Posted on September 20, 2018
Today Sony announced the lens I’ve been waiting for: the Sony 24, f/1.4 GM. I got a sneak preview of this lens on Maui last week, and again once I got home home. Hurricane Olivia, my workshop (no one was supposed to see me using the lens), and food poisoning significantly limited my use of it, but I did get to play with it enough to share a few thoughts.
Night photography is all about capturing light, the more the better. We bump our ISO as high as the image quality permits, dial in our lens’s widest aperture, and open our shutter as long as we can without obvious star streaks, pushing each exposure variable as far as possible squeeze out every last photon. The shortcomings of each of these compromises is mitigated by an improvement in the others, which is why night photography with the fastest possible lens means I can get the same exposure with a little less star motion and/or noise. So f/1.4 is great, currently pretty much as good as it gets for a lens wide enough for night photography.
Of course fast and wide isn’t much good if the lens is lousy, or difficult to use. I haven’t used the 24 GM a lot, but I’ve used it enough to know that lousy and difficult won’t be a concern.
My very first impression, and I suspect this will be everyone’s first impression, is how small this lens is. When I knew it was coming my way I started strategizing how I’d rearrange my bag to accommodate it, but it turns out all I needed to do was empty the slot with a couple of extension tubes and my 2X teleconverter. Contrast that with the Sigma 20mm f/1.4, which is an absolute beast of a lens, both in weight and volume, that could never just live in my bag. But I flew home with the Sony in my bag and was completely unaware of the extra weight. Well done, Sony!
I only got one night to use the on Maui before I had to return to the real world, and my location options had been severely limited by the recent passage Tropical Storm Olivia (downgraded from a hurricane shortly before landfall), so I drove about half-hour from my condo in Napili to the ultra-dark skies on the northern-most tip of West Maui, where I stumbled in the dark down to the edge of a cliff above the Nakalele Blowhole and shot into a 30-MPH headwind. Not the most ideal conditions, but I made it work for my purposes.
The benefit of a fast lens like this is not just the amount of light it allows into an image, it starts with the simple ability to see enough to simply compose and focus. And as I expected, both composition and manual focus were a piece of cake with Sony 24 1.4. For the Maui night shoot I composed, then magnified the viewfinder of my Sony a7SII and twisted the focus ring until the stars were the finest possible points of light—it took all of about 3 seconds. After my first exposure I magnified the image to verify that it was indeed sharp, then didn’t worry about focus again.
The image on the right features the dimmest part of the Milky Way, opposite the brilliant galactic core we all love to photograph. As a bonus, I also captured M-31, the Andromeda Galaxy—its fuzzy glow in the upper right has traveled over 2 million lightyears and is the farthest we can see with the unaided eye.
About this image
I’d have liked to have done more starlight photography after getting home from Maui, but by the time I recovered enough from a most unwelcome bout of food poisoning that showed up the day I returned, the moon was too prominent in the night sky. Nevertheless, a couple of days ago I sucked it up and drove out to the foothills about an hour from my home and put the lens through its paces beneath a 70 percent gibbous moon.
With the moon high over my right shoulder I looked for scenes facing northeast, where the skies were the least polluted by city glow. I eventually settled on a nearby hillside dotted with oaks fortuitously punctuated by an organized formation of the only clouds in the sky. With so much moonlight present I went with the Sony a7RIII instead of the Sony a7SII. Shooting moonlight at f/1.4 enabled me to get away with a 10-second exposure at ISO 1600.
In the past I’ve usually auto-focused on the moon for my moonlight scenes, but for laughs this night I tried autofocusing on the trees and was shocked to hear my focus indicator beep. Wow, I’ve never been able to autofocus on anything by moonlight, even when the moon was completely full. Next I tried autofocusing on a random star and again heard the confirmation beep—another first. And finally I magnified the view and manually focused on the tree: 3-for-3. Admittedly, with the recent ability to do starlight photography (moonless nights), I don’t do as much moonlight photography as I once did, and I’ve never done it with an f/1.4 lens (because it really isn’t necessary). Nevertheless, I think night focus struggles will be a thing of the past with this lens.
Processing my night images, the first thing I checked was the stars in the corners. In many years of night photography I used three dedicated “night” lenses (lenses that I only use for night photography): Zeiss 28mm f/2, Rokinon 24mm f/1.4, and Sigma 20mm f/1.4. In quest of more light I’ve shot all of them wide open, but I’ve had to live with a fair amount of coma (comatic aberration). My first reaction is that is that this lens is cleaner wide open than any of them.
The bottom line
I haven’t had tons of time to spend with my images, but my first impression is that I’m blown away by this lens. I’ve grown to accept that if I want quality in a lens I need to accept bulk along with it. Apparently that’s not the case, because this lens gave me crazy sharp images wide open, yet felt not much larger than a baseball in my hand.
A Sony 24mm f/1.4 GM Samples
Posted on September 14, 2018
Each year I do back-to-back workshops in Hawaii, one on the Big Island and one on Maui (it’s a tough job, but…, well, you know…). This year’s Big Island workshop was complicated first by the recent Kilauea eruption, and then by Hurricane Lane, which deposited 50 inches of rain on our host city Hilo just days before the workshop.
