Over the hill

Star Trails, Bristlecone Pine Forest, California

Bristlecone Star Trails, Schulman Grove, White Mountain Bristlecone Pine Forest, California
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II
22 minutes
ISO 200
36 mm

Tomorrow morning I head up and over the Sierra crest and down US 395 in the shadow of the precipitous Eastern Sierra. Under-appreciated by tourists, the Eastern Sierra is no secret to photographers. It’s no surprise that Eastern Sierra fall color photo workshop, which starts Monday, has been among my most popular workshops since I started offering it nearly ten years ago.

The fall color on the other side of the “hills” is a particular highlight, but it’s by no means all we’ll photograph—of all the locations I visit, the Eastern Sierra by far offers the greatest variety of subjects. Check this out:

  • Mt. Whitney and the Alabama Hills, including Mobius Arch
  • Bishop Canyon, including North Lake, South Lake, Lake Sabrina, and lots of fall color
  • The ancient bristlecones of the White Mountains (technically not part of the Sierra, but it’s the best place for panoramic views of the Eastern Sierra)
  • Mono Lake, including South Tufa and another much more remote (solitary) location
  • Lundy Canyon for more fall color
  • Tuolumne Meadows and Olmsted Point in Yosemite

An Eastern Sierra workshop favorite each year is our trip to the bristlecone pine forest in the White Mountains, east of Bishop. Because it’s an hour drive back to civilization, and we leave dark-and-early for sunrise the next morning, I’ve never kept the group up there after sunset to do a night shoot. But last year I decided to give everyone the option of waiting for the stars—my plan was to make it optional, letting all who didn’t want to stay return to the hotel for a reasonable dinner and lights-out time. But no one opted out, and we had so much fun, and got such great images, that I’ve decided to make it a regular part of the workshop.

About this image

Eight years ago I was in California’s White Mountains with Don Smith and a couple of other photographer friends. On a chilly autumn evening we photographed sunset among the bristlecones, then stayed out past dark to photograph these photograph these amazing trees, (at over 4,000 years, among the oldest living things on earth) beneath the stars.

The others did some light painting, but I waited until the flashlights were dowsed to capture the silhouette of this magnificent tree against the celestial canvas. This was my first serious attempt at star trail photography, and after the success I had that night I was instantly hooked.

<< Read more in my Starlight photo tips article >>

As happy as I was with my results that night, nothing will compare to the experience of reclining with friends beneath a sky filled with more stars than I imagined possible, sometimes laughing and trading stories, and other times simply basking in impossible silence.

Moonset, Mt. Whitney and the Alabama Hills, California

See for yourself in my next Eastern Sierra Fall Color workshop

An Eastern Sierra Gallery

A sample of the Eastern Sierra’s varied beauty

Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show. Refresh the screen to reorder the display.

Out of my depth

Gary Hart Photography: Hidden, Akaka Falls State Park, Hawaii

Hidden Waterfall, Akaka Falls State Park, Hawaii
Sony a7R II
Sony 70-200 f4
1/10 second
ISO 1600

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about appreciating the small stuff. Writing that article opened my eyes to how much I’d gotten away from aspects of photography that give me great pleasure, and that were a big part of my photographic style. Not completely away, but far enough to notice a difference when reviewing my images from the last year or so, a year that coincides with my switch from Canon DSLR to Sony mirrorless. While I can’t attribute this shift to a shortcoming in my Sony gear (far from it), I do believe the timing is more than coincidence.

First, with its radically different interface and shooting workflow, mirrorless is a new trick and I’m an old dog, and I think I underestimated the ramifications of the mirrorless switch. Nevertheless, within a few weeks I felt reasonably comfortable seeing through an electronic viewfinder, had embraced a new focus and metering paradigm, and became sufficiently familiar with my Sony a7R’s features, buttons, dials, and menus. So far, so good.

But simply knowing a camera doesn’t mean I don’t have to think about using it. And it’s the unconscious control of photography’s technical side—the focusing, metering, setting exposure variables, and so on—that frees my brain to create. (I suspect it’s this way for most other photographers too.) So until I can make my camera an unconscious extension that functions more like an extra limb, the interface is a distraction. After ten years, I’d taken for granted my ability to control every aspect of my Canon DSLRs by feel, in the dark if necessary, without conscious thought—simply put, it’s taken nearly a year to achieve that familiarity with my Sonys.

