An Introduction to Shooting the Night Sky: Part 2 – Techniques for Processing the Milky Way

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The Milky Way behind an ancient bristle cone pine tree in California.

Welcome to Part 2 of a 3-part article on shooting the night sky. Part 1 focused on settings and image capture. Part 3 will be all about creating star trail images.

For Part 2, I’ll go through in step-by-step format how I processed the above image of the Milky Way in front of a light-painted ancient bristlecone pine tree. This was done using some fairly basic techniques in Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop. Many of the same techniques can be applied to other night images, such as Aurora Borealis shots.

My processing involves making many subtle adjustments to the image, as opposed to just a few drastic changes. That, combined with how small the pictures are in this article, mean that you will not see a lot of difference between some of the steps.

Lightroom: Exposure and Color Temp

  1. I started by increasing the exposure slider to get an overall “proper” exposure. You can see below the exposure level I arrived at in this first step.
  2. I had used auto white balance in camera. In Lightroom, I moved the color temp slider left to increase the blue tones a bit. I left the tint slider alone, although I sometimes add magenta.
  3. I then jumped down to Lightroom’s effects panel and experimented with the dehaze slider. I settled on +20, which is high but worked well in this case.
  4. Because the dehaze slider affects color temp, I went back and tweaked it slightly.

Here is what the image looks like at this point:

Lightroom: More Basics Panel Adjustments

  1. Leaving contrast at 0, I adjusted the highlights, shadows, whites and blacks sliders. Each image is different, but here I brought down highlights, increased shadows slightly, brought whites down slightly and blacks up very minimally. The basic idea is to get some detail in the shadows (unless you want a silhouette) while maintaining contrast in the image. Don’t go too crazy lightening shadows or you will lose too much contrast in your image.
  2. Continuing down the basics panel, I left the clarity slider at 0 because we will apply clarity later to the Milky Way using a local adjustment.
  3. I added vibrance (+21) and saturation (+4).

The image is still looking somewhat flat at this point.

Lightroom: Tone Curve Panel

  1. Next, I added some punch to the image using the whites and darks sliders in the tone curve panel. I moved lights up quite a bit (+43) and brought darks down moderately (-18). The idea is to bring some contrast to the image.

Lightroom: Detail Panel

  1. I left sharpening at Lightroom’s defaults of amount (25), radius (1.0), detail (25), and masking (0).
  2. I brought in some noise reduction due to the high ISO I used. Keep in mind that noise reduction removes some of the detail in your image. In this case, I increased luminance noise reduction to 25 and left color noise reduction at 25. If there was color noise in the sky, I would have increased color noise reduction.

Lightroom: Local Adjustments

  1. Using Lightroom’s adjustment brush, I brushed over the Milky Way and increased clarity, in this case up to +35. This really added some brilliance to the Milky Way.
  2. Adding a new adjustment brush, I brought up some of the shadowy areas on the ground by brushing over them and moving the shadows slider right. The tree looked good, so I left it alone.
  3. Using the radial filter tool (located to the left of the adjustment brush tool) I created a vignette by drawing an oval which covered the majority of the image. I pulled the exposure slider left to create a subtle, feathered vignette along the outer edges. You could also wait until later to do a vignette if you prefer.

Here is the updated image after finishing up in Lightroom:

Photoshop: Orton

  1. I usually open night images as a smart object in Photoshop. This is so that I can make further adjustments to the RAW settings within Photoshop if I want.
  2. I first added a pretty strong Orton Effect to the image, masking out the foreground so that the effect was applied only to the sky and tree. You can read about how to create this effect in the July Issue of Inspirational Photography on pages 18-19.

Here is the updated image after Orton. You can see that this made quite a difference.

Photoshop: Final Adjustments

  1. I almost always create a curves layer late in my workflow and experiment with color balance. I added the curves layer and went into each color curve separately. This is done by using the curves pull-down box and changing “RGB” to “Red”, putting a point right in the middle of the curve, and then using the arrow keys to move the curve up and down to improve the color balance. After the red curve, I went to the blue curve and did the same, followed by the green curve.
  2. To add a little more detail to the ground and tree, I added Nik Filter’s “Detail Extractor” (found in ColorEfex Pro) and reduced the opacity to 12% on the Photoshop layer. I masked out the effect from the sky so that only certain areas of the tree and ground where I wanted more detail were affected.
  3. Lastly, I used Nik’s Viveza to brighten the image, which added punch. I also added a slight bit more contrast and saturation.

After these adjustments, the image looked like this:

Back to Lightroom: Final Adjustments

  1. My workflow always ends in Lightroom with some additional tweaks. In this case, I added a bit of warmth and magenta (with the color temp and tint sliders), increased the exposure, added some more contrast and a bit more saturation. Below is the final image.
The Milky Way behind an ancient bristle cone pine tree in California.