To get my eyes on the damage wrought by Mother Nature, and to scout more alternate locations, I flew to the Big Island five days early (see “tough job” reference above). Despite the complications, the workshop turned out great, with a fantastic group and a few new locations (including a beautiful sunset and Milky Way shoot atop Mauna Kea) added to my tried and true favorites, and I breathed a sigh of relief.
But my dreams of a stress-free Maui workshop were dashed when Hurricane Olivia took laser aim at Maui. Each day I’d check the forecast hoping to see that she had changed course, and each day I was disappointed. Finally, with just a couple days to go, I completely overhauled the workshop, switching lodging and itinerary to avoid the worst of the storm and get the most the island had to offer. I’m happy to say that despite Olivia, we only missed one morning of the workshop and managed to get our Haleakala sunrise in, plus spend a nice day on the Hana road.
My first location adjustment was switching one of my favorite Maui sunset locations, usually a second day destination, to the workshop’s first night because I wasn’t sure we’d be able to get out there the rest of the week. Between dense rainforest and steep, uneven lava, even the walk down here is a bit harrowing, so when I told the group that a few years ago I tried to drive down to this spot, they couldn’t quite believe it. Returning to this spot made me think that it might be time to share the story of my self-inflicted misadventure again. So I dusted off a blog post from five years ago (can’t believe it’s been that long!):
On my September scouting trip for my upcoming Maui workshop I hiked cross-country down the rugged flank of West Maui, searching for lava-rock tide pools I’d read about. Scrambling down a steep hill and over sharp rocks, I found the beach I was looking for but decided it was too dangerous for a group. Rather than return the way I came, I continued picking my way along the shore and eventually found another spot I liked better. At first I thought this wouldn’t be suitable for a group either, but climbing out I found an overgrown dirt road/trail leading back to the highway (“highway” in this case is the one-and-a-half lane, mostly-paved, rental-agreement-voiding Highway 340 circling West Maui). But fearing I’d miss this obscure spur from the main road, I saved the trailhead on my GPS.
Last Sunday, the day before my Maui workshop started, I picked up Don Smith (Don assisted this workshop; I’ll return the favor in one of Don’s workshops) at the airport and was excited to share with him the spot I’d “discovered” (it’s not as if I’m the Lewis and Clark of landscape photography—there’s enough debris down there to indicate the spot is known to locals) and off we went. The steady rain that had been falling for most of the afternoon increased with the road’s remoteness and soon we were slaloming around boulders dislodged from the surrounding cliffs by the downpour—at one point we passed a car waylaid by a grapefruit-size rock embedded in its windshield.
Undeterred, we soldiered on through the intensifying rain. This was Don’s first Maui visit, so I narrated the tour with vigor, enthusiastically pointing out the island’s scenic highlights as we passed them, pausing only occasionally to reassure Don that the highway was navigable despite increasing evidence to the contrary, punctuating my confidence with, “And just wait until you see the scene at the end of this ‘secret’ road I discovered.”
Closely monitoring my GPS, at the prescribed location and without hesitation (for dramatic effect) I veered left into a barely distinguishable gap in the trees almost as if I had a brain. The narrow track unfolded between rapidly oscillating wipers, immediately plummeting the steep hill and twisting right. Dense foliage brushed both sides of the car, which by now was clearly losing purchase in the mud. Don hadn’t quite finished a sentence that started, “Are you sure…,” when it began to dawn on me that I’d never intended to actually drive this road, that my plan when I marked it six months earlier was to park at the top and walk down. Oops.
Propelled by momentum and without the benefit of traction put us completely at gravity’s mercy, careening downward (picture the jungle mudslide scene from “Romancing the Stone”). Steering seemed to have more influence on the direction the car faced than it did on its direction of travel and I quickly gave that up. Were it not for the deep ruts that occasionally nudged us back on course, I’m sure we’d have bounced into the jungle. I held my breath as we approached a boulder jutting from the roadbed and exhaled when the undercarriage passed above unscathed. Shortly thereafter the slope moderated somewhat and we slid to a stop, miraculously still on the “road” (more or less).
After a few seconds of cathartic expletives, I scanned our surroundings. Backing up the slippery road was out of the question, but a little farther down the slope we spotted a flat, clear space with a small Y-spur that might enable us to at least turn around. I scrutinized the dash for the switch that would engage the 4-wheel drive (I swear) the guy at rental agency promised my SUV had. When we didn’t find it Don dug the manual from the glovebox—apparently 4WD is an option the powers-that-be at Alamo deem unnecessary on Maui. Uh-oh.
With crossed fingers I gave the car some gas and felt the wheels spin with no effect. More expletives. Don and I exited into the rain to survey our predicament: the road was fast graduating to creek status, and where rubber tires were supposed to be, instead were four mud disks. Scraping the tires clean had little value because the next revolution simply reapplied a fresh layer.
Back in the car I found that cranking the steering wheel hard in both directions gained just enough traction to un-mire the tires and I gingerly rolled the car downhill, away from safety, but at least into a relatively flat, open space. Yay! Once on level ground, and with only a little bit of slip/slide drama, I gingerly pivoted the car into the adjacent spur and nudged back around to face the direction we’d just come. Progress!
