Posted on July 25, 2021
I have a T-shirt that says, “Everyone’s a photographer until…,” above a picture of a camera exposure-mode dial set to Manual. In my mind, this is one of those declarations that’s as true as it is funny (if you don’t see the humor, you’re probably not a photographer anyway).
I write this with no very little judgement or condescension. Photography needs to make you happy, and if having to think about shutter speeds, f-stops, and ISO saps your joy, then set your camera’s dial to Auto and have a blast. And my goal isn’t to shame auto-shooters, it’s just to point out (again) that photography’s greatest opportunity for creativity comes with mastery of your scene’s “creative triad”: motion, light, and depth. And you can’t master the creative triad without mastering the exposure variables: shutter speed, ISO, and f/stop. Period.
Though it’s quite possible to get fantastic pictures in full automatic exposure mode by simply framing up a composition and clicking, composition is only one of the variables that combine to make a successful image (see “creative triad” above). And composition happens to be the variable that’s easiest to master competently. So I’m afraid if you want to distinguish yourself as a photographer, you really need to bite the bullet and master exposure.
What IS exposure mastery?
It’s important to understand that the correct exposure for most images requires some level of compromise—a shutter speed, f-stop, or ISO that’s less than ideal. (Especially true if you’re not using a tripod—fortunately landscape photography is particularly suited to tripod use.) For example, achieving a shutter speed fast enough to freeze flowing water might require a less than ideal f-stop or ISO.
Exposure mastery means being able to achieve your desired motion, light, and depth with the absolute minimum exposure compromise. It also means knowing when your creative goal isn’t possible—for example, when there’s no usable exposure combination that will get both a foreground and background subject sharp, or blur a water feature (while still getting the light right).
(For the record, even though I’m a fulltime Manual shooter, Aperture/Shutter Priority shooters who do it the right way qualify as Manual shooters in my book because they are making decisions about all of their exposure variables. What’s the “right way”? Setting the shutter speed or f-stop based on what their creative vision calls for, and knowing how to manage exposure compensation to get the exposure right.)
The good news is, you don’t need to use Manual metering (or Aperture/Shutter Priority) all the time. But you really should know how to use it, and be able to identify when it does and doesn’t matter. Fortunately, it isn’t as difficult as most people fear.
Rather than reinvent the wheel, here’s my Photo Tips article on Digital Metering.
About this image
Exploring the bank of the Little Colorado River during this year’s Grand Canyon raft trip, I hunted compositions and waited for the late afternoon shade to arrive. One feature I especially wanted to highlight was the linear limestone shelves that formed long, stair-step ledges. After a little searching, I found the cascade in this image just upstream from where most in the group had gathered to swim and photograph.
Lacking an obvious foreground anchor, I settled for a small, c-shaped cascade, and lowered my tripod to within a couple of feet to exaggerate the feature’s prominence. When the shade finally arrived, the dynamic range instantly became a non-factor for my Sony a7RIV, making the light part of my exposure decision pretty straightforward.
The motion and depth part of the equation, however, were a different story. The churning cascades created random splashes that I knew would distracting in a still image, so I chose to eliminate them with a long shutter speed to smooth the water. Even though I was now in full shade, there was too much light to achieve enough motion blur without the help of a neutral density filter, so I added my Breakthrough 6-stop dark polarizer to my Sony 24-105 f/4 G lens. This also allowed me to polarize distracting sheen on the rocks and water’s surface.
I also really wanted front-to-back sharpness, far from a sure thing with a foreground so close and background so distant (an f-stop decision I’d never trust to one of the auto exposure modes). After consulting my hyperfocal app, I stopped down to f/16, focused on the cascade just behind the nearby rock protrusion, pushed my shutter speed until my pre-capture histogram looked right (4 seconds), and clicked.
Managing Motion, Light, and Depth
Posted on July 18, 2021
Comets were once harbingers of doom, so it’s likely that in times past the appearance of a bright comet coincident with a worldwide pandemic would have stoked great fear. Instead, (thanks to knowledge gained through centuries of scientific discovery) Comet NEOWISE infused a kernel of joy into an otherwise bleak year.
Spurred by the first NEOWISE anniversary earlier this month, over the previous week or two I revisited the images from last July’s four NEOWISE shoots (two in Yosemite, two at Grand Canyon) to see if I’d overlooked anything. It was great to mentally revisit those nights, which were each in their own way among the most memorable night sky experiences of my life:
- July 10, 2020: “I never dreamed it would be this bright”
- July 16, 2020: That ion tail!
- July 23, 2020: Hello Grand Canyon
- July 24, 2020: Farewell NEOWISE
On my search I found many process-worthy images, but most were fairly similar to what I already had. One exception is the image I share here. Rather than casting the magnificent comet in a costarring role with landscape and/or celestial icons (Half Dome, El Capitan, Grand Canyon, Big Dipper, Venus), NEOWISE is the one and only star of this image. And more than my other NEOWISE images, what sets this one apart is the spectacular ion tail.
Of my four NEOWISE shoots, the comet was probably at its most striking for my two in Yosemite—each for a different reason. My first NEOWISE experience came during a pre-sunrise visit to Glacier Point that coincided with the comet’s peak visibility.
While it had brightened to somewhere between magnitude 0 and 1 (the lower the magnitude, the brighter) shortly after its July 3 perihelion (closest approach to the sun), NEOWISE was too close to the sun to stand out in the against the brightening sky. But by the time of my Yosemite trip on July 10, NEOWISE had climbed out of the sun’s glow, while still shining in the magnitude 1 to 2 range—somewhere between the brightness of Spica and Polaris—making it easily the most prominent object in that part of the sky.
Six days later I returned to Yosemite, this time taking the one mile hike out to Taft Point to photograph NEOWISE above El Capitan after sunset. When the sky darkened, NEOWISE was clearly visible to the naked eye, but noticeably dimmer. But what made this night’s show special was the development of a spectacular ion tail. Faintly visible to the unaided eye, this new addition was a thing of beauty in my viewfinder and images.
I’m going to digress briefly to mention an important aspect of my photography that I’m not sure everyone shares. In the simplest possible terms, I can’t imagine photographing subjects—celestial, terrestrial, atmospheric—that I don’t understand. Rather than a personal “rule,” this need to understand my subjects is so ingrained in my personality that I didn’t fully appreciate its significance until recently.
My proclivity manifests in many ways, from obsessively buying geology books on every new location, to pouring over scientific articles explaining an obscure cloud formation, to mentally running orbital geometry in my head as I go to sleep (really). And sometimes understanding is the catalyst, inspiring me to pursue with my camera subjects that have fascinated me for years: lightning, solar eclipse, the aurora. (Still dreaming about that first tornado.)
My own internal connection between visual beauty and the natural phenomena that beauty represents probably explains why my blog is such an integral part of my photography. While I can capture nature’s visual gifts with my camera, I need my blog to connect it to the underlying processes. Another, no less important, component of blogging about my subjects is that researching and writing it often becomes as much of a learning experience for me as it is for my readers. (So thank you.)
If you follow me at all, you know my love of astronomy in general, and of comets in particular. So when I saw NEOWISE’s ion tail, I knew what it was, but wanted to more completely understand things like why a comet’s ion tail is always separated from its brighter dust tail, and why the ion tail appears blue in my images (is this real, a color temperature thing, or maybe some color artifact introduced in-camera?).
At risk of repeating myself, a comet is a lump of dust and ice in an extreme elliptical (it’ll be back) or parabolic (one-and-done) orbit of the sun. Most of the comet’s journey is pretty ordinary, but as it approaches the sun, things start to happen—its speed increases, and the sun’s heat starts melting the ice, freeing gas and dust molecules to form a fuzzy coma surrounding the frozen nucleus.
As the comet accelerates toward the sun, the temperature continues rising and the rate of liberated molecules increases. The mass and momentum of the comet’s nucleus allows it to continue on its orbital path, but the freed dust molecules, now under the influence of the solar wind, are nudged back, away from the sun: a tail is born.
Over time this dust tail grows and spreads, becoming the signature feature of most comets. Like most of the comet, the dust tail doesn’t create its own light, but rather is illuminated solely reflected sunlight. Varying somewhat with the composition of its molecules, the dust tail will appear yellow-white to our eyes.
But I’ve saved the best for last. Gas molecules shed by the comet’s nucleus, being lighter than dust molecules, are whisked straight back by the solar wind. Instead of fanning out like the dust tail, these gas molecules form a narrow ion tail that points directly away from the sun. Some of these gas molecules are ionized (stripped of an electron). Unlike the dust tail that shines by reflected light, the ion tail shines by fluorescence, taking on a blue color courtesy of the predominant CO (carbon monoxide) ion.
Of course there’s a time for pondering the marvels of nature, and a time for simply basking in its beauty. So as I was photographing this scene, I wasn’t thinking about all the physics and chemistry unfolding before me, I was focused on capturing the product of the underlying processes (the comet) and its relationship with the surrounding landscape. On this night most of my images were variations of NEOWISE with El Capitan and/or the nearby Big Dipper. But I’m glad I took the time to include a few frames that put this magnificent comet itself front-and-center.
A Comet NEOWISE Retrospective
Posted on July 11, 2021
Who remembers the Etch A Sketch? For those who didn’t have a childhood, an Etch A Sketch is a mechanical drawing device that’s erased by turning it upside-down and shaking vigorously.
One of the great misconceptions among photographers (and who isn’t a photographer these days?) is that the tripod’s sole value is to eliminate camera shake. I bring this up because I frequently hear photographers brag that they rarely use a tripod anymore because image stabilization is so good—and anyway, even when stabilization won’t be enough to prevent camera shake, they can just increase the ISO.
But before you throw out your tripod, consider that digital capture has given it a new lease on life. Unlike film cameras, a digital camera gives lets us instantly review each image to check the composition, exposure, and sharpness. Photographing on a tripod, when I find something that requires fixing, rather than attempting to recreate the shot, I can refine the composition I just evaluated. Let me explain.
When I come across a scene that I deem photo-worthy, I treat my first click like a rough draft, the first step toward the final image. I stand back with my capture displayed on my LCD, critique my effort, refine it, then click again. I repeat this process until I’m satisfied. In other words, each frame becomes an improvement of the preceding frame.
Taking this approach without a tripod, I feel like I’m erasing an Etch A Sketch after each click. That’s because after each click, I have to drop the camera from my eye and extend it in front of me to review the image, essentially wiping clean my previous composition. Before I can make the inevitable adjustments to my most recent capture, I must return the camera to my eye and completely recreate the composition I just evaluated.
Before I continue, let me just acknowledge that there are indeed many valid reasons to not use a tripod. For example, you get a tripod pass if your subject is in motion (sports, wildlife, kids, etc.), you photograph events or in venues that don’t allow tripods, you have physical challenges prevent you from carrying a tripod, or even if you just plain don’t want to (first and foremost, photography has to make you happy!). But if you’re a landscape shooter who wants the best possible images, “Because now I can get a sharp enough image hand-holding” is not a valid reason for jettisoning the tripod.
A few years ago I was at the Grand Canyon, looking for a scene to try out my new (just released) Sony a6300 camera. My first morning started at Mather Point about 45 minutes before sunrise, but as I often do at Mather, I took the trail along the rim to Yavapai Point (about a mile), ending up at a tree I’d been eyeing for years.
On all previous attempts at this tree, something had foiled me: either the light was wrong, the sky was boring, or there were too many people. One sunrise a few years prior, I found the tree and canyon bathed in beautiful warm light, and the sky filled with dramatic, billowing clouds—perfect, except for the young couple dangling their legs over the edge and making goo-goo eyes beneath “my” tree. They looked so content, I just didn’t have the heart to shove them over the edge (I know, I know, you don’t have to say it—I’m a saint).
But this morning, everything finally aligned for me: nice clouds, beautiful sunrise color, and not a soul in sight. I went to work immediately, trying compositions, evaluating, refining—well, you know the drill. As I worked, I started honing in on the proper balance of foreground and sky, alignment of the tree with the background, depth of field, focus point, framing—I was in the zone.
When I thought I had everything exactly right, I stood back for a final critique and realized I’d missed one thing: The tree intersected the horizon. While not a deal-breaker, it’s something I try to avoid whenever possible. To fix the problem, my camera needed to be about eight inches higher. I made the small refinement, so when the color reached its crescendo a few minutes later, my composition was ready.
Raising the camera would have been no simple task if I’d been hand-holding, but (since my Really Right Stuff TVC-24L tripod, with head and camera, elevates to about six inches above my head) it was no problem with my tripod. But the extra tripod height was just a bonus. The true moral of this story, the thing that so perfectly illustrates the tripod’s value, is that there is no way I’d have gotten all the moving parts just right with a hand-held point-and-click approach.
Of course your results may vary, and as I say, photography must must make you happy. So if using a tripod truly saps the joy from your photography, by all means leave it home (and enjoy your $3,000 Etch A Sketch). But if your photography pleasure comes from getting the absolute best possible images, the tripod is your friend.
A Grand Canyon Gallery
Posted on July 5, 2021
Last week I posted a Milky Way reflection image (and the story of its capture) from my recent Grand Canyon raft trip, and this week I’m sharing another one from the same night. What I didn’t share last week is the rather circuitous (and somewhat embarrassing) path to offering my images from that night. So here goes…
There’s a certain mystique that comes with being a professional photographer that I must say isn’t always completely deserved. I mean, sometimes it feels we’re viewed as creative savants who never make mistakes, when in reality we struggle to make things happen just like everyone else. Like you, I’ve checked my EXIF data and wondered what in the world I was thinking when I chose f/16 or ISO 800 (or whatever), left a shoot just a little early or arrived a little late, decided not to bring (or simply forgotten to pack) the right lens, not charged a battery (or brought a spare), clumsily dropped a valuable piece of precision electronics, deleted important images, or…, well, let’s just say I could go on.
Case in point: As I’ve said as recently as last week, the Milky Way may just be my favorite thing to photography on my Grand Canyon raft trip. So important in fact, that I always spend a significant amount of the trip’s precious (and strictly enforced) equipment-weight budget on a camera body and lens that will be used for nothing but the Milky Way. But one year unseasonal rain and clouds that provided spectacular photography also unfortunately completely wiped out the trip’s night shoots. Which is why I didn’t discover until returning home that instead of packing the 20mm f/1.4 dedicated night lens (at the time), I’d packed my 90mm macro (which was a similar size but didn’t really look anything like the 20mm).
In my defense, I try not to make the same mistake twice, and every subsequent trip I’ve double- and triple-checked my gear to make sure I have everything I’ll need. This year’s night setup was my brand new Sony a7SIII and relatively new Sony 20mm f/1.8 G lens, and I’m happy to report that both made it onboard and downstream, and were ready for action when we scored a prime Milky Way campsite on the trip’s third night. In fact, I managed to navigate the entire shoot that night with the right camera and lens, proper camera settings, everything in focus, plenty of space on the SD card, and without dropping a single thing. What could possibly go wrong?
The next day I was pretty excited about what I’d captured, and couldn’t wait to get home and look the images on my computer. That afternoon was hot, and we arrived at our campsite early. With the sun still quite high as we prepared to motor across the river for some quality photography, swimming, and hiking at Deer Creek Fall, out of an abundance of caution, I removed from my duffle the small case containing my a7SIII and 20mm, carefully setting it in the cool shade of a nearby rock. Do you see where this is going?
Like most mornings, the next morning was a blur of activity as we ate breakfast, packed up our campsite, and hit the river. At Havasu Creek, about 30 miles downstream, I had the sudden realization that I had no memory of returning the camera and lens to my duffle, a thought that I quickly attributed to what I call the “garage door axiom”: just because you don’t remember doing something, doesn’t mean you didn’t do it (how many times have you not remembered closing the garage door and u-turned home only to find it closed tight?). Which is why I wasn’t really that concerned at camp that night, but I figured I’d better check my duffle anyway, just in case.
I was instantly reminded that no matter how many times you check a spot for something that you know should be there but isn’t, doesn’t make it appear. My panic eventually turned to embarrassment as my mind processed the ramifications. Not only were my camera and lens gone, so were the SD cards containing the only copies of the previous night’s bounty. The Colorado River is a one-way juggernaut, so going back was not an option. And with no connectivity at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, there would be no getting the word out until we returned to civilization.
I tried consoling myself with the knowledge that the camera and lens were insured, but the rationalization the Milky Way images were the only irreplaceable loss was little comfort. And that certainly didn’t make me feel any less stupid. It gets worse…
The first thing I did upon returning to the land of connectivity was report the loss to Trent at Western River Expeditions, the director of operations who puts together my charter each year. The second thing I did was gather the information necessary to file an insurance claim. So imagine my surprise when I realized that I’d somehow forgotten to add my new a7SIII to my insurance policy. Oops.
At first Trent was hopeful that some Good Samaritan would find my gear and do the right thing, but when two weeks passed with no word, my faith in humankind started to wane. But just about the time I’d given up all hope, I got a text from Trent saying that someone had just exited the canyon and posted online that he’d found a camera across from Deer Creek Fall and was trying to find the rightful owner. The next few days were a blur of online searching, messaging, effusive gratitude, shipping, tracking, and finally more effusive gratitude when I actually had my camera, lens, and SD cards in my possession.
I don’t know if there’s a real moral to this story, other than it’s nice to be reminded that humans are generally good and most people will do the right thing when the opportunity presents itself. That, and I’m a pretty lucky guy.
Grand Canyon from the Bottom Up
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on June 27, 2021
It seems that photographing the Milky Way gets a little easier with every passing year. I’m not talking about the dazzling composite hybrids (one frame for the sky, combined with a second frame for the foreground) that have become so popular, I’m talking about the old fashioned (well, as old fashioned as a digital image can be) single-click captures that use only the photons that strike a sensor during a single exposure.
Whether it’s a new low-light camera body, the latest ultra-fast wide lens, or breakthrough noise reduction software, there’s always something to new to look forward to on one of my annual workshops that include the Milky Way. 2020 was a lost year, so not only was I especially looking forward to returning to my go-to dark sky spots, I was really looking forward trying out two years of technology advancement: my new Sony a7SIII, (relatively) new Sony 20mm f/1.8 G (the 14mm f/1.8 GM lens didn’t make it in time), and applying my new Topaz DeNoise AI software to the results.
My first Milky Way opportunity of 2021 came on Grand Canyon raft trip in May. On moonless nights the Grand Canyon has some of the darkest skies possible, but towering walls and the general east-west trend of the Colorado River make it tricky to find views of the southern horizon where the Milky Way’s brilliant core is found. And since all Colorado River campsites are first come, first served, and campsites with a Milky Way view are rare, viewing the Milky Way at the bottom of the Grand Canyon is far from a sure thing.
