Post-production

How to Make Your Lightroom Rendering Look Like Your Camera Preview

Have you ever imported an image into Lightroom and felt that it looked different than what you remember from the back of your camera? If you have, you are probably not imagining it.

There are two reasons this disparity can occur. The first is a function of our vision. The second derives from the way your camera and Lightroom handle RAW files.

Night-Adjusted Vision

Our eyes are fabulous instruments. Their ability to adjust to a wide range of light is astonishing. Stand outside on a bright sunny day and you’re able to take in all of the information from your surroundings. Enter a dark room and your eyes adjust to the low level of luminance, allowing you to make out shapes and details. Stand on a street illuminated with city lights and you can discern every detail from the highlights of bright buildings to the shadows beside them.

However, adjusting to extreme darkness takes time. As your surroundings get darker, your pupils dilate to allow more light to enter—just like opening your lens aperture from f/8 to f/2.8. This condition is called “night-adjusted vision.”

When your eyes are dilated in this state, the images on your camera’s rear LCD will be perceived as much brighter than they actually are—because your eyes have adjusted to the darkness of the world, and not to the brightness of your camera. The problem this causes is that when you view your images in Lightroom, they look much darker than you remember from in the field.

The solution

Turn down the brightness on your camera’s LCD.

Most cameras’ default setting for brightness is Auto. This means when it’s bright outside, the screen brightens; when dark, the screen dims.

While the Auto setting is fine for most types of photography, the night photographer needs to take manual control over the brightness of the LCD. By lowering it to the lowest setting possible (or second lowest), you will get a much more accurate preview at night. This will also help achieve a better match when you review your images back in Lightroom. (Figure 1 shows the LCD brightness settings on Nikon and Canon cameras.)

Figure 1. The LCD Brightness settings in Nikon (left) and Canon menus.

How the Camera Previews

Even though you have set your camera to shoot RAW, the image you see on the rear LCD is not the RAW image, but rather a JPG generated from that RAW data. For many photographers this discrepancy is irrelevant. But for those wanting to ensure a close match from camera to Lightroom, a better understanding of this function is important.

There is a setting in your camera that allows you to create different “flavors” in your photos. Each manufacturer has different names for this setting, but in essence they all alter the color and contrast of the resulting image. For example, by using Portrait mode, the skin tones of your subjects will seem more natural. Using Neutral will lower the overall contrast and saturation. Standard provides a more traditional rendering.

Figure 2. The Nikon Picture Control menu.

Figure 2. The Nikon Picture Control menu.

For detailed explanations and a complete list of your options, consult your camera manual. Nikon calls their setting Picture Controls (Figure 2). Canon is Picture Styles. Sony is Picture Profile. Fuji is Film Simulation.

These settings are applied differently to RAW and JPG images. When you shoot in RAW, the image is captured and then passed on to an in-camera processor. Here the RAW image is “tagged” with the Picture Control. But that interpretation—those settings—are not permanently baked into the file. Think of it like a note that’s added to the file that says, “Make the image look this way when it’s opened.”

When your camera displays the image on its LCD, it first creates a JPG made from the RAW file with the Pictures Control “notes” taken into account. So what you’re seeing on the LCD is not the RAW file, but a JPG that your camera’s internal computer has rendered just for that immediate use. It has no impact on how the image will look later in Lightroom.

This is in stark contrast to how things work if you’re shooting straight to JPG, rather than shooting RAW files. When you shoot in JPG, the Picture Style is actually baked in. So if you shot on the Landscape setting, the extra contrast and saturation is a permanent addition to the file. When it comes to shooting JPG versus RAW, there are many photographic disciplines out there and each has its own version of best practices. For the night photographer, we want as much flexibility within our files as possible, so we shoot in RAW.

My personal preference is to shoot my night images in RAW on the Neutral picture style. This style is the lowest in contrast and saturation. This means when I preview my image on the camera’s LCD I am seeing a more accurate view of all the image data that the camera captured. Using something like Landscape or Vivid may fool me into thinking there is less detail in the file, which in turn may cause me to make different choices in the field.

Lightroom and RAW Files

Provided you have calibrated your monitor (something every photographer should do!), JPGs from your camera should look pretty similar in Lightroom as they did on your camera’s LCD. This is because the Picture Style from the camera has been baked in!

However, remember that RAW files are only “tagged” with this information. That note attached to the image file that says “make the image look this way when it’s opened” is not available to Lightroom because the camera manufacturers consider it proprietary information—they don’t tell Adobe how to decipher it. This means the only thing Lightroom can do is create its own version of what the image should like. What we see in Lightroom is Adobe’s interpretation of the 0s and 1s in our RAW file.

Moreover, Adobe has many interpretations that you can select from. Adobe Color is the default interpretation (or Profile) that Lightroom uses. You can see the Profile dropdown in the Develop Module at the top of the Basic Panel (Figure 3).

The Problem

And that right here is where the mismatch between the LCD and Lightroom often happens.

Let’s say you shoot a RAW image with the Picture Control of Landscape. On the camera’s LCD it will look more contrasty and more saturated—because, again, you’re seeing a JPG with that Landscape “preset” applied. But when you import that RAW file into Lightroom, you’re seeing Adobe’s interpretation of this file based on assigning the Adobe Color profile. That’s a completely different algorithm. So this will almost always look different from what you saw on the back of your camera, because the settings being applied are coming from two different recipes.

Figure 3. This image is set to the default Adobe Color profile.

Figure 4.

The Solution

Choose a profile in Lightroom that better matches your memory.

How? In Lightroom, click on the double arrow next to Profile. You will see a list of alternative profiles that Adobe offers (Figure 4). From this menu you could choose, for example, Adobe Landscape to try to approximate what you remember from the field.

(These profiles are not just for matching, however. You can choose any profile to create the look that you want. Be creative. You don’t have to match what you saw in the field—you can also match the possibilities that you see in your artist eye.)

The difference in the profiles can be seen best when looking at contrast and saturation. Adobe Vivid and Adobe Landscape are the most contrasty and saturated. Next comes Adobe Color, Standard and Portrait with varying degrees of moderate contrast and saturation. Adobe Neutral is the least contrasty and saturated. Figures 5 shows one image with several profiles applied.

Figure 5.

But there are even more options beyond those! By clicking on Browse in the list, you can access all of Adobe’s profiles. The ones with the stars appear in the Favorites list, which is the dropdown we saw in Figure 4. In Figure 6 below, you can see that all of Adobe’s standard profiles are starred.

Hovering your cursor over these profiles produces a temporary preview in the image window. I recommend previewing the different profiles to gauge their affects.

Matching to Camera

In addition to Adobe’s Standard profile, you can also access their Camera Matching profiles. These profiles attempt to match your camera’s Picture Control settings as closely as possible. While not exact, they can be accurate enough to, in golf terms, “get you on the green”—and on the blue and the red, so to speak.

And there you go. That’s the secret!

That feature right there—the Camera Matching profiles—can be one of the best tricks to get your Lightroom rendering to most closely align with what you see on the LCD. You simply pick the profile that aligns with the Picture Control you used in-camera. For example, if you shoot in Camera Neutral and then apply Lightroom’s Camera Neutral profile, that should get you a relatively accurate match.

There’s a good chance that you will use this strategy so often that you’ll want to speed up the process. If you find yourself using one or more of the Camera Matching profiles repeatedly, you can add it to the favorites list to access it more quickly. Do this by clicking on the star to the right of the Camera Matching profile. Now that profile will appear on the profile dropdown list. And if you find yourself always using the same profile, you can include it in an import preset.

Figure 6.

Figure 7. The dropdown list after I added Camera Landscape and Camera Neutral as favorites.

Figure 8.

Final Takeaways

As we’ve seen, there are a two main reasons why our images in Lightroom may not match what we saw in-field on our camera’s LCD:

  1. Our night-adjusted vision perceived the image on the LCD as brighter than it actually was. The solution here is simply to lower your camera’s LCD brightness while shooting at night.

  2. Lightroom doesn’t have the ability to the read the Picture Control (Style, Profile, Film Simulation) in our RAW files. Again the solution is simple: A quick trip to the Profile section of the Basic Panel in the Develop Module will allow you to choose a profile that better matches your memory of the image. It’s also a great way to experiment and learn!

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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The First Steps to Processing Milky Way Images in Lightroom

Capturing the Milky Way is one of the great joys of night photography. But why do some photos of this celestial phenomenon look better than others?

Post-processing your photos can really make the difference between a grab shot and a masterpiece. The good news is that you don’t need a doctorate in Photoshop to bring out the brilliance. A few simple tricks in Lightroom can go a long way in making your stars and Milky Way stand out.

In This Video

In the video below, I illustrate several tips, including:

  • adjusting white balance to make skies look more like “night”

  • using Dehaze to boost the look of the Milky Way

  • applying local adjustments to target effects

  • HSLing the image to nail the color

  • brushing some punch into the galaxy

So open up an image and follow along with the video to learn how to process your Milky Way images in Lightroom!

Note: Did you like that video, and think you’ll like more? Please consider subscribing to the National Parks at Night YouTube channel to get notified about all our new videos when they come out.

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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Prepping an Image in Lightroom for the Printer or the Lab

Last week Gabriel Biderman wrote a post about making printing part of your photographic process. I loved it. Reading it brought me back to my earliest days of photography. As it is for Gabriel, printing was always a huge part of my creative process. An image wasn’t complete until I mounted and framed the finished print and shared it with others.

Now, in this post, I’ll go over the modern tools and techniques so that you, too, can feel the satisfaction of a finished print.

Lower Manhattan skyline from Brooklyn. Fuji X-T2, 16-55mm f/2.8 at 21mm. 25 seconds, f/6.4, ISO 200.

Tools of the Trade

Although you don’t need an overly robust computer to print your images, you do need a good computer monitor. Why? One word: WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get).

A quality monitor, like the BenQ SW240, is the first step to a quality print.

Today’s monitors can easily exceed the brightness and contrast that a print can display, so it’s important for us to be working with a high-quality and calibrated monitor. If you are not working with a high-quality, calibrated monitor, you can never expect your prints to look like what you see on screen.

Every choice we make when editing our images depends on what we see on our display. If the monitor is too dark, we’ll adjust our images so they end up being too bright. If the monitor is too contrasty, we’ll force our images to end up being overly flat. It just can’t be overstated how important using a good, calibrated monitor is to the editing process.

Here at National Parks at Night, we love our BenQ monitors. They cover 99 percent of the Adobe RGB color space and have the manual controls necessary to perform an accurate calibration. Both of these qualities are necessary for them to be considered high-end photography monitors, but they also go a step further by being calibrated straight out of the box.

For less than $400 you can get the BenQ SW240 24" Photovue. For just a little more you can upgrade your screen real estate to 27 inches with the SW2700PT.

Even the best screens in the world, however, will drift out of calibration. Despite starting off accurate, they drift into being too bright, too dark, off color, or displaying too much or too little contrast. So it is essential that we continue to calibrate our monitors as we use them.

Our favorite colorimeter, the X-Rite i1Display Pro. We use this on our monitors at home, and on our workshops too, for calibrating TV displays and projector/screen combos in the meeting rooms.

I have my monitors on most of the day and calibrate them about once per month. If you have your screen on constantly, then you might consider calibrating more often. Regardless of how often you keep your monitors lit, you should certainly calibrate them just before you begin a new printing project.

There are many excellent calibration solutions out there, but we have settled on the X-Rite i1Display Pro to keep our monitors in line. Whichever system you choose, you’ll get some sort of colorimeter and the software to run it.

Once you install the software, you’ll be guided through the process of calibrating your own monitor. At the end of the process, which usually takes only a few minutes, you’ll be asked to save the profile. Craft the name so that it includes the monitor model and the current date so that you can keep track of when you last calibrated. For example: “BenQ SW240-12-15-2018.”

Printing With a Lab vs. at Home

Once you have a high-quality and calibrated monitor, you can rest assured that you are getting WYSISYG. This means you are ready to make some prints! Now you just have to choose between using a print lab or making prints yourself at home. Both avenues have pros and cons.

The Bay Photo Xposer is one of our favorite print formats at the moment, and is a good example of the variety of formats available only from labs.

Using a Lab

For many good reasons, most photographers choose labs for their prints rather than making them at home. Why? Because there are several advantages that are widely attractive.

To begin with, there is no upfront expense. No need to run out and buy a printer, stock up on inks or purchase a small raft of paper. Using a lab is also less frustrating and less time-consuming. This allows the photographer to focus on their work behind the camera rather than spending more time in front of the computer.

While there are advantages to printing at home, saving time (and perhaps even money) is not one of them. For those who want a no-hassle printing solution—use a lab. And be sure to choose a good one. If you don’t, you’ll end up spending more time and money than you expected.

taking time to choose a pro lab to make your prints is a decision you’ll never regret. Your prints will be on the highest-quality papers, they will always be accurate, you will have a wide variety of formats to choose from, and the process of ordering and receiving will be streamlined. Just be aware that not all labs produce the same quality prints and deliver as high a level of service.

While there are many excellent pro labs out there, we use and love Bay Photo for all of the reasons outlined above.

The Epson P600 is a good example of a good home printer for great photos.

Printing at Home

Printing at home can be very rewarding, but it can also be extremely frustrating. Inkjet printers (both high-end professional as well as prosumer models) are notoriously fussy. Their nozzles can clog, the paper can jam and sometimes they are just simply bewildering.

But when things are going smoothly, printing at home is pure joy.

The biggest advantage is seeing your images immediately. No waiting! If your print comes out a little dark, it’s a snap to reprint it. Too warm? No problem—adjust the white balance and print again.

Owning your own printer also allows you to easily and quickly experiment with different types of papers. From high-gloss to satin to watercolor paper, there are a host of surfaces and brand options to choose from. Each type has a slightly different look; you may find that you prefer gloss for some types of photography and watercolor for others. Being able to experiment at home makes finding those preferences much easier.

Interpreting Your Capture

This is the fun part! Ansel Adams famously quipped, “the negative is like the composer's score … [and] the print is the performance.” This means we get to take the original score (our capture) and (re)interpret its performance (through editing).

Whether sending your image to the lab or to the inkjet printer in your digital darkroom, this is the step where you can unleash your creativity. From Photoshop to Lightroom to innumerable plug-ins and stand-alone programs, there is no shortage of technology to help you create the best version of your photograph.

Once you have created your masterpiece, it’s time to get it ready for printing. We’ll use Lightroom as our example, but most programs will behave in much the same way.

Prepping Your Print for the Lab

If your final destination is the lab, the process of prepping your image is fairly simple. It’s really just a matter of making or exporting a copy of your file and uploading it to your favorite printing service.

Here’s how to make the copy:

1. In the Library module, select your image.

2. Choose File > Export, or click on the Export button at the lower left of the screen.

3. From the Export dialog, set your options as follows:

  • Export Location: Under Export To, choose Desktop. This will send the copy to your desktop so that you can upload it to the lab.

  • File Naming: Here you can choose to rename your photograph. Or not. Totally up to you.

  • File Settings: Choose JPEG for image format, Quality 100 and leave Color Space at its default of sRGB.

  • Image Sizing: Ensure that you uncheck the Resize to Fit box.

  • Output Sharpening: Here you can choose the type of paper you’ll be printing on (Glossy or Matte) and level of sharpening you would like to apply. Begin with Standard until practical experience suggests using Low or High.

That’s it! Hit the export button and a copy of your masterpiece will land on your desktop ready for uploading to your favorite lab.

Lightroom Export settings for sending an image to a photo lab.

Printing at Home Using Lightroom

Using Lightroom’s Print module is pretty straightforward when you forego the many superfluous options and just get down to making prints.

1. Select your image and then move to the Print module.

2. From the Template Browser on the left, choose Maximum Size.

The Lightroom Print module.

3. Click the Page Setup button at the lower left of the screen. Choose your printer, paper size, and whether you want a vertical or horizontal orientation.

4. Click the Print Settings button, also at the lower left of the screen. (If you use a PC and don’t see this button, then go back to Page Setup, click Properties, then click Advanced.) Here you’ll choose your printer and the settings that are specific to that printer. In general, you should address the following:

  • Color Controls: If the print dialog offers the option of Color Matching, choose the printer’s color controls.

