What's it all about?

This blog is about photography and photoediting. Its purpose is to provide hints and tips and links to interesting and useful resources for digital photographers, regardless of their level of expertise or experience. It is aimed at people who use digital SLR cameras and who process their images using the latest versions of Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Photoshop Lightroom.

The author of this blog is Glenn Springer and you can read more about him at his web portal at faczen.com. Information on workshops, and links to everything is at photography.to. Glenn's original blog, which is an ongoing journal of his photographic meanderings goes back to 2006 and contains many additional hints and tips, as well as representative images that he has made. Gallery quality prints are available through his Smugmug gallery site. It is an interesting place to visit to see a variety of quality images, as well as an ongoing general journal of photos going back several years.

Photography workshops are scheduled every few weeks starting in the Spring. For an overview of what's happening, please visit the photography.to website.

The most recent blog post is below. Scroll down to the bottom to see the list of previous postings or search for any particular topic.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Black and White images on Black Backgrounds

Black and White images on Black Backgrounds

A while ago, a British photographer by the name of Antony Northcutt posted some images of black-and-white flowers on a black background. They were outstanding and I wanted to learn how to do that. Fortunately he had written an eBook documenting his technique, which I bought and studied.

Pablo Picasso said that a “good artist copies; a great artist steals”. Don’t take it literally — the great artist uses the work of others as an inspiration, builds on it and makes it his own. I loved Northcutt’s work but not only did I change his technique but also the result as well. It inspired me to create something my own and I hope this does the same for you.

What I love about Photoshop is that there are a million ways to do anything. That means that everyone’s approach is going to be different! In this short tutorial, I’ll show you my workflow and some of the thinking behind it, to give you some ideas.

 This deals with making black and white images of flowers (or other subjects!) on black backgrounds. The key points are subject choice, selection, background rendering, and toning including non-destructive dodging and burning. I edit in Photoshop CC 2014 but most of this works in earlier versions as well.

Please click on any image to view it full-screen.

The original image (note: these images are all screen captures). I chose this image for this tutorial because it would help illustrate my techniques, not because it's a particularly strong artistic image!

Choosing the Subject 

Here’s my weak suit. I don’t have that great an eye. I’m looking for repetitive patterns and not-too-fine details. Flowers are easier because they’re created that way! But they don’t all work, and flora with fine textured edges elude me. Because we’re doing black and white and removing the background, you can choose subjects without too much regard for background. I’m looking for something big enough to fill most of the frame because I don’t want to have to crop too much. And with soft lighting because I want to save those deep blacks for the background.

When I take the picture, I expose for the subject because the background is going to be removed anyway. I want the broadest possible tonal range so of course I shoot in RAW. Sometimes I’ll bracket exposures because colours can fool you and occasionally I might blend exposures in an HDR program as well. The key is to watch your histogram and make sure you don’t blow out the highlights.

This works well on Portraits too!

Initial Processing 

I’m a Lightroom fan. But the toolbox in Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw are identical so use whichever one you’re most comfortable with. I find it easy to surf through the images, switching from colour to black and white and back again, to help visualize what will work best. Sometimes I’ll crop at this stage, because I know what I’m shooting for anyway. I personally like square images for this approach. At first, my goal is to tone the image so that I have details at both ends – dark and light. Again, ignore the background and just look at the subject! I will be toning in more detail later, so this is just a “rough cut”. Now you’re ready to export to Photoshop.

Another reason to crop at this point is to reduce the file size. As you add layers in Photoshop, you increase the file size exponentially: working with a full-frame image from a D800 as I do, you can get above 1Gb really quickly! 

Once there, my very first step is ALWAYS to hit Ctrl-J, Cmd-J on a Mac, to duplicate the background layer. I want to leave the original layer intact in case I want to go back, and I don’t want to rule out reducing opacity or changing blend modes on the working layer(s). Turn off visibility of the background layer. The next step can be the tough one.

Making the Selection 

Again there are a number of ways to skin this cat. For me, one of the simplest is the Quick Selection Tool, followed by Refine Edge. My goal here is to get all of the flower, I can finesse the edges later. Another easy tool to use is Topaz Remask. Make sure you get it all. If you select too much you can erase it later, but it’s much harder to add something you missed. Using Refine Edge, you can now clean up the edges of your selection. This isn’t a workshop on how to do that: suffice it to say, the simpler the flower, the easier it is. A lacy subject with complicated edges can be very challenging!

Now once it’s selected, ctrl-J (cmd-J) works a little differently: it copies your selection only onto a fresh layer.

Making a black background 

I’ve seen this done a number of ways, but I’m in favour of the KISS principle. Northcutt had you select the layer underneath, create an exposure adjustment layer, slide the exposure down as far as it will go, and you have an almost-black background. There’s one advantage to that method: if you want to keep some vestiges of what was around the subject in the final image. But the problem is, you won’t get a pure black. That makes a huge difference when you go to print. But every artist and every image is different!

Here’s my simple technique: 

  • Create a new layer. 
  • Fill it with black (alt-backspace on PC, option-delete on Mac). 
  • Slide the new layer underneath your selection layer. 

