Anatomy of a Photo  - Milky Way Over Oregon

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Anatomy of a Photo - Milky Way Over Oregon

I thought I'd share with you how another photo of mine was created.  It's actually quite simple as far as astrophotography goes, but it has a few steps as it's more than just a single image.  First off, there's no ultra high end gear being used here.  It's a Canon 6D and a Tamron 24-70 f2.8.  Stick it on a tripod with a trigger release, manual focus, turn off image stabilization and wait for the cars to drive by.  Most times cars would ruin a night photography shot, but at this particular location I was counting on them to so they would light paint the hill and tree.  I've tried many times to light paint with flashes or flashlights, but it's never quite as nice and even as car driving by.  Granted it depends on the car, the type of headlights and whether or not they had their brights on, but most drive-bys would do.  I had some better ones earlier in the night that really lit up the entire landscape, but at the time I needed it (when the Milky Way was actually to the right of the tree), it was getting late and the cars were few and far between so I settled on this one.  

Out of camera drive-by

Out of camera drive-by

Where's the shooting star you ask?  Well, as every car approached I would start shooting when they were about a quarter mile away.  Depending on their speed, usually my second shot would be the properly light painted one, sometimes the third, but in this case my first shot was completely dark (I started too early), but as luck would have it a giant meteor shot across the sky.  And even more to my luck, I captured it.

Out of camera a meteor shoots through the sky

Out of camera a meteor shoots through the sky

After that it was a matter of tilting the camera up and taking two more shots.

Out of camera shot 2 of 3

Out of camera shot 2 of 3

Out of camera shot 3 of 3

Out of camera shot 3 of 3

So that's it.  4 shots in total.  3 that will make up the vertical panorama.  Now to start editing and fixing the shots.  First up we have to get the fireball in there with the light painted scene, so simply open the two up on Photoshop, paste one on the other and set the blend mode to lighten.  Since the two shots were sequential, there's barely going to be any movement in the stars to notice when blended.

Light painted scene merged with meteor scene

Light painted scene merged with meteor scene

Now we edit that shot to bring out the detail we want to see.  In my night shots I like to get rid of the browns and reds from light pollution and leave it much cooler, so I dial those color settings in Lightroom as well as bring up some shadows on the tree and hill.  Then make the grass pop a little more, but not too much.

The color corrected merged bottom image.

The color corrected merged bottom image.

Before we make the pano, we need to fix up the other images so the sky looks like this one, otherwise there's going to be some pretty nasty seams in the image.

Image 2 of 3 fixed up to some degree

Image 2 of 3 fixed up to some degree

Image 3 of 3 fixed up, which clearly looks more like the bottom frame than the middle

Image 3 of 3 fixed up, which clearly looks more like the bottom frame than the middle

From here we need to stitch them.  Trying to take the easy way out wasn't going to work since Lightroom for some reason saw no correlation between the photos.  So I export them and bring them into AutoPano Pro.  There are many panorama programs and options out there, both free and paid,  but AutoPano is one I've used for a very long time, so I've stuck with it.  From there it was dead simple.  AutoPano and the algorithm that it and others use thrive on finding correlation in images and stars make it very easy.

Within the program I ultimately choose Pannini projection as it provided me with the look I was going for that was the least distorted and allowed me to keep the meteor intact in a vertical column within the image.  So far so good, so render and save.  Bring it into Photoshop to begin the rest of the work.

The final stitch

The final stitch

Like I said, I like my night shots cool, but I also don't like them overly blue and saturated.  I like there to be some black or the semblance of darkness because that's what the night sky feels like.  So first up is to get the color the way I like it.

HSL adjusted

HSL adjusted

Basically I'm playing around with the blues and cyans.  Most of the magic in astrophotography shots happens right here as well as the next step.  Simple color adjustments are what brings out the detail, or at least brings out what you're trying to highlight.

