Photo Experiment: Freezing Bubbles

Freezing Bubble Freezing Bubble Freezing Bubble Freezing Bubble Freezing Bubble Freezing Bubble Freezing Bubble Freezing Bubble Freezing Bubble Freezing Bubble

The cold season with its frosty temperatures offers a whole range of unique photography subjects – theoretically, at least. For this to work, it has to get cold enough in the first place, and in this respect, the current winter so far failed miserably. There hasn’t been a single day with the high temperature below freezing. Thus, I had more or less given up hope on checking off the still open topic “Ice Crystals / Snowflakes” on my photo board this winter.

Last week, however, a “polar cold front” moved in after all, with clear blue skies and temperatures as low as 15°F in the morning. So it was clear that I would use the short time between breakfast and leaving for work to take pictures. There still wasn’t any snow, hence I picked up a very popular idea from the internet: freezing soap bubbles.

FOR THE IMPATIENT

Gear Settings
  • Camera
  • Standard zoom lens
  • Soap bubble liquid
  • Straw
  • Outside temperature below 20°F
  • Warm clothing
  • Optional: external flash with color gel
  • Auto-focus
  • Aperture priority mode (A/Av)
  • Aperture ca.  ƒ/8 – ƒ/11
  • ISO 100 – 200
  • With flash: manual mode

THE SETUP

There isn’t much to set up, but the conditions have to be right. On the one hand, it has to be sufficiently cold outside; 20°F or below is optimal. On the other hand, there should be close to no wind at all, because the soap bubbles are extremely sensitive to wind and even the slightest breeze will let them burst quickly. Finally, you need a suitable surface, onto which you will place the bubbles. Wood, stones, moss, or – if you happen to have any – snow work well, for instance. I also tried metal, but that didn’t work at all. No matter what you choose, of course it should look nice.

Last but not least, the lighting has to be right. Strong backlighting makes the ice crystals stand out best, so an ideal time to take these pictures is right after sunrise or right before sunset. This allows you to benefit from the low sun, and it also creates a beautiful colorful mood. If this doesn’t work for you, maybe because the sun is hidden behind trees or buildings, then create your own backlight with an external flash that is controlled by a remote trigger. You can vary the mood of your images by attaching a color gel to the flash.

THE SETTINGS

The final settings depend on the actual light conditions, thus take the recommended settings given below as guiding values. I selected my “Always-on” as the lens, because its focal range of 17-70 mm (equals 27-112 mm on a full-frame camera) provided me with the desired flexibility for framing the image. In order to have sufficient depth of field, I chose an aperture value between ƒ/8 and ƒ/11. I set the ISO value to 100 or 200, mostly depending on where the sun was. I aimed at keeping the shutter speed below 1/25th of a second. Thus, thanks to the good image stabilizer of the Sigma lens, I was certain to avoid motion blur from camera shake.

I used auto-focus with a single focus point to fixate on the ice crystals. Since it only takes a few seconds for a bubble to freeze, this allowed me to quickly change position or adjust the framing of the image. However, the camera did have its problems with focusing on the intended side (front or back) of the bubble. The ideal solution is to use a lens that offers manual auto-focus override – a feature my Sigma unfortunately doesn’t have.

By chance, around this time of the year the sun shines perfectly through a gap between neighboring houses and trees onto our terrace, so I didn’t have to fiddle with an external flash for the necessary backlight. With flash, set the camera to manual starting with the values indicated above (ISO 100, ƒ/8, 1/25) and then adjust as needed. The idea is to choose the settings so that the resulting image, without flash, is underexposed by one stop. Then, you add the flash. In case you do not position the bubble on the same spot every time, the most convenient option is to set the flash to auto-exposure (TTL) and use flash exposure compensation to adjust its brightness as needed.

THE SHOOTING

Burst!
How to not do it: a light gust of wind was enough to burst the half-frozen bubble and let it flutter in the breeze. In addition, due to the aperture set to ƒ/11 and ISO 100, the shutter speed was too slow at ⅛ of a second, thus the image is also blurred because of camera shake.

Experience shows that when you blow the bubbles through the usual plastic hoop, they rarely land where you want them to – if they do, they pop immediately. Much more reliable results can be achieved by using a straw: take it into your mouth, dip it into the soap bubble liquid and then block the opening at the top with your tongue (don’t suck; believe me, it tastes awful!). Then place the bottom end of the straw above the target spot and carefully inflate the bubble to the desired size. It won’t work every time, but the success rate is sufficient.

It takes a few seconds until the bubble starts to freeze. This will give you enough time to put the straw aside and bring the camera into position. Ice crystals will start to form at the bottom rim of the bubble, where it touches the surface, and from there they will grow upward like ferns. If it is really cold, crystals will also start to form at the top of the bubble; these will grow in different patterns. How the crystals grow is entirely random, and it takes some luck to get really beautiful ones. This phenomenon works because a soap bubble consists of three layers: two layers of a soap with a thin layer of water in between, and the water freezes quicker than the soap does.

After about five to ten seconds, the bubble is fully frozen; this is the time window you have for taking pictures.  A fully frozen bubble is dull and flat, and structures are barely visible. Thus, it is difficult to take appealing images with more than one bubble.

You’ll quickly get the hang of the timing and the best size for the bubbles. What remains is to play with different backgrounds, to vary the framing of the image and to try different camera settings. The more bubbles you photograph, the more varied patterns you will discover in the ice crystals.

The required frosty temperatures also limit the duration of the shoot. On the one hand, after a while you will be so cold, that it will become difficult to hold the camera steady enough. On the other hand, the soap bubble liquid will start to freeze in its container; it will become so gooey that it is no longer possible to blow and bubbles. This means it’s time to go back inside, warm up with a nice cup of coffee, and review the pictures taken thus far.

TIPS & TRICKS

Finally, some helpful hints for you to get a bit more comfortable and to increase the success rate:

  • Use gloves. These should be thick enough to warm your hands, but also thin enough to allow for easy camera operation.
  • Set up wind protection. The soap bubbles are unbelievably sensitive to wind. I put some cardboard boxes onto the table next to the bubbles, positioned in a way that neither the boxes nor their shadows appeared in the image. Take care not to use colorful items, as their reflections will show up in the bubbles.
  • Take the images together with a friend. This way, one of you can blow the bubbles while the other one makes the pictures. This saves time, and it will also allow you to quickly change location.

CONCLUSION

Recommendation: If it gets cold enough where you live, definitely give it a try! It is absolutely mesmerizing to watch the ice crystals grow over the bubble. I could watch it again and again, even without taking pictures of it.

What I’ve learned: Don’t be scared by the cold. If you want to have special photos, you’ll need to take special actions. And the resulting images are by all means worth the effort.


LINKS

Picture Credits: All pictures – own images.

Pictures in Motion: Timelapses – Post-processing

Time Lapse

The first two parts of this series dealt with capturing the images for a time lapse with different camera types. This easily results in several thousand pictures for a longer clip. There are numerous software tools available for all operating systems to convert these into the final video. Basically, all these applications work in the same way; they differ in functionality, usability, and price. I will present the two approaches I mostly use for creating my videos: the quick-and-easy way using Adobe Photoshop, without further editing of the images, as well as the comprehensive workflow using Adobe Lightroom and LRTimelapse, which offer powerful tools to optimize the outcome.

HOW 2,000 PHOTOS BECOME A MOVIE

Let’s start with the simple case: all of the images are already available in JPEG format, as is the case when capturing time lapses with my old GoPro. If you are using Adobe’s Creative Cloud subscription, you will have Photoshop available in addition to Lightroom. In Photoshop, simply chose File → Open, select the first image, and then check the option for Image sequence. In the next step, Photoshop will ask for a frame rate. Afterwards, you can immediately export the movie in the desired format. If you’re using only Lightroom, many scripts can be found on the internet that will allow you to do basically the same thing.

Open image sequence in Photoshop
Open image sequence (“Bildsequenz”) in Adobe Photoshop CC

Furthermore, there are numerous image editing applications offering this capability. Without having tried them myself, I’d like to mention ImageJ, an open source tool written in Java, and the commercial tool Panolapse. Both are available for MacOS X as well as Windows.

There is one additional option for long-time Apple users, who still have a registration code for the Pro version of the old Quick Time Player 7 in their archives. You can download the last version of QuickTime 7 from the Apple homepage. You cannot buy new license keys for it any longer, but the old ones still work. After activating the Pro version, the option Open image sequence becomes available in the File menu. Just as in Photoshop, select the first file of the sequence, then choose a frame rate. A moment later, you can watch the video. Finally it can be stored as a movie file in Apple’s usual QuickTime format (H.264).

EDITING THE INDIVIDUAL IMAGES

Before the photos get merged into a video, it is a good opportunity to edit them. If you have shot in RAW format, you now have the full editing potential available. This allows for restoring a lot of detail in the highlights and in the shadows. In addition, you can optimize white balance, contrast, and color rendition to your liking.

However, this creates the challenge of editing the pictures consistently, to create a smooth video in the end. Hence, you need an editing tool that enables you to carry over the changes done on one image to the rest of the sequence.

In Adobe Lightroom this works best if you edit a photo from around the middle of the stack, and then synchronize the development settings to all pictures. This works very well, as long as the edits apply equally well to all images. As a part of this process, you should also crop the photos to a 16:9 aspect ratio. After exporting the images as JPEGs with a resolution of either 3840×2160 (4K) or 1920×1080 (Full HD), you can convert the sequence into a video as described above.

WORKFLOW WITH LRTIMELAPSE 4

If you want to make more advanced edits to the image sequence for the time lapse, a usual photo editing software won’t get you very far. The challenge lies in harmonizing the applied changes such that the resulting video doesn’t show any sudden changes in brightness or color, which occur when adjusting the shutter speed or ISO value during dawn. Videos of sunrises or sunsets are hence referred to as the “holy grail” of time-lapse recording.

