Friday, February 5, 2016

Breitling Sabre Ad - From Start To Finish

 Commercial photography and ad creation are particularly appealing to me. It is the ideal situation for turning one's imagination loose in the creation of the various puzzle pieces that comprise the final image. Most of the time, my part in an an ad begins and ends with the images, usually of a person or persons, but sometimes my portion of the process includes backgrounds. Seldom do I ever become involved with text, graphics, logos, or the composition of the final ad.

But just because I am not paid to be involved in the creation of the final copy for an ad doesn't mean that I can't do so for my own amusement. So, I recently took a page from Breitling's ad campaigns that feature cool aircraft, expensive watches, and outdoor scenes and put together my own version of a Breitling ad that included all of the bells and whistles.

Above is the ad I created. I started out by searching for a place where I could photograph the coolest of the cool in aircraft. After some searching, I was invited to shoot the aircraft housed at the Valiant Air Command in Titusville, Florida and after arriving I decided to shoot a classic North American F-85 Sabre. The folks at the facility gave me free rein to set up  lights and shoot, and using several Nikon SB-800 strobes placed out of my sight line and triggered remotely, I was able to light up the Sabre the way I wanted.

Using the quick selection tool in Photoshop and the refine edge feature, I was able to cut the Sabre out from the background, saving it for later insertion into a different background.
I then turned my attention to finding that perfect background. I tried several different scenes but I ultimately opted for the simplicity of a silhouetted mountain scene at sunset. I thought the colors would work well with some tweaking and the sun peeking through a break in the clouds would allow me to add shafts of light shining down on the Sabre.  The way the image faded to almost black along the bottom was also conducive to expanding the canvas with black where the ad's text would ultimately reside.

Next up was my pilot. I wanted a Top Gun kind of look and posed a model as shown with a wrist exposed. That is where I would later Photoshop in the Breitling watch that was going to be featured in the ad. I also wanted the pilot image to have a moody look to it and I gave it my best shot through lighting. The key light (left part of the face) was metered at f11 while the fill light (right) was metered at f4 to create a dramatic shadow on the left side of the pilot's face. I used a snoot on both lights to limit the light spill off which created a nice light drop-off/shadow as you go from the face to the body. Once again, using the quick selection tool in Photoshop and using the refine edge feature, I cut out the pilot from the image and saved it for later insertion into the background.

With some of my puzzle pieces falling into place it was time to drop the Sabre into the background. Through various layers, I adjusted the shadows below the fuselage to blend the Sabre into the background with the hopes of making it look less like a cutout that was dropped into the background and more like a Sabre actually photographed on site. 

Some additional refinements of the shadows below the fuselage blended the Sabre into the scene even better and allowed me to begin the process of working in some shafts of light shining down on the Sabre. At first, I through I would have light shafts coming from both sides of the Sabre but in the end decided on having them coming just from where the sun peeks out through the clouds. The light shafts were created in separate layers with the Dodge tool in Photoshop and then positioned as I saw fit. In the image above, I had not re-positioned the light shafts on the right side of the image.

It was time to add the third puzzle piece, the pilot. With the Sabre on the right side of the image, the only logical place to insert him was on the left. When I did that, I had a nagging feeling that it just didn't look right knowing that I still had other puzzle pieces to add in the form of text, the Breitling logo, and an image of the watch to name a few things. So as an experiment, I flipped the image horizontally.

For some reason, this orientation just looked better to me notwithstanding the lettering that was now reversed. That wasn't a big deal as I had planned on removing the "U.S. Air Force Skyblazers" and replace it with Breitling lettering and a logo.

First, the "U.S. Air Force Skyblazers" lettering was removed, as was the pilot's name that appeared just below the jet's canopy ....

The Breitling logo was added as well as the "Breitling" text, all of which had to manipulated with the Transform feature in the Photoshop Edit drop down menu in terms of perspective so it would appear natural on the side of the Sabre. The pilot's name was copied, reversed, manipulated for perspective, and pasted just below the canopy. I forgot to do this to the rudder numbers at this point but eventually did so. I also added Breitling's "1884" text below the Breitling text before finalizing the image.

