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Photography Real Talk

I've hesitated to write this post for a few years now. With more people spending time on social media and seeing more images posted by more photographers I thought now is a good time.

Anyone who has known me for any amount of time knows I don't like to sugar coat anything related to photography. I've always tried to be upfront and honest with my work and while the end result may be a real scene that I saw with my own eyes, the capture & edit process may not be as straight forward as most people think.

If you are a person who just wants to look at pretty pictures and doesn't care or doesn't want to know how they are created, please just scroll through and look at the images...thank you...

For those of you who want to learn more about the processes and techniques that most photographers use, please keep reading. I am going to do my best to cover all the basics and some more in depth techniques so that you, the viewer has a better idea of what really goes into some of the images you're looking at... For the photographers wanting to learn, this may be helpful for you as well... Let get started...

Disclaimer - There are lots of exceptions from what I am saying here...I am simply explaining some techniques.

The Single Image -

The Single image is just that.. One single image. You wait for the right light, capture it as best you can and edit the image with basic adjustments like color, tone, contrast, hue, saturation ect.. The RAW images are pretty bland even though we had a beautiful scene in front of us. I recently did several posts on my FB page and IG page showing the RAW files and the edited files... The edited files are edited to look more like what we saw when shooting. The single image is pretty basic. Most everyone who is shooting with a cell phone is posting single images where the camera is doing the processing or they have an app installed on their phones... I like Snapseed, RNI films & PS Express to edit images from my phone on the go.

The Simple Blend -

The idea of the simple blend is to capture as much good data as possible and blend it into a single file. From the single file with the good data you will begin your editing process. Here I have shot one exposure for the sky and one exposure for the reflection and blended the 2 together so that the sky and water are nicely balanced - to do this I just loaded both images into photoshop layers and put the brighter image on top. I then added a mask to the top layer and brushed on the sky with a black brush at roughly 50% opacity to allow the darker sky to come through. You can also see by doing this it allowed me to keep the better shadow detail in the hills from the reflection exposure. Reflection images are not naturally balanced in terms of the sky looking the same as the water. Water absorbs light and therefore makes it naturally darker when you take the image. If you have a nice overcast day you can get them to balance out a little better than what you can with a sunrise or sunset. Even though we could use a single image for this shot, by using the 2 images we can collect more data and produce a cleaner overall image because we don't have to bring up the shadows on the hills nearly as much as if we just used the sky exposure image. Now that we have the blended image to start with the end result will be better.

Blending Water & Waves -

Sometimes we get several good images from one spot where the camera hasn't moved. After getting home and looking at the images we can generally find something wrong or something we don't like about them. Most photographers are their own worst critics. As you can see here I had great sunset light and nice wave action. I didn't need to do any exposure blending but I didn't like the empty foreground rock in the first image and I didn't care for the tiny amount of water in the back rock in the second image. So I combined them to create the image you see on the right. The 2 images on the left were taken back to back. In fact you can see the splashing wave ready to come over the rock and then in the 2nd image it is covering the rock. I think the middle image could stand on it's own but why not make the scene a little better by combining the 2 images. The blending technique is done the same way you do the simple blend by masking the top image and blending in the portions of the 2nd image you want to come through. My friends and I like to call this "building an image" because we know when we are shooting that we are looking for specific wave actions in different parts of the scene to blend together. This isn't a new technique and I can remember photographers talking about this 20 years ago. Once you know what to look for and how the process works, it's fun to give it a try.