For such occasions, I recently purchased Gunther Wegner’s software LRTimelapse 4. It works in combination with Adobe Lightroom and offers numerous functions which help to vastly improve the created videos. LRTimelapse is easy to use and offers some very powerful tools to manage adjustments to the original photos, and to handle changes of lighting conditions. LRTimelapse doesn’t modify the pictures itself, it just calculates the necessary adjustments and passes them on to Lightroom as meta data. The actual image processing is then done by Adobe’s Camera RAW engine. The workflow is as follows:

  • Launch LRTimelapse and open the folder with the RAW images for the time lapse. The software imports the files and analyses the brightness gradient. Based on that, it suggests a number of key frames; typically, four to eight. These can be adjusted as needed.
  • Using a special drag & drop button, the image sequence is then imported into Lightroom. Then you can set a pre-defined filter to show only the key frames.
  • These can now be edited to your liking with the full repertoire of Lightroom features. It is recommended to start with the first one, then sync the changes to all subsequent images. Then adjust the second image, if necessary, and again sync the changes to all subsequent images, and so on, until all key frames look the way you want them to. In addition, you should also crop the images to a 16:9 ratio. This will allow you to choose the image section yourself; otherwise, LRTimelapse will select the center part.
  • Once you’re done editing the key frames, save their metadata as files and return to LRTimelapse.
  • Now comes the magic: Based on the key frames, LRTimelapse will automatically calculate the necessary changes to all intermediate images. Thus, smooth transitions for brightness, color, and contrast are created. This will take some time, but you can see the results immediately in a preview clip.
  • LRTimpelapse offers a “deflicker” function for fine-tuning.  This way, I was able to achieve great results even when shooting in aperture priority mode and letting the camera determine shutter speed and ISO value automatically.
  • Store the new settings as metadata files (*.xmp).
  • In Lightroom, loading the updated metadata will apply the calculated changes to all pictures.
  • Finally, the export is started from Lightroom, using the LRTimelapse presets. As a start, all images will again be stored as JPEGs on your local hard drive. When processing 2,700 photos, this can take a couple of hours; at least on my six-year-old laptop. Once this is done, LRTimelaps renders the final video with the chosen settings (resolution, frames per second, video codec etc.). This works rather quickly, and can easily be repeated with different settings from the same JPEG sequence.

Gunther Wegner has a half-hour tutorial video (in English), where he introduces the functions and way of working with LRTimelapse in great detail.

EXAMPLE

The following video shows a sunrise over a period of four hours, with a picture taken every ten seconds. I captured this time lapse with the Canon 760D and the Radian 2. I set the aperture to 2.2 and let the camera choose shutter speed and ISO value automatically. The first images were taken at 5 seconds, ISO 400; the last ones at 1/4,000th second, ISO 100. The Radian 2 panned and triggered the camera.

The photos were edited using Adobe Lightroom and LRTimelapse 4 as described above. This created a video with smooth brightness and color transitions. The last step was adding the music, which is taken from YouTube’s free audio library, using Adobe PremierePro.

The thing that fascinates me even more than dawn itself in this video is the movement of the clouds. This is certainly not my last video of this kind; I will experiment more with capture interval, captured period, location, and weather…


CONCLUSION

Recommendation: The purchase of LRTimelapse was absolutely worthwhile for me, and I recommend it to everyone who considers working seriously with time lapses. A free demo version is available, which is limited to 400 images per sequence, but otherwise offers the full functionality. This will allow you to thoroughly evaluate whether the application meets your needs.

What I’ve learned: I think this series made it clear that capturing time lapses can be a lot of fun. Using the right tools, even difficult lighting situations can be mastered. Thus, small master pieces can be created with reasonable effort – literal “know how”.


LINKS:

Picture Credits: Title Image – Screenshot Adobe Lightroom CC; Open image sequence – Screenshot Adobe Photoshop CC; YouTube Video Sunrise – own images.

Pictures in Motion: Timelapses with a DSLR/DSLM

Time Lapse

This is the second part of a mini-series on the topic of time lapse photography. The first part introduced the creation of time-lapse videos with a GoPro (or similar action camera). This renders quite good results with a reasonable amount of effort. There are two starting points to further improve the outcome: free choice of focal length, and manual control of the exposure.

POTENTIAL FOR IMPROVEMENT

As mentioned above, the most obvious advantage when using an interchangeable lens camera compared to the GoPro is the ability to freely chose the focal length. This enables different perspectives, as you can emphasize certain details of a scene. The longer the focal length, the more obvious camera shake will be, e.g. because the wind pushes against the lens. This must then be stabilized in post-processing to avoid jitter in the video. Hence it is important to mount the camera in a very stable way.

Furthermore, the camera’s manual mode allows for full control over the exposure of the images – i.e., shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and white balance. If no drastic change in lighting conditions is anticipated during the recording time, it is highly recommended to set and fix all these values manually. This guarantees a consistent appearance of the photos and avoids strange effects the camera’s automatic mode might cause, e.g. when a cloud covers the sun and the scenery consequently becomes darker and bluer. It is also mandatory to manually focus on the most important object in the scene, to avoid any unintended re-focusing when something moves through the frame.

To take full advantage of the image quality, you should of course shoot in RAW. As a result, you’ll have to keep an eye on the amount of data generated, much more so than with the GoPro. A single RAW file from my Canon 760D is up to 30 MB in size. A time lapse of one and a half hours with a capture interval of two seconds creates 2,700 images – about 80 GB of data! Consequently, I have bought a 128 GB SD card for such occasions. The camera’s battery also has to last sufficiently long, hence I am using a battery grip than can hold two batteries for longer recordings.

An additional degree of freedom is offered by the use of filters. Whether you’re using an action camera or a DSLR, when taking pictures on a bright day, the shutter speed will be very fast – around 1/1,000th of a second. This causes the final video to look very “jumpy”, because moving persons or object suddenly appear in a different location, as can be seen clearly in the example video in the first part of this series. To achieve a fluid motion in videos, the shutter speed is typically set to half of the frames per second – i.e. 1/60th for 30 fps. This is where so-called grey filters or neutral density (ND) filters come into play: they allow for slowing down the shutter speed without over-exposing the image.

I have used a 10-stop (1,000×) ND filter, so I could work with a shutter speed of half a second. In combination with the Tokina 11-20 mm Ultra-wide angle, I have used the following settings: ISO 200 | 16 mm | ƒ/4.0 | ½ sec. This will blur the motion in each image. In combination with a time interval of two seconds, this creates a smooth flow. You will find the final video for comparison at the end of this post.

Motion Blur
Motion Blur due to a shutter speed of half of a second when using a neutral density filter

In general, polarizing filters can be used as well, but with limitations: Since the effect of a polarizing filter depends on the angle between the camera and the sun, the magnitude of the effect will change if the sun moves significantly during the recording. This can hardly be compensated in post-processing.

Unlike the GoPro, my 760D doesn’t have a built-in intervalometer. This means that the impulse to take a photo every x seconds must be given externally. The least expensive option is using a programmable cable remote. Usable models can be found on the internet for as little as 20 Euros for almost every camera. Another option is using a smartphone app. Basically every camera with built-in WiFi or Bluetooth nowadays comes with a matching app, which usually supports time lapses as well as many other functions.

In addition to technically better images, I also wanted to add another component to make my time lapses more interesting: moving the camera itself. This requires very precise control to create a smooth motion in the final video. Numerous devices are available for this purpose, which control the movement of the camera as well as the synchronized shutter control.

ALPINE LABS RADIAN 2

I became aware of Alpine Labs’ Radian 2 via a crowdfunding campaign. The device, which looks like a simple black can on the outside, packs a lot on the inside: a motor to move the camera, a sophisticated controller for the camera, and a large battery that will last for many time lapse recordings. It is operated via Bluetooth using the matching smartphone app. Basically it enables time lapses with camera panning: over a set period of time, the camera will be rotated by the chosen angle (horizontally or vertically), while taking a picture every x seconds. The Radian will always take a short pause between moving and shooting to avoid blur from camera shake.

Time-Lapse Setup
Time-Lapse Setup: Canon 760D with battery grip, Alpine Labs Radian 2 and iPhone with Radian App

The Radian didn’t have any problems at all when panning horizontally with the quite heavy combination of camera, battery grip, and Tokina lens (total weight: almost 4 lbs). However, that proved to be too much for a vertical tilt. I will test that again with a lighter setup.

Aside from that, the Radian can vary the shooting parameters over time in several ways. When taking a time lapse during dusk or dawn, it can adjust the exposure of the images (“exposure ramping”). It can also vary the time interval at which images are taken over the recording time, so that the speed of the final video changes (“speed ramping”).

All in all, it is a very versatile and easy to operate device, that brings a lot of variety to your time lapses. Of course, you can use the Radian also to pan the GoPro – however, this lacks the synchronization with the camera and hence many of the advanced capabilities, because the GoPro cannot be remote-controlled in the same way. The Radian 2, as I have it, is currently sold out at Alpine Labs. If and when it will become available again is unclear. However, similar devices are available from various manufacturers.

EXAMPLE

The following video shows a period of about one and a half hours. As described above, the pictures were taken with the Canon 760D, mounted on the Radian 2, and with an ND filter on the lens. A picture was taken every two seconds, with a shutter speed of half a second. The resulting motion blur makes the movements in the video appear much more fluid; the people no longer jerkily jump around. The panning motion of the camera adds additional movement. What fascinates me the most in this video, however, is the movement of the clouds on that day.

OUTLOOK

The next part of this series will cover the post-processing: how do you optimize the captured images, and how do you convert the individual pictures into a movie? There are countless ways for processing and conversion of the data. I will present the approaches and software I mostly use.