  • Paper Type: Choose Glossy or Matte or any other variation that your printer offers. (For beginners, I highly recommend using paper from the same manufacturer that made your printer. Epson papers for Espon printers, Canon paper for Canon printers, etc.)

  • Print Quality: Manufacturers will have different names describing print quality. Don’t choose Fast, Draft or Economy. Use a setting that produces a high-quality photograph.

  • Borderless: Avoid using this setting. It generally causes more problems than it’s worth. If you want a borderless print, manually trim the paper after printing.

  • Color Options: Some printers will allow you to tweak the look of the image with certain options such as vivid or realistic. Best to play it safe here and stick with the defaults. Experiment as desired.

5. It’s time to move over to right side of the Print module. The good news here is that because you have chosen Maximum Size in the Template Browser and specified the paper size in Page Setup, most of your work is done. You can move right past the Layout Style, Image Settings, Layout, Guides and Page panels to get to the Print Job panel. In that panel:

  • Uncheck Draft Mode Printing.

  • Set Print Resolution to 360 for an Epson printer or to 300 for any other manufacturer.

  • Set Print Sharpening to Standard for the first print. If the result is overly sharp or too soft, choose Low or High on the next printing.

  • Under Color Management, set the Profile to Managed by Printer.

  • Uncheck Print Adjustment for the first print. If you find your print comes back too dark or too light, then you can return to this setting on your next printing.

Just Do it

Whether you are crafting your own prints at home or sending out your files to off-site experts, making prints of your photographs is a great way to honor the work you’ve put into your craft.

They also make excellent holiday gifts … just sayin’.

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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Make Printing Part of Your Process

Do you make prints?

Is it part of your workflow?

When I was getting into photography in the early 1990s, the print always was the final part of the process. We shot on film, edited our contact sheets or slides, and then the best photos were blown up to share with the world.

Let me wax nostalgic about the process in the darkroom so I can lay the groundwork for why I still love the print today.

Darkroom Days

The darkroom was a sacred space to immerse yourself in the process of creating a photograph. It was an incredibly tactile experience—you turned off all the lights, felt around for the paper, and once you found it, checked to make sure you laid it emulsion side up.

The enlarger was like a huge camera on a crane. You dialed in f-stops on the lens and shutter speeds for the time, and you used filters to bring more or less contrast to the ISO of your paper. And then the magic happened. Nothing will ever beat the feeling of seeing the latent image start to appear after agitating the print in the developer. It was a very hands-on experience. It generally took 30 to 60 minutes to perfect the print. A minimal commitment to the darkroom was at least a three-hour session.

Me feeding the troughs with mural prints (above). Each trough was filled with developer, water rinse, stop, water rinse, fix, water final rinse. The 8x10 enlarger (right) with the final 30x40 print underneath.

The ultimate challenge was making a mural print—something bigger than 20x24 inches. I had the good fortune to study this technique. It was saved for a large negative and the absolute best images in your portfolio. The 8x10 mural enlarger could project against the wall or onto a table underneath. You’d use roll paper and tape it down flat. And here’s the fun part: Troughs held all the chemicals, and in order to spread them evenly over the 6x3-foot paper you would roll and reverse-roll the paper back and forth.

The end result of your time in the darkroom was hopefully a portfolio image or a print ready to be matted and framed.

My final prints are stored in archival boxes, organized by theme/subject matter.

Digital Days

Let’s flash back (forward) to the modern process. I flipped to Lightroom for good about eight years ago, and the process can be just as immersive, but without taking up as much space and of course no chemicals!

While it is still a deliberate process, I do miss the hands-on aspect that made you really “work your negative” to figure out what you could pull from it. Everything was a physical and tactile task. Through that experience I feel there was a deeper understanding of what we were trying to create.

While there is so much more we can do with software, are we experiencing and understanding the image as much as we used to? I have to wonder: Is our goal the same? Are we processing to print or just going straight to publishing on the World Wide Web?

Sharing has taken on a whole new meaning in this digital world. You can be everywhere instantaneously but then gone in a moment.

Where is your work? Where does it live for someone to pore over?

Is it just going on your Instagram profile page? Or is your gallery of work on 500px, or Flickr, or Squarespace?

