Posted on August 18, 2019
So lately I’ve been thinking about the things I photograph and why I photograph them. Then the other day, after boarding a plane following my recent Grand Canyon monsoon trip, I squeezed into my seat and rummaged through my computer bag, loading the knee-jamming magazine holder on the seat-back in front of me with the two books I’m currently reading. One was “All About Lightning,” by Martin Uman (published in 1971 and revised in 1986); the other was “The Weather Machine: A Journey Inside the Forecast,” by Andrew Blum. On my AirPods was an astronomy podcast (“Orbital Path”). I have no illusions (anymore) of becoming an astronomer or a meteorologist, and the movie version these books is unlikely to be coming soon to a theater near you—no, I’m filling my mind with this stuff simply because it interests me. A lot.
Which brings me back to the things I photograph, and the realization that can probably tell a lot about a photographer’s relationship with the world by viewing his or her images. Anyone who checks the percentage of my images that have a weather or celestial component wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) be surprised by my in-flight entertainment, or to learn that for a few misspent college semesters I majored in astronomy (and have kept it as a hobby, where it belongs).
The longer I do this, the more I appreciate how lucky I am to actually make my living photographing only the things I love. Nearly 15 years ago I left a good career in the tech industry, naively planning to turn a photography passion into a profession. I can’t tell you how many people since then have told me that doesn’t work—fortunately, I didn’t hear them until it was too late.
For photographers, there’s a fine line between self-employed and unemployed, a line I didn’t fully appreciate when I made my decision to jump into it with both feet. Like millions of other photographers, all I wanted to make a living photographing the beautiful natural world I love so much—how hard could that be? But as many have learned (some sooner than others), not only is there very little market for landscape images, there seems to be pretty much infinite competition—competition that causes landscape photographers to sell digital images for pennies, and prints for little more than their cost. But somehow, for reasons I like to attribute to foresight but must acknowledge dash of shovel full of good luck as well, I’ve managed to make my living photographing only what I love.
Before leaving my tech job, I was doing art shows and making pretty decent money for a weekend’s work. But a weekend art show is so much more than just a weekend’s work, and after doing the math I realized that I’d need to be on the road at least 40 weeks per year to even have a chance to make ends meet through art shows. Gallery sales were a non-starter because the galleries just want too much of the small number of sales they generate, and the stock photography market was already on life support. Open my own gallery? That just sounded like an anchor that would prevent me from taking pictures.
So I started leading photo workshops, which were just starting to catch on and seemed ideally suited to my skillset. Not only was I intimately familiar with Yosemite and other California destinations that pretty much sell themselves, my background was in technical communications (tech writing, training, support), and I genuinely like people.
When I started offering workshop, I still did the art shows, but then came 2008 and the economic downturn. Despite a lot of hand wringing, my workshops continued filling, helped a lot by repeat customers who kept me afloat through the recession. And after one particularly unsuccessful weekend in San Francisco, I decided to drop the art shows altogether and focus on the workshops. I haven’t looked back.
Since making my mid-life career change, I’ve also managed to create a small niche as a writer, both through this blog (which pays nothing but has developed a pretty loyal following), and as a regular contributor to “Outdoor Photographer” and other photography publications (and which pays slightly more than nothing). Not enough to live on, but at least enough to scratch my life-long writing itch.
So here I am, nearly 15 years into this ride and still going strong. I’m not getting rich, and least financially, but there are better measures of success. Alone or sharing with others, I get as excited as anyone when the moon rises behind Half Dome, the Milky Way brightens above a New Zealand lake, or the setting sun paints a rainbow against a Grand Canyon sky.
About this image
After a day with a lot more rain than lightning, Don Smith and I took our Grand Canyon Monsoon photo workshop group up to Point Imperial for sunset. The vestiges of the storm still lingered as we set up, but there was no sign of the rain that had drenched us for most of the day.
Soft light in the canyon and the play of sunlight and clouds above kept everyone happy as we waited for sunset. We’d been photographing for about a half hour when I noticed a tiny fragment of rainbow balanced atop the rim in the south. Not nearly prominent enough to be a prime subject, I nevertheless pointed it out to others and composed a few frames of my own before moving on to other opportunities in a view filled with them. Since there was no sign of rain, I only occasionally checked on the tiny rainbow, each time fully expecting it to have vanished, but each time it was hanging in there—no bigger, but still somewhere on the continuum from vivid to nearly-faded-to-oblivion.
Just a few minutes before sunset and with no rain visible, that little spot of color rocketed skyward and intensified. Those of us who had seen it alerted the rest of the group, sending everyone into a shooting frenzy that lasted until the light faded with the setting sun. I’ve photographed bigger rainbows, and (slightly) brighter rainbows, but only a few that have thrilled me as much as this one that seemed to come out of nowhere.
