Smoke on the Landscape (and Fire in the Sky)

Gary Hart Photography: Smoky Sunset, Desert View, Grand Canyon

Smoky Sunset, Desert View, Grand Canyon
Sony a7RIV
Sony 200-600 G
Sony 2x teleconverter
ISO 100
f/18
1/60 second

After 2 1/2 weeks at the Grand Canyon for three monsoon photo workshops, I’ve had very little time (and even less connectivity) for posting, but I wanted to share this image while the experience is still fresh in my mind. Here’s a new image and a short descriptive post, followed by a longer, but far more important, “refurbished” post.

Beauty comes in many forms. Usually it’s some version of thrilling or soothing, but last week I witnessed beauty that I can only label alarming.

My first week at the Grand Canyon (for three workshops) included the monsoon staples people sign up for: beautiful clouds, vivid sunrises and sunsets, rainbows, and lightning—lots and lots of lightning. But when Mother Nature flipped off the moisture switch at the end of the first week, all that monsoon magnificence was replaced by cloudless skies and smoke—smoke in the sky, and smoke in the canyon.

Without the cleansing monsoon showers, visibility into the canyon varied with the fickle winds, ranging from okay to opaque. And even when we could see across to the other side, a thick brown haze hugged the horizon in all directions.

Adopting my best lemonade-from-lemons stance, I encouraged everyone in the second group to appreciate the rare opportunity to include a red, orange, or yellow (depending on the smoke’s thickness) sun in their images. This wasn’t what everyone was hoping for, but I tried to make that point that as depressing as the smoke is, these images shouldn’t feel like a consolation prize because they really can be pretty cool.

Fortunately, the Grand Canyon is ideal for these shots that emphasize the seemingly infinite supply of ridges that disappear into the distance. Normally photographing these receding ridges by pointing toward sunrise or sunset results in a harsh white sky and hopelessly blown out sun. But smoke knocks down the sun’s brilliance, allowing its color to shine through. And, the smoke that robs the vistas of their glorious canyon views also helps simplify images down to basic color and shape. Wide or tight, the result is a relatively unique visual take on the Grand Canyon’s beauty.

I captured this image on the second group’s first sunset. I like starting the workshop at Desert View because we can all set up together along the rim, allowing me to work individually with the participants to identify who will need what assistance throughout the workshop. But once we got settled in, everyone started to work on their own version of the scene and I got a minute to think about my own shot.

I kicked myself for not lugging my Sony 200-600 lens out in the first place, and ended up jogging back to the car to grab it and my 2X teleconverter, hoping to enlarge the sun and apply extreme compression to the disappearing ridges. Adding this combo to my Sony a7RIV, I couldn’t resist starting by zooming all the way out to 1200mm to make the sun as large as possible. After that I played with a variety of focal lengths, ultimately choosing this one, around 600mm, because I could include more of the ridges. The sun slipping into a few wispy cloud fragments just before it disappeared was a bonus.

To avoid washing out the color in the sun, I had to seriously underexpose the foreground. On my LCD, the ridges you see in this image were black—so dark in fact that there was no way to distinguish one from the next. But I love my Sony bodies and knew that my a7RIV had indeed captured all the shadow detail I would need, a fact I easily confirmed upon opening this image in Lightroom.

I should add that despite all the smoke, all was not completely lost for the middle group. For our final sunset, the sky above Cape Royal cleared wonderfully, allowing the sun to paint Wotan’s Throne with beautiful warm light. (The view of Wotan’s Throne from Cape Royal is one of my favorite Grand Canyon views.) Great canyon views and relatively few cross-canyon lights makes Cape Royal my favorite Grand Canyon rim Milky Way location, so we stayed out and enjoyed the best Milky Way shoot of any monsoon workshop I’ve ever had—so great, in fact, that we voted to blow off sunrise to stay out later.

With the monsoon returning for the final week, the third workshop group enjoyed two spectacular lightning shoots and a couple of equally spectacular sunsets. Just as significant, the frequent showers banished the smoke and the visibility returned, at least temporarily. But with smoky summer skies becoming the norm here in the West—and this year most of the country is suffering from our smoke—I fear that we’ve all reached the point where summer outdoor plans will require a smoke contingency, much as we’ve always had to do with the potential for rain.

