Night Skies

Sliding Into Sharper Skies: Lightroom Brings Texture to Night Photography

Lightroom’s new Texture slider.

Back in May, Adobe introduced a new slider to the Presence area within the Basic panel in Lightroom’s Develop module. This new tool was originally intended to be a “smoothing” slider that would soften skin texture somewhat more naturally than the Clarity slider does. But during development, the engineers found that while it was great at smoothing skin tones, it could also be used to add texture to our photographs.

Thus, the new Texture slider is aptly named. It really does enhance texture in our images! But as with all new photography tools, we wanted to push its limits and see what else it can do, particularly for night photography. As it turns out, when paired with the Dehaze slider, Texture can really enhance the look of our night photographs.

For those of you looking for a quick read, that about sums it up. By adding in a fair amount of Dehaze and a little Texture, your night skies will come alive! In the example below, Dehaze was set to +44 and Texture to +5. These are by no means default settings, as each camera produces different files and each scene requires its own approach. This does, however, give you starting point.

For those of you looking for a deeper understanding, read on.

A Deeper Understanding

The general effect of the Texture slider is somewhere between Clarity and Sharpening. To fully understand how this slider works, let’s take a look at all the sliders that enhance detail and contrast in our images: Sharpening, Texture, Clarity and Dehaze. We’ll begin with Sharpening.

Understanding Sharpening

Each of the aforementioned sliders, in essence, increases contrast. It’s the areas they increase contrast in that separates them from one another. Sharpening, on one end of the scale, adds contrast at the pixel level. Dehaze, at the other end, is much broader in its application of contrast. Let me show you what I mean.

Sharpening increases apparent sharpness by finding an edge, and then darkening one side and lightening the other. This increases contrast around that edge, making it appear sharper. The images below show an unsharpened enlargement (11:1) of a night sky, and the same section after adding Sharpening. Notice how the stars appear to have a dark ring around them? This is the contrast being added by the sharpening slider.

Also notice that even the pixels in the sky without stars have been sharpened. This look is what makes an over-sharpened image look “false.” Lowering the value of the Detail slider can correct this negative effect. The images below show the sky sharpened with Amount at 150 and Detail at 25, and the same image with the Detail slider lowered to 2.

Finally, let’s look at the real comparison. The images below are completely unsharpened and then sharpened with Amount at 150 and Detail at 3.

As you can see, the adjusted image has an increased apparent sharpness in the stars without appearing to be over-sharpened in the surrounding sky.

Of course, you would never want to sharpen your images at a magnification of 11:1. And the slider settings presented are not what I would necessarily suggest. These magnifications and settings were used to better help you understand the concept of sharpening. Sharpening should be done at magnifications of 1:1 or 1:2. Experiment with each magnification to suit your taste. Likewise, experiment with your sharpening sliders, keeping your Amount higher and Detail lower.

Note: The other sliders in the Sharpening box are Radius and Masking. The Radius slider controls how large the “halo” around the edge becomes. A higher Radius equals a thicker halo ring; a lower Radius setting creates a more natural look (a setting of 1.0 could be your benchmark). Adobe defines Masking as: “Controls an edge mask. With a setting of zero (0), everything in the image receives the same amount of sharpening. With a setting of 100, sharpening is mostly restricted to those areas near the strongest edges.” So increasing your Masking slider relegates the sharpening to only the areas with well-defined edges—which is typically the place we want the sharpening to effect.

Congratulations! You’ve made it through it a quick primer on Sharpening. The reason I dove a little deep here is that a basic understanding of Sharpening helps create a better understanding of the other contrast controls—Texture, Clarity and Dehaze.

Understanding Dehaze

Now, let’s jump to the other end of the spectrum with Dehaze. While Sharpening adds contrast on the pixel level, Dehaze increases contrast across your image on a much broader scale. The following images are at a 4:1 magnification. We see a comparison of no contrast controls applied, versus the Amount slider in Sharpening increased to the maximum of 150, versus Dehaze set to +100. (Again, these adjustments are not recommendations, but rather exaggerations to show the effect.)

Contrast added with Sharpening.

Contrast added with Dehaze.

Below, let’s look at those two contrast adjustments side by side—Sharpening at 150 and Dehaze increased to the maximum of +100.

The Dehaze slider is actually increasing contrast between the sky glow and foreground. Compared to Sharpening, notice how Dehaze makes the foreground darker and the sky glow brighter. This makes the foreground and sky more separate from one another (i.e., there’s more contrast between them).

You can also see how Sharpening actually brightens the foreground and adds texture throughout. It does not, however, significantly separate the sky glow from the foreground.

Below is another example, comparing the image straight from the camera with a version with Dehaze set to +60.

This really shows how Dehaze darkens the sky around the Milky Way. Again, this is a broader application of contrast as opposed to Sharpening’s more localized approach to separating individual stars from their surroundings. For our night skies, the Dehaze slider can be simply magic. (See more on this in my 2018 blog post “Dehaze: The Night Photographer's Secret Weapon.”)