CONCLUSION

Recommendation: Concerning image quality, there is a vast difference between photos taken with a GoPro, and those taken with a bigger camera. On the other hand, the necessary equipment is bulkier and heavier (and more expensive). Depending on the occasion, you will have to balance to pros and cons for each. Whenever feasible, I highly recommend using a DSLR or DSLM, to have full control over the outcome of the images and the maximum creative leeway for post-processing.

What I’ve learned: It is important to choose and fix all relevant setting manually: shutter speed, aperture, ISO, white balance, focus point. This ensures a consistent appearance of the images and avoids the strange side-effects from automatic adjustments. When capturing fast action, such as passing cars for instance, the resulting video will look much more pleasant when using an ND filter to slow down the shutter speed and thus blur the motion.


LINKS

Picture Credits: Title Image – Screenshot Adobe Lightroom CC; all other pictures – own images.

Pictures in Motion: Timelapses with a GoPro

Time Lapse

This post is the first part of a mini-series on the topic of time lapses. One of my main motivations for doing photography is to capture scenes in ways that usually elude the naked eye. This includes macro images, freezing fast motion, or visualizing movements in a movie.

To achieve a special effect, you can slow down movements – many current smart phones and action cams offer slow-motion capabilities with up to 120 frames per second. This allows to show action at about 1/5 of the original speed and still have fluent motion. If you want to go even slower, and still have a decent video resolution, you’ll need a dedicated (hence pricey) slow-motion camera.

The opposite effect can be realized in a much simpler way: time lapses are suitable to visualize motion patterns that move too slow to grasp them in their entirety by simply looking at them. All you need for a time lapse is a digital camera with the capability to take photos at fixed time intervals, as well as a software tool that turns the individual images into a movie. Numerous such tools can be found on the internet. The camera doesn’t even need to be a high-end model; a 10-megapixel camera can already render a 4K video.

This first part of this series will cover the process from capturing the images to creating the movie using a GoPro camera and its proprietary software.

IDEA & LOCATION

The Railway Museum Darmstadt-Kranichstein is definitely one of the locations where I have taken the most pictures, and over the longest period of time. I don’t primarily focus on the various engines in the exhibition, but rather try to capture the hustle and bustle during the events. This is particularly true for our biggest event, the “Railworld Days”, which take place every year on a four-day weekend around the mid of May. I put the focus of my images on the audience in the first place, while the moving engines and such are shown as what is drawing the visitors’ attention.

However, these photos always captured just a single moment in time: Since I am working in the museum myself, I am bound to my tasks in the exhibits during the events. Thus, I mostly miss what is happening outside – except for breaks, which I use for taking pictures as well. But I was always curious about what happened “out there” during the entire day. Hence, I mounted my camera right in the middle of the action. It would be rather boring to watch the recording of an eight-hour day in real time, and so I had the idea to capture time lapses.

GOPRO CAMERA & SOFTWARE

Many years ago, I bought a GoPro Hero 3+ Black Edition action camera, to capture photos and videos from perspectives that are not – at least not easily – accessible with a big camera. In addition to various video modes, all GoPros offer a time lapse mode, which takes a photo every few seconds. The time interval can be set between 0.5 and 60 seconds. Which interval is the best depends on what scene you want to capture, i.e. what is moving, and how fast it is moving.

Once started, the camera keeps on recording until either stopped, the battery runs out, or the memory card is full. To avoid the latter, I bought a 64 GB micro-SD card. I used two different power supplies: the internal battery, in combination with the additional snap-on battery that is available for the GoPro 3+. This lasts for about 3-4 hours. To capture an entire day, I set up external power via a power adapter and a USB cable.

RECORDING

As with everything in photography, a time laps requires a suitable (interesting) subject. An additional challenge is that the scene should change over time: clouds in the sky, traffic on a lively intersection, or – at the railway museum – the turntable in front of the roundhouse. Next, a good location for the camera is needed, as well as the necessary adapters to mount it securely and solidly. I checked the orientation of the camera using the freely available Smartphone app, and also started the recording this way.

I usually work with a two-second time interval at the museum. In the course of an entire day, this results in 14,400 pictures being taken. Turned into a video at 30 frames per second, eight hours become eight minutes.

POST-PROCESSING

My old GoPro is capable of taking JPEG images only, which limits the post-processing possibilities; especially considering that any changes would have to be synchronized to all images. Given the huge number of files, this poses high demands on the hardware and software alike. So how can all these single photos be turned into a video? The simplest solution is using the “GoPro Studio” software that comes with the camera.

GoPro Studio
Screenshot GoPro Studio (v2.5.12) – Import and edit timelapse video

In the first step, you select the folder on the hard drive that contains the files copied from the camera. The software automatically creates a preview video from the images. Then you chose the desired options; primarily, how many frames per seconds the video shall have, and whether the fish-eye effect from the GoPro’s ultra-wide angle lens shall be removed or not. This makes sense especially if there are many straight lines in the image, but it can also lead to strong distortions in the corners of the frame. Finally, the tool converts everything into a final video, which can then be exported in the desired format.

EXAMPLE

The following video was created three years ago, using the GoPro and the included software as described above. The time interval was set to two seconds, so over the course of eight hours, 14,400 photos were taken:

This clip doesn’t have any sound, because it has been assembled from individual images. It can be used as-is, or combined with other building blocks to create a diversified movie – with sound, of course. The GoPro software offers some built-in video authoring capabilities, but I have never used them. Earlier, I used Apple’s iMovie software to create my movies. Now, I am using Adobe’s Premiere Pro CC. However, I will not cover video editing in this post.

ALTERNATIVES AND LIMITATIONS

Thus, it shouldn’t go unnoted that in the meantime, many very affordable alternatives for the original GoPro cameras are available. Of course, there are some differences in terms of quality of the resulting photos and videos, at least when comparing them to the top-of-the-line model. Whether that is worth the additional price depends on your personal preference.

Many modern smart phones also offer a time lapse function – either directly in the built-in camera app, or by means of third-party apps. For my use case, however, this is not a viable alternative: smart phones are much more susceptible to environmental conditions (direct sunlight, rain), the storage capacity usually is as limited as the battery capacity – and who wants to mount their smart phone with all the data on it unguarded somewhere in the event area?

Either way, there are limitations. Foremost, you are bound to the fixed focal length of the camera, which contains an extreme wide-angle (fish-eye) lens. That is not always what you need. In addition, the small camera tends to have problems with high contrasts – on a bright sunny day, either highlights such as clouds end up as pure white blobs without any details, or the shadows drown in black. In addition, the automatic white balance and the auto-exposure function sometimes create strange artefacts, for instance when clouds move across the sun and cause the brightness and color of the light to change.

GoPro cameras offer an advanced capturing mode, called “ProTune”. It allows to set a fixed white balance and creates images with reduced contrast to offer more leeway for post-processing. However, I never achieved satisfactory results using this for time lapses. This may well be because I lack the necessary experience with color grading and look-up tables. Current GoPro models, such as the Hero 5, can capture photos in RAW format. If your camera supports this, you should definitely use it!

OUTLOOK

The next part of this series will cover capturing time lapses with a DSLR or mirrorless camera, as well as adding some additional motion to the video. Finally, the third part will deal with the post-processing; in particular, how to take full benefit of the RAW images to create a high-quality video with reasonable effort.


CONCLUSION

Recommendation: Time lapses can be created quickly and easily with the GoPro, and the results are remarkable. This approach offers several advantages: the camera is small, light-weight, unobtrusive and can be mounted almost anywhere. It works completely silent and lasts many hours when using the additional battery. The conversion of the individual pictures into a final video is just a matter of a few clicks using the included GoPro Studio software. All in all, lots of fun for little effort!

What I’ve learned: Time lapses opened a new way for me to use photography to capture motion patterns. The fact that you can leave the camera to “do its thing” once it has been set up, and that you can tend to other things in the meantime, is an additional bonus.


LINKS

 Picture Credits: Title Image – Screenshot Adobe Lightroom CC

Photo Experiment: Water Droplets

Photography with Water Droplets Photography with Water Droplets Photography with Water Droplets Photography with Water Droplets Photography with Water Droplets Photography with Water Droplets Photography with Water Droplets Photography with Water Droplets Photography with Water Droplets

Another dull weekend. Time to work on another indoor photography idea. As it happened, I just recently came across a video on YouTube showing how to take beautiful abstract images by shooting through a glass pane with water droplets on it. I already had most of the things I needed to do this myself at home – the rest was gathered quickly with a trip to a local hardware store and investing a few Euros.

FOR THE IMPATIENT

Gear Settings
  • Camera
  • 1-2 external flashes
  • Remote trigger for the flashes
  • Tripod with pivoting center column, or boom stand
  • Remote shutter release
  • Glass pane
  • Spray bottle with water
  • Manual focus
  • Manual mode
  • ISO 100
  • 1/125 second
  • Aperture ƒ/22
  • White balance: flash
  • Flashes: manual mode, 1/8 power

THE SETUP

The most important requisite for this setup is of course the glass pane. It should be free of scratches and stains, and wiped clean. It doesn’t need to be large; 12″×16″ is enough. You’ll something to support it; I improvised with water bottles and drinking glasses. Finally, I used some construction paper as the background.

The setup for the camera on the other hand was quite a challenge. I couldn’t use the auto-focus, because in most cases it focused on the objects under the glass pane, rather than on the droplets on top. With manual focus, even at ƒ/22, the depth of field is so shallow that when shooting handheld, the inevitable swaying when standing bent over the table caused most many of the pictures to be out of focus, so I needed a different solution.