Personal Favorites: Moon, Stars, and Weather
Click an image for a closer look and to view a slide show.
Posted on August 11, 2019
Confession: 4:30 wake-ups aren’t my favorite part of being a landscape photographer. But honestly, the worst part of an early wake-up starts the instant the alarm goes off and lasts until I get out of bed, so I’ve trained myself to set my alarm with zero time to spare, which forces me to rip off the wake-up bandaid.
Though sunrise doesn’t always work out photographically, it rarely lets me down emotionally. There’s no better time of the day to be outside, when all nature’s sensory inputs are coming alive and the din of humankind is still asleep. Even in a crowded national park like Grand Canyon, it’s the best time of the day to hear the birds conversing and savor the whisper of water and wind. And with the atmosphere unfiltered by human pollutants, the spectacular sights never feel closer.
I just wrapped up two workshops at Grand Canyon. These workshops were built to maximize our lightning capture opportunities, and in that regard each workshop was a major success. But we had other memorable moments that had nothing to do with lightning, with probably most memorable being the second group’s first sunrise. (Or the first group’s first sunset, but that’s a story for a different day.)
On that morning’s eastward drive to Grandview Point, we’d passed through a couple of rain showers, but through the trees I caught a glimpse of an opening on the eastern horizon. Clouds overhead with a gap low in the east is the recipe for a colorful sunrise, but not wanting to jinx us, I kept my mouth shut until the pre-shoot orientation (a quick summary of the site—where to go and what to look for). I also suggested the possibility of a rainbow and where it would be, and gave everyone a quick refresher on how to capture a sunstar before setting them free to explore and create.
Our morning started with a deep red glow on the eastern horizon that slowly brightened and spread across the sky. With the brightening horizon behind Desert View signaling the sun’s approach, the clouds took on a shimmering pink hue. Anticipating a sunstar opportunity, I composed my scene and stopped my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 lens (my favorite sunstar lens) down to f/18. I had several minutes to spare and spent them taking in my surroundings, then snapped to action with the first brilliant rays of direct sunlight. Unlike many mornings, the color hung in there for a couple of minutes after the sun’s arrival, all the time I needed to capture this frame.
Right in the midst of my sunstar shoot someone in the group shouted “Rainbow!” and I whipped around to confirm. I’d already decided this was a pretty special sunrise, but thought the rainbow, though not complete or ideally positioned, would be the cherry on top. But the show wasn’t over—when the sun rose into the clouds and the light flattened, people started to pack up. But I noticed a few holes that would almost certainly soon send crepuscular rays (god rays) into the canyon, so we hung around long enough to add that to the morning’s checklist. Color, sunstar, rainbow, god-rays—not a bad way to start the day. (I haven’t processed the rainbow and crepuscular rays images yet—stay tuned.)
Posted on August 8, 2019
I don’t usually write a brand new blog in the middle of a workshop, but I have to share last night’s experience
August 7, 2019
Scanning the southern horizon from the view deck of Grand Canyon Lodge on the North Rim, I saw no sign of lightning. Far to the south was a somewhat promising curtain of rain, maybe 30 miles beyond the South Rim. With nothing to do until I met the group for our sunset departure, I found a composition I liked and pointed my camera (with Lightning Trigger engaged) in that direction.
Soon others joined me—with my lightning app showing activity 50 miles distant in the general direction my camera pointed, I made the call to bag the sunset shoot and put all our eggs in the lightning basket. (A decision I might not have made had this second workshop group already had the lightning success the first had). Turns out that was a good call.
About an hour later, when lightning started firing to the west, I stubbornly stuck with my composition, but instructed the rest of the group to point their cameras toward the more sure thing. My reasoning was that since I had over 100 lightning strikes from the first workshop, I could afford to be selective and take a chance on the composition I preferred, but everyone who hadn’t had a success should play the odds.
My storm completely fizzled, but the storm cell to the west was very active and appeared to be moving closer. I finally admitted defeat and gave up on my cell, turning my attention to the active cell just about the time we started hearing thunder. Within minutes the storm was on top of us and suddenly we couldn’t tell which thunder went with which bolt.
Huddled in relative safety beneath the lodge’s lightning rods, the next 20 minutes provided the most jaw-dropping electrical this California boy has ever seen—maybe all lightning storms are this spectacular, but I’ve never been that close. We gave everyone the option of retreating to the lodge’s enclosed viewing deck, but everyone steadfastly stuck to their tripods. The lightning was firing two or three times per minute, each strike so close that we couldn’t couldn’t fit the entire bolt in our frame. Then the wind kicked up and soon thereafter the sky opened, so we grabbed our cameras and headed inside.
