Monday, October 27, 2014

Say Hello To My Leetle Friend…My Astro-Tech 12" Truss Ritchey-Chretien Astrograph

My new 12" Astro-Tech 12" Ritchey-Chretien Astrograph with a Starlight Industries 3" focuser ready for collimation
Summer is gone and Fall has finally arrived in Florida. I've been chomping at the bit to get to Chiefland, Florida since May where I am fortunate enough to have a dome observatory to continue my astrophotography efforts. In June, I acquired a new telescope (actually an astrograph, i.e. a telescope that is specifically designed for astrophotography as opposed to observing) along with a slew of accessories to use this puppy but the heat and humidity had been a huge deterrent to making the two hour trip south to Chiefland to get my new baby into its home. This month's new moon weekend was just what I was waiting for - clear, cool nights. So, I  loaded up the car with the scope, the new/used Takahashi EM400 mount, the kitchen sink, and headed for Chiefland on Friday morning to get the new stuff installed.

Loaded up and headed for the observatory
Takahashi EM400 mount
Before I delve into the new telescope, I can't help making note of the Takahashi mount that I picked up to replace the Celestron CGEM mount I had been using. The EM-400 is a thing of beauty, the epitome of simplicity in a rock solid piece of hardware that purrs like a kitten as it slews and tracks. It's designed to accept up to 78 pounds of payload as compared to the Celestron that was only rated to 40 pounds. The Astro-Tech scope weighs in at 52 pounds so the Celestron mount was no longer an option. It was a great mount when used with my Takahashi TSA 102 4" refractor telescope but it wouldn't handle the 70 or so pounds of stuff I was going to use with the new setup - I'm planning on eventually mounting the Takahashi on top of the Astro-Tech (weighing in at 11 pounds) so that will take me to 63 pounds. A couple  of pounds for my SBIG ST8300 CCD camera, 4 pounds for the Orion Short Tube 80mm guide scope, a  pound for the auto guider camera, etc. and the EM-400 was just the ticket to get everything running.

Cutting 24 inches off the the 6" square steel pier so that the much bigger telescope would fit inside he dome
Once I arrived in Chiefland, we unloaded the Takahashi mount and did a quick installation on the steel pier inside my dome. We then unloaded the Ritchey and mounted it to see if there was going to be a clearance issue with the top of the dome - there was. The scope extended above the done by a good 12 inches. Not good. A few telephone calls later, I found a local welder with a mobile setup who was available to come to the property and remedy the problem.

The shortened pier with the mount installed
The solution was to cut 24 inches from the steel pier to shorten it, unweld the mounting plate from the top of the pier, and re-weld it on the shortened pier. Three hours later, the job was finished and the mount was reattached to the pier.

John, the Astro-Tech rep (left)  just happened to be spending the new moon weekend with us in Chiefland. Nothing like having the company rep to help me collimate the scope with a laser so the mirrors would be dead on in alignment
Back to the telescope installation - collimating the Ritchey before installing it. Not only am I lucky enough to have an observatory in one of the darkest places around, it sits on a friend's property right beside his roll off roof observatory. Also on the property is another friend's dome pod. So, when I go to Chiefland, I have two experienced, talented astrophotographers who are only too happy to help me walk through the astrophotography minefield. Bill and Tony have been engaged in astrophotography for years and both were on the property this weekend waiting for me to haul the new telescope down and help with installation. On top of that, since Bill's property is located within the Chiefland Astronomy Village, there are a host of accomplished astrophotographers within a rock's throw. Most of them stopped by during the day and assisted as we worked on the installation. The icing on the cake was that the rep for the telescope company that manufactured my new scope was visiting Bill and he had set up his gear in the middle of our observatory triangle. Nothing like having the manufacturer's rep on hand to make sure everything we were doing was perfect.  

After collimating the scope on the porch of Bill's roll off roof observatory it was time to carry the scope to its home in my dome (pictured in the background just to my right). Bill (left) guides us down the stairs as Tony (center) and I carry the scope to its new home
Weighing in at 52 pounds and some 3 feet in length, having some help moving the scope was a blessing. Bill (left) was the brains of the operation, Tony and I were the muscle 
Almost in the dome. Bill (right) kept the scope from bangong into the handrails
Maneuvering the scope onto the mount
The 12" Ritchey Chretien is going to take my astrophotography to a new level since it is specifically designed for just that purpose. In 1910, American optician and astronomer George Willis Ritchey and French astronomer Henri Chretien designed a specialized Cassegrain telescope that would later become the telescope of choice for many astrophotography observatories and professionals around the world. The Ritchey Chretien astrograph has many benefits that make this design appealing to anyone who is serious about imaging:
  1. Virtually no coma (coma makes stars look like little comets around the edges of the field), which means there will be greater image quality across a wider field of view;
  2. No chromatic aberrations, or false color; and
  3. No spherical aberration from the optical system.
The Astro-Tech 12" Ritchey has a 2432mm focal length with an aperture of f8. I installed a reducer that lessens the focal length a bit but the tradeoff is a faster aperture - f6 - and with a faster lens I'll have shorter exposure times. The focal length will allow me to get up close and personal with galaxies and other small, distant targets.

For wide field nebulas and planets, the Takahashi 4" refractor will still get lots of use and will be the perfect compliment to the Ritchey. The Takahashi has an 810mm focal length at f8, and with its reducer it's 610mm at f6.  It remains one of the best general purpose telescopes for planetary high-resolution observation as well as deep sky, wide field imaging. 

Installing the sock over the carbon trusses to minimize dust on the mirrors
By dark, I had the bulk of the installation finished. I still had the finderscope, auto guider, and camera left to install, not to mention running all the cables from/to the mount, scopes and computer plus getting the computer talking to all the devices. I also had to polar align the mount once Polaris rose in the night sky. All that was left for after dinner.

CCD camera, guidescope, auto guider, cables and power supplies all installed and ready for testing 
After dinner, I balanced the scope with the counter weights, mounted the guidescope, installed the auto guider camera, got the guidescope camera talking to the computer and the mount, and installed the CCD camera on the Ritchey's focuser. Tony has an EM-400 mount and came over from his pod to help me polar align the mount. I was blown away by how easy Takahashi makes this process. So far so good.

Unfortunately, after getting all the power supplies installed, cables plugged in, and otherwise being ready for an imaging test run, I ran into a snag. The old XP Hewlett Packard desktop that I'd been using for astrophotography went into USB hell. Monitors started losing signal and other USB devices were being intermittently recognized. The result was that neither the computer nor the software would recognize the existence of the CCD camera. "No connection" was the message I would get time and time again. After painstakingly trying to diagnose the problem, I tried plugging the camera into a friend's Windows 7 laptop and the camera worked fine. After several additional but futile efforts to reboot, reinstall drivers, etc. on my desktop, I gave up. Obviously the old XP computer had reached the end of its life and it was time to put it out to pasture.

Other than the computer glitch that prevented the old desktop from recognizing the CCD camera, I'm very close to being able to image with the new setup. My next visit to Chiefland will be in November for the new moon at which time I'll install the Takahashi refractor on top of the Ritchey. I have already tested the CCD camera on a Windows 8 laptop I had at hove and it worked as it always has. I'll be taking the laptop down with me to replace the desktop as my astrophotography computer. Come November, with 2 scopes polar aligned and ready for imaging, I hope to capture more of the heavens above.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

So You Want To Create A Composite Image In Photoshop...

An example of a recent composite I created by "cutting out" the model and layering her into a different background
A few years ago, I saw some of Joel Grimes' work for the first time. I was blown away. The final images he created by taking one image, cutting a portion out, layering it into a different background, and then adding his unique processing techniques, made my jaw drop. The more of his work that I saw the more I knew that I had to learn how to create composite images. I reconciled myself to the fact that I wasn't going to create anything remotely approaching the level that he had reached, but I had to start from scratch and gradually improve with practice.

Trying my hand at turning a mundane automobile image into something a little more eye catching
Since then, I've had a chance to learn from Joel, Pete Collins (Kelby One's Photoshop Guy), Julieanne Kost (Adobe), and Glyn Dewis (UK photographer extraordinaire), picking up some of their tricks, techniques, and work flow as I continue to bumble my way through the world of compositing. I'm still a long way from approaching the work these folks create, but I get better every time I dive into Photoshop to create a composite.

Changing the mood of a studio model shot by layering her into a different background
These are some of the composites I've created as part of my learning process. None of them are as good as they could be with more practice and experience. I still struggle getting shadows and highlights to be in the right places, edges of the image layered into the background being too harsh, yadda yadda yadda. That's OK. If I learn one new trick or one new step that generates a better image than my last effort, that's what it's all about.

Other composites I've created as I experiment with the technique

If you've never tried to create a composite, read on. I will do my best to give you a step by step process that you can hopefully follow from start to finish. It's hard to explain some of the steps with words rather than you actually being able to watch the process unfold but here goes. I will assume that you have a basic, working knowledge of Photoshop and that you are using one of the later versions (I will be using Photoshop CC). The earlier versions of Photoshop may not have all of the features that I will be using below (e.g., Camera Raw Filter in the Filter drop down menu) so you may have to improvise if you're running an older version.

OK, enough with the small print. Let's get started. I'll begin by showing you the final image that we will create - The Bodybuilder.

The final image
This composite used two images - a background image of a subway tunnel and a studio shot of a bodybuilder flexing his muscles. Step one is to open both images in Photoshop:

Both images opened in Photoshop

Dotted lines delineate the selected areas
Choose the Quick Selection Tool
The next step is to work with the image that will be layered into the background which in this case is the bodybuilder image. Make this the active image in Photoshop and click on the Quick Selection Tool - it's the 4th tool down from the top if your tools palette is oriented vertically like mine (as shown on the left). Make sure that you have it selected as the active tool instead of the Magic Wand Tool by right clicking on the tool and selecting the Quick Selection Tool (a small white box lets you know which tool is active). Adjust the size of the tool so that it's relatively small and begin the selection of the image that will be "cut out" and layered into the background - as you left click inside the area you want to select, hold down the mouse button and move the cursor around. You will see dotted lines begin to take the shape of the cutout as you move the cursor around, delineating the selected portions. If the selected area extends beyond what you want, press down on the "Option" key (for Mac; for PC's, use the "Alt" key). As you move the cursor outside the area you want to select while holding the key down you remove the unwanted selections. With time and patience you will eventually have the area you want to select completely outlined within the dotted lines.

Dotted lines delineate the selected area
Next use the Refine Edge feature of the Quick Selection Tool. With the selected area still active, click on the "Refine Edge" button at the top of the Photoshop page (the last button that says "Refine Edge…" - see below):

The Refine Edge button at the top of the Photoshop page
That will open up a box that gives you some options with the selection you've made.

The Refine Edge box will pop open after you click on the button
The Refine Edge box with the various adjustment options
Adjust the "Feather" and "Shift Edge" sliders as I've done above - add feather and shift the edge inward. You'll have to experiment with the settings because the amount of feather added and the reduction in the edges is dependent upon the file sizes you are using. The larger the file size, the more aggressive you need to be with the settings. Your goal is to shift the edge inward (a negative number) and add just enough feather so the image edges are ever so slightly blurred. This will make your selection look more realistic when you drop it into the background. As Pete Collins once reminded me, objects are three dimensional and the edges of the cutout image need to be blurred slightly in order for them to look right when pasted into the background image. Joel Grimes calls this "selling the fake". The more realistic you can make the "fake" (the composite), the better the overall image will appear.

Notice that I have clicked on the "Decontaminate Colors" box towards the bottom and that I have set the Output to "New Layer With Layer Mask". The Decontaminate feature removes any color cast from the edges of the image that may have digitally spilled over from outside the selection. As for the Output, you'll definitely want to have it as a new layer with mask. When you click on the "OK" button, your selected area will be on a transparent background and when you move it onto the background the mask will give you the flexibility of further refining the cutout if need be by using the Brush tool on the mask. You'll see in a minute why this is desirable.

The Move Tool - first tool from the top in the Tools box. It's the cross with the arrow on the left
You're now ready to move the cutout into the background. Click on the "Move Tool" (see above) and move the cursor onto the selection. Hold the Left mouse button down as you begin to move the cursor up to the top of the Photoshop box where the two open images are listed.
Dropping the cutout into the new background
Moving the cutout up
The darker of the two image names at the top will be your background image. The lighter color image name identifies that active image - the cutout you are moving. As you drag the cutout up towards the top of the box, the cutout will move up with the cursor. Continue to move the cursor up so the arrow points at the background image name (the darker file name). Like magic, the background image will appear on your screen. Move the cursor/cutout  down into the background and you will see your cutout appear. All that's left is for you to position the cutout where you want it as I've done below.

Cutout has been dropped into the background layer and positioned where I want it

By moving the cutout onto the background, what you've essentially done is create a layer on the
The Layers palette (on the right) shows you the layers & any masks
background. If you open your Layers palette there will be two small thumbnail images in the dialog box, one of the background image (identified as Background) and the other of the cutout (identified as Layer 1. At this point you are free to process each image as you see fit individually by activating whichever one you want to process. To make processing easier of individual layers, disable the layer you're not working on by clicking on the "eye" to the left of the Layer description. Of course, you can choose to process both simultaneously by flattening the layers but that will limit your flexibility as you move forward. With the bodybuilder image we're using here, I chose to process each image separately.

Since each of us has different processing ideas, techniques, work flow, and software, this tutorial will now shift to how I processed the images to create the final composite image I posted at the beginning.