As much faith as I have in Facebook for forever storing my memories, I want a better archive than that. Remember all the family albums that we’d flip through or that were passed down to us? These memories are even more precious than the portfolio!

The digital solution to this conundrum is easy, and I hope you are at least doing this: Make books.

Archiving “snapshot” memories is a must, and is easier to do than ever before.

Every year I put together a family year-in-review. I like the small, 6x8 keepsake books. My wife makes calendars full of last year’s escapes and escapades. Both are excellent solutions to ensure you have a physical archive that will live on.

Perfecting the Print

If your goal is to create high-quality art, then go beyond publishing your images online. If you want to up your printing game, learn from a master printer. Here is how I did it:

I had been printing in the darkroom for 14 years, and pretty confidently for the last 10 of those. Then I took a darkroom course with one of the master printers of our era, George Tice. If you have never seen his image “Petit’s Mobil Station,” then spend some time soaking in the perfect balance and rich tonality in this masterpiece. And by the way, your screen is not doing justice to the tonal range of highlights and shadows that are showcased in his print.

George taught our whole class to print with a purpose, and he taught us to try to pull out a full tonal range. I was a high-contrast printer at the time and my shadows were level-1 black. By using lower contrast gels I could massage multiple levels of blacks and whites and extend that tonal range. That experience with George Tice elevated my approach to printmaking.

I was lucky enough that year to also snap a shot of George with another master printer and icon of photography: Paul Caponigro. Get one of their books and lose yourself in it.

My favorite picture I have of George Tice—the master at work.

Two masters of the darkroom: Paul Caponigro (left) and George Tice.

Want to level up your digital printing? Well, the Caponigro family strikes again. John Paul Caponigro took what he learned from his father and applied it to Photoshop pretty much since the software’s inception. He is a true master printer of our digital age.

I took JP’s “B&W Mastery” class last year and he “George Ticed” me! He spent a whole day on the different ways that we can “output sharpen” to create the finest print. We also spent time talking about the process and immersing ourselves in photo books and our own prints

Poring over prints during John Paul Caponigro’s “B&W Mastery” class.

The highlight of the week, however, was visiting his dad’s studio and having him sharing his work. We spent at least two hours asking Paul about the experience of seeing as well as his process of pulling out ever iota of detail.

I returned home from that workshop reinvigorated and with a deeper focus on working those digital files for inkjet prints.

Showing Your Work

Ask yourself: What is your goal with your images? How do you celebrate your work?

For two of our workshops this year, we were thrilled to host gallery shows that could be shared with thousands of visitors to those parks. And just a few weeks ago we finished our workshop at Sloss Furnaces and they were so impressed with our students’ work that they offered to have a gallery show at their visitor center!

Why not finish your project, or showcase your body of work, with an exhibit? It doesn’t have to be in a gallery—plenty of cafés, restaurants and businesses are always looking for artists. Of course, there are your own walls as well. Curate your home, invite people over to really take in your work. Hanging a print on the wall is the ultimate respect you can give to your photography.

To close this out, I want to share my favorite image that I created in 2018.

“Reality is outside the skull,” Joshua Tree 2018. Nikon D750, 14-24mm f/2.8 lens. 80 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 1600.

I’m taking my own advice and making a print with Bay Photo Lab. Their new Xpozer system has this slick spring assembly in the back that lets the print float off the wall. And because it’s so easy to mount and dismount them, I can order more Xpozer Xchange prints and just swap out the assembly. If you’ve been to my house in New York City, you’ve seen the limited wall space I have, so this will inspire me to keep fresh work rotating in.

Seize the Print!

My Favorite Printing Resources

  • Best 17x22 printer: Canon Pro-1000 and Epson P800

  • Simply no excuse not to make a photo book: Snapfish

  • Arty matte soft/hardcover books: Artifact Uprising

  • Portfolio style books: Bay Photo Lab

  • Best lab/style of print: Metal is so three years ago. We really love Bay Photo’s Xpozer floating print system. Choose from 22 sizes, from 16x16 to 40x80. The Vivid Satin finish could be the perfect gloss/matte combination.

Next week we will continue the printing theme by taking a deep dive into the Print module in Lightroom. Stay tuned!

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