Aperture Starring

009_CarlsbadFootbridgeLightsThe stars come out at night … in more ways than one.

Most stationary light sources are seen as bright round spots to the naked eye.

But in an expanded moment, lights appear as stars through the eye of the camera.

Aperture openings are not round. They are polygons, constructed by overlapping blades that make up the diaphragm. Where the blades cross, corners are formed. When light passes through the aperture, the rays bend at the corners, and voilà … stars are born.

The number of spikes per star is twice the blade count in the diaphragm, i.e. two spikes per corner.  For an even number of blades, twin spikes may appear as a single spike.

As aperture size decreases, starring spikes become thinner and sharper. As exposure time increases, starring spikes grow longer.

Not all light sources are created equal. Starring of direct light sources is the strongest. Starring of diffused or covered light sources is weaker, and sometimes completely absent.

Starring varies with different lenses. How lens elements bend light plays a significant role in the formation of stars. Experience with a given lens is the best way to know what to expect.

You typically won’t see starring in your monitor or viewfinder. The effect emerges with time.

The recommended aperture setting described in my post “Aperture Settings” is a good starting point for Goldilocks starring … not too weak, not too strong.

IMAGE : Footbridge & Lights, Carlsbad, NM

This footbridge has crossed the Pecos River for as long as I can remember. As a kid I ran across it many times. It seemed endless.

I wanted to capture the length of the bridge stretching to the opposite shore. I placed my tripod on top of a nearby bench for a high angle shot. I stood on a step ladder to frame the image through my viewfinder.

This was taken on a clear winter night. The water was perfectly calm so the reflections were as intense as the lights.

The still, dark water made the bridge seem to float in mid air, even though it actually floats on the water.

This image is the result of a 30 second exposure shot at f11 with TMAX 3200 film. This created crisp starring of the light sources and reflections.

The smaller aperture was chosen for a long depth of field. I also shot this at f16 but found the starring to be too strong, overwhelming the importance of the footbridge.

IMAGE TINT : GallerySelenium

In the darkroom a slight Selenium toning creates a purplish tint in the darker tones and cools the highlights. I duplicated this tinting effect to emphasize the look of the starring in the brisk night air.

This B&W image was tinted in Adobe Photoshop with an ICC Profile I generated from my Mac App “SuiteProfiler”. The Profile was derived from the “GallerySelenium” Color Map created in SuiteProfiler.

Click these buttons to download the ICC Profile and SuiteProfiler Color Map:

EXERCISE : Aperture Starring

Compose an image containing light sources with your favorite lens.

Capture a wonder of stars via multiple bracketing sessions, each with a different aperture setting. Record your exposure information for each shot.

Examine the resulting images to see what amount of starring makes for a balanced image. Pay attention to how starring is affected by exposure time and aperture setting. Take note of what to expect for future image making.

Be sure to review the “Safety & Precautions” page.

NEXT TIME : “Light Metering”


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Aperture Settings

008_CarlsbadTrainBridgeNorthsideHow stationary and moving light sources reveal themselves in an image is strongly influenced by our aperture settings.

The length of a light trail, created by a moving light source, is dependent on the length of the exposure. The width or thickness of the light trail is determined by the size of the aperture. The wider the aperture opening, the wider the streak of light recorded by the camera.

We will address the effects of aperture size on stationary light sources in the next post.

HOW TO : Aperture Optimization

In my earlier post “Exposure Guidelines”, I recommended shooting with an aperture setting of f5.6 at ISO 400. This was based on a relationship between your aperture and ISO sensitivity settings for recording desirable light trails.

For optimal moving light source treatment in an image, set your aperture according to the following equation and examples:

f-stop = SquareRoot ( 0.08 * ISO )

f4.0 ⇐ ISO 200
f5.6 ⇐ ISO 400
f8.0 ⇐ ISO 800

This is a rule, and you should not break it … just kidding.

It is safe to vary this by + or – one f-stop, but any aperture setting outside of this range may be less pleasing, and may render light trails that are overly thick or underly thin.

I encourage you to treat this equation as a starting point for your own experimentation, in search of your own visual aesthetics.

IMAGE : Rail Bridge, Engine Lights & River, Carlsbad, NM

This railroad bridge crosses the Pecos River. Every morning a cancellation of train engines travels north across the bridge to the railyard, where freight cars are on hold.

