Cloudy Moon Redux

I wasn't happy with my best effort of yesterday's shots, so I tried again and got this view

Sometimes a photo is made in the taking; sometimes it is made in the darkroom. In this case, both apply and there was a good deal of luck as well.

This is from the set of images I took of the moon through clouds last night. I saw a wonderful photo from a Facebook friend, Serge Theberge, and I was intrigued by the details he got in his shot that were missing from mine. It’s simply difficult to bring out details when the contrast is reduced, and clouds greatly reduce contrast.

I had one image that I ignored because it the contrast looked poor, and the exposure looked bad, too. Here is that image as it looked raw (without any processing/development):

It’s kind of obvious why I ignored this image: it looks like the moon was too bright and the clouds were too dark, and so neither worked. But. Sometimes you can recover the look and feel with some technique. So I decided to dig into this image (and I ‘dug into’ a few other images that looked more promising than this one, and they had not worked, so I felt I was probably down to the dregs, but…you never know). “Dig into” in this context means to adjust the digital development try to ‘recover’ details that don’t seem to be present. It is tricky; the process is full of nasty compromises. For example, if I dig into a dark area, I might expose some ugly noise. If I dig into a bright area, I might find very poor contrast with washed-out details.

The above image looked to have both problems, but I like to at least try, so I did.

I did the following things to the image:

  • I dimmed just the bright portions of the image. The moon was slightly washed out, but…the result was not terrible.

  • I brightened the dark areas to recover some of the cloud details. The noise was not terrible around the moon, but the outer ⅔ of the image were…pretty terrible, with blotches of color and obvious and excessive grain.

So I had a decent result with the dimming of the bright areas, and a poor result with the dark areas. So, it was down to tricks. :) I did the following, much more invasive but…not terribly destructive things:

  1. I created an adjustment layer the size of the moon, so that I could tune the contrast to see if I could bring out any details that were hidden in the washed out portion. The details looked really sharp, as sharp as I have ever gotten at this focal length (240mm). So I thought this might be worth more effort.

  2. I created another adjustment layer, this time for the outer ⅓ of the image. That did not cover the entire problem area with noise, but it was a lot of it and would help me preserve some level of integrity in the image.

  3. I applied additional fundamental adjustments to the base layer. This included things like white balance (the moon was blue from an incorrect color balance; adjusting that out is something you often do in digital development to restore the actual color balance of the shot). The moon became neutral (and even showed me the cool and warm areas of the surface that I know of, indicating that the color balance was pretty accurate).

  4. I softened the noisy areas in the outer third of the image. I told the software to ignore fine details, and just show the large-scale structures. This was effective with the cloud: I cleaned up the noise (false detail) without losing much in the way of true detail.

  5. I went back to the moon adjustment layer and tested for both reduced and increased contrast; a small increase in contrast revealed some hidden details so I went with that. It was not a major change numerically, but the moon really snapped into the picture now.

  6. I then spent a long time deciding on the cropping of the image. I had been working with a cropped version from the start (which removed the really noise and really dark portions of the original image), but I actually wound up enlarging it somewhat after the edits, into a square shape, with the moon not at center but away from center. I kept the position of the two dark swirls in mind while doing this to try to balance the relationships and weights, the brights and darks, etc. What you see is the final cropping I settled on.

It was a fun two hours. :)

So this is not a straight, pure image; I had to fight to get it to look good, so it is both science and art, which I sometimes find acceptable as long as no fakery is involved. I did not paste a moon in (which would be total art, zero science, and that is not my thing), but I did alter the relationships of brightness and dark, detail and noise, etc. to achieve a ‘photograph’ that tells the story I wanted to tell about the night sky. It feels like the sky and the clouds and the moon I saw with my own eyes. (The moon was not so crisp, but it was striking, and this image captures that feeling.)

So perhaps it is more art than science, but…I like art as much as I like science so that is fine. :)