Now for the hard part. Looking for the first time toward freedom, we came to grips with the chute that had deposited us: Not only was it steep, at the steepest (and muddiest) point it curved hard-left, but banked hard-right—not exactly an arrangement that would be embraced at Daytona.
I inhaled and goosed the gas and we shot upward, fishtailing like a hooked marlin before losing momentum before coming to a stop a mere fifty feet closer to freedom. This maneuver had also managed to skew the car at a 45-degree angle to the road, its left-front fender in the jungle on one side, its right-rear fender in the jungle on the other. When I gave the car gas the tires spun hopelessly.
Facing defeat we started strategizing Plan B: With an hour of daylight remaining and no cell service, we’d need to walk up to the highway and hope to flag down, in the rain, a good samaritan willing to drive two disheveled, mud-caked strangers back to civilization (about 45 minutes away), then hope to summon a tow truck that would extricate us.
While Don trudged through the rain up to the main road to get help, I stayed with the car, licking my wounds and feeling pretty foolish. It occurred to me that since the road was too narrow for a tow truck, and the distance and tight curve would make winching difficult, even a tow truck wouldn’t guarantee freedom.
Watching Don head back up the hill to seek help, I decided to give extraction one more shot. I shifted the car into reverse, gave it some gas, and cranked the steering wheel back and forth violently until the tires broke free and the car rolled out of the jungle and back onto the muddy trail and back down to the clearing below. So far so good. Once there, I gave the pedal a gentle nudge and reversed slowly all the way to the clearing’s back side (another 20 feet), where I hoped there might be a little more gravel and less mud—and most importantly, a little more room to gather momentum.
With a small prayer I slipped the transmission into in first and floored the accelerator, rocketing ahead with enough forward speed to avoid much of the fishtailing I’d experienced earlier. Peering through flailing wipers I aimed for the small opening that had deposited us, shooting past crumpled shrubs and protruding rocks until the road steepened. With the steepened incline the energy of my forward momentum was replaced by spinning wheels that spewed mud like a dirty firehose, but I just kept my foot to the floor.
Approaching the curve I felt the car start to tilt right and slow almost to 0, but somehow the tires maintained just enough grip to avoid a complete stop. The fishtailing had returned, now exceeded the forward motion but I didn’t care as long as I still had forward motion. I rounded the curve and surprised Don, who dove into the jungle just up the road and turned to cheer me forward. Just as my forward motion was about to to hopelessly be completely transformed into spinning wheels the road leveled, my rear tires grabbed something solid, and I shot forward. Not wanting to slow until the tires kissed pavement I lowered my window and high-fived Don as I flew past and onto the highway. At the top we just couldn’t stop laughing, both at the foolish predicament I’d created, and our utter disbelief that we’d made it out.
This year’s visit was far less eventful. We parked at the top and entire group made it down to the water on foot, without incident. After receiving a brief summary of the scene and a return time, the group quickly scattered in search of one of the seemingly infinite number of great photos here. I kept my camera in the bag as I moved around to work with everyone, eventually finding myself atop a jagged rock ridge about 20 feet above pounding surf.
When I saw the sunset color reflecting in the water, I pulled out my Sony a7RIII and added my Breakthrough 6-stop neutral density filter to my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM lens. Carefully monitoring my histogram, I dialed in a long exposure that smoothed the surf and blurred the streaking clouds. In my Canon days I’d have needed a graduated neutral density filter (or multiple images) to capture the entire dynamic range in this scene, but the a7RIII has about 3-stops more dynamic range (an entire GND worth!) than my Canon DSLRs did, enabling me to capture this scene’s entire range of light with one click.
A Hawaii Gallery
Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the window to reorder the display.
Posted on September 9, 2018
One of the questions I get the most about the New Zealand workshop Don Smith and I do is, “Why winter?” The simple answer is that it’s the best time to photograph there. This answer is usually followed with, “But isn’t it cold?” Not really—it’s more like a Northern California or Oregon winter, with highs in the 40s and 50s, and lows in the 20s and 30s. Also like Northern California and Oregon, New Zealand’s South Island gets some rain and fog in the lowlands, and snow in the mountains—so much better for photography than the persistent blue skies of the California summer I left behind.
While the conditions are certainly tolerable, and winter storms whiten the many peaks and fill the skies with interesting clouds, when pressed for more specifics on my preference for a New Zealand winter, it’s usually not long before I get to the night sky. With clean air and minimal light pollution, New Zealand is an astrophotographer’s paradise any season. But winter is when the Milky Way’s brilliant center shines prominently all night, rising much higher above the horizon than my Northern Hemisphere eyes are accustomed to.
One night in Wanaka Don and I took the group for short drive out to a vista overlooking Lake Hawea, one of many large glacial lakes decorating the South Island. I knew we’d get the Milky Way, but had forgotten about Mars, near opposition and shining brighter than it has in 15 years. We found it rising across the lake, so bright that it cast a sparkling reflection on the water. I started with vertical compositions, but soon switched to horizontal to include both Mars and the snow-capped peaks rising above the north shore.