HDR - High Dynamic Range Photography -

I don't really like the term HDR anymore.... and while it means the same thing, I think HDR gives people a bad taste in their mouths... High Dynamic Range sounds better. This technique has come a long way in the years and more people are using it to simply create better images that can't be captured with a single image. Years ago, people who were doing HDR work generally had images that looked like cartoons of some sort. Now we use this technique to get around the limitations of our cameras. Even though some of the better cameras can have a Dynamic range of up to 14 stops, the scene in front of you may have more than that...Rather than try and blend the sky with the ground and shadows, it's easier to just shoot a bracketed sequence -4 to +4 (both my cameras shoot up to 9 image for a sequence) check yours. You can also choose how many stops between each image...I like to shoot 9 images with 1 stop between each. I have found that this works well for me and gives me all the images I need. Even IF I don't make a HDR image from the sequence, I am almost promised to get a single image that I can work on. Once you have your sequence you can then load them into LR or ACR and select all of them and tell it to "merge to HDR". The program will then take the best exposed tones from each image and use that to create a single image with MORE data that you can work with. 90% of the time now you would never know an HDR image if the photographer didn't tell you. Once you have the merged image you can then edit it as you wish to create a nice natural scene that allows you to use all the good information and show good detail in the shadows while not blowing out the highlights.

Focus Stacking -

Focus stacking is commonly used in macro photography but it can also be an important part of your landscape work too. Some photographers like to use what's called the "hyperfocal" technique - From Wikipedia - In optics and photography, hyperfocal distance is a distance beyond which all objects can be brought into an "acceptable" focus. As the hyperfocal distance is the focus distance giving the maximum depth of field, it is the most desirable distance to set the focus of a fixed-focus camera.[1] The hyperfocal distance is entirely dependent upon what level of sharpness is considered to be acceptable.

This is a technique I have used in the past and I currently have one lens (Sigma 14-24mm Art) that I know exactly how to focus and what F stop it needs to be on for everything to be sharp. There are Hyperfocal charts all over the internet that will help guide you to finding the best settings for your camera and lens. Because some scenes need more than "an acceptable level of sharpness" I like to use focus stacking. It's quick, easy and I feel it helps eliminate any errors you may get from trying to get everything in focus with a single image.

As you can see above, there are 14 images and I used a different focus point for each image. Front to back, side to side I made sure that the focus points covered the entire scene. Once back home in PS I can just load the images as layers, auto align and auto blend (stacked) not pano. Photoshop used to do a horrible job (or maybe I didn't have the right images) but now it works quite well and is extremely simple to do.

Focus stacking for landscapes generally works best when you have a lot of depth to your image. This image, as you can see, has rocks which are super close to the camera in the foreground as well as hillsides in the distance. I am not sure a hyperfocal technique would even work for something like this. By covering all my bases (focus points) I can create an image that is tack sharp from front to back as seen here -

Stacking and Tracking - Night Photography -

You'd be hard pressed to find any even semi serious night photographer who is still shooting single images. Stacking and Tracking (together or by themselves) is the norm today. So what are they and how do they work...

Stacking - The above image (left side) is a single image shot at 8000 ISO, 2.8 for 10 seconds. The image on the right is only 28 of the single images shot back to back stacked to reduce the noise. You can see there is an obvious benefit. Because noise in your image is random in each image you take, it's never in the same place. By taking multiple images and stacking them together the program throws out the data thats random and keeps the good data. This is the best way I have found to explain this - If you have 1 criss cross apple pie top you can see down into the pie, right? Think of the holes in the top as the noise in your image and you want to get rid of them. So you take another apple pie top and put it on top and then you turn it just a hair so that the holes are now smaller. You do this again and again with a slight turn each time you add a new top until you've added enough tops that the holes are now covered and you can't see into the pie.

Same thing happens with stacking images for noise reduction - you collect enough images that have enough good data that when you place them on top of each other using a stacking program, the noise cancels out and leaves you with just the good data in the image.

Now eventually you will get to a point where all the holes are closed and you don't need any more apple pie tops (images). I have found that number to be roughly 36 images when using 3200>6400 ISO. In theory, the noise reduction factor is done via square root of the number of images you take. If you take 25 images you'd get a 5x noise reduction factor. The above image has that since it as 28 image stack. Because the ISO for each single image was 8000 and we have a 5x noise reduction factor, the stacked image on the right has the noise equivalent of 250 ISO. That's not bad and it only took us a little under 5 min in the field to get those shots.