Cyan adjustments

Cyan adjustments

Blue adjustments

Blue adjustments

Next up we play with curves.  This is basically playing with contrast, but on a much finer scale and limiting it to certain regions.  In this case, I only want to mess with the sky, so I need to mask the ground and tree.  This is a little tedious, but Photoshop has ways of making it easier, especially with the update that just came out last week.

Masking the shot

Masking the shot

And as you can see in that above shot, the image already changed.  That's because I did the curves before masking and taking the screen cap.  So here was the settings and resulting image.

Initial curves

Initial curves

Final curve shot with mask

Final curve shot with mask

Now honestly, this looks pretty stellar and I'm tempted to keep it, but like I mentioned I like some darkness in the sky.  So I duplicated my my curves adjustment layer with mask and did another tweak to basically bring down the blues into more of a black and highlight the dust lanes in the Milky Way.  Now this is totally personal preference.  There is no right or wrong way to make an image, it just happens to be the way I like to do it so I take the next step.

Second curve adjustment

Second curve adjustment

Final image, with logo burned into the grass.

Final image, with logo burned into the grass.

And that's it.  Save, export and done.

There is one small caveat and flub to all of this that I'll admit to.  I wasn't using my gear to it's maximum potential.  Due to shooting a more zoomed in field of view (29mm to be precise), the amount of exposure time you have before you start to see the effects of the Earth's rotation (star trails) is decreased as your field of view narrows as well as based on where in the sky you're looking.  In this case I'm looking at the horizon which moves faster than the poles, as well as being moderately zoomed in, so I was shooting at 8 second exposures.  Even at f2.8 I need a little help elsewhere and that would be from the ISO department.  Earlier in the night I was at 1600 ISO.  Then as it got darker, I moved up to 3200.  Eventually I jacked it up to 6400 and the Milky Way was beaming bright, but with some obvious noise issues.  Then as the image came into view around 1 am, I started to wonder if I shouldn't back down to 3200 to cut back on noise.  I tried a few and figured I couldn't really decide if the brightness trade off was worth the noise until I got them on my computer and messed with the noise reduction.  So I thought maybe I'd eventually just shoot two of every shot with one at 3200 and the next at 6400 during the pano just to be safe.  And right then, a car started approaching.  So I quick flicked the ISO back up to 6400, but in the process moved a little too fast on the wheels than I should have because I hadn't exactly pressed the ISO button yet when I started spinning and managed to drop my f-stop to 3.5.  I didn't even realize that until a bit later, but I had already shot what would eventually be the final images (meteor shot and surrounding images).  D'oh! So these images should have been much brighter had I not slipped off of 2.8 and probably would have required less finessing in post as a result.  Oh well, it still turned out alright.

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Clouded Aurora

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Clouded Aurora

The past couple of days have been active ones for the Earth's atmosphere.  The Sun spewed a bunch of stuff in our direction last week and the predicted stream of solar particles eventually hit on Saturday. Then Murphy's Law kicked in. Most places that should have been able to see the resulting aurora couldn't due to overcast weather.  Oddly enough, it seemed the further south you went, the better your chances were that you could see it since the weather cleared up towards the WI/IL border.  The problem with that is that the further south you go, the stronger the show has to be before you have a chance of seeing it.  Looking at the space weather forecasts, this was looking to be good.

So I headed out around the time that this weather began clearing and went to one of my nearby go-to north facing spots.  I really had no intention of trying to put together a decent time lapse at this spot due to a number of reasons I'll get to, but I had been wanting to capture something on this road for quite some time, so I was going to settle for just an image.  The problem here is traffic.  It seems no matter where I go late at night, I find traffic.  And given that this is a north-south running road, I'll never get far before it's interrupted.  So I started out shooting NW on the side of the road while waiting for the clouds to clear up and the moon to set a bit lower, thinking I could maybe catch some neat clouds.  By about 1am it was clearing, the moon had set and now you could very visibly see a green glow across the entire northern horizon.  I decided my shot was going to be right in the middle of the road pointing due north.  And of course, traffic happened instantly.  However, it wound up only happening twice over the next 2 hours (3 technically because one car pulled a u-ey to drive by me again).  Seeing that I actually just let the shutter keep clicking away through all of the interruptions as I moved the camera out of the way and then try to reposition it in the same spot, I decided that maybe this could be a time lapse.  It's a little funky, but it adds some movement to an otherwise still scene.