In that gap between familiar and intimate with my Sony bodies, bad (lazy) habits formed. Because while I was getting used to a new way of shooting, I became so enamored of my a7R’s extreme dynamic range that my photography began to skew in that direction. Suddenly sunrises and sunsets that had been especially difficult (or impossible) with my Canons, were easy, a luxury I was all too happy to indulge. Then came the a7S, with its mystical ability to see in the dark, and suddenly night photography was occupying much more of my photography time.

Compounding the problem, these high dynamic range scenes tend to be more dramatic, and drama impresses the masses more than subtle. I’d post a new image to rave reviews (“Stunning!”), and soon found myself lured by the instant validation. I loved what I was shooting, others loved what I was shooting, so what could possibly be wrong?

Or maybe a better way to put it, what’s missing? I’d scroll through my recent images and couldn’t avoid the vague sense that there were fewer images that excited me personally. There were some, but not as many as I’d been accustomed to. And then it hit me—my images lacked depth.

Depth is the final frontier for aspiring photographers. Photography attempts to render a three-dimensional world in a two-dimensional medium, and intuitive disconnect. But while true depth in a photograph is impossible, what is possible is the illusion of depth. I’ve always felt that most people can compose a nice two-dimensional landscape, but what separates the great photographers from the good is their ability to convey depth.

Conveying the illusion of depth starts with not settling for a dramatic background or striking foreground subject, but using that as the starting point for a scene that contains visual points throughout the (missing) front-to-back plane. If the primary scene is in the distance, find nearer objects that balance and complement it. Likewise, if your subject is in the foreground, make every effort to include complementary background elements.

But finding a complementary foreground and background is just the beginning. Once you’ve identified your foreground and background (and mid-ground if possible) elements, you have to manage their relationships while mentally subtracting the camera’s missing third dimension (depth). Things like creating imaginary lines that connect objects at different distances; avoiding merging of discrete objects; perspective management with focal length and subject distance choices; focus (depth of field) control to emphasize/deemphasize foreground/background elements (to name a few). All of these things take a scene from more literal, two-dimentional snaps to interpretive, artistic creations that exist only in your brain until the shutter is clicked.

And that’s what I think has suffered in the year since my Sony switch—I’m still getting captures that excite me (and others), but in settling for the scenes the Sony sensor makes so easy, I lost my way a bit. Now that I recognize what’s been lacking, it’s time to up my game and apply that amazing Sony sensor to our three dimensional world.

About this image

I traveled to Hawaii earlier this month vowing to reinvigorate my quest for depth in my images. With lush rainforests, rugged volcanic beaches, vivid sunsets, and an active volcano, it’s a great spot for filling the frame from front to back.

One place in particular I looked forward to visiting was Akaka Falls State Park. The little scene in this image is extremely familiar to me—it’s near the end of Akaka Falls loop, after the view of the fall, making it easy to think the show is over as you beeline back to the parking lot to escape the humidity. Each time I pass this spot I stop and try to make it work, which starts with finding a way to pull detail from the dense shade without blowing out the fully exposed foreground foliage. And even if I can make the dynamic range work, I still have to figure out how to balance the conflicting need for a small aperture that ensures adequate depth of field, against the need for a shutter speed long enough to pull the waterfall from the extremely dense shade, but fast enough to avoid blurring the leaves in the almost unavoidable breeze.

But several things worked in my favor on this visit. A heavy cloud cover reduced the foreground brightness to a more manageable level, and my new Sony a7R II has at least two stops more dynamic range than the Canon 5D III I’d used on prior visits—suddenly, dynamic range wasn’t a deal-breaker. Also, someone had flipped the switch on Hawaii’s usually reliable trade winds—the still, humid air was extremely uncomfortable, but far better for this kind of close photography. Last but not least, the high ISO capability of my a7R II made me quite comfortable shooting at ISO 1600, high enough to permit f16 while maintaining a fast enough shutter speed.