Here are a couple of links to help with your night photography:
A New Zealand Winter Gallery
Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the window to reorder the display.
Posted on September 2, 2018
My relationship with Yosemite rainbows goes all the way back to my childhood, when a rainbow arcing across the face of Half Dome made my father more excited than I believed possible for an adult. I look back on that experience as the foundation of my interest in photography, my relationship with Yosemite, and my love for rainbows. So, needless to say, photographing a rainbow in Yosemite is a pretty big deal for me.
A few years ago the promise (hope) of lightning drove me to Yosemite to wait in the rain on a warm July afternoon. But after sitting for hours on hard granite, all I got was wet. It became pretty clear that the storm wasn’t producing any lightning, but as the sky behind me started to brighten while the rain continued falling over Yosemite Valley, I realized that conditions were ripe for a rainbow. Sure enough, long after I would have packed up and headed home had I been focused solely on lightning, this rainbow was my reward.
The moral if my story is that despite all appearances to the contrary, rainbows are not random—when sunlight strikes raindrops, a rainbow occurs, every time. The reason we don’t always see the rainbow not because it isn’t happening, it’s because we’re not in the right place. And that place, geometrically speaking, is always the same. Of course sometimes seeing the rainbow requires superhero ability like levitation or teleportation, but when we’re armed with a little knowledge and anticipation, we can put ourselves in position for moments like this.
I can’t help with the anticipation part, but here’s a little knowledge infusion (excerpted from the Rainbow article in my Photo Tips section).
LET THERE BE LIGHT
Energy generated by the sun bathes Earth in continuous electromagnetic radiation, its wavelengths ranging from extremely short to extremely long (and every wavelength in between). Among the broad spectrum of electromagnetic solar energy we receive are ultra-violet rays that burn our skin and longer infrared waves that warm our atmosphere. These wavelengths bookend a very narrow range of wavelengths the human eye sees.
Visible wavelengths are captured by our eyes and interpreted by our brain. When the our eyes take in light consisting of the full range of visible wavelengths, we perceive it as white (colorless) light. We perceive color when some wavelengths are more prevalent than others. For example, when light strikes an opaque (solid) object such as a tree or rock, some of its wavelengths are absorbed; the wavelengths not absorbed are scattered. Our eyes capture this scattered light, send the information to our brains, which interprets it as a color. When light strikes water, some is absorbed and scattered by the surface, enabling us to see the water; some light passes through the water’s surface, enabling us to see what’s in the water; and some light is reflected by the surface, enabling us to see reflections.
(From this point on, for simplicity’s sake, it might help to visualize what happens when water strikes a single drop.)
Light traveling from one medium to another (e.g., from air into water) refracts (bends). Different wavelengths refract different amounts, causing the light to split into its component colors. Light that passes through a water refracts (bends). Different wavelengths are refracted different amounts by water; this separates the originally homogeneous white light into the multiple colors of the spectrum.
But simply separating the light into its component colors isn’t enough to create a rainbow–if it were, we’d see a rainbow whenever light strikes water. Seeing the rainbow spectrum caused by refracted light requires that the refracted light be returned to our eyes somehow.
A raindrop isn’t flat like a sheet of paper, it’s spherical, like a ball. Light that was refracted (and separated into multiple colors) as it entered the front of the raindrop, continues through to the back of the raindrop, where some is reflected. Red light reflects back at about 42 degrees, violet light reflects back at about 40 degrees, and the other spectral colors reflect back between 42 and 40 degrees. What we perceive as a rainbow is this reflection of the refracted light–notice how the top color of the primary rainbow is always red, and the bottom color is always violet.
FOLLOW YOUR SHADOW
Every raindrop struck by sunlight creates a rainbow. But just as the reflection of a mountain peak on the surface of a lake is visible only when viewed from the angle the reflection bounces off the lake’s surface, a rainbow is visible only when you’re aligned with the 40-42 degree angle at which the raindrop reflects the spectrum of rainbow colors.
Fortunately, viewing a rainbow requires no knowledge of advanced geometry. To locate or anticipate a rainbow, picture an imaginary straight line originating at the sun, entering the back of your head, exiting between your eyes, and continuing down into the landscape in front of you–this line points to the “anti-solar point,” an imaginary point exactly opposite the sun. With no interference, a rainbow would form a complete circle, skewed 42 degrees from the line connecting the sun and the anti-solar point–with you at the center. (We don’t see the entire circle because the horizon gets in the way.)
Because the anti-solar point is always at the center of the rainbow’s arc, a rainbow will always appear exactly opposite the sun (the sun will always be at your back). It’s sometimes helpful to remember that your shadow always points toward the anti-solar point. So when you find yourself in direct sunlight and rain, locating a rainbow is as simple as following your shadow and looking skyward–if there’s no rainbow, the sun’s probably too high.
HIGH OR LOW
Sometimes a rainbow appears as a majestic half-circle, arcing high above the distant terrain; other times it’s merely a small circle segment hugging the horizon. As with the direction of the rainbow, there’s nothing mysterious about its varying height. Remember, every rainbow would form a full circle if the horizon didn’t get in the way, so the amount of the rainbow’s circle you see (and therefore its height) depends on where the rainbow’s arc intersects the horizon.