I moved the light shafts into place as if they were coming from the sun, warmed the color a bit, and softened/blurred them. I then enlarged the canvas below the image with a black addition and blended it in to the image. As an afterthought, I removed the Top Gun patch from the pilot's flight suit. Later on, I added the Breitling yellow logo as a patch on his left arm.

Now it was time to add more puzzle pieces, i.e. the watch, the Breitling logo, and the ad's text. I had to add the watch not only at the bottom of the image but also on the pilot's wrist. Doing so required cutting out the watch image from its background, flipping it upside down, and manipulating the perspective so it would look right on the pilot's left wrist

Merging everything into place, moving things around, and playing with the size of the various puzzle pieces gave way to the final image.

My version of what a Breitling ad would look like. Now if only Breitling would hire me to actually shoot one of their ads....

Friday, January 22, 2016

Introduction to Astrophotography - Part V

My AstroTech 12" Richey-Chretien telescope with 

If you've made it this far, you've survived Parts I through IV of my series on astrophotography. There are so many more topics to cover but I hope that with what I've covered you've been able to get a handle on what's involved when you start down the path of shooting celestial objects.

We're about to get serious. So far I've tried to keep the equipment involved to what most would consider reasonable, especially if astrophotography is not going to be something you do regularly. But for those of you who may want to take it to the next level, this is where we will now be going. In this segment, we'll take a look at telescopes and mounts.

Learning To Run
My friend's Takahashi TOA 130 APO Refractor on an AstroPhysics mount inside his roll-off roof observatory. The TOA 130 is considered one of the finest imaging scopes available and provides a 1000mm focal length at f7.7. AstroPhysics is considered the Mercedes Benz of astronomical equipment and its mounts are highly regarded.
My Takahashi TSA 102 4-inch refractor on a Celestron CGEM mount
Adding more sophisticated equipment such as a bigger telescope and mount will yield larger and/or  more detailed images of your targets. For comparison, here are images of the nebulae in Orion taken through a 4” Takahashi refractor with its 800mm+ focal length at f8 (slightly shorter and faster with the flattener) on a Celestron CGEM mount. The equipment investment is now in the $5,000 range (new), $3,500 used, not counting the camera and accessories. Compare these  to images of the same target that I posted in Part III and you can see how much tighter the images are with much more detail.

Orion's nebulae with shorter focal lengths
Horsehead and Flame Nebulae in Orion with Takahashi TSA 102
Running Man and Great Orion Nebulae with Takahashi TSA 102
Now let's really push the envelope. For comparison, below are examples of the the nebulae posted above but through my 12” AstroTech Ritchey-Chretien truss tube telescope, a Takahashi EM-400 mount, and a QSI 683 mono CCD camera with a full compliment of filters.
Horsehead and Flame Nebulae
Great Orion Nebula
Flame Nebula in Orion with Narrowband filters
The telescope has a 2,432mm focal length at f8, a bit shorter and faster with the flattener, and 12-inch light gathering capability. The monochromatic CCD camera has a full frame 8.3MP sensor and a built in cooling mechanism that will cool the sensor down to -40 degrees Celsius to minimize noise. An integrated 8-position filter wheel allows me to decide whether to shoot with standard color filters (L, R, G, & B) or add narrowband filters (H-Alpha, Sulfur II, and Oxygen III) to bring out colors in a very narrow band of light that can be used to create what is commonly referred to as a Hubble palette.   

Takahashi EM-400 mount
Finally, while AstroPhysics may be the Mercedes Benz of astronomy gear, Takahashi equipment is its Japanese counterpart much like what Lexus is to Mercedes. The Takahashi EM-400 mount is a favorite of many astro imagers, tracking and slewing like a well oiled machine. All in all, I've been very pleased with the combination of the AstroTech Ritchey and the Tak EM-400 mount. Here are more examples of what the rig can do.