As the lightning flashed in the pictures windows, we reviewed our captures on our LCDs and shared our bounty with each other. Everyone had multiple lightning captures, and it seemed like virtually all in the group had some version of this bolt striking Oza Butte, about one mile away. It was interesting to compare the differences between each person’s capture—not only did they vary with the composition, they also varied with the exposure time (more or fewer strokes and filaments) and camera type (some cameras trigger their shutters faster than others).
This image is a perfect example of what I love about still photography: It freezes an instant in time that is already memory by the time my brain registers it, allowing me to spend as much time as I want scrutinizing detail I’d never see otherwise. I can’t tell you how long I’ve studied this image already, and I’m still find new things.
2019 Grand Canyon Monsoon Highlights (processed so far)
Posted on August 5, 2019
In a day of surprises, I think the most surprising thing was finding myself completely alone on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon—in the middle of a workshop. The sun had set, the tourists had gone to dinner, and the rest of my group, thanks to an unexpected turn of events (stay tuned), was with my workshop partner Don Smith at Desert View, about ten miles east. I love leading workshops, but the opportunity to enjoy a summer sunset alone at the Grand Canyon was too rare to not to appreciate. And as if that wasn’t enough, I was being treated to one of the most spectacular lightning displays I’d seen in all my years of photographing the Grand Canyon monsoon.
The weather gods had been messing with us since the workshop’s start two days earlier. The forecast for our first two days was so good, Don and I had virtually guaranteed everyone a lightning bolt (or ten, or 20, or…) on their memory cards by the time we headed to the South Rim on Day 3. But on Day 1 we got too much rain and not enough lightning (not unprecedented), a loss largely assuaged by a gorgeous rainbow at sunset (phew). No worries, the Day 2 lightning forecast was even more promising.
While we did see a bolt or two on the second day, we got nothing close to the classic lightning displays the North Rim frequently serves up during the Grand Canyon Monsoon. Even without any lightning photos, the day was salvaged by the night’s fantastic Milky Way shoot at Cape Royal—an evening so warm that most of us kept the jackets packed and did the whole thing in T-shirts.
But lighting is this workshop’s Holy Grail, and the pressure was building for Don and me. For a few reasons, the North Rim is usually generates about 80 percent of our lightning success. But after being shut out for our two North Rim days, now it was time to motor to the much more crowded South Rim, where the crowds are oppressive and weather forecast called for a measly 10 percent chance of thunderstorms. Suddenly my optimism was waning.
Mother Nature is fickle, and I’m pretty sure she was punishing me for being a little too cocky at the beginning of the workshop. Because on the road to the South Rim (about the time I started to admit serious doubts about our lightning chances), she started filling my windshield with billowing cumulus clouds—not friendly cotton-ball puffs, these clouds were dark, angry towers. By the time we checked into our hotel, our lightning app was showing signs of sneaking activity sneaking up from the south (behind us).
Though nothing was happening near the canyon yet, experience has taught us to be proactive when the storms are building. So rather than wait until the planned sunset departure time, Don and I herded the group to the cars and we bolted for the rim as soon as we could get everyone assembled. Turning east on Desert View Road toward our sunset destination, Desert View, we pulled over at the very first vista. We hopped out to take a look and as Don and I surveyed the view, someone spotted lightning directly across the canyon. Showtime.
This was indeed a great show, with at least one or two bolts per minute for nearly an hour. Within 15 minutes it was pretty clear that everyone had captured multiple strikes and Don and I could relax—everyone would go home with the lightning photos they came for. The storm was still active when increasing wind and threatening clouds led us to decide it would be prudent to move on.
The next stop on the way to our way to Desert View was Grandview Point, and that’s where things took an unexpected turn. First, when I went to change the precariously low battery on my Sony a7RIII, I realized my backup battery was at home on the charger (gone are my Sony a7RII days when I carried six batteries). But that crisis was soon set aside when one of the members of the group had an emergency that required her to return to the hotel. After a bit of discussion and a little math (Do we have enough seats for the rest of the group to continue to Desert View for sunset? Answer: Yes, with none to spare), I drove her back while everyone else continued on to photograph sunset.
Back at the hotel I did a bit more math and realized there was no way I could make it all the way out to Desert View in the 50 minutes remaining until sunset. But seized by FOMO*, I grabbed my a7RII, checked the battery (fully charged—yay!), and headed back to the rim with no particular plan—even if I couldn’t make it back to the group, I just wanted to be somewhere for sunset. At the junction with Desert View Road I headed east again, away from the Grand Canyon Village congestion and toward some of the less crowded vistas.
