Control the Color Monster: Making the Move to Manual White Balance

While many of the automatic settings on our cameras can be useful from time to time, photographing at night requires us to set nearly everything on our cameras manually. Typically, when most people hear this, they think of manual exposure mode, wherein they are required to set both the aperture and shutter speed independently of each other. This is true. However, it could also mean manually focusing your lens, or switching your ISO from auto to a specific value. It could also mean setting your white balance manually.

Manual white balance?! Yup.

With the useful presets in your white balance setting (Direct Sunlight, Tungsten, Cloudy, Shade, Fluorescent, Auto, etc.), it’s easy to forget that you can go manual here as well.

To set your white balance manually, you first need to understand what the white balance setting does for us. Simply put, it alters the color cast of our photographs. It can make an image look bluer or more orange. It can render our image greener or more magenta.

The Color of Light

Let’s start outside of our camera first. All light has a certain color cast. Some light seems warmer (more orange)—for example, the color of an orange sunset or older household tungsten bulbs.

The warm colors of sunset.

Some light seems cooler (more blue)—for example, the light on a cloudy day or the sky when it just starts getting light in the morning.

The cool colors of pre-dawn.

Often our eyes ignore these color casts and we perceive the light as neutral (no cast/white/no color). It’s not that we can’t detect the color cast. We can, if we are paying attention. It’s just that other aspects of the light rate as more important in our visual hierarchy—such as noticing shadows so we can resolve ground structure and subsequently not trip and fall. Although we may not give much conscious thought to subtle shifts in the color of light throughout the day, our cameras are excellent tools for recording these precise color casts, or even for fixing those casts if we so desire.

The Kelvin Scale

Scientists found the terms “warmer,” “yellowish” or “more orange” simply too vague to accurately describe the color of light, so they use the Kelvin scale to avoid imprecision. Here is a chart that shows temperatures of some common photographic light sources:

The warmer the color, the lower its Kelvin rating. Cooler colors have higher Kelvin ratings. Notice that daylight at 5500 K is neutral. No real color cast. Some even call it “white light.” Whereas sunsets are warm and cloudy days appear cool. These are the real colors that are present under those conditions, even though, again, we may not perceive them as such.

The Camera’s White Balance Setting

Depending on the white balance setting we choose, the camera can either render the real color of the scene or render an alternate to reality. When our cameras are set to Direct Sunlight (also called Daylight or Sun on some cameras), the camera is rendering the colors of the scene precisely as they are. The resulting picture may appear more warm or cool to our eye, but that’s because we failed to notice the color cast at the time.

On the other hand, any of the camera’s other white balance presets will alter the color. They are designed to “fix” the color cast to match what our minds expect it to be. This may or may not be want you want. In the following images, I decided to keep the natural color by using the Direct Sunlight white balance.

Warm colors captured by using Direct Sunlight white balance (above), and the cool colors of an overcast day captured by using Direct Sunlight white balance.

So, if you find the cool light of an overcast day (around 6500 K) unpleasant, you can switch your white balance to Cloudy and the camera will add in warmth to cancel out the extra blue in that situation.

An overcast day is around 6500 K. The Cloudy white balance setting will warm the scene by adding in yellow/orange to cancel out blue and make “white” light.

Let’s look at this in a real-world scenario. Below you can see an image photographed at two white balances. The version on the left shows how it looks on an overcast day when shot with Direct Sunlight white balance. The version on the right shows the same image shot with Cloudy white balance.

Unlike the presets of Cloudy, Shade, Tungsten and Direct Sunlight, which have set values, the Auto white balance setting varies depending on what the camera detects. It looks at a percentage of the brightest pixels in the scene, determines their color cast, and then adds in the opposite color to neutralize.

The Question of Fixing Color

Of course, it’s always your choice whether to fix the color cast or leave it as. For example, why would you want to “fix” or neutralize the beautiful warm colors of a sunset? I also find that when shooting forests or waterfalls on a cloudy day, I tend to keep my white balance set to Direct Sunlight to allow the “cool” feeling to come through.

White balance is very subjective. We can, however, list out a few rough guidelines. Here are mine:

  • When shooting outdoors on a sunny day, I choose Direct Sunlight.

  • When shooting sunrise and sunset, again, Direct Sunlight.

  • On overcast days, I choose Direct Sunlight or Cloudy.

  • In the open shade, I choose Cloudy or Shade.

  • When shooting indoors under artificial light, I choose Auto.

  • When shooting at night? I set my white balance manually.

