Photo Management for the Road Warrior: A Lightroom Travel Workflow

A question I am frequently asked is how I manage all of my photographs while traveling. I travel a lot. I’m on the road about half of the year. During this time I create tons of photographs, all of which I download and edit on my laptop. How, then, do I sync these photos with those in my primary Lightroom catalog back home? Easy. Let me show you how.

A Great Workflow for Small Lightroom Catalogs

When teaching Lightroom, I typically recommend having only one catalog. This alleviates much confusion and complexity for the new Lightroom user, and it complies with the philosophy of the way the software was designed.

I also suggest creating the Lightroom catalog on an external drive and storing all of the images on that same drive. (Click here for a simple explanation of how the Lightroom Catalog works.)

This strategy keeps all of your images, settings and catalog in one place. Then you can take that drive on the road with you, and work on the road just as you would work when home. When you return from your trip, you can plug that drive into your desktop computer and launch the same Lightroom catalog you had been working with while traveling. Finally, when it comes time to back up, you simply purchase two other drives of the same capacity and clone your master drive to the two backup drives.

This system works incredibly well … until you have too many images to carry around with you. (More on that later.)

Creating a Catalog on an External Drive

So how do we go about doing this?

1. Plug the external drive into your computer and open a Finder/Explorer window.

2. Navigate to the external drive.

3. Create a new folder on the drive called “Primary Lightroom Photographs” (or whatever else makes sense to you). This is where you will store all of your actual photo files.

4. Double-click on the Lightroom application while holding down the Alt/Option key (Apple) or the Alt key (PC). This will force Lightroom to open the Select Catalog dialog box (Figure 1).         

Figure 1.

5. Click the Create a New Catalog button (circled in red in Figure 1).

6. Navigate to your external hard drive and create a folder there with a name such as “Primary Lightroom Catalog.” This folder will house your Lightroom catalog (in the LRCAT file format). You will also see your Primary Lightroom Photographs (or whatever you named it) folder (Figure 2).This is where you will store your actual images.

Figure 2.

7. When you want to launch this catalog, navigate to the external drive, click on the Primary Lightroom Catalog Folder and double-click the LRCAT file (Figure 3).

Figure 3.

Larger Lightroom Catalogs, Larger Hard Drives

OK, back to that pesky problem of having too many photos for the aforementioned approach to work. Once you create enough imagery, it will be impractical to keep all of your images with you on a portable external drive. In this case you’ll want to have a large hard drive at home. I use a LaCie 16TB RAID Array (Figure 4).

For those of you who are afraid to delete any of your images, or for those who perhaps shoot a lot of video, you’ll want even more space than I have. You’re in luck, as even bigger versions are available. LaCie, for instance, offers their series of RAID arrays in sizes rangings from 8 TB to 168 TB! Purchasing a large hard drive allows room to expand, and it serves as a single location to keep all of your images.

To create a Lightroom catalog on one of these workhorses, follow the directions above, but instead of using a portable external drive, use your RAID (or equivalent).

Taking it with You

That solves your storage needs at home, but what about on the road? Well, once you have all of your images on your home-based hard drive, you use a smaller hard drive to take with you when traveling. That smaller drive won’t contain every image you have, but it will give you the capability to add to your home-based catalog quite easily once the trip is over.

There are countless sizes and brands from which to choose, but again I go with LaCie for their consistent quality. If you feel you’ll need a ton of storage on the road (4 to 8 TB), I recommend the Rugged series of hard drives. Tough, reliable and with ample storage, these drives will serve even the most prolific photographer. I use a superfast 2 TB SSD drive. These drives have no moving parts to knock around and are lightning fast. They range in capacity from 500 GB to 2 TB.

Once again, create a new catalog on your “travel drive,” this time in a folder called something like “Travel Catalog.”

