The dark night

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

Angel’s View, Milky Way from Angel’s Window, Grand Canyon
Sony a7S
Rokinon 24 f1.4
20 seconds
F/1.4
ISO 6400

How to offend a photographer

Gallery browser: “Did you take that picture?”

Photographer: “Yes.”

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

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

But…

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

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

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

But what will Sony do for my night photography?

I need more light

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

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

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

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

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

The dynamic duo

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

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

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

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

About this image

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

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

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

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

Some comments on processing night images

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

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

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

Learn more about starlight photography

A dark night gallery

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

14 Comments on “The dark night

  1. Gary,
    Love your work, if you were to just buy one Sony camera which would you buy , for night time ,landscape ,and wildlife. Will the Canon telephoto lens work with the Sony?

  2. Beautiful Images Gary
    I have heard the same statement when I exhibit images and reminds me of a quote 🙂
    It is the photographer, not the camera, that is the instrument.
    ~Eve Arnold

    Thank you for sharing them along with story behind their creation.

  3. Good grief. Every new post about your A7S or the new A7RII makes me want to get one before the Hawaii workshop. The only reason I’ve not already done so is my faith that Canon will catch up with their D5 version 4, which will be temptation enough to trade in my version 2. But as Sony makes these astonishing advances, will Canon delay introducing their D5v.4 in an attempt to catch a moving target? Will Canon give up and make a deal with Sony to use their sensors in a Canon body? Will el Nino save California from drought?

    If there is truly no downside to using your Canon-mount lenses with the Metabones adaptor … that may tip the scales of reason.

    The Angel’s View image above is stunning, and is clearly beyond the ability of sensor / software systems that are just a few years old.

    • Canon makes great gear, but I learned a long time ago to not hold my breath on them delivering what I want. If I’d have waited for the 5DIII replacement, I’d have been immensely disappointed with the 5DS—no reason to believe their next updates will be any better.

  4. The most important part of the stethescope is the part between the ear pieces !!!

  5. Stunning photos Gary! Nothing worse than getting the “nice camera” statement. It’s like asking a contractor what hammer he used to build that beautiful home on the hill. It’s not the tools, but the person who, as you stated, has honed their craft. On a side note, I’ve heard the A7S is excellent for night photography, while the A7II is a great, all around camera, thoughts? Not that I could drop 5K+ right now, as a 5DIII user, I am seeing more and more pros move to Sony systems.

    • Thanks, Kial. I use my a7S exclusively for night photography; if I were purchasing one Sony body, I’d get the a7R II—with the Metabones IV adapter you should be able to use your existing Canon glass.

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: