December 21, 2012 Christmas Lights, Moon and Snow Covered Trees

If I get a photography idea I tend to just go with it and see if it works. I had driven out to my parent's place early in the day and the idea just came to me. I think at first I thought, man I wish I had thought to shoot moon-lit snow the day before when you could make a snow man for the op. The good snow we had turned powdery with the cold air in place. Then I thought, what if I could somehow make a Christmas tree with lights in the middle of nowhere in the hills behind their place. Thought, this shouldn't be too hard. I have power inverters for chasing in my car. I just needed a power supply for it and some Christmas lights. Not that I wanted to mess with taking out a car battery and lugging it to wherever, it was the power supply that kept coming up. Thought, well I know that will work. My dad was there this same day and thought I could just use the one out of their van that really never runs anymore. It just needed charged. So we took that out and let it charge all day. Then we tested the strands with the inverter hooked up to my car battery. You'd get about 3 of these before the amp draw would be pushing what the inverter said was max(well the weaker of the two I have that I planned to use). Well last minute before heading up there with the rest of the stuff, I decide to try the inverter now. Beeped at me off that battery. So tried my other inverter. It beeped too. So that battery idea went out the window and I needed to quickly just yank the one out of my car. So that's what I did.

Here is how it looks while standing there in the moonlight visually.

Hauled the battery and inverter down there in the dark and tried to hide them somewhat. Then came the moment of truth, would it work. It looked so freaking cool in there when they turned on. The crappy part about this all was for the photo, you'd only be able to leave the lights on for a second. So really the whole night the lights weren't on much. Looked so cool when they were.

Pretty gangly tree, surrounded by big healthy trees. Least this night it would shine lol. Hard to string lights in there without a ladder. Just toss the end up and then try and walk it around some without knocking the snow off things.

This is one exposure. 20 seconds, 640 ISO at F2.8 with the 14mm Samyang on the 5D II. Those were the settings I opted for for the star trail stack frames. This was probably the best angle for the tree and scene, but I didn't want to trail the moon. I didn't plan on the moon being there when I picked the tree earlier. So just took some shots without trailing this angle. The Christmas lights could simply not be left on for the whole shot. And actually at those settings, I'd have to turn the inverter on then very shortly after they fully lit, turn them back off. Like a 1 second lighting.

To do the star trail op with all this, you kinda have to plan a lot. First step, get the angle just right, as you are going to be spending a lot of time shooting for that shot. Then I basically figured that works for the star trails and then do one of the frames doing a 1 second on off of the lights. And since you are stacking later, you can do it a few times and just pick the image that the lights look best. I tend to do a bunch before the trail and some more after. I also thought to do some with me holding the oil lantern(which I stumbled across looking for lights lol), which was fun to get lit after the lighter thing got snow in it. The shot settings holding the oil lantern would be far different or at least a lot shorter if I kept it at 640 ISO. 2-4 seconds would be it that way.

Messing around. You can see my head down there to the right. That is where the inverter and car battery were sitting. Really was a pain to go in and out of there. Eventually the lights wouldn't turn on. Wound up the inverter was simply too cold now. But I had another one with up in the car on top of the hill. Anyway, any images with the tree lights on, I'm somewhere in the shot there turning them on and back off. I'd just let the cam fire off 20 second consecutive shots and listen for the shutter. I'd then turn the lights on and back off. I'd wait for another shot to fire and do another on off a little slower or faster, so I'd get at least one good lights image for the stack.

Just a different angle.

One shot again but the lantern is sitting near the camera. I'm over at the tree turning it on then off during the shot.

I was sorta wishing I had picked a different tree for better angles for the star trails, but it worked. I eventually do move them to another tree, which is real fun in the dark and cold after several hours of messing around.

Here is the first trail. This is so easy. Just do a star trail like always, then on one of the frames turn the lights on and back off real quick. Then the lights stack the same way the star trail frames stack. Blend mode uses lighten on that layer and the lighter pixels are the ones that show through. So the lights just show through with the rest after it is stacked on top.

This one I stacked in one of the lantern frames I took, with the star trail frames. You just never move the camera when you do them all, so you can stack and layer them in later. Really just like if someone took two photos of a high dynamic range sunset, one exposure for the ground and one for the sky, then layered them in later in photoshop. Layering in the much darker lantern frame is more tricky and involved in photoshop. But hell I never do much of that and had to just figure it out. This 14mm lens' front element really protrudes. If you stick a very bright light source in the extreme corner you can get a rainbow flare. They didn't all have that flare but I thought, heck that's a bigger merging challenge and if I can do that and figure out what it takes, then I'm fine for the rest. So this was my crash course image. Not sure how much I want to try and explain how on here. Basically you stack that image on top of the flattened lights and trails image. Add a layer mask to the lantern one. Then erase yourself by painting black there on the mask. You don't have to be real exact but the closer the better. Sometimes select color range can help a lot in making the mask. Then after you have erased yourself, click control I for invert on the mask. Then just you show through and everything else was erased. Then what really helps it look more natural is, at least on this one was, to do a curves adjustment on the lantern one to lighten it up more, as it was pretty dark and looked off stacked on there that way. Then do a curves adjustment to the background to darken it back down so they are both more on the same playing field. If you can get the shots right at the time, it's really not that bad to do this.

