Posted on June 30, 2019
I just returned from New Zealand, that remarkable upside-down world where water is clear, summer is winter, and today is yesterday (or maybe it’s the other way around). I’ve been visiting there for a few years, ostensibly to lead photo workshops, but at least as much for my own joy. Each visit focuses on the same region of the South Island, all within 100 kilometers of Queenstown, the area that Don Smith and I determined would give us the most bang for our (and our customers’) photography bucks.
New Zealand’s South Island is a land of rain forests and glaciers, where snow-capped peaks reflect in water clear enough to drink from. Lake Wakatipu is one of these lakes, narrow and S-shaped, with about the same surface area as Lake Tahoe. Wakatipu’s north and east sides are skirted by a road; the south and west sides are accessible only by boat or off-road vehicle.
This image is from the final shoot of this year’s first workshop, just before the fleeting vestiges of a spectacular sunrise disappeared above Lake Wakatipu. I have lots of pictures with more dramatic color, but as I scanned through my thumbnails in Lightroom, the serenity of this one stopped me.
While this scene is from Bob’s Cove, about a 15-minute drive west of Queenstown on the Glenorchy Road, it could be pretty much anywhere along Lake Wakatipu—or for that matter, from any of the dozens of other large and glacial lakes decorating the South Island. For this one I stood in a few inches of water and dropped to just a couple of feet above lake level. With my eye on the viewfinder, I dialed my polarizer just enough to reveal the nearby submerged lakebed without erasing the reflection of the distant peaks.
Here is a (partial) list of favorite New Zealand features in alphabetical order, plus a brief description of each.
Aoraki (Mt. Cook)
Milky Way views
A New Zealand Gallery
Click an image for a closer look and to view a slide show.
Posted on June 23, 2019
Several people in this month’s New Zealand workshop had stated pretty emphatically that the Milky Way was a prime reason for attending—one guy even said his wife had told him not to come home without a Milky Way picture (we think she was joking). So no pressure. I reassured everyone in the orientation that I had multiple Milky Way shoots planned, but as the workshop’s nights ticked off, each Milky Way plan was doused—first by clouds, later by moonlight. And with the moon brightening and closer in the sky to the Milky Way each night, the we’d about run out of time.
I’d known all along that a waxing moon meant that our best Milky Way chances would come in the first half of the workshop. And I’d decided long before the workshop started that our final night would be especially problematic for the Milky Way not just because of the moon, but because of our location. But desperate times call for desperate measures, so with just a couple of days to go, I decided to recheck my calculations for about the millionth time (maybe a slight exaggeration, but you get the point). The two nights in Twizel were out of the question—the moon would be pretty much in the Milky Way. But our last night, in Queenstown…. Hmmm, maybe, just maybe, we’d have a 30-45 minute window between sunset and moonrise when the sky might be dark enough for the Milky Way to shine.
But the moon wasn’t the only obstacle. The forecast called for “high clouds,” a frustratingly vague forecast. And even if the sky darkened enough and the clouds cleared, we were in Queenstown, where I’d long ago decided that city lights and the orientation of Lake Wakatipu made finding Milky Way vantage point with a dark enough sky (no light pollution) and a nice enough foreground (lake and mountains) impossible. The moonlight and clouds risk were irrelevant if I couldn’t find a Milky Way location. But I had to give it a shot. Zooming in on the map, my eyes landed on one small tiny of lakeshore with enough of a twist that might work, though I’d never photographed there or even considered its Milky Way potential. But that was enough for me to circle the date and location and tell the group that we were going to give the Milky Way one more shot. All that was left to do was monitor the forecast and wait.
Wanting to be certain (and to avoid hunting blindly in the dark), on the way to our final sunset shoot I asked the driver to swing by my potential spot. I was relieved to confirm that the angle was good, and that there was an open, easily accessible stretch of beach. Yay. Down the road at our sunset location I just watched the clouds and hoped. The sky seemed clear enough there, but looked a little less promising back in the direction of my Milky Way location.
Arriving in twilight I hopped out of the van and checked the twilight sky—In addition to the promised high clouds, an accumulation of thicker clouds sat on the horizon more or less where the brightest part of the galactic center would be. And there were indeed a few high clouds, but Jupiter’s appearance was a relief because I knew Jupiter was on the leading edge of the Milky Way that night. Waiting for darkness, I prepared the group and just tried to stay positive. Every few minutes I’d return to my camera and fire a test frame to see if the sky was dark enough and look for any hint of moonlight.
You can’t imagine my excitement the first time my LCD displayed the faint glow of the Milky Way angling above 6000 foot Cecil Peak—we were in business. As the sky darkened, the Milky Way unfurled overhead in all its Southern Hemisphere glory, flanked by Jupiter and thousands of other stars in completely unfamiliar arrangements.
I started with my dedicated night photography setup, my Sony a7SII body and Sony 24 f/1.4 GM lens, trying a variety of horizontal and vertical compositions. After about 15 minutes I switched to my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM, sacrificing two stops of light for a wider field of view (more Milky Way). I liked the extra sky and stuck with that lens for the rest of the shoot.
After about 30 minutes of happy shooting we started to detect a brightening that signaled the moon’s approach behind The Remarkables (my hands-down favorite mountain range name). But rather than being a show stopper, the moonlight added a diaphanous sheen to the previously dark clouds and we kept going. As we wound down, the entire group was giddy with excitement, and I was giddy with relief. Just as we were started to pack up, I detected the faint reflection of Cecil Peak on the lake’s surface and adjusted my composition to include it.
To say that this night exceeded my expectations would be an understatement. In fact, my expectations almost dashed the entire shoot. It was a good a reminder not to get too locked in to preconceived notions. Had I stuck with my original belief that our final night in Queenstown wouldn’t work, I’d never have found a great Milky Way location—and one of the best shoots of an already great workshop would never have happened.
A Gallery of Stars
Click an image for a closer look and to view a slide show.
Posted on June 16, 2019
What a crazy life this is. Last month I was rafting the Grand Canyon in short pants and flip-flops, this month I’m bouncing around the New Zealand countryside in my warmest wool and down. Between timezone shock and temperature whiplash, my body isn’t quite sure whether it’s coming or going, but the relentless beauty down here seems to transcend all that difficulty enough to keep me going.
Mirror Lakes is a must-stop on the road to Milford Sound in Fiordland National Park. It’s a popular stop even in mid-winter, but with the help of our New Zealand-based driver, Don Smith and I have figured out how to thread the needle between the tour buses originating in nearby Te Anau, and the tour buses originating in distant Queenstown, and still make it just before the morning sun reaches the water and washes out the reflection.
When our van pulled up here on Friday morning, I was surprised to see a large tour bus right out front, but Steve (our driver) said don’t worry, they’ll be loading up any second—sure enough, within five minutes we had this gorgeous view to ourselves with at least 45 minutes of shade remaining on the water. As pretty as the scene is, limited views through the surrounding foliage make it a little tricky to photograph, so I’m usually content to stand back and let the group work with the prime photography real estate. But on this morning chilly morning last week, I found the clouds and reflection so irresistible that I went looking for a way to photograph the scene without getting in anyone’s way.
I soon found myself over in one the far corner of the most popular railed viewing deck, a zone where the patient (and not-so-patient) wait behind thick overhanging branches for better views to open up. My first thought as I eyed the scene was how cool the branches look—too bad they block the view. But then I realized that by lowering my camera almost all the way to the deck, I could completely eliminate the most dense set of branches at the very top of the frame, and use the lower branches as diagonal compositional elements—without blocking the snowy peaks, or their reflection.
The problem with this idea was that I needed my camera to be on the other side of the deck’s protective railing, and the vertical bars in the railing were too closely spaced to fit my lens through. But just for laughs I pulled the lens out anyway and tested its width against the bars. Sure enough, every opening was too narrow—well, every opening except one. For some reason, the gap separating one, and only one, pair of bars was about an inch wider than all the others, making a gap just wide enough to slip my lens through.
The technical part of the scene was pretty straightforward, though potentially quite awkward with my camera about eight inches off the ground (it’s not the getting down to ground level that’s a problem, it’s the getting up). These are the very situations where I’ve grown to love the articulating LCD on my Sony a7RIII. In this case I was able to compose, level, focus, and meter from the (relative) comfort of my knees.