Drastically increasing the highlights to create a backlighting effect
I started by processing the background image. To create the effect I wanted (a surrealistic backlighting behind the bodybuilder), I first had to increase the exposure of the image and drastically increase the highlights and whites with the Camera Raw Filter. I also used the Brightness and Levels adjustments to increase the highlights even more. I then converted the image to Black & White using the Grayscale converter within Camera Raw (see below).
The HSL/Grayscale tab in the Camera Raw Filter (fourth from Left)
From the File menu, I then scrolled down to "Automate" and selected Perfect Effects 8 to further process the background.

Sending the image to Perfect Effects, a Photoshop Plugin I use regularly
In Perfect Effects, I played with the tone enhancer presets, black & white presets, dynamic contrast presets, grunge presets, and HDR presets to get the right mix that yielded what I wanted.

Perfect Effects allows me to add/delete effects and see how they affect the image as I experiment with them
After I got the background to look like I wanted, I applied the changes and moved on to the cutout. I  activate it in the layers box and tweaked it with the Camera Raw Filter (adjusting the exposure, highlights, shadows, whites & blacks) then opened it with Perfect Effects 8. As with the background, I played with the presets and after the image looked the way I wanted, I applied the changes.

The presets I used created a hard edge around the image which might be fine if I wasn't creating a composite
After applying the Perfect Effects presets to the cutout, a problem cropped up - the presets created hard edges that looked like a black outline. This is where having dropped the cutout in as a layer with mask came in handy. I clicked on the mask and used a small brush with the hardness set at 0% and the opacity at 50%-75% to carefully run the brush over the black line edges. This removed them in short order and it made the cutout blend into the background much better than if I had left the black edges intact.

To finish up, I flattened the layers and saved the final image. Again, here's the final image after the steps above, "The Bodybuilder". 

Now that you know how to create a composite, let your imagination run wild and start cutting and pasting images. You are no longer forced to live with what could be a great image but for the crappy background. The best part is, if you don't like what you end up with, you can always start over. All you've lost is time and you probably learned something along the way. Mahalo, ya'll.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Easy Peezy Way To Transmit Images

Tired of burning discs and dropping them off after a photo shoot? Looking for a way to quickly transmit images to an out of town client without having to e-mail them one at a time? Trying to figure out a way to send a client a huge file size image (i.e. a large TIFF file)? Check out, a slick way to upload images to the cloud that can then be downloaded by anyone with an e-mail address.

I've used a similar web site service to transfer images in the past (Dropbox) but recently a client asked me to transmit images using WeTransfer. Ever since then, I've been using it regularly and find it a much simpler, no hassle and effective way to do the same thing. The service is free as long as the upload involves a total of less than 2 GB (that's a lot of files/images, even high res). but you can always sign up for a cost based option that allows you to transfer more GBs. So far, I haven't had a reason to use anything but the free version.

OK, so how do you do it? First, google WeTransfer or go to Once you're on the site, you'll see a box on the left side (you may have to skip an ad to sign up for their cost-based service). 

Type in the e-mail address for the recipient in the "Friend's email" field (note that you can input as many e-mail addresses as you want), Type in your e-mail address in the field below the recipient's address, and add any message you want to include, such as, "Attached are the images from today's photo shoot." The next step is to click on the "+ Add files" button near the top, select the images you want to send that are stored on your computer, and finally click on the "Transfer" button at the bottom.

WeTransfer will begin to upload your images to the cloud and within a matter of minutes your files will be uploaded and available for the recipient(s) to download them. As soon as the upload is complete, the recipient(s) will receive an auto generated e-mail that notifies them of the files' availability for download and you receive an e-mail that advises you the files were successfully uploaded and available for the recipient(s) to download. Another nice feature is the e-mail you receive when the recipient(s) download the image files, sent to you automatically once they do so.

Easy Peezy. Lemon Squeezy. It's free, simple to use, and much more convenient than burning discs. Give it a try next time you want to transmit images to someone.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Quick & Easy Head Shots

Many businesses that have web sites include a page or pages featuring head shots of its employees. One type of business that almost always uses head shots of its employees on its web site is a law firm. Google any law firm that is of any size and you will find a link for a comprehensive list of its attorneys. Each attorney will have a link for his or her own page that includes their educational and professional experience along with ... a head shot.

Since law firms want to present their attorneys in the most flattering manner possible, they usually have the head shots done professionally. That's where you, the wily professional photographer, comes in. You can do a quick and easy head shot session on site if you set yourself up with a minimum of gear and use some basic lighting techniques. From there, very profitable photography gigs can follow as you develop a reputation for being a capable web site head shot photographer.