This was the seventh time I’ve done this trip, so my lead river guide and I have become pretty good at maximizing our Milky Way opportunities. Nevertheless, on this trip we didn’t get a campsite that worked until our fourth night. It was actually our second choice for that night, but when we found the site we’d originally targeted occupied, we ended up at our Plan B spot about a mile downstream.
My first thought was that a less than ideal angle of view meant the Milky Way wouldn’t appear until after 1 a.m., and wouldn’t rotate into the prime viewing region above the canyon until after 2 a.m. But after I scoping out the view while waiting for dinner, I found a couple of reasons to like our location. First was the spacious beach that provided room for everyone to set up without jostling for position, a real luxury compared to most of the campsites. The second that gave me hope was that our beach was on a bend in the river that created a large pool of still, reflective water—if the wind held off (never a sure thing), we could have some pretty nice reflections.
After dinner I gave everyone in the group a little orientation, letting them know where to set up, and when and where the Milky Way would appear. I also encouraged them to pre-compose and pre-focus before it got dark. (One of the great things about night photography at the Grand Canyon is that you can set up your shot in advance and leave your camera set up on the tripod without worrying about it “walking away.”)
When I got up at 1 a.m. the Milky Way was cresting the canyon wall on the left, and a few others were already happily clicking away. The air was still, so the reflection was everything I’d hoped it would be.
My early frames were horizontal, but as the Milky Way rotated upward, I started to mix in more vertical frames. Night photography is all about compromise: choosing less than ideal exposure values to capture enough light to bring out the stars and even a little foreground detail. As I do with most of my Milky Way images, before moving on to my next composition I tried a variety of exposure settings, varying the ISO between 6400 to 12800, shutter speeds from 10 to 30 seconds, and f-stops from f/1.8 to f/2.8.
Milky Way nights are so dark that sometimes I go for silhouettes. Silhouettes require less light, but also need a distinctive outline against the sky. I didn’t think silhouettes here were very good, so I exposed for more light to pull out foreground detail. For this image I used ISO 6400, f/1.8, 30 seconds, deciding that ISO 6400 gave me the most manageable noise, and my Sony 20mm f/1.8 G lens is good enough wide open that I really don’t need to stop-down. And given the amount of foreground detail I wanted, I preferred the slight star motion of a 30-second exposure to the extra noise ISO 12800 and 15 seconds gave me. (But this is a personal choice—if even extremely slight star motion bothers you, you might be okay with a little more noise to reduce it.)
Here’s an updated version of the Milky Way how-to article in my Photo Tips section
See the Milky Way
Look heavenward on a moonless summer night (in the Northern Hemisphere) far from city light. The first thing to strike you is the shear volume of stars, but as your eyes adjust, your gaze is drawn to a luminous band spanning the heavens. Ranging from magnificently brilliant to faintly visible, this is the Milky Way, home to our sun and nearly a half trillion other stars of varying age, size, and temperature.
Size and shape
Though every star you’ve ever seen is part of our Milky Way galaxy, stargazers use the Milky Way label more specifically to identify this luminous river of starlight, gas, and dust encircling the night sky. As you feast your eyes, appreciate that some of the Milky Way’s starlight has traveled 25,000 years to reach your eyes, and that light from a star on one edge of the Milky Way would take 100,000 years to reach the other side.
The rest of the sky appears to be filled with far more discrete stars than the region containing the Milky Way, but don’t let this deceive you. Imagine that you’re out in the countryside where the individual lights of a distant city blend into a homogeneous glow—similarly, the stars in the Milky Way’s luminous band are simply too numerous and distant to resolve individually. On the other hand, much like the lights of nearby farmhouses, the distinct pinpoints of starlight that we name and mentally assemble into constellations are simply closer. The dark patches in the Milky Way aren’t empty space, they’re starlight-blocking interstellar dust and gas, remnants of exploded stars and the stuff of future stars—like the trees and mountains that block our view of the city,.
Just as it’s impossible to know what your house looks like by peering out a window, it’s impossible to know what the Milky Way looks like by simply looking up on a dark night. Fortunate for us, really smart people have been able to infer from painstaking observation, measurement, reconstruction, and comparison with other galaxies that our Milky Way is flat (much wider than it is tall) and spiral shaped, like a glowing pinwheel, with two major arms and several minor arms spiraling out from its center. Our solar system is in one of the Milky Way’s minor arms, a little past midway between the center and outer edge.
Blinded by the light
Sadly, artificial light and atmospheric pollution have erased the view of the Milky Way for nearly a third of the world’s population—eighty percent of Americans. Worse still, even though some part of the Milky Way is overhead on every clear night, many people have never seen it.
The good news is that advances in digital technology have spurred a night photography renaissance that has enabled the Milky Way challenged to enjoy images of its splendor from the comfort of their recliner. But there’s nothing quite like viewing it in person. Fortunately, with just a little knowledge and effort, you too can enjoy the Milky Way firsthand; add the right equipment and a little more knowledge, and you’ll be able to photograph it as well.
Horizon to Horizon
Understanding that our Solar System is inside the Milky Way’s disk makes it easier to understand why we can see some portion of the Milky Way on any night (assuming the sky is dark enough). In fact, from our perspective, the plane of the Milky Way forms a complete ring around Earth (but of course we can only see half the sky at any given time), with its brightness varying depending on whether we’re looking toward our galaxy’s dense center or sparse outer region.
Where the action is
Though the plane of the Milky Way stretches all the way across our sky, when photographers talk about photographing the Milky Way, they usually mean the galactic core—the Milky Way’s center and most densely packed, brightest region. Unfortunately, our night sky doesn’t always face the galactic core, and there are many months when this bright region is not visible at all.
To understand the Milky Way’s visibility in our night sky, it helps to remember that Earth both rotates on its axis (a day), and revolves around the sun (a year). When the side of the planet we’re on rotates away from the sun each day, the night sky we see is determined by our position on our annual trip around the sun—when Earth is between the sun and the galactic core, we’re in position to see the most brilliant part of the Milky Way; in the months when the sun is between earth and the galactic core, the bright part of the Milky Way can’t be seen.
Put in terrestrial terms, imagine you’re at the neighborhood playground, riding a merry-go-round beneath a towering oak tree. You face outward, with your back to the merry-go-round’s center post. As the merry-go-round spins, your view changes—about half of the time you’d rotate to face the oak’s trunk, and about half the time your back is to the tree. Our solar system is like that merry-go-round: the center post is the sun, the Milky Way is the tree, and in the year it takes our celestial merry-go-round to make a complete circle, we’ll face the Milky Way about half the time.
Finding the Milky Way
Just like every other celestial object outside our solar system, the Milky Way’s position in our sky changes with the season and time of night you view it, but it remains constant relative to the other stars and constellations. This means you can find the Milky Way by simply locating any of the constellations in the galactic plane. Here’s an alphabetical list of the constellations* through which the Milky Way passes (with brief notes by a few of the more notable constellations):
- Canis Major—faint
- Cassiopeia—faint; its easily recognized “w” (or “m”) shape makes Cassiopeia a good landmark for locating the Milky Way in the northern sky
- Orion—faint; another easy to recognize constellation that’s good for finding the galactic plane
- Sagittarius—brightest, galactic core
* Constellations are comprised of stars that only appear connected by virtue of our Earth-bound perspective—a constellation is a direction in the sky, not a location in space.
If you can find any of these constellations, you’re looking in the direction of some part of the Milky Way (if you can’t see it, your sky isn’t dark enough). But most of us want to see the center of the Milky Way, where it’s brightest, most expansive, and most photogenic. The two most important things to understand about finding the Milky Way’s brilliant center are:
- From our perspective here on Earth, the galactic core is in Sagittarius (and a couple of other constellations near Sagittarius)—when Sagittarius is visible, so is the brightest part of the Milky Way (assuming you can find a dark enough sky)
- Earth’s night side most directly faces Sagittarius in the Northern Hemisphere’s summer months (plus part of spring and autumn)
Armed with this knowledge, locating the Milky Way’s core is as simple as opening one of my (too many) star apps to find out where Sagittarius is. Problem solved. Of course it helps to know that the months when the galactic core rises highest and is visible longest are June, July, and August, and to not even consider looking before mid-March, or after mid-October. If you can’t wait until summer and don’t mind missing a little sleep, starting in April, Northern Hemisphere residents with a dark enough sky can catch Sagittarius and the galactic core rising in the southeast shortly before sunrise. After its annual premier in April, the Milky Way’s core rises slightly earlier each night and is eventually well above the horizon by nightfall.
People who enjoy sleep prefer doing their Milky Way hunting in late summer and early autumn, when the galactic core has been above the horizon for most of the daylight hours, but remains high in the southwest sky as soon as the post-sunset sky darkens enough for the stars to appear. The farther into summer and autumn you get, the closer to setting beneath the western horizon the Milky Way will be at sunset, and the less time you’ll have before it disappears.
Into the darkness
The Milky Way is dim enough to be easily washed out by light pollution and moonlight, so the darker your sky, the more visible the Milky Way will be. To ensure sufficient darkness, I target moonless hours, from an hour or so after sunset to an hour before sunrise. New moon nights are easiest because the new moon rises and sets (more or less) with the sun and there’s no moon all night. But on any night, if you pick a time before the moon rises, or after it sets, you should be fine. Be aware that the closer the moon is to full, the greater the potential for its glow to leak into the scene from below the horizon.
