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Ever have a shot in mind to take but the conditions take forever to materialize? That was the case with wanting to try out a new technique for a great sunrise or sunset cloud stack for me. I had been using the StarStaX program for a while to stack stars for star trails shots, but I knew there could be other uses for the program, such as with clouds moving at a fairly decent rate.

The wait came to an end while doing a trip to the Maine Coast. And in a very perfect way. The image below is of Marshall Point Lighthouse south of Rockland. Rushing to get to the lighthouse because it took longer to get there than imagined, I had a bit of scrambling to do to get everything set up properly for the shot I wanted to create.

The color was just starting so I knew it was time to work quickly. Here, I wanted to accentuate the colorful clouds in the sky and get shots at a set interval to do some work with their movement and changing hues. First step was to get the intervalometer ready for action. Luckily, I had been doing some pre-sets with it so it was already set to take an image every 15 seconds. This seemed like a good amount of time to allow for some space and movement in the clouds between each shot.

Next, it was to the camera and the proper settings for the exposure. This was not going to be a situation where I could take a few shots, check the histogram and make some changes. It was also one shot to get the composition right and hope the clouds cooperated. I looked at how the clouds were forming and knowing I didn’t want the lighthouse in the middle of the composition I moved around quickly to find the right spot to set up with the lighthouse and clouds in the right position.

Back to the exposure, I wanted to make sure it captured everything right with the sky and the reflections in the water. Because of how I had the image composed, I could use either Evaluative Metering or Center-Weighted Average. The latter averages the exposure for the entire metering area, but with greater emphasis on the center metering zones. Unlike Evaluative metering, it does not compare brightness readings from different parts of the scene; it simply reads overall brightness.

Because there was a bit of darkness near the center of the image with the lighthouse, I did not want this affecting the reading so I opted for Evaluative. If it was a little more off to the side I would have used Center-Weighted. To help the colors in the sky, White Balance was set to Cloudy, which enhances any warmth in the colors.

marshall point lighthouse sunset cloud stack

The ISO was set at 200. I could have gone all the way down to 100 to get the best quality, but I wanted enough shutter speed to not have much movement in the clouds for each image. Shutter speeds ranged from 1/25th of a second to 1/80th for the images used in the stack. With everything initially set, I took a test shot and looked at it on the LCD and the first shot looked pretty good so I didn’t need to use any exposure compensation. I made sure the Drive was set to continuous so that when the intervalometer was activated the camera would take one shot after another until I turned it off.

It was then time to stand by and watch a beautiful sunset develop before my eyes. A total of 57 were taken from the time I started until the color in the clouds started disappearing. Even without doing all of the set-up and shooting, it was a gorgeous sunset to watch and experience.

That’s something as photographers we need to do on occasion. We get too caught up thinking we have to get the shot that we don’t take the time to watch and enjoy what is playing out in front of us. With this situation, once I had everything set up and going, the beauty of the sunset as it got stronger was a wonderful sight to enjoy. While I was able to look at several individual images and see I had a beautiful sunset behind a nice lighthouse, it wasn’t until I had time to work on the files on the computer until the shot I had imagined came to life. And even then not immediately.

Using the program StarStaX, I first had to convert all of the images from RAW to JPEG as the software does not work with RAW files. After doing the conversion, I then used every image to create a stack. At the beginning of the shooting there wasn’t a whole lot of color and at the end a bunch of the clouds became dark and the inclusion of these didn’t make for the best composite. I started taking files away at the front and back ends until I ended up with the image below. After creating this file, I reopened it in Adobe Camera Raw through Bridge to do a couple of adjustments by increasing the blacks, clarity and luminance sliders. The image above is the pared down version with 26 images while the image below is of the full 57 shot sequence.

This process can probably be done with other fast moving cloud images during the day but my first choice for trying this out was with some with nice color at sunrise or sunset. Just because a software program is designed for one purpose it doesn't mean it can't be used for other things as well. Use your imagination and creativity to come up with new and unique images.

marshall point lighthouse sunset cloud stack