The entire sky was gray and at first I thought sunset might be a dud, but then I caught a thin layer of brightness in my rearview mirror and realized there was a hole on the horizon—when the sun drops into it, everything might just light up for a few minutes. I checked my watch and goosed the accelerator hoping to make it as far as Grandview Point. Unfortunately, in the national parks you can only go as fast as the next Winnebago, and sunset was less than 10 minutes away when I dove into my Grandview parking space. I grabbed my camera bag and dashed down the trail to my favorite view atop an exposed rock outcrop, not realizing until headed off-trail that I was still in my flip-flops. But with no time to go back for more sane footwear, I continued slip-sliding my way down to my destination and (barely) made it with all limbs intact.
The color was starting but as soon as my camera was set up, but I took a few seconds to get my adrenalin under control. The first thing that struck me was the quiet, most unusual for a Grand Canyon summer sunset. I attributed it to the storm, which had just moved on from here, and the fact that Grandview isn’t heralded as a sunset location (because most non-photographers like their sunset views to face west, and there are better spots at Grand Canyon for that).
As expected, there was indeed great color that evening, but even more exciting was all the lightning in the east: Cloud to ground, cloud to cloud, cloud flashes, multiple bolts, extreme zig-zags—pretty much a who’s who of lightning, several times per minute. Most of the lightning was firing somewhere in the empty desert beyond Desert View, but it looked far enough away that the group was safe. From my perspective there was no canyon or anything else interesting in the direction of extreme activity, so I pointed my camera at a somewhat promising curtain of rain that aligned better with my view of the canyon—and hoped.
Photographing lightning is more thrilling than I can describe, and I can think of no better place for it than Grand Canyon. The distance of the views here relieves (most of) the anxiety that comes with viewing lightning—so far on this trip I’ve captured 116 frames with lightning (yes, I count them) and still haven’t been close enough to any of them to have heard their thunder. And Grand Canyon puts the actual lightning experience on steroids because during the long peaceful periods between strikes you’re gazing upon one of the most breathtaking views on Earth. When a bolt explodes from the clouds, its metaphorical jolt to my psyche seems to match it’s actual 50,000 (ish) volt electrostatic jolt.
I only captured a half-dozen or so strikes over the canyon that evening, but all I need is one. This one touched down several minutes after sunset, about 30 miles away. It came right at the peak of the color and couldn’t have been more perfectly timed or placed. And as I waited for the next bolt to trigger my camera, I got to enjoy this view the same, infinitely more spectacular, light show the rest of the group was enjoying—in glorious, absolute quiet.
* FOMO: fear of missing out
Highlights of (nearly) a Decade Chasing Lightning
Posted on July 28, 2019
In a couple of days I’m off to the Grand Canyon for my annual trip with good friend and fellow pro photographer Don Smith. We’ll be leading two workshops where we’ll chase lightning, rainbows, and whatever else the monsoon throws at us. But wild weather or not, I’ll be at the Grand Canyon. But anyway…
Left, left, left, right, left
The Grand Canyon is a very difficult place to photograph. Or maybe I should say, the Grand Canyon is a very difficult place to photograph well. More than any place I photograph, the Grand Canyon incites right/left (creative/logical) battles that can kill an image. Despite (and likely because of) the Grand Canyon’s sweeping grandeur, you can’t expect to simply walk up to the rim and find a shot that does the scene justice. The view at the rim puts your emotional, creative brain on overload—the very things that make the Grand Canyon so breathtaking in person, its depth and breadth, are completely lost to the camera’s two-dimensional, confined perspective.
Overcoming this requires:
- Understanding your camera’s vision and how it differs from yours: 2-dimensional, limited dynamic range and depth of field, constrained by a rectangular box
- Recognizing each scene’s compositional elements: subject(s), color, depth, light, visual flow, relationships, distractions, and so on
- Control of your camera’s exposure variables: f-stop, shutter speed, ISO, focal length
- An ability (and willingness) to seamlessly transition between your left (logical) and right (creative) brain: The carefully crafted plan and essential exposure decisions can also distract from the creative process
With all that mastered (easier said than done: practice, practice, practice), you’re ready to formulate and execute an actual plan for approaching the scene you plan to photograph. For me, implementing all this means arriving early and spending every non-shooting moment familiarizing myself with my surroundings, the light, and whatever is going on in the sky. Not only does arriving early give me time to formulate my plan, it gives me a feel for the scene that becomes increasingly important as the time to shoot approaches.