When you are on the road, simply plug in this smaller drive and use it as you would use your larger home-based drive. This means that when you want to launch Lightroom, you navigate to this travel drive, go into to the folder that contains your catalog, and double-click on the LRCAT file. This will launch this specific catalog and alleviate any confusion if you have multiple catalogs on your computer.

When downloading your images on the road, be sure to import them into the Travel Photographs folder on this drive. This strategy keeps both your catalog and your images in one place: on your external travel drive.

Syncing Your Lightroom Catalogs

When you return home from your trip, it’s time to sync your catalogs.

1. Plug your travel drive into the same computer that your home-based drive is plugged into.

2. Launch your Primary Catalog from your home-based hard drive.

3. From the File menu, choose Import from Another Catalog (Figure 6).

Figure 6.

4. Navigate to your travel drive, click on your LRCAT file (Figure 7) and then click Choose.

Figure 7.

5. You’ll be shown the dialog in Figure 8. Check all of the boxes at the upper left to import all of your images from your travel drive to your home-based drive. By default all the images in the right-hand window will be checked. If they’re not, click the Check All button.

Figure 8.

6. Under file handling, choose “Copy new photos to a new location and import.”

7. Click the Choose button (circled in Figure 9) to select the folder on your primary drive that you would like to put the images in. In this example, I’ve navigated to the Primary Lightroom Photos folder on my Primary drive. Once again, click Choose.

Figure 9.

That’s it! Sit back and let Lightroom copy all of the images from your travel drive onto your primary drive. The beautiful thing about this method is that it not only copies your images but it also includes their adjustments, keywords and any other changes you’ve made while on the road.

When the process is complete, back up your entire primary drive—both the catalog and the RAW files. Only then should you erase the images from your travel drive. (I never want to delete that travel drive until I have at least two other copies of those files.)

In Short …

The key is to keep it simple. Your primary drive should contain only two folders: Primary Photos and Primary Lightroom Catalog (Figure 10). Always launch your Primary Drive Catalog while at home and keep this catalog organized.

Figure 10.

When you create your travel drive folder hierarchy, it should look the same. One folder for Photographs and one for the Catalog (Figure 11).

Figure 11.

Now you can use your lightweight travel drive on the road, and easily marry those images with your main catalog at journey’s end. Using this simple system will save you tons of time both at home and on the road.

Moreover, there’s a bonus! You can use this same Import from Another Catalog command to consolidate any extra Lightroom catalogs you may have lying around. Launch your Primary Catalog and choose Import from Another Catalog. Then simply point to whichever stray catalog you would like to import into your Primary. Repeat this process for each of the extra catalogs you may have. Once all of your images are in your Primary Catalog, you can delete all those older catalogs. And then back it up!

Note: If you’d like assistance setting up Lightroom to work this way, the National Parks at Night crew is happy to help! See our Tutoring page to learn how to connect with us one-one-one.

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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Celebrating Darkness: The National Park Night Sky Festivals of 2019

If you’re a regular reader of our blog, then a couple of weeks ago you may have caught the post announcing our involvement with the annual Grand Canyon Sky Party. We’re really revved up about this. It’s an opportunity for our night photography program to be integrated into a dark-sky festival at one of the country’s—nix that, one of the world’s—grandest national parks.

The Grand Canyon Star Party is an event that no night-loving parks buff should miss. But it’s not the only event of its kind. The National Park Service (NPS) is dedicated to preserving night skies and to letting people know about it. Want evidence?

  • Exhibit A: the NPS Night Skies webpage.

  • Exhibit B: the wide range of parks and rangers that commissioned artist and astronomer Tyler Nordgren to produce the “Half the Park is After Dark” poster series

  • Exhibit C: the commitment that’s led to an ever-growing number of units being designated as Dark Sky Parks by the International Dark Sky Association

  • Exhibit D: the night sky festivals that so many NPS units host each year

That last point is the point of this post. All year long the parks host events all across the continent. Below are many of the noteworthy ones coming up in the next several months, including a couple in Canada.

