Valley Junkyard Night Photography Post-Processing Comparison

The four images above were shot during the Valley Junkyard Night Photography Workshop. I've been experimenting with luminosity masks in Photoshop to control tone and color in my night photography post-processing. Luminosity masks are simply saved selections that are based on specific tonal ranges.

While luminosity masks are easy enough to generate and play using Photoshop Actions, Tony Kuyper's TKActions Panel has a lot of time-saving features. Sean Bagshaw offers video tutorials on working with luminosity masks and the TKPanel. Jimmy McIntyre has a more basic set of luminosity mask actions for free, and also offers video tutorials.

The biggest takeaway from reviewing these tools for night photography post-processing has been the ability to lift the 3/4 tones without killing contrast. In the past, I've often used the Photoshop Blend If sliders on a Curves layer with hand-painted masks. Luminosity Masks are faster to generate, and offer more control when pulling up and enhancing shadow details.

Below are side-by-side comparisons of the RAW file after basic adjustments, and the finished Photoshop file after post-processing. The differences can be subtle, but the subtle differences are what can make a good picture even better.



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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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Projections: Airplane Light Painting and Post-Processing

Photographer Tim Little made one of my favorite photos from the Eagle Field Night Photography workshop last year.  A tiny 2 seater ERCO Ercoupe airplane sits out near the runway at an old WWII training base. Tim saw the potential of projecting the little airplane's shadow onto a nearby storage container. Before opening up his exposure, Tim and I experimented with different lighting angles and distances to get the plane projection just in the right spot. If you're shooting with a friend, have one person stand behind the camera to see what the camera sees, as the other person tests the lighting.

Once Tim nailed the lighting, he took multiple shots at about 2.5 minutes f/11, ISO 200.  This exposure is a bit darker than an expose to the right (ETTR) image shot under full moon conditions. The slight underexposure helps keep the night time feel, and allows the light painting to pop.

Projections 01: Light Painting
Projections 01: Light Painting

1. Light Painting - Above is the single exposure that shows the best version on the light painting, which was done with a flashlight.

Projections 02: Stacking and Masking
Projections 02: Stacking and Masking

2. Stacking and Masking - The camera is facing roughly to the south, which makes the star trails almost horizontal. To make the star trails longer, multiple shots were stacked in Photoshop, using Lighten blending mode on everything except the bottom layer.

Tim also used a non-lighted painted shot from the stack to mask out the light on the airplane and cement in the foreground. Having a non-light painted image in your star trail stack gives you an easy way to reduce or remove light painting from your image. This effect makes Tim's image more mysterious, because the projected light doesn't have an obvious source.

The image is starting to look really good, but there are a few more post-processing techniques that will help make the final photo really sing.

 Projections 03: Curves for Contrast

Projections 03: Curves for Contrast

3. Curves for Contrast - After reviewing the histogram, I used an S-curve to increase the overall contrast. This gives the plane a bit more shadowy mystery, and adds more snap to the projected image. The sky looks better, too. The S-curve could also be applied in Lightroom in the Tone Curve panel.

 Projections 04: Sky Contrast Curve

Projections 04: Sky Contrast Curve

4. Sky Contrast Curve - Using the Quick Selection Tool (W), I selected the sky. Then I created a new curves layer to add more contrast to the sky and star trails. The red area shows the part of the image that's protected from this adjustment. This selective adjustment is possible in Lightroom, but easier to do in Photoshop.

Projections 05: Vibrance
Projections 05: Vibrance

5. Vibrance - Next was a Vibrance and Saturation adjustment. This pushed the plane and sky towards blue, and increased the color contrast against the warmer orange light of the plane projection. You could also use Saturation, Selective Color, or a LAB conversion for this type of adjustment. Vibrance could also be adjusted in Lightroom.

Projections 06: Off-center Vignette
Projections 06: Off-center Vignette

6. Off-center Vignette - To make the projection even more dramatic, I created a vignette around the projected plane shadow. The curve adjustment above darkens everything except the projected plane shadow. Because the projection isn't in the center of the image, I used the Gradient tool to make a vignette just in this area (indicated by the red mask). Hit G for gradient, and adjust your tool bar to look like this:

gradient-settings

Create a new Curves layer, and make sure the mask is selected. Then draw a line to create your vignette. If you don't get it right the first time, just try again. You can also create an off-center vignette in Lightroom using the radial vignette feature.

Projections 07: Selective sharpening
Projections 07: Selective sharpening

7. Selective Sharpening - Using the Marquee tool (M), I drew a box around the airplane and hit Command-J to put this selection on a new layer. I applied sharpening to this layer, and then added a black layer mask by holding down alt-option and clicking the new mask icon (aka, the front loading washer). Using a soft brush at 20-30%, I painted in some extra sharpening on the rivets and peeling paint of the airplane. This adjustment could also be done in Lightroom with the adjustment brush, but Photoshop offers more control.

Projections: Final Image
Projections: Final Image

8. Output Sharpening - At this point, the image is ready for output. If you're in Lightroom, simply use the Export setting with the appropriate amount of output sharpening for screen. In Photoshop, flatten the layers, go to Image-Image Size, choose your dimensions, select Bicubic (best for smooth gradients), and click OK. Apply output sharpening using Smart Sharpen, Unsharp Mask, or a plugin. Then save for web.

I'd like to thank Tim Little for giving me permission to feature this image on my blog. Want to hone your skills on night photography, light painting, and post-processing? Consider taking a night photography workshop!

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Las Vegas Neon Museum 360 Night Panorama

 Las Vegas Neon Museum 360 Night Tour

Las Vegas Neon Museum 360 Night Tour

During last week's IVRPA conference in Las Vegas, I arranged an after hours photo tour at the Neon Musem. The museum runs 1 hour guided tours during the day and evening, but no tripods or monopods are allowed. About once a month they have a night shoot that allows tripods. Big thanks to the talented photographer eyetwist, who gave me the lowdown, and to Erin at the museum for the hospitality. We had 7 photographers and 2 videographers in our group, which maxed out the small museum space.

As we only had 1 hour in the boneyard, I shot my 360 panos at 4 shots around, using a Canon EOS 6D with the 8-15mm fisheye lens at 12mm. This sacrifices some resolution for speed, producing images that are just over 10,000x5,000 (50 megapixels). I shot a 3 image bracket at each camera position, with exposures of +/- 1.5 stops.

Many of the amazing old neon signs were lit with bright LED lighting that scrolls through different colors every few seconds. I knew this was going to make both shooting HDR and blending the panoramas a challenge. Surprisingly, Photomatix Fusion didn't have any problems blending the bracketed images, even though the color and intensity sometimes changed between exposures.

Next, I imported the images into PTGui Pro. Here's how the pano looked after stitching, but before blending across images.

Las Vegas Neon Museum 360 Degree Night Panorama - Unblended
Las Vegas Neon Museum 360 Degree Night Panorama - Unblended

I tested PTGui, Smartblend, and Photoshop, and the PTGUI blender did the best job feathering the different colored lighting. Adjusting the masking in PTGui helped fine tune the transition areas. 

Updated: You can now see eight panoramas in the Las Vegas Neon Museum 360 night tour.

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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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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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