Getting away from city lights can be surprisingly difficult (and frustrating). Taking a drive out into the countryside near home is better than nothing, and while it may seem dark enough to your eyes, a night exposure in an area that you expect to be dark enough reveals just how insidious light pollution is as soon as you realize all of your images are washed out by an unnatural glow on the horizon. Since the galactic core is in the southern sky in the Northern Hemisphere, you can mitigate urban glow in your Milky Way images by heading south of any nearby population area, putting the glow behind you as you face the Milky Way.
Better than a night drive out to the country, plan a trip to a location with a truly dark sky. For this, those in the less densely populated western US have an advantage. The best resource for finding world-class dark skies anywhere on Earth is the International Dark-Sky Association. More than just a resource, the IDA actively advocates for dark skies, so if the quality of our night skies matters to you, spend some time on their site, get involved, and share their website with others.
Photograph the Milky Way
Viewing the Milky Way requires nothing more than a clear, dark sky. (Assuming clean, clear skies) the Milky Way’s luminosity is fixed, so our ability to see it is largely a function of the darkness of the surrounding sky—the darker the sky, the better the Milky Way stands out. But because our eyes can only take in a fixed amount of light, there’s a ceiling on our ability to view the Milky Way with the unaided eye.
A camera, on the other hand, can accumulate light for a virtually unlimited duration. This, combined with technological advances that continue increasing the light sensitivity of digital sensors, means that when it comes to photographing the Milky Way, well…, the sky’s the limit. As glorious as it is to view the Milky Way with the unaided eye, a camera will show you detail and color your eyes can’t see.
Knowing when and where to view the Milky Way is a great start, but photographing the Milky Way requires a combination of equipment, skill, and experience that doesn’t just happen overnight (so to speak). But Milky Way photography doesn’t need to break the bank, and it’s not rocket science.
Bottom line, photographing the Milky Way is all about maximizing your ability to collect light: long exposures, fast lenses, high ISO.
In general, the larger your camera’s sensor and photosites (the “pixels” that capture the light), the more efficiently it collects light. Because other technology is involved, there’s not an absolute correlation between sensor and pixel size and light gathering capability, but a small, densely packed sensor almost certainly rules out your smartphone and point-and-shoot cameras for anything more than a fuzzy snap of the Milky Way. At the very least you’ll want a mirrorless or DSLR camera with an APS-C (1.5/1.6 crop) size sensor. Better still is a full frame mirrorless or DSLR camera. (A 4/3 Olympus or Panasonic sensor might work, but as great as these cameras are for some things, high ISO photography isn’t their strength.
Another general rule is that the newer the technology, the better it will perform in low light. Even with their smaller, more densely packed sensors, many of today’s top APS-C bodies outperform in low light full frame bodies that have been out for a few years, so full frame or APS-C, if your camera is relatively new, it will probably do the job.
If you’re shopping for a new camera and think night photography might be in your future, compare your potential cameras’ high ISO capabilities—not their maximum ISO. Read reviews by credible sources like DP Review, Imaging Resource, or DxOMark (among many others) to see how your camera candidates fare in objective tests.
An often overlooked consideration is the camera’s ability to focus in extreme low light. Autofocusing on the stars or landscape will be difficult to impossible, and you’ll not be able to see well enough through a DSLR’s viewfinder to manually focus. Some bodies with a fast lens might autofocus on a bright star or planet, but it’s not something I’d count on (though I expect within a few years before this capability will become more common).
Having photographed for years with Sony and Canon, and working extensively with most other mirrorless and DSLR bodies in my workshops, I have lots of experience with cameras from many manufacturers. In my book, focus peaking makes mirrorless the clear winner for night focusing. Sony’s current mirrorless bodies (a7RII/RIII, a7S/SII) are by far the easiest I’ve ever used for focusing in the dark—what took a minute or more with my Canon, I can do in seconds using focus peaking with my Sony bodies (especially the S bodies). I use the Sony a7SII, but when I don’t want to travel with a body I only use for night photography, the Sony a7RIII does the job too. Of the major DSLR brands, I’ve found Canon’s superior LCD screen (as of 2019) makes it much easier to focus in extreme low light than Nikon. (More on focus later.)
Put simply, to photograph the Milky Way you want fast, wide glass—the faster the better. Fast to capture as much light as possible; wide to take in lots of sky. A faster lens also makes focus and composition easier because the larger aperture gathers more light. How fast? F/2.8 or faster—preferably faster. How wide? At least 28mm, and wider is better still. I do enough night photography that I have a dedicated, night-only lens—my original night lens was a Canon-mount Zeiss 28mm f/2; my current night lens is the Sony 24mm f/1.4.
It goes without saying that at exposure times up to 30 seconds, you’ll need a sturdy tripod and head for Milky Way photography. You don’t need to spend a fortune, but the more you spend, the happier you’ll be in the long run (trust me). Carbon fiber provides the best combination of strength, vibration reduction, and light weight, but a sturdy (albeit heavy) aluminum tripod will do the job.
An extended centerpost is not terribly stable, and a non-extended centerpost limits your ability to spread the tripod’s legs and get low, so I avoid tripods with a centerpost. But if you have a sturdy tripod with a centerpost, don’t run out and purchase a new one—just don’t extend the centerpost when photographing at night.
Read my tips for purchasing a tripod here.
To eliminate the possibility of camera vibration I recommend a remote release; without a remote you’ll risk annoying all within earshot with your camera’s 2-second timer beep. You’ll want a flashlight or headlamp for the walk to and from the car, and your cell phone for light while shooting. And it’s never a bad idea to toss an extra battery in your pocket. And speaking of lights, never, never, NEVER use a red light for night photography (more on this later).
Getting the shot
Keep it simple
There are just so many things that can go wrong on a moonless night when there’s not enough light to see camera controls, the contents of your bag, and the tripod leg you’re about to trip over. After doing this for many years, both on my own and helping others in workshops, I’ve decided that simplicity is essential.
Simplicity starts with paring down to the absolute minimum camera gear: a sturdy tripod, one body, one lens, and a remote release (plus an extra battery in my pocket). Everything else stays at home, in the car, or if I’m staying out after a sunset shoot, in my bag.
Upon arrival at my night photography destination, I extract my tripod, camera, lens (don’t forget to remove the polarizer), and remote release. I connect the remote and mount my lens—if it’s a zoom I set the focal length at the lens’s widest—then set my exposure and focus (more on exposure and focus below). If I’m walking to my photo site, I carry the pre-exposed and focused camera on the tripod (I know this makes some people uncomfortable, but if you don’t trust your tripod head enough to hold onto your camera while you’re walking, it’s time for a new head), trying to keep the tripod as upright and stable as possible as I walk.
Flashlights/headlamps are essential for the walk/hike out to to and from my shooting location, but while I’m there and in shoot mode, it’s no flashlights, no exceptions. This is particularly important when I’m with a group. Not only does a flashlight inhibit your night vision, its light leaks into the frame of everyone who’s there. And while red lights may be better for your night vision and are great for telescope view, red light is especially insidious about leaking into everyone’s frame, so if you plan to take pictures, no red light! If you follow my no flashlight rule once the photography begins, you’ll be amazed at how well your eyes adjust. I can operate my camera’s controls in the dark—it’s not hard with a little practice, and well worth the effort to learn. If I ever do need to see my camera to adjust something, or if I need to see to move around, my cell phone screen (not the phone’s flashlight, just its illuminated screen) gives me all the light I need.
A good Milky Way image is distinguished from an ordinary Milky Way image by its foreground. Simply finding a location that’s dark enough to see the Milky Way is difficult enough; finding a dark location that also has a foreground worthy of pairing with the Milky Way usually takes a little planning.
Since the Milky Way’s center is in the southern sky (for Northern Hemisphere observers), I look for remote (away from light pollution) subjects that I can photograph while facing south (or southeast or southwest, depending on the month and time of night). Keep in mind that unless you have a ridiculous light gathering camera (like the Sony a7S or a7S II) and an extremely fast lens (f/2 or faster), your foreground will probably be more dark shape than detail. Water’s inherent reflectivity makes it a good foreground subject as well, especially if the water includes rocks or whitewater.
When I encounter a scene I deem photo worthy, not only do I try to determine its best light and moon rise/set possibilities, I also consider its potential as a Milky Way subject. Can I align it with the southern sky? Are there strong subjects that stand out against the sky? Is there water I can include in my frame?
I’ve found views of the Grand Canyon from the North Rim, the Kilauea Caldera, and the bristlecone pines in California’s White Mountains that work spectacularly. And its hard to beat the dark skies and breathtaking foreground possibilities at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. On the other hand, while Yosemite Valley has lots to love, you don’t see a lot of Milky Way images from Yosemite Valley because not only is there a lot of light pollution, and Yosemite’s towering, east/west trending granite walls give its south views an extremely high horizon that blocks much of the galactic core from the valley floor.
The last few years I’ve started photographing the Milky Way above the spectacular winter scenery of New Zealand’s South Island, where the skies are dark and the Milky Way is higher in the sky than it is in most of North America.
To maximize the amount of Milky Way in my frame, I generally (but not always) start with a vertical orientation that’s at least 2/3 sky. On the other hand, I do make sure to give myself more options with a few horizontal compositions as well. Given the near total darkness required of a Milky Way shoot, it’s often too dark to see well enough to compose that scene. If I can’t see well enough to compose I guess at a composition, take a short test exposure at an extreme (unusable) ISO to enable a relatively fast shutter speed (a few seconds), adjust the composition based on the image in the LCD, and repeat until I’m satisfied.