Manual White Balance

I choose a manual white balance at night so that I can completely control the color of the night sky along with any existing light or any light that I choose to add to the photo.

Manual white balance is achieved by using the Kelvin white balance setting. It allows you to set your white balance to any color temperature you desire. No presets, no Auto fix. Just your choice of how you want your image to look.

This setting is found in your White Balance presets and is signified by either a K or the word Kelvin.

Nikon’s White Balance menu.

Clicking on this choice allows you to choose from Kelvin values of anywhere from 2000 K to 10,000 K.

  • The higher the number you use, the warmer the picture will be.

  • The lower the number you use, the cooler the picture will be.

Using the Kelvin white balance setting allows for very precise control over the color of the resulting image.

Setting the Kelvin value.

It’s very common for photographers to leave their white balance set on Direct Sunlight when shooting at night. Even with no moonlight this can cause an overly warm look to the image. By your using Kelvin white balance and lowering the setting to, say, 3800 K, you’ll be cooling down your photo and thereby making it look and feel more like night.

The exact Kelvin setting you choose will vary greatly depending on the circumstances. Here the white balance of the first shot was set to Direct Sunlight. There was very little moonlight and little to no light pollution from nearby towns. In this case, I cooled down my photo by setting a Kelvin temperature of 4200 K.

The following images were made under a full moon. The first was made with a white balance of Direct Sunlight. The second image was with a manual setting of 4500 K.

When you are near cities or towns, the lights can dramatically influence the color cast of your photographs. In the following images I was just outside of Sedona, Arizona. With the white balance set to Direct Sunlight, the color cast was way too warm. In this case I had to move my Kelvin setting all the way down to 2800 K.

As with most white balance settings, there are no absolutes. So much depends on your personal choice, the current moon phase, the amount of ambient light pollution from nearby towns or cities, and even the type of camera you use. Every camera will render colors a little differently.

The key here is experimentation. Try different K settings under many different conditions. After downloading, examine them closely on your computer. Make notes. Go out and try again. The more you experiment, the better you’ll be at setting your Kelvin temperature. And the better you are nailing the white balance in the field, the less time you have to spend fixing the image in post-processing!

Tim Cooper is a partner and workshop leader with National Parks at Night. Learn more techniques from his book The Magic of Light Painting, available from Peachpit.

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How I Got the Shot: Car and Star Trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

 Car and Star Trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. © 2018 Matt Hill.

Car and Star Trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. © 2018 Matt Hill.

Choosing what you want to include in the frame is often an iterative process. Doubly so when shooting at night.

When I was spending some time shooting in Great Smoky Mountains National Park (hint: We are offering an amazing workshop here in 2019!), I was getting to know the place—finding its essence in the darkest hours.

I drove up to Newfound Gap, anticipating an even more spectacular view under the stars than I had seen in broad daylight.

Using PhotoPills (above), I knew when and where the Milky Way would be. With that info in hand, I planned to be at Clingman’s Dome earlier for dusk and first darkness, leaving enough time to make my way back to Newfound Gap to shoot the galactic core of the Milky Way.

Alas, the clouds came early.

Nikon D750, Zeiss 15mm Distagon f/2.8. 22 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 6400.

And my first shot was great! Loved those car trails. But the photograph was not a complete story, nor the story I thought should be told. So I decided to light paint the trees in front of me.

Nikon D750, Zeiss 15mm Distagon f/2.8. 22 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 6400.

This was OK, but not good. There was no way to sidelight the trees, outside of rigging myself and descending the steep mountainside.

So I decided to rip a long exposure to capture some movement—to get kinesis in the photo.

Nikon D750, Zeiss 15mm Distagon f/2.8. 8 minutes, f/2.8 ISO 400.

I really liked it. Great tonal range, great movement. But darn, were those car trails calling to me! But they were so … tiny.

So I swapped the 15mm lens out for my trusty Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 and punched in on that detail. I was aiming to get a good balance between sky and earth, while making the car trails more important.

Nikon D750, Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 at 70mm. 60 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 6400.

Better. But … Still. Not. Right.

I reframed to reduce the dark foreground and play the composition game. You know, the one where you check your edges, look for balance and ask, “What could be better?”

Nikon D750, Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 at 70mm. 60 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 6400.

Ah, now I felt like I had the balance I wanted. Next, all I needed was some motion. And car trails! So I applied the Six-Stop Rule and aimed at 16 minutes. The weather was cool, but not cold. I know my D750 can handle an exposure that long without long exposure noise.

