You know how it goes, it’s a lot like the hero’s journey. In my quest to travel from ignorance to wisdom, I often turn to Google, and it’s child YouTube. I put in my well-thought-out search terms, and hope for the best. But instead of being confronted by shapeshifters, trolls, and a chupacabra on my path to learning, I’m presented with an endless number of links and videos. Sometimes, a magic sword or golden ring turns up in the top few search results, but usually, I have to spend some time following clicking thorough a bunch of links, only to find out they haven’t answered my questions. Frustration, irritation, and despair follow. Enter my “hero’s journey mentor” – Mike Shaw, and his book Creative Nightscapes and Time-Lapses.
When we leave our “ordinary” world and answer the call to adventure, our next step in this journey is the refusal of our quest, to learn. We often think to ourselves, “Forget all those crappy videos I wasted my time watching! I need to get out and shoot a bunch of photos. I’ll figure it out myself, dammit!”
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Enter the Mentor
If we’re lucky, and since we’re our own hero’s journey here, when we need help the most, a mentor will unexpectedly enter our lives. The mentor has insight into the problems we face, offers wise advice, gives us practical information, and even self-confidence. All this dispels our doubts and fears, giving us the needed strength and courage to continue on our quest.
Passing in the Night – scaper Conference
I met Mike Shaw at the first Nightscaper Conference earlier this year in Moab, UT. Mike gave an excellent presentation titled “Nightscape Composites and Blends – A How-To Guide.” During his talk, Mike mentioned he had a couple of books for sale.
After his presentation, I rushed into the crowded hallway outside the presentation room, found Mike, and I told him I was interested in his book. He looked around his stuff, handed me a copy. I flipped through it, and after a minute, I said I’d take one. He told me I was getting the last one he had with him and he’d get it to me the next day. When I got the book, I looked through it for a while, but in the craziness of the conference, I soon headed out for a long night of Milky Way Photography. And that’s when the book went into my suitcase, and not looked at until some time later after my return home.
It’s All in the Subtitles
It’s the subtitle that reveals the value of this book. The full title is Creative Nightscapes and Time-Lapses: Your Complete Guide to Conceptualizing, Planning and Creating Composite Nightscapes and Time-Lapses. Mike spends much of the book showing how he plans his nightscapes and time-lapses. Presenting us with screenshots from PlanIt! for Photographers, The Photographer’s Ephemeris, PhotoPills, Lightroom, Photoshop, and his camera combined with environmental shots of his camera setups and raw frames from his shoots, Mike lays out all the info needed to fulfill the promise of the book title. Like the back cover of the book says, it’s an “all-in-one guide to making spectacular, multi-image nightscapes and time-lapses.”
The book is divided into six sections –
- What Are Creative Nightscapes and Time-Lapses
- Single-Image Acquisition for Nightscapes and Time-Lapses
- Creative Nightscape Image Processing and Applications
- Creative Nightscape Time-Lapse Video Processing
- Detailed Case Studies
Section I – In the Beginning
In Section I, Mike devotes two pages of text and four pages of photos discussing the structure of the book, the different types of night photography, and gives an overview of the five other sections of the book. He also includes a brief outline of his artistic philosophy, along with a look at the differences between composite and blended images. It’s a solid start to set up the rest of the book.
Section II – Single-Images to Start
Mike covers many of the basics needed to learn how to take images for nightscapes and time-lapses in Section II. He starts with a discussion of the night sky. He looks at the different periods of light found during sunset/sunrise and the three stages of twilight. The differences between Constellations and Asterisms and the motion of the night sky are explored.
One of the features I like about this book is the well-thought-out graphics. One example is when discussing the phases of the Moon. There is a graphic showing the typical “monthly calendar” showing the pattern of the weekly phases of the Moon. That’s pretty standard for this topic. But Mike goes one step further and has an easy to comprehend graphic that shows how rise/set times of the Moon changes through the phases of the Moon. It’s an excellent graphic! It makes it easy to get this concept that seems simple but is sometimes hard to understand. He closes out this part by covering meteor showers, aurora, eclipses, satellites, and of course, the Milky Way.
What You Need – Camera-Wise
Mike switches to covering the photo gear we need in Section II so we can Cameras and lenses are, of course, discussed, but it’s not in too much depth that it gets bogged down with minutia. Suggested camera settings are given for a range of nighttime photo subjects, from starry skies to fireworks.
A thorough discussion of starry sky exposure and the relationship of ISO-Aperture-Shutter Speed is given. Mike gives excellent advice on what settings to use, discussing how he makes his exposure choices when in the field. Key camera settings like shooting in RAW are reviewed.
