Visualize This! (Part Three of Three)

In Part One, we talked about previsualizing this photo of the International Space Station. In Part Two, we executed that previsualization by making our exposures in the field. In this installment, we’ll discuss the post processing techniques used in Photoshop to put it all together.

International Space Station over waterfall

The International Space Station flies over a waterfall during the full moon

Wouldn’t it be great if all we had to do was make our photos and we never had to do any post processing? I don’t know about you, but planning and executing images is the fun part, sitting in front of computer not so much. Unfortunately, EVERY image we shoot needs a certain amount of post processing before it looks its best. With photos like the one we’re discussing here, post processing is more than just something performed to optimize the image; it’s as much a part of the process as is making the exposures in the field.

It would take a lot more than a blog post to detail fully the process I used for this image, so I’m just going to give you a general outline. We’ll be digging deeper with all of these steps in future posts.

In my download folder were 18 frames that captured the International Space Station, one frame exposed for the water, and one frame exposed for the moon. (Actually, there were a lot more frames than this because I bracketed the moon and water shots.)

International Space Station in sky with full moon and waterfall

Photo 5

The first task was to assemble the 18 ISS frames. With the photos selected in Bridge CS5 (I don’t use Lightroom yet), I chose Tools>Photoshop>Load Files into Photoshop Layers. (By the way, now would be a good time to make it perfectly clear that I AM NOT a PS expert. I muddle through as best as can and fully realize that there are probably better ways to do what I do. So all you PS gurus out there, don’t give me a hard time if I come through the back door; instead, how about letting me know how to open the front door.) Once PS had loaded all the layers, I changed the Blend mode for each one to Lighten and the ISS streak magically appeared in the sky. (Photo 5)

The problem with Photo 5 is the stars. I wanted pinpoint stars, not streaks. So I flattened the 18 layers into a single layer and then brushed out everything in the scene except the ISS streak. (Photo 6) I greatly magnified the image while brushing close to the streak to make sure it was selected properly. I’m sure there is a way to do this by selecting just the streak and removing it from the background, but this technique works well for me and assures that I get the entire light streak.

Next l loaded the exposure for the moon and the one for the sky as layers in PS. With the layer for the moon on top, I created a layer mask and brushed out the bottom portion of the photo, revealing the frame for the water under it. This is always a delicate affair when you have trees projecting into the sky. When you have a hazy moon resting on the transition between the two frames, it’s quite tricky. The key is to change the brush size, hardness, and opacity constantly as you brush out the transition. Every photo is different, so there are no rules. You just have to play with it until you get the hang of it. It helps to have your History state in Preferences (under Performance) set to a high number so you can go far back and start all over again if you need to. Mine is set to 75.

International Space Station isolated from sky

Photo 6

With the brushing finished, I flattened the file and then opened the processed ISS photo (Photo 5). I selected the Move tool and with the Shift key held down, moved the moon/water photo onto the ISS streak photo. (Holding down the Shift key during the move causes the photos to snap-align perfectly.) Next, I changed the Blend mode of the top layer to Lighten and the ISS streak magically appeared. Pretty neat!

Next, I flattened the layers. At this point you might think the post processing would be complete, but that is far from the case. Everything I had done to this point was only to assemble all the components into a final image. Now that I had this image, I still had to perform the usual adjustments that you might do to any image. In this case, I applied a fairly aggressive curves adjustment to lighten up the sky and make the stars pop and a slight saturation adjustment. On the Curves adjustment, I created a layer mask and brushed out some of the adjustment that was applied around the moon because the Curves made it much too bright.

I realize that many of you are shaking your head and thinking I must be nuts for going through all of this just to make a photo. Well, first, I AM nuts, but that’s beside the point. I like CREATING images, not TAKING them. Anyone can go out and take a photo. The problem with that is, anyone can go out and take a photo. If you want your images to be unique and stand out from the masses, you need to CREATE them instead. I could have easily taken a shot of the waterfall or a shot of the moon or a shot of the International Space Station. And I’d have three ugly photos that did nothing to represent the scene I saw when I was there. The only way I could show you what I saw, what I experienced, was to previsualize the scene and CREATE the image.

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