I’ll be back soon with more conventional Grand Canyon monsoon drama (something this trip didn’t lack), but in the meantime, I hope you take the time to read below and gain a little understand of climate warming and the undeniable truth of humans’ role.

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Where There’s Smoke (2019)

Gary Hart Photography: Sun and Smoke, Sierra Foothills, California

Sun and Smoke, Sierra Foothills, California
Sony a6300
Sony 100-400 GM
Sony 2x teleconverter
ISO 100
f/16
1/8 second

Humans, we have a problem

Earth’s climate is changing, and the smoking gun belongs to us. Sadly, in the United States policy lags insight and reason, and the world is suffering.

Climate change science is complex, with many moving parts that make it difficult to communicate to the general public. Climate change also represents a significant reset for some of the world’s most profitable corporations. Those colliding realities created a perfect storm for fostering the doubt and confusion that persists among people who don’t understand climate science and the principles that underpin it.

I’m not a scientist, but I do have enough science background (majors in astronomy and geology, before ultimately earning my degree in economics) to trust the experts and respect the scientific method. I also spent 20 years doing technical communication in the tech industry (tech writing, training, and support) for companies large and small. So I know enough to know that the fundamentals of climate change don’t need to intimidate, and the more accessible they can be to the general public, the better off we’ll all be.

It’s personal

Recently it feels like I’ve been living on the climate change front lines. On each visit to Yosemite, more dead and dying trees stain forests that were green as recently as five years ago. And throughout the Sierra (among other places), thirsty evergreens, weakened by drought, are under siege by insects that now thrive in mountain winters that once froze them into submission. More dead trees means more fuel, making wildfires not just more frequent, but bigger and hotter.

Speaking of wildfires, for a week last month I couldn’t go outside without a mask thanks to smoke from the Camp Fire that annihilated Paradise (70 miles away). I have friends who evacuated from each of this November’s three major California wildfires (Camp, Hill, and Woolsey), and last December the Thomas Fire forced a two-week evacuation of Ojai, where my wife and I rent a small place (to be near the grandkids). Our cleanup from the Thomas fire took months, and we still find ash in the most unexpected places (and we were among the lucky who had a home to clean).

The debate is dead

Despite its inevitable (and long overdue) death, the climate change debate continues to stagger on like a mindless zombie. We used to have to listen to the global warming skeptics claim that our climate wasn’t changing at all, so I guess hearing them acknowledge that okay-well-maybe-the-climate-is-changing-but-humans-aren’t-responsible can be considered progress.

Climate change alternative “explanations” like “natural variability” and “solar energy fluctuations” popular on social media or fringe websites have been irrefutably debunked by rigorously gathered, thoroughly analyzed, and closely scrutinized data. (And don’t get me started on the ridiculous “scientists motivated by grant money” conspiracy theory.)

Science we all can agree on

One thing that everyone does agree on is the existence of the greenhouse effect, which has been used for centuries to grow plants in otherwise hostile environments.

As you may already know, a greenhouse’s transparent exterior allows sunlight to penetrate and warm its interior. The heated interior radiates at longer wavelengths (infrared) that don’t escape as easily through the greenhouse’s ceiling and walls. That means more heat is added to a greenhouse than exits it, so the interior is warmer than the environment outside.

There’s something in the air

Perhaps the most common misperception about human induced climate change is that it’s driven by all the heat we create when we burn stuff. But that’s not what’s going on, not even close.

Our atmosphere behaves like a greenhouse, albeit with far more complexity. The sun bathes Earth with continuous electromagnetic radiation that includes infrared, visible light, and ultraviolet that we’re all familiar with. Solar radiation not reflected back to space reaches Earth’s surface to heat water, land, and air. Some of this heat makes it back to space, but much is absorbed by molecules in Earth’s atmosphere, forming a virtual blanket that makes Earth warmer than it would be without an atmosphere. In a word, inhabitable.