After centering Mt. Eglinton, I focused on the branches knowing that at f/16 and 18mm, I’d be sharp all the way to infinity. The dynamic range was pretty extreme, but my histogram told me that it was workable if I was careful. With all that out of the way, the biggest problem remaining was the ducks that insisted on swimming through the reflection—fortunately, I’m nothing if not patient (stubborn), and was able to out-wait them long enough to click this frame.
Click an image for a closer look and to view a slide show.
Posted on June 9, 2019
Let’s have a show of hands: How many of you have been advised at some point in the course of your photographic journey to “tell a story with your images”? Okay, now how many of you actually have a clue as to what that actually means? That’s what I thought. Many photographers, with the best of intentions, parrot the “tell a story” advice simply because it sounded good when they heard it, but when pressed further, are unable tell you what they mean.
Telling a story with a photo is easier when photographers can physically stage subjects and light to suit their objective (an art in itself), or in journalistic photography intended to distill the the essence of an instant with a connection to an easily inferred chronology: a homeless man feeding his dog, dead fish floating in the shadow of belching smokestacks, or a wide-receiver spiking a football in the end zone.
This isn’t to say that we landscape photographers can’t tell stories with our images, or that we shouldn’t try. Nor does it mean that one photographic form is inherently more or less creative than another. It just means that the rules, objectives, advantages, and limitations differ from form to form. Nevertheless, simply advising a landscape photographer to tell a story with her images is kind of like a coach telling a pitcher to throw strikes, or a teacher instructing a student to spell better. Okay, fine—now what?
Finding the narrative
First, let’s agree on a definition of “story.” A quick dictionary check reveals that a story is “a narrative, either true or fictitious … designed to interest, amuse, or instruct….” Okay, that works.
The narrative part is motion. Your pictures need it. Narrative motion isn’t simply the motion of the eyes through the frame (also important), it’s a connection that pulls a viewer into and through a frame, and compels him to stay. While narrative motion happens organically in media consumed over time, such as a song, novel, movie, or even a YouTube video, it can only be implied in a still photograph. And unlike the arranged or journalistic photography mentioned above, landscape photographers are tasked with reproducing a static world as we find it—another straightjacket on our narrative options. But without some form of narrative motion, we’re at a dead end story-wise. What’s a photographer to do?
Photography as art
Every art form succeeds more for what happens in the mind of its consumer’s (the viewer or listener) than for the literal experience it delivers to the consumer’s five senses. Again: Every art form succeeds more for what happens in the mind of its consumer’s (the viewer or listener) than for the literal experience it delivers to the consumer’s five senses. A song that doesn’t evoke emotion, or a novel that doesn’t paint mental pictures, it’s soon forgotten. And just as readers of fiction unconsciously fill-in the visual blanks with their own interpretation of a scene, viewers of a landscape image will fill-in the narrative blanks with the personal stories the image inspires. In other words, an image should offer a place for the viewer’s own story to unfold.
Of course the story we’re creating isn’t a literal, “Once upon a time” or “It was a dark and stormy night” (much more appealing in photography than literature, I might add) story. Instead, the image we make must connect with our viewers’ stories to touch an aspect of their world (real or imagined): revive a fond memory; generate fresh insight into a familiar subject; vicarious living—to name just a few possible connections. If we offer images that complete these connections, we’ve given our image’s viewers a reason to enter, a reason to stay, and a reason to return. And most important, we’ve given them a catalyst for their internal narrative.
Shoot what you love (not what you think your audience will love)
Think about your favorite novels. While they might be quite different, I suspect one common denominator is a protagonist with whom you relate. I’m not suggesting that immediately upon finishing that book you hopped on a raft down the Mississippi River, or ran downtown to have a dragon tattooed on your back, but in some way you likely found some personal connection to Huck Finn or Lisbeth Salander that kept you engaged. And the better that connection, the faster the pages turned.
And so it is with photography: Our viewers are looking for a connection, a sense that there’s a piece of the photographer in the frame. Because we can’t possibly know what personal strings our images might tug in others, and because those strings will vary from viewer to viewer, our best opportunity for igniting their story comes when we share our own relationship with a scene and let viewers find their own connection.
What? Didn’t I just say that it’s the viewer’s story we’re after? Well, yes—but really what needs to happen is the viewers’ sense of connection between our story and theirs. If you focus on photographing the scenes that most move you, those scenes (large or small) that might prompt you to nudge a loved-one and say, “Oooh, look at that!,” the more you’ll see and the greater your chance of establishing each viewer’s feeling of connection. Whether you’re drawn to towering mountains, crashing surf, delicate wildflowers, or prickly cactus, that’s where you’ll find your best images.
Where did you get those shoes?
The cool thing is that your viewer doesn’t need to understand your story; she just needs to be confident that there is indeed a story. That’s usually accomplished by avoiding cliché and offering something fresh (I know, easier said than done). For some reason this makes me think of Steely Dan lyrics, which rarely made sense to me, but always felt fresh and I never for a second doubted that they did indeed (somehow) make sense to Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. In other words, rather than becoming a distraction, Steely Dan’s lyrics were a source of intrigue that pulled me in and held me. So when I hear:
I stepped up on the platform
The man gave me the news
He said, You must be joking son
Where did you get those shoes?
I’m not bewildered, I’m intrigued. Steely Dan’s lyrics aren’t trying to tap my truth, they simply reflect their truth (whatever it might be). And even though I have no idea what he’s talking about, the vivid mental picture those lyrics conjure (which may be entirely different, though no more or less valid, than your or his mental picture) allows me to feel a connection. You, on the other hand, may feel absolutely nothing listening to “Pretzel Logic,” while “I Want To Put On My My My My My Boogie Shoes” gives you goosebumps for KC and the Sunshine Band. Different strokes….
Returning from the abstract to put all this into photographic terms, the more your images are true to the world as it resonates with you, and the less you pander to what you think others want to see, the greater the chance your viewer’s story will connect with yours.
Few things in Nature get my heart racing more than the first sliver of silver light heralding the moon’s arrival. With the moon’s appearance comes a sudden release of building anticipation and the frantic
On this evening last March I knew about where the moon would appear, and about when that would be, but with the time approaching and my eyes locked on the anticipated spot, the doubts started to rise. Did I get the angle right? Is that ridgeline higher than I figured? Where did those clouds come from? (It goes like this every time.)
And then there it was. I’d pointed my Sony a6300 (1.5 crop sensor for extra magnification), mounted my Sony 100-400 GM lens and Sony 2x teleconverter, at the spot on the ridge I thought most likely for the moon to appear. I was pretty close, but this was not time for self congratulation. To juxtapose the moon with the two trees I’d picked for my foreground I had to shift about 20. My favorite big moon shots are when some part of the moon still touches some part of the horizon, so my window of opportunity was shrinking fast. And you ever want to appreciate how fast the moon moves across the sky, try photographing it with an extreme telephoto lens. By the time I was moved and recomposed, the moon was already half exposed and rising fast. I managed just a handful of frames before it crested the trees and I switched to a wider lens for a completely different shot.
My own story of this solitary, ridge-top tree involved a frantic rush to capture a beautiful but rapidly fading sunset. I was with my brother on a dirt road in the Eastern Sierra. I’d been on this road many times and knew this tree well. Despite its rather ordinary appearance, the tree’s solitary perch atop a barren, rocky ridge had always intrigued me. For as long as I can remember, I’ve dreamed of a home with a sweeping view, and envied this tree’s perpetual 360 view of the Sierra crest to the west, the White Mountains to the east, and Crowley Lake below.
As the sunset started to materialize that evening, I realized that we were close enough that I might be able to include the tree in the sunset shoot. We hustled my truck back down the road, pulling into to a wide spot beneath the ridge several minutes after the best color had faded. Jay, who had no personal connection to “my” tree, stayed in the truck while I sprinted along the road with my camera and tripod until my position aligned the tree with the final, rippled vestiges of sunset. I only clicked a couple of frames, slightly underexposed to hold the color. (The slight blue cast is the color of the twilight light.)