My focal length was 154mm, so even at f16 I needed to be careful about focus. In scenes where I’m not sure whether I’ll have enough depth of field to ensure front-to-back sharpness, I almost always find a point that keeps my closer elements sharp. To maximize depth of field, I’ll focus as far behind the closest visual anchor (in this case the closest flowers) as I can without sacrificing any foreground sharpness. In this case I was pretty sure I could focus on the back flower and still keep the closer flowers sharp. In a perfect world I’d have liked just a little more motion blur in the water, but even with the air relatively still, I wasn’t comfortable going beyond 1/10 second.

Read more about controlling depth of field

The illusion of depth

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Kilauea Milky Way fun (with the a7S)

Gary Hart Photography: Starfire, Halemaumau Crater, Kilauea, Hawaii

Starfire, Halemaumau Crater, Kilauea, Hawaii
Sony a7S
Rokinon 24mm f1.4
10 seconds
ISO 1600

Rain in Hawaii is great for almost everything—it fills the waterfalls, cleans the air (for the best sunrise/sunset color), sparks rainbows, and makes photographing Hawaii’s lush foliage a joy. But it’s not so great when your objective includes stars. And based on the forecast for this year’s Hawaii Big Island workshops, our odds for finding the Milky Way above Kilauea weren’t too good. But a nature photographer who relies entirely on the odds will soon be an ex nature photographer.

The first night my group visited Kilauea we were completely shutout by a wet fog that obscured the world beyond 100 feet and deposited tangible flecks of moisture on every exposed surface. Undaunted, the next night we returned to the caldera despite rain in Hilo falling faster than our wipers could erase it. The downpour pounded us all the way through town, then eased a bit as we started to climb.

Despite the improving conditions, frequent skyward peeks through the windshield offered no cause for optimism. By the time we entered Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, the rain had stopped completely, but the clouds persisted. Parking at our destination we still saw no stars, but the caldera’s orange glow throbbed below and the clouds above reflected its orange glow—a definite improvement over the previous night. While not the grand prize, this reflected fire makes beautiful photographs too, offering a small consolation for a group of photographers with their hearts set on the Milky Way.

In the complete darkness a starlight shoot requires, the less setup required at the shooting location, the less we need to use our lights and the sooner everyone’s eyes adjust. So at the cars everyone’s polarizers came off, our apertures were opened wide, and the ISOs were pushed as far as the camera’s image quality will allow. Pared down to just a tripod, one camera, and one lens, we marched off to the caldera.

Ever the optimist, midway through the short walk to the rim I ventured one more glance upward—what had just seconds earlier been a solid blanket of orange-tinted grayness had suddenly acquired a jet-black rip sprinkled with twinkling points of light. I turned off my headlamp to confirm and there it was, the Milky Way, spread like a bag of sugar spilled on a pool of ink.

Most of the group had no experience with night photography, so despite the previous day’s training, I knew most of my time would be taken helping everyone find a composition, tweak exposures, and (somehow) focus through a virtually black viewfinder (or LCD). Because the caldera’s brightness varies daily, and the amount of moisture in the air affects the overall light that reaches the camera, I started with a test shot of my own to determine that night’s exposure. Then Don Smith and I bounced around from person to person, helping them achieve starlight autonomy.

Some mastered it quite quickly, while others were slowed by a slew of problems ranging from simple lens cap removal to more difficult camera errors. On my travels I’d occasionally stop at my camera long enough to click a frame of my own (and maybe check the frame I’d clicked on my previous pass). Eventually the pleas for assistance abated and I was able to stay at my camera long enough to recompose and experiment with different exposures.

After about an hour the clouds started to fill back in. I was pretty confident that everyone had had a success by then, but I made my way up and down the line to ensure that everyone was satisfied, and thanking my lucky stars for our good fortune.

This was the sixth year I’ve attempted photographing Kilauea at night. As my experience has grown, my equipment has evolved as well. The first time my fastest lens was f4, and I was reluctant to push my Canon 1Ds Mark III beyond ISO 1600. Looking back on those early images, I’m appalled by the noise I considered acceptable. I also shake my head now at the effort required to simply get a focused frame.