Because a molecule’s ability to absorb heat depends on its structure, some molecules absorb heat better than others. The two most common molecules in Earth’s atmosphere, nitrogen (N2: two nitrogen atoms) and oxygen (O2: two oxygen atoms), are bound so tightly that they don’t absorb heat. Our atmospheric blanket relies on other molecules to absorb heat: the greenhouse gases.

Also not open for debate is that Earth warms when greenhouse gases in the atmosphere rise, and cools when they fall. The rise and fall of greenhouse gases has been happening for as long as Earth has had an atmosphere. So our climate problem isn’t that our atmosphere contains greenhouse gases, it’s that human activity changes our atmosphere’s natural balance of greenhouse gases.

Earth’s most prevalent greenhouse gas is water vapor. But water vapor responds quickly to temperature changes, leaving the atmosphere relatively fast as rain or snow, while other greenhouse gases hold their heat far longer.

The two most problematic greenhouse gases are carbon dioxide (CO2: one carbon atom bonded with two oxygen atoms) and methane (CH4: one carbon atom bonded with four hydrogen atoms). The common denominator in these “problem” gases is carbon. (There are other, non-carbon-based, greenhouse gases, but for simplicity I’m focusing on the most significant ones.)

Carbon exists in many forms: as a solo act like graphite and diamond, and in collaboration with other elements to form more complex molecules, like carbon dioxide and methane. When it’s not floating around the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas, carbon in its many forms is sequestered in a variety of natural reservoirs called a “carbon sink,” where it does nothing to warm the planet.

Oceans are Earth’s largest carbon sink. And since carbon is the fundamental building block of life on Earth, all living organisms, from plants to plankton to people, are carbon sinks as well. The carbon necessary to form greenhouse gases has always fluctuated naturally between the atmosphere and natural sinks like oceans and plants.

For example, a growing tree absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, keeping the carbon and expelling oxygen (another simplification of a very complex process)—a process that stops when the tree dies. As the dead tree decomposes, some of its carbon is returned to the atmosphere as methane, but much of it returns to the land where it is eventually buried beneath sediments. Over tens or hundreds of millions of years, some of that sequestered carbon is transformed by pressure and heat to become coal.

Another important example is oil. For billions of years, Earth’s oceans have been host to simple-but-nevertheless-carbon-based organisms like algae and plankton. When these organisms die they drop to the ocean floor, where they’re eventually buried beneath sediment and other dead organisms. Millions of years of pressure and heat transforms these ancient deposits into…: oil.

Coal and oil (hydrocarbons), as significant long-term carbon sinks, were quite content to lounge in comfortable anonymity as continents drifted, mountains lifted and eroded, and glaciers advanced and retreated. Through all this slow motion activity on its surface, Earth’s temperatures ebbed and flowed and life evolved accordingly.

Enter humans. We have evolved, migrated, and built civilizations based on a relatively stable climate. And since the discovery of fire we humans have burned plants for warmth and food preparation. Burning organic material creates carbon dioxide, thereby releasing sequestered carbon into the atmosphere. Who knew that such a significant advance was the first crack in the climate-change Pandora’s Box?

For thousands of years the demand for fuel was met simply by harvesting dead plants strewn about on the ground and the reintroduction of carbon to the atmosphere was minimal. But as populations expanded and technology advanced, so did humans’ thirst for fuel to burn.

We nearly killed off the whales for their oil before someone figured out that those ancient, subterranean metamorphosed dead plants burn really nicely. With an ample supply of coal and oil and a seemingly boundless opportunity for profit, coal and oil soon became the driving force in the world’s economy. Suddenly, hundreds of millions of years worth of sequestered carbon was being reintroduced to our atmosphere as fast as it could be produced—with a corresponding acceleration in greenhouse gases (remember, when we burn hydrocarbons, we create carbon dioxide).

Compounding the fossil-fuel-as-energy problem is the extreme deforestation taking place throughout the world. Not only does burning millions of forest and jungle acres each year instantly reintroduce sequestered carbon to the atmosphere, it destroys a significant sink for present and future carbon.