Cone, Christmas Tree, and Fox Fur Nebulae 
Eagle Nebula (with narrowband filters) 
Sombrero Galaxy, an example of an edge on galaxy orientation
Western Veil Nebula, aka the Witch's Broom 
Pinwheel Galaxy, an example of a full front galaxy orientation
Part VI - Cameras
Next up is a discussion on astrophotography cameras where I'll walk you through the world of CCD cameras, including CCD one shot color models, monochromatic versions, and filters. 

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Introduction to Astrophotography - Part IV

Final image, Great Orion Nebula (R) with Running Man Nebula (L)
If you've been following the previous three posts in this series on astrophotography (Part I, Part II, and Part III), you're appetite for astrophotography has been whetted and you're itching to get out there and start creating some images of your own. In the first three parts of this series, I've touched on some astrophotography basics but haven't talked much about things you can do to help your images look their very best while you're shooting. Before continuing with actual image acquisition beyond what I've covered so far in Parts I, II, and III, this is a good time to digress for a moment and discuss some things that will minimize noise, increase contrast, eliminate vignetting, and otherwise make it possible for you to create the best possible final image.

Anything you can do with your camera before importing an image into Photoshop serves as the foundation for any image. But it's especially critical in astrophotography because with astrophotography you will be dealing with very dimly lit subjects that will push your imaging equipment to its limits (and beyond). That is why you must do anything and everything you can to maximize the signal to noise ratio in your images.

Signal to noise ratio is not a concern for me when I'm shooting portraits, daytime landscapes, or even sporting events under the lights/indoors. Today's professional digital cameras and the technology they incorporate can adequately deal with varied lighting conditions and minimize noise to an acceptable level. For the most part, signal overpowers noise making the images look "grainless" or at least not so grainy that the grain is objectionable. Even when I'm shooting an indoor basketball game at ISO 6400, as long as I make sure to use a correct exposure setting, the image will be relatively clean from a noise perspective.

Unfortunately, astrophotographic images are almost always underexposed. Underexposed images are a nightmare to correct in post processing as any efforts made to correct exposure will reveal a lot of undesirable, objectionable noise. The solution? When you're shooting a celestial target, take as many images as you reasonably can and also include a set of flats, darks, and bias frames. Import all of these images into "stacking" software, generate a "stacked" image, and then complete the image processing in Photoshop.

Before getting into the nitty gritty, I will assume that you will be shooting your images in RAW as opposed to a JPEG format. Never, ever shoot in JPEG. Doing so will drastically limit your ability to post process images. Now, let's start with a discussion on shooting flats, darks, bias frames, and why they're important.


A "flat" frame

“Flats” are images taken to eliminate as much dirt, dust, reflections, and other undesirable things in astro images. "Flats" are also used by the stacking software to correct any difference in brightness in the main image. They are created by covering the end of the lens with a white T-shirt and shining a flashlight on it, or taking an image of an evenly lit flat surface such as a computer monitor, a light box, or the sky at twilight."Flats" must be taken with the same ISO, f stop, and shutter speed as the astro image you intend to shoot. Ten to twelve "flats" usually suffice.

“Darks” are images taken after covering the end of the lens or telescope with the lens cap. Darks correct the dark signal flaws in image sensors, which is essentially a form of noise reduction. Ten to twelve "darks' will do with half taken at the beginning of the image session and the other half at the end with the same f stop, ISO, and shutter speed as the main image.

As an aside, you may not know it but DSLR's can internally create "darks" when you use the camera's high-ISO or Long Exposure noise reduction features.  These settings do essentially what you are doing when shooting "darks" manually - the camera takes a "dark" frame immediately after taking the main image and subtracts it (the noise generated) from the main image for you. If you are shooting with a DSLR, you have the option of using the camera's long exposure noise reduction or high ISO noise reduction features if you would rather let your camera take the place of shooting darks. When I'm shooting with my CCD cameras (a whole different animal than a DSLR, to be discussed in a later post), I don't have the option of in camera noise reduction features so shooting darks are a part of my imaging process.