Yes, “a cancellation of trains” is the correct collective noun.

Five mornings I was up before dawn to capture the engine lights streaming through the frame of the bridge toward me.

I opened the shutter just as the front engine began illuminating the trusses of the bridge. My biggest challenge was to close the shutter at the right time so the streaking lights complemented the shape of the bridge.

This was my favorite of five exposures, all shot with the recommended f-stop for my film speed setting, ISO 800. The length and width of the light trails are aesthetically proportional to the bridge, matching what I envisioned in my mind’s eye.

This was a 45 to 50 second exposure taken at f8 with TMAX 3200 film shot at ISO 800. The engine lights were crossing the bridge in the image for only 5 to 10 seconds.

IMAGE TINT : GallerySteelGray

The cool steely gray toning was chosen to evoke the look of the bridge in the cold damp air. The same toning was selected for the image in my previous post.

This B&W image was toned in Adobe Photoshop with an ICC Profile I generated from my Mac App “SuiteProfiler”. The Profile was derived from the “GallerySteelGray”  Color Map created in SuiteProfiler.

Click these buttons to download the ICC Profile and SuiteProfiler Color Map:

EXERCISE : Aperture Settings

Seek out one or more moving light sources to photography. Take a series of bracketed exposures using the recommended ISO and aperture combination.

Perform more bracketing sessions with different apertures without changing your ISO.

Compare your results to see the difference in light trail widths. Decide what aperture to ISO ratio looks the best to you. Start using that to capture your Expanded Moments.

Some examples of moving light sources are headlights, flashlights and stars.

Be sure to review the “Safety & Precautions” Page.

NEXT TIME : “Aperture Starring”


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The Expanded Moment

007_BelenCrossingTrainWhen you take a long exposure, “what you see ain’t what you get”, at least not what you see with your naked eye.

What you do get is an Expanded Moment, including all of the changes in light seen by your camera.

French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson adopted the term “The Decisive Moment” to describe his personal style of photography. Essentially “being in the right place, at the right time” … in the right frame of mind.

About the creative moment, Cartier-Bresson said, “There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera.”

With long exposures, the “creative fraction of a second” becomes an Expanded Moment, an event which includes an element of time as well as space in the final image.

The trick is to learn to anticipate how your camera will record the changes you witness during a single exposure.

The challenge is a strange mix of anticipation and recognition. In the right frame of mind, we want to anticipate the moment without expectation to recognize the potential.

Image possibilities increase exponentially as exposure times increase. We are given greater opportunities to capture both our experience and our observation of an event in an uncommon way.

It’s kind of like shooting a short film then showing it as a single image. It’s a different way of telling a story.

IMAGE : Rail Crossing & Train Lights, Belen, NM

It was very dark. I had just completed one round of multi-minute bracketing of the rail cars and signal lights when I heard train whistles in the distance to my right.

I said out loud, “Here comes the magic.” After all I was alone in the dark so nobody could see or hear me talking to myself.

I opened the shutter as the oncoming train began to light up the rail cars and tracks in front of me. About the same time an all terrain vehicle came from the left on the other side of the tracks, highlighting the signal stands. I watched as the engines approached and passed, then closed the shutter after a dozen or so rail cars had gone by.

Turns out the vehicle was railroad security coming to tell me I was on private property and not allowed to take pictures. Little did he know he contributed to the shot.

This is a good example of being in the right place, at the right time, and making some quick decisions to take advantage of my good fortune. My original composition was a quiet scene but I ended up with something far more dynamic.

This turned out to be a 30 to 40 second exposure shot at f8 with TMAX 3200 film.

IMAGE TINT : GallerySteelGray

A slightly cool gray tint was applied to the image to convey a steely look, a better rendition of my visual experience than the neutral grayscale.

The image was tinted in Adobe Photoshop with an ICC Profile I generated from my Mac App “SuiteProfiler”. The Profile was derived from the “GallerySteelGray” Color Map created in SuiteProfiler.

Click these buttons to download the ICC Profile and SuiteProfiler Color Map:

EXERCISE : The Expanded Moment

Next time you go out at night without your camera, take the time to look at the light that is changing around you. This may range from very subtle to quite dramatic.