The humorous events leading up to this sunset at McWay Fall in Big Sur are nowhere to be found in the frame. Nevertheless, even after visiting this spot more times than I can count, I have a very personal connection to this moment in particular. There’s power in a plunging waterfall and crashing surf, and promise in the sun’s appearance above an infinite horizon.
An early arrival allowed lots of time to connect with the scene, enabling me to anticipate the moment the sun burst from the clouds and balance it in the frame with McWay Fall. The position of the leading wave is no accident either—had I allowed it to reach the bottom of the frame before I clicked my shutter, it would have created a white line exiting the frame, taking your eyes right with it. That small strip of sand at the bottom of the image becomes a virtual frame that holds you in the scene. The rest is up to you.
* * * *
Those are my stories, and while they’re personally satisfying, I have no illusions that all of that comes across to the viewer. I’ve displayed these prints in many shows and watched people walk right by without breaking stride. But I’ve also been delighted each time someone stops, peers closer, lingers, and ersometimes returns lat. While I have no idea what “story” my images tap in those people, I don’t believe it really matters.
A gallery of personal favorites (each with its own story)
Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show. Refresh the screen to reorder the display.
Posted on June 2, 2019
On Wednesday I made a quick trip to Yosemite to meet my (old and new) friends and fellow photography pros Don Smith and Ron Modra, plus Ron’s wife MB. Since I’d never met Ron and MB in person (though from conversations with Don I felt like I already knew them), and Ron had never been to Yosemite, I broke my personal rule to stay clear of Yosemite from Memorial Day through September (summer is for the tourists). Plus, after a lifetime of visiting Yosemite, there are few Yosemite firsts remaining, so I live vicariously through the first Yosemite experiences of others.
We met in El Portal, where I deposited my car and hopped in the back of Don’s car with MB. With Don driving and Ron riding shotgun, we headed up the hill discussing a strategy to make the most of our time. The plan we crafted was quickly discarded when we learned at the Arch Rock entrance station that Glacier Point, which had been closed since Saturday night, had just opened.
After a quick stop at Tunnel View to give Ron what should be everyone’s first Yosemite view, we zipped up to Glacier Point. Getting out of the car at Glacier Point, I immediately discovered that the beautiful spring day I’d dressed for had turned to winter. But cold is no match for the enthusiasm of the first time witnessing any of Yosemite’s spectacular views. Not only were the clouds spectacular, they did us the courtesy of parting just enough to illuminate Half Dome for a few minutes.
Our successful Glacier Point detour foreshadowed a spectacular day pinballing about Yosemite Valley, hitting all the spots a first-timer needs to see. Even the weather gods smiled on us, delivering thunderstorms filled the sky with billowing clouds and spread beautiful diffuse light across the park, without much rain.
I’m usually the driver for others’ first time Yosemite experiences, so riding in the back seat allowed me to rubberneck like an actual first-timer. There’s El Capitan! there’s Bridalveil Fall! there’s Sentinel Rock! And on down the list of Yosemite celebrities wearing their spring best. We were a little late for the dogwood, and the blooms that remained were in tatters, but everything else was green and the waterfalls were thundering, even for May. At each stop Ron’s excitement reminded me of a kid on Christmas morning, and seeing it all through his eyes, I totally got it. (Ron shot for Sports Illustrated for many decades—I imagine his reaction was no more enthusiastic than mine would be my first time in a Major League clubhouse.)
By 6:30 or so we’d worn Ron and MB out (well, Ron at least). With the rain starting to fall again, they declared their mission accomplished. With little sign of an impending sunset, and against the advice from Don and me, they decided to call it a day so Ron could get back and open the presents he’d so enthusiastically collected all day.
Our last stop was Valley View, where I realized that despite the beautiful conditions, I’d been so caught up in the view that hadn’t taken my camera from my bag all day. Chatting with MB while Don and Ron worked the beautiful scene, we agreed that sometimes it’s nice to enjoy nature without a camera. I know I missed some gorgeous photography, but I felt enriched by the conversation and laughter, and the sublime surroundings I often miss behind a camera.
Saying our goodbyes in El Portal, I noticed breaks in the clouds. Hmmm. Instead of returning to my home in Sacramento, my destination that night was a heretofore undermined hotel between Yosemite and my Thursday destination in Southern California. But with an hour to go until sunset, I did a quick calculation and decided to forego the quickest route (down 140 to Mariposa) and detour back through Yosemite.
Back in the park I found the clouds still hanging in there, delivering the same nice but unspectacular light we’d enjoyed all day. But encouraged by my preview of the sky approaching from the west, I parked at Tunnel View for a few minutes, just to see what happened. I chose Tunnel View for its proximity to my (revised) route, and because when good stuff happens in Yosemite, it usually starts at Tunnel View. Plus, it’s pretty hard to mess up this classic view. And given that my long day was still several hours from ending, I simply wanted to take a pretty picture and Tunnel View was just the low hanging fruit I needed.
So there I waited in my car, one eye on the view, the other on my watch—30 minutes until sunset, 25 minutes, 20 minutes…. About 30 seconds after deciding nothing was going to happen, the granite next to Leaning Tower (the flat granite face just right of Bridalveil Fall) lit up like it had been hit with a spotlight. I was in business.
To get away from the photographers and tourists teeming about the standard vista, I climbed the granite behind the parking lot until I felt alone. I started wide, with my Sony a7RIII and Sony 24-105 lens (I’ve always felt 16-35 is too wide for Tunnel View). When a second spotlight hit Half Dome, I reached into my bag for my Sony a7RII and Sony 100-400 GM. I spent the rest of the shoot switching between the two bodies, trying all the compositions I’ve become so familiar with over the years. My goal this evening wasn’t an artistic masterpiece or some never seen Yosemite perspective, I simply wanted a low-stress shoot that captured this iconic Yosemite scene at its very best. Mission accomplished.
A Yosemite Spring Gallery
Posted on May 26, 2019
Do I have a favorite place to in the Grand Canyon? Difficult to say, but I definitely have a shortlist, and Deer Creek Fall is on it. Of course this beautiful waterfall is right on the river and far from a secret, so it’s often overrun by other rafting trips (in general the bottom of the Grand Canyon is wonderfully not crowded, but people do tend to congregate at certain spots). Having done this trip six times now, I (with the help of my guides) have learned the timing to minimize or eliminate the people at these popular spots.
This year we found one other group enjoying Deer Creek Fall, but it wasn’t long before they pushed off and we had it to ourselves. In addition to many nice views at river level, there are some great scenes above the fall. The trail to the slot canyon that feeds the fall is steep, with a few spots that require a little non-technical climbing to get to the next level, but the payoff makes the effort worth it. The view of the river and Grand Canyon is (cliché alert) breathtaking, and from there a short trek through a beautiful slot canyon opens to an emerald oasis called “The Patio.” I’ve made the hike to the Patio once, but was kind of unnerved by a 20-foot stretch of 2-foot wide trail carved into a vertical wall and vowed not to do it again (give me something to hold onto and I could stand on top of Mt. Everest, but Alex Honnold I’m not).
Despite the threat of rain, I joined a handful of hikers in my group who followed a couple of our guides through the creek and up the trail. My plan was to stick with them to the view right before the slot canyon entrance, but after stopping briefly to photograph this scene, I climbed up nearby rocks to chase the group and immediately found more photo-worthy scenes overlooking the fall. The cloud cover created such wonderful light, I decided to forego the hike in favor of new photo opportunities.
After 30-minutes photographing Deer Creek Fall from a series of elevated ledges, I scrambled back down to my original river level scene. I’d rushed it earlier and wanted more quality time here. I worked it for another half hour before moving to other views of the fall. Here I used a 5-second exposure that blurred the water in the fall and nearby cascade, and which also captured a small swirl of foam near the rocks.
Full disclosure: My shutter speed options were limited by the fact that I’d departed for this trip thinking that my 82mm polarizer was in its normal place, affixed to my Sony 16-35 GM lens, but it turned out that what I thought was a polarizer was actually my Breakthrough 6-stop neutral density polarizing filter—the polarizer was in a pocket back home. Oops. So to get the polarization I wanted, I had no choice but to use the ND filter, which prevented me from capturing anything but extreme motion blur.
