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Photography Real Talk - Pt 2

In Photography Real Talk Part One, we discussed shooting techniques in the field and how to put them together when we get back home. If you haven't yet had a chance to check that out, please do so when you have time -

A lot of the comments and questions I got after the first post were aimed at night photography, noise in images, single images, composites and sky replacements. I'll do my best to tell you my thoughts on all those in this blog. After some long self thinking sessions, I think I've came up with a way to properly help people realize that single images are not always the best. You, as the artist/photographer will have to decided on your own and make sure you're ok with the work your doing. Remember, your art is your art and don't let me or anyone else tell you differently. I'm simply here to state the facts and help guide you if you wish to be guided. I really just want to bring more info about what goes into photography into the public eye so that more people understand that images like the one above are not single shots straight out of the camera. To get image quality like this, that can be printed large with minimal to no noise, it takes a little work in the field and in post processing... let's jump right in!

I'd like to start off with a quote, this quote actually solidified my reasons for wanting to write this blog post and talk about high quality night photography images. It comes from one of my contacts on social media that they posted to their account -

"I love astrophotography, but I only shoot single exposures because it bothers me how far blends and composites can take your mind out of reality".

Click image below to view larger!

Left Image - Blue hour blend with stacked sky (Best option for Best quality images)

Foreground was shot with low ISO near sunset time for best possible exposure to then blend with the stacked sky I knew I was going to shoot later that night at the same location. Here you can see the color in the building is superior to the ones shot at night.

Middle image - Single exposure (Nikon D850) Supposed to one of the best, if not the best camera for handling noise at higher ISOs. (6400 ISO for 13 seconds) We see a lot of white dots/noise in the shadow area of the broken windows.

Right Image - Stacked image (61 images stacked for noise reduction) This is a good way to start improving your night photography. Stacking can really clean up an image compared to a single image. Because noise is random in each image it's never in the same place. So taking back to back to back images and stacking them will combine the good data and help get rid of the noise. However, anytime you shoot at higher ISOs at night your dynamic range goes down and the colors of your subjects don't look very good. Most the time the greens/yellows in grasses will turn a horrible grey color and once that's done, you can't get those clean rich colors back. Stacking will help to remove the noise but it wont bring back lost colors.

I completely understand where the photographer who said the quote is coming from. I get it. Now let me ask you this... When you're out at night and you're looking at the stars in the sky and a subject in the foreground do you see noise/grain? No! Our brain is the absolute best sensor there will ever be. If you allow yourself about 10 min in a dark location without looking at your phone or turning on any lights so your eyes can adjust properly, when you look at what you're taking a photo of your brain does not see grain or noise. So why would you want that in your images? One might argue that the noise isn't real to the scene so it could be an added artifact. The noise and many other things about our cameras are simply limitations. We use shooting techniques and software to overcome these limitation. We do things everyday to overcome limitations in our lives..

If a construction worker is building a house and runs out of nails, do they stop building? No, they go buy more nails. I'm simply collecting more data, more good data. I'm not creating fake scenes (I've done that) I'm just collecting the most good data possible to get the best possible file when it's all put together so that when I print it, it's as clean as possible. How can you blame someone for wanting the best possible outcome? do you remove noise or get less noise from your images?

  • Shoot on a low iso - longer exposures at night may cause star trailing

  • Blue/Golden hour foregrounds with stacked skies

  • Stack Images using Starry Landscape Stacker or Sequator

  • Topaz Labs DeNoise AI - best all around NR Tool for single exposures

  • DxO Pure RAW - Keep an eye on what it does to the stars

  • LR or ACR Noise Reduction - good options if you don't want 3rd party software

  • Nik (DxO Mark) DeFine - was good at one time, Topaz is much better

  • Topaz Labs Gigapixel - does sizing and NR fairly well for what it is.

Is a scene real or not? Let's talk about composites.

Composites, in my mind, are different than blends. Your opinion will vary. To me, a composite is an image that's created and the final outcome is something that you could not see with your own eyes. This is one of the issues with social media. Artists are posting "composites" of gorgeous images and then people go looking for them, to never find the scene. I think composites are more works of art. Even though our "real" images are works of art, composites have a lot more "artistic liberties" shall we say. Delicate Arch above is a great example. I chose to use this subject because many people are familiar with it, it's on the Utah license plates and it's seen everyday by hundreds if not thousands of people. Both of the images above are what I call composites. They are fake. Mostly they are accurate except for one thing in each. The image on the left has green northern lights from Iceland. You can see the faint milky way on the left side of the arch, that's 100% real. I simply blended in the northern lights and added the shooting star. The image on the right, taken from the viewing platform at the top of the trail is accurate too in terms of where the milky way is, that's a real shot. I simply added the arch from a bridge in Oregon for a more artistic take on this otherwise common view. In landscape photography or night photography I think most of us keep our composites pretty basic since we are not really trying to create digital art. It generally begins with a solid base image and things may be added or subtracted along the way... There are other types of composites and I'll touch on this later.


Most of the time no one would ever know if a photographer "blended" an image to get the final outcome. I talked about blends in the first blog post and they are basically done to overcome the limitations of the sensor OR to create a real scene from different images.

To me, a blend is using multiple images to create a real scene.

We now have so many apps at our disposal that we can see and verify correct night sky positioning in real time if we want to "blend" images. The above image was created from 2 images in different locations while I was driving around Nebraska back in 2019 (see Jupiter in the Dark Horse Nebula) that happened in 2019. I arrived at this old home just after sunset and used PhotoPills to check the location of the Milky Way later that night and how it would look over the house with the Night Augmented Reality feature. I composed the shot with the house so that the milky way would fit in the correct spot. This is a real scene and if anyone asked to go see this place in May or June, this is what it would look like.