Pay attention to how long these changes take. Imagine how you would capture these changes with your camera, and when you would open then close the shutter.

Begin breaking the habit of seeing the world as things, and start thinking more of just seeing light.

NEXT TIME : “Aperture Settings”


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Framing, Leveling & Focusing

006_JemezGilmanTunnelsThree fundamental preludes to capturing an image are Framing, Leveling & Focusing.

These are fairly simple tasks in daylight, not so easy in low light.

Composing an image on a digital monitor or in a viewfinder is more demanding at night.

Typically framing is the first order of business, but will take more discovery work than during the day. You will most likely point your camera in different directions to examine the scene for framing and focusing.

Mama always said, “Level is as level does.” Leveling is visually subjective, and is especially difficult to gauge in the dark. Often what “level” means is relative to the visual elements in the image, and should be evaluated when viewing the resulting image.

Here are some suggestions to aid you in your image quest:

HOW TO : Framing

  • use a flashlight to light objects while viewing the scene
  • highlight corners of the image with light sources, like a lantern
  • take test shots, view on your digital monitor
  • take test shots with your flash, then view
  • use digital AF-assist illuminator
  • increase ISO to view on your monitor

HOW TO : Leveling

  • mechanical approach is to use a leveling bubble on your camera or tripod
  • flexible approach is to zoom out a bit to allow room for final image adjustment

HOW TO : Focusing

  • be sure to set digital Auto Focus (AF) to MANUAL
  • focus at infinity first then shorten focal length until in focus
  • focus on something well lit at the desired focal distance
  • use a flashlight to highlight a point of focus
  • take sample exposures, view on your digital monitor
  • measure distance with a tape measure for close subjects

IMAGE : Gilman Tunnels, Jemez Mountains, NM

The Gilman Tunnels are two miles up the canyon from our home. The logging industry transported timber by train through these tunnels over 60 years ago.

One moonless night I drove up to photograph the tunnels during a snowstorm. In my mind I pictured a scene filled with snowfall. When I arrived it was pitch black, no light at all. It was snowing very hard but I could not see anything without a flashlight.

“What to do? What to do?”

I drove through the first of two tunnels, parked my car and left the headlights on. I then walked back through the tunnel to set up my tripod and camera.

I used a lantern to light various points to help me frame and focus. Finally I left the lantern near the entrance lighting the tunnel and the rock wall on the left.

I zoomed out a bit to give myself some wiggle room for framing and leveling the image after the fact. Good thing, leveling my camera did not produce an image that appeared level.

This is a good example of a minimalist style image even though it was a 12 minute exposure shot at f8 with TMAX 3200 film. Did I mention that it was very, very dark?

IMAGE TINT : GallerySeleniumGoldToner

In the darkroom Selenium toning creates a cool purplish hue in the darker tones. Combined with moderate Gold toning, the highlights are shaded bluish gray. The toning effect was selected to convey the look of cold light on the rocks.

This B&W image was toned in Adobe Photoshop with an ICC Profile I generated from my Mac App “SuiteProfiler”. The Profile was derived from the “GallerySeleniumGoldToner” Color Map created in SuiteProfiler.

Click these buttons to download the ICC Profile and SuiteProfiler Color Map:

EXERCISE : Framing, Leveling & Focusing

Practice framing, leveling and focusing in a low lit room or backyard. Make use of the suggestions above to familiarize yourself with composing an image in the dark. Experiment with various approaches to discover what suits you best.

When you are comfortable, take your camera out at night, and seek out a very low lit scene. Challenge yourself but don’t overdo it. Compose and bracket to see what your camera sees.

Be sure to review the “Safety & Precautions” Page.

NEXT TIME : “The Expanded Moment”


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Light Sources

005_CampbellTreesOLightOne notable aspect of the night, not seen in the day, is a multitude of Light Sources.

They draw our eye and add to the visual interest of the night.

One of the great joys of night photography is the opportunity to include light sources in our images.

In populated areas there is a wide variety of man-made light, AKA artificial light. In the heavens there are numerous natural sources of light. Most nighttime scenes are lit by more than just a single light source.

Light sources can play a significant role in photographic compositions. They can be an important part of an expressive image, one that draws the viewer’s eye in an uncommon way. These visual elements highlight the difference between the nighttime and the daytime.

