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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Time-lapse: First roll with the Franka

Last month I received a wonderful birthday gift -- a 1950's Franka Solida III medium format folding camera. The camera shoots 6x6 images on 120 film. The Franka features a very sharp 80mm Schneider f/2.9 [sic] Radionar lens. For this first roll I shot Kodak E100VS slide film and then cross processed in C-41 negative chemistry. This roll of film was in another camera and then got pulled out and used in the Franka. Due to these shenanigans the roll wasn't wound tightly and light leaks are visible on the edges of some images.

The Franka is really fun to use. Here's the shooting process:

  1. Open the case if you're using it.
  2. Press the button on the bottom of the camera to release the lens. Unlike many folding cameras of this vintage, the lens opens from the side.
  3. Use the rangefinder to figure out the focusing distance.
  4. The rangefinder is not coupled to the lens, so next you focus the lens.
  5. Set the aperture and shutter speed.
  6. Cock the shutter
  7. Press the shutter release.

Once you get the hang of it, this isn't a lot of work. The camera is very compact when folded up, and was only about $200. The eBay seller Certo6 has a very informative vintage folding cameras website. The shutter on my Franka seems spot on, the lens is very clean, and everything works really smoothly. I'm looking forward to more shooting with this beautiful little classic.

Time-lapse technical details:

  1. The images were shot with a GoPro HD camera set to record a photo every 2 seconds.
  2. The results were imported into Lightroom 3, developed, cropped to 16:9, and settings synchronized.
  3. Next I made a collection in Lightroom with the time-lapse images and the film scans from my first roll.
  4. Using Lightroom's slideshow module, I set each image to appear for 0.3 seconds.
  5. In order to show the film scans and a few key frames for longer than 0.3 seconds I made virtual copies of those images.
  6. I tried exporting the slideshow from Lightroom but the pacing seemed a lot different than the preview I was seeing from within Lightroom. I used ScreenFlow screen capture software to record the preview, add the end titles, and upload the 720p video to YouTube.
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Sweeney Ridge SFO Time-Lapse: Airplanes, Cars, and Clouds

Sweeney Ridge Nike missile site

The weather forecast and sky chart for Pacifica looked promising, and I've always wanted to shoot the ruins of the Sweeney Ridge Nike missile site at night. SF-51C was an Integrated Fire Control (IFC) site to identify targets, and then the missile would be launched, guided, and detonated. The Sweeney Ridge site now contains 4 buildings in various states of decay, perched on a hill overlooking the San Francisco Airport on one side, and the ocean at Rockaway Beach on the other. On a clear day or night the views are incredible.

Sweeney Ridge is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA), and is legal to visit at night. In addition to the former Nike buildings, Sweeney Ridge is also where the Spanish first saw the San Francisco Bay in 1769. Captain Gaspar de Portola and 60 men rode up from San Diego, looking for the Monterey Bay. They were smart and visited in October. Fall is a great time to visit this location, and spring can also have clear weather and wildflowers.

Hiking up Sweeney Ridge

The easiest way to get to the Nike site is to take the Sneath Lane exit from Highway 280, and drive up the hill to the end of the street. Hike 1.3 miles up the paved path to the ridge, and turn right to follow the paved path another 1/2 mile to the Nike site. Bay Area Hiker has some good information on the flora and fauna. Bring lots of layers -- it can get windy up on the ridge.

We started our night hike with relatively clear skies lit by the full moon. As we ascended the hill we were met by cold blasts of 20 mph winds. Uphill into the wind with 25 pounds on your back is a good workout. Just when we got to the top of the ridge the fog and clouds started moving in. We explored the building interiors and saw some fresh graffiti and a huge rat. There appeared to be someone sleeping in one of the buildings. So much for shooting interiors. The weather was still reasonably clear over the Bay and SFO, so I decided to shoot a panorama. The wind was really ripping, and the clouds and fog kept obscuring the view. I switched gears and decided to do a time-lapse instead.

Shooting and Post-Processing the Time-Lapse

The camera was set to a manual exposure of 6 seconds at f/8 ISO 400. I used a Canon 5D Mark II with a 24-70/2.8L lens set at 43mm. The exposure was biased to protect the highlights in the airport and city lights. The full moon helped bring just a little bit of blue tonality to the sky. Color temperature was set to 3400K. I shot in high quality small jpeg mode which yields a file that's 2784x1856 pixels. This allows a little bit of room to crop while still maintaining a file that could be full 1080 HD.

After I was happy with my exposure and white balance, I set the camera to continuous drive mode, and locked the cable release. This setup will keep shooting 6 second shots until you run out of batteries or space on your memory card. I ended up shooting the time-lapse for just about an hour. The resulting images were imported into Lightroom where I applied a little bit of highlight recovery, fill light, and sharpening. Next I exported these files at 720x480 at about 100KB each. I used Quicktime Pro to put the time-lapse sequence together, and after some experimenting decided on 10 FPS. I imported the resulting mov file into iMovie to add titles, credits and music.

iMovie File Quality and Compression

The mov file looked great when I played it in Quicktime. After importing the file into iMovie, the video quality looked terrible. The video compression in iMovie was causing pixellated clouds. After a lot of searching and experimenting I figured out a fix to balance the video quality and file size:

  1. 960x540 is the native size for the Large import setting in iMovie. Using this size for the video that you import, means iMovie doesn't have to change your file size. This size works just fine for the 480 setting on YouTube. I went back to Lightroom and re-did my export at 1080x720 with 140KB files.
  2. Using H.264 compression in Quicktime Pro leads to a better quality file than letting iMovie compress your video. After creating the time-lapse in Quicktime Pro, I exported the file with the following settings: Best quality, H.264 compression, multi-pass encoding, 960x540 letterbox.

The resulting file was imported into iMovie, and the video quality looked way better. If anyone has alternate ideas for using iMovie to add titles and music without losing video quality I would like to hear your technique. I hope these technical details are helpful, and that you have fun making your own time-lapse videos!

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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: 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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Night photography: Ride the magic bus to Paul's Junkyard

Paul's Junkyard Magic Bus -- by Joe Reifer
Paul's Junkyard Magic Bus -- by Joe Reifer

The photo was shot during last month's full moon using a Mamiya 7 II camera with a 43mm wide angle lens on Kodak E100VS film. The exposure time was 90 minutes at f/16 during the March 2011 supermoon. Yesterday I printed a 30" x 40" of this cool old bus in Paul's Junkyard . The image really opens up at this size -- the color, tonal gradations, and sharpness are amazing. Thanks to Chris F. for doing a top notch job on the drum scan of my 6x7 chrome. A 4000 ppi scan yielded a 11,151 x 8,822 pixel file -- that's 98 megapixels! The native size of the file is just about perfect for a 30" x 40" print at 300 dpi.

The sRGB web version doesn't really do the image justice. At 30" x 40" you can see just the right amount of grain -- and it looks beautiful. The digital file was printed on Fuji Crystal Archive Matte paper using a Lightjet 430 printer. The image is exposed using R-G-B lasers, and then run through the RA-4 chemical process. The result is a beautiful continuous tone C-print. Photographers attending this week's night photography workshop will all receive a free 11" x 14" Custom Lightjet Digital C-print.

I hope you all have a great full moon. I'm looking forward to hitting the junkyard and seeing everyone's images. And prints!

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