Petrified Forest National Park. NPS Photo/Jake Holgerson.

Petrified Forest National Park. NPS Photo/Jake Holgerson.

Petrified Forest National Park

Arizona, June 21

Annual Dark Sky Celebration

  • ranger- and astronomer-led programs

  • ancient solar petroglyph viewing at Puerco Pueblo

Yosemite National Park

California, June 22-23

Stars Over Yosemite

  • public telescope sharing

  • group camping

  • night-photography shoots

Grand Canyon National Park. Fujifilm X-T2. 30 seconds, f/4, ISO 6400. © 2018 Gabriel Biderman.

Grand Canyon National Park

Arizona, June 22-29

Grand Canyon Star Party

  • held on both the North Rim and South Rim

  • constellation tours

  • daily presentations at the visitor center

  • a night photography talk and two night photography walks by National Parks at Night partners and instructors Gabriel Biderman and Chris Nicholson!

Bryce Canyon National Park

Utah, June 26-29

Bryce Canyon Astronomy Festival

  • led by Bryce Canyon's Astronomy Rangers and local astronomical societies

  • keynote speaker: Dr. Amber Straughn, associate director of astrophysics science at NASA

  • model rocket assembly and launches

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Colorado, June 26-29

Black Canyon Astronomy Festival

  • guest speakers

  • astronomy activities

  • held on the South Rim of the canyon

Craters of the Moon National Monument & Preserve

Idaho, June 28-29 & September 27-28

Craters of the Moon Star Party

  • run by the Idaho Falls Astronomical Society

  • telescopes available for viewing star and planets

Badlands National Park. NPS/Gary Joseph Cohen.

Badlands National Park. NPS/Gary Joseph Cohen.

Badlands National Park

South Dakota, July 5-7

Badlands Astronomy Festival

  • evening presentations with special guest speakers

  • nightly telescope viewing sponsored by the NPS Night Sky Program and Celestron

Harpers Ferry National Historic Park

West Virginia, July 12

Harpers Ferry Night Sky Festival

  • guest speaker and kids program

  • stargazing activities after dusk at the Murphy-Chambers Farm

Ochoco National Forest

Oregon, July 30-August 4

Oregon Star Party

  • guest speakers, including NASA Solar System Ambassador Greg Cermak

  • observing programs for every level, from binocular to beginner to intermediate to advance to photographer (yes, in that order)

  • many, many programs

Lassen Volcanic National Park  Dark Sky Festival. Photo by NPS/Alison Taggart-Barone.

Lassen Volcanic National Park Dark Sky Festival. Photo by NPS/Alison Taggart-Barone.

Lassen Volcanic National Park

California, August 2-3

Dark Sky Festival

  • nightly constellation tours and stargazing

  • discussions and demonstrations by National Park Dark Sky rangers, NASA, the International Dark Sky Association, StarChazerz and the Astronomical Society of Nevada

Shenandoah National Park

Virginia, August 9-11

Night Sky Festival

  • ranger talks and programs

  • guest presentations ranging from topics such as space weather, space travel and our future in space

Wood Buffalo National Park

Alberta and Northwest Territories, Canada, August 22-25

Dark Sky Festival

  • presentations by Bob McDonald, host of CBC Radio's Quirks & Quarks, and Wilfred Buck, a science facilitator for the Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Centre

  • fire circle and drumming

  • aurora and astrophotography workshop

sequoia dark-sky-logo-2018-01.jpg

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

California, August 23-24

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks Dark Sky Festival

  • takes place in various locations, including the Foothills, Mineral King, Giant Forest, Lodgepole, Grant Grove and Cedar Grove, as well as Lake Kaweah in Three Rivers

  • over 50 programs, including tours, stargazing, guest speakers, movies, musical performances and more

Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site

Pennsylvania, August 24

StarFest

  • organized by the ChesMont Astronomical Society

  • presentations, kids activities, telescope demonstrations and door prizes

Kejimkujik National Park

Nova Scotia, Canada, August 24-25

Dark Sky Weekend

  • Canada’s only Dark Sky Preserve

  • presented in partnership with the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

North Dakota, August 30-September 1

Dakota Nights Astronomy Festival

  • rocket building and launching

  • half-mile Solar System Hike

  • stargazing and telescopes

Chaco Canyon National Historical Park. Nikon D5 with a Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, light painted with a Coast HP7R flashlight and a Luxli Viola panel light. 10.5 minutes, f/11, ISO 100. © 2018 Chris Nicholson.