Many large (and expensive) tripods have a center columns that pivots for such purposes – my little travel tripod doesn’t. Hence, I tinkered with my light stands. By combining one with a reflector holder and a spare tripod head, I created my own boom stand for the camera. I weighted down the feet of the light stand and made sure all bots and clamps were tightly secured, but still, it was a quite rickety construction. For very careful handling of the camera I needed to use a cable release for the shutter. In the end, this provisional arrangement fully served its purpose.

Setup for the Photo Experiment "Water Droplets"
Setup for the Photo Experiment “Water Droplets”: The glass pane is resting on four water bottles (~12 in. high); later, I put it on lower drinking glasses. In addition, I varied the distance of the camera. When positioning the flashes, you need to ensure that the edge of the glass pane does not cast a shadow into the image.

I placed the flashes on opposing sides of the setup. With a number of a test shots I made sure that the light from the flashes doesn’t create any unwanted reflections on the glass. You also need to avoid that the edge of the glass pane casts shadow lines into the image.

Next, I added the water. I treated the glass with a rain repellant for car windows. This creates a kind of ‘lotus effect’, so that the water doesn’t create just a big puddle, but nice individual drops. Then I sprayed on the water with a simple spray bottle, until there were sufficiently many and large enough droplets.

Finally, I gathered all the items I wanted to place underneath the glass pane to shoot them through the droplets: fruit, a flower, as well as fabric and some utensils from my wife’s treasure chamber ♥.

THE SETTINGS

The final look of the images mostly depends on three parameters:

  • Distance between the glass pane and the object underneath
  • Distance between camera and glass pane
  • Focal length of the lens

Depending on how you vary these, you can fit items of different sizes into the frame, as well as changing the ratio between the sizes of the item and the water droplets it is seen through. The photos in the gallery give an impression on how different-sized drops affect the image using the same background object.

Setup for the Photo Experiment "Water Droplets"
Setup for the Photo Experiment “Water Droplets”: ISO 100, ƒ/22, 1/125s, manual focus adjusted using live view. The flashes are adjusted and triggered via the Godox X1c, and a cable remote is used to trigger the camera.

I tried various focal lengths; most of the images were taken either with the Tamron SP 90 mm ƒ/2.8 Macro, or the Canon EF 50 mm ƒ/1.8, while using identical camera settings. These can be quickly explained:

  • Aperture: ƒ/22. I wanted to have a large depth of field, so that the water droplets as well as the objects underneath would be shown sharp in the final image. I tried different aperture values as well, but I liked the images taken at ƒ/22 the most.
  • ISO: 100. Since the flashes rendered enough light, there was no reason to compromise image quality.
  • Shutter Speed: 1/125 second. The exact value doesn’t matter that much; the important thing is that a photo taken without using the flashes is completely dark. This way, there will be no unwanted distracting reflections of windows or other ambient light sources on the droplets.
  • Flashes: 1/8 power. I set their output in manual mode so that the photos were correctly exposed. When I used very bright or very dark items, I adjusted the power accordingly.

It took a few attempts until everything was how I wanted it to be – but not too long, and then I was ready to start.

THE SHOOTING

After everything was set up, the main challenge was to play around with different items and see how they look like seen through the water drops. In general, colorful items give the best results; however, the patterns should not be too small. Otherwise, the image will be very busy due to the manifold repetition of the pattern in the droplets.

In addition to the objects, I also varied the distance to the glass pane, the focal length and the aperture value. Another possibility for changing the size of the droplets in the image, and thereby alter how the pattern is repeated, is to move the glass pane. Typically, you’ll find larger drops in the center of the sprayed area, and smaller ones further out. This also changes over time. As water evaporates, the smallest drops will disappear entirely, and only the bigger ones remain.

Every time the distance between the camera and the glass pane was changed, or I chose a different focal length, I needed to refocus manually. I used the camera’s live view at 10× magnification. This wasn’t as easy as it sounds, due to the rickety construction of my makeshift boom stand. But with a steady hand, I accomplished the focus adjustments as well as taking the images.

TIPS & TRICKS

As often is the case with such experiments, the devil is hidden in the details, and some problems only show up once you view the images on a large computer screen.

  • The glass pane should really be free of scratches. Even miniature scratches, barely visible with a naked eye, will clearly stand out in the final picture due to the large magnification. This is enhanced by the fact that while the droplets are round, scratches are mostly linear, hence show up as a distracting element. As a result, I deleted all images from my first attempt, and replaced the glass table top by a glass shelf from a display case. The glass from a picture frame might be suitable as well, if it doesn’t have any scratches.
  • A large depth of field requires lots of light, which is why I resorted to using the external flashes. Since the items under glass pane usually don’t move by themselves, it is also possible to take these pictures using only ambient light. You’ll need to watch out for reflections on the glass pane and the water droplets, though (ceiling lamp, windows, TV…). In addition, due to the slow shutter speed, the camera needs to be mounted in a very steady manner.

CONCLUSION

Recommendation: Recommended for imitation – a nice photography variation for a dull weekend. The images created this way make beautiful backgrounds for smartphones, tablets, or slide show presentations.

What I’ve learned: Improvisation. You don’t always need expensive studio gear to take great images, if you know how to help yourself with what’s around the house. And thus, you can turn rather boring items and turn them into interesting pictures.


LINKS

Picture Credits: All pictures – own images.

Photo Experiment: Light Painting with Airplanes

Night Traffic

Long exposures are one of many means to photograph something in a way the naked eye doesn’t see it. Which is one of the reasons why photography fascinates me the way it does. The most popular images of this kind are night-time images of cities, in which driving cars paint long streaks of light through the frame.

This inspired me the other day, when I was looking at one of the many airplanes climbing into the sky nearby during an evening stroll. All airplanes taking off from Frankfurt’s southbound runway 18 fly towards our house, so in the dark evening sky, you can clearly see their bright landing lights and blinking navigations lights. Thus, the idea came up to give it a try and see what this can be turned into.

FOR THE IMPATIENT

Gear Settings
  • Camera
  • Tripod
  • Remote trigger
  • Appropriate clothing
  • Beverages
  • Reading material
  • Flashlight
  • Manual Focus
  • Manual Mode
  • ISO 100
  • 30 seconds
  • Aperture ƒ/11 – ƒ/5.6
  • Continuous shooting
  • White balance: daylight

OVERALL SETUP

A few days ago, the conditions were ideal: the weather was clear and dry. A few clouds were there, but they were high enough so that they wouldn’t be illuminated by the bright airport, and the climbing planes also wouldn’t immediately vanish into them. So I grabbed my gear and walked out into the fields.

There, I looked for a spot from which I had a good view on the planes as they take off, without having the bright streetlights of the next village in the image as well. Most of all, I wanted to avoid any cars passing by that would shine their headlights into the camera.

I had no idea up front what a good field of view would be, so I packed several lenses. I liked the view at a focal length of 35 mm the most, so I mounted the Sigma A 18-35 mm ƒ/1.8. I was able to capture several great night-time photos with this lens before. Since I never opened the aperture any wider than ƒ/5.6, this image could have also been taken with a standard-zoom kit lens.

With long exposures in mind, the camera was of course mounted to a tripod, and I had my remote shutter release with me as well. The main reason for using the cable remote is that I can lock the trigger button, so the camera takes several images in direct succession when set to continuous shooting mode.

CAMERA SETTINGS

This was a matter of trial and error. A few settings were clear from the start: I set the ISO value to 100. This reduces the noise in the image and makes for longer exposure times. As the light changes during dusk, I chose a fixed setting for the white balance, namely daylight. Finally, I focused manually on the horizon and switched the shooting mode to continuous.

Next, I worked out the shutter speed. Looking through the viewfinder and using a stop watch, I tracked an airplane from the moment its lights appeared above the tree line. It took about 80 seconds until it left the frame.

So, what is the best exposure time? Two contradicting factors need to be considered. On the one hand, a faster shutter speed generates more images. This also means there will be more gaps in the light trails, as the camera always makes a short pause between pictures. These gaps have to be closed manually in post-processing. This can be avoided, or at least minimized, by using slower shutter speeds. Unfortunately, this has an adverse effect on the image quality: the longer the exposure time, the weaker the light trails will appear.

I took a few test shots, and viewed the results using maximum magnification on the camera display. The two images below show the difference between a full-minute exposure and a half-minute exposure:

Light Trail (60 sec.)
Detail view of a light trail with 60 seconds exposure time at 200% magnification. The dots painted by the blinking navigation lights are now barely visible.
Light Trail (30 sec.)
Detail view of a light trail with 30 seconds exposure time at 200% magnification. The trail is much brighter compared to the background, and the dots from the navigation lights are now clearly visible.

Finally, I settled for a shutter speed of 30 seconds. The light trails stood clearly out from the background, and a flight time of 80 seconds for each plane to cross the frame meant that I would have to close two gaps in each trail – a reasonable compromise. This also happens to be the longest exposure time the camera supports in manual mode. Even longer exposures require using the ‘bulb’ mode, which makes operating the shutter more complex.

That last value I set was the aperture. I set it so that the overall exposure of the image looked OK to me. The main goal was to make sure the sky didn’t become too bright, to simplify combining the images later. I started at ƒ/11, and then, as it gradually became darker, opened the aperture step by step to ƒ/5.6.

SHOOTING

When everything was set, all I had to do was wait – not for long, though. As soon as I saw the lights of a plan emerging above the trees, I pressed and locked the trigger button on the remote shutter release. Thus, the camera took three pictures in a row. Often, the next airplane was already in sight at the end of taking the third image of the previous one. If not, I let the camera pause for a while.

Over a period of about one and a half hours, from quarter past nine to the last takeoff at 10:45pm, I took 75 pictures in all. Even though it was close to 70°F during the day, it cooled off rather quickly once it became dark. The warm jacket I packed now really came in handy, as did the beverages and reading material.

In retrospect, time passed rather quickly. After the last plane left, I packed everything together, used a flashlight to make sure I didn’t forget anything in the dark, and walked back home.