Here’s my just-updated Photo Tips article on photographing motion
I once had a photographer tell me that he didn’t like blurred water images because they’re “not natural.” The conversation continued something like this:
Me: “So how would you photograph that waterfall?”
Misguided Photographer: “I’d use a fast shutter speed to freeze the water.”
Me: “And you think that’s more natural than blurred water?”
Misguided Photographer: “Of course.”
Me: “And how many times have you seen water droplets frozen in midair?”
Misguided Photographer: “Uhhh….”
The truth is, “natural” is a target that shifts with perspective. Humans experience the world as a 360 degree, three-dimentional, multi-sensory reel that unfolds in an infinite series of connected instants that our brain seamlessly processes as quickly as it comes in. But the camera discards 80 percent of the sensory input, limits the view to a rectangular box, and compresses those connected instants into a single, static frame. In other words, it’s impossible for a camera to duplicate human reality—the sooner photographers get that, the sooner they can get to work on expressing the world using their camera’s very different but quite compelling reality.
Despite the creative opportunities in their hands (or on their tripod), many photographers expend a great deal of effort trying to force their cameras closer to human reality (HDR, focus blending, and so on)—not inherently wrong, but in so doing they miss opportunities to reveal overlooked aspects of our complex natural world. Subtracting the distractions from the non-visual senses, controlling depth of focus, and banishing unwanted elements to the world outside the frame, a camera can distill a scene to its overlooked essentials, offering perspectives that are impossible in person.
A still image can’t display actual motion, but it can convey the illusion of motion that, among other things, frees the viewer’s imagination and establishes the scene’s mood. While nothing like our experience of the world, a camera can freeze the extreme chaos of a single instant, or combine a series of instants into a blur that conveys a pattern of motion.
Combining creative vision and technical skill, a photographer chooses where on the continuum that connects these extremes of motion will fall: The sudden drama of a crashing wave, or the soothing calm of soft surf; the explosive power of a plunging river, or the silky curves of tumbling cascades. Or perhaps someplace in the midrange of the motion continuum, stopping the action enough that discrete elements stand out, but not so much that a sense of flow is lost.
One question I’m quite frequently asked is, “How do I blur water?” And while there’s no magic formula, no shutter speed threshold beyond which all water blurs, blurring water isn’t that hard (as long as you use a tripod). In fact, when you photograph in the full shade or cloudy sky conditions I prefer, it’s usually more difficult to freeze moving water than it is to blur it (which is why I have very few images of water drops suspended in midair).
In addition to freezing motion or revealing a pattern of motion, an often overlooked opportunity is the smoothing effect a long exposure has on choppy water. I photograph at a lot of locations known for their reflections, but sometimes I arrive to find a wind has stirred the water into a disorganized, reflection-thwarting frenzy. In these situations a long exposure can smooth the chop, allowing the reflection to come through. Rather than the mirror reflection I came for, I get an ethereal, gauzy effect that still captures the reflection’s color and shape.
The amount of water motion blur you get depends on several variables:
- The water’s speed—the faster the water, and (especially) the more whitewater (green water, no matter how fast it’s moving, doesn’t usually display a lot of motion blur), the greater the blur
- Your focal length—the longer the focal length, the greater the blur
- Your distance from the water—the closer the water, the greater the blur
- And of course, the shutter speed—the longer your shutter is open, the greater the blur
Of these variables, it’s shutter speed that gets the most attention. That’s because focal length and subject distance are compositional considerations, and we usually don’t start thinking about blurring the water until after we have our composition. (This is as it should be—when composition doesn’t trump motion, the result is often a gimmicky image without much soul.)
You have several tools at your disposal for reducing the light reaching your sensor (and thereby lengthening your shutter speed), each with its advantages and disadvantages:
- Don’t even think about any kind of subject blur without a sturdy tripod. For help selecting the right tripod, read the Tripod Selection article in my Photo Tips section.
- Reducing ISO: Since you’re probably already at your camera’s native ISO (usually 100), this option often isn’t available. Some cameras allow you to expand the ISO below the native value, usually down to ISO 50. That extra stop of shutter duration you gain comes with a (very) slight decrease in image quality—most obvious to me as about 1/3 stop of dynamic range lost.
- Shrinking your aperture (larger f-stop value): A smaller aperture also buys you more depth of field, but it also increases diffraction. Also, lenses tend to be less sharp at their most extreme apertures, so as a general rule, I resist going with an aperture smaller than f11 unless it’s necessary. That said, I often find myself shooting at f16 (and only very rarely smaller), but it’s always a conscious choice after eliminating all other options for reducing light (or it’s a mistake, something I’m not immune to).
- Adding a polarizing filter: In addition to reducing reflections, a polarizer will subtract 1 to 2 stops of light (depending on its orientation). When using a polarizer you need to be vigilant about orienting it each time you recompose (especially if you change your camera’s horizontal/vertical orientation), and monitoring its effect on the rest of your scene.
- Adding a neutral density filter: A neutral density filter is, as its name implies, both neutral and dense. Neutral in that it doesn’t alter the color of your image; dense in that it cuts the amount of light reaching your sensor. While a dark enough ND filter might allow you to blur water on even the brightest of days, it does nothing for the other problems inherent to midday, full sunlight shooting. ND filters come in variable and fixed-stop versions—the flexibility of variable NDs (the ability to dial the amount of light up and down) means living with the vignetting they add to my wide angle images.
Because blurring water depends so much on the amount of light reaching your sensor, I can’t emphasize too much the importance of actually understanding metering and exposure, and how to manage the zero-sum relationship between shutter speed, aperture (f-stop), and ISO.
Read my Exposure basics Photo Tips article
Bracketing for motion
Back in the film days, we used to bracket (multiple clicks of the same scene with minor adjustments) for exposure. But in today’s world of improved dynamic range and pre- and post-capture histograms, exposure bracketing is (or at least should be) limited to photographers who blend multiple exposures. Today I only bracket for scene changes that will give me a variety of images to choose between later.
Often my scene bracketing is for depth of field, as I run a series of clicks with a range of f-stops, then decide later whether I want a little or a lot of DOF. But my most frequent use of scene bracketing is to capture a variety of water motion effects. I start by finding a composition I like, then adjust my shutter speed (compensating for the exposure change with ISO and/or f-stop changes) to get different motion blur.
River and stream whitewater is usually (but not always) fairly constant, so my adjustments are usually just to vary the amount of motion blur. But when I’m photographing waves, the timing of the waves is as important as the motion blur. It helps to stand back and observe the waves for a while to get a sense for any patterns. Watching the direction of the waves and the size of the approaching swells not only allows me to time my exposures more efficiently, it also keeps me safe (and dry).
Few images validate the power of the camera’s unique vision better than a scene etched with the parallel arcs of rotating stars (yes, I know it’s not actually the stars that are rotating). Nothing like human reality, the camera’s view of the night sky is equal parts beautiful and revealing. (Can you think of a faster, more effective way to demonstrate Earth’s rotation than a star trail image?)
Here are the factors that determine the amount of stellar motion:
- Exposure duration: The longer your shutter is open, the more motion your sensor captures.
- Focal length: Just as it is with terrestrial subjects, a longer focal length shrinks the range of view and magnifies the stars that remain.
- Direction of composition: Compositions aimed toward the North or South Poles will display less star motion than compositions aimed toward the celestial equator. That’s because, due to Earth’s rotation on its axis (an imaginary, infinite line skewering our North and South Poles), everything in the sky rotates 360 degrees in, around the poles, in 24 hours. But even though every star rotates the same number of degrees in any given period (seconds, minutes, hours, or whatever), the stars travel different distances in that same period: The farther a star is from the axis of rotation (the North or South Pole), the more visual distance covers to complete its circuit (it appears to move faster). This is clear to see when you realize that the farther a star is from one of the poles, the longer its arc is in a star trail image.
As with water motion, you can choose between a long exposure that exaggerates stellar motion, or a shorter exposure that freezes the stars in place to display a more conventional night sky (albeit with more stars than our eyes can discern).