You’re done.

Now it’s time for a little cleanup. You can go into your selection layer and use the eraser tool, but if you make a mistake, it’s hard to go back. Instead, add a mask on the layer and paint on the mask. Anything painted in black will reveal the layer underneath, anything painted in white will hide it – and it’s easy to go back and forth (the “X” key switches the foreground and background colours). Depending on how fussy you are, this can take a few moments, or hours!

Sidebar: "Do as I say, not as I do"! Mea Culpa: when I did this image, it was more about creating this tutorial than a final image so I took some shortcuts. Trust me, it's much better to use a mask because you can fine tune right down to the pixel level. And I would not consider doing this kind of editing without my Wacom tablet and stylus. If you're reading this and you don't have one, it's time to go shopping (Amazon Canada or Amazon US).

The Black and White Conversion 

You could leave your image in colour. You’re the artist! But I like black and white for this, and, well, I’m the artist today! Again, there are lots of ways to approach this. Before we do…

At this point I give up my totally non-destructive approach. I keep everything I’ve done up to now separate so I could go back if I want to, but I personally find it easier to work on a combined layer at this point. So I “Stamp” a fresh combined layer on top of the others, without deleting them. You do that with “Ctrl-Alt-Shift-E” (Cmd-Option-Shift-E). That takes a lot of fingers and I do it often, so I’ve programmed that into my Wacom tablet on a single hotkey. You can make a keyboard shortcut for it too.

Sidebar: You’ve done a bunch of work. Save often as you go along. Save it once early, then just hit ctrl-S (Cmd-S) when you think of it and you’re saving it again. Save it as a .PSD file to preserve all your layers. 

OK now for the black and white. You could just go up in the menu and change the whole thing to greyscale. Boooh. No control! In the layers pallet, create a black-and-white adjustment layer. Now you have a bunch of sliders that let you choose what happens to each colour in the original. Play. This is where the artist in you starts to come out.

Sometimes I’ll use an outside plugin program called Google (Nik) Silver Efex Pro 2 for the conversion. It does much the same thing except you get much more control. Topaz also makes a similar program called “BW Effects”. These are great for adding multiple levels of control.

Sidebar: There are other plugins and techniques that you might want to consider using. Topaz Clarity. Adding detail and sharpening with a hi-pass layer. InFocus. DFine. Viveza. It’s your call… (Here's the link to Topaz Labs) 

Toning your image 

I have two more steps in my workflow to make the image jump out at you. One of them is toning the image using Curves, the other one is to dodge and burn certain areas.

 I’ll next add a curves adjustment layer which adjusts the overall toning of the image. Make the curve “S”-shaped if you want more contrast. Pull specific spots to re-tone specific densities. Now I'm going to “Stamp” another fresh layer because I want to do a non-destructive dodge and burn.

The dodge and burn trick: create a new layer and fill it with 50% gray. Change the blend mode to “overlay”. In this mode, 50% grey has absolutely zero effect on your image. But if you paint in black on this layer, it darkens, or “burns in” what’s underneath it. If you paint white, it lightens it, or dodges what’s underneath. I usually choose a soft brush, turn the opacity down (sometimes really, really low, like 10%!) and I paint. If you paint over the same spot, it gets darker (or lighter). The “X” key switches back and forth. Make a mistake? Switch colours. Or just fill the whole layer with grey again and start over!

As a rule of thumb, I burn in the dark things and textures to make them stronger, and dodge the light things to make them soft. In this case, I also used some local sharpening to bring out the water droplets.

This is what the dodge/burn layer looked like on its own after I was finished painting.

Almost done! 

I added a hi-pass sharpening layer (much the same technique as the Dodge/Burn layer. "Overlay" blend mode, the Hi-pass filter is under "others" in Photoshop, I typically use a value of 4 px). I did a little more dodging and burning. In the sample image, I had included a stem, which I wanted out of focus. I used an iris blur, but it caught the edges of the flower so I added a mask and painted out the areas I didn’t want blurred. Then I decided I did want something other than pure black in the background, so I made a new layer, opened it in Topaz Impression, masked the flower edges then masked the interior to retain all the detail. Done!

At first, I just masked the edges of the flower so they would remain crisp. But as I looked at it more closely, I decided I also wanted the textures in the flower to stand out, so I continued painting on the mask as you see below. 

I was trying to remember which preset I used in Topaz Impression. I think, "Georgia O'Keeffe I" but I'm not sure. That's why you should name your layers as you go along! 

If you want to see what the image looks like matted in a frame, increase the canvas size, fill it with white, draw a keyline and add your signature!


The key here is to select a subject with great tonality and texture, but not too much complexity. Visualize it in black and white. Put it on a pure black background, then enhance it with the traditional darkroom tools now translated into Photoshop. Pay attention to detail and your results will be outstanding.

Here's another image for your viewing pleasure. I used much the same series of techniques and finished it with both Topaz Glow and Topaz Impression. This was made from a small section of a larger image; the selection of the flower was somewhat more difficult due to its complexity. The grey background around it is the version I use in Social Media or my normal weekly blog.