POST-PROCESSING

The next day, I went about assembling the final image from the individual pictures. The first step was to import everything to Adobe Lightroom CC. I applied a few adjustments to all photos: I activated lens corrections (lens profile and chromatic aberration), and increased the contrast and clarity to make the light trails stand out from the background even more.

Then I picked the image on which I liked the sky the most, and edited it to my liking regarding colors, contrast and details, to make it the background image. The result looked like this:

Night Sky
Night Sky – I liked the sky the most on this image. Thus, I used it as the background and added all other light trails onto it.

In Lightroom, I selected all 75 images, including the background, and chose “Photo” → “Edit in…” → “Open in Photoshop as Layers…”  to transfer them over to Photoshop. This took quite a while, but then all pictures were layered on top of each other in a single project.

The first thing I did was moving the background layer all the way to the bottom, so that all other layers covered it. Then I turned all layers but the background invisible. The next step was selecting three images belonging to the same flight and making them visible again:

Single light trail, part 1
Single light trail, part 1
Single light trail, part 2
Single light trail, part 2
Single light trail, part 3
Single light trail, part 3

The crucial step now was to change the layer blending mode from “normal” to “lighten”. As the result, only those parts of each layer that are brighter than the underlying image are shown – in particular, the light trail drawn by the plane. The outcome of this first step can be seen in the image below:

Adding one trail, before editing
The three parts of the one light trail, with the layer blending mode set to “lighten”, before removing unwanted artefacts and closing the gaps.

This is already quite close to the desired result, but there are a few disturbing artefacts: First, there was another plane flying across in the image in the background, which caused the red and white dotted line near the horizon on the left-hand side of the image. Second, the stars in the top right hand corner are now duplicated, because they moved compared to the background image. And finally, the glow from the airport can be seen behind the trees.

Thus, I collapsed the three layers of the light trail into a single layer, and added a layer mask. Then I masked out all unwanted artefacts in the image – basically, I painted the entire mask black except for the light trail.

The final step was using the clone stamp tool to close the gaps resulting from taking three images. I set the sampling to “current layer”, and opacity and flow to 100%. Here’s the final result:

Adding one trail, after editing
The finished light trail: The gaps have been closed, the trail of the landing plane has been removed, just like the duplicated stars and the glow the behind trees.

After completing one light trail, I hid the respective layer and started on the next trail. I worked on each one individually, because this simplified closing the gaps and removing unwanted artefacts. It also enabled me to adjust the brightness of each trail independently using levels adjustment layers.

The final step was to make all layers visible, collapse everything into a single layer, and export the final image:

Night Traffic
Night Traffic – The final image. Composed from 75 individual pictures, it shows the light trails painted into the evening sky by planes taking of.

TIPS & TRICKS

Some additional information in case you want to try this out yourself:

  • When taking photos of this kind, it is better to take several images with shorter exposure time, and subsequently combine them in post-processing, than to take a single long exposure. This will improve image quality, and even more important, it reduces the risk of losing several minutes of action because, e.g., a car drives by and shines its headlights into your lens.
  • I’ve linked two video tutorials below; one from Canon Australia on photographing light trails, and one from Jimmy McIntyre on post-processing them. They both used cars instead of airplanes, but the procedure is the same as in the image above.
  • With long exposures, there are two factors to consider for the composition of the final image: the static background, and the patterns drawn by the moving lights. It takes some practice to imagine the final picture before actually taking it, so try it out when you find the chance.
  • Taking such photos requires patience – for planning, for shooting, and for post-processing. I spent two hours on the field, plus another three one the computer. Take your time, it will be worth your while!

CONCLUSION

Recommendation: When you have an evening off – go for it! Grab your camera and your tripod, and go to the next street bridge, railway station, airport, local festival – wherever there are moving lights. This way, you can capture amazing and sometimes surprising motion patterns.

What I’ve learned: I’ve gathered some good experiences, for instance how the exposure time affects such long exposures and light painting images. The same goes for working with layers and the clone stamp tool in Photoshop.


LINKS:

Picture Credits: All pictures – own images.

In Focus: Changing the Perspective

Through nature with different Focal Lengths

The little detail or the big picture: from a photography point of view, nature can be captured in many different ways. With their abundance of blossoms and colors, as well as the beautiful golden light in the morning and evening hours, spring and fall in particular invite one to grab the camera and venture outside. In your own garden, in the street in front of your house, or in the next forest – there’s more than enough to photograph!

ONE MOTIF – DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVES

The advantage of an interchangeable lens camera is the enormous bandwidth of focal lengths it supports. With my Canon 760D, for instance, my lenses reach from 8 mm with the Fisheye lens to 300 mm with the telephoto zoom lens. This equals roughly 15-480 mm on a full-frame camera.

This offers great creative latitude. Close-up images of individual blossoms, colorful leaves, and other details are classic subjects, of course. For this purpose, you usually select a medium to long focal length to get your subject filling the frame. Or you go straight for a dedicated macro lens, such as the Tamrom 90mm ƒ/2.8 Macro. I have included several example images in my blog post about that lens, hence I am skipping the topic of macros here.

Magnolia Blossom
Magnolia Blossom. The intent here was to capture a single blossom. The aperture is set to ƒ/8 to have most of the blossom in focus.

But you can also go to the other end of the spectrum and use a rather short focal length, such as an ultra-wide angle lens, or even a Fisheye. These will also allow you to show an object large in the foreground; the difference compared to longer focal lengths is that due to the wide angle of view, you will also capture a lot of background in your image. It will also not be as blurry. As a result, your subject will be shown in the context of its surroundings, i.e. it’s not a “single blossom”, but a “blossom on a blooming tree”. The two pictures of our Magnolia tree illustrate this clearly.

Magnolia Tree in Full Bloom
Magnolia Tree in Full Bloom. It’s not primarily the large blossom in the foreground that is the main subject of the image, but more the entire tree with its many blossoms. The distortion from the fisheye lens is clearly visible in the upper half of the frame, but does not disturb the image as a whole. Due to the short focal length and the aperture set to ƒ/11, basically the entire picture is in focus.

I want to show you some of the creative possibilities for the various focal lengths. Not all flower photos have to be the same!

FISHEYE & ULTRA-WIDE ANGLE

I have two lenses in this category: The Samyang 8 mm ƒ/3.5 Fisheye, and the Tokina 11-20 mm ƒ/2.8 Ultra-wide Angle. Both offer a very wide field of view, which means you will get a lot into your pictures. The short focal length also means that objects at a distance will seemingly be pushed much further away. If there is nothing interesting in the foreground, the resulting images can look empty and boring. However, the background requires some attention as well. At such a short focal length, you won’t be able to blur the background much, even with a wide-open aperture, except when you get the camera very close to your subject. And even then, the background will still be recognizable – in particular with the Fisheye lens. Nonetheless, you can deliberately utilize this.

Rose in our Garden
Rose in our Garden. The intent of the image is to show not just a rose, but a rose in our garden. The framing makes the strong distortion typical for the fisheye lens less noticeable.

Here are two examples for this: the image of the rose above was taken with the fisheye lens, and the little red flower below has been captured using the Tokina. In both cases, it is clear what the subject of the image is; at the same time, it easy to see where the scene is located. The Tokina, with its wide-open aperture, even allows you to blur the background a bit despite the short focal length when being so close to the subject, so that the plant is standing out more. The rose in the image above was at the same distance from the camera, but due to its even shorter focal length and an aperture of ƒ/8, almost the entire garden including the house is in focus.

Little Flower in the Cops
Little Flower in the underbrush. Hidden under a large hazelnut bush, these little blossoms strive for sunlight. The short focal length includes a lot of background in the image, thus showing this scene is located in a garden. The wide-open aperture isolates the subject.

No rule is without exception: of course, you can use a short focal length deliberately without anything in the foreground, if you want to emphasize the size and vastness of the space you’re in. This is what I did when capturing the fall forest in the image below: I put the camera down on the ground and pointed the Fisheye lens straight up. Indeed, the biggest challenge when taking this photo was to not appear in the frame myself. I took a similar picture with my “always-on” standard zoom lens; the result was “a tree in the fall forest”. Using the Fisheye, I was able to capture the entire fall forest.

Fall Forest
Fall Forest. The Fisheye lens, with its enormous wide angle of view, captures practically the entire forest in a single frame. It also emphasizes the height of the trees. The straight lines leading to the center of the frame render the Fisheye effect almost imperceptible.

STANDARD ZOOM

This relates to the “default” zoom range, which is covered by the usual kit lenses. For an APS-C camera, that typically is 17-50 mm; equaling 24-70 mm on a full-frame camera. For reference: the back camera on an Apple iPhone, depending on the model and converted to full-frame, has a focal length of 25-30 mm. This should not imply that this “default” range is boring – on the contrary. Depending on whether you want to capture an entire tree, a plant, or just a couple of leaves, there’s a lot of creative leeway.

Colorful Maple Tree
Colorful Maple Tree. I wanted to capture the entire tree, to show that all fall colors appear in one and the same tree. This requires a default wide angle; the aperture is stopped down to ƒ/8 so that the entire tree is in focus.

It is worthwhile to play with zoom, aperture, and object distance; even, or in particular, with the kit lens. The most important recommendation in this context is: change your perspective! The usual snapshots taken from eye height quickly become boring. Hence, when you’re out and about: look straight up – what is above you? Get down on your knees and photograph the little mushroom as it pushes through the leaves into the grazing light of the setting sun…

Mushroom in a Forest
Mushroom in a Forest. The short focal length shows the mushroom in its environment; the wide-open aperture isolates it as the main subject of the image.