Read more in my Starlight photography Photo Tips article
The other end of the motion continuum is stopping it in its tracks with an exposure of extremely short duration. Sometimes simply to avoid blurring something that should be stationary, like flowers or leaves. But just as a long exposure can blur water to reveal patterns in its motion that aren’t visible to the unaided eye, using a short exposure to freeze a fast moving or ephemeral subject freezing can reveal detail that happens too fast for the unaided eye to register.
Stopping motion in an image often requires exposure compromises, such as a larger than ideal aperture or ISO, or removing a polarizer. In my landscape world, f-stop rules all, so I won’t compromise my f-stop unless it’s truly irrelevant—for example, when everything in the scene is at infinity at all f-stops. And I’m reluctant to remove a polarizer because its effect, even when small, can’t be duplicated in Photoshop. Fortunately, compromising ISO is relatively painless given today’s digital cameras stellar high ISO capabilities.
Wind-blown leaves, breaking surf, and plummeting waterfalls examples of detail that can be frozen in the act, but my favorite example of an instant frozen in time is a lightning strike. Lightning comes and goes so fast that the human experience of it is always just a memory—it’s gone before we register its existence. Read how to photograph lighting in my Lightning article in the Photo Tips section of my blog.
So what’s the point?
In the static world of a photograph, it’s up to the photographer to to create a sense of motion. Sometimes we achieve this with lines that lead the eyes through the scene, but even more powerful is an image that uses motion to tap its viewers imagination. Whether it’s freezing an instant, or connecting a series of instants in a single frame, the way you handle motion in your scene is a creative choice that’s enabled by your creative vision and technical skill.
A gallery of motion
Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show. Refresh the screen to reorder the display.
Posted on May 19, 2019
In the Beginning
I grew up in a camping family. My dad was a minister, so pricey airline/hotel/restaurant vacations were out of the question for the five of us, as of course were weekend camping trips. But for as far back as I can remember, each summer my family went camping somewhere. Usually it was a week or two in Yosemite, Sequoia/Kings Canyon, the California coast, or some other relatively close scenic destination, but every few years we’d hook up the tent trailer, pile into the station wagon, and take a road trip.
The one constant in this numbing succession of summer campsites was the dark sky far from city lights, and the vast sprinkle of stars that mesmerized me. I soon learned that stargazing is the one thing a child can do for as long as he wants after bedtime without getting in trouble. I enjoyed playing connect-the-dots with the stars, identifying named constellations, or making up my own. It turned out all this scanning was a great way to catch shooting stars, and soon my goal was to stay awake until one flashed across my vision. And satellites were still something of a novelty back then, so another camping bedtime exercise was to slowly scan the sky looking for a “star” that moved; when I found one, I’d track it across the until it disappeared behind the horizon—or my eyelids.
At some point I became aware of a hazy band of light stretching across my night sky. On the darkest nights, when my vantage point faced the right direction, the widest and brightest part of this band reminded me of sugar spilled on pooled ink. But the Milky Way wasn’t as dramatic some of the other stuff in my night skies, so the childhood Me was oblivious to its inherent coolness for many years.
On these nightly scans I was more interested in the apparent randomness in the patterns overhead—the consistency of certain stellar arrangements, while a few bright “stars” would be in different positions each night relative to these recognizable patterns. Someone explained to me the difference between stars and planets, that stars were far and planets were close, and that was good enough for me. For a while.
Then, when I was about ten, my best friend and I did a science project on comets, which ignited a sudden and intense interest in all things astronomical. I was gifted a second-hand telescope by a friend of my dad, which we’d set up in my best friend’s front yard on summer nights. Through the telescope the stars remained (boring) points of light, no matter how much I magnified them, but the planets became fascinating disks, each with its own personality. I learned that Venus and Mercury were actually crescents of varying size, just like a mini moon. After searching in vain for the canals on Mars, I was thrilled to (barely) see Saturn’s rings, and to watch the nightly dance of the four pin-prick Galilean moons.
All this stargazing helped me develop a rudimentary understanding of celestial relationships, the vastness of space, the sun’s dominant role in our solar system, and its utter insignificance in the Universe. And the more I learned about astronomy, the more fascinating our home galaxy became. Rather than just passively observing it, the Milky Way became a catalyst for pondering the mysteries of the Universe and my favorite night sky feature.
Then came college, marriage, family, jobs, cameras (lots of cameras) until I found myself at the bottom of the Grand Canyon on this moonless night in May. It was the second night of my annual Grand Canyon Raft Trip for Photographers, a highlight in a year full of highlights, and my first opportunity each year to reconnect with my favorite celestial feature. After night one hadn’t worked out, I told myself that we still had four more chances, but at bedtime on night two I was a little more pessimistic.
The prescription for a successful Milky Way photograph includes a clear view of the southern sky with a nice foreground. There’s no shortage of foreground in the Grand Canyon, but southern sky views are not quite so plentiful. The first night had been spectacularly clear, but our otherwise spectacular campsite was on an east/west trending section of river (I try to select each campsite for its astrophotography potential, but the sites can’t be reserved, and sometime there are other factors to consider), which placed the rising galactic core behind a towering canyon wall. On our second day we’d scored prime real estate on a north/south section of river a few miles upstream from Desert View, but now thin clouds threatened to spoil the show.
In May the Milky Way doesn’t usually crest the canyon walls until 2:00 or 3:00 a.m. (depending on the location), but as we prepared for bed that second day, only a handful of stars smoldered in the gauzy veil above. But with six hours for conditions to improve, I prepared anyway, identifying my foreground, setting up my tripod next to my cot, and mounting my Sony a7SII body and Sony 24mm f/1.4 lens with ISO, f-stop, and shutter speed set.
Waking a little before 3:00, I instantly saw far more stars than had been visible at bedtime. But more importantly, there was the Milky Way, directly overhead. I sat up and peered toward the river—the soft glow of several LCD screens told me others were already shooting, so I grabbed my tripod and stumbled down to the river’s edge in the dark (to avoid illuminating the others’ scene). It’s quite amazing how well you can see by the light of the Milky Way once your eyes adjust.
After a few frames I saw that a few thin clouds remained, creating interesting patterns against the starry background. By about 4 a.m., an hour-and-a-half before sunrise, loss of contrast in my images that wasn’t visible to my eyes told me the approaching sun was already starting to brighten the sky. I photographed for about an hour that morning, then managed to catch another 45 minutes of contented sleep before the guides’ coffee call got me up for good.
I continue updating my Photo Tips articles—here’s my just-updated Milky Way article,
with all you need to know to locate and photograph our home galaxy
How to photograph the Milky Way
See the Milky Way
Look heavenward on a moonless (Northern Hemisphere) summer night far from city light. The first thing to strike you is the shear volume of stars, but as your eyes adjust, your gaze is drawn to a luminous band spanning the sky. Ranging from magnificently brilliant to faintly visible, this is the Milky Way, home to our sun and nearly a half trillion other stars of varying age, size, and temperature.
Size and shape
Though every star you’ve ever seen is part of our Milky Way galaxy, stargazers use the Milky Way label more specifically to identify this river of starlight, gas, and dust spanning the night sky. As you feast your eyes, appreciate that some of the Milky Way’s starlight has traveled 25,000 years to reach your eyes, and light from a star on one edge of the Milky Way would take 100,000 years to reach the other side.
The rest of the sky appears to be filled with far more discrete stars than the region containing the Milky Way, but don’t let this deceive you. Imagine that you’re out in the countryside where the lights of a distant city blend into a homogeneous glow—similarly, the stars in the Milky Way’s luminous band are simply too numerous and distant to resolve individually. On the other hand, the individual pinpoints of starlight that we name and mentally assemble into constellations are just closer, much like the lights of nearby farmhouses. And the dark patches in the Milky Way aren’t empty space—like the trees and mountains that block our view of the city, they’re starlight-blocking interstellar dust and gas, remnants of exploded stars and the stuff of future stars.
Just as it’s impossible to know what your house looks like by peering out a window, it’s impossible to know what the Milky Way looks like by simply looking up on a dark night. Fortunate for us, really smart people have been able to infer from painstaking observation, measurement, reconstruction, and comparison with other galaxies that our Milky Way is flat (much wider than it is tall) and spiral shaped, like a glowing pinwheel, with two major arms and several minor arms spiraling out from its center. Our solar system is in one of the Milky Way’s minor arms, a little past midway between the center and outer edge.