Note: Along with an increase in contrast, the Dehaze slider also significantly increases contrast and somewhat darkens the whole image. After pumping up Dehaze, it’s not uncommon for me to decrease the blue saturation and increase Exposure.

So What About the Texture Slider?

The Texture and Clarity sliders fall between Sharpening and Dehaze. The breakdown of the different sliders looks like this:

  • Sharpening. Pixel-level addition to contrast around the edges. No real increase in saturation. Can increase grain and noise in the image.

  • Texture. Edge contrast added on a broader scale than Sharpening. Increases the apparent texture without the amplification of grain or noise that is sometimes accompanied with Sharpening. No noticeable saturation increase. The net effect is one of increased sharpness.

  • Clarity. Contrast added throughout the image on a broader scale than Texture. Looks more like an increase using the Dehaze slider but with slight sharping of the edges and no noticeable increase in saturation. The net effect is one of increased local contrast.

  • Dehaze. Adds contrast and saturation across a broader area of the image. Virtually no sharpening effect added. Separates especially well in brighter, low-contrast areas. This is why it works so well on our night skies.

  • Contrast. The broadest application of contrast. Also adds saturation. It does not take into account bright areas or dark areas, nor does it control edges. It’s the bludgeon of contrast controls with a very heavy-handed effect. Consider this to be an image-wide increase in contrast.

So the Texture slider is really like a less focused Sharpening slider. It creates edge sharpness without increasing noise and grain. You can see the effect here:

Used in combination with the Dehaze slider, Texture can produce night skies that are both crisp and colorful. However, like with the Sharpening slider, you should adjust with a soft hand. Kid gloves. A little goes a long way.

Putting it All Together

The following is a workflow that I used to process a recent image from our Bryce Canyon National Park workshop. Figure 1 shows the image captured with a Luxli Viola at camera left to illuminate the foreground. The Luxli output was balanced to complement the Milky Way in the background. The exposure was 15 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 6400.

Figure 1. Bryce Canyon National Park. Nikon Z 6, Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 lens at 14mm, light painted with a Luxli Viola. 15 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 6400. Unprocessed.

Figure 2 shows the image after basic Lightroom adjustments—I decreased Blacks to -32 and increased Whites to +4.

Figure 2. Blacks -32, Whites +4.

Then, as we see in Figure 3, I added a local adjustment on the foreground using the Adjustment brush and increased the Texture to +45. This increased the sharpness and texture of the hoodoos in the foreground. (This is the type of application that Texture is actually designed for—adjusting actual texture in a surface.)

Figure 3. Local Adjustment of the foreground, Texture +45.

The last adjustment was to the sky only, increasing Dehaze to +30, Exposure to +35 and Texture to +3. Figure 4 shows the final image.

Figure 4. The final image with another local adjustment of the sky: Dehaze +30, Exposure +35,Texture +3.

Everyone will develop their own special recipe of slider settings for their night skies. And indeed these may even change from one scene to the next. The important thing to keep in mind is the effect of these settings. A better understanding of what each slider produces will arm you with the knowledge to craft a truly fine photograph.

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.

UPCOMING WORKSHOPS FROM NATIONAL PARKS AT NIGHT

National Parks To Celebrate Night Skies With Upcoming Festivals

The National Park Service is 100 percent on-board with the idea of preserving dark skies for all who wish to see them—from astronomy buffs to night photographers and everyone in between. It even maintains a Night Sky page on its website, and offers access to a Night Sky Monitoring Database of the entire U.S.

But not only does the NPS protect and promote the night skies, it also creates opportunities to explore and learn about them.

Lassen Dark Sky Festival, NPS Photo

Lassen Dark Sky Festival, NPS Photo

Many of the parks offer ranger-led programs for visitors to experience night the way it once appeared everywhere, before the dawn of electrically lit cities and civilizations. For example, Pinnacles National Park offers night hikes, and Shenandoah National Park in Virginia offers an Evening Meadow Walk (in Big Meadows, no less, one of my favorites spaces in the entire park system!). Even New Mexico's Carlsbad Caverns National Park, whose star attraction is underground, shows off the night skies with its recurring Star Parties and Moon Walks.

But several of the parks go even bigger, hosting full-scale festivals that celebrate the night. They feature all sorts of spectator and interactive programs, including lectures by astronomers, telescope usage, photography workshops and more.

Photo by NPS/Brad Sutton

Photo by NPS/Brad Sutton

These are all excellent opportunities to get into the parks to learn and explore the night with like-minded people.

This year’s Death Valley Star Party is already behind us (it was in February), but there are plenty of park-hosted night-sky festivals on the horizon for summer and early fall. To help you find one (or more!) to attend, we’ve compiled the list below. If you attend, let us know how it goes—and send photos!