Chaco Canyon National Historical Park

New Mexico, September 20-22

Astronomy Festival

  • sun and night-sky viewing through telescopes

  • learn about celestial alignments in the park’s ancestral Puebloan great houses

  • guided hikes

Joshua Tree National Park

California, September 21

Night Sky Festival

  • held primarily at Sky’s the Limit Nature Center and Observatory

  • viewing through at least 20 telescopes

  • astronomy lectures

Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument

Maine, September 21

Stars Over Katahdin

  • campfire chat with hot cocoa and s’mores

  • science lessons

  • astronomy presentations

Acadia National Park. Nikon D3s with a Nikon 28-70mm f/2.8 lens. 20 seconds, f/8, ISO 3200. © 2017 Chris Nicholson.

Acadia National Park

Maine, September 25-29

Acadia Night Sky Festival

  • internationally recognized speakers

  • poster artwork contest

  • events and workshops for everyone from families to the serious amateur astronomers

Great Basin National Park

Nevada, September 26-28

Astronomy Festival

  • daytime and evening telescope viewing

  • ranger talent show of astronomy-themed acts

  • night sky photography workshop by the Dark Rangers

Capitol Reef National Park. Nikon D750 with a Zeiss 15mm Distagon f/2.8 lens. 30 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 3200. © 2016 Matt Hill.

Capitol Reef National Park

Utah, September 27-28

Heritage Starfest

  • a dark-sky run/walk

  • constellation tours

Cedar Breaks and Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monuments

Utah, September 27-29

Southwest Astronomy Festival

  • night hikes

  • star parties in various regional parks and places

Jasper National Park

Alberta, Canada, October 18-27

Jasper Dark Sky Festival

  • keynote speaker: Jad Abumrad, creator and host of Radiolab

  • VIP stargazing reception

  • stargazing along the shores of Lake Annette

  • “Science for Breakfast” with Nick Pope, former head of the British government's UFO project

Other Opportunities

These aren’t the only opportunities to celebrate the night skies of the national parks. The above represents the larger events and the annual events—at least the ones that we know of at press time. (Blog time? Press-Enter time?)

In the 400-plus units of the park system, there’s often something going on involving night. Ranger-led walks. Telescope parties. Meteor-shower viewing. Moonlight strolls. And so on. To find an event in a park near you, or in a park near where you’re traveling, go to the NPS’ Event Calendar page and do a search for “night,” or “stars,” etc.

Moreover, if you live outside North America or you’re traveling internationally, you can look for night programs all over the world, such as the Exmoor (National Park) Dark Sky Festival in England, the Mayo Dark Sky Festival in Ireland and the Queensland Astrofest in Australia.

Really, there’s a whole world of seizing the night to be had. So … go seize!

Chris Nicholson is a partner and workshop leader with National Parks at Night, and author of Photographing National Parks (Sidelight Books, 2015). Learn more about national parks as photography destinations, subscribe to Chris' free e-newsletter, and more at www.PhotographingNationalParks.com.

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Nights, Camera, Action! 5 Videos from Gabe and B&H to Help You Photograph the Dark

We all thought it was really cool that a recent episode of Game of Thrones was shot for 50 straight nights. While not as epic as that, I recently spent the last six months creating a “Night Photography Series” of videos with the amazing crew at B&H Photo.

