Star Tales: Putting it all Together - Jack Fusco Photography

Capturing images like this in even the best of conditions can require a lot of planning and work. I spend a fair amount of time traveling and also visiting coffee shops. That means I'm often editing while on the road or just simply near, but not home. It's certainly not traditional to do serious editing on the road, but if I only worked on my photos while I home, I'd never get anything done or any photos delivered on time. So, I wanted to take everyone on a bit of journey through that process from arriving on location to the actual edit on my Dell XPS 15 2-in-1. After almost a year of traveling with it, I thought an in depth look at my workflow and the part it plays would be interesting to share. 

Although I had been planning my shot for a few weeks, forecasts for cloudy skies and 50-60 mph wind gust advisories made this trip to the high desert a little bit uncertain. To make things even more difficult, I had a short window before the Moon would be rising, too. In most cases, a solid argument could've been made for staying home.

I decided to chance it. 

Planning and Arriving

Almost the entire drive out to the high desert was windy and completely clouded in. It was definitely one of those moments where you kind of question your decision making. Still, I just had a feeling that it would be clear. The area I was heading to is clear so often when they call for clouds that I was banking on that being the case again. The wind, however, was a different story. Not far from the location, homes often have the type roofing installed that is graded to deal with hurricanes. I've had my fair share of nights ruined by wind, too, but I felt like I could find a way to make it work. So, regardless, we pushed on.

The idea of the trip was to take multiple tracked long exposures of the sky and a silhouetted foreground with someone standing in the shot. All sequentially and without moving the tripod. This type of image is a bit more complex than a single exposure, but requires the same amount of planning, if not more. It's not uncommon for these types of images to be created with exposures taken in different locations or different times of the night/month/year. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, but I love the challenge of getting it all to line up at once. 

To my luck, upon arriving the skies were totally clear! The wind was almost non-existent, but did pick up here and there. I wasn't overly concerned, but starting thinking of backup plans just in case. This short video shows my gear set up in the field.

In the video, I have my camera set to capture the stars using the following gear:

Sony A7RII 

Sigma 105mm f1.4 ART (I later switched to the Sigma 40mm f1.4 ART)

Fornax Lighttrack II

The Fornax Lighttrack is the device I used to keep my camera pointed at the same spot in the sky as the Earth rotates. This lets my camera exposure for even longer amounts of time and pick up an amazing amount of detail in the night sky. By doing this multiple times and then stacking them while editing, you can produce an incredibly clean and detailed image.  That was the goal for the night. Create a highly detailed image of the night sky that I would edit while on the go. As I noted, I originally picked the Sigma 105mm f1.4 ART lens, but switched to the Sigma 40mm f1.4 ART lens after the winds were picking up. They're both newer lenses I've been using and I knew their sharpness would help make that final image look crisp edge to edge.

Last Minute Changes + Behind the Scenes Timelapse

After it was finally dark enough and we were all set to go, the wind picked up. It wasn't the 60 mph gusts they had warned about, but it did make me worry about those 2 minute exposures I had planned on. So, at the very last second, I moved my entire set up and changed lenses to take a slightly different image.

Now instead of using the longer focal length, I was shooting using the Sigma 40mm f1.4 ART lens. My new plan was to fill the frame with the core of the Milky Way as it was rising in the East/South East direction.

I had set up my second camera in the general direction that my camera was set up in and the shot was being taken. You can see my moving my camera around after deciding to change the shot and the rocks being climbed to get in to place for the image.  Right about 13 seconds in to the timelapse, you can see the exact moment the sequence for the other image started with the silhouette on the rock!

Putting it All Together + Full Edit

Now that I had all my images, it was time to get them on to my Dell XPS 15 2-in-1 for editing. While this edit wouldn't been very intense as far as masking goes, I was planning on working with about 20 large files  or so at a single time. Each of those uncompressed RAW files are around 80 megabytes. In the past, this isn't something I would normally do on my laptop. But, I've been using my 2-in-1 for a while now and felt pretty good about it's ability to handle it. For reference, here are the tech specs of my machine.