While the center of the rainbow is always in the direction of the anti-solar point, the height of the rainbow is determined by the height of the anti-solar point, which will always be exactly the same number of degrees below the horizon as the sun is above the horizon. It helps to imagine the line connecting the sun and the anti-solar point as a fulcrum, with you as the pivot–picture yourself in the center of a teeter-totter: as one seat rises above you, the other drops below you. That means the lower the sun, the more of its circle you see and the higher it appears above the horizon; conversely, the higher the sun, the less of its circle is above the horizon and the flatter (and lower) the rainbow will appear.
Assuming a flat, unobstructed scene (such as the ocean), when the sun is on the horizon, so is the anti-solar point (in the opposite direction), and half of the rainbow’s 360 degree circumference will be visible. But as the sun rises, the anti-solar point drops–when the sun is more than 42 degrees above the horizon, the anti-solar point is more than 42 degrees belowthe horizon, and the only way you’ll see a rainbow is from a perspective above the surrounding landscape (such as on a mountaintop or on a canyon rim).
Of course landscapes are rarely flat. Viewing a scene from above, such as from atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii or from the rim of the Grand Canyon, can reveal more than half of the rainbow’s circle. From an airplane, with the sun directly overhead, all of the rainbow’s circle can be seen, with the plane’s shadow in the middle.
DOUBLE YOUR PLEASURE
Not all of the light careening about a raindrop goes into forming the primary rainbow. Some of the light slips out the back of the raindrop to illuminate the sky, and some is reflected inside the raindrop a second time. The refracted light that reflects a second time before exiting creates a secondary, fainter rainbow skewed 50 degrees from the anti-solar point. Since this is a reflection, the order of the colors is the secondary rainbow is reversed.
And if the sky between the primary and secondary rainbows appears darker than the surrounding sky, you’ve found “Alexander’s band.” It’s caused by all the light machinations I just described–instead of all the sunlight simply passing through the raindrops to illuminate the sky, some of the light was intercepted, refracted, and reflected by the raindrops to form our two rainbows, leaving less light for the sky between the rainbows.
Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the window to reorder the display.
Posted on August 28, 2018
Sometimes making a good photo is as much about what you leave out as it is about what you put in. The downfall of many images, both mine and others’, is the inclusion of too much visual activity—sometimes that activity is simply unappealing visual busyness, but often it’s elements that are visually appealing in their own right, but nevertheless distract from the main point of the image, that need to be removed.
Distraction subtraction starts with proper cropping—simply knowing what to put in and what to leave out. But because nature rarely cooperates, we usually end up having to include stuff we really don’t want. Whether it’s smoothing choppy water, softening a busy background, or banishing distracting terrain to blackened shadows, subtracting unwanted detail usually requires managing the exposure variables (shutter speed, ISO, and aperture) that control photography’s “creativity triad” (motion, light, and depth).
Each summer, Don Smith and I do back-to-back Grand Canyon Monsoon photo workshops. One of the small perks of two workshops is do-overs—the opportunity to re-shoot something that didn’t work out the first time. This year for me that was the sunrise shoot from Bright Angel Point. We do this shoot on each group’s final morning on the North Rim and it’s a workshop highlight. Because the sun rises hot and white above the flat and bland (compared to its surroundings) Kaibab Plateau in the east, the better shot from Bright Angel Point is usually the low angled light brushing the canyon walls opposite the sun.
This year, smoke from nearby fires dulled the “good” light in the canyon, but transformed the sun into a mesmerizing orange ball. Instead of something to be avoided, the sun became a feature I wanted to highlight in the best way possible. But how? I wasn’t crazy about the hillside above which the sun would appear, but simply attaching a telephoto and photographing a big sun by itself would have been boring. Instead, I planned to eliminate all foreground detail with a silhouette of the ridge-top evergreens whose shape and contrast would provide the sun the very emphasis I was looking for. To further ramp-up the drama, I decided to shoot the scene as long as possible, adding the Sony 2X teleconverter to my Sony 100-400 GM lens—on my full frame Sony a7RIII, that gave me 800mm.
But…. In photography, plans can be much better in theory than they are in execution, which was exactly what happened on my first Bright Angel Point sunrise attempt. The low-hanging smoke was so dense that morning that we didn’t see the sun until it was too far above the trees for the silhouette I wanted, forcing me to quickly improvise Plan B: forego the silhouette and give the scene enough light to bring out detail in the hillside. And since the hillside was now an actual subject, I also went with a wider composition.
Largely because of the smoke, I like the image I shot that morning. But it wasn’t what I had in mind and I was thankful for a second chance a few days later. Guiding the second workshop group out to Bright Angel Point in the dark, I kept checking the east horizon to get a read on the smoke. As the sky brightened it looked like the smoke would be just right—dense enough to redden the sun without completely obscuring it. I was in business.
This morning’s silhouette composition was going to be even tighter than the failed first one because a day or two earlier while rummaging through my suitcase and I discovered that at the last minute I must have tossed in my 1.5-crop Sony a6300 body (I don’t remember doing this, but there it was)—that meant I could shoot a 1200mm (full frame) equivalent focal length.