Once I’ve analyzed my scene, identifying its compositional elements and how I want to handle them, I turn off my left (logical) brain and engage my right (creative) brain. This isn’t conscious, nor is it genius—it’s pretty much just the product of years of repetition. Putting my camera to my eye, I compose the scene by moving the view up/down, forward/backward, left/right, and zooming in and out until feels “right” (whatever that means).
Then I have to jump back to my left brain to determine how to apply my exposure variables: How much depth of field do I need? Is there motion to freeze or blur—and if so, how much? Do I have extreme dynamic range to contend with? And so on.
Despite all the analysis and planning that goes into setting up a shot, I ultimately have to switch back to my right brain and try to click the shutter with my heart.
Putting it all together
My “plan” for this evening at the Grand Canyon’s Hopi Point was to photograph a full moon rising in the east, above the canyon, an image I’ve long sought. But when clouds hugging the eastern horizon thickened, I started having second thoughts. I could have stubbornly stuck to my guns and hoped the moon would somehow find its way through the muck, but I knew if the moon didn’t show and something nice started in the west (where the sky looked more promising), I’d have to scramble to the other side and hope to quickly find a composition that did the moment justice. That’s not easy even in ideal circumstances, but Hopi Point at sunset is like a Tokyo subway at rush hour. Anxious to avoid reactive photography, I jettisoned the east-facing moonrise plan and headed over to re-familiarize myself with Hopi Point’s west side and stake out a spot before the crowd assembled.
The Grand Canyon is great for this kind of anticipatory photography because the unobstructed view of the horizon from the rim provides good insight into what’s in store. Once I switched views, I spent quality time walking Hopi Point’s western rim, identifying trees, shrubs, and rocks that could anchor my frame and balance the distant ridges, river, sun, and clouds. I also had to be aware of the sun’s path, because its brightness was certain to be a significant photographic element. And not wanting to settle for a nice sky above the canyon, I sought foreground subjects to create near/far relationships. I finally chose this spot where a small (albeit unassuming) shrub jutted from the textured rim rock.
Given the extreme depth of field my composition required, I opted for f16, focusing on the rock just behind the shrub. A gusty breeze forced me to bump my ISO to 400 and time my shutter click to coincide with the wind’s intermittent lulls. This was before I switched to Sony, so I had to use a 3-stop reverse graduated neutral density filter to reduce the significant dynamic range to a manageable level (then later smooth the GND transition in Photoshop).
The moon that evening was in fact a no-show, but the view to the west rewarded me with about forty-five minutes of productive, continuously improving photography as the sun slipped in and out of gaps in the clouds before finally dropping below the horizon. The highlight came couple of minutes after sunset, when a fan of thin clouds spewing from the sun’s exit point throbbed crimson, creating a flame-like effect. After spending most of my shooting time emphasizing the canyon’s vast lateral expanse with wide, horizontal compositions, when the color kicked in I wanted a vertical composition that would turn the emphasis to flaming sky and the canyon’s depth.
While I’d love to claim that I was conscious of the virtual diagonals connecting the flaming sky and flame-shaped shrub, and the shimmering sliver of the Colorado River and nearby vein of light colored rock, I really wasn’t. But neither do I believe relationships like this are accidental—I’ve done this long enough to know that compositional relationships happen organically when I free my mind from distractions that force me to think when I should be creating. This is what I mean when I say I want to click the shutter with my heart.
A Grand Canyon Gallery
Posted on July 20, 2019
The memory of Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon has personal significance to me. To honor the 50th anniversary of that achievement, I’m sharing an updated version of my story, first posted five years ago.
I had just turned 14. I was into baseball, chess, AM radio, astronomy, and girls—not necessarily in that order. Of particular interest to me in 1969 was the impending moon landing, a milestone I’d been anticipating since tales of American aerospace engineering ingenuity and our heroic astronauts started headlining the “Weekly Reader,” and my elementary school teachers began gathering the class around a portable TV to watch the latest Mercury, Gemini, or Apollo launch.
If you remember the 60s, you understand that the unifying buzz surrounding each of these missions provided a unifying distraction from the divisive tension spurred by headlines of Vietnam casualties, anti-war demonstrations, Civil Rights clashes, and Communist paranoia. When President Kennedy promised to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade, so far in the future was that goal that in my mind he may just as well have said infinity. But as the decade drew to a close and the promise approached reality, I couldn’t devour enough information on the impending mission.
Unfortunately, without checking NASA’s schedule or asking for my input, my parents and three other couples they knew from graduate school decided mid-July 1969 would be the ideal time for our four families to join forces on a camping trip in the remote, television-free redwoods of Northern California. (“What could we possibly need a television for?”)