I haven't tested all the numbers of exposures and the varying levels of noise reduction but I do know that 10 or more will give you noticeable results, 36 is about the area of diminishing returns. You can shoot any number of images and stack them together, there is no wrong number but if you want to see a visible difference from 36, you'd need to go to 72 images and then from there to 144 images. We've done the tests and when you make jumps like this, more good data is better. Often times people will see me post an image and say that I used 56 images for noise reduction. That's totally random. I didn't set my camera up for 56 images. Most likely it's because I was doing a time lapse or shooting for star trails and I just let the camera run. When I got home and wanted to stack, I just grabbed a bunch without counting...No wrong numbers. Any stacking you do will help improve your images.

Tracking -

Tracking is in reference to tracking the night sky. Your camera sits on a mount that has been polar aligned with the north star. Once the tracking mount is aligned you can then compose your shot for the sky and the equatorial mount for your camera will move with the sky. This allows you to shoot longer night images at lower ISOs for cleaner images. I know some people who shoot sequences of tracked images so they can then stack them. I'll be honest in saying that I have never used a tracker myself. My understanding is that if there are clouds to the north and you can't get your mount aligned then you're not able to use the tracker. This may not be the case now but the last I knew, it was.

The above example is extreme but it shows you the power of stacking - ISO 25600 in 90 degree heat in Moab Utah. Remember that the warmer the outside temp the more noise your image will show. I ran my camera (Nikon D850) with a Sigma 14mm 1.8 lens for 230 exposures at 5 seconds each. The single image is unusable. The stacked image has a 15x noise reduction factor kind of... remember that after 36 you have to double the number of images to get any more visible difference.. I'd say maybe a 9x VISIBLE NR factor which would bring it down to roughly the same ISO as a file shot at 100 ISO.

If you've never tried stacking before, I'd encourage you to do so next time you're out under the night sky. It's easy, doesn't take much more time and your images will have the potential to look better...

If you are on a Windows machine, you'll want to download Sequator - it's free and only for windows.

If you're on a Mac you will want to download Starry Landscape Stacker - it's $40 and worth every single penny and only works for mac.

Shooting at night and why we do it this way when you can't shoot a golden/blue hour shot.

Let's break down this image in full detail -

All images shot with my Nikon D810 and Sigma 20mm 1.4 Art lens -

The single image is about as appealing as drinking dirt! Even though it was shot with a great camera for it's time, the image at 8000 ISO is not good. So let's stack the images and what do we get? We get a sky that looks good but the building and grass still look like crap. I could have stacked more images, I think this is only 25 or so. My norm for stacking images is in the 40-100 range...that's just how I am. Now lets look at the last image on top. I decided to do a super long exposure at a lower ISO so I could get a nice clean and detailed building AND the grass is green. This is something night photographers need to understand... NO MATTER HOW MANY IMAGES YOU STACK at high ISO's your grass will never come back to green. I may have less noise but it will always be a horrible color. This is why the low ISO at a longer exposure is key to getting good, natural colors in your foreground, especially grasses..I can't stress this enough. You'll also notice the purple edges are gone too. As you increase your ISO your dynamic range falls off fast...Once it's gone, it's gone. Stacking helps with the sky but it wont bring back all the great colors of your foreground. I actually shot these images for our workshop students to see and learn from. This was all done on purpose! I knew that if I shot the low ISO for longer I would retain the best color I could for my foreground. I stacked the sky at a higher ISO to clean up the noise and then simply took the image with the star trails and selected the sky and deleted it. I then took the stacked image and placed it on the low ISO image so I had a good clean foreground with a nice clean sky which makes for an image I can print extremely large with a high level of details and color! Now, you will see that I shot all this from the same location all within an hour or so of each other. This was shot back in 2018 and looking at my files 2018 was a turning point for me in how I approach a scene and how I shoot it to get the final image I want.