A successful silhouette, especially an ultra-long silhouette, requires careful selection of the silhouette subject—you can’t just plop down the tripod and accept whatever you end up with. So I did my best to figure out where the sun would appear, identified the best silhouette subjects in that direction, then riveted my eyes on the horizon for the first sign of the sun. While waiting I took meticulous care to focus—1200mm is extremely unforgiving, so even something that looks sharp on the LCD can be soft when viewed at 100%. I clicked several test frames, both using autofocus and manual focus, magnifying each in my viewfinder (I love mirrorless) and studying it closely until I was satisfied that I had the focus as sharp as it could be.
The instant the sun’s first glow peeked up behind the trees I grabbed my tripod and ran about 100 feet up the trail to align the sun with my chosen foreground. I used the zebra highlight alert to determine my exposure, pushing my shutter speed a couple of clicks longer once the zebras appeared. This exposure gave me enough contrast between the sun and the trees for the trees to stand out, but without losing color in the sun or including detail in the foreground.
As with many situations nature photographers encounter, this one presented difficult conditions that became a creative opportunity with the application of simple exposure technique to subtract unwanted detail. The next time you’re out in nature with your camera, challenge yourself to use your exposure variables to do something creative with your scene’s motion, light, or depth—not only will your photography improve, I think you’ll have a lot of fun.
Managing Motion, Light, and Depth
Posted on August 24, 2018
Yesterday Nikon finally jumped into the mirrorless game with its Z6 and Z7 announcement, a welcome development that can only keep pushing everyone’s mirrorless technology forward.
I made the switch to mirrorless about four years ago and haven’t looked back. At the beginning mirrorless was touted for its compactness, and while mirrorless bodies (and to a lesser extent, lenses) are more compact, it turns out that, for me at least, it’s the mirrorless viewfinder that has hooked me: with real-time exposure simulation, focus assist (peaking), highlight alert (zebras), and a pre-capture histogram, I don’t think I could go back to a DSLR.
While I shoot with the Sony a7RIII and am very much committed to the Sony mirrorless universe, I’m not going to get into the “my camera can beat up your camera” debate—Nikon makes great cameras and I’m sure their mirrorless bodies will be no exception. In fact, the Z7 looks like it compares very closely to the Sony a7RII, which is a fantastic camera that I still carry as a backup and don’t hesitate to use when the situation calls for it.
As happy as I am with my mirrorless conversion, I do have some insights that might spare Nikon shooters of some of the transition pains I went through when I switched from Canon DSLRs (1DSIII and 5DIII) to the Sony a7R series of mirrorless bodies.
- The mirrorless viewfinder is different than a DSLR viewfinder and it will take some getting used to. I don’t know what the Nikon viewfinder will be like, but I’m sure it will be quite good—large, bright, and everything you’d want in an electronic viewfinder (EVF). Even so, you might be surprised at how long it takes you to get used to it (but you will). It just feels different to view a video of the world. The cool thing is, EVF technology is relatively new and will only continue to improve, while there’s not a lot more that can be done for a conventional DSLR viewfinder.
- Beware of lens adapter hype. My original conversion plan was to use the Sony mirrorless body to supplement my Canon system, to continue using my Canon glass on the Sony body with a Metabones adapter, and gradually convert my lenses as my budget allowed. And while my adapted Canon lenses did indeed do the job, the experience was far from painless (not all that was advertised) and I wasn’t really satisfied until I was using 100% native Sony glass. Some of the problems are a function of the lens—generally the better (and newer) the lens, the closer to native performance it delivers. But as a landscape shooter, autofocus speed isn’t as big a deal to me as it is to anyone whose subjects are in motion, so sluggishness might even be a bigger problem for others. On the other hand, I suspect that since it’s Nikon making an adapter for their lenses to work with their bodies, it will be pretty good from the get-go—but I wouldn’t bet my house on it. And adapter performance likely won’t be as good as using native glass—best case scenario will be that some won’t notice a difference, but those for whom focus responsiveness and autofocus speed is essential should prepare for some frustration. (And I won’t begin to speculate about worst-case.)
- You’ll miss that second card slot more than you might imagine. Making my living from my images, having two memory card slots for instant image backups saved me a couple of times, and gave me tremendous peace of mind all the time. If your DSLR doesn’t have a second slot, the missing slot might not be a big deal to you, but if you’re as failsafe-obsessed as I am, you might be surprised by how much you’ll long for that second slot. All it takes is one corrupted, damaged, or lost card to make you a convert to the second card slot paradigm.
- The battery life will drive you crazy. Looking at the specs, the Z7 battery life is about the same as the a7R and a7RII, and nowhere near the Nikon full frame and Sony a7RIII (or the a7III or a9) battery life. I was willing to live with burning through multiple batteries in a single day because of all the other mirrorless benefits, and because the Sony batteries were small enough that carrying four or five at all times (I mean on my person, not just in the car or hotel) wasn’t a big deal. But it looks like the Nikon batteries are twice the size of the original Sony batteries, so there goes your size/weight benefit. I predict this will be the biggest complaint we hear about these cameras (as it was with the early a7 bodies)—that is, assuming the adapter is good.