I just finished doing one of these head shot gigs last week for a law firm that is revamping its web site. It's a small firm so the shoot involved seven attorneys and the firm's office manager (one of the attorneys was out of town and will come into the studio for her head shot in the near future to finish up the job). From the time I left my studio until I returned, which included an hour driving to and from the firm's offices, less than three hours elapsed. Afterwards, I spent approximately an hour downloading the images, selecting the best one of each person, and running them through Photoshop. Including the time it will take to shoot the last attorney, I will have devoted a little over four hours for the entire job. Oh, and I received a nice check for my effort before I left the firm's offices the day of the shoot, paid in full for the job.

The image above depicts the gear I took with me. The two aluminum cases on the left contained three Photogenic 600W/second monolights that I picked up on eBay a while back for a total of less than $200 (with cases). I could have opted to go with speedlights but since I have the monolights packed up for things just like this I went with the monolights. I only used two on this job but took a third as a spare. The smaller aluminum case also contained power cords, extension cords, a spare bulb for the moonlights, a flash meter, and three pocket wizards to trigger the lights. With a two light setup, two pocket wizards suffice (one on the camera and one on the key light - the other monolight will fire via its slave sensor), but I always assume something might not work right so I packed an extra pocket wizard, monolight and an extra bulb.

The camera bag on top of the small aluminum case contained two camera bodies (again, redundancy in case of a failure), a 70-200mm f2.8 lens (my go-to portrait lens), an 18-200mm f3.5-5.6 lens (another great portrait lens, a spare just in case), and an 85mm f1.8 lens (another sharp portrait lens, just in case). I took a stool on which the subjects could sit since I was fairly confident the law office would not have one for me to use. The black bag on the left contained a portable backdrop stand and a roll of 53" wide grey seamless paper. The black bag on the right contained three light stands, two to use and the third as a backup. Last but not least, I packed two softboxes, a 9"X36" gridded strip box to use as my fill light and a 2'X3' box to use as my key light. For head shots, you don't need anything bigger as these boxes are more than enough to light head shots. 

I'll digress for a moment to elaborate on the speed light option. Several companies make brackets designed to attach a typical strobe to a soft box (as shown above). These lights can be triggered with pocket wizards or infrared triggers. Using speedlights is certainly a less expensive way to adequately light head shots and if you don't have access to monolights and have speedlights, by all means use them. Another option is to simply use one light (monolight or speedlight) for the key light and a reflector for fill. It's simpler and less equipment intensive but I prefer to use a two light setup when possible with monolights. If electrical power is not available (as in shooting in a remote location), Plan B is my speedlights.

Once I arrived at the law firm, it took less than a half hour to set up in the lobby. This was the location that provided plenty of room for not only the lighting setup but for me to use my 70-200mm lens at a 135mm to 150mm focal length which I find to be a good portrait focal length. I could have set up in the firm's large conference room (behind the backdrop) but it would have required moving the large conference room table to one side. Since the lobby was available that's where I set up.

The large softbox (left) was my key light and the strip box was the fill. Using a pocket wizard, my flash meter, and myself as a guinea pig sitting on the stool, I adjusted the power of the key light to f11 at 1/125th second, ISO 200. The power of the strip light (right) was adjusted to f8 so as to give me a slight shadow on the fill side but nothing dramatic. The lights were positioned approximately three feet from the subjects to create a soft, flattering light (Lighting 101 - the further lights are positioned from a subject, the harsher the light becomes).

I've posted some examples of the images from the shoot. For each person, I took several shots like those on the left side, i.e. from the head to just below the hands. I asked each person to sit up straight at a 45 degree angle to me and then turn their head to face me. Some of the shots were with full smiles, some with no smile, and some with something in between. After I downloaded the card, I chose the image I thought was most flattering for each individual and ran them through Photoshop and OnOne Software's Perfect Portrait and Perfect Effects. After opening the RAW files in Photoshop CC, I used the Camera Raw filter in to adjust exposure, highlights, whites, shadows, and blacks, adding a bit of contrast, clarity and vibrance. The Spot Healing tool, Patch tool, and clone tool were used to eliminate blemishes and shine. I only used Perfect Portrait to brighten the men's eyes and judiciously whiten the teeth. With the females, I used some of the skin smoothing/wrinkle softening features but very modestly. Finally, I used the Portrait Sharpen feature in Perfect Effects as the final step and then cropped the images into the final head and shoulders head shots (images on the right).

There you have it - quick, easy, simple head shots on site. This kind of photography is not going to tap into your creativity or generate "wow" images that will dazzle your friends but it can be a steady source of income that pays the bills. That's always a good thing.