An Introduction to Shooting the Night Sky: Part 1 – Milky Way, Stars & Northern Lights

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The Milky Way makes an appearance over the hilltop in a field in Tuscany, Italy.

A good night’s sleep is an important part of a healthy lifestyle, right? Getting adequate sleep not only positively impacts your mind, heart and mood, but also helps you look better. However, Milky Way and Northern Lights pictures are really, really cool. So, like many other photographers, I sometimes ignore the advice of the health experts and skip a night or two or more of sleep in order to bring home some killer images. In fact, I’ll be doing that again next week.

Disclaimer

Let me start with a disclaimer. There are books, blogs, videos and long articles dedicated solely to night photography. This article is only an introduction to pique your interest and help get you started. By all means, do some more reading. Also, I’ll do a Part 2 article on “Processing” in next month as it is a topic in and of itself. Star trails also warrant a separate article, so that will be Part 3. With all that in mind, here is some advice on getting started with shooting the night skies.

Shoot in a Remote Location

At night, there is “dark” and there is “DAAAARK”. You want the latter. This means shooting in an area far away from the lights of towns and cities. Otherwise, the light pollution can wash out your sky and end up dominating your horizon. The site http://www.lightpollutionmap.info/ has a map that shows light pollution around the globe (i.e. places to avoid).

However, all is not lost if there is a town in the distance. In fact, in many cases, I think the light pollution looks good. In the cover photo of the trees in Tuscany, I think the light pollution adds to the image by providing a nice warm glow to complement the cool night sky. Distant, minimal light pollution behind you can also help light foreground elements during your exposure. Ideally, shoot in an area with dry, clear air. Deserts and places of higher elevation work well.

Timing Issues

There are a lot of timing issues to get right for night photography. You have to know what cycle the moon will be in, when the moon’s light no longer impacts the sky that night, and (possibly) whether the Milky Way will be visible. Of course, you have to worry about clouds, too, but those are less predictable.

Moon Cycles

Having the moon in front of you while shooting is similar to having someone shining a flashlight into your lens. It will create a bright spot in your image while also washing out the stars. Because of this, you need to be aware of moon cycles. Ideally, plan your shooting during the New Moon, which is the moon’s first cycle during which it is hidden from view. You’ll have nice, long periods of complete darkness during this time. You can also get by with up to 25% moon (about 5 days before or after a New Moon), so targeting that time period is workable.

Time of Night

If the moon is visible at all in the sky on your shooting nights, then you will want to aim for a period of the night called “astronomical dusk,” which is the point at which the moon has no impact on the brightness of the sky… the sky has reached maximum darkness. This is generally 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 hours after sunset and the same amount before sunrise. However, start shooting before complete darkness to get a bit of faint light on your foreground and a nice blue in the sky. The stars will not be as pronounced during this period, but it is good to have shots from both time periods, especially if you are blending a separate foreground shot in during processing.

The well-known program “The Photographer’s Ephemerus” (http://photoephemeris.com/) is a good resource for showing the window of timing you have to work with for your date and location so that you are not stuck staring at the moon wondering when it will get out of the way.

The Milky Way

Although shooting a sky full of stars is fun and can lead to a great image, the core of the Milky Way is the money shot. Capturing the Milky Way’s core takes some planning, however. You can do a Google search to find out where and when it will be visible. Or, PhotoPills is an iPhone application for identifying when and where in the world it is visible, as well as what angle it will be at during certain times of the night. There are also night sky maps available on Amazon. Whatever you do, plan your trip around Milky Way visibility and the moon cycle.

The Aurora Borealis

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Iceland’s Kirkjufell with the faint glow of the Aurora Borealis behind it.

Photographing the Northern Lights is an absolute blast. As you know already, you have to be pretty far north to capture the Aurora at its best. You generally have to brave the Winter months in places like Iceland, Alaska and Scandinavia to get the best chances. However, all three Aurora shots in this article were shot in Iceland in mid-September.

There are Aurora sites on-line that predict Aurora activity, such as http://www.aurora-service.org/aurora-forecast/. Some of these Aurora forecast sites are location specific, so do a search to see if there is one for your location.

Weather Conditions

While a clear sky is usually a disappointment for landscape photography, it is great for night photography.

  • For Milky Way (or single point stars in the sky), you need the sky to be completely clear overhead. The header shot of the Milky Way over the trees in Tuscany includes some low clouds along the horizon, but nothing blocking the Milky Way. A few minutes after this shot, the clouds started covering the galaxy and I left.
  • For pictures of the Northern Lights, some scattered clouds are okay and can even add interest to the image.