Then by about 3am, the clouds started coming back, and given that I was freezing, I called it quits.  A camera sitting in the middle of the road at a spot where I had minimal time to react to someone approaching meant I couldn't sit in the car to warm up, and I was reaching my limit.  So what we have here is about 3 hours worth of the night between midnight and 3am, with around 2 hours of it looking north at the aurora just outside of Stoughton, WI.  6 seconds per exposure across about 1200 frames running at 24fps.

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The first snow

Our first snowfall of the year turned out to be a big one.  I wanted to try and capture some silent night downtown shots, so I headed out a little after midnight last night to try. We had only received a few inches by this point and not much accumulation on the roads and sidewalks. So while they aren't quite the massive winter wonderland I was hoping for they did capture the spirit of what I wanted.

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Aurora Burst

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Aurora Burst

So last night the aurora finally came.  It had been predicted for a while that the sun would blurt out some more space junk that would hurtle towards us and probably cause an amazing aurora display when a particular portion of it rotated into view again.  It was supposed to be here on Sunday, but there must have been some traffic jams up there since it showed up casually late on Monday night.  It put on good display for some, but it also wound up being pretty random for a lot of people.  I stayed out quite late and only managed to catch one brief 15 minute or so display from my vantage point.  My cameras were clicking away capturing it all and I didn't really know what it was looking like.  It'd have to be a lot stronger before we see the great displays this far south with our naked eyes like they get on a regular basis in Alaska, but a long exposure can capture some detail your eyes are completely missing out on.  A little bit of post processing can bring that out even more.  So when I got home and did a cursory check I got pretty excited by my initial processing of a few shots and posted a shot to Facebook amongst friends, but it was nearing 5am and I was dead.  The rest would have to wait until I woke up.

So after a bit of sleep, I hopped back into Lightroom and checked out my other camera.  Lo and behold, this was even better.  There's something about the 6D, even though it's a lesser camera than the 5Dmk3, it makes some pretty fantastic images.  Maybe it was the different lens/focal length or the fact that it was 15' away from the 5Dmk3 and had a slightly different landscape/angle, but it managed to create an image that I was trying to make my original post look like with ease.  

With that in mind, I jumped into Photoshop and batch processed a large range of photos that spanned the event and brought them into Final Cut Pro X.  From there I noticed something.  It was very rhythmic.  There were fish that were jumping in the little lake/stream system I was in front of that were producing waves that perfectly matched the explosions of light.  Even more subtle were some bits of fog rolling across the water that almost made it look like ghosts were marching across the frame.  

So I knew what my music was going to be; no music at all.  Instead, some pulses.  I found some crashing waves, messed it up and added a bunch of bass.  Then I looped it all for about 30 seconds.  There's enough rhythmic action on the screen that you kind of don't notice the stars jumping back 15 minutes in their progression.  In the end we have this:

I then reworked the whole thing and try to throw in a zoom.  While it worked and made the rhythmic pulses even better (it felt like Jurassic Park as it pulled away from the ripples in the water), it made the star shifts very noticeable.  So I backed out and just worked up a 4k version instead for YouTube.

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Catoween

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Catoween

I said last week on Facebook that I was working a series of holiday themed images with kittens and first up was Halloween.  I also posted a variation of it, mentioning that it would be posted on Halloween on Dane County Friends of Ferals Facebook page.  Well that day is today and I thought I'd delve a little deeper into what went into making the image since it is most definitely the most "created" image I've done to date.

Read on for how it was made...

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