Needless to say, when it’s dark enough to view the Milky Way, there’s not enough light to autofocus (unless you have a rare camera/lens combo that can autofocus on a bright star and planet), or even to manually focus with confidence. And of all the things that can ruin a Milky Way image (not to mention an entire night), poor focus is number one. Not only is achieving focus difficult, it’s very easy to think you’re focused only to discover later that you just missed.
Because the Milky Way’s focus point is infinity, and you almost certainly won’t have enough light to stop down for more depth of field, your closest foreground subjects should be far enough away to be sharp when you’re wide open and focused at infinity. Before going out to shoot, find a hyperfocal app and plug in the values for your camera and lens at its widest aperture. Even though it’s technically possible to be sharp from half the hyperfocal distance to infinity, the kind of precise focus focusing on the hyperfocal point requires is difficult to impossible in the dark, so my rule of thumb is to make sure my closest subject is no closer than the hyperfocal distance.
For example, I know with my Sony 24mm f/1.4 wide open on my full frame Sony a7SII, the hyperfocal distance is about 50 feet. If I have a subject that’s closer (such as a bristlecone pine), I’ll pre-focus (before dark) on the hyperfocal distance, or shine a bright light on an object at the hyperfocal distance and focus there, but generally I make sure everything is at least 50 feet away. Read more about hyperfocal focus in my Depth of Field article.
By far the number one cause of night focus misses is the idea that you can just dial any lens to infinity; followed closely by the idea that focused at one focal length means focused at all focal lengths. Because when it comes to sharpness, almost isn’t good enough, if you have a zoom lens, don’t even think of trying to dial the focus ring to the end for infinity. And even for most prime lenses, the infinity point is a little short of all the way to the end, and can vary slightly with the temperature and f-stop. Of course if you know your lens well enough to be certain of its infinity point by feel (and are a risk taker), go for it. And that zoom lens that claims to be parfocal? While it’s possible that your zoom will hold focus throughout its entire focal range, regardless of what the manufacturer claims, I wouldn’t bet an entire shoot on it without testing first.
All this means that the only way to ensure night photography sharpness is to focus carefully on something before shooting, refocus every time your focal length changes, and check focus frequently by displaying and magnifying an image on your LCD. To simplify (there’s that word again), when using a zoom lens, I usually set the lens at its widest focal length, focus, verify sharpness, and (once I know I’m focused) never change the focal length again.
While the best way to ensure focus is to set your focal length and focus before it gets dark, sometimes pre-focusing isn’t possible, or for some reason you need to refocus after darkness falls. If I arrive at my destination in the dark, I autofocus on my headlights, a bright flashlight, or a laser 50 feet or more away. And again, never assume you’re sharp by looking at the image that pops up on the LCD when the exposure completes—always magnify your image and check it after you focus.
For more on focusing in the dark, including how to use stars to focus, read my Starlight Photo Tips article.
Exposing a Milky Way image is wonderfully simple once you realize that you don’t have to meter—because you can’t (not enough light). Your goal is simply to capture as many photons as you can without damaging the image with noise, star motion, and lens flaws.
Basically, with today’s technology you can’t give a Milky Way image too much light—you’ll run into image quality problems before you overexpose a Milky Way image. In other words, capturing the amount of light required to overexpose a Milky Way image is only possible if you’ve chosen an ISO and/or shutter speed that significantly compromises the quality of the image with excessive noise and/or star motion.
In a perfect world, I’d take every image at ISO 100 and f/8—the best ISO and f-stop for my camera and lens. But that’s not possible when photographing in near total darkness—a usable Milky Way image requires exposure compromises. What kind of compromises? The key to getting a properly exposed Milky Way image is knowing how far you push your camera’s exposure settings before the light gained isn’t worth the diminished quality. Each exposure variable causes a different problem when pushed too far:
- ISO: Raising ISO to increase light sensitivity comes with a corresponding increase in noise that muddies detail. The noise at any particular ISO varies greatly with the camera, so it’s essential to know your camera’s low-light capability(!). Some of the noise can be cleaned up with noise reduction software (I use Topaz DeNoise 6)—the amount that cleans up will depend on the noise reduction software you use, your skill using that software, and where the noise is (is it marring empty voids or spoiling essential detail?).
- Shutter speed: The longer the shutter stays open, the more motion blur spreads the stars’ distinct pinpoints into streaks. I’m not a big fan of formulas that dictate star photography shutter speeds because I find them arbitrary and inflexible, and they fail to account for the fact that the amount of apparent stellar motion varies with the direction you’re composing (you’ll get less motion the closer to the north or south poles you’re aimed). My general shutter-speed rule of thumb is 30-seconds or less, preferably less—I won’t exceed 30 seconds, and do everything I can to get enough light with a faster shutter speed.
- F-stop: At their widest apertures, lenses tend to lose sharpness (especially on the edges) and display optical flaws like comatic aberration (also called coma) that distorts points of light (like stars) into comet shaped blurs. For many lenses, stopping down even one stop from wide open significantly improves image quality.
Again: My approach to metering for the Milky Way is to give my scene as much light as I can without pushing the exposure compromises to a point I can’t live with. Where exactly is that point? Not only does that question require a subjective answer that varies with each camera body, lens, and scene, as technology improves, I’m less forgiving of exposure compromises than I once was. For example, when I started photographing the Milky Way with my Canon 1DS Mark III, the Milky Way scenes I could shoot were limited because my fastest wide lens was f/4 and I got too much noise when I pushed my ISO beyond 1600. This forced me compromise by shooting wide open with a 30-second shutter speed to achieve even marginal results. In fact, given these limitations, despite trying to photograph the Milky Way from many locations, when I started the only Milky Way foreground that worked well enough was Kilauea Caldera, because it was its own light source (an erupting volcano).
Today (mid-2019) I photograph the Milky Way with a Sony a7S II and a Sony 24mm f/1.4 lens. I get much cleaner images from my Sony at ISO 6400 than got a ISO 1600 on my Canon 1DSIII, and the night light gathering capability of an f/1.4 lens revelatory. At ISO 6400 (or higher) I can stop down slightly to eliminate lens aberrations (though I don’t seem to need to with the Sony lens), drop my shutter speed to 20 or 15 seconds to reduce star motion 33-50 percent, and still get usable foreground detail by starlight.
I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to know your camera’s and lens’s capabilities in low light, and how for you’re comfortable pushing the ISO and f-stop. For each of the night photography equipment combos I’ve used, I’ve established a general exposure upper threshold, rule-of-thumb compromise points for each exposure setting that I won’t exceed until I’ve reached the compromise threshold of the other exposure settings. For example, with my Sony a7SII/24mm f/1.4 combo, I usually start at ISO 6400, f/1.4, and 20 seconds. Those settings will usually get me enough light for Milky Way color and pretty good foreground detail. But if I want more light (for example, if I’m shooting into the black pit of the Grand Canyon from the canyon rim), my first exposure compromise might be to increase to ISO 12800; if I decide I need even more light, my next compromise is to bump my shutter speed to 30 seconds. Or if I want a wider field of view than 24mm, I’ll put on my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 G lens and increase to ISO 12800 and 30 seconds.
These thresholds are guidelines rather than hard-and-fast rules, and they apply to my preferences only—your results may vary. And though I’m pretty secure with this workflow, for each Milky Way composition I try a variety of exposure combinations before moving to another composition. Not only does this give me a range of options to choose between when I’m at home and reviewing my images on a big monitor, it also gives me more insight into my camera/lens capabilities, allowing me to refine my exposure compromise threshold points.
One other option that I’ve started applying automatically is long exposure noise reduction, which delivers a noticeable reduction in noise for exposures that are several seconds and longer.
* In normal situations the Sony a7SII can handle ISO 12,800 without even breathing hard, but the long exposure time required of night photography generates a lot of heat on the sensor with a corresponding increase in noise.
It’s time to click that shutter
You’re in position with the right gear, composed, focused, and exposure values set. Before you actually click the shutter, let me remind you of a couple of things you can do to ensure the best results: First, lower that center post. A tripod center post’s inherent instability is magnified during long exposures, not just by wind, but even by nearby footsteps, the press of the shutter button, and slap of the mirror (and sometimes it seems, by ghosts). And speaking of shutter clicks, you should be using a remote cable or two-second timer to eliminate the vibration imparted when your finger presses the shutter button.
When that first Milky Way image pops up on the LCD, it’s pretty exciting. So exciting in fact that sometimes you risk being lulled into a “Wow, this isn’t as hard as I expected” complacency. Even though you think everything’s perfect, don’t forget to review your image sharpness every few frames by displaying and magnifying and image on your LCD. In theory nothing should change unless you changed it, but in practice I’ve noticed an occasional inclination for focus to shift mysteriously between shots. Whether it’s slight temperature changes or an inadvertent nudge of the focus ring as you fumble with controls in the dark, you can file periodically checking your sharpness falls under “an ounce of prevention….” Believe me, this will save a lot of angst later.
And finally, don’t forget to play with different exposure settings for each composition. Not only does this give you more options, it also gives you more insight into your camera/lens combo’s low light capabilities.
The bottom line
Though having top-of-the-line, low-light equipment helps a lot, it’s not essential. If you have a full frame mirrorless or DSLR camera that’s less than five years old, and a lens that’s f/2.8 or faster, you probably have all the equipment you need to get great the Milky Way images. Even with a cropped sensor, or an f/4 lens, you have a good chance of getting usable Milky Way images in the right circumstances. If you’ve never photographed the Milky Way before, don’t expect perfection the first time out. What you can expect is improvement each time you go out as you learn the limitations of your equipment and identify your own exposure compromise thresholds. And success or failure, at the very least you’ll have spent a magnificent night under the stars.