The videos were shot in the cold and snow of Maine, the urban ruins of Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark in Alabama, as well as throughout New York City. We thought we’d organize them all in one place so you can easily learn with us. They cover a lot of topics, from camera settings to gear to light painting and more.

While the series was created for people new to the night, we think everyone can find a few helpful reminders and tips in each installment. The videos are fairly short, from 6 minutes to 20 minutes. Good lengths to get inspired to #SeizeTheNight!

(Special shouts out to Kelly Mena for proposing this project, and to Robert Sansivero who did a fantastic job filming and editing.)

Best Camera Settings for Night Photography

In this very snowy video, I discuss the night logic behind making certain choices about ISO, shutter speed, aperture and white balance. It all leads down the path to mastering manual mode so you can take control of your night visions.

How to Photograph Star Trails

When most of us think about night photography, we think about the stars. In this video I give tips on making those jaw-dropping star trail shots, both in-camera and by stacking them together in post.

How to Light Paint

Once you’ve focused on the stars, we step it up and gain a better understanding of adding light to a night composition. I look at the gear you need to capture, the light painting tools to create, and how to balance the ambient light with the additional light you bring into the scene. Get inspired and more comfortable with your light painting!

Create AMAZING Photos with Light Writing

I turn out the lights, don my favorite black fedora, and take a look at a bunch of fun tools that make writing with light fun and easy. I share my top tips, I do a live demo, and I break down some of my favorite images to show how you can bring a very unique vision to the night.

Best Cameras for Night Photography

In the last video, I compare the current batch of full-frame mirrorless cameras, looking specifically at which features best suit the night photographer. There is also an extended, 1-hour version wherein I compare similar images shot with different cameras in the same conditions, allowing us to really gain a better understanding of what these bodies are capable of producing.

And … Cut!

Let us know if you find these videos helpful and what subjects you’d like us learn more about next. You can type out your thoughts in the Comments section below or on our Facebook page.

Finally, fun fact: I wear a different hat in each video!

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.

UPCOMING WORKSHOPS FROM NATIONAL PARKS AT NIGHT

Drifting Away to Summer Nights: 3 Events in 3 States

One of the reasons we love doing what we do is because we enjoy spreading the word about dark skies and night photography.

We get to do this a bunch of times per year on workshops in an intense, concentrated format with a small group of attendees, many of whom quickly become friends. But we also get to do this on a larger scale when we participate in conferences and events. Spending time as speakers and photo-walk leaders gives us a chance to meet thousands of new night photography aficionados of all levels.

In that spirit, we’re excited to announce a few upcoming major events that we’ll be participating in:

For more information about these events—including how we’ll be helping out, as well as other useful info—keep on reading below! (And to always be kept abreast of places we’ll be speaking, be sure to sign up for our quarterly Events email announcement.)

OPTIC Imaging Conference

New York City, June 2-5, 2019

The f stops here. Hands down, one of our very favorite conferences. And we’ve been there from the beginning (this is their fifth anniversary!), with different combinations of us participating as speakers, leading photo walks, offering portfolio reviews, and so on.

The OPTIC Imaging Conference is run by B&H Photo and Lindblad Expeditions, both of which are the best at what they do in their niches. Together they put on one of the premier outdoor-photography events on the calendar. OPTIC features scores of top-notch speakers (including National Geographic photographers), a sunset cruise down the Hudson River, parties, photos walks, shooting stations and more.

Our role? We have a few:

  • Tim will deliver a talk titled “The Grand Landscape: Creating Impact with Perspective, Proportion and Position” on Sunday at 10 a.m.

  • The “Nikon Night Adventure.” Sponsored by one of our biggest partners, Chris, Gabe and Tim will lead a night-photo walk at Brooklyn Bridge Park on Sunday night. Participants will be chauffeured from B&H to Brooklyn on complimentary double-decker tour buses.

  • Chris and Tim will be working in the Portfolio Review room during parts of Sunday and Monday.

  • Chris and Gabe will participate in livestreamed image reviews on Wednesday morning.