Blinded by the light
Sadly, artificial light and atmospheric pollution have erased the view of the Milky Way for nearly a third of the world’s population, and eighty percent of Americans. Worse still, even though some part of the Milky Way is overhead on every clear night, many people have never seen it.
Advances in digital technology have spurred a night photography renaissance that has enabled the Milky Way challenged to enjoy images of its splendor from the comfort of their recliner, but there’s nothing quite like viewing it in person. With just a little knowledge and effort, you too can enjoy the Milky Way firsthand; add the right equipment and a little more knowledge, and you’ll be able to photograph it as well.
Horizon to Horizon
Understanding that our Solar System is inside the Milky Way’s disk makes it easier to understand why we can see some portion of the Milky Way on any night (assuming the sky is dark enough). In fact, from our perspective, the plane of the Milky Way forms a complete ring around Earth (but of course we can only see half the sky at any given time), with its brightness varying depending on whether we’re looking toward our galaxy’s dense center or sparse outer region.
Where the action is
Though the plane of the Milky Way stretches all the way across our sky, when photographers talk about photographing the Milky Way, they usually mean the galactic core—the Milky Way’s center and most densely packed, brightest region. Unfortunately, our night sky doesn’t always face the galactic core, and there are many months when this bright region is not visible at all.
To understand the Milky Way’s visibility in our night sky, it helps to remember that Earth both rotates on its axis (a day), and revolves around the sun (a year). When the side of the planet we’re on rotates away from the sun each day, the night sky we see is determined by our position on our annual trip around the sun—when Earth is between the sun and the galactic core, we’re in position to see the most brilliant part of the Milky Way; in the months when the sun is between earth and the galactic core, the bright part of the Milky Way can’t be seen.
Put in terrestrial terms, imagine you’re at the neighborhood playground, riding a merry-go-round beneath a towering oak tree. You face outward, with your back to the merry-go-round’s center post. As the merry-go-round spins, your view changes—about half of the time you’d rotate to face the oak’s trunk, and about half the time your back is to the tree. Our solar system is like that merry-go-round: the center post is the sun, the Milky Way is the tree, and in the year it takes our celestial merry-go-round to make a complete circle, we’ll face the Milky Way about half the time.
Finding the Milky Way
Just like every other celestial object outside our solar system, the Milky Way’s position in our sky changes with the season and time of night you view it, but it remains constant relative to the other stars and constellations. This means you can find the Milky Way by simply locating any of the constellations in the galactic plane. Here’s an alphabetical list of the constellations* through which the Milky Way passes (with brief notes by a few of the more notable constellations):
- Canis Major—faint
- Cassiopeia—faint; its easily recognized “w” (or “m”) shape makes Cassiopeia a good landmark for locating the Milky Way in the northern sky
- Orion—faint; another easy to recognize constellation that’s good for finding the galactic plane
- Sagittarius—brightest, galactic core
* Constellations are comprised of stars that only appear connected by virtue of our Earth-bound perspective—a constellation is a direction in the sky, not a location in space.
If you can find any of these constellations, you’re looking in the direction of some part of the Milky Way (if you can’t see it, your sky isn’t dark enough). But most of us want to see the center of the Milky Way, where it’s brightest, most expansive, and most photogenic. The two most important things to understand about finding the Milky Way’s brilliant center are:
- From our perspective here on Earth, the galactic core is in Sagittarius (and a couple of other constellations near Sagittarius)—when Sagittarius is visible, so is the brightest part of the Milky Way (assuming you can find a dark enough sky)
- Earth’s night side most directly faces Sagittarius in the Northern Hemisphere’s summer months (plus part of spring and autumn)
Armed with this knowledge, locating the Milky Way’s core is as simple as opening one of my (too many) star apps to find out where Sagittarius is. Problem solved. Of course it helps to know that the months when the galactic core rises highest and is visible longest are June, July, and August, and to not even consider looking before mid-March, or after mid-October. If you can’t wait until summer and don’t mind missing a little sleep, starting in April, Northern Hemisphere residents with a dark enough sky can catch Sagittarius and the galactic core rising in the southeast shortly before sunrise. After its annual premier in April, the Milky Way’s core rises slightly earlier each night and is eventually well above the horizon by nightfall.
People who enjoy sleep prefer doing their Milky Way hunting in late summer and early autumn, when the galactic core has been above the horizon for most of the daylight hours, but remains high in the southwest sky as soon as the post-sunset sky darkens enough for the stars to appear. The farther into summer and autumn you get, the closer to setting beneath the western horizon the Milky Way will be at sunset, and the less time you’ll have before it disappears.
Into the darkness
The Milky Way is dim enough to be easily washed out by light pollution and moonlight, so the darker your sky, the more visible the Milky Way will be. To ensure sufficient darkness, I target moonless hours, from an hour or so after sunset to an hour before sunrise. New moon nights are easiest because the new moon rises and sets (more or less) with the sun and there’s no moon all night. But on any night, if you pick a time before the moon rises, or after it sets, you should be fine. Be aware that the closer the moon is to full, the greater the potential for its glow to leak into the scene from below the horizon.
Getting away from city lights can be surprisingly difficult (and frustrating). Taking a drive out into the countryside near home is better than nothing, and while it may seem dark enough to your eyes, a night exposure in an area that you expect to be dark enough reveals just how insidious light pollution is as soon as you realize all of your images are washed out by an unnatural glow on the horizon. Since the galactic core is in the southern sky in the Northern Hemisphere, you can mitigate urban glow in your Milky Way images by heading south of any nearby population area, putting the glow behind you as you face the Milky Way.
Better than a night drive out to the country, plan a trip to a location with a truly dark sky. For this, those in the less densely populated western US have an advantage. The best resource for finding world-class dark skies anywhere on Earth is the International Dark-Sky Association. More than just a resource, the IDA actively advocates for dark skies, so if the quality of our night skies matters to you, spend some time on their site, get involved, and share their website with others.
Photograph the Milky Way
Viewing the Milky Way requires nothing more than a clear, dark sky. (Assuming clean, clear skies) the Milky Way’s luminosity is fixed, so our ability to see it is largely a function of the darkness of the surrounding sky—the darker the sky, the better the Milky Way stands out. But because our eyes can only take in a fixed amount of light, there’s a ceiling on our ability to view the Milky Way with the unaided eye.
A camera, on the other hand, can accumulate light for a virtually unlimited duration. This, combined with technological advances that continue increasing the light sensitivity of digital sensors, means that when it comes to photographing the Milky Way, well…, the sky’s the limit. As glorious as it is to view the Milky Way with the unaided eye, a camera will show you detail and color your eyes can’t see.
Knowing when and where to view the Milky Way is a great start, but photographing the Milky Way requires a combination of equipment, skill, and experience that doesn’t just happen overnight (so to speak). But Milky Way photography doesn’t need to break the bank, and it’s not rocket science.
Bottom line, photographing the Milky Way is all about maximizing your ability to collect light: long exposures, fast lenses, high ISO.
In general, the larger your camera’s sensor and photosites (the “pixels” that capture the light), the more efficiently it collects light. Because other technology is involved, there’s not an absolute correlation between sensor and pixel size and light gathering capability, but a small, densely packed sensor almost certainly rules out your smartphone and point-and-shoot cameras for anything more than a fuzzy snap of the Milky Way. At the very least you’ll want a mirrorless or DSLR camera with an APS-C (1.5/1.6 crop) size sensor. Better still is a full frame mirrorless or DSLR camera. (A 4/3 Olympus or Panasonic sensor might work, but as great as these cameras are for some things, high ISO photography isn’t their strength.
Another general rule is that the newer the technology, the better it will perform in low light. Even with their smaller, more densely packed sensors, many of today’s top APS-C bodies outperform in low light full frame bodies that have been out for a few years, so full frame or APS-C, if your camera is relatively new, it will probably do the job.
If you’re shopping for a new camera and think night photography might be in your future, compare your potential cameras’ high ISO capabilities—not their maximum ISO. Read reviews by credible sources like DP Review, Imaging Resource, or DxOMark (among many others) to see how your camera candidates fare in objective tests.