Nikon D750, Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 at 70mm. 16 minutes, f/2.8, ISO 400.

Nailed it. You know when you get it right.

The clouds passing over the mountaintops; the long, bright car trails lighting up the forest edge; the mild definition in the foreground trees. I loved it. I put on the lens cap and moved on, despite not getting the Milky Way shot I’d wanted.

But … Patience paid off when I waited out the clouds. :-) Got the other shot anyway!

Nikon D750, Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art lens. 11 seconds, f/4, ISO 6400.

Matt Hill is a partner and workshop leader with National Parks at Night. See more about his photography, art, workshops and writing at MattHillArt.com. Follow Matt on Twitter Instagram Facebook.

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Muses from the Past: The Night Photographs of Jessie Tarbox Beals

Analyzing classic photographs can be an effective way to progress in one’s own work. The key is not to simply mimic someone else’s great ideas, but to use the knowledge that comes with reproducing the work of masters and move on to create something new. With this in mind, National Parks at Night's Lance Keimig offers this ongoing series highlighting some of the early masters of night photography. We'd love to see any photographs you create after learning more about the pioneers of this niche—please share in the comments section!


In his book Conversations With Picasso, the famous Hungarian night photographer Brassai tells of how Picasso came to nickname him “The Terrorist” because of his use of explosive magnesium chlorate flash powder to illuminate his photographs. Brassai certainly was not shy about his generous use of the smoky, smelly substance, but perhaps the lesser known photographer Jessie Tarbox Beals is better deserving of the moniker.

 Jessie Tarbox Beals, c. 1905

Jessie Tarbox Beals, c. 1905

Beals is known as the “first woman news photographer,” and the “first woman night photographer,” and was also one of the first female photographers to use flash powder. In 1905, the New York American reported:

The explosion of an over-charge of flashlight powder set off by two photographers, one of them a woman, just as crowds were poring out of the Garrick Theatre, caused tremendous excitement and considerable damage. Windows in several houses were broken, scores of families, brought out of bed by the detonation, which rang through three blocks, came scurrying into the street, some of them in their bedclothes. The theatre patrons were panic-stricken, and there was a stampede to get out of the neighborhood. The photographers were trying to get a special group coming out of the theatre, from a stoop across the street, when the explosion occurred. Two pounds of flashlight powder, four times the usual amount, is alleged to have been set off.

It was difficult for any photographer to estimate the amount of powder needed to light up a space outdoors. Despite their severe shaking up, both the man and the woman recovered sufficiently to lose themselves in the crowd and get away. … Palmer Hunt, who lives at 70 West 35th Street, whose windows were wrecked, said that he thought that the explosion was due to an attempt on his life. He said that he is a strike-breaker, and at the head of the Iron Worker’s Ass’n, a non-union organization. Investigation proved however, that the entire disturbance was due to a no more serious disturbance than that which lay behind the effort of the photographers to get their coveted picture.

And all these years since 9/11, I’ve been wondering what photographers had to do with terrorism every time I get rousted by the cops or an over-zealous security guard. Turns out I can blame it on Jessie Tarbox Beals!

Beals was born in 1870 and died in 1942, which made her a close contemporary of Alfred Stieglitz. While Stieglitz left a larger legacy, Beals was a remarkable woman whose drive and spirit enabled her to succeed in a challenging profession against significant odds.

Throughout her career, Beals worked with an 8x10 view camera, even at night. A large view camera is cumbersome even in the daytime, but is exceedingly difficult to work with in the dark. Her basic kit consisted of camera and lenses, a bulky wooden tripod, holders, and heavy glass plates that weighed about 50 pounds.

Like most women of her day, Beals had to work at least twice as hard as men to make any headway, and she worked tirelessly to make ends meet. She often made speculative images of events and sold 8x10-inch contact prints for 60 cents apiece!

There are relatively few mentions of night photography in Beals’ papers, nor in her 1978 biography written by Alexander Alland, but there is plenty of photographic evidence.

The archive of her work at Harvard University’s Schlesinger library contains well over 100 prints of nocturnal images that span Beals’ photographic career. She photographed New York at night at the same time as Stieglitz and his followers, but primarily as a journalist. Her images were sharp and in stark contrast to the soft focus dreamscapes of the pictorialists.

Sadly, we will never understand her motivations to photograph at night, nor how she initially happened upon night photography in the first place. Stieglitz and his colleagues had been photographing in New York since about 1895, and there is some evidence that Beals was aware of Stieglitz and certainly his 291 Gallery where many of the pictorialist’s night images had been shown.