Scientists have many ways to confirm humans’ climate change culpability. The most direct is probably the undeniable data showing that for millennia carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere hovered rather steadily around 280 parts per million (ppm). Then, corresponding to the onset of the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century, atmospheric carbon dioxide has risen steadily and today sits somewhere north of 400 ppm, with a bullet.

Humans don’t get a pass on atmospheric methane either. While not nearly as abundant in Earth’s atmosphere as carbon dioxide, methane is an even more powerful greenhouse gas, trapping about 30 times more heat than its more plentiful cousin. Methane is liberated to the atmosphere by a variety of human activities, from the decomposition of waste (sewage and landfill) to agricultural practices that include rice cultivation and bovine digestive exhaust (yes, that would be cow farts).

While the methane cycle is less completely understood than the carbon dioxide cycle, the increase of atmospheric methane also correlates to fossil fuel consumption. Of particular concern (and debate) is the cause of the steeper methane increase since the mid-2000s. Stay tuned while scientists work on that….

Balancing act

For humans, the most essential component of Earth’s habitability is the precarious balance between water’s three primary states: gas (water vapor),  ice, and liquid. Since the dawn of time, water’s varied states have engaged in a complex, self-correcting choreography of land, sea, and air inputs—tweak one climate variable here, and another one over there compensates.

Earth’s climate remains relatively stable until the equilibrium is upset by external input like solar energy change, volcanic eruption, or (heaven forbid) a visit from a rogue asteroid. Unfortunately, humans incremented the list of climate catalysts by one with the onset of the Industrial Revolution, and our thirst for fossil fuels.

As we’re learning firsthand in realtime, even the smallest geospheric tweak can initiate a self-reinforcing chain reaction with potentially catastrophic consequences for humanity’s long-term wellbeing. For example, a warmer planet means a warmer ocean and less ice, which means more liquid water and water vapor. Adding carbon dioxide to water vapor kicks off a feedback loop that magnifies atmospheric heat: More carbon dioxide raises the temperature of the air—>warmer air holds more water vapor—>more water vapor warms the air more—>and so on.

But that’s just the beginning. More liquid water swallows coastlines; increased water vapor means more clouds, precipitation, and warmer temperatures (remember, water vapor is a greenhouse gas). Wind patterns and ocean currents shift, changing global weather patterns. Oh yeah, and ice’s extreme albedo (reflectivity) bounces solar energy back to space, so shrinking our icecaps and glaciers means less solar energy returned to space even more solar energy to warm our atmosphere, which only compounds the problems.

Comparing direct measurements of current conditions to data inferred from tree rings, ice and sediment cores, and many other proven methods, makes it clear that human activity has indeed upset the climate balance: our planet is warming. What we’re still working on is how much we’ve upset it (so far), what’s coming, and where the tipping point is (or whether the tipping point is already in our rearview mirror).

We do know that we’re already experiencing the effects of these changes, though it’s impossible to pinpoint a single hurricane, fire, or flood and say this one wouldn’t have happened without climate change. And contrary to the belief of many, everyone will not be warmer. Some places are getting warmer, others are getting cooler; some are wetter, others are drier. The frequency and intensity of storms is changing, growing seasons are changing, animal habitats are shifting or shrinking, and the list goes on….

We won’t fix the problem by simply adjusting the thermostat, building dikes and levees, and raking forests. Until we actually reduce greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, things will get worse faster than we can adjust. But the first step to fixing a problem is acknowledging we have one.

About this image

Gary Hart Photography: Sun and Smoke, Sierra Foothills, California

Sun and Smoke, Sierra Foothills, California

The Camp Fire had been burning for ten days, devouring Paradise and filling the air in Sacramento with brown smoke so thick that at times not only could we not see the sun, we couldn’t see the end of the block. But on this afternoon, when an orange ball of sun burned through the smoke I donned a mask, grabbed my camera bag, and headed for the hills.