Photographing light sources directly has a number of challenges. We will examine these in upcoming posts, and offer tips and solutions.

IMAGE : Trees O’Light, Campbell, CA

This is one of my earliest nighttime images, taken on a damp winter night. I had ridden this bike path many times in the daylight so ventured out one night to check it out.

The light fog filled the air, diffusing and softening the light. The footlights portrayed the trees as characters on a stage, an effect unseen during the daytime.

I looked and beheld seven Trees, and at their feet, seven Lamps, each giving light to the Tree above. Then I heard a voice saying, “Come and see, for these are the Trees O’Light, each cradling a Mystery within.”

I looked and I saw the Lamps giving shape to the Trees. Then I heard another voice saying, “Come and witness the seven Mysteries sealed within the trees, each illuminated by the Lamp at its root, for these are the Mysteries O’Life that you long to see, and to hear, and to know.”

I looked, then said, “Nah … I’ll just take a picture.”

After bracketing I found that the best exposure was 30 seconds shot at f8 with TMAX 3200 film.

IMAGE TINT : GalleryGoldTonerLite

In the darkroom Gold toning creates image hues ranging from light to deep blue. Moderate Gold toning produces a bluish gray hue. This was chosen to evoke a feeling of the cold night air filled by lamplight.

This B&W image was toned in Adobe Photoshop with an ICC Profile I generated from my Mac App “SuiteProfiler”. The Profile was derived from the “GalleryGoldTonerLite” Color Map created in SuiteProfiler.

Click these buttons to download the ICC Profile and SuiteProfiler Color Map:

EXERCISE : Light Sources

Take your camera into the night and look for a simple composition which includes one or more light sources.

Pay attention to balancing the light sources with the other visual elements in your image.

Be sure to bracket, not only for exposure’s sake, but also to see how the light sources change in an image as shutter speeds increase.

Be sure to review the “Safety & Precautions” Page.

NEXT TIME : “Framing, Leveling & Focusing”


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The Great Diversity of Light

004_JemezMonumentMoonThe night is not just about darkness. It is about the Great Diversity of Light painted on a black background. It is about lighting possibilities and an abundance of photographic choices.

Unlike sunlight during the daytime, the night offers photographers a wide range of lighting conditions created by many varied sources of light.

Places take on a different personality at night, a different look and a different feel.

Often I’ve studied places during the day to imagine how they might look at night. I am almost always surprised by the reality of the nocturnal scene.

Night light is so much more diverse than daylight. The difference is like, well … night and day. The night literally forces you to see differently.

IMAGE : Jemez Monument & Moonrise, Jemez Springs, NM

Every year the Jemez Monument has a holiday lighting of over 1500 candle-lit farilitos. When this was taken, the moon was rising and highlighting the clouds. The face of the monument was lit by nearby bonfires. The entire scene was awash with moonlight.

The difference in lighting among the monument, the moon and the moonlit clouds was extreme.

This image is the result of bracketing then blending a 4 minute exposure of the monument with a 4 second exposure of the clouds and a 1/30 second exposure of the face of the moon. All exposures were shot at f16 with TMAX 3200 film.

IMAGE TINT : GalleryBrownTone

The Brown tone was created to convey an organic sense of the ancient Southwestern earthen structure.

This B&W image was toned in Adobe Photoshop with an ICC Profile I generated from my Mac App “SuiteProfiler”. The Profile was derived from the Color Map “GalleryBrownTone” created in SuiteProfiler.

Click these buttons to download the ICC Profile and SuiteProfiler Color Map:

EXERCISE : The Great Diversity of Light

Go out at night and observe the diversity of light. Pay attention to the medley of light sources and variations in lighting.

See what kind of light and lighting captures your attention the most. Be aware of the impact this has on you, that is, the feelings, sensations, or thoughts this evokes in you.

Consider how you would compose an image to re-create your visual and inner experience.

Be sure to review the “Safety & Precautions” page.

NEXT TIME : “Light Sources”


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Exposure Guidelines

003_SanJoseHotelDeAnzaNight Photography can seem a little daunting at first, but not to worry, there is method to the madness.

The most practical approach to capturing good nighttime exposures is Bracketing, or as a friend of mine says “BLH”, meaning Bracket Like Hell.