Posted on June 20, 2021
With so many natural variables beyond our control, and no matter how creatively we visualize, thoroughly we plan, and precisely we execute, landscape photographers go into every shoot uncertain of success. But making consistently successful images depends not only on our ability to visualize, plan, and execute, but also on our ability to recognize and respond to unexpected opportunities.
The truth is, your creativity’s greatest limitation is probably your own biases. Put in more practical terms, don’t allow yourself to be swayed by preconceived notions of what “the shot” is, what equipment you’ll need, and whether the opportunities are exhausted.
We cover this kind of stuff in my workshops, where one of my most frequently asked questions is, what lens should I bring? I’ve been doing this long enough to know that the underlying essence of this question is, what lens can I leave behind? And since it’s a photography truism that the lens you need is the one you left at home, I’m usually reluctant to give an absolute answer. In fact, I usually encourage people to bring all they can carry.
A couple of weeks ago my brother Jay and I made a quick trip to Olmsted Point in Yosemite to photograph the Milky Way. I’d chosen Olmsted because I think it’s the best easily accessible (with a car) place to photograph Half Dome with the Milky Way; I chose this night because clear skies were forecast, and a brand new moon meant the darkest possible sky. Though I knew a small sliver of one-percent moon would be visible for an hour or so after sunset, as soon as I realized the moon would be nowhere near Half Dome, I didn’t give it another thought—this trip was all about the Milky Way and Half Dome. Period. Nevertheless, I packed all my gear because…. Well, why not?
I’m afraid that for me, “all I can carry” requires at least two camera bags, which of course isn’t usually practical when flying, given the space and weight constraints. But when I drive to a location from home, I forgo the Sophie’s Choice equipment decisions and just pack everything. Everything. Which is why, for a trip on which I’d only planned to use my Sony a7SIII and (brand new!) Sony 14mm f/1.8 GM lens, the back of my Outback contained (among many other things) my Sony a7RIV and Sony 100-400 GM.
The other part of being prepared is to no be so locked onto your objective that you fail to recognize other opportunities. This is a problem I’m frequently reminded of in my workshop image review sessions, when everyone shares one of their images from the workshop for my feedback. We’re all going to the same locations at the same time, but it’s a rare session that at least one person doesn’t share something that causes others, myself included, to exclaim, “Wow, I didn’t see that!” The lesson here is, the instant you think you know “the” shot is the instant your creative door slams shut.
This lesson also applies to the belief that the show is over, or that the show isn’t going to happen. Some of my most unforgettable photography experiences have happened because I stayed just a little longer after it seemed pretty obvious that Mother Nature was done, or decided to go out when there was every indication that nothing was going to happen.
We pulled into Olmsted Point a little after sunset. Job-one was changing out of my Sacramento-summer T-shirt and shorts, and into my High-Sierra-night long-johns, flannel-lined jeans, wool shirt, and down jacket. But while changing, I couldn’t keep my eyes off the wisp of crescent moon setting behind a granite ridge far north of the scene I’d come to photograph. And joining the moon on its journey to the horizon was Venus, a visual bonus I hadn’t anticipated.
Sufficiently fortified against the elements and unable to take my mind off the moon and Venus, I discarded my plan to make the 1/4 mile hike up to Olmsted Point before the darkness was complete (rationalizing that I could probably do this hike blindfolded anyway). Standing at the car I mentally framed a shot, then extracted my tripod, a7RIV, and 100-400. While setting up in the parking lot would have worked, I decided to scramble up the adjacent granite slope for an elevated vantage point that reduced some of the foreground clutter.
It was pretty dark by the time I was in position and had everything assembled, but since I was only interested in creating silhouetted shapes to go with the moon, the darkness wasn’t a big problem. I shot until the moon dropped out of sight. Because I had to move around a bit to adjust the relationships between the trees and the descending moon and Venus, I only managed nine frames before the moon was gone
The Milky Way delivered as expected, but I found extra pleasure thinking about this moon shoot that kicked off the night and delivered something as satisfying as it was unexpected.
A Gallery of the Unexpected
Posted on June 13, 2021
It’s a Saturday afternoon (Sunday evening by the time you read this) and I’m working on less than 4 hours sleep. I’m not complaining, but before I pass out, I want to share the story of my latest shoot, and the reason I’m so sleep deprived.
If you follow my blog, you might know that in April Don Smith and I got an unexpected opportunity to preview Sony’s brand new 14mm f/1.8 GM lens in Oregon, before its announcement a week or so later. (Read more here.) But that experience was just a tease, because just as I started to fully appreciate the new lens’s potential for night photography (and other stuff, but I’m especially excited by night photography), we had to send it back.
When I finally got my own copy of the lens early this month, I couldn’t wait to try it out on the Milky Way (which wasn’t possible in Oregon because of the direction the Bandon views faced, and a waning moon). June is primetime for Milky Way photography because the brilliant galactic core is up all night—all you need is a dark sky far from city lights, and without the moon.
With a waxing moon invading the sky starting this week, the June dark sky window was quickly closing when I accepted an invitation to join a couple of photographer friends on their night photography trip to Joshua Tree NP this weekend. Then, just two days before we were supposed to leave, my friends decided to go to Denmark instead (a likely story—who else remembers the “Friends” episode where Chandler ditched Janice by telling her he was going to Yemen? Oh. My. God.), leaving me to fend for myself.
I could have stuck with the Joshua Tree plan, but a solo, 16+ hour roundtrip to spend a couple of nights photographing a spot I don’t really know didn’t sound like the best use of my time. Instead, I decided to recruit my brother Jay for a quick trip to more familiar environs.
Yosemite Valley’s towering walls and east/west orientation make it less than ideal for Milky Way photography. And while Yosemite’s high country has potential, accessibility (no roads, backcountry permit requirements) make it next to impossible for a last-minute trip. But…, at 8000 feet, Olmsted Point certainly qualifies as Yosemite high country. And because it’s right on Tioga Road (Highway 120), no backcountry permit is required. There’s still the problem of this summer’s COVID-induced Yosemite reservation system, but photo workshop permit gives me an exemption from (I do still have to get approval first).
Another nice thing about Olmsted Point is that it offers a view of Half Dome that’s quite a bit different than what we’re used to seeing from Yosemite Valley. While the Yosemite Valley views of Half Dome face east, from Olmsted Point Half Dome rises in the southwest, at the end of Tenaya Canyon.
Jay and I pulled into the Olmsted Point parking area at about 8:30 Friday night. The sun had just set, but we still had at least an hour until the sky darkened enough for the Milky Way to appear. With time to kill, after bundling into my cold weather clothes and organizing my gear, I twisted my Sony 100-400 onto my Sony a7RIV and scaled a nearby granite ridge to photograph the thin sliver of new moon disappearing in the west. An impromptu bonus that set the tone for the night.
We made the 5-minute walk out to Olmsted Point’s granite dome at around 9 p.m. I’ve been up here more times than I can count, so even in the dwindling light I was able to quickly identify the scene I wanted to start with, set up my camera (Sony a7SIII and Sony 14mm f/1.8 GM), and frame up a composition. Then I just kicked back on the granite and watched the stars pop out.
Viewed from the Northern Hemisphere, in June the Milky Way’s core rises nearly horizontal in the southeast sky shortly after sunset. As our planetary viewing platform rotates, the glowing core appears to pivot on an unseen point below the south-southwest horizon, moving up and southward (to the right) until it stands vertical in the southwest. The northern hemisphere nights are so short in June that the Milky Way fades from view before setting.
By 9:30 we could see the Milky Way peeking just above the granite ridge that leads to Clouds Rest. It was well east of Half Dome, so for these early frames I was very thankful to have a 14mm lens that allowed me to include the Milky Way in the same frame as Half Dome. I spent those early moments tweaking my exposure, refining my composition, and verifying that my focus was good.
Once I’d gotten everything just as I wanted it, I told myself that there was no reason to rush because with each passing minute, the Milky Way was a little higher in the sky and closer to Half Dome—that meant every click I took would be just a little better than the one preceding it. So after the initial exhilaration passed, I just sat on a nearby rock and appreciated the view. Few things are more humbling than reclining beneath a dark sky on a still night (especially when you’re sufficiently bundled against the high elevation chill).
We stayed until nearly 1:00 a.m. As I photographed (and gazed), I kept mentally pushing back our planned departure time, mentally subtracting hours of sleep by rationalizing that sometimes sleep is overrated. This was definitely one of those times.
A few words about my night photography
All of the night scenes you see on my website, in my blog, or anywhere else my images appear, were captured with one click. I don’t blend, composite, or in any other way combine multiple captures to create a single image. I’m not saying I think there’s anything wrong with blending images (there isn’t)—I just don’t get any pleasure from that kind of photography. So, while my night images may not look as dazzling as some of the other (truly beautiful) night composites being created today, you can at least be confident that you’re looking only at the photons that struck my sensor in one contiguous span of time.
A Night Sky Gallery
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on June 6, 2021
Cool as they can be, sunstars (AKA, diffraction spikes, sunbursts, or starbursts) border on gimmicky and cliché. So why do I shoot them? Because sometimes it’s the best solution when the sun intrudes on the scene you came to photograph. In other words, as much as I like dramatic clouds, vivid color, of soft light, I’d rather have a sunstar than a blank blue sky—kind of a lemonade-from-lemons approach.
