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Processing Milky Way Photos

One of the reasons I find photography so much fun is that I am always learning new things about technique and post processing. On my trip to Mt. St. Helens, not only did I have a new camera, but I wanted to try out a new technique of stacking images. The point of stacking images is to remove noise and improve the clarity of the Milky Way. First off I have to say that I love focus peaking. Focus peaking magnifies a section of your image and then colors the parts that are in sharp focus when you are in manual focus mode. This is a game changer for aging eyes. I was able to manual focus on Jupiter and then use focus peaking to insure I really was in focus. In the past I have struggled to get my Milky Way shots in focus. No more!

Stacking images is one of those set up and wait activities. First, I took several test shots to fine tune my focus, composition and settings. I settled at ISO 3200, shutter speed 15 seconds and aperture f/2.8. Next, I set the in camera intervalometer to take 30 pictures with a 5 second gap between each photo. Lastly, I pressed the shutter and sat in my chair to wait 10 minutes for the sequence to finish. I took two series of pictures for stacking. I also took 5 images with the lens cap on using the same settings as the Milky Way images. The black images are for noise removal.

I used a free program called Sequator for stacking the images. Unfortunately Sequator is only available for the PC. Mac has an excellent image stacker program called Starry Landscape Stacker, unfortunately it is not free. You can use the trial for an unlimited amount of time; it does put a watermark across the picture.

I chose one image from the first of my sequences and applied some initial edits. Sequator recommends that you turn of any lens correction settings. I then applied the changes to the other 29 images. My editing software is On1, but any editing program will work. Sequator uses TIFFs so I saved all 35 images as TIFFs. I then brought the 28 Milky Way images and 5 black images into Sequator, masked the sky, turned auto brightness, high dynamic range, reduce light pollution and enhance star light on and hit the process button. I opened the output image in On1, reduced the whites, shadows and midtones, and lastly lightened the Milk Way slightly. Thank you, Ed Tromble, for the excellent presentation you did for the Olympia Camera Club on how to use Sequator.

Below are two images. The first image was processed without stacking, the second with stacking. I think the stacking made a difference. What do you think?

Milky Way at Loowit Point Mt. St. Helens - Not Stacked
Milky Way from Loowit Point Mt. St. Helens - 35 Stacked Images

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Chasing Comet Neowise

What a sky show we have had this July with Comet Neowise! The comet was discovered on March 27, 2020 by the asteroid hunter Neowise. Neowise is part of the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission. WISE is an infrared space telescope that is mapping the sky looking for objects such as bright galaxies, cold starts, asteroids and comets. The telescope was launched in 2009 and was only able to map the sky two times before running out of coolant. It was then repurposed to search for near earth objects (NEO).

The comet is viewable with binoculars and is located below the Big Dipper in the northwest. Neowise started out to the right of the Dipper just above the horizon. Each night it is a little higher in the sky and moves to the left. It will be closest to the earth on July 22-23 and will be visible through the end of July. The comet will get dimmer as it moves farther from the sun. It was the closest to the sun on July 3rd.

I chased the elusive goal of nicely composed comet pictures for three nights. I was successful on the third night. My comet adventures are a good example of forgetting what you know in the excitement of the moment.

The first night I photographed the comet from a gravel turnout off Nisqually Rd SW. I think that ultimately this was the best night for taking pictures; the comet was the brightest. Unfortunately, I was unprepared. I did set up my camera ahead of time. I set the ISO to 800, aperture to f/2.8, the shutter speed to 4 seconds, and the timer to 2 seconds. I cleaned my Canon 70 – 200 mm f/2.8 lens. I did not notice that the tape I use to mark infinity on the lens barrel had fallen off. I thought about bringing my Canon 28 – 135 mm f/3.5 and my Tokina 12-24 mm f/4. The operative word here is thought. I forgot my flashlight and binoculars. Fortunately my photo buddy had both of those items. I also did not focus at infinity before it got too dark.  I got so excited when I saw the comet that I went about blithely taking snapshots. I did check my first few shots, but did not magnify the image to check the focus.  I did think about composition and lamented the fact that my lens was not wide enough to capture some foreground to anchor the images. It is not surprising that my images were slightly out of focus.

Night two we went to Pioneer Orchard Park in Steilacoom. It was a beautiful evening and I did not forget anything. I re-marked infinity on the barrels of all three lenses. I checked my focus before it got dark. I was much more successful that night. Focus was much better. I decided to continue to shoot with the 70-200 because it is my fastest lens. This meant that once again I had no anchoring foreground. I could have changed lenses, but I did not. I also did not adjust my settings. The image below is from the second night. Once of things I like about using a telephoto lens was that the comet is bigger in the image.

Night three we went to Percival Landing in Olympia. Another beautiful evening. This time I left the 70-200 at home and was determined to use both the 28-135 and the 12-24. I set up by the Motherhood statue. I started with the 28-135.  I was able to capture the comet with foreground but I wanted more foreground so I switched to the 12-24. The Tokina has an maximum aperture of f/4 so I increased the ISO to 1250 and increased to shutter speed to 6 seconds. 6 seconds turned the stars into blobs and the comet to a smear so I went back to 4 seconds. I also tried the ISO at 800 and 1600 and the shutter speed at 2.5 seconds. I was pleased with my results. The image below is from Percival Landing.

What I learned from my Neowise experience is that I need to slow down and remember what I know. I also developed a big case of mirrorless camera envy. My fellow comet adventurers had a much easier time focusing in low light due to the electronic viewfinder and focus peaking. I think my future contains a mirrorless camera.