The idea is to capture as much image data as you can through a wide range of exposures.

There are many reasons for Bracketing. It is not just about getting the “right exposure” as in the daytime. We will discuss more about this in future posts.

For now, follow these basic Exposure Guidelines for both digit and film cameras:


  • set ISO to 400
  • set White Balance to Automatic
  • set Auto Focus (AF) to MANUAL (AF may disable camera if too dark)
  • set Auto Exposure (AE) to MANUAL (AE will under expose at night)
  • turn off Flash
  • set Shutter Speed to BULB for unsupported exposure times (e.g. > 30 seconds)


  • set ISO to the Film ISO, Film with ISO 400 is good for long exposures
  • correct White Balance for daylight color film with an 80A blue filter (optional)
  • do not use Flash
  • set Shutter Speed to BULB

EXPOSURE : Aperture

  • set Aperture (f-stop) to f5.6
  • do NOT change ISO or Aperture settings during Bracketing

EXPOSURE : “Starting Point” Shutter Speed

  • use Light Meter to establish the Starting Point Shutter Speed (if possible)
  • OR, set Shutter Speed to 1.0 second (if too dark for Light Meter)

EXPOSURE : Bracketing Shutter Speeds

  • make Starting Point exposure
  • make 3 to 5 subsequent exposures by doubling each exposure time

EXAMPLE : Bracketing Shutter Speeds

  • make Starting Point exposure of 1 second
  • make subsequent exposures of 2, 4, 8, 15, and 30 seconds
  • NOTE: do NOT change ISO and Aperture settings during bracketing

IMAGE : Hotel DeAnza, San Jose, CA

In 1991 I was living in the San Francisco Bay Area. One night in January, I looked out the window around midnight and saw fog, lots of fog. I grabbed my camera equipment and headed out.

I really had no idea what to do exactly. I just knew I needed to Bracket and hope for the best. I was so taken by Hotel DeAnza in the fog, I shot an entire roll of film to make sure I captured the right exposure, as well as the right composition.

That was the first time I had ventured out into the night to photograph. I did not get home until 6AM. No time for sleep, I got ready and left for work. I could not believe how much fun it was. I was especially excited after I developed my film. There was no looking back. I was completely captured by night photography.

The most successful exposures were 15 and 30 seconds shot at f8 with TMAX 3200 film. Bracketing gave me the result I was looking for.

IMAGE TINT : GallerySilver

Silver toning was chosen to accentuate the soft sense of light created by the fog.

This B&W image was tinted in Adobe Photoshop with an ICC Profile I generated from my Mac App “SuiteProfiler”. The cool tint was created to evoke a sense of the cold foggy night.

The Profile was derived from the Color Map “GallerySilver” created in SuiteProfiler. You can open the Color Map in SuiteProfiler if you have a Mac.

Click these buttons to download the ICC Profile and SuiteProfiler Color Map:

EXERCISE : Exposure Guidelines

Go out into the night and find a low lit scene, something moderately challenging. Avoid places that are brightly lit. Set up your camera and tripod, then follow the Exposure Guidelines to capture a series by Bracketed exposures.

Afterwards examine your images for successful exposures.

If you think you did not succeed, do not get discouraged. Return to the same scene, follow the guidelines, but adjust your Starting Point exposure. If your images are all too dark, increase the Starting Point Shutter Speed. If your images are all too light, decrease it. Perform a series of Bracketed exposures again.

Be sure to review the “Safety & Precautions” page.


NEXT TIME : “The Great Diversity of Light”


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Camera Equipment

002_DurangoEngineEngineerThe practice of photographing at night means setting up your camera equipment and taking long exposures in the dark.

We will review the details of nighttime exposures in the next post but for now here is a list of the camera equipment you will need to capture your masterpieces in the dark.