We’ll also have a table in the trade show area. Tim and I will be available to chat when we’re not engaged in the aforementioned activities. Also behind the table will be Sandra Ramos, the National Park Patch Lady, as well as Sherry Pincus, the backcountry instructor for our Shi Shi Beach workshop. If you’re at OPTIC, be sure to stop by and say hi!

For more information, visit the OPTIC Imaging Conference website.

Further Opportunities

If you can arrive for OPTIC a few days early, you can snag what’s perhaps the best celestial photo opportunity in New York City: Manhattanhenge. Twice per year, the setting sun lines up perfectly with the grid of Manhattan’s streets, and this year one of those two suns will set on May 29, just four days before the conference begins. To learn more, read Neil deGrasse Tyson’s article, brought to you by the American Museum of Natural History.

Grand Canyon Star Party

Arizona, June 22-29

Last year when we started prepping our 2019 workshop at Grand Canyon National Park, Gabe met with a couple of rangers to discuss permits and the like. Gabe’s a friendly guy. So fast-forward 24 hours when the second meeting ended with the rangers inviting us to run a night photography program at the 2019 Grand Canyon Star Party. Whoa. “Excited” doesn’t begin to describe how we felt about the opportunity.

This is one of the biggest night sky festivals in one of the grandest national parks. The party will be held at both the North and South rims, and will feature slide shows, presentations, constellation tours, telescopes, and so on and so on.

Photo courtesy NPS/Michael Quinn.

Photo courtesy NPS/Michael Quinn.

Our program will entail:

  • On June 23, Chris and Gabe will present a talk titled “The Daydreamer’s Guide to Night in the National Parks,” which will document the many night-sky photo opportunities in the park system, as well as how photography can be used for helping to protect darkness.

  • On June 23 and 24, Chris and Gabe will lead one-night photography workshops on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.

Also on June 23-24, Gabe and I will have a table at the Visitor Center where we can meet and greet current and aspiring night photographers. We’re looking forward to making lots of new friends!

For more information, visit the Grand Canyon Star Party website.

Further Opportunities

Three other national parks in the western U.S. are hosting night sky festivals around the same time: Petrified Forest (New Mexico, June 21), Bryce Canyon (Utah, June 26-29) and Black Canyon of the Gunnison (Colorado, also June 26-29). You could make a whole road trip out of these events. Ya know, drive during the day, and enjoy millions of stars at night. (Stay tuned for more about these events, and others, in an upcoming blog post.)

Smoky Mountain Foto Fest

North Carolina, September 11-14

Based in Asheville, North Carolina, the Smoky Mountain Foto Fest features a packed schedule of lectures, field seminars, photo shoots, technique demos, portfolio reviews and more.

Our programs will include running a table in the trade show where we can meet-and-greet with fellow night enthusiasts, as well as helping with night-photo shoots and portfolio reviews.

In addition, we will be delivering five presentations:

  • “10 Night Photography Challenges and How to Solve Them” (Chris and Lance)

  • “When One Image Isn't Enough: Shooting Multiple Frames for Night Photography” (Chris and Lance)

  • “Photographing National Parks” (Chris)

  • “The Evolution of Night Photography” (Lance)

  • “Light Painting Demo with Live Tethered Shoot” (Chris and Lance)

For more information, visit the Smoky Mountain Foto Fest website.

Further Opportunities

September is, quite simply, a spectacular time of year to spend in the southern Appalachian Mountains. If you come to Asheville for the conference, you’ll be right near two of our workshop locations from the past couple of years: Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway. It will be a little early for fall foliage, but the weather should be fantastic, with warm days and cool nights. And for some of the best grits ever, check out Cafe 64 on Haywood Street.

Note: To stay abreast of all our commitments at conferences, trade shows and other events, visit our Speaking Engagements page—or, better yet, sign up for our quarterly Events email.