Online resources: 

Antony Northcutt eBook
Non-destructive dodging/burning

Interested in doing a workshop on this or another topic? Please contact me by email or visit my website at www.photography.to.

— 30 —

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Planning or accident?

Many of the readers of my regular blog are not photographers (they're people who like my photos and hopefully will contact me to say they want to buy one!). The ones who ARE photographers are usually not as heavily into post-processing as I am. However this is directed at those who make pictures.

Good pictures can happen by accident. No question. But sometimes you can help the process along by pre-planning and attention to detail.

I've been preaching about many things, in my courses, in my newspaper columns, in my blog and in club sessions and outings. You know, "work the scene", "know your equipment" (my famous "RTFM" comment), "it's all about the light", "don't use automatic", "envision what you want the image to look like".

There are others out there who insist you can't get a good image without thousands of dollars of lighting equipment, fancy lenses and cameras... (OK, I do have a D800 but a D70 would have made this shot. Even a Canon would. Maybe. {insert smiley face here}).

I'm a planner. I don't expect that everyone is and sometimes it's a detriment: I spend a lot of time thinking about what I'm doing and I lose spontaneity. "Everything in moderation", so maybe some of this will rub off. In this case, I want to go behind the scenes and tell you a bit about the thinking that went into the making of this image.

Steve Hill is the Curator of the Haliburton Highlands Museum and like his predecessor (whom I met in 2008), he likes to play "blacksmith" for his adoring public.There's a Blacksmith shop in the old Homestead exhibition at the museum. The camera club arranged that Steve would be there that day, so this was all planned and he knew he was there to be a model. Nothing candid about this shot, but he wasn't directed to stand 'just so' and do certain things.  Click on the image to blow it up.

When I heard we were going there for a shoot, I had already envisioned the picture I wanted. Not exactly, of course, but back in 2008 I had taken some shots of his predecessor, Tom, in the same shop and I had great success with using off-camera flash fill. I planned to do it again. The hardware setup, for those who want to know, was a Nikon SB600 speedlight with a Gary Fong diffuser attached, fired remotely by using "commander" mode in the D800 camera. Lens was my mid-range 24-120 and I shot handheld at 40mm. Although I tried the 70-200 it was too far away to get the angle I wanted and to include the window.

I thought I needed to have the window in the shot. It was a light source, of course, but I needed to anchor where the light was coming from and I put the flash on the same side, the left, to match it. I stepped to the left (sorry if I got in other photographers' way!) to get the composition right, with Steve not blocking the window. I needed the vertical orientation to include the anvil, his face, the window...

It's important to understand that when you're mixing flash and ambient light, the shutter speed controls the ambient and you control the amount of flash fill with the aperture (assuming you don't fiddle with the ISO). In this case, though, I used the built-in electronics, the camera told the flash how much output to use by measuring the light through the lens (TTL) during the shot. So I had to use "Flash Compensation" to adjust that. The point is, the shutter speed makes no difference to the flash since the burst of light is so much faster.

The ideal way to do this is to shoot some test images without the flash, to get the levels right, then add it in. That's what I did, and I dialed the flash back to -1ev, so it wasn't acting as the main light source. The end exposure here was 1/30 second at f/8, ISO 200. The speed was a bit slow, I probably should have opened a stop or popped the ISO up to get 1/60 but it worked. VR on the lens helps. I locked the aperture at f/8 to get a comfortable depth of field and besides, it's the sweet spot for that lens. Actually, good thing I did, because it was the right speed for the sparks coming off the anvil.

So I actually thought about all this stuff before going out to shoot: I made sure I had the flash and diffuser with me, and the right lens, a tripod (which I ended up not using for this shot). I knew I wanted commander mode, that I would be dialing the flash back and would measure the ambient light before the shot.

I made a couple of mistakes. Two that could have been disastrous and in fact, caused me to only get a couple of usable shots. (1) I had been shooting brackets before and forgot to turn it off. So many of my frames were not exposed correctly and it took me a few minutes to figure out why. (2) Would you believe I left my memory card at home in the computer? All I had in the camera was a 4Gb CF card and I only discovered this later when I tried to take some other pictures and couldn't. The camera said it could only hold 30 images, in fact it held 90 before giving up. (3) I didn't get the right lighting on Steve's beard. Then I forgot about it and I was lucky it worked out.


When I got home (and struggled to upload the pictures, I can't find my CF card reader), I zeroed in on this one frame. Here's what it looked like before I did anything to it, except cropping and straightening it up a bit:

So I didn't really need to do too much to it. I tweaked it a bit in Lightroom, I wanted to take the clarity back a little bit to soften it and adjust the white clipping so nothing was blown out, and I added a bit of dark vignetting to keep the eye in the image. Now over to Photoshop.

