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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Night photography: Revisiting the flying Imperial

Flying Imperial -- by David J. Lewis
Flying Imperial -- by David J. Lewis

Montana photographer David J. Lewis attended the Paul's Junkyard Night Photography Workshop in April and produced a superb series of Mojave night photos on his trip. I was hanging out with David when he made the Flying Imperial photo, and this image turned out to be one of my favorites from the spring workshop. David's image shows careful attention to blending moonlight with light painting, balancing highlights and shadows, and has texture and line to spare.

Last month during the fall workshop I was working in this corner of the yard with another photographer. We were looking at different ways to shoot the 1959 Imperial, and due to all the piled up debris, a 3/4 shot is really the clear choice. The moon was in a nice spot and the clouds were wild. I set up and made the image below.

Imperial etherial -- by Joe Reifer
Imperial etherial -- by Joe Reifer

As more photographers shoot at Paul's Junkyard, we'll see more photos of the popular subjects. There is a certain satisfaction in being the first person to make a successful photo of one of the many iconic cars at Paul's. Kudos to David for killing it on the Imperial. Some photographers are more sensitive than others about setting up in other people's tripod holes. Learning night photography is the same as learning to play jazz in this respect. If you hear a great song, try playing it. Puzzle it out. Deconstruct the reasons it works so well. There's no trouble here, unless you're playing a cover song and calling it an original. The crucial part of this process is to take what you learn and make something of your own.

Speaking of original work, don't miss David's Night Scenes gallery. The night photographs of snow covered cars in a Montana junkyard are superb.

Bad Moon Rising -- by David J. Lewis
Bad Moon Rising -- by David J. Lewis
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Night panoramas: Abandoned cement plant

Abandoned cement plant night panorama -- by Joe Reifer
Abandoned cement plant night panorama -- by Joe Reifer

This night panorama shows the back of the abandoned cement plant in a 300 degree view. I shot 14 images but only ended up using 12 for the pano because the brightness of the full moon was too distracting. The distortion produced by the cylindrical projection option in Photoshop CS5 Photomerge works well with the long cluster of buildings on the right leading up into the nearby hills. The cylindrical setting also bends the clouds into interesting arc shapes, providing a rhythmic connection between the different groups of structures. These were 2 minute exposures at f/8, ISO 400 with a vertically mounted Canon 5D Mark II and a 24-70/2.8L lens at the 24mm setting. The graffiti on the small stone in the left foreground says "Musk," which cracked me me because I encountered a rather aggressive skunk while shooting this image. I must have set my tripod up close to the skunk's den. No skunks were harmed in the making of this picture.

Abandoned cement plant night panorama -- by Joe Reifer
Abandoned cement plant night panorama -- by Joe Reifer

For this alternate view of the plant I chose to center the big tree and buildings, and have the dirt path enter the frame from both sides. The impact of the cylindrical projection is minimal on this image. The increased space between the camera and subject matter gives the image less impact at web size, but would help achieve a more documentary spirit of place in a large sized print. Exposure and camera setup details were the same as the previous image.

Abandoned cement plant night panorama -- by Joe Reifer
Abandoned cement plant night panorama -- by Joe Reifer

The view from the SE corner of the plant also shows an  irrigation channel on the left. The cylindrical projection creates a very natural looking flow on the left side of the image with the pond, telephone pole, and domed building. The right side of the image has more intense distortion than the other night panos, because I was closer to the stone walls. I am still experimenting with the post-processing on this image in Photoshop, and may also try some of the tools in Autopano Pro.

I hope you enjoyed this series of full moon night panoramas!

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Night panorama post processing: Abandoned cement plant 360

Abandoned cement plant 360 degree night panorama -- by Joe Reifer
Abandoned cement plant 360 degree night panorama -- by Joe Reifer

This 360 night panorama of an abandoned cement plant is composed of 14 vertical images shot with a Canon 5D Mark II and 24-70/2.8L lens at the 24mm setting. The exposure time was 1 minute at f/8, ISO 800. The short exposure time helped get the right amount of cloud movement in the sky, and kept the white disc of the moon relatively static. Jupiter is visible at center right.

The Perseid meteor shower was intense last night -- I haven't seen so many shooting stars in a long time. The animals were also enjoying the full moon at this location. We encountered bats, owls, and a rather aggressive skunk.

My technique for shooting and stitching panoramas is continuing to evolve. I used to adjust all of the images in Lightroom and then use Photo -- Edit In -- Merge to Panorama in Photoshop. This activates Photomerge, which works really well in Photoshop CS4 and CS5. If you've shot the images in the exact order that you want them stitched, this technique is great. But sometimes the composition might look better if the images were laid out in a different order. By separating the loading, aligning, and blending of layers in Photoshop, you can easily control the layout of your pano in post-production. Here's how:

  1. Adjust all of your RAW files to the same settings in Lightroom or ACR. Applying lens corrections and removing vignetting at this stage can help with the success of your Photomerge.
  2. From Lightroom choose Photo -- Edit In -- Open as Layers in Photoshop. If you're using Bridge, choose Tools -- Photoshop -- Load Files into Photoshop Layers.
  3. Assess which image you'd like to have in the center of your composition. Select this layer in the Photoshop layers palette, and click the lock icon. This tells Photoshop to use this layer as the middle of your panorama.
  4. Next use shift+click to select all of the layers for your pano.
  5. Choose Edit -- Auto Align Layers. I typically use the Cylindrical projection for this type of panorama.
  6. Choose Edit -- Auto-Blend Layers. Make sure to select Panorama and check the box that says Seamless Tones and Colors.