But even when I use a DSLR, I've always resisted the temptation to use in camera noise reduction as I believe that manually taking my "darks" will always give me more flexibility and generate better results than any image processing performed internally in my DSLR's. As an analogy, I don't program my camera bodies to sharpen my images in camera as I can do a much better job of sharpening post-process. I would rather create the image and have the flexibility to decide how much or how little I want to sharpen the image, but that's impossible if I set the camera to sharpen the image for me. The same goes for noise reduction,

“Bias” frames are images taken with the fastest possible shutter speed the camera can shoot and the lens cap on. They contain only the noise generated by the camera’s electronics on the sensor which is subtracted from the data in the darks to identify the true sensor noise. Ten or so bias frames will suffice. 

These extra images are time consuming but they will allow you to create the best possible final image. All of these images are used in the pre-Photoshop processing of images in software commonly known as "stacking". "Stacking" images in software specifically created for this purpose is an essential step in the image creation process.  Images are "stacked" in the software, generating an image that will then be opened in Photoshop as the final step in the image creation process.


One image of the Great Orion Nebula without any stacking.
When you shoot multiple images of the same scene, a camera basically takes a number of samples of the scene. The more samples you record of the scene, the more uniform it can ultimately become when software uses the best portion(s) of each image to create an image that uses the best of the best from each image - exposure, noise, detail, contrast, etc.

Several images stacked of the Great Orion Nebula. Detail, exposure and color saturation are improving.
This is similar to the concept of HDR images where you shoot various frames of the same scene with a range of exposure differences.  HDR software then takes the best exposure for any given part of the scene from each image and merges all of this information into one image that improves on the overall exposure by having both shadows and highlights exposed correctly.

All images of the target are now stacked. Detail, saturation and exposure are much better with room for improvement. Noise will be eliminated once darks, flats and bias frames are introduced into the mix and the overall exposure will be improved as well. Afterwards, the image will be ready for importing into Photoshop.
Like HDR software, stacking software takes information from all the images, averages the brightness, darkness, noise, etc. and from every image it grabs detail and contrast from all this additional information and adds it to the final product. But that's not all. Stacking software allows you to remove any images that you may not want to include, such as images where an aircraft travels across the night sky, or images that include cloud cover that passed through the area you were imaging. It then performs another critical step, aligning all the images so they are superimposed precisely one on top of the other.

Darks, flats, bias frames have been stacked with the other images. Image was then finalized in Photoshop.
After image alignment, stacking software uses the flats, darks, and bias frames that were taken. It uses the flats to eliminate any brightness variances and uses the darks and bias frames to subtract noise.

Deep Sky Stacker and RegiStax are two free stacking programs you can download and use. Deep Sky Stacker would be my pick from the two but experiment with each and make your own decision. If you don't mind the $99 cost, Nebulosity (v. 4) is a great choice and is the stacking software I prefer to use.

That wraps up the discussion on pre-Photoshop image enhancement techniques. In Part V we'll get into more sophisticated imaging with telescopes and CCD cameras.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Introduction to Astrophotography - Part III

My astrophotography home in Chiefland, Florida, a 10 foot dome (center) that houses my equipment. Left is a roll off roof observatory belonging to a friend, right is a pod dome belonging to another friend.
This is Part III of a multi-part series of posts on astrophotography. In Part I, I discussed astro images that can be taken with basic photography gear. In Part II, I took it up a notch and delved into imaging solar system targets like the moon and planets. In Part III, I'm going to take you into the world of imaging through telescopes without breaking the bank.


Two types of mounts - (L) Altitude-Azimuth mount; ® German Equatorial Mount.

Celestron Advanced VX mount - $799 new, less if you buy used.
For deep sky targets such as nebulae and galaxies a motorized mount is a must. There are two types, Altitude-Azimuth mounts (Alt-Az) and German Equatorial mounts (GEM). GEMs are the best choice for astrophotography. Once the mount is polar aligned, lengthy exposures can be taken without any target movement. Expect to pay $500 to $1500 for a quality GEM that can handle a DSLR with long lenses and/or many telescopes. To ensure smooth operation while imaging, when selecting a mount, make sure that you review the mount's specifications. The mount’s rated weight capacity must be twice the weight of the equipment you intend to use so purchase wisely.