Reliving Past Photos

I have been re-discovering lots of forgotten gems as I continue with my re-organization project. Here are three more.

The first picture was taken in 2010 along the Farm to Market Road near Bow, WA. I love looking for shorebirds in the flooded winter fields in the Skagit Valley. This picture of Dunlin in non-breeding plumage was taken with a 500 mm lens with a 1.4 tele-extender. Settings were ISO 800, Aperture f/20 and Shutter 1/250. Diagonal lines are one of my favorite composition elements and this image uses diagonals to the max. It was a windy day and I probably should have opened the aperture up and used a faster shutter speed. Fortunately, the image is reasonably sharp.

Skagit Dunlin

The second two images are from a Palouse trip with the Olympia Camera Club in 2013. This was the first time I had been to the Palouse and I was just blown away by the colors, textures and patterns of the grain fields. The farmhouse picture was taken not too long after dawn. Once again, there are strong diagonal elements. This was taken with a Canon 1D Mark II and a 28-135 mm lens. I do not think I used a polarizer. The settings were ISO 100, Aperture f/5.6 and Shutter 1/125.

Palouse Farmhouse

This last image is my first experience at night shooting and light painting. Night shooting has become a favorite of mine. It is of a grain elevator in the Palouse. There was a lot to learn. The Canon 1D Mark II is not the best camera for night shooting as I discovered that night. It was just too old. Any ISO above 800 was extremely noisy and the tiny LCD on the back was not large enough to see the image so I could adjust the focus. I was extremely lucky to get anything in focus. I fell in love with night shooting and decided on the spot that I needed to upgrade my camera. It took two years, but eventually I purchased a Canon 7D Mark II which was better suited for night photography. I used the 28-135 mm lens. I tried using my 18 – 35 mm lens, but I could not get it to focus properly. I remember all these details because of the notes that I took that night. I keep a notebook with details of most of my photo trips. The settings were ISO 3200, Aperture f/3/5 and Shutter 15 s.

Palouse Grain Elevator at Night

A Sunny Day

I am sitting in my family room on this beautiful day aching to be out in the park capturing the beauty of spring with my camera. It is hard to stay home and practice social distancing when the sun is shining and it is warm outside. So, instead of taking new spring pictures, I am revisiting ones taken in years past.

Here is one taken in 2015. It is a peony taken at the Lord Mansion near the Washington State Capitol Campus. The Lord Mansion is site of the old Washington State Museum and has beautiful gardens full of roses and peonies.

Peony

I notice that I tend to do my spring flower pictures in mostly the same locations each year. I tend to go to Mima Mounds Natural Area Preserve, Scattercreek Wildlife Area, Washington State Capitol Campus, McLane Creek Nature Trail and Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. This means that over the years I have taken many similar pictures. Each year I choose an aspect of spring photography to concentrate on. Some years it is flowers, other years it is birds or even landscapes. Mima Mounds and Scattercreek are prairie lands in southern Thurston County. Wildflowers, birds and insects are abundant. I go here when I want to concentrate on unique prairie flowers and on meadow birds. McLane Creek is riparian habitat; I find different birds and flowers there. The cherry trees are the draw to the Capitol Campus. I am still working on my “perfect” shot of the trees with the capitol in the background. I won’t get it this year. Mt. St. Helens has flowers, hummingbirds and the Milky Way.

Each spring I strive to improve my macro flower photography. This means working on focus, flower selection, positioning, lighting and trying out different equipment such as extension tubes, flash, flash modifiers and macro lenses. This year I have a new ring flash and was looking forward to trying it out. I guess I will have to do my experimenting this spring with cut flowers and action figures.

I am longing for the great outdoors, but I have found plenty to do indoors. I started off by reorganizing my file structure for storing images. I organized my images by date and was constantly frustrated by the amount of time it took me to find images. I almost remember where I took a picture; I seldom remember a date unless it is of great significance. I always remember that I went to Antarctica in February 2000. So I decided to organize my images by location and then by year. It’s taken awhile, but I am almost finished reorganizing. The jury is still out.

I also have been busy re-editing photos that I previously edited in Lightroom/Photoshop, in On1. I am enjoying refining my skills. One thing that I do find easier to do in On1 than in LR is masking. The refine tool does a great job separating trees from sky. Below is a sunset taken at Rowena Crest near Moise, Oregon that I redid using On1. Comments?

Rowena Crest

Arrow Balsamroot

Stacked Flower

Central California Coast Bird-Photo Trip

The trip with Jack Lien to the central California trip has yielded an over abundance of images; too many to choose from. As I peruse the images, I am struck with how often we were in the right spot with the right light. The image below of a Whimbrel at Morro Rock Beach State Park is an example of this.

I love to discuss my images with my photo buddy Mary Bowman. She looks at my bird images with a landscape photographer’s eye and often sees things in them that I don’t. She suggested converting several images to BW. I did and am very pleased that I followed through on her suggestions. The results are below.

Frost

Originally published on 01/04/2016

This is the year I became fascinated with frost. We started having frosts in late November; lots of clear, cold, and sunny days. Each day I’d admire the frost on the ornamental plants around the coffee Kiosk. And so of course I began driving with my camera and one lens to capture the frost.

Here are two images, one is the full image and the other is cropped from that image. I cropped it because people could not really see it on my phone. When I made it bigger, the majority exclaimed that I should repost it with just a small section so that the water drops (aka melted frost) were accentuated.

This next leaf image is another favorite of mine.

To see the entire frost album click here.