If you didn't pick the right image for the center of your pano, just go back a few steps in your Photoshop history. Unlock the layer that you chose the first time, lock the one you'd like to try next, and start again at step 4 above. I hope this tip for how to control your composition when using Photomerge is helpful!

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Night photography: Alcatraz hospital operating room

Alcatraz hospital operating room -- by Joe Reifer
Alcatraz hospital operating room -- by Joe Reifer

A flashlight was used to light paint the operating room inside the hospital at Alcatraz prison. All of the lighting was done with a Streamlight Stinger flashlight from a 60 degree angle to the left of the camera position.  I lit the back wall at a hard angle, skimmed the floor to throw 3/4 backlight on the table, and lit the operating lamp on the ceiling. The exposure time was 36 seconds at f/8, ISO 200 using an Olympus OM 18mm lens on a Canon 5D Mark II. The room was completely dark -- the exposure time reflects how long it took to open the shutter, walk to the back left corner and do the lighting, and then return to the camera to close the shutter. Thanks to Amy Heiden and Janet Blake for allowing me a few minutes of yerba mate fueled light painting antics during our limited time at this great location.

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Night photography: Moonrise over Bodie ghost town

Moonrise over Bodie ghost town -- by Joe Reifer
Moonrise over Bodie ghost town -- by Joe Reifer

The moonrise over Bodie ghost town image was photographed on the night of the June full moon. The streak of light you see beginning over the horizon is the moon! I opened the shutter just as the moon cleared the hills behind town. There was still a very faint amount of twilight left to help light the foreground. Light painting from various photographers is visible in the foreground.

The exposure time was about 50 minutes at f/16 with Kodak E100VS film using a Mamiya 7II camera with a 43mm f/4.5 wide angle lens. I often get asked what kind of film works well for night photography, and I highly recommend E100VS for moonlit landscapes. For shooting street scenes in urban areas with mixed lighting, Fuji RTP (64T) is an excellent choice.

My typical full moon night exposure with E100VS is 45 minutes at f/11. I stopped down to f/16 due to the remaining light of the blue hour, and because I was shooting into the moon. I wasn't sure if shooting directly into the moon would work without flare, and I'm happy with the results. I may experiment with using a polarizer or ND filter to extend exposure times at f/11 or f/16 into the 2+ hour range for a longer moon trail. The 43mm lens stops down to f/22, but the sharpness is not optimal due to diffraction.

Do you have experience with hours long exposures shooting into the moon, or know of any night photos with long moon trails?

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Bodie Night Photography: 5D Mark II Wide Angle Lenses and Noise Reduction

Bodie at night: 1927 Dodge truck and gas pumps -- by Joe Reifer
Bodie at night: 1927 Dodge truck and gas pumps -- by Joe Reifer

The 1927 Dodge truck and gravity gas pumps are a popular subject for photography at Bodie ghost town. This 24 minute night photograph was taken during the 2011 Mono Lake Night Photography Festival.

Wide angle lens for night photography

I shot the entire night at Bodie with a Canon 5D Mark II and an Olympus OM 18mm f/3.5  lens. The Olympus OM system lens can be used on the 5D II with an OM-EOS adapter. The Olympus lens is small, light, and easy to zone focus at night. At an aperture of f/8 or f/11 the lens is quite sharp across the frame, and offers better edge performance than Canon zooms. The Olympus lenses also have a different signature look than other wide angle lens choices. The 18mm is hard to find and can be expensive. The Olympus 21mm f/3.5 is a more readily available, reasonably priced alternative. The 24mm f/2.8 is also quite good. If you prefer a standard wide angle to a super wide lens, the Olympus 28mm f/3.5 is a stellar performer at f/8, and can often be purchased for less than $50. My adapter for the 28mm cost more than the lens!

Image stacking and long exposure noise reduction

Four exposures of 6 minutes at f/8 ISO 200 were combined for the final 24 minute image. There were about 25 night photographers shooting at Bodie -- exposure stacking was very useful for removing people and light painting from the foreground. Using this stacking technique also meant that I did not have to run long exposure noise reduction (LENR) in the camera. This helps productivity and battery life.

5D Mark II Auto setting for long exposure noise reduction (LENR)

Photography instructor Scott Martin let me know about his experiments with the Auto setting for long exposure noise reduction (LENR) on the Canon 5D Mark II. Normally I do not recommend letting the camera decide what to do, but Scott's LENR experiments may prove otherwise. There are 3 settings for LENR:

  1. Off -- long exposure noise reduction does not run on any shot.
  2. On -- long exposure noise reduction runs for the same amount of time as your exposure. A 10 minute shot with LENR set to On will run noise reduction for 10 minutes after the exposure ends.
  3. Auto -- long exposure noise reduction will run if the camera determines it's necessary, for the amount of time necessary to optimize the image.

Here's the really interesting part -- noise reduction won't necessarily run for the same amount of time as the exposure. Auto LENR runs for as long as necessary to reduce noise -- this could be shorter or longer than the original exposure time.

I'd like to thank Scott for sharing his Auto LENR research, and I look forward to my own testing. If you have experience with the Auto LENR setting I'd love to hear how exposure time and temperature correlate to when noise reduction kicks in, and how long Auto LENR tends to run.

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