Same steps as before just a different angle.

This is a bunch of frames for the star trails. That gets stacked and flattened into one image of star trails with the white foreground. Then there is a shot of the tree stacked in. Then the shot of me which is also then stacked in. The camera is always the same framing though. It's not like I'm dragging objects out of other images and adding them.

Here's one without the star trails. Some others I have this foreground snow lit up with the lantern light. This is the cool thing about having several different shots of the same scene. You can blend in the parts you want or leave them out. Can mix it all up how you want it later.

My creativity gets burned up pretty fast on these deals. I mean a lot went down before I even took the first photo. Idea to getting it all in place. Then once I'm here and doing it, in the dark and in the cold, with long waits during the star trails, I rapidly lose motivation. Not as bad as most probably, but it goes pretty quickly. You get tired out, running around. And there's just a ton of running around. Then like now, when it's all over and later on, I think, boy I should have thought to do more. Easy now at home, warm and not tired out.

Below will be the sequence used to make the above photo. The first image below is just one frame from the star trail stack images. You stack a bunch of 20 second exposures(or whatever you did them at) and get the star trail image. Can see that 640 ISO, 20 seconds, F2.8 that the moon light really lights up the foreground. Shutter duration doesn't pop out the stars. Only a fast aperture and really ISO'ing up the camera does. If I wanted to try and pop out even more stars, I could have doubled the ISO and halved the shutter down to 10 seconds. The foreground exposure would have been the same and there'd have been twice the sensitivity on the stars. To a point. Shutter gets too fast and yeah that will kill the star exposure. Whatever the star time residing on one pixel before moving is the fastest the shutter should be. Anything longer than that isn't going to bring out more stars as they have moved to a new pixel. This worked though. The next frame below is the flattened stack of star trails, into its own single image now. Then 3rd image down is the shot for the tree. 4th image down is the shot for lantern light on the snow. 5th down shot for me with the lantern. Then 6th is the stacked and blended result. I should figure out some way to show it in photoshop. Guess I could video tape it and put it on youtube if I was more motivated. Anyone that gets layer masks and whatnot, it'd obviously be simple to. I'm anything but a pro at all the blending stuff and even had to figure it out as I went here. I think it wound up pretty fine. If I can do it it's not that involved.

It was about 11pm after I was done with the second star trail sequence and optional frames holding the lantern in various poses. I was worn the hell out by now. I thought, boy I should have put these lights over on "that" tree. Then thought, wonder how hard this will be in the dark to move everything. Heck just getting those lights back out of the tree would not be simple lol. I got 2 of the 3 strands out and figured that was enough anyway. Then I strung up this tree and moved the car battery and inverter over there. My motivation evidently ended there. Got the lights on shot then started the images for the trail. Then went back up to warm up in the car. Man I went up and down that a lot, which includes a lovely head dive under barbwire in the snow to do it lol. Fun with a car battery, power inverters, camera gear, lanterns, lights, lighters in your pocket, etc. Lost track of how many times I dropped a lens from my jacket pocket, into the snow.

As I sat in the car this last one, I really was ready to just stop it and get home. Didn't let it go that long, then flew back down to get things. I grabbed my camera off the tripod and shoved it under my jacket. I then grabbed the car battery and lugged it back up out there, leaving the lights, inverters and tripod there. I already had some foot and toe cramp action kicking in. I get them so easily and often. So much joy when your toes pull straight the hell up and nothing makes it go away. Well I get to the barb wire and go under it, car battery and all. Then get up and continue on with the battery back up on my right shoulder. My left quad muscle starts to really burn but I ignore it and go through it. Then right before the top, for the first time ever, I get a cramp in the quad muscle. Holy hell. Had calve and hamstring cramps plenty of times before, never the top leg muscle. Hell I've had the muscle above my shin cramping before and worst of all bad ab cramping that feels like it wants to break you in two. This was a first for the quad deal. Bam, it cramps and I can't bend my leg to walk lol. Just straight as can be and cramping. I now know that can be a really crappy muscle to get to cramp. Wasn't even sure I could drive home like that. No position would make it feel better. Anyway, it was all worth it I suppose. I found out what the op would look like and consist of. Now I will think about other things to do with it and surely set it all up again.

I was so mad I couldn't make a snow man, even if the day before, though surely that added into all the other work would have pushed me over the tired edge before the shots started lol. But I thought, man I could have a snow man and I could make it so it was holding the oil lantern. Always wanted to do a star trail with a snow man, use the north star someway with that. But yeah it'd be all the better with middle of nowhere Christmas lights and an oil lantern mixed in. Next time.

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