- Learn how to clean your sensor. Without a mirror to protect it, your naked mirrorless sensor will be exposed to the elements each time you change a lens. Fortunately, sensor cleaning is simple and not nearly as dangerous is many try to make you believe.
None of these points is a reason to not get a Nikon Z6 or Z7, but for me it would be a reason not to pre-order. Instead, if it were me, I’d wait and let others discover the frustrations so I could go into the non-trivial transition from DSLR to mirrorless with realistic expectations.
I’m guessing that current Nikon shooters will probably endure fewer frustrations than I had with my first mirrorless body, the Sony a7R—Sony was still trying to figure out the whole interface thing that Nikon has nailed (I’ve never been a fan of Nikon’s interface, but Nikon shooters like it and that’s what matters). On the other hand, I was probably more forgiving than Nikon shooters might be because the a7R image quality was so much better for my needs than the Canon 5DIII it replaced. Dynamic range is king in the landscape world, and the a7R gave me 2-3 stops more dynamic range than my 5DIII—slow transition plan notwithstanding, I literally didn’t click another frame after my first a7R shoot.
While I expect the Z6/Z7 bodies will be ergonomically more mature than my original a7R, Nikon’s full frame bodies already deliver exceptional image quality, so most Nikon full-frame DSLR shooters transitioning from the D800/810/850 won’t have the euphoria of much better image quality that sustained me until the release of Sony’s a7RII and (especially) a7RIII.
On the other hand…
(Full disclosure: I’m a Sony Artisan of Imagery)
These Nikon mirrorless cameras are great for committed Nikon shooters who are completely invested in the Nikon ecosystem and have no plans to completely replace their lens lineup. But for any photographer planning to make the full jump to mirrorless that includes all native lenses, I think Sony is (at least) several years ahead of Nikon, and given their resources and commitment, will remain at least that far ahead for many years.
One of the early complaints about the Sony mirrorless system was its lack of lenses compared to Nikon and Canon, but valid as that criticism was, that disadvantage has shrunk to virtually the point of irrelevance, and Sony is already very far along on many more native Sony FE-mount lenses. Sony is several laps ahead of everyone else in the mirrorless world—with deep pockets and its foot hard on the mirrorless pedal, I don’t see that lead shrinking muchsoon.
As good as it is for a first generation offering, the Nikon Z7 is much closer to the 3-year old Sony a7RII than it is to the (already 1-year old) a7RIII, and for sports and wildlife (and anything else that moves), it isn’t even in the same league as the (more than 1-year old) Sony a9.
I have no idea how or when Sony will respond to the mirrorless offerings from Nikon and (soon) Canon, but I’m guessing it won’t be long, and am pretty confident that will be a great day to be a Sony shooter. Competition is great for all of us, and Nikon just gave the mirrorless wave a huge boost that I’m looking forward to riding as far as it takes me.
A few words about this image
I can’t tell you that this is my favorite Sony mirrorless image, but it would definitely be on the list. I chose it for this post because it’s one of the few Sony images I have that used a Canon lens with the Metabones adapter.
Leading a workshop in Yosemite a few years ago, I guided the group to a meadow flooded by the Merced River during a particularly extreme spring runoff year. My widest lens at the time was my Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f/4 (which I love, BTW), but the scene called for something wider. When he photographer assisting me offered to let me use his Canon 11-24 f/4 with my Metabones adapter, I snatched it before he could change his mind. Given that everything in the scene was stationary, I was able to bypass any adapter-induced autofocus frustration and take the time to manually focus (it didn’t hurt that depth of field at 11mm is extremely forgiving).
I’d never used a lens that wide and was so excited by the extra field of view that I returned from Yosemite fully prepared to purchase the Canon lens, adapter or not. Fortunate for my budget (and my back), I let the lens sit in my shopping cart long enough for sanity to prevail. Not only was the Canon lens quite expensive, it weighed a ton, and I had a feeling it wouldn’t be long before Sony offered something similar. Those instincts were rewarded a year later when Sony released a 12-24 f/4 G lens that is just as sharp and half the size (and much less money).
A Sony Mirrorless Gallery
Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the window to reorder the display.
Posted on August 18, 2018
Lightning (at a safe distance) is pretty cool. It has always fascinated me, partly for the ephemeral power that can explode a tree and disappear before my brain can register its existence, but also because lightning is a rare sight for these California eyes. What what exactly is going on in a lightning bolt? I thought you’d never ask….
The shocking truth about lightning
Lightning is an electrostatic discharge that equalizes negative/positive polarization between two objects. For example, when you get shocked touching the doorknob in your bedroom, you’ve been struck by your own personal lightning bolt. You got zapped because, courtesy of that carpet you just dragged your fuzzy slippers across, you picked up a few extra electrons that the doorknob was more than happy to relieve you of.
While the polarization process that happens in an electrical storm isn’t as thoroughly understood as the one in your bedroom, it’s generally accepted that a thunderstorm’s vertical, convective air motion shuffles electrons in the atmosphere. To jar your high school science memories, convection occurs when a fluid substance heats, becomes less dense, and rises until it cools and becomes dense enough to sink. (You initiate convection when you boil water.)