Fast forward to last year, when I shot the caldera with a Canon 5D Mark III and Zeiss 28mm f2 lens. I was pretty happy with my results and the ease with which success was achieved. But this year was my first attempt with the Sony a7S and my new Rokinon 24mm f1.4, and it’s a whole new ballgame.

My excitement was underscored as I helped those in the group still using DSLRs. My a7S viewfinder and live-view LCD displayed the caldera and stars with brilliant clarity, while even the best the SLR viewfinders and LCDs were virtually black. While I composed and focused in about 3 seconds (and didn’t even bother checking my results), the SLRs took minutes to compose, focus, and confirm (the only way to ensure sharpness on one of these cameras is to replay and magnify a picture).

Night photography is limited by a camera’s ability to display the scene for composition and focus, and the viewfinder of an SLR has advanced about as far as it can. On the other hand, electronic viewfinders have barely tapped their potential—the better the sensors become, the more detail they’ll be able to pull out of the dark. Once upon a time, low-light performance was a reason to stick with an SLR, but I suspect it won’t be long before the quality of an electronic viewfinder image renders SLR viewfinders unnecessary. The a7S is there already; for higher resolution mirrorless bodies, it’s only a matter of time.

Hawaii Photo Workshops

A starlight gallery

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Appreciating the small stuff

Forest Autumn, Yosemite

Forest Autumn, Yosemite
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III
1/25 second
ISO 200
200 mm

Posting as much as I do here in my blog and on Facebook, it’s sometimes easy to be sucked into sharing images that I know will generate the most enthusiastic response. But that’s not a complete reflection of my relationship with nature, or the reason I take pictures for a living. So every once in a while I find myself needing a reset, a re-focus on images for me.

Here’s an example of the kind of stuff that makes me happy. Fall color is always beautiful, but merely putting your eye to your camera and photographing a beautiful scene is no guarantee of a successful image. The closer you can come to identifying a scene’s essence, what about the scene that moves you (and not what you think will move others), the more your photography will resonate.

The obvious draw of fall color is (duh) the color. But beyond that, I particularly love the way leaves light up when they’re backlit. So when I wander forests in the fall I look for backlit leaves that stand out, leaves I can isolate from the distraction of their surroundings. When I find something that works, my job has just begun. Next I look for a complementary background that (if I’m lucky) also adds context (location, conditions, and so on). And finally I need to make my depth of field decision—do I want lots of DOF, or will too much background detail distract from my subject?

I found this group of leaves as I wandered the Merced River near Fern Spring in Yosemite Valley a few years ago. I move around until the leaves aligned with vertical evergreen trunks and a splash of deciduous color. The forest had lots going on, so I opted for a wide open aperture to reduce it to a barely recognizable blur of color, shape, and line.

Scenes like this underscore my desire to be in charge of as much of my camera’s decision making process as possible: spot metering in manual mode, manual focus, raw capture—all these things remove the decision process from my camera and give it to me. In this case, before composing I metered on a bright leaf and set the exposure to what I thought would give me the best color (in manual mode I can point my camera’s meter anywhere and not have to worry about my settings changing when I recompose).

The wind was nearly calm, but to be safe I bumped my ISO to 200 (the quality difference between ISO 100 and 200 is nearly imperceptible) to further ensure against microscopic motion blur. And since I shoot in raw mode, I never have to make my white balance decisions until I’m in the comfort of my home office.

When all my settings were complete, I returned my camera to the tripod, focused carefully on the center vein of the most prominent (left-most) leaf (at f4 there’s no margin for focus error), and clicked. It’s unfortunate that nature’s subtle beauty doesn’t attract the attention that the dramatic sunrises, sunsets, and spectacular weather do. I enjoy photographing those scenes as well, but I never want to forget to appreciate the small stuff.

A gallery of unspectacular beauty

(Subtle beauty you need to slow down to appreciate)

Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show. Refresh the screen to reorder the display.