  • camera & lens – of course
  • tripod – to hold your camera steady
  • extra lenses – for the possibilities
  • cable release / remote – to open & close the shutter
  • flashlight – to see what you are doing
  • watch / timer – to time your exposures
  • lens wiping tissue or clothe – condensation happens


  • light meter / spot meter – on or off camera
  • flash - off camera for use during a long exposure
  • lantern / extra lights – for lighting or focusing
  • neutral density filters – for longer exposures

REMINDERS : Safety & Precautions

  • Safety First! When you are ready to go outside to photograph, make sure you feel safe. Do not go out to photograph alone, especially into unfamiliar territory. Be sure to dress warmly and comfortably, even on warm nights it can cool down quickly.
  • When you do go out to photograph at night, do not set things down in the dark. It is easy to forget or overlook equipment that you cannot see. Be in the habit of keeping everything on you or in your camera bag.
  • Do not breathe on your lens. On cold nights you can easily fog your lens. You can even cause your lens to ice up when it is below freezing.

IMAGE : Engine & Engineer, Durango Railyard, CO

When I first saw this guy on top of the engine I knew I didn’t have much time. As I ran down the tracks I extended the legs on my tripod. I also double checked that the aperture was at f8 and the shutter was set to “bulb”.

Once in place, I had to frame and focus quickly, then open the shutter. My goal was to get as long of an exposure as I could. So instead of timing my exposure, I waited until the engineer started to move. The exposure turned out to be between 30-45 seconds, pretty perfect.

If I had taken a minute longer to start the exposure, I would have missed it. My experience of handling my camera equipment in the dark really paid off.

IMAGE TINT : GalleryAmber

This B&W image was tinted in Adobe Photoshop with an ICC Profile I generated from my Mac App “SuiteProfiler”. The profile was applied to the image with the “Convert to Profile…” command.

The Profile was derived from the Color Map “GalleryAmber” created in SuiteProfiler. You can open the Color Map in SuiteProfiler if you have a Mac.

Click these buttons to download the ICC Profile and SuiteProfiler Color Map:

EXERCISE : Camera Equipment

Practice setting up your camera & tripod in a dark room in your house. Turn off the lights and use only a flashlight. Make sure you are familiar enough with your camera to make your settings with “your eyes closed” or close to it.

Make sure your digital camera is set to “Manual Exposure” and “Manual Focus”. Your camera may not allow you to take pictures in “auto” modes in the dark.

Shine your flashlight on something, then practice focusing and framing through your viewfinder. Check if you can get a reading with your light meter.

This will prepare you for shooting in dark environments comfortably. Nothing worse than trying to learn something new in the dark.

NEXT TIME : “Exposure Guidelines”


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Welcome to The Art of Night Photography

Carlsbad Fountain & LightningWelcome to The Art of Night Photography, the Blog dedicated to the practice of night photography.

This Blog draws on my 23+ years experience of photographing exclusively at night, as well as my 10+ years experience in teaching classes and workshops on night photography.

Through regular posts, we will explore a wide range of topics dealing with both the technical and the artistic challenges inherent in nighttime and low light photography.

On each post, I will share my experience on a single topic of nighttime image making, and present one of my images as an example. I will also suggest an exercise to help you learn from your own experience.

We will examine black-and-white and color images. We will also cover the technical aspects of capturing images with film and digital cameras. Occasionally we will delve into image production techniques in Adobe Photoshop.

Creating nighttime images is not just a technical venture. We will spend time discussing approaches to image content, composition and impact.

Typically I enhance my black-and-white images through tinting and toning. I do this digitally with custom color profiles created in my Mac App “SuiteProfiler”, which is available in the Mac App Store. I will share my thoughts on this from time to time.

This Blog is designed to address all levels of photographic experience, but we will keep it simple. You will need no expensive or specialized equipment to do the exercises.

So stay tuned, there is a lot to learn about this discovery process called “The Art of Night Photography.”

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SuiteProfiler Is Here !!!

I’m happy to announce that my latest Mac App is now available in the Mac App Store.

It’s called SuiteProfiler. It is a simple and powerful application for the creation of custom ICC Profiles, aka Color Map Profiles, to expand your potential for color profiling.

First you create a set of one or more device independent Color Maps, each defined by any set of colors you desire. Then you generate the device dependent Color Map Profiles, each derived from a Color Map.

A suite of Color Map Profiles supplements your use of an existing full color Printer or Display Profile. Color Map Profiles are ICC Profiles, and can be used for soft proofing, printing and converting both color and grayscale digital images. Color Map Profiles can be used in any system and application environment which supports color profiling.

Want more details? Just go to the Mac App Store, or my SuiteProfiler Overview page.