The is up/down circular flow of atmospheric convection happens when air near the ground warms, expands, and rises. The rising air carries water vapor; since cooler air can’t hold as much moisture as warm air, the ascending water vapor eventually condenses into clouds. The convective motion jostling the water and ice molecules inside the clouds strips the molecules of electrons. Electrons are negatively charged and more dense than the surrounding air; freed of their conventional bonds, these electrons fall earthward. Overhead, the clouds relieved of many electrons are suddenly positively charged, while the ground below has been rendered negatively charged by virtue of its new electron surplus.
Because nature abhors any imbalance, these opposite charges attract each other. The extreme polarization in a thunderstorm—positive charge at the top of the cloud, negative charge near the ground—is quickly (and violently) equalized: lightning! So I guess you could say that lightning is God’s way of telling Earth, “Stop being so negative!”
With lightning comes other atmospheric changes. The sudden infusion of a 50,000 degree electric charge displaces the surrounding air very suddenly, creating an audible compression wave that we know as thunder.
The visual component of the lightning bolt that caused the thunder travels to you at the speed of light, over 186,000 miles per second. But lightning’s aural component, thunder, only travels at the speed of sound, a mere 750 miles per hour (or so)—a million times slower than light.
Because lightning and its thunder are simultaneous, and we know how fast each travels, we can compute the lightning’s approximate distance. (Thunder’s speed varies slightly with atmospheric conditions; light’s speed is non-negotiable.) From our human perspective the lightning arrives instantaneously, but moving at 750 miles per hour, thunder takes around five seconds to travel a mile. So, dividing by five the number of seconds to elapse between the lightning’s flash and its thunder’s crash gives you the lightning’s distance in miles (divide the interval by three for the approximate distance in kilometers). For example, if ten seconds pass between the lightning and the thunder, the lightning struck about two miles away, fifteen seconds elapsed means it’s about three miles away, and so on.
This speed difference also explains why lightning comes and goes in milliseconds, while its thunder can rumble and roll for several seconds. Because a lightning bolt can travel many miles, the thunder from its nearest portions reaches you much sooner than its most distant components.
About this image
Each summer moisture from the Gulf of Mexico makes its way up into the American Southwest. The combination of moist air and extreme heat (to kick off convection) makes August ripe for thunderstorms at the Grand Canyon. For the last six years, Don Smith and I have scheduled two photo workshops hoping to photograph these thunderstorms and their effects (clouds, rainbows, and especially lightning).
Bit with unseasonably dry air in place, the forecast at the start of this year’s first Grand Canyon Monsoon workshop wasn’t especially favorable for lightning. I told the group during the orientation that I wasn’t concerned, that I’ve often seen forecasts like this change suddenly—then anxiously monitored every subsequent NWS forecast update with crossed fingers. In the meantime, we were all quite content photographing incredible smoke effects, courtesy of three nearby wildfires.
By the end of our second day I started seeing hints of moisture returning to the forecast toward the end of the workshop, with each forecast looking a little more promising than the one prior. By day four, the workshop’s final full day, I was downright optimistic.
We’ve always had better lightning success on the North Rim. Partly because the view faces south, the direction from which the storms tend to arrive, and partly because our cabins at Grand Canyon Lodge are right on the rim. Grand Canyon Lodge also has a pair of view decks, shielded by lightning rods, that are ideal for photographing lightning.
The lightning started firing early on our final evening. We all rushed to the rim, attached our Lightning Triggers, and pointed toward the most promising clouds. Much to my relief, it wasn’t long before everyone in the group had at least one lightning image, and most had many more than just one.
But feeling a bit greedy, with nice clouds overhead, and the smoke that had set up camp in the canyon for most of the week suddenly scoured by heavy rain, I realized that all we needed to ignite a sunset lightshow was a little sunlight. I glanced westward and saw signs of clearing. Dare I hope for a sunset to go with this lightning? As if by divine intervention, the sun emerged from the clouds just a few minutes before sunset, infusing the canyon and its diaphanous rain bands with light that started amber and reddened with each passing minute.
When the choice is between a (relatively) bland scene most likely to get lightning, and better a composition with just a slight chance for lighting, I usually take my chances and opt for the better composition. In this case the lightning had shifted a little north of the canyon, but I pointed my camera toward the better light over the canyon and crossed my fingers. So irresistible was the light that while waiting (and not wanting to change my composition and miss a lightning strike), I pulled my a7RII from my bag and clicked a couple of handheld frames due south, where no lightning was possible but the light was especially sweet. (Anyone who knows me will be shocked to hear that I took a picture without a tripod.)
Though several bolts fired during the five or so minutes before the sun disappeared, the one in this image was the only lightning I captured with the great sunset light. But all I wanted was one sunset strike, and I felt extremely lucky that it arrived just as the magenta glow reached its crescendo.
The lightning waxed and waned for several more hours. With the sun down the sky soon darkened enough for me to remove my Lightning Trigger and switch to long exposures in Bulb mode. I stayed until after 10:00, wrapping up with a couple of 20+ minute exposures that captured more than a dozen strikes each.