Apollo 11 was halfway to the moon when the Locher and Hinshaw families pulled up to our home in Berkeley (the Hardings, coming down from Eastern Washington, would meet us at the campground a couple of days later). The warm greetings exchanged by the adults were balanced by the cool introductions forced on the unfamiliar children.
We departed the next morning, caravan style, our cars connected by woefully inadequate walkie-talkies that we’d almost certainly have been better off without (I’m sure it had seemed like such a good idea at the time). I remember my dad keeping a safe distance behind the Hinshaws, as he was convinced that their borrowed trailer that seemed to veer randomly and completely independently of their car, would surely break free and careen into the woods on the next curve.
Somehow our three-car parade pulled safely into Richardson’s Grove State Park late that afternoon. In true sixties style, the three dads went immediately to work setting up campsites, and the moms donned aprons and combined forces on a community spaghetti dinner. Meanwhile, while the younger kids scattered to explore, the four teens, having only recently met and being far too cool for exploration or anything remotely resembling play, disappeared into the woods, ostensibly on a firewood hunt. Instead, we ended up wandering pretty much aimlessly, kicking pinecones and occasionally stooping for a small branch or twig, lingering just far enough from camp to avoid being drafted into more productive (and closely supervised) labor by the adults.
But just about the time we teens ran out of things not to do, we were relieved to be distracted by my little brother Jim rushing back into camp, breathless, sheet-white, and alone. We couldn’t quite decipher his animated message to the adults, but when we saw our dads drop their tarps and tent poles and rush off in Jim’s tracks toward the nearby Eel River, we were (mildly) curious (to be interested in anything involving parents was also very not cool). So, with feigned indifference, the four of us started wandering in the general direction of the river. Our path was blocked by a 50 foot, nearly vertical cliff that provided a clear view into the vortex of all the excitement. It was the instant of that shared view when I think we all ceased being strangers.
The scene before us could have been from a bad slasher movie: Flat on the ground and unmoving was 11 year-old Paul Locher; sitting on a rock, stunned, with a stream of blood cascading from his forehead, was Paul’s 10 year-old brother John. As disturbing as this sight was, nothing could compare to seeing father Don Locher orbiting his injured sons, dazed and covered in blood. The rest of this memory is a blur of hysterics, sirens, rangers, and paramedics.
It wasn’t until the father and sons were whisked away by ambulance to the small hospital in Garberville, about 10 miles away, that we were able to piece together what had happened. Apparently Paul and John, trying to blaze a shortcut to the river, miscalculated risk and had tumbled down the cliff. My brother at first thought they were messing with him, but when John showed him a rock covered with blood, he sprinted back to fetch the parents.
Conferring at the point where the kids had gone over, the fathers made a quick plan: My dad and Larry Hinshaw would rush back to to summon help, and to see if they could find a safer path down to the accident scene. Don would stay put and keep an eye on his sons. But shortly after my dad and Larry left, John had looked down at his brother cried, “Daddy, I can see his brains!” Hearing those words, Don panicked and did what any father would do—attempt to reach his boys. Thinking that a small shrub a short distance down would make a viable handhold, Don took a small step in its direction, reached for and briefly grasped a branch, lost his grip, and tumbled head-over-heals down to the river.
After what seemed like days but was probably only an hour or two, we were relieved to learn that John needed no more than a few stitches; he was back in camp with us that night. Paul had faired slightly worse, with a concussion and a nasty cut behind his ear—the “brains” his brother had seen was ear cartilage. Paul spent the night in the hospital and was back with us by the time the Harding clan arrived the following afternoon. Don, however, wasn’t quite so fortunate. In addition to a severe concussion, he had opened up his head so completely that over 150 stitches were required to zip things back together. Though Don spent several days in the hospital, we were all consoled by the understanding that it could have been much worse.
By Sunday, Don was feeling much better but was still a day or two from release to the dirt and fish guts of our four family campsite. Most of us had visited the hospital at one time or another in small, brief waves that honored the hospital’s visiting rules. I can’t say who first recognized the opportunity, but I’m guessing that Larry Hinshaw had something to do with convincing the nursing staff to look the other way when Don was suddenly host to 20 simultaneous visitors that night. Whatever magic was worked, I’ll forever remember Sunday evening, July 20, 1969, when our entire group shoehorned into a tiny hospital room to witness history on a tiny, black-and-white television screen.
Besides my parents and two brothers, the rest of the crew that night I’d only met just a few days earlier, but I can still name every single one of them. The relationships formed that week continue to this day. And so do the stories, which, like this story, are filled with some of the greatest joy I’ve ever experienced, and also with some of the greatest tragedy. But it’s this story in particular, the catalyst for all the stories that follow, that explains why the words, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” have a very personal significance for me. Today it’s hard to look at the moon without remembering that hospital room and the emotional events that enabled me to witness Neil Armstrong’s historic first steps with those very special friends.