My first action in Photoshop is almost always to hit ctrl-J and duplicate the background layer. Two reasons: I want to preserve my original image in case I decide to go back to it and I may want to blend all or part of it into the finished image. In this case, I also knew I wanted to treat Steve and the background separately, so the next thing I did was to make a selection of him, the anvil and sparks, and copy them onto a separate layer. Now I could tweak the lighting on his face and eye, add some sharpening to the beard. Like I said, it didn't need much. The joys of getting it right in camera!

Now the background. I cheated. I tried a few tricks, like motion blur, adding texture... even Topaz Simplify. In the end, I opened it in Topaz Impression and looked at a few sample styles. I immediately loved the "Impasto 1" preset, unmodified. However, as I mentioned earlier, the result was a bit too strong so I reduced the opacity of that layer to let the original show through a bit. And the layer with Steve on it is not at full opacity either, to help blend it in with the rest of the image.

I turned the layer with Steve and the anvil on it back on. I corrected a few edge issues and lightened up the anvil, and saved it. Done, except for my "BlogFrame" which is how I like to show my images online. I had written a short Photoshop Action to make that happen: it put a grey frame and dropshadow around the image, prepared a text layer for the title and a separate layer where I could stamp on my signature. Two minutes later: finished.

So what's the message here? I've written up what I thought about and what I did from the initial concept to the finished image. Did I need a fancy 36 Megapixel D800 DSLR to make this shot? No. Pretty well all of the Nikons since the D70 have had all the capability I needed. Did I need a $2000 fast lens? No, I shot at f/8, with one of the least expensive lenses I own (this is an original 24-120, I got it back with my D70 in 2006, everyone says it's the worst lens Nikon ever made. Right.). Did I need a high-tech TTL Nikon Speedlight? Well, it helped. I could have done this with a reflector instead. I did need something to bounce light in from the front. Could you do this with a point-and-shoot camera? Nah...although it could be done by a really experienced photographer with virtually anything.
As a small aside, using commander mode and a remote flash is tricky. You need to practice that in advance so you know how: when I first got there, the remote wasn't triggering. It only took me a minute to realize that although the camera was set up right, the flash sensor wasn't activated.  You need to know your equipment. RTFM.
This is about the process. Hopefully it gives you, the reader, an idea about how I created a successful picture, from planning to execution. Maybe you'll use some of these ideas in your future shoots.

— 30 —

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Workflow Tips

I thought I'd share a couple of workflow tips for my photographer friends.

I don't have to do high speed editing like a sports photographer might. I generally don't import thousands of images at a time, but I might do a couple of hundred. This is just a quick overview of my process and I've highlighted a few of the things I think about. This is not a detailed explanation, it takes too long to write that and I don't want to put anyone to sleep. Just some things to think about.

1. Import
I put the memory card in the reader and I have the computer set up to automatically open Lightroom. The import dialog appears, and I've written a preset called "D800 import" that automatically sets up some parameters: where the images are saved, where the second copy (backup) is saved (on a different drive), it adds my copyright info in the metadata, and some really basic settings like sharpening, clarity, vibrance, camera profile, lens correction, etc. I can always change those but most RAW files need something to make them look ok on import. Click "Go" and depending how many images, get a coffee.

2. Flag Status
The D800 gives you huge files. I don't necessarily want to keep them all and some of them are certainly worth prioritizing for the next step in the editing cycle. I blow them up to full size on the big monitor and go through the whole batch, hitting "X" for reject, "P" for pick or just skipping them if I'm not sure. Pictures I want to work on first, I'll hit "6" (puts an "Edit Now" flag on them) and really good ones I'll mark with a 3- or 4- or very rarely a 5-star rating.  I also use "7" on series' of bracketed pictures I will want to merge to HDR.

Next step is the hard-hearted click on ctrl-backspace to permanently delete all the rejected photos from disk. These are pictures you're NEVER EVER going to want to see again.

This whole thing is really a quick process, assuming I've taken that few minutes to let Lightroom generate the  previews before I start. 200 images, maybe 10 minutes.

3. Keywording
This is a good time to do it. These are all potential keepers, and if you ever want to find them again... you can do them quickly in batches and add more later.

4. Editing
I'm not going into detail here. Each picture needs a different treatment. Sometimes you want to do some common edits, especially if a number of pictures are going to be merged together, as an HDR for instance, or all themed to work together for some other reason. Lightroom lets you sync edits across a number of images.

I do everything I can in Lightroom, then export selected images to edit in Photoshop. I use plug-ins a lot: if nothing else they save orders-of-magnitude of time instead of working blindly in Photoshop. My go-to plugins are from Topaz and Nik. I have the full suites from both of those manufacturers. Here are the links:

Step 1 once an image is imported to Photoshop: Ctrl-J duplicates the layer so I have the original to fall back on any time I want to. Step 2 is usually a hi-pass sharpening layer (blend mode to overlay, radius 4px is my go-to setting). The rest varies from image to image. Step 3: Blow the image up onscreen to at least 100% and go around it to find whatever else needs fixing. There's always something!

Once I get back to Lightroom, that's when I crop and straighten (I may have done a preliminary crop before exporting to Photoshop). Final touchup, and as Ansel Adams used to say, a picture isn't finished until the edges are darkened a bit. A really useful tool is the new radial filter in Lightroom that you can use to really make the subject pop.

For display on my blog or on Social Media, I often like to build a shadow frame like the one below. I created an action to do that in Photoshop with one click, then I enter the caption, my signature and tweak it as I see fit before saving it as a separate file. I don't want to overwrite my original. Contact me if you want a copy of the action (works in CC or CS6)

5. Exporting
You do understand that everything I've done up to now is creating the source file, the "negative" as you will, that I archive. What I do with them next depends: are they for use on social media? My blog? For sale as a fine art print? Wallpaper? For the media (newspaper)? You need to export Jpegs for that. So that's what I do next, but only when I want to use them for something. There's no need to save the exported files back into Lightroom: I can always make them again from the source files. 

I set up a bunch of export presets that say where the file should be stored, what it's called, how big it is, whether there's a watermark, etc. Once you've made the preset, it's 'select the preset' then one click to export as many files as you want!

6. Backup
I have Lightroom set to make a backup of the catalog whenever I exit the program. The backup goes on a different drive from the original (you know why. If you need me to tell you why, sell your computer and buy a box of pencils). Do it religiously. 

In my workflow, I sync my external drive where the main images are, to one or two other external drives. The keepers also go on another one which is stored off-site. I do that every month, on the first. Only then do I delete the original backup images I made when I imported them. And I keep a month's worth anyway. You need a backup plan...

Is this the world's greatest workflow? No, of course not. Should you do it exactly like this? No. Did this give you some idea about how you might treat your own work? I hope so!

Be sure to visit my regular weekly blog, interesting images and ramblings from the Highlands! Click the "Newsletter" button (or here) for a weekly heads-up about what's on the newest posting.

— 30 —

Monday, April 28, 2014

Shooting Stars

The Lyrids meteor shower got me interested in shooting stars again. I wanted to catch a meteor! I've been through somewhat of a learning curve, although I've shot stars before. I thought I would save some of you some hassle, and give you some ideas at the same time. These are some random thoughts on the subject, some quick answers and some pitfalls to avoid.

Click on any image to blow it up. I made them all about 1200 pixels wide.

We'll talk about how I captured and made these three images, totally different techniques.

Nikon D600, Nikkor 17-35mm lens at 17mm, 30 seconds at f/2.8, ISO 2500

Nikon D800, Nikkor 17-35mm lens at 17mm, 30 seconds at f/2.8, ISO 800.

Same exposure: Nikon D800, Nikkor 17-35mm lens at 17mm, 30 seconds at f/2.8, ISO 800. But I merged over 50 frames in StarStaX.

First of all, what equipment do you need? A camera with an appropriate lens, a tripod, and optionally but really important (especially for the 3rd shot), a remote cable release that locks. At the risk of restating the obvious, here's what you need to do:

  • Find a spot where you have a relatively unobstructed view of the sky and where it's dark
  • Dark means, well, DARK. In all three of those pictures, less so in the first one, there's light pollution in the sky. No, folks, that's not the vestiges of the sunset, those last two pictures were shot after midnight and the light in the sky is from the little town of Minden, Ontario, more than 10 km away.
  • Put the camera on the tripod. Before you do, focus it to infinity (it's best to know in advance where infinity really is, in relation to that "∞" mark on your lens). Make sure you turn off autofocusing, VR or IS or whatever your camera maker calls it, and switch to Manual exposure. Turn OFF "Long Exposure Noise Reduction" (Lightroom, Photoshop and a myriad of plug-ins do it better). Point it at the sky.
  • Attach your cable release. If you don't have one, you'll want to use the self timer in the camera to give it time to settle down before taking the shot. That won't work for the third shot above.
  • Crank your ISO up to 4000 or so, shutter speed to about 10 seconds and aperture as big as your lens allows, and shoot a test shot. This isn't a keeper, it's a quick way to see if you've focused correctly, if the camera is level (the D800 has a built-in artificial horizon that really helps!) and if the composition is what you want. Move it around until you're happy.

If you want to shoot a static star field like the first image, you need to remember that, well, the earth moves. The distance that the star moves in your picture depends on how long the shutter is open and the focal length of your lens. The longer the telephoto, the more it seems to move. So a wide angle works best.

There's a little magic formula, called the "Rule of 600". Divide 600 by your focal length: example, a 50mm lens will give you "12" as the answer. But remember that if you have a cropped sensor, you need to divide that by the crop factor (around 1.5?) so that means 8 seconds. If your shutter is open longer than that, when you blow up the picture you will see star trails.

It's good to have something in the foreground. Here I painted the trees with a small flashlight while the shutter was open. I think the bright star is Venus, and the cluster above it is the Pleiades (did you know the Subaru logo is based on them?). D300, 12mm, 30 seconds at f/4, ISO 1600.

If you don't have a big aperture lens, here's where you're going to get in trouble: you're going to have to crank that ISO up really high to get a good exposure! Here's a starting point:

Aperture = f/2.8, Shutter Speed = 30 seconds, ISO = 1600. I'm sure you can do the arithmetic for your combination. See why that f/5.6, 55-105mm lens is going to get you in trouble?

I underexposed the second shot because I didn't want as many stars. Also there was more ambient light in that direction.

If you want to catch a meteor, you need infinite patience (or incredible luck!).

Here's what you need that locking cable release for. Whatever shutter speed you select, click the cable release and lock it. It will keep shooting pictures, one after another, until you unlock it. Go inside where it's warm, pour yourself a coffee (or a scotch), relax and come back later.

I set up the camera behind the house for about 40 minutes, doing a sequence of 30 second exposures which I later blended together in Photoshop (the technique is to stack multiple layers with "Lighten" blend mode. I did it in batches of 10 until I got all 74 images done). No meteors. But I did see 3 things in the images:

This image is 2 frames merged together. According to what I read, this matches the profile of a satellite. The middle is brighter because the sun reflected off a brighter part of the rotating satellite at that point. I was pointing roughly NorthEast which is consistent with the sun setting behind me. The image was shot at 9:53 pm, about 2 hours after sunset.

There are 4 merged frames in this image. The big streak is clearly an airplane, you can see the regular red flashing light and it's a dual trace. There's another really fine trace that I think was possibly another satellite. 

Here's what happens when you merge those images together.

This is the full merge of all 74 images. Pretty, but not what I was hoping for. Too many stars. You can't even see the second satellite. 

Trying to solve the "too many stars" issue. I first reduced the exposure of the individual frames by one full stop, then dragged down the highlights and blacks even more. I exported the images as jpegs (6000px wide) and used StarStaX* to combine them. Still not enough, I opened it in Photoshop and used Topaz Simplify.  This is a "work in process". As soon as I find the right formula, I'll share it.

* StarStax is a freestanding program that works on all platforms. It's job is to automate stacking those images to make star trail shots. You could do a lot of it in Photoshop manually (as I did at the beginning) but StarStaX has some utilities to smooth the transition by filling in gaps (haven't figured that out yet!). It's FREEWARE and you can get it at http://www.markus-enzweiler.de/software/software.html. Besides, after you export the images to Jpeg, it's a couple of keystrokes to do the comp, all at once, unlike the 45 minutes I took to do it in Photoshop earlier.

Here's a shot that failed.

Same settings, but only 30 exposures. I got tired, and wanted to do the car shot at the top, so I interrupted the sequence. 15 minutes is not enough with a wide angle lens. PS: when I go back to redo this, I'm going vertical. Imagine the reflections of the stars in the water!

The other way of doing star trails is one long exposure. But noise is generated by your sensor when it's under power (especially when it's hot), so the quality seems to be better by merging shorter exposures. That said, you can control the exposure more traditionally.

D300, 12mm lens at f/5.6, ISO 100, 6,130 seconds (102 minutes).

D800, 1850 seconds (30 minutes) at f/2.8, 17mm, ISO 100 

The second shot at the top? OK, I'll admit it. The meteor was created in Photoshop.

Use a black layer and a small soft brush loaded with white. Click where the tail should be, hold "Shift" and click where the head should be (keep it horizontal, you can rotate it later). This works best with a Wacom tablet, make it pressure sensitive. Now double the size of the brush, turn the opacity down to half, and paint in the head. Add a touch of Gaussian Blur or it'll just look like a Q-tip! Practice makes perfect!

Now the third shot: the car. I did all the things I said above; several quick test shots at high ISO to evaluate the focus and composition, one of the test shots showed an ugly shadow on the ground (the light on the car was from a mercury vapour street light about 400 m away, the only light around! But the camera/tripod cast an ugly shadow), so I had to recompose. I got into the car after setting things in motion, in order to trigger the interior lights for a frame or 2. Too bright. So I edited those out in the computer and turned on my iPhone while I was in the car.

Here's the picture again. It'll blow up if you click on it. 

To prepare the images for StarStaX, I opened one in Lightroom, took the exposure down a full stop (too many stars), added highlights and darkened the blacks, added contrast and clarity. then synced all of the changes to the other images. I edited about 12 of the 54 images in Photoshop to get rid of two airplanes and three passing cars (the airplanes were easy: healing brush. The cars were tougher, big soft layer masks, 'darken' blend mode). Then I exported the 54 jpegs to a folder and dragged them into StarStaX.

I'm new to StarStaX so I haven't figured the "gap fill mode" properly yet. But when I omitted the bad frames (cars) it left gaps in the star trails, so I fixed them and put them back in. I ticked "comet mode" which is really cool. Once done: too many stars! So I added a layer of Topaz Simplify BuzSim at about 50% opacity to control how many stars in the image.

So the above was a rambling mess. I threw all kinds of random stuff at you. But if you go back and read it again, I'll bet it'll save you some time in your star-shooting learning curve!

If you want to do a workshop on this, I'm happy to oblige. We'll spend some time going over the theory, get you set up, then go out and shoot. Then we can come back (next day, not the same night!) and do some computer magic. Very reasonable price. Contact me!

— 30 —

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Amazing amount of Metadata!

I wanted to see the shutter count on my new D800 – information which I know is captured in the Metadata by the camera but which you normally can't see – so I opened a Metadata editing program to read it. I was struck, as I always am, by the sheer amount of information recorded by the camera whenever you press the shutter.

I've barely set up this camera yet (it's a factory refurb, by the way. Nikon said it had 594 shutter actuations when I got it). Copyright info isn't in yet, the clock's off by an hour, colour space & filename not yet set (actually, I just spent the last 30 minutes doing that stuff but it wasn't set when I shot this image).

I use a free Metadata editor program called PhotoME that's available at this website. Each camera stores different information. For instance, Canon cameras don't seem to record the shutter count. Still it shows an impressive array of information!

Here's the metadata for the following image.

In fact this image is a JPEG rendering of the original RAW file listed, without any modification other than conversion, resize and watermark.

By the way, check out the noise in this unedited image. Would you believe it was shot at ISO 6400?

An edited version of this image (actually the next frame) is on my regular weekly blog.

[ PhotoME ]
PhotoME version: 0.8ß2 (Build 891)
[ Overview ]
File name: K:\FACZEN photos main files\2014\2014-01\2014-01-29\DSC_2065.NEF
File type: Nikon Camera RAW
File size: 47,801.6 KB
Creation date: 1/29/2014 22:44
Last modification: 1/29/2014 22:44
Camera: NIKON D800
Lens: AF-S VR Zoom-Nikkor 24-120mm F3.5-5.6G IF-ED
Software: Ver.1.02
Dimension: 7424 x 4924 px (36.6 MP, 3:2)
Focal length: 120 mm (equiv. 120 mm)
Aperture: F8
Exposure time: 1/8"
ISO speed rating: 6400/39°
Program: Aperture priority
Metering Mode: Pattern
White Balance: AUTO1
Focus Mode: AF-S
Image Stabilizer: On
Noise Reduction: Off
Flash: Flash did not fire, compulsory flash mode
[ Image ]
New subfile type: Reduced-resolution image data
Image width: 160 px
Image height: 120 px
Number of bits per component: 8, 8, 8
Compression scheme: uncompressed
Pixel scheme: RGB
Image input equipment model: NIKON D800
Image data location: 0x0001E6A8
Orientation of image: 90° CW (left/bottom)
Number of components: 3
Number of rows per strip: 120 rows
Bytes per compressed strip: 57600 bytes
Image resolution in width direction: 300 dpi
Image resolution in height direction: 300 dpi
Image data arrangement: Chunky Format (Interleaved)
Unit of X and Y resolution: inch
Software: Ver.1.02
File change date and time: 2014-01-29 22:44:10
Person who created the image:
SubIFD Pointer: 0x0002C7A8, 0x0002C820, 0x0002C904
Pair of black and white reference values: [0, 255, 0, 255, 0, 255]
Copyright holder:
Exif IFD Pointer: 0x00000668
GPS IFD Pointer: 0x0001E694
Date and time of original data generation: 2014-01-29 22:44:10
TIFF/EP Standard ID:
[ Additional Image Data (1) ]
New subfile type: Reduced-resolution image data
Compression scheme: JPEG (old-style)
Image resolution in width direction: 300 dpi
Image resolution in height direction: 300 dpi
Unit of X and Y resolution: inch
Offset to JPEG SOI: 0x0010EC00
Bytes of JPEG data: 3551893 bytes
Y and C positioning: Co-Sited
[ Additional Image Data (2) ]
New subfile type: Not set
Image width: 7424 px
Image height: 4924 px
Number of bits per component: 14
Compression scheme: Nikon NEF Compressed
Pixel scheme: CFA (Color Filter Matrix)
Image data location: 0x00472000
Number of components: 1
Number of rows per strip: 4924 rows
Bytes per compressed strip: 44287554 bytes
Image resolution in width direction: 300 dpi
Image resolution in height direction: 300 dpi
Image data arrangement: Chunky Format (Interleaved)
Unit of X and Y resolution: inch
CFA Repeat Pattern Dimension: Horizontal repeat pixel unit: 2, Vertical repeat pixel unit: 2
CFA Pattern 2: [Red, Green], [Green, Blue]
Sensing method: One-chip color area sensor
[ Additional Image Data (3) ]
New subfile type: Reduced-resolution image data
Compression scheme: JPEG (old-style)