An often overlooked consideration is the camera’s ability to focus in extreme low light. Autofocusing on the stars or landscape will be difficult to impossible, and you’ll not be able to see well enough through a DSLR’s viewfinder to manually focus. Some bodies with a fast lens might autofocus on a bright star or planet, but it’s not something I’d count on (though I expect within a few years before this capability will become more common).
Having photographed for years with Sony and Canon, and working extensively with most other mirrorless and DSLR bodies in my workshops, I have lots of experience with cameras from many manufacturers. In my book, focus peaking makes mirrorless the clear winner for night focusing. Sony’s current mirrorless bodies (a7RII/RIII, a7S/SII) are by far the easiest I’ve ever used for focusing in the dark—what took a minute or more with my Canon, I can do in seconds using focus peaking with my Sony bodies (especially the S bodies). I use the Sony a7SII, but when I don’t want to travel with a body I only use for night photography, the Sony a7RIII does the job too. Of the major DSLR brands, I’ve found Canon’s superior LCD screen (as of 2019) makes it much easier to focus in extreme low light than Nikon. (More on focus later.)
Put simply, to photograph the Milky Way you want fast, wide glass—the faster the better. Fast to capture as much light as possible; wide to take in lots of sky. A faster lens also makes focus and composition easier because the larger aperture gathers more light. How fast? F/2.8 or faster—preferably faster. How wide? At least 28mm, and wider is better still. I do enough night photography that I have a dedicated, night-only lens—my original night lens was a Canon-mount Zeiss 28mm f/2; my current night lens is the Sony 24mm f/1.4.
It goes without saying that at exposure times up to 30 seconds, you’ll need a sturdy tripod and head for Milky Way photography. You don’t need to spend a fortune, but the more you spend, the happier you’ll be in the long run (trust me). Carbon fiber provides the best combination of strength, vibration reduction, and light weight, but a sturdy (albeit heavy) aluminum tripod will do the job.
An extended centerpost is not terribly stable, and a non-extended centerpost limits your ability to spread the tripod’s legs and get low, so I avoid tripods with a centerpost. But if you have a sturdy tripod with a centerpost, don’t run out and purchase a new one—just don’t extend the centerpost when photographing at night.
Read my tips for purchasing a tripod here.
To eliminate the possibility of camera vibration I recommend a remote release; without a remote you’ll risk annoying all within earshot with your camera’s 2-second timer beep. You’ll want a flashlight or headlamp for the walk to and from the car, and your cell phone for light while shooting. And it’s never a bad idea to toss an extra battery in your pocket. And speaking of lights, never, never, NEVER use a red light for night photography (more on this later).
Getting the shot
Keep it simple
There are just so many things that can go wrong on a moonless night when there’s not enough light to see camera controls, the contents of your bag, and the tripod leg you’re about to trip over. After doing this for many years, both on my own and helping others in workshops, I’ve decided that simplicity is essential.
Simplicity starts with paring down to the absolute minimum camera gear: a sturdy tripod, one body, one lens, and a remote release (plus an extra battery in my pocket). Everything else stays at home, in the car, or if I’m staying out after a sunset shoot, in my bag.
Upon arrival at my night photography destination, I extract my tripod, camera, lens (don’t forget to remove the polarizer), and remote release. I connect the remote and mount my lens—if it’s a zoom I set the focal length at the lens’s widest—then set my exposure and focus (more on exposure and focus below). If I’m walking to my photo site, I carry the pre-exposed and focused camera on the tripod (I know this makes some people uncomfortable, but if you don’t trust your tripod head enough to hold onto your camera while you’re walking, it’s time for a new head), trying to keep the tripod as upright and stable as possible as I walk.
Flashlights/headlamps are essential for the walk/hike out to to and from my shooting location, but while I’m there and in shoot mode, it’s no flashlights, no exceptions. This is particularly important when I’m with a group. Not only does a flashlight inhibit your night vision, its light leaks into the frame of everyone who’s there. And while red lights may be better for your night vision and are great for telescope view, red light is especially insidious about leaking into everyone’s frame, so if you plan to take pictures, no red light! If you follow my no flashlight rule once the photography begins, you’ll be amazed at how well your eyes adjust. I can operate my camera’s controls in the dark—it’s not hard with a little practice, and well worth the effort to learn. If I ever do need to see my camera to adjust something, or if I need to see to move around, my cell phone screen (not the phone’s flashlight, just its illuminated screen) gives me all the light I need.
A good Milky Way image is distinguished from an ordinary Milky Way image by its foreground. Simply finding a location that’s dark enough to see the Milky Way is difficult enough; finding a dark location that also has a foreground worthy of pairing with the Milky Way usually takes a little planning.
Since the Milky Way’s center is in the southern sky (for Northern Hemisphere observers), I look for remote (away from light pollution) subjects that I can photograph while facing south (or southeast or southwest, depending on the month and time of night). Keep in mind that unless you have a ridiculous light gathering camera (like the Sony a7S or a7S II) and an extremely fast lens (f/2 or faster), your foreground will probably be more dark shape than detail. Water’s inherent reflectivity makes it a good foreground subject as well, especially if the water includes rocks or whitewater.
When I encounter a scene I deem photo worthy, not only do I try to determine its best light and moon rise/set possibilities, I also consider its potential as a Milky Way subject. Can I align it with the southern sky? Are there strong subjects that stand out against the sky? Is there water I can include in my frame?
I’ve found views of the Grand Canyon from the North Rim, the Kilauea Caldera, and the bristlecone pines in California’s White Mountains that work spectacularly. And its hard to beat the dark skies and breathtaking foreground possibilities at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. On the other hand, while Yosemite Valley has lots to love, you don’t see a lot of Milky Way images from Yosemite Valley because not only is there a lot of light pollution, and Yosemite’s towering, east/west trending granite walls give its south views an extremely high horizon that blocks much of the galactic core from the valley floor.
The last few years I’ve started photographing the Milky Way above the spectacular winter scenery of New Zealand’s South Island, where the skies are dark and the Milky Way is higher in the sky than it is in most of North America.
To maximize the amount of Milky Way in my frame, I generally (but not always) start with a vertical orientation that’s at least 2/3 sky. On the other hand, I do make sure to give myself more options with a few horizontal compositions as well. Given the near total darkness required of a Milky Way shoot, it’s often too dark to see well enough to compose that scene. If I can’t see well enough to compose I guess at a composition, take a short test exposure at an extreme (unusable) ISO to enable a relatively fast shutter speed (a few seconds), adjust the composition based on the image in the LCD, and repeat until I’m satisfied.
Needless to say, when it’s dark enough to view the Milky Way, there’s not enough light to autofocus (unless you have a rare camera/lens combo that can autofocus on a bright star and planet), or even to manually focus with confidence. And of all the things that can ruin a Milky Way image (not to mention an entire night), poor focus is number one. Not only is achieving focus difficult, it’s very easy to think you’re focused only to discover later that you just missed.
Because the Milky Way’s focus point is infinity, and you almost certainly won’t have enough light to stop down for more depth of field, your closest foreground subjects should be far enough away to be sharp when you’re wide open and focused at infinity. Before going out to shoot, find a hyperfocal app and plug in the values for your camera and lens at its widest aperture. Even though it’s technically possible to be sharp from half the hyperfocal distance to infinity, the kind of precise focus focusing on the hyperfocal point requires is difficult to impossible in the dark, so my rule of thumb is to make sure my closest subject is no closer than the hyperfocal distance.
For example, I know with my Sony 24mm f/1.4 wide open on my full frame Sony a7SII, the hyperfocal distance is about 50 feet. If I have a subject that’s closer (such as a bristlecone pine), I’ll pre-focus (before dark) on the hyperfocal distance, or shine a bright light on an object at the hyperfocal distance and focus there, but generally I make sure everything is at least 50 feet away. Read more about hyperfocal focus in my Depth of Field article.