Beals took many night views of the pavilions of the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, houses lit by gaslight in Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood, and later the mission-style architecture of Santa Barbara after she moved to California in 1922.

Beals had trained her husband to be her assistant, and he processed her plates and made prints—but they were generally of the down and dirty variety a journalist makes on the fly for a deadline rather than as precious works of art. As in the examples shown here, Beals’ night views are generally ordinary scenes showing a record of time and place.

The significance of her legacy is more one of a pioneer than a maker of images. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Beals’ efforts paved the way for other women photographers who came after her. Alland wrote in his biography of Beals that after her success in New York, there was an increasing number of other women photographers who ironically became her competitors. It was that competition for assignments that in part ultimately led to her relocating to California.  Photographers such as Bernice Abbott, Helen Levitt and Margaret Bourke White followed close behind in the footsteps and tripod holes of Jessie Tarbox Beals.

There wouldn’t be the slightest use
For it to snow in Boston,
Because my aching pocket book
Has such an awful frost on.
I want to go and take some more
Night photos in your city,
But till some “dough” doth make a show,
I can’t, and more’s the pity.
— Jessie Tarbox Beals
Lance Keimig is a partner and workshop leader with National Parks at Night. He has been photographing at night for 30 years, and is the author of Night Photography and Light Painting: Finding Your Way in the Dark (Focal Press, 2015). Learn more about his images and workshops at www.thenightskye.com.

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Oh, the Places We’ll Go—15 Destinations for Epic Night Adventures in 2019

It’s hard to believe that we are entering our fourth year of leading night workshops to beautiful and spectacular places. But here we are, announcing our adventures for the next year.

We threw our dream darts all over the globe, from the mysterious giant stone Moai statues of Easter Island to the sand dunes of Morocco. In between, volcanoes, canyons, towers, ghost towns, lighthouses and great, smoky mountains will be our subjects under the stars.

We will also offer a trio of National Parks at Night firsts:

  • our first backcountry camping adventure
  • our first urban night workshop
  • our first dedicated post-processing course

Oh, and did we mention we are going to Cuba and will tour the country in the very cars we love to photograph there?

So come dream with us and dedicate some time to leveling up your night visions!

Note: Several workshops have already sold out, as we announce them to our alumni and email list first. However, if that workshop truly speaks to you, be sure to sign up for the waitlist! There is no fee to do that, and we’ve had many waitlisters become happy alumni!

A Trio of Trip Types

We offer three styles of learning experiences: our Passport Series and Adventure Series, and our brand new skills development workshops.

Passport Series

At Passport Series workshops, we take you to a national park and teach you how to interpret the night sky against a variety of landscapes and lighting elements. We often have these cherished locations to ourselves and offer classroom time as well as hands-on education.

Adventure Series

At Adventure Series workshops, we take you to other fascinating natural wonders that may be on or near national and/or protected lands in in the U.S. or beyond! These workshops may have a little less “classroom” time and a bit more field time as we are constantly exploring beautiful places during the day and night.

Skills Development

In 2019 we’re introducing the skills development workshops, designed to kick up your processing power in Lightroom and Photoshop! We will guide you to get your photographs organized and looking better than ever before. It’s time to take it to the next level. Five nights and six days of skills improvement, plus a little shooting at night and then applying what you learned to those RAW files during the day.

The Amazing Destinations

You can click on any of the links below to learn a lot more about all the workshop locations. For a quick read about what each experience will entail, read on …

Dates Location Series
January 20-25 Post-Processing Intensive in the Catskills Skills
Feb 19-March 1 Easter Island Adventure
March 20-29 Morocco Adventure
April 11-16 Valley of Fire & Nelson Ghost Town Adventure
April 21-26 Great Smoky Mountains National Park Passport
May 19-24 Outer Banks & Cape Hatteras National Seashore Adventure
June 9-14 Bryce Canyon National Park Passport
June 16-21 Grand Canyon National Park South Rim Passport
July 8-12 Devils Tower National Monument Adventure
August 5-10 Shi Shi Beach Backcountry Adventure
August 18-22 Lassen Volcanic National Park Passport
October 2-6 Cape Cod and the Province Lands Adventure
October 13-18 Big Bend National Park Passport
November 3-8 Golden Gate NRA & San Francisco Adventure
December 7-15 Cuba Adventure
 

Passport Series

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Join us for the gently moon-kissed cliffs, mountains, coves, riversides, preserved cabins and churches of this historically pivotal national park. From the rolling valley of Cades Cove to the peak of Clingman’s Dome, we’ll explore the mercurial and mystifying skies of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Dates: April 21-26, 2019
More Information: Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Bryce Canyon National Park

In the surreal and vast expanses of the Utah landscape, we will spend a magical week exploring the otherworldly hoodoos of Bryce Canyon National Park. The crimson, orange and yellow rock spires make the perfect foreground for our night photography.

