Dad collects parts. He’s always shooting pieces that he can use later to create composite images. Things like storm clouds or rock formations catch his eye. So he shoots them knowing that he’ll be adding something to the “part” later that will really make it sing.
“Midnight Masterpiece” started out as a part. Dad’s always challenging himself to learn new techniques. A couple of years ago, he took his first photograph of the Milky Way one very dark, clear night at Davis Mountains State Park in West Texas.
Star lovers flock to West Texas. McDonald Observatory houses one of the largest telescopes in the world. Scientists and astrophotography enthusiasts love the Davis Mountains because of the absence of light pollution. So Dad made a beeline from Dallas to the park where he drove to the top of Skyline Drive and waited for the celestial show to begin.
Dad’s first attempt at star photography pleased him. He kept the image with the idea that he’d add something to the photo. He didn’t know what exactly, but something.
Meanwhile, Dad and I visited Pinnacles National Park near San Benito, California. Here he discovered some old gnarled tree branches lying around. While we waited for the park office to open, he photographed the branches from every conceivable angle.
By themselves, the branches weren’t super exciting, but a kernel of an idea was germinating in Dad’s head. Back in Dallas, he worked on merging the star and branch photos in Photoshop. It looked pretty cool, but Dad knew the image needed a little something to make it sing.
That “something” turned out to be a supermoon. Every so often the moon seems to be closer to the earth, looming over our landscape. It appears approximately 14% bigger and 30% brighter than normal.
Dad heard about an upcoming supermoon. But he happened to be in booming metropolis of Dallas, Texas, not a scenic landscape out West. That didn’t deter him, though. He set up shop in the driveway of his house, successfully capturing a giant lunar landscape.
Then the real work began in Photoshop, blending the three photos to create “Midnight Masterpiece”.
Photoshop made this image possible
That sounds like an acceptance speech at the Oscars, but it’s true. Back in the days of film, Dad wouldn’t have been able to create such a believable composite photo.
Photoshop’s ability to cut out chunks of images and the flexibility of layers plus masks makes composites a piece of cake. Photoshop’s abilities have dazzled professional photographers for years.
Just using Photoshop on an image doesn’t cut it, though. The final image must be realistic. There are a few keys to making a true-to-life composite: consistent lighting, solid cut outs and lots of scrutiny.
Matching the light in all three images made this photo believable. Because they were shot at different locations and times, Dad paid extra attention to each section’s color saturation and hue.
A washed out gray moon wouldn’t fit with the rich colors of the Milky Way.
He would make changes to each part and then walk away. Returning with fresh eyes allowed him to see if the color changes helped or hurt the image. Originally he did show more light on the tree branches. But after several tweaks, he decided the branches needed to be mostly dark with a little bit of texture showing to match the mood of the photo.
Like the light, cutting out parts of an image to use in a composite must be precise. Initially Dad did a straight cut out. But he realized the numerous dips and divots around the edges needed show up to keep the moon looking real as opposed to a kindergarten art project. He also softened the cut edges slightly to give it a more natural look.
Next Dad looked at the size of each object. How large could he make the moon in relationship to the branches and still have the image be believable? It was really an artistic judgment, but he thought back to the times he’d observed the moon over the years. He’d make the size adjustment and walk away just as he did with the lighting changes. Once he was satisfied with the sizes he moved on.
Dad looked at the overall sharpness of each object he cut out. In a photograph, generally the objects closer to the lens are sharpest. If the moon were too sharp compared to the tree branches, it wouldn’t look real. So he controlled all of that in Photoshop after making his selections.
Finally, Dad’s image matched his artistic vision. Then the scrutiny began. Dad blew up the image on his large screen Mac and looked at every inch with a fine-tooth comb. He looked for telltale signs of a composite: jagged lines around an object, mismatched light and sloppy retouching.
Once he was satisfied with the on-screen image he made a large print and scrutinized that for mistakes. He made corrections.
Then Dad called in “The Nitpicker”, otherwise known as my Uncle Gordon. He and Dad ran a commercial photography studio together for years. Uncle Gordon can spot a poorly done composite faster than anyone else I know.
After several minutes of “Hmmm, Ummhumm” mumblings, Uncle Gordon declared, “I don’t know how you did this!”
Dad’s image passed the test. He sighed in relief. “Midnight Masterpiece” could finally grace the walls of his booth as a giant metal print.
If you enjoyed our moon story, check out some of our other midnight masterpieces from our Old West gallery and Outdoor gallery.