- 15.6 UltraSharp 4K Ultra HD (3840x2160) InfinityEdge touch display

- 8th Generation Intel® Core™ i7-8705G Processor (8M Cache, up to 4.1 GHz, 4 cores)

- 16GB DDR4 RAM - 1TB M.2 2280 PCIe Solid State Drive

- Radeon™ RX Vega M GL Graphics with 4GB HMB2 Graphics Memory

As you'll see during my edit, that's a pretty solid and very capable build.

It's worth mention that I completely forgot my charger at home. While traveling for an extended amount of time this obviously would've been an issue. But even for an extended remote edit session, I wasn't anticipating any sort of problem.

So, I made my way to one of my favorite local coffee roasters, Mostra Coffee, ordered a pourover and got to work.

In the end, I didn't take very many shots that I wouldn't be using. I stuck with 30 second exposures because it felt like that was my best chance to keeping the images sharp. I ended up having delete 2 of the photos due to just a little bit of shaking, but that's not bad at all. 

Here's what my import looked like on Lightroom after getting it all sorted out. 

I starred the images that I planned on using for the stacked sky portion of the shot with a two star rating and then gave a single star to the foreground silhouette that I would use. 

On the right, you can see that although the stars are sharp, the foreground isn't. This is a result of using the star tracker. There's way more detail in the core of the Milky Way, but we need use one of those foreground images from above to replace the blurry portion of the image. This method of shooting is definitely a little more post processing intensive, but it can lead to really impressive results when done correctly. Add the fact that I planned on stacking multiple exposures and you're really starting to add extra steps. That's exactly why I was excited to record my edit process and share it with you.

All while sitting in a coffee shop, the video below shows my process from inspecting the images in Lightroom, exporting to work on them in Photoshop, masking by using the touchscreen & Active Pen, all the way through the small adjustments and final blend of the foreground and sky. Masking by using the Active Pen has become one of my favorite parts of working on an image. Even if I'm not flipping in to Tablet mode, just using it for a more precise mask the first time through has been a serious game changer when it comes to my edits. Whether it's single exposures or a more complex edit like this, there's almost always a decent amount of masking work that will need to be done. Being able to isolate the sky in your adjustment layers helps ensure everything looks as exact and precise as possible in the final image. It's something I find myself doing whether I'm traveling or at home. 

So, watch this sped up, start to finish edit of my image:  

Going Over the Steps

In the video, I started in Lightroom and then brought all of my images of the sky in to Photoshop in to a single document. I then masked the foreground out, aligned the images and converted them in to a Smart Object. After the images have been converted, you can then change the properties of the Smart Object to stack in median mode which will reduce the noise in your image.

From here, I went back to Lightroom and brought in my additional image shot for the foreground. Even though it will sit above the sky images and wont impact the edit, I like to work with the foreground in place. 

Once the foreground is in place, I then start adding adjustment layers to bring out detail and adjust colors in the sky. It's a bit of a dance that flows back and forth. I find that having a mental idea of what you want your final image to look like will help make sure you don't end up in an endless loop of editing your photo and never finishing. 

As a standard practice, I try to save my image and then return to it with fresh eyes a bit later on to make any last adjustments. After the video ended, I made a few more small edits and worked on cleaning up the foreground a bit. 

The Final Image 

One incorrect weather forecast, 10 minutes worth of exposure time, a few cups of coffee later and here it is. 

Final Thoughts

The reason I feel comfortable editing something like this in a coffee shop is that I wouldn't have done the edit any differently at home. I'd be at my desk and working with a larger monitor, but that's it. I didn't adjust my workflow or use less images when it came to stacking to make the edit less intense. 

That's a huge part of why I wanted to structure this the way I did.  There's a ton of work that starts well before and extends to well beyond when a photo is actually taken. When a huge aspect of pulling an image off (weather & weather forecasts) can't be relied on, I do my best to be ready for every other variable. Even with this trip, I had to make a change last minute and switch to a different lens, exposure time, and composition. I hope getting to see some of that process is something you enjoyed and might even inspire you to dive in yourself. It can be a bit overwhelming, but step by step you can sort it all out and hopefully have a good time along the way.        

If you're interested in reading a post a bit more dedicated to the laptop I was using, you can check out my gear review here

I hope this post was fun, informative and gave some insight in to everything that goes on before you get to see an image shared online.

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