Sunstars do look kind of cool, but maybe another reason they work is the universal resonance that comes with witnessing the sun kiss the horizon—I mean, who doesn’t have a comforting memory of watching from a special location as the sun begins or ends its daily journey?
Unfortunately, doing justice to these moments in a photograph is difficult: Including the sun in your frame introduces lens flare and extreme (often unmanageable) contrast, and creates an unattractive eye magnet that can overpower the rest of the scene. But while a sunstar doesn’t capture the literal experience of watching the sun’s arrival or departure, it can do a pretty good job of conveying the power of the moment.
A sunstar is created when sunlight diffracts (spreads) as it passes the intersection points of a lens diaphragm’s overlapping aperture blades. The smaller the opening, the steeper the angle between the blades, the more the light bends, and the more pronounced the sunstar spikes. The more diaphragm blades, the more spikes in the sunstar (this is a simplification of what actually happens, but you get the idea).
The good news is, despite the physical drawbacks mentioned earlier, creating a sunstar is relatively straightforward. Here’s a quick recipe:
- Start with a brilliant point of light: You can create a sunstar with any bright light source—the moon, stars, or even an artificial light such as a lighthouse, or car headlights—but I’m going to talk about the brightest, most ubiquitous, and easiest light source: the sun. Rather than using the entire sun, it’s usually best (but not always—you decide what looks best) to block most of it with the horizon, a cloud, or some terrestrial feature, such as a rock or tree. And clouds and atmospheric haze will significantly limit your sunstar—sometimes I’m not even aware of clouds or haze until the sunstar I expect is faint or non-existent.
- Size matters: The larger the visible portion of the sun, the bigger the sunstar, but also the more lens flare and blown highlights. Conversely, if most of the sun is blocked, you’ll get a smaller sunstar, but it will also be more precise and delicate. There’s not absolute ideal size, it’s more of a balancing act to find the right mix for your taste and situation.
- The smaller your aperture, the better your sunstar: A wide-open aperture is a nearly perfect circle (not good for sunstars), but the angle between the diaphragm blades increases as the diaphragm closes down, improving the sunstar as the angles increase. For my sunstars, I generally stop down to f/16 or smaller (larger f-number).
- Manage the highlights: When the sun is entering your frame, you’re invariably dealing with a sky that’s much brighter than your foreground and will need to take steps to avoid the foreground of murky shadows. If you have a foreground shape or shapes against the sky, you could turn the foreground into a silhouette. When I’m exposing for a sunstar, I watch the histogram (a benefit of mirrorless photography is the histogram in the viewfinder) and try to find a balance between the extreme highlights in and surrounding the sun and the dark shadows of the surrounding scene. I usually bracket over a 4-stop range in 2/3-stop increments, doing this as rapidly as possible to give me a good number of different exposures to choose between.
- Different lenses will yield different results: Experiment with your lenses to see which one gives the most pleasing sunstar effect. As a general rule, the better the quality of the lens, the better its sunstar effect. Prime lenses tend to do a better job, but a today’s best zooms create beautiful sunstars too. And the number a sunstar spikes will increase with the number of diaphragm blades.
- Remove filters: The more glass between the sun and your sensor, the more reflections and lens flare you’ll get, so remove your polarizer (which has no benefit anyway when you’re pointing at the sun) and UV filter.
- Practice: You can practice sunstars any time the sun’s out. Just go outside with your camera, dial in a small aperture, and hide the sun behind whatever object is convenient (a tree, your house, etc.).
About this image
This scene from last month’s Grand Canyon raft trip is a perfect example of why I sometimes resort to creating a sunstar—and I nearly missed it because I wasn’t ready. On a raft trip like this, no matter how much we try to time our stops with the best light, other factors often dictate the schedule.
We were fortunate to score a campsite directly across the Colorado River from the confluence with the Little Colorado River. We set up camp in the early afternoon and motored across the river as soon as we saw the other trips clear out. So we had the Little Colorado to ourselves, but with the sun still high in the cloudless sky, I resigned myself to having to wait for the sun to disappear behind the canyon walls before breaking out the camera gear. In the meantime we had a blast navigating a natural waterslide and cooling off in pools just warm enough to be refreshing.
When the non-photographers shuttled back to camp, the photographers remained at the Little Colorado to wait for the shade. While waiting I pulled out my Sony a7RIV put a 6-stop neutral density filter on my Sony 24-105 G, and wandered up and down the river looking for whitewater to play with. This was mostly just an exercise to kill time and familiarize myself with compositions for later, but was having fun I kind of lost track of time.
Not having really thought about the path the sun would take, and whether a sunstar would be an option, I looked up and saw that the sun was about to disappear behind a peak directly downstream and suddenly recognized a perfect sunstar opportunity. But my camera bag, with the Sony 12-24 GM lens I needed to get everything in (and also with the best sunstar), was about 200 yards downstream.
Not sure I had enough time, I sprinted as fast as my flip-flops would carry me, grabbed my bag (which was already in full shade), and sprinted back upstream toward the retreating sunlight. The sunstar happens right at the intersection of sunlight and shadow, but when raced into the sunlight I continued a little farther to give myself enough time before the sun set.
I really couldn’t afford to be picky about a composition but was lucky to find something with a foreground (rock) and middle ground (the blue of the Little Colorado) to go with my background (red-rock peak and sunstar). With the sunstar already in full swing in my viewfinder, I quickly (frantically) framed up a composition (no time for my customary obsessive tweaks, reviews, and refinements), dialed to f/16, metered (have I mentioned lately how much I love having a histogram in my viewfinder?), and clicked.
I only got four decent sunstar frames before the sun was gone. I had no idea if I had anything usable because I don’t usually perform too well when I rush, but was pretty happy to find something that works.
A Sunstar Gallery
Posted on May 30, 2021
Photography is an art of subtraction. While many photographers seem driven to collect as many objects of visual interest as possible, my favorite pictures usually work as much for what’s not in them than for what is.
Unfortunately, it’s usually easier to see things to add to an image than it is to know what to subtract—and how to do it. The good news is, photographers have many tools for subtracting potential distractions. In fact, one of the reasons I’m such a fan of the tripod is that it allows me to scrutinize my scene, identify distractions, and determine the best way to subtract them from my frame—at my own pace.
Subtracting distractions can be as simple as tightening the composition, shifting the view, or repositioning the camera. For example, admiring a dramatic waterfall in the distance, you might walk around until you find a colorful bouquet of wildflowers to add to your foreground—so far so good. With your camera at eye level, you frame the scene with the flowers at the bottom and the waterfall at the top. But then you notice a vast empty region in the middle of the frame that does nothing more for your image than occupy space. The solution is as simple as dropping your camera to ground level, allowing you to subtract the empty space and replace it with larger flowers and waterfall (because with the flowers and waterfall more aligned, you can increase the focal length).
But compositional subtactions like this are only the beginning. Many photographers don’t stumble until they encounter an opportunity to simplify an image using aspects of their camera’s vision that differ from their own vision: light, focus depth, and motion.
Photographers frequently lament their camera’s limited dynamic range. And while extra dynamic range in a camera is great, limited dynamic range creates wonderful opportunities to subtract distractions and emphasize shape over detail by burying distractions in deep shadows or overexposed highlights.
Underexposing a backlit scene can saturate color in the brightest part of the image while hiding distracting details in blackness. To achieve this, I often look for striking subjects that stand out against the sky. Hilltop trees work well for this, but I can think of no subjects in nature more suitable to silhouette photography than El Capitan and Half Dome in Yosemite. And since a crescent moon is always in the brightest part of the sky just before sunrise or after sunset, I always look for an opportunity to pair a waning crescent against Yosemite’s striking skyline.
But this approach isn’t limited to silhouettes. I love finding a flower in full sunlight, then under- or over-expose the background to make my subject stand out against a black or white canvas.
One of my favorite techniques for photographing colorful wildflowers and fall foliage is to narrow the range of focus until just a select part of my subject is sharp, softening the rest of the scene to an appealing blur of color and shape. This blur effect improves as depth of focus shrinks. Depth of focus shrinks with:
- Subject distance—the closer the narrower the range of focus
- Focal length—the longer the narrower the range of focus
- F-stop—small f-stop means a large aperture and a narrower range of focus
While I’ve used pretty much every lens in my bag to blur my backgrounds (and foregrounds), I most frequently use telephoto to decrease my depth of field, and a macro lens and/or extension tubes to focus closer.
Not only does this approach help the primary subject—or specific aspects of the primary subject—stand out, when executed properly it can eliminate virtually any background distraction. When composing shallow depth of field images, it’s important to remember that even when blurred beyond recognition, the background matters.
Blurred water often gets labeled as “unnatural” or “cliché.” The unnatural part I’ll dismiss as misinformed—it’s no less natural than the alternative: water droplets suspended in midair. While I’ll acknowledge that reflexively attaching a neutral density filter at the slightest hint of whitewater might be overdoing it a bit, the cliché label ignores the fact that blurred is often the only way to render moving water (ever try freezing a waterfall or churning cascade in shade or overcast?).
Regardless of your position on blurred water, detail in moving water can create a distraction that competes for attention with the primary subject. Smoothing moving water to one degree or another subtracts this distracting busyness.
Motion blur isn’t just about water—pretty much anything that moves can be softened, smoothed, stretched, or eliminated with motion: clouds, blowing leaves and flowers, stars, and so on. And while it’s not landscape photography, a technique employed by architectural (and other) photographers is adding many stops of neutral density to slow the shutter speed so much that people and vehicles moving in the scene completely disappear.
