The Making of "Victorian Dream"
How the winning photo of the "Night Scene" contest was made
By fotofile in Photo Contests on Dec 16, 2023
First off, thank you, Pentax Forums for your monthly photo contests and an special thank you to all of the folks who nominated and voted for my photo! Pentax Forums was the very first resource I ever used to research camera gear, back when I bought my Pentax K-S2 and a couple used Takumars, the Super Tak 55mm f/1.8 and 28mm f/3.5. I started out on a very strict budget for camera gear and being able to read the community reviews and discussions about the K mount and M42 lenses was really great! So, thank you for that, as well!
I took up photography when my daughter was born in late 2018, at the ripe old age of 40, thinking I would do mostly portraits and family photos. That modest ambition quickly turned into a hiking/outdoor photography obsession. I hit my stride with outdoor photography around the time the pandemic hit. This was a trying time for everyone, but the silver lining for me was that I got to spend a lot of time hiking with my little one on the perpetual daddy daycare days and developing a very therapeutic hobby which helped me cope with the isolation.
In the summer of 2020, I decided to try nightscape photography after seeing some photos from one of our darker sky sites shared by a local photographer. I was aware of Milky Way photography, but hadn't realized it was viable in my locality. I found out that the Shawnee National Forest here in my backyard of Southern Illinois has some reasonably dark skies. My first couple Milky Way images were really test images to see if I could get a decent result. My very first image was taken from the backroads south of my home town with the Takumar 28mm f/3.5 and the K-S2, and it worked out okay. I found this old Victorian House that I imaged for this contest out in the country around the same time, so my second try was of this very house! That image got some good feedback on social media, so I became really and truly hooked on nightscape photography at that point.
The first order of business was upgrading my kit, since I was really working with lenses that were too slow for the type of images I had in mind, and also wanted a full frame sensor. I did a ton of research and was pretty stoked to learn about Astrotracer! The idea that I could track the stars without a tracking mount and could stay in the K-mount system was a really encouraging. I decided to sell my K-S2 and make the pretty significant upgrade, (especially financially!) to the K-1 Mk II.
The next two years were spent almost entirely dragging my daughter around on scouting trips during the day and imaging various scenes at night. We have a lot of trees and hills and our horizons are mostly obstructed pretty much everywhere, so this search was pretty challenging. Any time I found a subject it was quite exciting. I imaged churches and natural landmarks and a lot of old barns, some of which have already been razed, sadly. There have been a few subjects that I have been compelled to return to multiple times and this house is definitely one of those. I have a slew of images of it both from the 3-point perspective and also head on. There is a lot more horizon LP to the east, behind the house, so the view to the SE captured in the Victorian Dream photo is quite a bit easier to manage.
This house has a lot of historical value to the area, though I don't think a lot of people know about it. It dates back to the antebellum period and is one of the oldest houses in the region. There is an early to mid-19th century log cabin behind the house that served as slave quarters, which should give anyone familiar with the history of Southern Illinois a pretty good idea of its general location. Slavery, under the guise of indentured servitude persisted in some areas of IL until the 13th amendment in 1865. I have received first-hand testimony from a recent resident of the house that it is very haunted. I have been out here at night a few times and nothing strange has happened, but I did have a horse run by about 10 ft away from me while I was standing in the road beside a fence. I never saw it, but I definitely heard it! It gave me a good scare!
The image I posted for the Night contest is technically a composite nightscape image. I shot the foreground a few minutes before the sky. I moved the tripod to the other side of the trees that you can see in the photo and pointed the camera in the same direction, so that I could capture an unobstructed view of the sky. I generally prefer not to do this, and with faster lenses, I often don't track the sky and will edit a simpler single image shot, but the ultra wide angle Irix 15mm lens I used for the Victorian Dream sky images is fairly slow so I wanted to track. Tracked sky images that include protruding horizon obstructions create real problems with blending, espcecially around trees, because the blurred objects don't line up well with the sharp foreground images for layer masking. This was one of the first images I tried this technique on, and it made the editing much much easier, and the image is cleaner as a result.
The sky images were tracked with Astrotracer and stacked using Sequator, which is free software. I did my best to line up the Milky Way in the sky image stack with the Milky Way as it appeared in the foreground photos in order to keep the photo true to scene. This is something I always do when I use the composite method, as it is important to me personally for the photo to be as true to scene as possible.
The edit of the photo was done primarily in Photoshop. I created a layer mask for the foreground and blended the sky image in after stacking it. I toned the image and brought up the shadows and whites of the foreground and increased the contrast and saturation of the sky images. I have included unedited sample images so you can see where I started from.
Foreground images were 15mm, 120s, f/4, ISO3200
Sky images were 15mm, 30s, f/2.8, ISO3200
In conclusion, I'd like to take a moment to express just how valuable the Pentax K-1 and specifically Astrotracer has been to my process. For nightscape photography, it has given me a real advantage out of the gate compared to the more common kits other people use for longer exposures that require the utilization of a dedicated star tracker. I do have a Star Adventurer, and I have used it with a lot of success both with my K-1 and my Canon cameras. I find myself continuing to employ the K-1 with the internal tracking in any number of scenarios, due to its ease of use and the minimal improvement the dedicated tracker provides. Pixel peeping does show a noticeable difference, but image quality at scale does not suffer much at all, and the advantage of not having to carry or set up a second piece of gear or deal with polar alignment or other aspects of traditional star tracking is substantial. (And yes, I am excited about the recent firmware update that came out while I was working on this post!)
Thanks again Pentax Forums for hosting these monthly contests and a big big thank you to everyone who nominated/voted for Victorian Dream! I hope this blog post has been an interesting and helpful read! If you have any questions about the photo or the process don't hesitate to ask.
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