 All of the mounts in the $500-$1500 price range are motorized and come with a "Go To" feature. "Go To" mounts allow you to select a target from a menu on the hand controller, push enter, and the mount will automatically slew the telescope to the selected target.

Screenshot of Stellarium software after a search for "Great Nebula in Orion"
Alternatively, the mounts can be hard wired to a computer and controlled the same way through planetarium or imaging software. You simply open the software, type in the name of a target (e.g., Great Nebula in Orion) and the software finds the target in the night sky. If it's visible on that particular evening, it appears on the computer screen.

Stellarium screen shot showing what you get when using the "ocular view" feature for a target. In this case, the target is the Great Nebula in Orion.
There are several planetarium programs on the market, some free and some that you must buy. My favorite among the free programs is Stellarium which has a lot of features that make it a program I keep open on my desktop even though I don't use it to control my telescope mounts. One of the features I really like is the ability to see what a target will look like in an image depending on the telescope being used. Stellarium has a built-in cache of images depicting most celestial targets and by accessing them through the "ocular view" feature you can get a preview of whatever target you have chosen. If you like what you see, you can then proceed to the imaging phase of your evening. If not, you simply move on to another target. This makes finding image targets a relatively simple process even if your astronomical knowledge is limited.

If Stellarium isn't your cup of tea, Cartes du Ciel is another free planetarium program you can try. You can also go to for a list of many other free astronomy programs available for download.

Learning To Walk

Sky-Watcher Pro ED80, a good, starter 80mm refractor suitable for astrophotography. 600mm focal length @ f7.5. Expect to pay approximately $600 new, less for a used one.
Deciding how to shoot deep sky targets will determine equipment selection that will in turn dictate the size, quality and detail of the targets being imaged. Wide field images can be captured with a DSLR, a modestly priced 80mm (3-inch) refractor telescope, and a Celestron Advanced VX GEM mount (30 pound load capacity). Not counting the camera, your investment would run approximately $1,500 to $2,500 by the time you add desirable accessories such as flattener, a dew heater, a T-mount, and an auto guider.

Wide field image of the nebulae in the constellation Orion. Orion’s Belt is the diagonal line formed by the three blue stars on the left, ending with the blue star in the center nebula.
Above is an example of what is possible with a similar setup, including the accessories. I shot a total of 160 images at various shutter speeds ranging from 10 sec to 45 sec at ISO 1600, and 10 images with 1-3 minute exposures to layer in a sky saturated with stars at the end of the Photoshop process. Before wrapping up, I shot ten “flats” at each shutter speed, twelve “darks” (half before starting the imaging process of Orion's nebulae and the other half at the end of the imaging session) at each shutter speed, and ten “bias” frames for the pre-Photoshop processing in software that “stacks” the images together.

Say What???? Flats, Darks, Bias Frames and Stacking???

“Flats” are images taken to minimize or eliminate dirt, dust, reflections, and other undesirable things in astro images. They can be created by covering the end of the lens with a white T-shirt and shining a flashlight on it or taking an image of an evenly lit surface such as a white computer monitor, any other flat screen light source, or the sky at twilight. They’re used by the "stacking" software to correct any difference in brightness in the main images. 

“Darks” are images taken by covering the end of the lens with the lens cap. Half of the darks are taken at the beginning and the other half at the end. Darks correct the dark signal flaws in image sensors. 

“Bias” frames are images taken with the fastest possible shutter speed the camera can shoot and the lens cap on. They contain only the noise generated by the camera’s electronics on the sensor and is subtracted from the data in the darks to identify the true sensor noise. These extra images are time consuming but they will allow you to create the best possible final image.

All of these images are used in the pre-Photoshop processing of images in software that is commonly known as "stacking" software. Darks, flats, and bias frames will be covered in the next post (Part IV) of this series; stacking will be the topic in Part V.