Fallen color

Gary Hart Photography: Fallen Color, Rock Creek Canyon, Eastern Sierra

Fallen Color, Rock Creek Canyon, Eastern Sierra
Canon EOS-1D Mark II
3/10 second
ISO 100
85 mm

When you’re surrounded by beautiful scenery, it’s easy to overlook the small details that make a scene special. But there’s no substitute for the pleasure that comes from spending a little time in a scene, identifying its intricacies, and creating an image that conveys this connection to others. Capturing these intricacies can be the most rewarding aspect of photography, because they’re almost always uniquely reflective your own vision.

About this image

People frequently look at this image and ask if I arranged the red leaves. The answer is an emphatic, No! I usually go on to remind them that you can draw a straight line between any two objects on the face of the earth (or any other planet, as far as I know). In fact, the only arranging I do to an image is myself—circling, rising, dropping—and in that regard I’m quite aggressive.

In the field I look for individual elements to isolate in my frame; or better yet, groups of elements. Of course finding a subject is not the end of the job—without properly positioning the subjects in the frame, the scene is likely to fail. But rather than moving your subjects (the lazy solution), move yourself.

In this scene I circled the leaves slowly, camera to my eye, until the frame felt balanced. And while the leaves ended up at the “rule of thirds” points, that wasn’t a conscious decision on my part, but rather confirmation that the rule of thirds is indeed valid (sometimes).

Putting the Rule of Thirds in its place

What is the rule of thirds? Very simply, imagine a tic-tac-toe grid on your frame—the Rule of Thirds says that important linear elements (like the horizon) should be on the lines, and important compositional elements (like these leaves) should be at (or near) the intersections.

I hesitate to even bring the Rule of Thirds up because it’s one of the easiest photography “rules” to be broken effectively. It’s also probably the rule most frequently abused by well meaning judges at your local camera club. (If you get too much abuse about your Rule of Thirds choices in images you really like, don’t change your compositions, change your camera club.)

I think the Rule of Thirds true value is to help remind beginners not to bullseye subjects, or not to crowd elements against the edges. In fact, I could probably show about as many successful images that break the Rule of Thirds as follow it. When I’m composing a shot, any Rule of Thirds voices in my head are overruled by my intuition, my sense for what what balances a frame, and even more simply, what feels right.

Read more about photographing fall color

A fall color gallery

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Going long

Gary Hart Photography: Sunset Silhouettes, Desert View, Grand Canyon

Sunset Silhouettes, Desert View, Grand Canyon
Sony a7R II
Tamron 150-600 (Canon-mount with Metabones IV adapter)
1/125 second
ISO 200

It’s no secret that a prime benefit of mirrorless photography is the smaller form-factor of the bodies and lenses. And while I was looking forward to lightening my bag when I made the switch, it turns out that my first mirrorless thought wasn’t, “Oh gee, this bag is so light!” (it was). My first thought was actually, “Oh gee, look at all that extra room!”

While everyone knows that nature abhors a vacuum, it appears that nature photographers do too. Rather than leave that space empty and revel in my eased burden, I opted to fill every cubic inch with more gear. So, in a bag that was formerly maxed out with one Canon SLR body and four lenses covering 16mm to 200mm, I now carry three mirrorless bodies and four lenses that go from 16mm to 600mm. It’s the heaviest bag I’ve ever carried—and I love every ounce of it.

Occupying the most bag real estate (and weight!) is a Tamron 150-600mm lens (and Metabones adapter). My original thought when I purchased the Tamron was that I’d leave this beast in the car and only lug it out for very specific uses (much the way I used my Canon 100-400). But I’ve been having so much fun doing long telephotos with the 150-600 that I suck it up and pack it out pretty much everywhere I go.

I had particular fun with the big Tamron on my recent Grand Canyon trip. With distant vistas at virtually every stop, Grand Canyon provides infinite opportunities for the isolation and compression shots an extreme telephoto lens does so well. Suddenly I was enjoying familiar vistas in brand new ways—far off rock spires and buttes suddenly filled my entire frame, the distance separating receding ridges compressed until they lined up like a column of dominos, and the sun’s throbbing disk expanded on the horizon like a hot air balloon.