Dates: June 9-14, 2019
More Information: Bryce Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon National Park South Rim

It’s one of the greatest natural spectacles in the world. Join us in our first year of exploring the many layers of the Grand Canyon. Our focus during the 100-year anniversary of the park will be the popular South Rim. Known for its spectacular sunrises and sunsets, this workshop will emphasize many ways we can interpret the rim—from long exposures to panoramic and time-lapse techniques. We will also prove that the Grand Canyon is much more than a “rim shot.” We will seek the many traces of humankind that can be found along the canyon: Native American ruins, historical buildings and woman-made structures.

Dates: June 16-21, 2019
More Information: Grand Canyon National Park South Rim

Lassen Volcanic National Park

Lassen Volcanic National Park is home to steaming fumaroles, meadows freckled with wildflowers, clear mountain lakes and all four different types of volcanos. Jagged peaks tell the story of its eruptive past while hot water continues to shape the land. Lassen Volcanic National Park offers opportunities to explore and photograph a majestic landscape that is distinctly a part of the American West.

Dates: August 18-22, 2019
More Information: Lassen Volcanic National Park

Big Bend National Park

Big Bend National Park is pretty raw country. It’s also pretty. Especially in the right light, and double especially at night. All the rock formations, all the canyons, all the mountains and valleys and dirt roads and ruins—all sit under some of the quietest and darkest night skies of North America. The landscape is at once harsh and beautiful, at once hard and delicate, at once tough and mesmerizing. And we’ll be there to capture it all under the October stars of Texas.

Dates: October 13-18, 2019
More Information: Big Bend National Park

Adventure Series

Easter Island

Few places on earth are as mysterious or compelling as Easter Island. The giant stone figures known as Moai oversee this remote island 2,200 miles off of the coast of Chile. Most of Rapa Nui, as it’s known to the locals, is a national park. Not only is it hard to get to here, but it is notoriously difficult to access the park at night. In February of 2019, National Parks at Night will be taking 10 lucky people to do just that.

Dates: February 19-March 1, 2019
More Information: Easter Island

Morocco

Morocco is a land of large bustling cities, tranquil seaside towns and remote mountain villages. Our photo tour avoids the major cities in favor of smaller, quiet places away from most of the tourists and tourist traps. The port city of Essaouira, the kasbah at Ait BenHaddou and glamping in the Sahara desert will be the highlights of our adventure.

Dates: March 20-29, 2019
More Information: Morocco

Valley of Fire & Nelson Ghost Town

Join us for the broad, red mountains, valleys and arches within Valley of Fire State Park and the abandoned wonderland of the Nelson ghost town. We’ll explore having fun with light and stars in these desert jewels of the American southwest.

Dates: April 11-16, 2019
More Information: Valley of Fire & Nelson Ghost Town

Outer Banks & Cape Hatteras National Seashore

The Outer Banks—what a name, and what a place! Home to tasty crab cakes, the honored ground of first flight, pristine national seashore and perhaps the most iconic lighthouse in the United States. And at night, when you look up, oh my! You take in the stars and the Milky Way in that incredible Atlantic darkness while the ocean breezes tousle your hair and bring salt to your lips. And beneath it all, a camera and a tripod, capturing the majesty of what this special place offers.

Dates: May 19-24, 2019
More Information: Outer Banks & Cape Hatteras National Seashore

Devils Tower National Monument

Join us to explore the strange stone mountain of America’s first national monument. Revered by Native Americans in folklore, shrouded in mystery, we’ll explore the mercurial skies of Devils Tower.

Dates: July 8-12, 2019
More Information: Devils Tower National Monument

Shi Shi Beach Backcountry

Shi Shi Beach is a remote photographer’s paradise, reachable by six miles of round-trip hiking, plus a little more to reach nearby Point of the Arches. We will hike first to Second Beach for a warm-up night of camping and photography, then to Shi Shi for a two-night, three-day, adventure among the stars and the starfish, the sand and the sea stacks. We will photograph ebbing and flowing ocean waters, tidal pools, Pacific sunsets, and of course the Milky Way and the beautiful Olympic night skies.