The always an issue with astrophotography, focusing on stars, is examined. Mike shows how to practice camera focus using a one-inch diameter ball bearing placed in direct sunlight. It’s a great idea, using the specular highlights from the sun reflecting off the bearing – it will create pinpoint spots of light that one can practice focus.
Planning – the Good Stuff
The remaining half of Section II is where Mike gets into the good stuff – planning your shot. He starts with the actual planning and how to use your ideas to create art. He discusses making simple sketches as a way to help previsualize your photo.
I find Mike’s “Night Shooting Planning Worksheet” to be a handy idea. He suggests that using a plan “will help you develop a realistic sense of what’s possible on a given night.” A tool like this can help you stay on track when out shooting. It would even save time by not launching my app to see things like when twilight starts. Something I seem to do often as the night progresses!
I find I often get in the field, and I run across an idea and then stray from what I originally intended to shot. Using a plan like this would help remind me of what my goals were. And it would give me a place to write any deviations I do make. Like writing down what f-stop settings I used with my manual lenses.
There’s An App for Nightscaping
He then demonstrates the apps he uses to plan his shots. Mike uses PlanIt! for Photographers, which is an excellent app for planning your photos. It has several features, like 3D terrain mapping, that are indispensable in my photography planning.
He quickly covers a few additional items he finds useful for night photography, like filters, trackers, and backup flashlights, before he looks at scouting your locations during the daytime. That is such useful but often overlooked advice that it is a welcome discussion here. Simple practices like walking the route to your shooting site during the day ar often overlooked when giving field advice. It’s way easier to plan and prepare for making an awesome nightscape photo during the day than it is in the dark!
Section II closes by examining some common obstacles and offering solutions. He explores things like cleaning supplies, extra batteries, hand warmers, gaffers tape, airplane trails, stacking photos, and lens heaters, an item that is unfamiliar to most daytime photographers.
Section III – Processing your Images
Now that we’ve gone out and photographed some nightscape images, Creative Nightscapes and Time-Lapses directs us through how to process them using Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop. The first two chapters in this section review tools in these two programs, most readers of this website are probably well acquainted with them. That’s expected as he is covering the basics here!
The next chapter covers compositing two nightscape photos for focus stacking and shutter speed blending. Mike shows an example of “Day-to-Night” image blending – where one part of the image will be taken at night and the other during the day. I find this type of photo to be an intriguing use of blending, as it shows us an image that’s impossible so experience.
Mike close out this chapter demonstrating blending an image take with a fog filter with one without. That is an excellent technique that makes the color of the brightest stars pop and stand out in your image. I’ve long been a fan of this technique made famous by Akira Fujii in the 1980s. It’s a great way to shoot constellations. If you’re not familiar with this technique, check out this collection of Fujii’s excellent astrophotos.
Let’s hit the Trail
Next up in Creative Nightscapes and Time-Lapses is Star Trails – Mike opens with an examination of which azimuth you point your camera at and how your lens focal length choice will affect the final image. He has several photos to illustrate the various looks that can be achieved.
He thoroughly covers how many shots are needed, exposure settings, how to maintain star color, and when to start shooting your sequence. Processing tips are given, as well.
Advice is given for shooting solar and lunar eclipses. Mike looks at compositing techniques for both eclipses and daytime shots of the moon to make those cool composites showing the moon or sun as they move across the sky.
One of the more complicated astrophoto techniques is aligning meteor composites. Eash meteors shower typically radiates from a particular place in the sky. As the night progresses, that place moves across the sky. Mike shows how to take a night’s worth of images and align them, recreating the radiant.
Once you’ve done that, he demonstrates how to isolate all the meteors you captured and composite them into one image. He discusses tips that will help make this processing flow as smooth as possible, like increasing your canvas size and what to do if the pole is not in the image.
HDR – It’s Still a Useful Technique
Nightscape photography is often plagued by high contrast situations. Mike covers how to acquire shots for use in a high-contrast environment and then composite them. One example speaks to me as I have a stack of unprocessed images taken at Mesa Arch, which the location Mike used as one of his illustrations. I even used the trick of using my finger to block the sun to remove lens flare, as shown in the shots below.
Panoramas make compelling images. It’s a view that our eyes can’t see, but our brains love the look of these extended perspectives. The easy to follow discussions of how to shoot, including how to overlap frames, using Lightroom, Photoshop, and even the specialized pano-stitching program, PTGui is included. Mike then takes the discussion up a notch by covering how to create 360° and VR Panos.
Paint Your Landscape
Lightpainting is a useful tool for Astro landscape photographer. There’s nothing like a dark, lifeless foreground to bring your nightscape photos down. Adding a little light to features near the camera can make a world of difference.
