be placed directly on the back window of the car. This only works if you can hide the light source from the camera. Stick your face where the flash is going to go and check to see if your camera can see the light. In this shot, the camera position dictated another technique -- Mike simply opened the passenger side door, did a few flash pops inside the car to bounce the light around evenly, and then closed the door. The car may move slightly during this process, but it's such a short amount of time in the overall exposure that it doesn't compromise sharpness.

Mike walked to the front grill and lit the headlights using a flashlight and cardboard snoot. The key to this technique is to figure out how far away to stand in order for the circular beam of the snoot to fall in the right place. This ended up being about 4 feet away for a few seconds on each headlight.

Grill experiment - Dodge Charger light painting - by Michael Bertrand
Grill experiment - Dodge Charger light painting - by Michael Bertrand

Step 2 - Grill experiment

The shot looked good on the back of the camera, but the face of the car was still mostly a big black hole. The grill on this Charger is really deep, and I suggested that Mike try lighting just the front of the grill, but leave the inside dark so the headlights will pop. This take was lit from camera left at a shallow angle along the front of the grill with a snooted and gelled flashlight. The amount of light is right, but looking at the results on the back of the camera, we realized that the grill needs light from both sides.

Almost there - Dodge Charger light painting - by Michael Bertrand
Almost there - Dodge Charger light painting - by Michael Bertrand

Step 3 - Almost there

To get even light on the front of the grill, Mike counted his paces from the front of the car to make sure he was the same distance away. Paying attention to the height of the flashlight, and counting the amount of time the light is on are also helpful. The backlight was added by going around the rear of the car and sweeping a flashlight a few inches above the ground to pull out texture. The shot was really coming together now, but there's too much light on the inside of the left front wheel.

Final shot - Dodge Charger light painting - by Michael Bertrand
Final shot - Dodge Charger light painting - by Michael Bertrand

Step 4 - The final shot

Mike really nailed the light painting on this final shot. Instead of sweeping the flashlight on the ground, he held the beam steady for a few seconds to add texture to the ground but maintain the integrity of the curvy shadows. This also solved the problem of not overlighting the inside front wheel. The red interior light has a nice glow, and the natural bleed of the pink/magenta headlights on the areas of the yellow grill looks great. Mike worked quickly and methodically, and was able to nail all of the light painting in the camera. Those of you who've tried these techniques know that this isn't easy!

Technical details and a note about exposure

This image is a 90 second exposure at f/8, ISO 200 using a Nikon D300 and 12-24mm lens at 12mm (18mm equivalent). A technically correct expose-to-the-right shot for the light of the full moon would have been 6 minutes at f/8, ISO 200. An exposure time of 90 seconds underexposes the background by 2 stops, which keeps the sky and the background dark. Using the exposure time to control the tonality of the background really helps the light painting stand out.

I'd like to thank Mike for letting me share his light painting setup. To see more of his work, visit: http://www.michaelbertrandphotography.com/

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Night photography: Stacking star trails and clouds in the same image

Out in the weeds behind the bus yard -- by Joe Reifer
Out in the weeds behind the bus yard -- by Joe Reifer

This 15 minute full moon photo was taken at a yard that restores and repairs vintage buses. The image was lit by a combination of moonlight, and light from the nearby highway. The green glow on the underside of the power lines is from a light outside of the building. Three 5-minute long exposures were stacked together for the final image. The image stacking technique allows you to shoot without using in-camera noise reduction, which helps with shooting productivity and battery life. The star trails look the same as one 15 minute exposure, but sometimes this can create a strange effect when there are clouds in the sky.

When you're shooting long exposures, the amount of cloud definition depends on two factors: how fast the clouds are moving, and the length of the exposure. For full moon night photography, fast-moving clouds usually show a good blend of movement and definition when exposing for 2-4 minutes. When the clouds are moving more slowly, longer exposures are possible. If you expose too long, the sky can simply turn white without definition.

In the photo above, each 5 minute exposure captured a distinct amount of cloud movement. When the image was stacked for star trails, the additive cloud definition created a slightly ribbed pattern in the sky. If I hadn't pointed out this effect would you have noticed? Because the sky is about a 50/50 split between stars and clouds, I think it works in this image. The clouds can start to look unnatural if you try to stack more images, or use shorter exposures.

Each image could stand on its own if I decide that I don't like the effect. Stacking also allowed me to have different options for the amount of light from cars on the highway and road on the right. The highway shows the cumulative 15-minute exposure, and the road ended up looking better with just the red tail lights of one exposure.

If you've tried stacking images for star trails that also have a lot of cloud movement, how did they turn out?

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