On the subject of weather, remember that dropping temperatures can lead to foggy lenses, particularly if the area is damp. As you are shooting in the dark and sometimes cannot turn your flashlight on without upsetting other photographers, it is easy to overlook a lens that is fogging.

Foreground Subject

The night sky is not a subject, but a background. So, you still want something interesting as a foreground element. If you will be letting your subject go dark as a silhouette, then the subject’s shape is extra important. If you want your subject lit, then there are a few options:

1. Light pollution from distant cities behind you can help provide enough lighting to illuminate your foreground subject.
2. You can “light paint” your subject with a flashlight or other light source. However, if you haven’t done this before, it takes some practice to get subjects lit evenly.
3. As mentioned, you can also shoot your subject before things go completely dark and just leave your tripod in the same position for the shot of the sky. For this option, I recommend shooting several images as the sky darkens. Start at twilight and then try a few more as time goes on, adjusting your settings as necessary. Although you will get the best quality image at twilight (with a lower ISO), sometimes the subject at twilight does not look natural when blended.

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Amazing Northern Lights dancing over a meadow in Landmannalaugar

Equipment

At night, the higher end camera equipment really shines. Ideally, you’ll want:

  • A camera that can shoot at high ISO without much digital noise.
  • A fast wide-angle lens, such as f/2.8 or faster. An f/1.4 prime lens is ideal. I just bought the Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 for this purpose. The wide aperture allows you to shoot at much lower ISOs. To illustrate, if your lens is at f/1.4 and your targeted shutter speed requires an ISO of 800, shooting at f/4 would require an ISO of 6,400. In the world of ISO, that’s a world of difference.
  • A sturdy tripod that stays stable when the wind is blowing.
  • A remote trigger… get an intervalometer if you plan on also shooting star trails.
  • You’ll need two sources of light, such as a headlamp and flashlight.
  • Bring layers of clothes for changing temperatures.

Settings

For the Sky Shot

  • Manual Mode & manual focus
  • Long Exposure Noise Reduction off
  • Aperture – Shoot at the widest aperture of your lens. Or, if you have a very fast lens (like f/1.4), try also shooting at one stop above the widest setting (f/2) as it will be a sharper aperture. You’ll need a higher ISO, but you can compare quality when back at your computer.
  • Shutter Speed – Stars – The rotation of the earth will start to streak the stars at some point. To avoid this, use the “500 Rule” by dividing 500 by your focal length. If your focal length is 16mm, then 500/16=31 seconds. Round it down to 30 seconds, and for good measure, you should lower the shutter speed a bit more, down to 20- 25 seconds. Using the same method for 24mm, 500/24=21 seconds, but use 15 seconds.
  • Shutter Speed – Northern Lights – In my opinion, Aurora images look their best at between 6 and 25 seconds, depending upon the brightness of the Aurora and how fast it is moving. I like some detail in the lights, as opposed to a big blur.
  • ISO – The ISO is then set to get a proper exposure. ISO’s of 1600-3200 for the sky are common. When setting your exposure, you don’t need or want every single star in the sky to be visible.

For the foreground subject

  • Shoot the foreground separately (re-focusing if necessary) at a lower ISO and, therefore longer shutter speed. In Part 2 of this article, I’ll discuss blending the two images in Photoshop.
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Northern lights over a small pond in Landmannalaugar

Composing

It is ideal to compose while it is still light out. If you are composing or re-composing in the pitch blackness, a time-saving strategy I use is to crank up the ISO to maximum just to get my composition right. This helps me avoid waiting through long shutter speeds. Then, I reset my ISO and shutter speed to the desired amounts for the actual shot.

Focusing

If your foreground elements are closer than your lens’ infinity focal point, you will want to focus on your subject and the sky separately and take two shots. Focusing in the dark can be difficult, but here are some ideas:

Focusing for the sky – Use Live View to zoom in (using the zoom buttons for the LED screen) on a distant light or star. If this cannot be done, then you can walk a flashlight past your lens’ infinity point. (Optical infinity is too big of a subject to go into detail on here.) If you don’t know the infinity point of your lens, some photographers simplify this by saying to convert your focal length to feet and use that distance. So, for a 24mm lens, walk out at least 24 feet, leave the light there, come back and focus on it for your infinity focus.

Focusing for a closer subject – If you are shooting a closer subject that is not in focus considering your aperture / infinity point, you will need a separate focal point for the subject. You can shine a bright flashlight on it and focus using Live View.

Processing

As mentioned earlier, watch for Part 2 next month on processing night sky images, as well as a separate article on star trails in a future blog.

How to Expose for Flash and Existing Light Separately Using Your Camera’s Controls

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Beautiful girl carrying a pot of water on a beach at sunrise

Flash photography can be intimidating. Adding artificial light to the existing light in a scene and getting a proper balance between the two requires some basic knowledge and skill on the part of the photographer. If you are not yet experienced using flash, but have an interest in giving it a try, an important first step is understanding how to control exposure of the light from your flash and the existing light (a.k.a. ambient light) separately using your camera’s and flash’s controls.

You probably already have a good understanding of how to control shutter speed, aperture and ISO to arrive at a proper exposure when flash is not being used. Let’s look at how these three variables, as well as your flash’s output, come into play when you are adding artificial lighting to the scene.

Introducing Leon the Lion

It’s been awhile since I’ve been on safari and I’m missing it. So I thought I’d borrow Leon the Lion from my daughter’s room and pretend I was back in Africa. My settings here were ISO 400, 1/50th second and f/8. I shot in manual mode. No flash yet.

1 - ISO 400 f8 1-50 No Flash

Next, I added the off-camera flash. I used manual mode on my flash and fired it through a small soft box at 1/32nd power. The image below is our starting point for an exercise to learn how your camera and flash controls affect how much flash and ambient lighting end up in your image.

2 - Add Flash 1-32nd

Shutter Speed

Changing your shutter speed won’t affect the amount of flash lighting that ends up in your image. This might be surprising to you, but it makes perfect sense. Here is why:

The flash has to fire while the shutter is open. Your camera will have a “maximum sync speed”, which is the fastest shutter speed whereby that can be accomplished. Usually this is around 1/200 of a second (I’m ignoring “high speed sync” for now). Even at full power, the blast of flash happens faster than your maximum sync speed. So, the same amount of flash will illuminate Leon when we reduce the shutter from 1/50th to 1/100th second. Here is the image after the shutter speed change.

3 - 1-100th

Notice that the flash lighting on Leon appears mostly the same as with the original settings, even with the adjusted shutter speed. However, the background has gotten darker. So, using shutter speed, we’ve just controlled the ambient light background separately from the flash-lit subject. There was some ambient light hitting the subject, in addition to the flash, so we don’t have complete control over the separate light sources. But you can see that we have considerable control here.

Aperture

Now, let’s reset our settings back to ISO 400, 1/50, f/8 and 1/32nd flash power. This time, let’s adjust only the aperture. Staying with this idea of cutting the light in half, let’s adjust the aperture by 1 stop from f/8 to f/11.

4 - f11

Notice that both the flash lighting on Leon and the background lighting went darker than with the original settings. So, the aperture controls both the amount of flash lighting and existing lighting in the image. But wait… there’s more to say about aperture….

Shutter Speed and Aperture Together

With the above aperture adjustment, we left the shutter speed alone. However, we could have made two adjustments, one to aperture and one to shutter speed. Remember, shutter speed does not affect your flash lighting. Here is how you can control each type of lighting separately using a two-step process:

  • First, we get the desired exposure on the flash-lit subject by adjusting the aperture. This also affects the background exposure, which might not be properly exposed yet, but that’s okay.
  • Second, we adjust shutter speed for the background exposure only, without affecting the flash-lit subject.

With these two steps, you essentially control the flash exposure with aperture and the existing light exposure with shutter speed.

What about ISO?

Because your ISO controls the sensitivity of the sensor to all light, it is similar to aperture in that it impacts the amount of both flash and ambient light in your image. To test this, let’s reset our settings to the initial settings of ISO 400, 1/50, f/8 and 1/32nd flash power. Now, let’s reduce the ISO from 400 to 200.

5 - ISO 200

Notice that the aperture adjustment and ISO adjustment look basically the same as both halve the light on the entire image. This means that you can use ISO in a similar way that you can use aperture. However, with ISO, the lower the better in terms of image quality. So, I keep my ISO low. Fortunately, there is another variable we can adjust to control the power of the flash… the flash itself.

Flash Power and Placement

I always shoot off-camera flash in my flash’s manual mode. My Canon flashes can be fired at full power (1/1), 1/2 power, 1/4 power, 1/8, 1/16, 1/32, 1/64 and 1/128. Each of these steps cuts the flash power (the duration of the flash, actually) in half. I have the flash set up to allow further tweaking in 1/3 stop increments.

Let’s reset again to our initial settings of ISO 400, 1/50, f/8 and 1/32nd flash power. Here is the original image back with the original settings.

2 - Add Flash 1-32nd

Now, let’s halve the flash power from 1/32 to 1/64, as shown in this next image.

6A - 1-64th power

As expected, this adjustment mostly leaves the background alone, but reduces the impact of the flash on the subject. You may have some flash hitting the background which will still be affected by adjustments to flash power.

You can also control the brightness of the flash on your subject by moving the flash closer or farther away, changing the angle of the flash, or adding/removing a diffuser. However, these adjustments all change the nature of the light, not just its power. So, don’t use this method to adjust the power of your flash.