Dates: August 5-10, 2019
More Information: Shi Shi Beach Backcountry

Cape Cod and the Province Lands

Cape Cod’s Province Lands comprise a captivating collection of simple scenic wonders. Ponds. Beaches. Sandy dunes. Pine forests. Lighthouses. Old dune shacks. Cranberry bogs. Atlantic waves cascading onto the coast. These old shores hold countless treasures for the night photographer. We’ll explore them all, and more of what Cape Cod offers, during one of the peak of the region’s finest season: a New England autumn.

Dates: October 2-6, 2019
More Information: Cape Cod and the Province Lands

Golden Gate National Recreation Area & San Francisco

Like a beacon at the end of the world, San Francisco’s diverse land and skyscape will guide our exploration into our first urban workshop. We will focus our lenses on the winding streets and bright city lights, but also explore the coastline, bunkers, bridges and ruins that intersect the beautiful Bay Area. We will challenge you to re-interpret the city with a multitude of long exposure and processing techniques that will leave you with a unique and fresh view of The City by the Bay.

Dates: November 3-8, 2019
More Information: Golden Gate National Recreation Area & San Francisco

Cuba

On this photography and cultural tour you’ll experience the best of Cuban culture on an island with photo opportunities everywhere you look. In Havana we’ll explore life in the streets both day and night, plus the vibrant art and music scenes, architecture, people and cuisine. We’ll road-trip to Las Terrazas and Viñales Valley (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) to photograph Cuba’s magical landscapes. This boutique tour will give you access to Cuban experiences you’d never be able to create on your own. All you’ll need is an adventurous spirit and flexible mindset (it’s Cuba!).

Dates: December 7-15, 2019
More Information: Cuba

Skills Development

Post-Processing Intensive in the Catskills

You’ve spent a lot of time building your camera skills and honing your photographic vision. Now it’s time to take it to the next level. Post-processing has become an integral part of nearly every discipline of photography. Just as the black and white photographers of the 20th century were able to creatively interpret their work in the darkroom, we can now use modern technology to enhance our photos, and even to create images that were impossible only a few short years ago.

Dates:  January 20-25, 2019
More Information: Post-Processing Intensive in the Catskills

But Wait, There’s More!

Don’t see the perfect fit for your schedule or location? In the coming months we will announce our 2019 Ambassador Series destinations with our partners at Atlas Obscura, Rocky Mountain School of Photography, and a brand new partner whose name we’re not yet mentioning. (Hint: It’s big.)

Also, remember to always monitor our Speaking Engagements page. We give lectures and photo walks in the New York City area and all over the country. And if you want us to come directly to your camera club or meet-up group, feel free to contact us. (Click here to see what we can offer.)

We also offer one-on-one tutoring in-person or via videoconference that can help you build your portfolio, organize your images or give you targeted, individualized education to elevate your photography skills.

Finally, we’d like to express a deep thanks to all our alumni—the 300 fine photographers who have accompanied us over the past 2.5 years to wonderful night photography locations such as Acadia, Biscayne, Capitol Reef, Dry Tortugas, Death Valley, Redwood, Zion, Great Sand Dunes, Cape Cod, Centennial Valley and more. We appreciate you so very much.

Do you want to see their work? Check out this playlist of all the workshop slideshows. Want to see some of their accomplishments? Check out our Alumni Spotlight.

Seize the Night

2019 will have 365 nights. Which will you be spending with us? Sign up today to #seizethenight!

Gabriel Biderman is a partner and workshop leader with National Parks at Night. He is a Brooklyn-based fine art and travel photographer, and author of Night Photography: From Snapshots to Great Shots (Peachpit, 2014). During the daytime hours you'll often find Gabe at one of many photo events around the world working for B&H Photo’s road marketing team. See his portfolio and workshop lineup at www.ruinism.com.

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4 Ways to Remove Airplanes from Star Stacks

When I make a star stack sequence, I’m at a crossroads for my editing choices.

Do I remove the plane trails? If so, do I live with the tiny gaps in those star trails left behind by the removal process?

It’s a hard decision. On the one hand, the journalistic approach is, “That’s what happened in front of my camera—it’s the truth.” If that’s your creed ... you’re done! Make whatever levels and color adjustments you want and move on.

But when I desire to have a final image without plane trails, I spend some time to make sure it’s done right, and that I’m making a quality photograph.