Blue/Golden Hour Blends -

1. Anytime you can shoot your foreground before it's dark out, will be a huge benefit to your work. When I arrived at this scene I knew I wanted to use this as a learning experience for others, specially those who want to vastly improve their night photography. Getting to your location before it gets dark is optimal. As soon as the sun goes down and you have that nice soft light, shoot your foreground. I think we all work better when there is light still on our subjects. By shooting my foreground at this time I could shoot several images to focus stack so that the final image was sharp from front to back. This makes a huge difference when making large prints. I shot 8 images to focus stack. Once I felt good about that I waited till it got dark and the Milky Way came out.

2. Shoot a clean un obstructed of the Milky Way - 40 images stacked for noise reduction - Some people will say that you have to keep your camera in the exact same spot when you shoot your foreground and your sky. If they want to do that, that's fine by me and I wont argue with them. I prefer to shoot my milky ways just slightly away from where I shot my foregrounds so I can have a nice clean image to work with. Let's say I did shoot my Milky Way from between the 2 rocks, i'd be using a much wider f stop and therefore my rocks would have been horribly blurry from where I was standing if I was focused on the sky. Blending those in PS would have been a nightmare trying to get the rocks from one image into the sky from another and it would have taken forever. By shooting the milky way just to the right of where I shot the rocks I was able to get a nice clean view. The advantage is that now I only have to delete the sky from the foreground shot and add the milky way back in where it belongs and I don't have extra blurry foreground objects to try and line up and work around.

3. The final image - After selecting the sky and making a good clean mask around the rocks and mountain I can then add in my milky way to where it was and finish the image with my normal edits. This gives me an image that shows no noise, has proper exposure and can print extremely large.

In conclusion -

These are all just examples and various techniques used by most photographers today. I teach all of these shooting techniques in my workshops through a series of videos so that each student can learn at their own pace. I've learned throughout the years that a classroom learning style doesn't always work when everyone is on different levels to begin with.

Regardless of what you're shooting, some or all of these can be combined to help create the best images possible. I don't discourage single images at all, in fact most all my sunrise/sunset shots can be single images if the light is soft enough. Now that I have went through the processes and learned the techniques I simply don't shoot many single images anymore. Like learning to ride a bike, once you do these a few times they become 2nd nature and you'll love the results. I'm happy to work with any of you via Zoom Sessions as well.

We've discussed

  • Single Images

  • Simple Blends

  • Blending Water

  • HDR - High Dynamic Range

  • Focus Stacking

  • Night Stacking and Tracking for Noise Reduction

  • Shooting At Night Using Long Exposure Foregrounds and Stacked Sky

  • Blue/Golden Hour Blends and shooting the sky separate for your foreground.

Hopefully you'll find some nugget of info you can use and if so, I'd be happy if you shared that with me to let me know you're finding value here. I'm happy to answer questions if you have them. Thank you all for your time.

All images in this blog were created with Sigma Art Lenses

Workshops and Zoom sessions More workshops will be added soon for 2024

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Tony Donofrio
Tony Donofrio
Jul 25, 2023

There is a lot of great information in your article. I have not tried focus stacking yet and I still have not learned to blend images in PS. There is always more to learn. Q. With the recent advances in noise reduction programs like Topaz DeNoise AI and Lightroom's new NR program, do you still feel it necessary to stack 30 to 40 images to reduce noise for Milky Way photos? Thank you, Darren!

Jul 25, 2023
Replying to

Great question Tony!

Without going in to all the details here, I'll be writing a part 2 to this and explaining all of that with side by side samples so you can make visual decisions from what you see.


"This is something night photographers need to understand... NO MATTER HOW MANY IMAGES YOU STACK at high ISO's your grass will never come back to green." Priceless info, especially the solution provided. Great read. Thanks for sharing your knowledge!

Jul 25, 2023
Replying to

Thank you Jesse, I am glad you found some information you can use.

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