On the final sunset of our second workshop, Don Smith and I guided the group to Desert View, where we all spread along the rim west of the Watchtower. The canyon was extremely hazy, but I told everyone in the group within earshot that the haze would subdue the sun enough that we’d probably get that red rubber ball sun as it dropped from view.

I wasn’t planning to shoot, but as I stood on the rim working with the students (who were by now pretty independent anyway), I couldn’t resist setting up my tripod and breaking out the 150-600. Anticipating where the sun would reach the horizon, I moved a little east to balance it better with the most striking features in the view. Then I framed up my composition and waited for the sun to slip into the haze. With the help of my 3-stop Singh-Ray reverse graduated neutral density filter, I was indeed able to retain some yellow in the sun while still capturing silhouettes of the ridges stacked all the way to the horizon.

When I got the image home and opened it in Lightroom, the canyon was completely black, and the sun was a white disk. But tugging the Shadows slider to the right pulled out the silhouettes you see here (with remarkably little noise), and dragging the Highlights slider all the way to the left filled almost the entire sun with yellow (a thin band of white remained along the top edge, which I touched up in Photoshop). While the sun appeared more red to my eye, I was thrilled to get any color at all.

A long shot gallery

Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show. Refresh the screen to reorder the display.

The dark night

Gary Hart Photography: Angel's View, Milky Way from Angel's Window, Grand Canyon

Angel’s View, Milky Way from Angel’s Window, Grand Canyon
Sony a7S
Rokinon 24 f1.4
20 seconds
ISO 6400

How to offend a photographer

Gallery browser: “Did you take that picture?”

Photographer: “Yes.”

Gallery browser: “Wow, you must have a good camera.”

Few things irritate a photographer more than the implication that it’s the equipment that makes the image, not the photographer. We work very hard honing our craft, have spent years refining our vision, and endure extreme discomfort to get the shot. So while the observer usually means no offense, comments discounting a photographer’s skill and effort are seldom appreciated.


As much as we’d like to believe that our great images are 100 percent photographic skill, artistic vision, and hard work, a good camera sure does allow us to squeeze the most out of our skill, vision, and effort.

As a one-click shooter (no HDR or image blending of any kind), I’m constantly longing for more dynamic range and high ISO capability. So, after hearing raves about Sony sensors for several years, late last year (October 2014) I switched to Sony. My plan was a gradual transition, shooting Sony for some uses and Canon for others, but given the dynamic range and overall image quality I saw from my Sony a7R starting day one, I haven’t touched my Canon bodies since picking up the Sony.

While I don’t think my Sony cameras have made me a better photographer, I do think ten months is long enough to appreciate that I’ve captured images that would have been impossible in my Canon days. I instantly fell in love with the resolution and  2- to 3-stop dynamic range improvement of my Sony a7R (and now the a7R II) over the Canon 5D III, the compactness and extra reach of my 1.5-crop a6000 (with little loss of image quality), and my a7S’s ability to pretty much see in the dark.

But what will Sony do for my night photography?

I need more light

I visit Grand Canyon two or three times each year, and it’s a rare trip that I don’t attempt to photograph its inky dark skies. But when the sun goes down and the stars come out, Grand Canyon’s breathtaking beauty disappears into a deep, black hole. Simply put, I needed more light.

Moonlight was my first Grand Canyon night solution—I’ve enjoyed many nice moonlight shoots here, and will surely enjoy many more. But photographing Grand Canyon by the light of a full moon is a compromise that sacrifices all but the brightest stars to achieve a night scene with enough light to reveal the canyon’s towering spires, receding ridges, and layered red walls.

What about the truly dark skies? For years (with my Canon bodies) the only way to satisfactorily reveal Grand Canyon’s dark depths with one click was to leave my shutter open for 30 minutes or longer. But the cost of a long exposure is the way Earth’s rotation stretches those sparkling pinpoints into parallel arcs.

As with moonlight, I’m sure I’ll continue to enjoy star trail photography. But my ultimate goal was to cut through the opaque stillness of a clear, moonless Grand Canyon night to reveal the contents of the black abyss at my feet, the multitude of stars overhead, and the glowing heart of our home galaxy, the Milky Way.