If there is such a thing as a “must have” lens for every photographer with a single-lens reflex or mirrorless camera, then it certainly is the 50 mm ƒ/1.8, and for a simple reason: value for money. Basically, every camera manufacturer offers one for a little money; it usually costs around 100 Euros. It is small, light, and versatile, which has earned it the nickname “nifty fifty”. On a full frame camera, this is a standard focal length, perceived to offer a very natural perspective similar to what the human eye sees. On an APS-C camera, the field of view equals 80 mm, so it can be considered a slight telephoto lens.

The distinguishing characteristic is its wide open aperture of ƒ/1.8. Most kit lenses have a maximum aperture of ƒ/4 or ƒ/4.5 at 50 mm, that’s a difference of 2-3 stops. This means that the “nifty fifty” not only lets in a lot of light; it can also provide a much narrower depth of field. This makes it a popular all-round lens, which is often used for portrait work. So why not take some portraits of colorful plants?

Maple Trees in Fall
Maple Trees in Fall. At 50mm, you can show not only a single leaf, but entire branch. Using an aperture setting of ƒ/1.8 still allows you to clearly separate the branch from the background.
Maple Leaves in Fall
Maple Leaves in Fall. The narrow depth of field helps to focus the view on the leaves in the center of the frame.

TELEPHOTO

This category basically covers everything with a focal length of 70 mm and up. There are essentially two types of lenses: the telephoto zoom lenses, like my Tamron 70-300 mm ƒ/4-5.6, and the prime lenses, especially macro lenses, in the range of 90-150 mm. The main difference is in how close you can get to your subject. With my aforementioned 70-300 mm zoom lens, the shortest distance I can still focus at is 1.5 meters. With the 90 mm macro, I can get as close as 30 centimeters!

This obviously has a significant impact on the creative possibilities. However, keep in mind: a macro lens can take more than just macro images, and you can use a telephoto zoom not only to capture things that are far away. You can probably guess where this going: I’m talking about perspective again.

Garden Flower
Garden Flower. Due to the narrow depth of field at 90 mm, the ground is already blurred despite using an aperture of ƒ/8.

With long hedges or bushes as shown below, you can try a “grazing shot”. It shows the details of the leaves and blossoms as well as the extent of the hedge in a single image. In a frontal picture, you could only see one of the two, depending on the distance. This works in the same way horizontally on a flowering meadow. It’s not a macro in the original sense, but I make use of the wide-open aperture and resulting narrow depth of field of the macro lens to show just a small stripe of the Kerria bush in focus.

Narrow Depth of Field in a Kerria bush
Narrow Depth of Field in a Kerria bush. At 90 mm and an aperture setting of ƒ/2,8, only a narrow band of the bush is in focus.

I have taken the following image with my Tamron 70-300 mm, even though at 92 mm, I could have taken it with the macro lens just as well. I didn’t have it with me, though, and I actually preferred the flexibility offered by the zoom lens on that photo excursion. The blossoms are at the minimum focusing distance (1.5 m). In the end, the best lens to take a picture with is always the one you have with you.

Apple Blossoms in the Morning Sun
Apple Blossoms in the Morning Sun. Focal length and aperture help to emphasize the blossoms in the foreground, while the blurred blossoms in the back show it’s just one branch of a blooming tree.

Of course, the distinguishing feature of telephoto lenses is to pull in distant objects. This allows for capturing details to which you cannot get close, for whatever reason. Blossoms in the crown of a tree are a good example. The narrow angle of view also allows controlling the background, or getting rid of it entirely. The image of the Japanese Maple above shows an almost evenly yellow background, made from trees with yellow leaves. I could have gotten closer to the leaves and used a shorter focal length, thus a wider angle of view. But then the house on the right side, and the garden shed on the left side, would show up in the frame and the background would no longer be evenly yellow.

Japanese Maple in Fall
Japanese Maple in Fall. Again, the telephoto lens at 300 mm and aperture ƒ/5.6 help to pull in the details while at the same time blurring the trees in the background into an even yellow backdrop.

How much the background gets blurred not only depends on the focal length and aperture setting, but just as much from the ratio between the two distances; camera – subject and subject – background. The two images of the Japanese Maple above and the Cherry Blossoms below were taken with identical settings, and the trees in the background were at about the same distance in both pictures. However, the maple was much closer to the camera, hence you can see a substantial difference in the appearance of the background.

Cherry Blossoms
Cherry Blossoms. With the telephoto lens at 300mm, you can get quite close to your neighbor’s cherry tree. At an aperture of ƒ/5.6, the trees in the background get blurred enough to no longer distract.

CONCLUSION

Recommendation: Well, that’s quite obvious in this case, isn’t it? Go outside and try it out!

What I’ve learned: In the end, it doesn’t matter which camera or lenses you have – interesting perspectives can be found all around you. Up close, far away, from above, from below, wide angle, telephoto, with or against the sun… It’s worthwhile to simply grab your camera next time you go on leisurely stroll or walk your dog.


LINKS

Last but not least, some YouTube videos with further inspiration:

Picture Credits: All pictures – own images.

Photo Experiment: Smoke and Flames

Photo Experiment: Smoke and Flames Photo Experiment: Smoke and Flames Photo Experiment: Smoke and Flames Photo Experiment: Smoke and Flames Photo Experiment: Smoke and Flames Photo Experiment: Smoke and Flames Photo Experiment: Smoke and Flames Photo Experiment: Smoke and Flames Photo Experiment: Smoke and Flames Photo Experiment: Smoke and Flames

What do you do when you want to go out and take pictures, but it’s nasty and wet outside? Well, of course you could argue that there is no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong kind of clothing – but then, if you’re not deliberately going for bad-weather shots, there are probably more comfortable alternatives. So, you start looking for indoor photography ideas. Which is exactly what did.

Starting from the tutorial videos for photographing water splashes, I quickly came across guides to smoke and flame photography. I especially liked the idea of taking pictures of matchsticks right when they light up. Starting from the ideas given in the videos, I thought about my own setup, and then kindled for an entire afternoon – with results that definitely exceeded my initial expectations.

THE SETUP

Foremost, I wanted the images to have a completely black background, to give the smoke and flame as much contrast as possible. Much of this can be achieved by choosing the camera and flash settings accordingly; nevertheless, I decided to darken the room to be on the safe side. Now for the setup itself.

I’ve taken the images with my Canon 760D. Initially, I used the Tamrom SP 90mm ƒ/2.8 Macro, but then later on switched to the Canon 50mm ƒ/1.8 STM. Its shorter focal length captures a larger portion of the set, thus making better use of the available space, and it also renders a larger depth of field. As the smoke spreads quickly, and in three dimensions, both facts are relevant. The camera was of course mounted on a tripod and triggered with a remote shutter release.

I used a boom stand with a clamp holder to hold the matchstick in place. I placed a metal tray underneath it to have a fireproof base. The match was enflamed by holding a burning candle a few inches under its head. I used black cardboard as background, approx. 1.5 ft. away. The camera was lined up so that, with the 50mm lens, the black cardboard just filled the frame, and the matchstick was positioned in the bottom quarter of the image.

Finally, the flashes were set up. I tried out various arrangements and optimized them during the shooting. I will describe here only the final layout, which rendered the best results: One of the flashes (Yongnuo YN565 / YN568) was positioned about 45° to the left of the camera; the other one exactly opposite. I attached a flag made from another piece of cardboard to the rear flash, to avoid its light spilling onto the background. This mix of front and back lighting gave full effect to the smoke. Both flashes were positioned above the match to light up the smoke, but they were also pointing downward enough to illuminate the matchstick itself in the final image. The flashes were controlled by means of the Yongnuo YN622C(-TC) wireless remotes.

This is how the final setup looked like:

Setup for the Photo Experiment "Smoke and Flames"
Setup for the Photo Experiment “Smoke and Flames”: The flashes are set so that the background remains black. The matches are lit up using the candle.

THE SETTINGS

The settings got me thinking for a while, due to the fact that natural (flame) and artificial (flash) light sources had to be mixed. Using the candle, I started by adjusting the camera settings so that the flame was captured as bright as possible, while not overexposing more than just a small portion of it. I also had preset the shutter speed to 1/200 of a second. This is the shortest exposure the flash without high-speed sync (the YN565) supports. I also didn’t want to keep the shutter open longer than that, to avoid motion blur when the flame heftily flickers when the match ignited (that still happened in several images). The initial results, taken with an aperture of ƒ/8.0 (for good sharpness and depth of field) and ISO 100 (for good image quality), were quite satisfying.

The next task was to set up the flashes. My idea was to work with the lowest possible power setting (1/128), for two reasons: At this setting, the flash duration of speedlights like mine is about 1/20.000th of a second – this guarantees razor-sharp freezing of the smoke’s motion. Also, at this low power setting, the capacitor in the flash is recharged so quickly that I can use the camera’s continuous shooting mode with almost no delay, which vastly increases the chance of capturing great images. I actually tried it with a setting of 1/64 as well, but that had a considerable impact on the frame rate, due to the longer recharging time of the flashes.

Taking all of this into account, I found the ideal balance between the brightness of the flame and that of the smoke illuminated by the flashes using the following settings:

  • Camera: manual mode, ISO 200, ƒ/8.0, 1/200 sec., continuous shutter (with the 90mm lens, as well as later on with the 50mm one)
  • Flashes: manual mode, 1/128 power, zoom at 24mm (I flipped out the diffusor disc on the front flash)

Needless to say, you’ll need to adjust these settings to your particular setup and lighting conditions to achieve comparable results.

Setup for the Photo Experiment "Smoke and Flames"
Setup for the Photo Experiment “Smoke and Flames”: ISO 200, ƒ/8.0, 1/200s, manual focus adjusted using live view. The flashes are adjusted and triggered via the Yongnuo YN622C-TX, and a cable remote is used to trigger the camera.

