A few months ago, I saw an image by Canadian photographer Matt Malloy that just blew me out of the water. I have spent more hours than I care to admit trying to figure out exactly how he achieved an image that looked for all the world like a stunningly beautiful, impressionistic landscape. The sky resembled an art technique called ‘low poly’ that I have also admired in the past. Basically, a low poly art technique uses blocks of color delineated by simple geometric shapes placed side by side. It’s a very futuristic, computer generated look.
This is an example of a low-poly image:
This is one of Matt Malloy’s images:
Recently, I was reviewing some old star trail photos I had made at Yosemite National Park. I was not happy with them so I went to StarTrail Academy to review over ways I could improve the images.
And lo and behold! They were highlighting some of Matt Malloy’s work. Apparently, the technique that Matt uses is the same technique used to stack night star trails. The difference is that he applies it to sunset photos. He calls the technique when it’s applied to daylight scenes, as ‘time stacking’ and the idea is to show the passing of time in a single photograph rather than through a moving video.
So, how does one time-stack? You approach it exactly as you would shooting star trails. You need your camera, a tripod, and a intervalometer. For star-trails, of course, you need a good view of the night sky, free as possible of clouds and ambient light. For time-stacking, you want LOTS of clouds, preferably moving somewhat quickly across your scene.
The idea is to take a time lapse sequence of photos. The actual number of photos is your preference. Set the exposure based on the brightest objects in your composition (the clouds), low ISO, and other camera settings to allow appropriate exposure. Then set the interval and number of images you want the camera to take. Best interval to use? Experiment…..if you want smooth looking, painterly strokes made by the clouds, you’ll want quicker intervals. If you want more of a stacked appearance, longer intervals are necessary.
It’s best to not process any of the images in advance. What I do is open all the images in Lightroom, select all the ones that I want to stack, then select ‘open as layers in photoshop’. Then, grab a cup of coffee because, depending on the number of images you are exporting, it might take awhile. Once all the images are opened in photoshop, I usually have to click all the layers and choose ‘rearrange layers’ so that my initial image is the base of the stack. Now, all you have to do (and it takes awhile) is to change every layer’s blending mode to ‘lighten’ and merge down to your base layer. Once all the layers have been merged down in a lighten blending mode, you generally have to apply contrast and tonal adjustment. Surprisingly, you generally do not have to bump up vibrance or saturation. The time stacking of clouds, particularly at sunset, bring out astonishingly vibrant colors in the sky.
It’s actually a lot of fun—kinda of like opening a gift. You don’t know what your final image might look like but it’s always a pleasant surprise.