Want to learn some techniques on how to do this? Is there a method—without having to be a professional photo retoucher—that doesn’t leave gaps? Read on, my fellow night photographer.

Note:

If you are unfamiliar with how to create a star stack, see these previous blog posts:

Prep: How to Find Which Layers Have Plane Trails

I used the same image stack for all the demos below. Shot in the Fruita Orchard of Capitol Reef National Park during our workshop in June 2018.

Gear:

Exposure details:

  • 63 images shot at 30 seconds, f/5.6, ISO 6400
  • total exposure duration: 31.5 minutes

I knew I wasn’t going for star points, so I chose a 30-second exposure to keep long exposure noise down in the high desert summer heat. The temps weren’t that bad, but I wasn’t taking any chances.

For expediency, I exported full-resolution JPGs from Lightroom to Photoshop. Stacking TIFFs straight from Lightroom with this many files can really choke a computer. As it was, the PSB file was 4.2 GB when saved.

Note:

Do not apply lens profile corrections before making a star stack. It can lead to irreparable moire in the final stacked image. If you want to do apply lens corrections, do so after stacking and flattening.

How to Find the Planes

  1. Create your image stack in Photoshop and save as a PSD or PSB file (the latter when the file is over 2 GB—don’t worry, Photoshop will prompt you if it’s needed).
  2. Identify which layers have plane trails. But how, you ask?
  3. I like to turn on all the layers and apply the Lighten blend mode to each so I can see everything.
  4. Then I click and hold on the eyeball icon at left of each layer and drag downward in groups of ten or so, while staring at the image. This gives me kind of a faux animated preview of the layers being added one by one. (See video below.)
  5. If I see plane trail (or a portion of one) disappear, then I click the eyeball on each layer, one by one, upward from the bottom until it disappears. That’s how I know I found the offending layer.
  6. I make that layer a color to identify it for further work later.

An alternative way to do this is by revealing only one layer at a time, from top to bottom. Which strategy to use is just personal preference. Unless you’re on a PC, apparently. Chris is a PC user, and the trick I detail above and in the video doesn't work for him. What he does is group the layers ten or so at a time, changes the blend mode of all the groups to Lighten, then hides each group one by one, which helps him narrow down the locations of trails more quickly. Finally, he goes into the offending groups and finds the offending planes.

Either way, this process is time-consuming. So be patient. Find those planes. For the photo in the video below, the process above took me about five minutes. (I made it faster for you to watch.)

Note:

You may also find meteors and satellites in there. We have another blog post coming soon on how to identify the differences between them.

4 ways to remove plane trails in a star stack with Layer Masks

  1. Remove plane trails in a flattened image in Lightroom.
  2. Use the black paint brush in Photoshop.
  3. Use the spot healing brush in Photoshop.
  4. Use layer masks in Photoshop.

Which one is best? I am going to explore all four and compare them, so you can decide which works best for you. And, you can bet that I will have an opinion about what works best for me, too. ;-)

Removing Plane Trails in a Flattened Image

This is the fastest method, but also the least likely to be effective in terms of quality. If you must have it fast, try this first. If you don’t like the results, try one of the options that follows.

  1. Open your flattened image with plane trails in Lightroom.
  2. Select the Spot Healing Brush.
  3. Click once at the beginning of the trail. (See note below.)
  4. Hold Shift on your keyboard.
  5. Click once again at the end of the plane trail.
  6. Repeat for every plane trail on every layer.

NOTE:

You can paint freehand with the trackpad on your laptop (most awkward), with your mouse (somewhat awkward) or with a tablet like a Wacom (hardly awkward at all). This applies to subsequent techniques too.

I find that using keyboard arrow keys to move the healing brush target around is easier to manage than just using a mouse or trackpad. But it causes “jaggies” (below) more often than not, no matter how precise you are.

Using a Black Paint Brush in Photoshop

Since the Lighten blend mode for layers reveals the brightest pixels in a scene, painting with a black brush right on the image layer will make trails (which are bright) disappear.

  1. Select the Brush Tool with these settings: Opacity at 100 percent, Flow at 100 percent and Color at 100 percent black.
  2. Make your brush slightly larger than the width of your plane trail. (You may have to adjust this up and down, depending on the trail.)
  3. Paint over the plane trails. But only over the plane trails.
  4. Repeat for every plane trail on every layer.
  5. Merge layers or flatten when done with all.

Resulting image after using black brush to remove plane trails. Click to enlarge.

100 percent zoom crop to an area where a plane trail was removed.