Regardless of the object that’s moving, as with narrow focus depth, softening the secondary areas of a scene also helps the primary subject stand out by allowing viewers to focus their attention where it belongs.
It’s all about control
Because of the zero-sum relationship between exposure variables that control light, depth, and motion—changing one variable requires a complementary change in another to maintain the proper exposure—managing these variables is next to impossible without jettisoning full auto exposure to start making your own exposure decisions. While sufficient control is possible in aperture or shutter priority modes, because I don’t want my camera making any decisions for me, I’ve always used manual metering. In fact, I’ll go as far as insisting that you can’t really call yourself a photographer unless you can shoot in Manual mode (even if you choose not to). The good news is, manual metering not hard.
Rather go into all the detail in this post, here are some links from my Photo Tips tab that will help:
About this image
I’d love to say that Don Smith and I scheduled this year’s Oregon Coast workshop to coincide with the new moon, but that’s just the way it worked out. I will take some credit for knowing that, once the workshop was scheduled, the best night to capture the crescent moon was our first night, and that the Bandon sea stacks would be the best place to be.
Before setting our group free on the beach, Don and I made sure they knew a 3% crescent moon would appear low in the west shortly after sunset. Because the beach at Bandon is so expansive, with dozens of sea stacks spread over nearly 1-mile stretch of sand and surf, it wasn’t long before the group was so spread out that I spent most of my time wandering around, trying to catch up with everyone. Each person I got to, I updated them on where the moon would be once the sky darkened, encouraged them to plan a moon composition before the moon appeared. I also strongly suggested that they give themselves time to check out the south end of the beach, where the most (and best) sea stacks are.
I made it all the way down past Wizard’s Hat before was satisfied that there were no more workshop participants to check on. By that time the sun was about ready to disappear—it was time to decide on my own crescent moon subject. I ended up heading back up the beach, to the view of (aptly named) Face Rock.
The moon appeared shortly after sunset, faint at first but quickly brightening against the darkening sky. With the moon visible, it became easy to refine my position relative to Face Rock. Aware of other sea stacks trying to photo-bomb my frame on the left and right, I chose a relatively tight vertical composition that made the scene entirely about the moon and Face Rock.
As with many crescent moon images, this scene was mostly about subtraction. Not just the neighboring seas stacks, but also the texture caused by Face Rock’s many nooks and crannies, and the ever-changing surf. Sea stacks, texture, and waves are nice, but this scene was all about the moon above Face Rock’s distinctive profile.
It helped that Face Rock stood out nicely against the brightest part of the sky. Slightly underexposing to turn the rock black had the added benefit of enhancing the sunset’s natural orange hues. To smooth the waves, I waited for the sky to darken enough to allow a multi-second exposure. I clicked a dozen or more frames, timed with the waves, to give myself a variety of motion effects. I chose this one because I like the way the sunset color reflects in the wet sand.
A Gallery of Subtraction
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Posted on May 23, 2021
Before rafting the Grand Canyon my relationship with the Little Colorado River was limited to the view from the Cameron Suspension Bridge on US 89, a route I’d traveled at least twice a year for many years. Rarely more than puddles connected by a muddy trickle, to me the Little Colorado seemed better suited to be an indicator of recent precipitation than an actual photo destination. So on my first Grand Canyon raft trip way back in 2014, when Wiley (the lead guide for all but one of my now seven(!) trips) said we’d be stopping at the Colorado River’s confluence with the Little Colorado River, I shrugged.
That day had been a mix of clouds and sun, great for photography—all we needed was to pull over and tie up at a worthy subject. When we reached the confluence in early afternoon, Wiley suggested that we be back on the raft in 45 minutes, and I remember thinking, Really? Surely we can find a better spot to take advantage of this great light. I wasn’t even sure whether to grab my camera bag, but since I was the photography leader, I decided I better set a good example. Still skeptical, I followed one of the along a short trail through the shrubs, the rest of the group trailing. Rounding a corner I emerged from the brush and stopped like I’d slammed into a brick wall. Unable at first to process what I was seeing, I finally turned and managed to call back to Wiley, “Uh, we’re going to need more time here.”
There is nothing subtle about color in nature. In fact, the vivid natural hues that surround us may just be my favorite thing to photograph. But we live our lives taking for granted a certain range of natural color constants: the sky will feature a reliable blue throughout the day, bracketed by certain shades of red or orange at sunrise and sunset, and darken to something close to black at night. Water we expect to be particular shades of green or blue depending on light and clarity. Even when nature’s color intensifies to a hue and intensity that moves us to pause and take note (or photograph), it’s reliably within our range of expectations—a vivid sunset, or the rich blues of Lake Tahoe and Crater Lake.
But sometimes nature throws us a curve. Death Valley’s aptly named Artist’s Palette features and array purple, green, and pink rocks; last summer’s fires turned California’s midday sky an otherworldly orange; it’s impossible not to be gobsmacked the greens and reds of an aurora. And I’ll never forget the first time I laid eyes on the green and blue glacial lakes of the Canadian Rockies and New Zealand. But for me, none of these sights were as disorienting as my first view of the Little Colorado River’s azure hues.
So what’s going on?
What happened to the familiar greenish-brown puddles upstream? Clearly, somewhere in the 55 or so river miles between Cameron and Grand Canyon, the Little Colorado has gotten an upgrade. Not only is there a lot more water, the blue water that’s been added is not a color I’ve seen in nature.
It turns out that, after leaving Cameron the Little Colorado twists along a scenic canyon of its own creation, a canyon deep enough to cut into a travertine-laced aquifer that recharges and colors its flow. The travertine (limestone formed by mineral springs) is infused with magnesium and calcium that adds the blue hue to the water, and leaves deposits that paint the rocks and river’s bed a reflective white, further enhancing the azure hue. Adding to all this magnificence is the rich red of the surrounding Grand Canyon walls.
Of course like most things in nature, the Little Colorado’s color is not guaranteed. When the summer monsoon rains arrive, the Little Colorado’s blue is overpowered by reddish brown sediment washed downstream by frequent torrential downpours. But by scheduling my raft trips for May, I’m usually able to beat this change (in May we also get to enjoy the Colorado River at its translucent green best). Only once have we found the Little Colorado River running brown, and we just kept right on floating downstream.
About this image
My Grand Canyon raft trip has many photographic highlights, but the most memorable (in no particular order) are the Milky Way (in the darkest sky you can imagine), Havasu Canyon, Elves Chasm, Deer Creek Fall, and the Little Colorado River. For the Milky Way we want a campsite that has a good view of the southern horizon, with the river in the foreground (and of course no clouds); for the others we like clouds or shade, and even tougher, few to no other people.
Over the years Wiley and I have gotten pretty good at strategizing our schedule to maximize the photo opportunities at the trip’s photo highlights. We came into this year’s trip knowing we were facing nothing but clear skies—great for the Milky Way, but not so much for the key locations. So before putting in on our first morning, we made our plan.
The first highlight location is the Little Colorado River, about 60 miles downstream from the starting point at Lee’s Ferry. By scoring the campsite directly across the Colorado River from the Little Colorado confluence, we could monitor the comings and goings at the confluence and shuttle the group across when when other rafters cleared out.
The afternoon was hot, with a couple of hours of harsh sunlight remaining—lousy for photography, but spectacular for swimming in the cool, but not cold, Little Colorado. Our guides led us about a half mile upstream to a perfect little swimming hole fed by a natural water slide where we splashed and lounged for a couple of hours.
When the sun started to dip behind the surrounding canyon walls, the non-photographers shuttled back to camp, while the photographers stayed and spread out to enjoy the softly shaded river beneath towering red sandstone kissed by late light. When we returned to camp that evening, everyone seemed quite satisfied with their results, but I couldn’t stop thinking about what the scene might be like in the morning. While I loved the way the sun lit the sandstone across the Colorado River, I realized that the most prominent peak above the confluence, in full shade for all of our afternoon shoot, should get really nice morning light.
At camp that night I talked to Wiley about giving anyone interested another shot at the Little Colorado in the morning, and we came up with a plan that would permit that without jeopardizing our schedule for what would be the trip’s longest, most intense day of rafting.
The guides had coffee ready at 5:15 the next morning, and by 5:30 five of us were motoring back across the river to the confluence. (This may sound early, but with nothing but natural light, we’re usually in bed by 8:30 each evening, and stirring shortly after 5:00 in the morning.
While we had less than an hour to photograph, that turned out to be enough. I only had to walk a short distance upstream before I was stopped by the view I’d visualized the night before. I tried it a little tighter to eliminate the boring sky, but discovered that I couldn’t get much sunlit sandstone into my frame without including sky. And as soon as I did that, I realized that including some regular old blue sky would actually provide context (and credibility) for the river’s otherworldly blue.
Pulling out my Sony a7RIV and Sony 12-24 f/2.8 GM lens, I was able to include the entire sunlit peak (does anyone know what it’s called?). With a general idea of my composition, I moved around a bit until I found a foreground that worked. To get all of the foreground limestone island in my frame, I scaled a small ledge behind me and framed up this scene.
I used ISO 50 and f/16 to stretch my shutter speed a little (but probably not enough to make much difference). Extreme dynamic range made the exposure a little tricky, but I simply monitored the histogram in my viewfinder (have I mentioned lately how much I love shooting mirrorless?) and dialed my shutter speed until the histogram looked right. Click.
Color My World
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