Summary

Here is what we’ve covered:

  • Adjusting the shutter speed affects the exposure of the ambient light, but not the flash.
  • Adjusting aperture impacts the exposure of both the flash-lit subject and background.
  • You can first use the aperture to control the amount of flash lighting in your image and then adjust shutter speed for the ambient light without impacting flash.
  • Changes to ISO have a similar impact as aperture. Image quality is an issue to consider.
  • Adjusting your flash’s power controls flash output without affecting ambient light, except for flash that spills over onto the background.
  • Positioning and diffusion of the flash should be used to control the nature and quality of light, not the power of the flash.

Try This at Home

You can use this article as the basis of a lighting exercise that you can try at home. Below is the basic set-up I used.

7 - The Setup

Now, if you decide to use a stuffed animal like I did, my suggestion is to not let the neighbors see you doing this. The basic idea is to get an initial decent balance of flash and ambient light using the controls outlined in this article and then to modify each of the variables to see their impact on the lighting. It is the modification of these variables that is the important thing here, so don’t worry about getting a perfect exposure.

Start without the flash to get an initial exposure, then bring it in and try to balance it with the ambient light. You’ll want to work in manual mode on both your camera and your flash. Try it out in dimmer light, bright light, and even indoors. I shot fairly late in the day in cloudy conditions, so my settings will reflect somewhat dimmer outdoor lighting.

Good luck!

How and When to Use a Circular Polarizer

0W6A4487-Edit

A must-have filter that cannot be replaced with post-processing is the circular polarizer (a.k.a. CLP). Polarizers absorb polarized light, which has some serious benefits for photographers. These include:

1. Cutting Down Non-Metallic Surface Reflections

For me, the most important feature of a CLP is the filter’s ability to cut down reflections. In landscape photography, this means that reflections on water, wet rocks, wet leaves and even dry rocks and leaves can be cut down and often eliminated altogether. This is extremely important since the reflections essentially replace detail and saturation with ugly shiny spots on your image. This can ruin your otherwise colorful scene. Just take a look at these next two images to see exactly what I mean.

IMG_4294

Without CLP

IMG_4295

With CLP

By rotating the circular polarizer, the reflection in the foreground is removed. What might not have been as immediately apparent is how the leaves in the background look more saturated. This is because leaves are reflective. Cutting through this reflection allows more detail and saturation in the background trees to come through. However, sometimes you want a certain amount of reflection in your shot. You can control this by simply rotating the polarizer. With wide-angle lenses, it is a delicate balance to get a desirable amount of effect in as much of the scene as possible.

As we’ll see in the next section, the direction of light is very important for a CLP in certain cases. However, if you are in overcast conditions and not including the sky, then the angle of light is not really an issue in its effectiveness in cutting reflections.

2. Deepening the Blue Sky

We’ve already seen that polarizers can help colors to look more rich by reducing reflections. Another common use of CLP’s is to increase contrast and saturation in a blue sky. Skies look more blue and clouds more detailed with the polarizer.

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Without CLP

0W6A4487-Edit2-2-2

With CLP

However, the filter has some limitations in this area. If the sun is in front of or behind you, then you will not get the effect of the polarizer. The sun should be perpendicular to your camera lens… 90 degrees to your right or left. This limits the cases where you can use a polarizer to enhance the sky. Also, because wide-angle lenses cover a larger area of the sky, some of the sky will be 90 degrees perpendicular to your lens, but not all of it. This causes uneven polarization across the sky, as seen below.

0W6A4487-Edit-2

You can correct this somewhat in post-processing, but it takes work to get the sky looking reasonably acceptable. For this reason, it is better not to shoot too wide when using a polarizer to enhance the sky. By the way, when rotating the filter, don’t go too overboard on deepening skies, especially if the sky is already quite blue. You can turn nice blue skies way too dark.

3. Cutting Down Haze

CLP’s also help cut through haze in distant landscape elements. This is because haze is also reflective. In some cases, you may want to include at least some of the haze in your image, so use your own judgment on this.

4. Cutting Down Light Reaching the Sensor

Polarizers function similar to neutral density filters in that they cut down the light reaching the sensor, typically by about 1-2 stops. This makes slower shutter speeds possible. Depending on the situation, this can be completely neutral, a benefit, or a drawback for you. Either way, just use your solid neutral density filter instead if all you want is to slow down your shutter speed.

Photograph With Others

I recommend traveling and photographing with other photographers who are as committed as you to doing whatever it takes to get good pictures. There are quite a few images that would not be in my portfolio if I was not traveling with others. Here are some examples:

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A lone tree in front of a mountain valley at twilight.

The tree shot above was taken in a rocky area of Zion National Park that took a little bit of hiking up a rocky area to get to. Now there is some vigorous debate going on over who actually spotted the tree first. This is my blog, so the story you will hear is that I saw it first. One thing is for sure, though… I would not have gotten this shot if my friend Josh Merrill (who is basically fearless when it comes to heights) had not started climbing. I would definitely have talked myself out of this one.

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Stormy skies moving in over The Watchman in Zion National Park.

Josh gets credit for the above shot also. You see, this is normally a sunset shot. Josh had done a little research late the night before and found an excellent shot from this same spot… but at sunrise. So, we changed our plans late the night before and went to this location at sunrise. We ended up with a very intense hail storm coming our way that made for a great picture. We started getting hit with ice about 30 seconds after this shot, but it was well worth it.

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Aurora Over Iceland : Prints Available

The Northern Lights illuminating the sky over southeastern Iceland.

I traveled to Iceland with my friend Mirko Vecernik in September. The Northern Lights image above was taken during our 3rd middle of the night shoot and, in this case, we had a guy from the park hunting us down by flashlight. I’m quite sure I would have fled the scene and went to sleep if I was on my own.

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From the River : Prints Available

View from the river at Iceland’s Bruarfoss.

Another benefit of photographing with friends is that you can benefit from eachother’s knowledge and research. My friend Dusty Doddridge is the king of photography trip research and advised me to bring along fisherman’s boots for Bruarfoss waterfall in Iceland due to the cold temperature of the water. I purchased boots and dragged them all the way to Iceland just for this one shot. The water was so intensely cold that I would not have gotten this shot without the boots.

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A photographer on an Iceland black sand at sunset.

On a final note, another good reason to shoot with friends is that you can use them as models, as was the case with Mirko here. And they work cheap!

Shooting Into the Sun

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I love shooting into the sun. It does sound a bit counterintuitive. Cameras don’t handle contrast as well as our eyes do, so skies can easily go white and shadows black in high contrast situations. But, with a little bit of technique in shooting and processing, you can get some cool images. So, embrace the contrast.

Here are some tips for shooting into the sun:

Tip #1: Shoot into low-angled sunlight. I shot the image below in Death Valley just as the sun was hitting the horizon. You’ll get better results with this very low-angled sunlight because it is warmer and less contrasty than mid-day sunlight. Twenty minutes earlier and this would have been a pretty lousy picture. The light would have been too contrasty resulting in white skies and washed out colors. The cool shadows on the dunes would be missing.

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Sunset Over Mesquite Dunes : Prints Available

Horizontal view of Death Valley’s Mesquite Dunes at the end of the day.

Tip #2: Create a sunstar. The images above and below each have a “sun star”. I posted an earlier blog on this, but basically you shoot with a very small aperture (such as f/22) using a wide-angle lens. This doesn’t work well with all lenses, but the Canon 16-35 f/2.8 works great. This doesn’t work well with mid-day or diffused sunlight.

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First Light Over Gordes : Prints Available

Beautiful sunrise over the hilltop city of Gordes, France

Tip #3: Partially obscure the sun. Partially obscuring the sun works well in increasing a focus area for the sun’s intensity and also reducing the contrast a bit. For the image below, the sea stack partially obscured the sun, creating a nice glow.

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End of Day at Rialto Beach : Prints Available

A beautiful sunset on the shores of Rialto Beach

Tip #4: Use clouds as a diffuser. As a photographer, clouds are my best friend or worst enemy depending on the situation. In some cases, clouds will act as a nice diffuser which allow you to shoot into the sun. Notice the sun was higher in the sky, but the image still has the effect of low-angled light due to the diffusion of the sun.

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Xingping Fisherman : Prints Available

A fisherman on the Li River at Xingping near Guilin taking a break.

Tip 5: Put the sun at the edge of the frame. This is a similar concept as partially obscuring the sun. The sun was half-in / half-out in the image below.

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Sunset over the Terrace : Prints Available

Sunset at viewpoint 3 in China’s rice terraces

Tip 6: Get the exposure right! Because of the high level of contrast, it is very important to get the exposure right. In most situations, you don’t want to blow the highlights, which is when some of the pixels go white and lose all detail. It may be okay to have part of the image blown out, such as the brightest part of the sun, but avoid blowing out parts of the sky. You also usually don’t want the image to have a lot of black shadows with no shadow detail, unless you are creating a silhouette. Tip 7 is one solution to this.

Tip 7: Shoot multiple exposures if necessary. In these high contrast situations, I’ll often “bracket”, which means shooting the same shot with different exposures. I’ll do an underexposed shot to make sure I get the details in the sky, a normal exposure for the mid-tones, and an overexposed shot for shadow details. I usually don’t use all the exposures, but sometimes use two and blend them in Photoshop. If your highlights are getting blown and your shadows are black, then you should bracket. Some photographers use graduated neutral density filters as a way of reducing the contrast in the image.

Processing. The processing of high contrast images is another topic for another day. But, generally speaking, you will want to get your skies darker and your shadows lighter, while still having a nice amount of contrast in your image. This can involve blending your bracketed images, multi-processing the image in RAW, using the various exposure adjustment sliders, making adjustments in Photoshop, etc.

Increasing Water Texture with Nik Filters

The Google Nik Collection is a popular set of Photoshop add-on filters used by many photographers. I still use Nik filters, but I use them differently than I used to. When I was new at processing, I would apply the filters globally at full opacity. Now, I use them sparingly at relatively low opacity for local adjustments. I sometimes use Nik Filters to bring a little added texture and contrast into water, such as in the image below.

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Inside Bruarfoss : Prints Available

Close up of a section of Iceland’s Bruarfoss.

For the above image, I used a Nik filter called “Dark Contasts” (part of Nik’s “Color Efex Pro” filter set) to enhance contrast of the water. Below are the steps I took to apply the filter. Note that I’ve de-saturated the water in the images below to focus attention on the texture for the purpose of this blog.

First, here is a close-up of the water prior to applying the filter.

Next, I applied Nik’s “Dark Contrasts” filter. Running the filter created a new layer in Photoshop as pictured below. Notice that the effect is much too strong.

Next, I added a black mask to the layer and, using a feathered brush at 30% flow, painted white on the mask over the water. This resulted in the effect being applied to the rushing water and not being applied to the rest of the image.

Lastly, I reduced the opacity of the Nik Filters layer to around 40%.

I use Nik Filters for many other adjustments and often use them at much lower opacity than 40%, usually around 15% and just in parts of the image. I often use Nik’s “Tonal Contrast” filter as an alternative to Dark Contrasts if I am looking for a less dark and gloomy effect.

Drawing Attention to the Subject with a Vignette

Photographers use vignettes to put a subtle frame around (and draw attention to) the subject of the picture. They draw our eyes to one part of an image and away from the remainder of the image. For me, creating an effective vignette is a balance between getting the effect of the vignette, but still not noticeable to the untrained eye.

So, what is a vignette? For the definitive answer, let’s look at the ultimate source of all things true… Wikipedia. According to Wikipedia, a vignette in photography is “a reduction of an image’s brightness or saturation at the periphery compared to the image center.” Couldn’t have said it better myself. Although you can also vignette with a blur. But they got it mostly right. Anyway, in most cases, vignettes are based on a reduction in brightness, which is what we’ll be discussing here.

Below is a picture of a cheetah with no vignette. You will notice the image looks fairly evenly lit throughout.

A cheetah in a field looking intently at the camera
A cheetah in a field looking intently at the camera

Below I have added a subtle vignette to the image. Notice the cheetah’s face is a little brighter as compared to the rest of the image. It is somewhat difficult to see, but it does help focus your attention on the cheetah. And cheetah’s command attention.

A cheetah in a field looking intently at the camera
A cheetah in a field looking intently at the camera

Just in case you can’t see the vignette, below is a version in which I apply too much vignette so the effect is clear.

A cheetah in a field looking intently at the camera
A cheetah in a field looking intently at the camera

Adding a vignette is usually the last thing I do with an image. Although Lightroom has the option of adding a post-crop vignette, I do my vignettes in Photoshop because I do my output sharpening there. In Photoshop, vignettes are easily created non-destructively, meaning you are adding an adjustment and not changing pixels. Here are the steps to create a simple non-destructive vignette:

Take the elliptical marquis tool and drag it over the photo so that your screen looks something like this:

Marquis Drawn

Make sure your foreground and background colors are set to black and white, as shown in the image below. Create a curves adjustment layer which will result in a layer mask that looks like the one below.

Curves Layer

Do Command-Shift-I (Mac) or Control-Shift-I (Windows) which will change the mask colors (black & white) to the inverse.

Curve Inverted

Select “refine mask” in the menu (Command-Alt-R for Mac or Control-Alt-R for Windows) and, if you are working with a RAW or large JPG, try an initial feather at around 250. The idea is to get a nice feather around the edges of the image.

Feathered Normal Model

Change the blending mode to Multiply, which will darken the selected area. You image should look like this, which looks pretty horrible.

100 Percent Opacity Vignette

Lastly, reduce the opacity until the vignette is not really noticeable. I usually reduce to around 20%, as in the case here.

Screen Shot Cheetah Complete

You can make further refinements to the vignette with a brush. I sometimes do this if a corner is already dark and the vignette results in the corner being too dark. Just paint black on the mask at perhaps 30% opacity until the effect is painted out.