Chris Nicholson is a partner and workshop leader with National Parks at Night, and author of Photographing National Parks (Sidelight Books, 2015). Learn more about national parks as photography destinations, subscribe to Chris' free e-newsletter, and more at www.PhotographingNationalParks.com.

UPCOMING WORKSHOPS FROM NATIONAL PARKS AT NIGHT

Processing Star Point Images with the Help of Starry Landscape Stacker

We all love shooting under the stars, but oftentimes we are pushing our cameras and lenses to the extreme. In last month’s article we talked about “Shooting for the Sharpest Stars” and how that forces us into even higher ISOs and shorter exposures. Most cameras have difficulty at 6400-plus ISOs, and the shorter exposures make it tricky to get any detail in the foreground.

Enter the Mac-only software Starry Landscape Stacker (SLS), which blends multiple high ISO star point shots to reduce noise while keeping your stars sharp! (For PC users, your solution is Sequator, which operates and yields similar results to SLS. We will take a closer look at Sequator on our blog a little later this year.)

What is Starry Landscape Stacker?

SLS is a very intuitive piece of software that gives you smoother final images by recognizing and aligning the “tracked stars,” and then stacking the files while applying noise reduction to the other areas of the sky. This is probably the best piece of software to squeeze the most image quality out of multiple files instead of just working with one.

In this post, we’re going to look at the basics of how to use SLS. At the end, you can watch a video of me working through the details of processing an image this way.

Shooting Considerations for SLS

The key for both SLS and Sequator is that we shoot multiple images in the field—at least 10, but 20 is even better. The more information the program has, the better it will work.

So, once you settle on your star point composition, check focus and attain a good exposure, don’t just take one or two shots and move on. Instead, set your intervalometer to take 20 shots with a 1-second interval between. And you can certainly take more than 20 shots. If I have settled on a really nice composition, I might shoot it for an hour or so to get different alignments of the Milky Way as it moves across the sky.

We also have to consider the foreground. In the Figure 1 below, the exposure is good for the sky, but there’s hardly any information in the foreground.

Figure 1. Nikon D5 with an Irix 15mm f/2.4 lens. 25 seconds, f/2.5, ISO 6400.

How can we fix it? Three solutions:

1. Take a twilight shot.

If you arrive to your location prior to nightfall, take a few shots as the light varies throughout the twilights. You can use those later to blend into your star shot. Of course this approach works for only one setup per night (unless you have two or more cameras), but it can create a unique look. (In previous blog posts you can see examples of when Matt and Tim have done this.)

2. Light paint your foreground.

This works really well if we have something dominant in the foreground that is easily reachable with our light painting tools. However, if we have a big swathe of landscape, that will be difficult to paint.

3. Take a longer foreground-only exposure.

Lower your ISO, turn on your long-exposure noise reduction, and take a shot that is three to six stops higher than your sky shot. By using the a lower ISO we can get a cleaner foreground. But don’t expose so that it looks like a daytime foreground—my rule of thumb is to shoot a foreground exposure that gets the histogram off the left side and more in the middle (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Nikon D5 with an Irix 15mm f/2.4 lens. 13 minutes, f/2.5, ISO 1600.

My thought process on for this image: It was very dark, with no moon in the sky in Capitol Reef National Park, which is a Gold Tier Dark Sky Park. I figured an exposure of 4 minutes at ISO 6400 (three stops brighter than the sky shot) would start to reveal foreground. However, I also didn’t want the 6400 noise in the darker foreground, so I lowered my ISO two stops to 1600, which is incredibly clean on the Nikon D5. Adding five stops to my original image gave me an exposure of 13 minutes (should have been 16 minutes, but oh well), f/2.5, ISO 1600.

Don’t look at how bright the sky and the trailing stars are—the piece we want from this image is the foreground detail of the road cutting through the landscape.

Preparing Your Files for SLS

There are a few key things to do to your sky files in either Lightroom or Camera Raw to best prepare them for SLS. The idea here is to remove any chromatic aberrations and have a nice flat file that will help SLS align and combine the dimmer stars.