 

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Black Canyon Astronomy Festival

June 1-4, Colorado

Highlights: Constellation tours, Tyler Nordgren presentation and book signing, telescope observations, "Nightscape Photography Workshop"

 

Bryce Canyon National Park

Annual Astronomy Festival

June 1-4, Utah

Highlights: hosted by Bryce Canyon's astronomy rangers and the Salt Lake Astronomical Society; keynote speaker Seth Jarvis from the Clark Planetarium

 

Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon Star Party

June 4–11, Arizona

Highlights: access to multiple telescopes on both rims of the canyon, nightly presentations and slide shows; assistance from the Tucson Amateur Astronomy Association and the Saguaro Astronomy Club of Phoenix

 

Badlands National Park

Badlands National Park Astronomy Festival

July 8-10, South Dakota

Highlights: family-friendly activities and evening presentations with special guest speakers; nightly telescope viewing sponsored by the NPS Night Sky Program and Celestron

 

Rocky Mountain National Park

Night Sky Festival

July 28-30, Colorado

Highlights: activities, speakers, programs and night sky viewing

 

Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks

Dark Sky Festival

August 5-7, California

Highlights: astronaut speakers; special Crystal Cave tours; audio-visual and photography presentations

 

Lassen Volcanic National Park

Lassen Dark Sky Festival

August 12-14, California

Highlights: constellation tours; solar scope viewing; discussions and demonstrations by National Park Dark Sky rangers, NASA, International Dark Sky Association, RECON, Astronomical Society of Nevada and the Astronomical Society of the Pacific

 

Acadia National Park

Acadia Night Sky Festival

September 22-25, Maine

Highlights: workshops; internationally recognized speakers; hands-on experiences

 

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Dakota Nights Astronomy Festival

September 23-25, North Dakota

Highlights: star viewing; presentations by nationally recognized speakers; rocket building and launching; solar system hikes

 

Great Basin National Park

Great Basin Astronomy Festival

September 29 - October 1, Nevada

Highlights: viewing through over 30 telescopes (some as tall as 20 feet); "Astronomy 101" presentation; Night Sky Photography Workshop by the "Dark Rangers"

 

Joshua Tree National Park

Night Sky Festival

October 28-30, California

Highlights: astronomers, scientists, cultural speakers and artists

 
Chris Nicholson is the 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

International Dark Sky Week Highlights A Precious Commodity

Last week was International Dark Sky Week. Did you get out and enjoy the stars?

I did. In fact, I even got to enjoy a night in South Carolina’s Congaree National Park. Congaree is only half an hour outside the state capital of Columbia, but getting even just that far away from a city can make a big difference in how we see the night sky. In fact, it makes all the difference in the world.

And getting even further away? That can make all the difference in the universe.

Congaree National Park, © 2016 Chris Nicholson

Congaree National Park, © 2016 Chris Nicholson

I grew up in southern Connecticut, part of the New York City Metropolitan Area. We weren’t in the city, but kind of in night-sky limbo—far enough away from NYC to see a decent sky, but not far enough to see the best. So in my nightly experience, I knew the sky had stars, but not quite how many.

I also did a lot of camping as a kid—with my dad, with my family, with Boy Scouts. We even did some camping in the national parks, especially in Great Smoky Mountains. I’m sure during those experiences I looked up at night, but the first time I vividly remember “seeing” how magnificent a starry sky truly can be, the first time I had that "supernova" moment, was in upstate New York on August 7, 1993. On a night stroll, I came to a clearing in the trees, gazed skyward and had this profound realization that I could see—actually see—the Milky Way.

I once heard astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson tell a similarly themed story about when he was a kid, growing up in the Bronx, very near the bright lights of Manhattan, thinking that there were only a handful of stars in the sky. When he learned how many were really there, that’s when his love of the universe began to dawn.

You could probably get any astronomer to relay such an experience, but another that I find particularly interesting is Tyler Nordgren, who we interviewed for the NPAN blog back in February. (See “Astronomer Tyler Nordgren Discusses Night Skies of the National Parks.)

I’ve been reading Tyler’s book Stars Above, Earth Below: A Guide to Astronomy in the National Parks. In the introduction he writes about how the parks are famed for preserving wild animals, beautiful landscapes, grand forests, amazing rock formations, and so on. But another preserved feature that many people don’t think about in those terms is the night sky.

And it’s absolutely true. So much of the civilized world is so lit up that in most inhabited places we can’t see the sky the way that our ancestors did for 200,000 years. But in many national parks, we can. Those dark skies are there for us, preserved very close to their natural, dazzling, awe-inspiring state.

As I mentioned before, Congaree has some wonderful night skies. So does Olympic, Everglades, Grand Teton, Yellowstone, Great Smoky Mountains, Joshua Tree. … The list goes on and on, perhaps right to 59 parks long.

Death Valley National Park , © 2016 Chris Nicholson

Death Valley National Park, © 2016 Chris Nicholson

Moreover, Death Valley, Big Bend and Capitol Reef are designated as Gold Tier dark sky parks by the International Dark-Sky Association. Additionally, Canyonlands and Black Canyon of the Gunnison are also certified as dark sky parks by the IDA. That’s right, five of the U.S. national parks are considered among the very best in the world at preserving pristine night skies.

With all these great places to see and photograph under the gentle light of the universe, how does anyone sleep at night?

Chris Nicholson is the 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