Been working on Florida landscapes lately with my friend Keith, scouting for landscapes of what Florida looked like decades ago where we could also do star photography. We ended up near where I grew up on the gulf coast, where it's mostly jeep and pickup truck territory. An area of dirt roads, snakes, and gators and where occasionally, paying attention to who’s sharing your surroundings is good.
It starts with google earth and light pollution maps, PhotoPills, scouting trips, moon calendars, and cloud cover forecast. It gets real about an hour before sunset at a location we scouted a few days before.
By sunset using PhotoPills, we’ve confirmed where the milky way appears and moves over the next 4 hours, a composition is picked, and the cameras are locked onto tripods. Camera settings are initially set for focus stacking using autofocus. As the evening becomes night, I’m working on the foreground, taking multiple focus stacks for post-processing in Helicon Focus. The objective is a range of highly detailed foregrounds with a large depth of field and low noise. At this time I’m shooting at ISO 64, capturing the color tones in the sky as it changes from blue to black. I want a variety of choices when building the final composite.
As late twilight becomes night, camera settings are changed for star photography, the focus is switched to manual and a single star is brought into critical focus using live view. Aperture set to f/2.5, the shutter set to 13 seconds, and eventually, as it gets even darker, I get to an ISO of 2500. The Interval timer is set to a “14-second interval” for 20 intervals. So, each time I start the Interval timer, I get one set of 20 raw files for post-processing with Starry Landscape Stacker.
Both the foreground files (the focus stacks) and the sky files (interval timer sets) are the same compositions, but these files are processed differently.
For the foreground, I pick a focus stack taken during twilight that’s close to the color range and appropriate shadow detail to one of the Interval timer sets taken later that night for the stars. I’ll process the focus stack first in Lightroom, picking one file to make adjustments, then syncing the changes to the other files in the stack. Then the files are exported to Helicon Focus where each area of varied focus over the series of files is combined into a new single file with a large depth of field. Next, if necessary, I’ll take this file to photoshop for further refinements. Finally, it's back to Lightroom for a final tune. Now the foreground file is ready.
For the sky, in Lightroom, I pick one of the interval timer set of 20 raw files that complement the color range captured in the foreground file. The 20 raw files are prepared for Starry Landscape Stacker by reducing contrast, turning off sharpening and noise reduction, then applying lens chromatic aberration corrections. Changes are made to one file in Lightroom, then synced to the other 19, then 20 are exported as 16-bit tiff files to Starry Landscape Stacker. From this, Stacker outputs a single 16-bit tiff file of stars and structure with almost no noise and no airplane trails. If additional refinements are needed, it's back to Photoshop and Lightroom. Now the sky file is ready.
Final Step: Both the foreground and sky files are in Lightroom, both files are selected and opened as layers in Photoshop. In Photoshop, a layer mask and the brush tool is used to blend elements from the foreground layer and sky layer together.
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