Image resolution in width direction: 300 dpi
Image resolution in height direction: 300 dpi
Unit of X and Y resolution: inch
Offset to JPEG SOI: 0x0002CA00
Bytes of JPEG data: 926205 bytes
Y and C positioning: Co-Sited
[ Camera ]
Exposure time: 1/8"
F number: F8
Exposure program: Aperture priority
ISO speed rating: 6400/39°
??? (8830): 2
Date and time of original data generation: 2014-01-29 22:44:10
Date and time of digital data generation: 2014-01-29 22:44:10
Exposure bias: ±0 EV
Maximum lens aperture: 5 Av (F5.6)
Metering mode: Pattern
Light source: Unknown
Flash: Flash did not fire, compulsory flash mode
Lens focal length: 120 mm
Manufacturer notes: 0x00000888
User comment:
DateTime subseconds: 0.5"
DateTimeOriginal subseconds: 0.5"
DateTimeDigitized subseconds: 0.5"
Sensing method: One-chip color area sensor
File source: Digital Camera
Scene type: A directly photographed image
CFA pattern: [Red, Green], [Green, Blue]
Custom image processing: Normal process
Exposure mode: Auto exposure
White balance: Auto
Digital zoom ratio: Digital zoom was not used
Focal length in 35 mm film: 120 mm
Scene capture type: Standard
Gain control: High gain up
Contrast: Normal
Saturation: Normal
Sharpness: Normal
Subject distance range: Unknown
[ GPS ]
GPS tag version: Version 2.3
[ Manufacturer notes ]
MakerNote Version: Version 2.1.0
ISO: 6400/39°
Quality: RAW
White Balance: AUTO1
Focus Mode: AF-S
Flash Setting: None
Flash Type: None
White Balance Fine Tune: ±0, ±0?
White Balance Red/Blue: 1.32421875, 2.5546875, 1, 1
Program Shift: ±0 EV
Exposure Difference: ±0 EV
Preview IFD Pointer: 0x00005A06
Flash Exposure Compensation: ±0 EV
ISO Setting: 100/21°
??? (0017): 1.6.0
Flash Exposure Bracket Value: ±0 EV
Exposure Bracket Value: ±0 EV
Hi-Speed Crop: Off (7424x4924 cropped to 7424x4924 at pixel 0, 0)
??? (001C): 1.6
Serial Number: 5011113
Color Space: sRGB
VR Info Version: 1.0.0
Vibration Reduction: On
??? (001F): 1 (On?)
Active D-Lighting: Off
Picture Control Version: 1.0.0
Picture Control Name: STANDARD
Picture Control Base: STANDARD
Picture Control Adjust: Default Settings
Picture Control Quick Adjust: ±0
Sharpness: +3
Contrast: ±0
Brightness: ±0
Saturation: ±0
Hue Adjustment: ±0
Filter Effect: not set
Toning Effect: not set
Toning Saturation: Not set
Time Zone: UTC -5:00 (New York, Toronto, Lima)
Daylight Saving Time: On
Date Format: Day/month/year
ISO: 6400/39°
ISO Expansion: Off
ISO (2): 100/21°
ISO Expansion (2): Off
Vignette Control: Normal
Distortion Info Version: 1.0.0
Auto Distortion Control: Off
Lens Type: D, G, VR
Lens: 24-120mm F3.5-5.6
Flash Mode: Did Not Fire
Shooting Mode: Continuous, Unused long exp. NR slowdown
Auto Bracket Release: Auto Release
Lens F-Stops: 5.33
Shot Info Version: 2.2.2
RAW Compression: Lossless
Noise Reduction: Off
Color Balance Version: 2.1.7
Lens Data Version: 2.0.4
Used Lens: AF-S VR Zoom-Nikkor 24-120mm F3.5-5.6G IF-ED
Exit Pupil Position: 93.1 mm
AF Aperture: F5.8
??? (0098): 16
??? (0098): 0
Focus Position: 0x11
??? (0098): 64
Focus Distance: 0.67 m
Focal Length: 119.9 mm
Lens ID Number: 120
Lens F-Stops: 5.33
Min Focal Length: 24.5 mm
Max Focal Length: 119.9 mm
Max Aperture At Min Focal: F3.6
Max Aperture At Max Focal: F5.7
MCU Version: 124
Effective Max Aperture: F5.7
??? (0098): 22
??? (0098): 109
??? (0098): 28
??? (0098): 106
??? (0098): 0
??? (0098): 0
??? (0098): 0
??? (0098): 0
??? (0098): 0
??? (0098): 0
??? (0098): 0
??? (0098): 0
??? (0098): F1.1?
RAW Image Center: x = 3712, y = 2462
Retouch History: None
??? (00A3): 0
??? (00A4): 3.0.0
Shutter Count: 608
Multi Exposure Data Version: 1.0.0
Multi Exposure Mode: Off
Multi Exposure Shots: 0
Multi Exposure Auto Gain: Off
High ISO Noise Reduction: Normal
AF Info Version: 1.0.0
??? (00B7): 0
AF Area Mode: Single-point AF
??? (00B7): 0x0
Auto Focus: On
??? (00B7): 1
File Informations Version: 1.0.0
Directory Number: 954
File Number: 2065
[ Nikon Preview ]
Compression scheme: JPEG (old-style)
Image resolution in width direction: 300 dpi
Image resolution in height direction: 300 dpi
Unit of X and Y resolution: inch
Offset to JPEG SOI: 0x00005A72
Bytes of JPEG data: 99215 bytes
Y and C positioning: Co-Sited