A lunar gallery
Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show
Posted on July 14, 2019
What’s my problem?
I’ve been sharing lots of Milky Way images lately. But then, so has everyone else. And when I look at some of the other truly spectacular Milky Way images posted online, I realize I’m working at something of a disadvantage—not because of deficient equipment (not even close), a physical or mental handicap (though as I get older…), or even because I think the world is unfair (maybe so, but it’s been pretty good to me). No, my disadvantage is solely the result of self-imposed “rules” that prevent me from photographing anything that can’t be captured with a single click.
Single-click shooting means no focus stacking, no HDR, no blending separately captured foreground and sky. In other words, if I can’t get what I want with one click, I don’t get it. It’s not that I think there’s anything wrong with combining images—image blending is a tremendous tool that allows digital photographers to transcend the limitations of film photography. And it’s not because blending is “too technical” for me—having spent 20 years working in the high tech industry, I know my way around a computer and have actually played a fair amount with blending images (it’s not rocket science). No, I don’t blend images simply because, as beautiful as they might be, I get no personal satisfaction from the results. And if photography isn’t a source of happiness, why bother?
Every time I bring this up, someone gets defensive, feeling like I’m saying that there’s something wrong with blending images. There isn’t!* I love looking at the work of photographers who use blending to elevate their art. So if you blend and enjoy it, please go forth and shoot to your heart’s content (and keep those defensive comments to yourself). This is about me, and what makes me happy.
*As long as it’s not used to deceive.
Milky Way processing
I’m frequently asked about my processing for Milky Way images, and I’ve always been a little reluctant to share a lot because I don’t do blending, I’m not an expert, and my Milky Way workflow is still a work in process. Nevertheless, I get asked enough that I’ve decided it might still help for me to share my overall mindset and approach. (Plus, it might help others to understand why my images aren’t as dazzling as those that blend.)
I still consider myself a film shooter, albeit with a digital camera. Processing, though not my favorite part of photography, is an essential digital windfall that enables us to extract results from our images that were never possible with film (especially for those of us who shot only color). Like most digital photographers, I couldn’t succeed without processing. And processing is doubly important for Milky Way images.
Given that I don’t blend images (in the case of my Milky Way photography, take one exposure for the foreground and another for the sky), I start with a raw file that needs help. A lot of help. I like foreground detail in my night images, which requires me to compromise with a less than ideal f-stop, shutter speed, and (especially) ISO. And even with these compromises, the image straight from the camera is still darker than ideal.
The right gear
First, if you’re going to do it my way (one click), you need to have the camera and lens to do it. Keep in mind that the heat generated by a long exposure creates a lot of noise, so at any ISO, 30 seconds is inherently much noisier than say 1/30 second. For this reason, my Milky Way body is the Sony a7SII, and my go-to night lens is the Sony 24mm f/1.4. At this writing (July 2019), the a7SII is hands down the best high ISO camera available—I can can get very usable 30-second exposures at ISO 12800 (and sometimes higher). And using an f/1.4 lens means I don’t usually have to go all the way to 30 seconds.
My processing choices depend a lot on my exposure choices, which as I said earlier, are all compromises. For example, with my 24mm at f/1.4, I can usually keep my a7SII at ISO 6400 and lower—both compromises, but the results are well within the acceptable range for that lens and camera. But for this image I wanted a wider view than 24mm, so I switched to my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM lens. Losing 2 stops of light, I bumped to ISO 8000 and a 30 second exposure to recover some of that light—the compromise was a little more star movement (mitigated somewhat by the wider focal length), and increased noise. It might help to know that when I photograph the Milky Way, I usually give each composition a variety of exposure settings and choice the best one later, when I can see the images on my computer.
It starts with noise reduction
For all of my images, my standard noise processing is Topaz DeNoise plugin in Photoshop. But for my Milky Way photography, I open the image in Lightroom and immediately transfer it to DxO PhotoLab 2 for their (magic) Prime Noise Reduction (nothing else). As soon as DxO has worked its noise reduction voodoo on my, I send it straight back to Lightroom. What started as a raw file is now a tiff file, but I’m still able to do my basic Lightroom processing on it.
Even though DxO does a great job, when I’m done processing my image in Lightroom, the first thing I do after opening the processed image in Photoshop is a more gentle application of the Topaz DeNoise plugin. For this step, I magnify the view to 100% and apply as much noise reduction as I can without muddying the detail.