So, ever the optimist, on each moonless visit to Grand Canyon, I’d shiver in the dark on the canyon’s rim trying to extract detail from the opaque depths without excessive digital noise or streaking stars. And each time I’d come away disappointed, thinking, I need more light.

The dynamic duo

Early this year, with night photography in mind, I added a 12 megapixel Sony a7S to my bag. Twelve megapixels is downright pedestrian in this day of 50+ megapixel sensors, but despite popular belief to the contrary, image quality has very little to do with megapixel count (in fact, for any given technology, the lower the megapixel count, the better the image quality). By subtracting photosites, Sony was able to enlarge the remaining a7S photosites into light capturing monsters, and to give each photosite enough space that it’s not warmed by the (noise-generating) heat of its neighbors.

With the a7S I was suddenly able to shoot at ridiculously high ISOs, extracting light from the darkest shadows with very manageable noise. Stars popped, the Milky Way throbbed, and planet Earth below glowed with exquisite detail. I couldn’t wait to try it at Grand Canyon.

My first attempt was from river level during this year’s Grand Canyon raft trip in May. Using my a7S and Canon-mount Zeiss 28mm f2 (after switching to Sony, I was able to continue using my Zeiss lens with the help of a Metabones IV adapter), I was immediately blown away by what I saw on my LCD, and just as excited when I viewed my captures on my monitor at home.

But I wasn’t done. Though I’d been quite pleased with my go-to dark night Zeiss lens, I wanted more. So, in my never-ending quest for more light, just before departing for Grand Canyon I purchased a Rokinon 24mm f1.4 to suck one more stop’s worth of photons from the opaque sky. The new lens debuted last Friday night, and I share the results here.

About this image

Don Smith and I were at Grand Canyon for our annual back-to-back monsoon workshops. On the night between workshops, Don and I photographed sunset at Cape Royal, then walked over to Angel’s Window where we ate sandwiches and waited for the Milky Way to emerge. The sky was about 80 percent clouds when the sun went down and we debated packing it in, but knowing these monsoon clouds often wane when the sun drops, we decided to stick it out.

Trying to familiarize myself with the capabilities of my new dark night lens, I photographed a handful of compositions at varying settings. To maximize the amount of Milky Way in my frame, everything oriented vertically. As with all my images, the image I share here is a single click.

Despite the moonless darkness, exposing the a7S at ISO 6400 for 20 seconds at f1.4 enabled me to fill my entire histogram from left to right (shadows through highlights) without clipping. Bringing the shadows up a little more in Lightroom revealed lots of detail with just a moderate amount of very manageable noise.

This is an exciting time indeed for photographers, as technology advances continue to push the boundaries of possibilities. Just a few years ago an image like this would have been unthinkable in a single click—I can’t wait to see what Sony comes up with yet.

Some comments on processing night images

Processing these dark sky images underscores the quandary of photography beyond the threshold of human vision—no one is really sure how it’s supposed to look. We’re starting to see lots of night sky images from other photographers, including many featuring the Milky Way, and the color is all over the map. Our eyes simply can’t see color with such little light, but a long exposure and/or fast lens and high ISO shows that it’s still there—it’s up to the photographer to infer a hue.

So what color should a night scene be? It’s important to understand that an object’s color is more than just a fixed function of an inherent characteristic of that object, it varies with the light illuminating it. I can’t speak for other photographers, but I try to imagine how the scene would look if my eyes could capture as much light as my camera does.

To me a scene with blue cast is more night-like than the warmer tones I see in many night images (they look like daylight with stars), so I start by cooling the color temperature below 4,000 degrees in Lightroom. The purplish canyon and blue sky in this image is simply the result of the amount of light I captured, Grand Canyon’s naturally red walls, and me cooling the image’s overall color temperature in Lightroom. For credibility, I actually decided to desaturate the result slightly. (The yellow glow on the horizon is the lights of Flagstaff and Williams, burned and desaturated in Photoshop.)

Learn more about starlight photography

A dark night gallery

Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show. Refresh the screen to reorder the display.


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