1. Lower the contrast of the image. I generally set my contrast to -100 and increase the exposure to +.30 (Figure 3). It won’t look good on the screen but that’s OK—just be careful you are not blowing out any stars.

Figure 3.

2. Turn off any sharpening and noise reduction. Bring the sliders all the way to zero (Figure 4). SLS will handle the noise reduction for now and we will do the sharpening after SLS stacks the image.

Figure 4.

3. Correct for lens aberrations. Under the Lens Correction section of Lightroom, check Remove Chromatic Aberration (Figure 5) and manually adjust any vignetting to even out the exposure of the image (Figure 6). I choose to manually adjust the vignetting instead of turning on “Enable Profile Correction” (EPC) because I’ve noticed weird artifacts/moire patterns in the stacked images when doing so early in this process. EPC adjusts for distortion and vignetting, so it’s best practice to apply the Lightroom adjustment (if you want) to the finished image after stacking in SLS. Again, our goal here is only to prepare a nice flat file that SLS can use to easily recognize the stars, sky and landscape for blending. Minimum pre-processing equals maximum results.

Figure 5.

Figure 6.

That’s it! You don’t have to remove airplane trails or satellites. SLS will help you remove them from or add them into the final image.

Once you have worked on the first image of your “batch” you can then quickly sync the adjustments to other files. Choose your best 10 to 20 consecutive images that have the best positioning of the Milky Way or stars, and export them as full-resolution 16-bit TIFF files that include all metadata (because SLS uses your exposure information when stacking). (Figure 7.)

Figure 7.

Processing in SLS

I’ll go into more in depth in the video below, but here are some overall processing tips:

1. Open the files in SLS. It will stack them together and there will be a bunch of red dots that identify the stars.

Figure 8.

2. Follow the “Workflow” instructions at the top left.

3. Adjust Dots in the Sky. Remove any red dots on the ground, along the horizon, in cloudy areas, or in any spots where there weren’t actually stars. You can even add dots into the sky if there are major areas in the sky that don’t have them.

4. Click Find Sky. That will create the blue mask of the sky; it doesn’t need to be perfect but should include all the areas where there are stars. If you have a horizon that has lots of trees cutting into the sky, choose “Mask with Islands of Sky” and that will let SLS know to create masks for the stars between the branches. You might need to clean this up, but SLS does an excellent job to get you started.

5. Align With. This will remove the blue mask. At the bottom of the workflow section it says Current Image. Click on Next and Previous to choose which Milky Way/star-point alignment you’d like SLS align to.

6. Align and Composite. This stacks all the images. You have to select a composition algorithm to choose:

  • Min Horizon Noise is the default and works in most cases. It brightens the Milky Way stars a bit more than the surrounding stars and minimizes the noise along the horizon.

  • If you do notice any star trailing or duplication along the edge of the mask, use the Min Horizon Star Dupe. There is also a “mean” version of the Horizon Noise and Star Dupe—this uses the older “median” algorithm that was seen in previous versions of SLS.

7. Click Save. SLS saves the stacked file to your folder of TIFFs. SLS gives you the option to save a copy of the mask; I generally don’t need it as the masked file works fine. You’ll need to import this new file into LR and then do any image massaging there.

Tip: You can save multiple algorithms of the stack. The Max algorithm reveals any airplanes, satellites or meteors. Save a clean Min Horizon Noise for minimal noise, but then save any meteors that came through and you can blend them together in Photoshop!

Walking Through an SSL Edit

That’s it! You now have the cleanest night skies out there! Check out the video below, where I go into detail and walk through the whole process. I also take the SLS night sky image and blend it with the foreground from the longer exposure in Photoshop.

Milky Way season is here and the temperatures are rising, bringing more noise into our shots. Use Starry Landscape Stacker to create even cleaner jaw dropping night images!

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.