As in the rest of Creative Nightscapes and Time-Lapses, Mike offers a tonne of personal experience to the discussion. He emphasizes the importance of using a color-temperature corrected light source. Mike explains Color Rendering Index (CRI) and why it’s an essential specification for your LED lights. He explores the often overlooked use of theatrical gels. And he covers the now popular technique of Low-Level Lighting (LLL).
Drawing with Lights for Creative Nightscapes
Moving past Milky Way nightscapes, a chapter on using creative lighting techniques is explored. Mike calls this “Light Drawing,” where colored lights are used to selective paint certain parts of the scene. He discusses light sources, such as colored flashlights, lightsabers (well, lights with transparent, glowing tubes attached), and even lightning!
Other ideas such as fireflies, electroluminescent, chemical luminescent, fiber optics, sparklers, car headlights, and a device called a “Pixelstick” are demonstrated. Below, Mike shows how he made a steel wool spinner from a kitchen whisk and a roller bearing.
Section IV – Time Lapses
Time lapses are a great way to take your night photography to the next level. There’s a compelling reason for this – we see the world in motion. Mike introduces this technique by looking at how our brains perceive motion and how to assemble images into a video.
Mike discusses planning and shooting your images so that you have enough material to make a satisfying time lapse. He points out that if you don’t have any specialized software for assembling your shots into a video, you can use Photoshop. It’s not a feature that’s often discussed. Adobe AfterEffects and Premiere Pro are also covered.
But the 800 lb gorilla for creating time-lapses is the software program LRTimelapse. Combined with Lightroom, these programs work together to assemble flicker-free time lapses. Flicker can be introduced in several ways as your camera tries to adjust exposure changes due to clouds moving or sunrise/set. LRTimelapse uses the concept of keyframes to make adjustments to every frame in the time-lapse.
LRTimelapse has had a somewhat confusing workflow in the past, which is much improved in recent releases. Mike shows the steps needed to do this in an easy to follow way.
Time Lapses and the Holy Grail
Mike devotes an entire chapter in Creative Nightscapes and Time-Lapses to the special techniques needed to perform a “Holy Grail” time-lapse where time transitions from day-to-night or night-to-day. Unlike most timelapse situations where the exposure value of the scene stays relatively stable, Holy Grails need special considerations as the change in exposure settings is extreme.
Mike discusses whether to change aperture, exposure ramping techniques, and monitoring the camera histogram. Mike offers his approach and walks through an example exposure strategy of changing shutter speed and ISO.
He points out this can be done manually or by allowing the camera to change settings automatically and discusses the benefits and disadvantages.
One way to perform changing exposure settings automatically, Mike examines the app, qDSLRDashboard. qDSLRDashboard downloads JPG images from the camera in real-time and analyzes the exposure of each image. It then does a running average of the exposure data send exposure changes to the camera. It’s an excellent way to precisely control the exposure setting. qDSLRDashboard can control Nikon, Canon, and Sony cameras and runs on the Android, Windows 10, WinXP, Linux, OSX, and Raspberry Pi platforms. (An iOS version of the app has been prepared, but at the time of writing is held-up in the Apple App Store.)
Get a Move On
Mike wraps up his discussion of time-lapse shooting techniques by looking at motion control. Of all the methods discussed in this book, a motion-controlled time-lapse requires the most planning for a successful shoot. There’s no do-over when shooting a Holy Grail, motion-controlled time-lapse!
Mike covers the gear needed, discusses camera panning and tilt, creating the time-lapse, and discusses solutions to common problems that arise when shooting.
Section V – Case by Case
Mike closes out the book by examining four actual photoshoots. That discussion is the dessert to the book’s meal. He shows his final photo and then all the planning and the techniques he used to create the images.
Included in each case study are screenshots of planning apps, Mike’s Night Shooting Planning Worksheet, individual frames for composites, or screen captures of processing software. Mike closes the chapter by showing a set of images taken during one night in Arches along with the Night Shooting Planning Worksheet for that night. He certainly packed a lot of different photos into that night, showing the benefit to this approach!
Section VI – Conclusions
In this closing section, Mike gives a brief discussion of where he thinks the future holds for nightscape photography.
A Book is Worth 1000 Videos
As I read through Creative Nightscapes and Time-Lapses, I was reminded of the value of books. They can contain a large amount of information in a relatively small size. In fact, this book could take up no size at all, if you get the Kindle Version of Creative Nightscapes and Time-Lapses. In addition to being able to carry this book wherever you go inside your phone, you can find the information in it much faster than searching through the hundreds, if not thousands of videos online, that it would take to learn what’s in this book.
The Journey Continues…
I should have known Mike Shaw would become my mentor in this journey as soon I saw how he signed the preface to the book, “Mike, Your Nightscape Professor.”
Readers of this article may be interested in our review of the following:
Best Cameras for Night Photography – B&H Night Photography Series
Some graphics used on this page were supplied by the maker of this product.
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