In this video, I used the process of identifying layers first and then color-coding them before blacking out the trails. Even then, I discovered more along the way.

Note:

This is a destructive process. No going back. Unless you duplicate each layer you paint on and turn off the duplicate, but that increases your PSD/PSB size.

Using the Spot Healing Brush in Photoshop

I recently discovered this. While mucking about in Photoshop, editing my star stacks from Capitol Reef National Park earlier this year, I had a What If? moment. …

I asked myself, “What if I try using a different tool to remove star trails?” (I usually use layer masks, which we’ll get to in a little bit.)

  1. Select the Spot Healing Brush tool, and change the Type to Content-Aware.
  2. Make your brush slightly larger than the width of your plane trail.
  3. Click once at the beginning of the trail.
  4. Hold Shift on your keyboard.
  5. Click once again at the end of the plane trail.
  6. Repeat for every plane trail on every layer.
  7. Merge layers or flatten when done with all.

It works. I love this method, despite it being a destructive process.

Resulting image after using Spot Healing Brush to remove plane trails. Click to enlarge.

100 percent zoom crop to an area where a plane trail was removed.

In this video, I simply went from top to bottom to eliminate trails in each layer without color-coding them. I missed one plane trail, because I was kinda tired doing both back to back.

Note:

As mentioned, this is also a destructive process. No going back. Unless you duplicate each layer you paint on and turn off the duplicate, but that about doubles your PSD/PSB size.

Comparing the Methods

Let’s take a look at how the methods stack up against each other. (See what I did there?)

The edit in Lightroom of a completed, flattened stack? I immediately abandoned it. It was janky to complete, and undesirable:

And when your stars go the wrong way, it’s really hard to make it match:

So, all that’s left are the two competitors we’ve looked at so far. Below you can see the final images from each:

And here are some comparisons I made while viewing both simultaneously in Lightroom:

Above you can see that there isn’t really much difference between the two methods. At least in terms of image quality.

But … what did my time cost?

Painting Black

Pros: Easy to see if you covered a plane trail.

Using Spot Heal Brush

Pros: I just feel better seeing an image versus black lines all over. The trails are gone, and the layers still looks like a photograph.

Both methods have the same cons:

  • destructive to pixels
  • makes some gaps in the trails (thought remarkably few)
  • no way to go back on edits unless you duplicate your PSD/PSB beforehand

To Identify or not to Identify

I spent eight minutes identifying layers with stuff to eliminate.

I spent 30 minutes using the black brush on those layers I identified.

I spent 27 minutes using the Spot Healing Brush, layer by layer, without color-coding or pre-identifying layers.

It’s up to you which method helps you get through the process better. I can operate without color-coding in the future. One-by-one is the way for me.

Conclusion: Which Method Wins?

Guess what? Both strategies are just as effective. Yay!

And here is the proof: When gaps appear, they do so in the same places using both methods.

The above were from testing my own hypothesis that Spot Healing would work better. Surprise! I’m delighted to discover that for this test, both techniques performed the same.

Both methods create gaps. But you can meticulously fill them in with Photoshop prior to flattening. Use the clone tool, if you have the extra hours. ;-)

The Fourth Way—Using Layer Masks in Photoshop

This is how I’d always done it before my recent discovery. This method is non-destructive—if you save your PSD/PSB, you can always roll back the edits or modify them. (The downside, of course, is that an unflattened, many-layered file could be downright huge. If you’re not planning to save an unflattened file, this doesn’t provide much benefit.)

  1. Add a mask to a layer with a plane trail.
  2. Select the Paint Brush tool with these settings: Opacity at 100 percent, Flow at 100 percent and Color at 100 percent black.
  3. Make your brush slightly larger than the width of your plane trail.
  4. Click once at the beginning of the trail.
  5. Hold Shift on your keyboard.
  6. Click once again at the end of the plane trail.
  7. Repeat for every plane trail on every layer.
  8. Make your final contrast, color and other finish adjustments.

Give it a shot. You may like this better, especially if you are already masking out other things in your scene.

Et al.

Here are some examples of other stacks I’ve done using these techniques:

So go forth and capture, my fellow lovers of the night sky. And fear not the airplanes arcing across the heavens, for you can make their presence just a memory.

Matt Hill is a partner and workshop leader with National Parks at Night. See more about his photography, art, workshops and writing at MattHillArt.com. Follow Matt on Twitter Instagram Facebook.

UPCOMING WORKSHOPS FROM NATIONAL PARKS AT NIGHT