I manually focused the camera on the match, using the 10x magnification in Live View. I put a mark on the clamp holder so that I could put every new match in almost the same position, which spared me refocusing the camera every time. The camera was set to continuous shooting, to be able to capture a number of images in quick succession, and the white balance was set to automatic.

THE SHOOTING

After the test shots to get the exposure right, it was show time. The biggest challenge was to find out exactly how I had to hold the candle under the matchstick. The flame had to be so close that its head would get hot enough to ignite, but not so close that it would be visible in the image when match ignites. How long I had to hold the candle there varied, not at least because every match is a bit different. And finally, each match burns differently: some flame up in a short intense burst, others keep going for about 2 seconds until the head is burned up and only the burning wood remains.

The procedure was always the same: in one hand, I held the remote shutter release for the camera, the button already pushed half-way. In the other hand, I held the burning candle. Then I held it under the match, and as soon as it flamed up, I pushed the shutter button all the way and let the camera capture 5-7 frames. By then, the exciting part was mostly over. Just as with the water splashes, I quickly learned the right timing to trigger the camera.

Afterwards, I put the candle down on the tray, and as soon as the camera had finished writing all image data to the memory card, I blew out the flame. I took another 5-7 photos of the resulting smoke. Depending on how you blow out the flame, or wave your hand a bit, the smoke creates rather fantastic figures.

With a fresh matchstick in the clamp holder, the next iteration began.

Photo Experiment: Smoke and Flames
Photo Experiment: Smoke and Flames. Here you can see how the match is enflamed using the candle. The picture is unedited, straight out of camera. Compare it to the final version in the gallery.

At the end of the session, I had burned 36 matchsticks and shot close to 600 images. On the computer, I filtered the pictures in several steps. First, I deleted all test images and the ones that were obvious misses because they were either completely black, out of focus, or taken too early. This reduced the number of photos by more than half. Then I went to picking the images that were outstanding in one way or another. Finally, I kept 40 images for editing, and you can see the “top ten” of those in the gallery above.

TIPPS & TRICKS

This is another case of ‘practice makes perfect’, so here are a few points to improve for next time:

  • Fire protection: a sufficiently large, fire proof base below the match and to put down the candle is absolutely mandatory. It also doesn’t hurt to have a big glass or pitcher of water handy. And don’t forget: if the room you’re doing this in has a smoke detector, disable it before you start (and turn it back on when you’re done!)
  • Whether you darken the room or not, you need to have sufficient ventilation. Also take a break in between, and aerate the room. Unfortunately, the smell of the smoke is rather persistent.
  • The candle you are using to ignite the matches should be easy to handle, but also safe to stand when you put it down. I used a pillar candle left over from last year’s advent wreath. Its flame should be rather large, but without flickering or giving off sooty smote. You can cut down the rim of the candle with a tinker knife, and pour off some of the molten wax.
  • As for the matches, I recommend using the longer kind, usually sold for lighting fireplaces, instead of the small regular ones. The ones I used were about 5 inches long, compared to the regular 2 inches.

CONCLUSION

Recommendation: Definitely give this a try! In particular, during the dark winter days this is a nice handicraft challenge with which you can create moody images. By the way, this also works with sparklers.

What I’ve learned: Once again, I’ve learned quite a lot about the correct alignment and setting of the flashes, in order to create the desired effect – especially in the combination of natural and artificial light.


LINKS:

  • YouTube: Smoke Photography made simple
  • YouTube: Photographing flames and smoke
  • Note: Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any decent tutorial video in English on how to photograph matches when they light up. If you find any, please let me know. In the meantime, also have a look at the German version of this page…

Picture Credits: All pictures – own images.

Photo Experiment: Splashy Fruit

Photo Experiment: Water Splashes with Fruit Photo Experiment: Water Splashes with Fruit Photo Experiment: Water Splashes with Fruit Photo Experiment: Water Splashes with Fruit Photo Experiment: Water Splashes with Fruit Photo Experiment: Water Splashes with Fruit Photo Experiment: Water Splashes with Fruit Photo Experiment: Water Splashes with Fruit

They are omnipresent on the decoration shelves in furniture and garden stores: pictures of fresh fruit and vegetables, dropping into water with big splashes. The idea obviously isn’t new, but it poses a challenge nevertheless: how do you take such photos? This is the perfect task for a grey and windy weekend when you don’t want to go outside.

A little research on the internet quickly showed: it actually doesn’t take that much. The only thing missing here was a suitable, rectangular glass vessel. Our vases are all round, which doesn’t work for this setup because the flash would be reflected in the image. After some consideration, I decided for a 25 ltr. (6.5 gal.) aquarium from a local hardware store. I will certainly use it for more experiments like this in the future, so the expense of 20 Euros was easily justified.

THE SETUP

The pictures were taken on the dining room table, and the setup can easily be explained:

  • I used my Canon 760D with the Tamrom SP 90mm ƒ/2.8 Macro
  • The aquarium was placed on top of a box, so that the tabletop behind the aquarium didn’t show in the images
  • The first external flash – a Yongnuo YN568 EX II – faced into the aquarium from the left, at the same height as the water level.
  • The opposite side was covered with aluminum foil, which served as a reflector
  • The second external flash – a Yongnuo YN565 EX II – was directed onto the backdrop, a white foldable reflector, which was placed approx. 3 ft. away.
  • The flashes were adjusted and triggered using the Yongnuo YN622C(-TX) wireless remotes.
  • I used a simple cable remote for the camera.

The entire setup looked like this:

Setup for the Photo Experiment "Water Splashes with Fruit"
Setup for the Photo Experiment “Splashy Fruit”: 6.5 gal. aquarium, one external flash for the fruit and splashes, aluminum foil as reflector. The second flash and the white background are used only for the bright images.

THE SETTINGS

Auto-exposure won’t be of any help, because the images need to be deliberately over- or underexposed (for white or black background), and autofocus is useless as well because it won’t pick up the falling fruit in the water; at least not fast enough. So everything needs to be set manually. The first thing I did was to place a roll of wrapping paper across the aquarium, and then let a ruler dangle from it at the point where I wanted to drop the fruit into the water. Then I used the camera’s Live View mode to manually focus on the ruler. Next, I set the exposure:

  • Camera settings: ISO 100, ƒ/8.0, 1/200 sec.

The settings are chosen so, that an image taken without flash will be completely black. I used an aperture setting of 8 to have the depth of field big enough so that the fruit would still be sharp even when I don’t drop them at the exact point I focused on. If you work on this experiment yourself and you still see some of the surroundings (e.g., a bright window) in the image with these settings, close the aperture even further to e.g. ƒ/11. If you want to use a faster shutter speed, you need external flashes that support high-speed sync. However, the shutter speed is not relevant for these images anyway, because the motion is frozen by the duration of the flash – which is much shorter than 1/200th of a second.

The flashes are set next. You will have to adjust these to your respective lighting conditions, so the values given here are just for reference. For the images with the white background I started by adjusting the rear flash. I turned the over-exposure warning (the ‘blinkies’) on my camera on, and then set the flash so that part of the background was shown to be over-exposed. You shouldn’t set the flash too bright, though, because otherwise the white background will outshine the water splashes and the rims of the fruit.

Following that, I used a few test images to adjust the aquarium flash so that the white areas of the lemon slice were not over-exposed. This flash will use a much lower setting. You might have to adjust it depending on the target object; a darker orange slice will need more light than a bright lemon. For the images with black background, the rear flash was simply turned off, and the aquarium flash was adjusted accordingly, because of the missing backlighting.

  • Flash settings for white background:
    • Background: 1/4 + 0.7
    • Aquarium: 1/64 + 0.7
  • Flash settings for black background:
    • Background: off
    • Aquarium: 1/8 + 0.3
Setup for the Photo Experiment "Water Splashes with Fruit"
Setup for the Photo Experiment “Splashy Fruit”: ISO 100, ƒ/8.0, 1/200s, manual focus adjusted using live view. The flashes are adjusted and triggered via the Yongnuo YN622C-TX, and a cable remote is used to trigger the camera.

THE SHOOTING

With the proper fruit at hand, I stood next to the aquarium, holding the remote shutter release for the camera with one hand, and then started my routine. It was easier than I thought it would be. You’ll quickly get a feeling for how to drop the fruit and when to press the shutter release. I only had a few frames where the timing was completely off.

Some luck is required however, for how the various objects hit the water. It may happen that you’ll see the lemon slice edge-on, or that the apple wedge casts a big shadow onto the orange.

All in all, it was a lot of fun and made for an entertaining afternoon. The required effort and equipment are very reasonable – you can take these images even with just one external flash; instead of the aquarium you might just as well use a square vase, and for the background you can use some cardboard, or a tablecloth.

TIPS & TRICKS

When you do something like this for the first time, you’ll quickly learn that there a number of details you didn’t think of initially – and which you can improve on next time. Here’s an overview of my ‘lessons learned’, with no guarantee for completeness:

  • After every (literally every) drop, wipe dry the front and rear glass panes of the aquarium – a microfibre cloth is perfect. This is a bit tedious, but it will save a lot of time in post-processing; especially in the images with black background.
  • When working with citrus fruit, take the images with black background first, the ones with white background later. At every drop, these fruit will shed little pieces of pulp, which float around in the water as bright fuzz. This is much less noticeable in the white images, or at least it can be more easily removed in post. At some point in time, you will have to replace the water entirely. If you also have other objects you want to drop, use those first.
  • Take care with the background and the surface you set everything on: I put a plastic blanket on our wooden table to protect it from the water. A blue plastic blanket. With red balloons on it. Haha. Find the mistake. The glass panes of the aquarium as well as the water surface relentlessly reflected this pattern – when you take a close look at the images above, you will see the blue with red dots in some of the water splashes. Next time, everything will be covered black or white.
  • If you want to capture fruit and splashes above as well as below the water, the flash pointing into the aquarium has to be at the same level as the waterline. At first, I had positioned it a bit lower – with the consequence that its light was diverted by the surface of the water, and everything above the waterline remained dark. An alternative setting is to position the flash high above and a bit to the side, pointing down into the aquarium. This will mimic a natural light setting, as provided by the sun.

CONCLUSION

Recommendation: Kids, do try this at home! It’s the ideal occupation for a dreary afternoon, and as a bonus you’ll learn to work with your flashes and how to set up the lighting correctly.

What I’ve learned: Practice makes perfect – I’ve already written about most of my learning experience in the Tips & Tricks above. I will certainly make more experiments of this kind in the not too distant future…


LINKS:

Picture Credits: All pictures – own images.

Make and Edit Pictures of the Milky Way

Lonely Speck

Photographing the Milky Way was the motivation for me to finally get deeper into the art of photography. In preparation for a trip to Albuquerque, New Mexico, I had already bought a new camera. The next step was to learn how to make the best use of my equipment – and in particular, how to get the best out of the pictures afterwards, at home on my computer. What helped me the most in all of this was the YouTube channel “Lonely Speck” by Ian Norman, which I will introduce here.

Milky Way over New Mexico
Milky Way over New Mexico

PREPARATION

PLANNING

I spent about a week in Albuquerque, including a few open evenings. While looking for tips where and how to best see the Milky Way, I came across Astronomy Adventures. Peter has a dark site on a ranch up in the mountains between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, at about 7,800 ft. elevation, where he offers guided tours through the night sky with his telescope. Together with a couple of friends, we had the great luck to catch a clear night at new moon – perfect conditions. Peter’s explanations of the history of astronomy, while pointing out interesting stellar formations with his telescope, made for an unforgettable experience.

Back home, in a densely populated region such as Germany’s Rhein-Main area, catching a view of the Milky Way is not so easy. In order to see a decent amount of stars around here, one would have to go to the northern Black Forest, or to the coast of the Baltic Sea. The web site www.lightpollutionmap.info provides a very detailed overview on light pollution levels; check it out for dark places near where you live.

Full Moon Rising
Full Moon Rising

A natural form of light pollution is the moon. In a full moon night, there isn’t much else to see in the sky. There is a number of web sites and apps that help you out with what phase to moon is in, or when it and the sun set and rise respectively. A good recommendation is The Photograhper’s Ephemeris, which can be used for free on any desktop computer. Then of course the weather has to be right as well – the fewer clouds, the less humid and the colder it is, the better. And last but not least, the Milky Way or whatever constellation you are interested it, has to be visible on the sky. There are plenty of web site and apps for this as well; personally, I use Sky Guide for iOS.

EQUIPMENT

This topic can be quickly summarized. You’ll need:

  • A camera (the bigger the sensor, the better – however, even with a Micro Four Thirds camera you can take great pictures. With your cell phone… not so much)
  • A lens. That should fulfil the following requirements:
    • Widest possible angle, to capture much of the sky
    • Widest possible aperture (i.e., low aperture number, so that as much light as possible reaches the sensor)
    • For APS-C DSLRs, I recommend the Tokina 11-20mm ƒ/2.8 DX, which is what I am using
    • For other camera systems, I gladly pass on Stephan Wiesner’s recommendations: for mirrorless APS-C cameras, the Samyang 12mm ƒ/2.0; and for full-frame cameras, the Tamron 15-30mm ƒ/2.8.
    • However, expensive gear isn’t mandatory: even with your kit lens you can take great pictures, as will be shown below
  • Sturdy tripod
  • Optional: remote shutter release (if you don’t have one, you can use your camera’ two second delay shutter)

In addition: warm clothing (even in summer, clear nights tend to get cold), food, drinks, and a book. Also quite helpful: a flash light with a “night vision mode” (red lamp), so you can check or search something without blinding you or others in the dark.

TAKING PICTURES

Once everything is in place, line up your camera with the section of sky you’re interested in, and off you go. The most challenging feat is focusing correctly. In the dark, you have to focus manually, and simply turning the lens to “infinity” rarely does the trick. I usually look for a star that is bright enough to appear in Live View on the LCD screen, use the 10x magnification on it, and turn the focus ring until the star appears as small as possible. I take a few test shots in addition, zoom in, and then fine-tune as needed until the stars have become tiny pinpoints.

I typically start out with these settings:  11mm | ƒ/2.8 | ISO 1.600 | 25 Sec.

If you do not want to capture star trails on purpose, you cannot keep the shutter open for as long as you want – the earth rotates faster than you might think. Here is a rule of thumb for the maximum exposure time so that the stars still appear as dots: (500 divided by (focal length * crop factor)). The crop factor defined the relative size of your camera’s sensor compared to a full-frame camera. It needs to be taken into account because smaller cameras usually also have smaller pixels, hence are more sensitive to the movement of the stars. For a Canon APS-C camera like mine, the crop factor is 1.6 (it’s 1.5 for Nikon, and 2 for Micro Four-Thirds). So, with my camera and the Tokina 11-20mm, I can keep the shutter open for a maximum of (500 / (11* 1.6)) = 28.4 (rounded down: 25) seconds. Please keep in mind: this is a rule of thumbs. Check your images; you may find that you can keep your shutter open longer, or not as long, to get the desired results.

Always shoot wide open, to gather as much light as possible. Concerning the ISO setting, I usually start at 1,600. At least for my 760D, that is a good compromise between the amount of light gathered and the image quality. Once you’re all set, start taking pictures. And never take only one image of a particular target area; always take a series of pictures. I usually take 16 frames or more. This does take a while, but it drastically increases your post-processing options afterwards.

Milky Way and Andromeda Galaxy
Milky Way and Andromeda Galaxy

In closing, there is one important point to consider: when doing night sky photography for the first time, you’ll get easily tempted to make the pictures too dark. They’ll look great when you look at them on your camera’s bright LCD screen in the dark of night, but back home at your computer, you’ll be greatly disappointed. Make the pictures so that they actually look too bright at first! If your camera offers a histogram, use it. Of course, no parts of the pictures should be blown out (completely white), but there definitely should be information on the right hand side (lights) of your histogram. The more light there is in the image, the more information is available for post-processing – which brings us to the actual topic.

POST-PROCESSING

Ian Norman is a photographer living in California who specializes in astrophotography. Consequently, his YouTube-Channel offers a lot of information on this topic; in particular on post-processing the images. His tutorials explain the steps to be taken in Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop very well and in an easy to follow manner. When I edited my first night sky images, I always had my iPad running the video tutorial at hand. I paused, scrolled back and forth, and followed each step carefully. By now, I can do most of it without having to ‘cheat’.

EDIT SINGLE IMAGES IN LIGHTROOM

The big challenge is in achieving good contrast and bringing out all the details, so that the image still looks natural and not overloaded. You will notice that the camera sees a lot more stars than the naked eye does. However when manipulating the night sky, and in particular the colors in the Milky Way, there always is some artistic leeway of course.

I want to point out two of Ian’s videos in particular. In the first one, he explains how you can capture the Milky Way even under very difficult lighting conditions:

This also explains very well why it is better to make the images appear too bright in camera and then reduce brightness in post, than the other way around.

The second video walks you through the usual editing steps for night sky images in Adobe Lightroom. This also proves that you can take impressive pictures even with a slower lens, if you take some considerations into account:

Both videos describe the editing of single images. The advanced method is to merge several frames in Photoshop into a single image – but for this, the images are initially edited in Lightroom as well, before bringing them into Photoshop.

MERGING SEVERAL IMAGES IN PHOTOSHOP

Due to the physical limitations imposed on aperture and shutter time, it is inevitable to raise the ISO setting to 1,600 or even 3,200 when taking pictures of the night sky. This results in a visible amount of noise in the image, especially when zooming in. Using the default noise reduction algorithms included in most photo editing tools will result in losing a lot of details, such as smaller stars.

Now it comes in handy if you have taken several shots of the same area of the sky. The more, the merrier. In short, the trick is to stack and exactly align the images, and then to compute the average value for each pixel. As the stars will always be in the same places in all images after correct alignment, they are not affected. The image noise, however, is random and thus cancels out when calculating the median. If you combine four images taken at ISO 3,200 this way, the remaining noise will be comparable to a shot taken at ISO 800. For the Milky Way pictures you can see in this post, I have stacked more than 20 images each.

This video offers the detailed instructions for how to achieve this:

The particular challenge is the correct alignment of the images. If that does not match exactly, not only the image noise will vanish when calculating the media, but the stars as well, at least in parts of the image. As long as the pictures offer enough contrast, Photoshop’s auto-alignment will work very well. However, I had a number of occasions where the automatic alignment failed. This is no reason for despair, though, as there is a manual workaround:

What remains is the artistic design of the night sky. Ian explains how to best bring out the colors and details in the sky in this video:

This works not only for Orion, of course, but for every section of the sky that has to offer similar features.

Ian’s channel offers numerous other tutorials as well, which are all very helpful. If you have taken enough shots of a particular area, you might for instance consider turning them into a time-lapse video. Using the knowledge from these videos, I have taken quite a number of pictures of the night sky so far, and I am increasingly happy with the results. As with all other kinds of photography, practice makes perfect. So, then: wait for the next clear night around a new moon, and then take your camera out! Especially now during the long winter nights with their clear, cold air, the conditions are ideal…


CONCLUSION

Recommendation: Absolutely watch, then go out and try!

What I’ve learned: The knowledge what to consider when taking the pictures, and how to post-process them, is a lot more important than the equipment. Thorough preparation is important, as well as the necessary patience while capturing the images. The results in the end will be well worth the effort!


LINKS

FURTHER INFORMATION

Picture credits: Title image: YouTube Screenshot; Milky Way and Moonrise: own images

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