The method to my madness
This is where things start to get more vague because my approach is less an explicit series of processing steps than it is finding the best way to achieve the results I want, steps that can vary a lot from image to image. Sometimes I can do what I want mostly in Lightroom, other times I lean more heavily on Photoshop—usually it’s a fairly even balance of the two.
Given my hit-and-miss approach, it’s probably most important to explain what makes a successful Milky Way image. Here’s what I’m going for:
- Minimal noise: Asked and answered
- The right sky color: As far as I’m concerned, the color of the sky in a Milky Way image the photographer’s creative choice because no one knows what color it’s supposed to be. If you look at my recent Milky Way images, you’ll see that I tend to avoid a blue/cyan sky in favor of something more blue/purple. It just feels more night-like to me. But that’s just my opinion and I empower you to go with whatever color makes you happy (more on that below).
- Foreground detail: The amount varies with the foreground, and how much light I can give it without too much noise.
- Uniform sky tone and hue (as much as possible): I don’t like a huge difference between the sky near the horizon and up toward the top of the frame
- The stars should pop: I want the sky to be fairly dark, but the stars to stand out
- No part of the Milky Way should be blown out: While I want the stars bright, I don’t want them too bright
Before I continue, you need to know that I make extensive use of Lightroom and Photoshop’s History panels. There’s no single best way to do anything, so I make a lot of what-if?, trial-and-error adjustments that I only keep if I’m satisfied. So you’re not going to get specific steps from me as much as you’ll get things to try and accept/reject. The other thing I want to emphasize is to magnify the image to 100% (1:1) when you’re trying to decide whether or not to accept an adjustment.
I always play with the Highlights/Whites/Shadows/Blacks sliders—lots of up/down trial-and-error adjustments to find the right balance (love that History panel). The Lightroom Clarity and Texture sliders will make the stars pop (and sometimes the foreground), but be especially gentle with these to avoid exaggerating the noise). And Dehaze will add contrast to the sky that really enhances the Milky Way, but it also might darken parts of the scene too much.
I use lots of techniques to get the color I want—often just one or two adjustments are enough, and sometimes it requires a lot of adjustments. In Lightroom, I play with Color Temperature and Tint. That usually means cooling the temperature to somewhere in the 3000-4000 range, and nudging the Tint slider slightly to the right (less cyan, more purple). Sometimes I do this for the entire image, but often I use the Lightroom Graduated Filter tool. When those things don’t do the job, I’ll play with Lightroom’s HSL sliders.
To tweak the color in Photoshop, I usually select the area I want to adjust, Feather it fairly loosely (large Feather Radius), and create Color Balance or Saturation layer. I do lots of trial-and-error moves with Color Balance; with Saturation I almost always work on specific colors, and will adjust some combination of Hue, Saturation, and Lightness until I’m satisfied. Also, I find that some of the other adjustments I make in Lightroom and Photoshop pump up the color too much, so I usually desaturate the sky a fair amount in Photoshop.
To make the Milky Way more prominent, a few passes with the Dodge brush set to Highlights can do wonders, brightening the stars without affecting the sky. I usually prefer multiple passes at low Opacity (<20).
Probably the trickiest thing to contend with is a different hue near the horizon than I get in the rest of the sky. I can usually mitigate it somewhat with a feather selection and a Color Balance or Saturation layer, described above. And sometimes, if I’m really brave, I’ll select the offending area, Feather it, use the Eyedropper tool to pick the color I want, and the Paint Bucket tool to apply the color to the selected area. I usually get better results with Tolerance set fairly high (>50) and Opacity fairly low (<30). If you do this, don’t expect it to work every time, and always examine the results at 100% because it can introduce some pretty nasty blotchiness that doesn’t jump right out at you on first glance at lower magnification.
With most of my images, the last thing I do before saving is sharpen. But since night images are rarely about fine detail, and sharpening exacerbates noise, I no longer sharpen my Milky Way images.
These tips are not intended to be the final word on Milky Way processing—I just wanted to give you some insight into my approach, both my goals and the steps I take to achieve them. I’ve been using Photoshop for a long time, but don’t consider myself a Photoshop expert, not even close. There may be (and probably are) better ways to do many of these things. But I’ve always been a simple-first photographer: Do things the simplest possible way, until you find some way that’s better, or until you encounter something you just can’t do. And if you take nothing else away from this, I hope you at least feel empowered to experiment until you achieve results that make you happy.
About this image
I wrote about this day and a similar image from this shoot in my Longest Day post. Look for the “You’re gonna need a bigger lens” section near the bottom. The only difference, besides the fact that I went vertical here for more Milky Way, is that I used my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM lens.
Milky Way Favorites