TK Actions: Sharpening for Web

For many photographers, the last step in the image processing workflow is the creation of a downsized JPG from a large Photoshop file. During this downsizing process, you lose some sharpness in your image. Because of this, it is important to add back some “output sharpening” while creating the JPG. There are a range of options for doing this, including sharpening during export in Lightroom, sharpening a layer in Photoshop or using a Photoshop plug-in, such as Nik’s Sharpener Pro.

I tried a number of methods and landed on a Photoshop action created by Tony Kuyper. The “Web-Sharpening” tool is built into Tony’s “TK Actions” panel. This set of actions is the best value out there. In fact, almost all of the landscape photographers I know use TK Actions. But, this blog is about the Web-Sharpening tool, so I will [try to] stay focused on that.

I sharpened the image below using the action and, as you can see, the sharpening looks great (click on the image to see it as it appears on my site). I’ll take you through the process so that you can see how easy it is.

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Sunset at Vestrahorn : Prints Available

Glowing fields from low-angled sidelight in front of Iceland’s Vestrahorn Mountain.

Below is a screen shot of the Web-Sharpening section of Tony’s actions panel. To size this image at 800 pixels wide for my website, I simply enter “800” pixels in the box, check “horizontal” for a horizontal image, leave the layer opacity at 50% (this can be adjusted later) and hit “OK”.

Web-sharpen section

If I understand correctly, the action first creates an image sized at 1.67 times your final specified image size. This image is over-sharpened and then re-sized to your originally specified size (in my case, 800 pixels wide). The action creates a separate file with a layer stack, as pictured below. Your Photoshop file is left unaltered.

whole screen no mask

Below is a close-up of the layers. The sharpened image layers are grouped together in the layer called “TK Web-Sharpen”. You’ll notice that the 50% opacity that I had specified appears as the opacity in the sharpened group layer.

layers and opacity

I find that 50% opacity works well on the sharpening group layer for most of my landscape images. For landscape images that have a clear horizon line (such as in this example), I then add a white mask to the sharpening group layer and paint a black line on the mask along the horizon line at between 80-100% opacity. This is because sharpening a high-contrast horizon line can often make a slight halo look more pronounced. Masking it out solves this potential problem.

horizon masked out

You then have the option of making additional adjustments using the available hue/saturation, curves or levels layers/masks. I normally use the Curves layer to increase contrast slightly to try to match the contrast of the Photoshop file. These three layers are available to further tweak the color or contrast of your JPG if you noticed a loss of either from your Photoshop file.

With the JPG copy still open, hit the “Save for Web” button on the Web-Sharpening section which opens Photoshop’s Save for Web dialogue box. This dialogue box is beyond the scope of this blog, but here is what it looked like prior to saving my image:

save for web screen

The image below was shot several hours after the image above. Because it was very dark, I shot this at high ISO. I was concerned about sharpening the noise which would make the JPG image appear noisier. So, for this image, I masked out almost all of the sky in addition to the horizon line.

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Aurora Over Iceland : Prints Available

The Northern Lights illuminating the sky over southeastern Iceland.

I also use the Web-Sharpening action for my portrait work. Because I want to avoid over-sharpening my already-heavily-sharpened subjects, I drop the opacity to 30% which seems to be the right amount to me.

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One Eye Closed : Prints Available

Chinese man from the Longji area takes a break outside his house.

You can find the TK Actions panel at the link below, as well as excellent videos by Sean Bagshaw on how to use the actions, including the Web-Sharpening tool.

http://goodlight.us/specialoffers.html

Even though the Web-Sharpening tool alone is worth the price, you get loads of actions as part of the TK Actions panel, including the famous luminosity masking actions which will change your life.

Compelling Shapes in Silhouette Images

Silhouette images can be pretty cool. This is because the high level of contrast between lights and darks, often combined with saturated colors, makes an immediate impact on the viewer. However, this visual impact makes it easy to let a mediocre image slip into your portfolio.

For this reason, I hold my silhouette images to a higher standard when it comes to the shape of the subject. The subject must have an interesting graphic shape, such as in the picture below:

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Twins : Prints Available

Two women in silhouette on beach outside XiaPu, China

This image works well because the dancer (a.k.a. my wife) knows how to pose well.

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First Light : Prints Available

Dancer exercising at sunrise on Lake Michigan

Depending on your shutter speed, you will most likely need to use a tripod and also ensure your subject is completely still. None of the edges of the silhouette should be blurred, unless you are blurring for effect.

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The Fountain : Prints Available

Elegant woman watching a fountain during a brilliant sunset

Also, in many cases, you don’t want the silhouette to go completely dark. Including a little detail in the shadows often works better than having a completely black shape. In the image below, I brought out some of the details of the lighthouse in post-processing.

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All is Well : Prints Available

Silhouette of two men fishing off a lighthouse pier during sunset

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