By far the number one cause of night focus misses is the idea that you can just dial any lens to infinity; followed closely by the idea that focused at one focal length means focused at all focal lengths. Because when it comes to sharpness, almost isn’t good enough, if you have a zoom lens, don’t even think of trying to dial the focus ring to the end for infinity. And even for most prime lenses, the infinity point is a little short of all the way to the end, and can vary slightly with the temperature and f-stop. Of course if you know your lens well enough to be certain of its infinity point by feel (and are a risk taker), go for it. And that zoom lens that claims to be parfocal? While it’s possible that your zoom will hold focus throughout its entire focal range, regardless of what the manufacturer claims, I wouldn’t bet an entire shoot on it without testing first.
All this means that the only way to ensure night photography sharpness is to focus carefully on something before shooting, refocus every time your focal length changes, and check focus frequently by displaying and magnifying an image on your LCD. To simplify (there’s that word again), when using a zoom lens, I usually set the lens at its widest focal length, focus, verify sharpness, and (once I know I’m focused) never change the focal length again.
While the best way to ensure focus is to set your focal length and focus before it gets dark, sometimes pre-focusing isn’t possible, or for some reason you need to refocus after darkness falls. If I arrive at my destination in the dark, I autofocus on my headlights, a bright flashlight, or a laser 50 feet or more away. And again, never assume you’re sharp by looking at the image that pops up on the LCD when the exposure completes—always magnify your image and check it after you focus.
For more on focusing in the dark, including how to use stars to focus, read my Starlight Photo Tips article.
Exposing a Milky Way image is wonderfully simple once you realize that you don’t have to meter—because you can’t (not enough light). Your goal is simply to capture as many photons as you can without damaging the image with noise, star motion, and lens flaws.
Basically, with today’s technology you can’t give a Milky Way image too much light—you’ll run into image quality problems before you overexpose a Milky Way image. In other words, capturing the amount of light required to overexpose a Milky Way image is only possible if you’ve chosen an ISO and/or shutter speed that significantly compromises the quality of the image with excessive noise and/or star motion.
In a perfect world, I’d take every image at ISO 100 and f/8—the best ISO and f-stop for my camera and lens. But that’s not possible when photographing in near total darkness—a usable Milky Way image requires exposure compromises. What kind of compromises? The key to getting a properly exposed Milky Way image is knowing how far you push your camera’s exposure settings before the light gained isn’t worth the diminished quality. Each exposure variable causes a different problem when pushed too far:
- ISO: Raising ISO to increase light sensitivity comes with a corresponding increase in noise that muddies detail. The noise at any particular ISO varies greatly with the camera, so it’s essential to know your camera’s low-light capability(!). Some of the noise can be cleaned up with noise reduction software (I use Topaz DeNoise 6)—the amount that cleans up will depend on the noise reduction software you use, your skill using that software, and where the noise is (is it marring empty voids or spoiling essential detail?).
- Shutter speed: The longer the shutter stays open, the more motion blur spreads the stars’ distinct pinpoints into streaks. I’m not a big fan of formulas that dictate star photography shutter speeds because I find them arbitrary and inflexible, and they fail to account for the fact that the amount of apparent stellar motion varies with the direction you’re composing (you’ll get less motion the closer to the north or south poles you’re aimed). My general shutter-speed rule of thumb is 30-seconds or less, preferably less—I won’t exceed 30 seconds, and do everything I can to get enough light with a faster shutter speed.
- F-stop: At their widest apertures, lenses tend to lose sharpness (especially on the edges) and display optical flaws like comatic aberration (also called coma) that distorts points of light (like stars) into comet shaped blurs. For many lenses, stopping down even one stop from wide open significantly improves image quality.
Again: My approach to metering for the Milky Way is to give my scene as much light as I can without pushing the exposure compromises to a point I can’t live with. Where exactly is that point? Not only does that question require a subjective answer that varies with each camera body, lens, and scene, as technology improves, I’m less forgiving of exposure compromises than I once was. For example, when I started photographing the Milky Way with my Canon 1DS Mark III, the Milky Way scenes I could shoot were limited because my fastest wide lens was f/4 and I got too much noise when I pushed my ISO beyond 1600. This forced me compromise by shooting wide open with a 30-second shutter speed to achieve even marginal results. In fact, given these limitations, despite trying to photograph the Milky Way from many locations, when I started the only Milky Way foreground that worked well enough was Kilauea Caldera, because it was its own light source (an erupting volcano).
Today (mid-2019) I photograph the Milky Way with a Sony a7S II and a Sony 24mm f/1.4 lens. I get much cleaner images from my Sony at ISO 6400 than got a ISO 1600 on my Canon 1DSIII, and the night light gathering capability of an f/1.4 lens revelatory. At ISO 6400 (or higher) I can stop down slightly to eliminate lens aberrations (though I don’t seem to need to with the Sony lens), drop my shutter speed to 20 or 15 seconds to reduce star motion 33-50 percent, and still get usable foreground detail by starlight.
I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to know your camera’s and lens’s capabilities in low light, and how for you’re comfortable pushing the ISO and f-stop. For each of the night photography equipment combos I’ve used, I’ve established a general exposure upper threshold, rule-of-thumb compromise points for each exposure setting that I won’t exceed until I’ve reached the compromise threshold of the other exposure settings. For example, with my Sony a7SII/24mm f/1.4 combo, I usually start at ISO 6400, f/1.4, and 20 seconds. Those settings will usually get me enough light for Milky Way color and pretty good foreground detail. But if I want more light (for example, if I’m shooting into the black pit of the Grand Canyon from the canyon rim), my first exposure compromise might be to increase to ISO 12800; if I decide I need even more light, my next compromise is to bump my shutter speed to 30 seconds. Or if I want a wider field of view than 24mm, I’ll put on my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 G lens and increase to ISO 12800 and 30 seconds.
These thresholds are guidelines rather than hard-and-fast rules, and they apply to my preferences only—your results may vary. And though I’m pretty secure with this workflow, for each Milky Way composition I try a variety of exposure combinations before moving to another composition. Not only does this give me a range of options to choose between when I’m at home and reviewing my images on a big monitor, it also gives me more insight into my camera/lens capabilities, allowing me to refine my exposure compromise threshold points.
One other option that I’ve started applying automatically is long exposure noise reduction, which delivers a noticeable reduction in noise for exposures that are several seconds and longer.
* In normal situations the Sony a7SII can handle ISO 12,800 without even breathing hard, but the long exposure time required of night photography generates a lot of heat on the sensor with a corresponding increase in noise.
It’s time to click that shutter
You’re in position with the right gear, composed, focused, and exposure values set. Before you actually click the shutter, let me remind you of a couple of things you can do to ensure the best results: First, lower that center post. A tripod center post’s inherent instability is magnified during long exposures, not just by wind, but even by nearby footsteps, the press of the shutter button, and slap of the mirror (and sometimes it seems, by ghosts). And speaking of shutter clicks, you should be using a remote cable or two-second timer to eliminate the vibration imparted when your finger presses the shutter button.
When that first Milky Way image pops up on the LCD, it’s pretty exciting. So exciting in fact that sometimes you risk being lulled into a “Wow, this isn’t as hard as I expected” complacency. Even though you think everything’s perfect, don’t forget to review your image sharpness every few frames by displaying and magnifying and image on your LCD. In theory nothing should change unless you changed it, but in practice I’ve noticed an occasional inclination for focus to shift mysteriously between shots. Whether it’s slight temperature changes or an inadvertent nudge of the focus ring as you fumble with controls in the dark, you can file periodically checking your sharpness falls under “an ounce of prevention….” Believe me, this will save a lot of angst later.
And finally, don’t forget to play with different exposure settings for each composition. Not only does this give you more options, it also gives you more insight into your camera/lens combo’s low light capabilities.
The bottom line
Though having top-of-the-line, low-light equipment helps a lot, it’s not essential. If you have a full frame mirrorless or DSLR camera that’s less than five years old, and a lens that’s f/2.8 or faster, you probably have all the equipment you need to get great the Milky Way images. Even with a cropped sensor, or an f/4 lens, you have a good chance of getting usable Milky Way images in the right circumstances. If you’ve never photographed the Milky Way before, don’t expect perfection the first time out. What you can expect is improvement each time you go out as you learn the limitations of your equipment and identify your own exposure compromise thresholds. And success or failure, at the very least you’ll have spent a magnificent night under the stars.