While blends are much more realistic scenes and composites, to me, are generally more out there artistically, let's not confuse these with the more heavily used "Sky Replacement!"

Before there was ever "Sky Replacement" in Photoshop, photographers were adding skies, swapping skies and altering skies all day long. This is nothing new. What has happened is now that there is a 1 touch button to do this, so many people are using it and a good majority are doing it so poorly that it's so easy to tell when the light is completely off between the sky and the foreground and it looks completely fake.

Light direction and shadows are a huge part of landscape photography. They tell us where the light is coming from and add depth to the image. About 3 years ago when "Sky Replacement" was starting to really take off, I made this example. The image of the tractor was shot about 10am in Kansas looking southwest. The Sun was coming up in the east as you can tell by the shadows. Now, the orig image only had clear blue sky and no clouds at all. I wanted to show a "good example" on the left & a "bad example" on the right. The image on the left looks perfectly natural as what you may expect to see that time of the day. In fact, If I didn't tell you I added the sky, you'd probably never know. The image on the right, however, is a horrible example. The shadows are going one direction while the light source in the sky is shining back towards us. Yet, people who don't know better will just see the sunset sky and think it's the best image ever. So please, pay attention to the skies you capture and the subjects you shoot so that if or when you decided to replace skies, they look as natural as possible.

The above example was done to illustrate to another group about good sky replacements. If sky replacement is something you want to do or try, here are some suggestions -

  • Shoot lots of skies at various times of day when the clouds are good.

  • Get both sunrise & sunset skies as well as middle of the day fluffy white clouds

  • Pay attention to where the horizon is in your cloud shots.

  • Better to have more sky than less sky

  • Don't be afraid to color match the sky to the foreground

  • In the layers panel in PS make adjustments to each until they blend well

  • Make sure the light source in the sky matches the direction of light with your subject

  • Don't be afraid to "flip" your skies in PS to work better with your subject

Last, but not least, camera limitations with lenses..

Panoramas specifically

Here is the funny thing about the human eyes and brain, in terms of focal length, we see at roughly 50mm. Meaning if you were to stand in front of a scene and put on a 50mm lens, it would capture the scene very close to how you are seeing it.

This excerpt taken from -

A 50mm lens has 46 degrees angle of view. The center of our field of vision, around 40-60 degrees, is where we get most of the information. This means that our perception depends on this part. It is close to the 50mm angle of view.

Distance wise, we see at about 50mm yet we can see almost 180 degrees in our Peripheral vision, so a 50mm lens doesn't really capture the side to side of the scene we are looking at. Now, let's toss a 10mm lens on a full frame camera and we now get a 121 degree FOV. Better, but what does the scene look like when you capture it? Yes, that's correct, it's pushed out so far that everything is tiny and probably distorted. A 50mm lens will only give you about 40 degrees FOV.

So there is a little bit of indifference between what we see and what a lens can accurately capture. Most landscape and astro photographers like to use something between 14-35mm for single shots. Still not really capturing all of what our eyes see when looking at a scene. This is one reason why composition can be difficult. We see the entire scene with our eyes and based on the lens/camera we are using we have to identify & isolate a portion of that scene so it will look good as an image.

What are some good reasons to capture panoramas?

  • Larger file sizes - more printing options

  • Larger file sizes - lessen the visibility of noise

  • To capture arching Milky Way scenes

  • To capture a scene more realistic to what you're seeing

  • Because they fit nicely over beds & couches and in large corporate offices :-)

The larger files created with multi shot panoramas increases the pixels and therefore can be printed larger if needed. Also, by shooting panoramas the files don't need to be enlarged nearly as much and therefore the noise, if you have any, will be less noticeable. Shooting an arching milky way scene like you see above would be almost impossible as a single image. Sometimes you don't always have the right lens... using a 35mm, 50mm or 85mm and doing either single row panos or multi row panos can be incredibly satisfying when put together and done right.

How to capture images for Panoramas

  • Identify the subjects you want on the right and left side of the scene. Make sure you have good anchor points on both sides.

  • Use the correct lens - generally 20mm and wider will give more distortion than what you want. 35mm-85mm are going to be your best choices for least distortion

  • Depending on your lens, do you need a single row or multi row panorama to make sure you get all of the scene in your finished shot.

  • Overshoot the corners and sides - This is very crucial. You need to remember that after the pano is put together you'll need to crop around the edges to make sure everything is straightened up. If you don't overshoot you will more than likely end up cutting something off that you didn't want to.

  • Keep your camera as level as possible. Use the internal level on your LCD. Most cameras have them. Your tripod does not need to be level as long as your camera is level

  • Allow about 30% overlap at least between frames. The more data PS and LR have to work with the better it can stitch your image.

  • Try and shoot in a timely more than 10-15 seconds between shots if possible. You'd be surprised at how fast light and shadows can change and when it's stitched together you will notice where a shadow is cut off in one frame. The quicker the better.

Our cameras and lenses are really designed to do just one thing - Take pictures. It's up to us as photographers/artists to use all our tools to overcome the limitations of our cameras and lenses. While each of us will have our own limits on what we thinks is right or wrong, acceptable or not, we have the ability to create real, high quality images. Don't be afraid to use multiple techniques to achieve your desired results - let me give you an example.

When I first started "Stacking" night images I could see it was a vast improvement over single images. I also knew that shooting panoramas gave me increased quality over single images... I started stacking night photography panoramas to see if that would work and it did. I would shoot 9 images in each camera position. When I got home I would stack each camera position on it's own and then take each of the stacked photos and stitch them into the panorama. Now, even though the stacked panos worked well they weren't perfect and I'd need to use another form of noise reduction to finish up the image.

It's ok to use all the techniques/tools you need to get the results you want.

It's your art, do what you want with it.

I hope you all have a great day!


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