I have a collection of go-to foothill oak trees for sun and moonsets, but most of these trees are too close to my shooting position for the extreme telephoto image I had in mind. Too close because at this kind of focal length, the hyperfocal distance is over a mile. So I made my way to a quiet country road near Plymouth where I thought the trees might just be distant enough to work. But I’m less familiar with this location than many of my others, so I didn’t know exactly how the trees and sun would align. Turning onto the road, I drove slowly, glancing at the sun and trees until they lined up. Because there wasn’t a lot of room to park on either side, I was pleased that the shoulder at the location that worked best was just wide enough for my car.

Envisioning a maximum telephoto shot, I added my Sony 2X teleconverter to my Sony 100-400 GM lens. While my plan was to use my 1.5-crop Sony a6300, when I arrived the sun was high enough that that combination provided too much magnification, so I started with my full frame Sony a7RIII. But soon as the sun dropped to tree level I switched to the a6300 and zoomed as tight as possible.

When I started the sun was still bright enough that capturing its color made the trees complete silhouettes, with no detail or color in the foreground. But as the setting sun sank into increasingly thick smoke, it became redder and redder and my exposure became easier. It always surprises me how fast the sun and moon move relative to the nearby horizon, so found myself running around to different positions to get the right sun and tree juxtaposition as the sun fell. The smoke near the horizon was so thick that it swallowed the sun before it actually set.

Later I plotted my location and the sun’s position on a map and realized that I was pointing right at San Francisco, about 100 miles away, with a large swath of the Bay Area in between. Then I thought about this air that was thick enough to completely obscure the sun, and the millions of people who had been breathing that air for weeks.

I’d be lying if I said I don’t like this image—it’s exactly what I was going for. But I’d be very happy if I never got another opportunity to photograph something like this.

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Where There’s Smoke…

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

The Reason I Do This: Redux

Gary Hart Photography: Three Strikes, Bright Angel Point, Grand CanyonThree Strikes, Lightning and Rainbow from Bright Angel Point, Grand Canyon
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
1/3 second
24-105L
ISO 100
f/11

This week I’m at the Grand Canyon with virtually no connectivity, so I dug up this blog post from one of the most memorable photography experiences of my life.

August 2013

Nature photographers plan, and plan, and plan some more, but no amount of planning can overcome the fickle whims of Mother Nature. Few things are more disappointing than a long anticipated and perfectly executed shoot washed out by conditions beyond my control. But when all of nature’s variables click into place, the world becomes a happy place indeed. And when nature ups the ante by adding something unexpected, euphoria ensues.

Don Smith and I just returned from two weeks photographing the Grand Canyon. We did a little of our own photography on the trip, but the prime focus was our two four-plus day photo workshops, split evenly between the Grand Canyon’s North and South Rims. These workshops were scheduled to give our groups the opportunity to photograph the Grand Canyon, day and night, under the influence of the annual Southwest monsoon: billowing clouds, vivid rainbows, and (especially) lightning. But any workshop requiring specific weather conditions is fraught with uncertainty and anxiety—we were fairly certain the photography would be great (after all, it is the Grand Canyon), but few natural phenomena are more fickle than lightning.

When plotting a workshop schedule (or any landscape photo shoot), the best a photographer can do is maximize the odds: We try to schedule all the non-photography requirements (meals, sleep, travel, training) for the times least likely to conflict with the best photography. For example, we know that because the monsoon thunderstorms usually don’t develop before midday, Grand Canyon summer sunrises often lack the clouds and pristine air necessary for the vivid color photographer’s covet. Therefore our photography emphasis for this workshop is on getting our groups out from mid-morning through (and sometimes after) sunset. That doesn’t mean we blow off sunrise, it just means that the sunrises are generally better for exhausted, sleep-deprived photographers to skip than the sunsets are.

Nevertheless, we rallied the troops at 5 a.m. Friday for our second workshop’s final shoot, a ten minute walk from our rim-side cabins to Bright Angel Point. The forecast was for clear skies, but the workshop had already had so many wonderful shoots, I considered this final one just a little bonus, the cherry atop an already delicious sundae.

My mind was already on the long drive home—in fact, as Don and I exited our cabin in the pre-dawn darkness, I predicted that I wouldn’t even take my camera out of my bag that morning. My words as I turned the doorknob were, “But if I leave my bag here, we’ll probably get lightning and a rainbow.” Little did I know how grateful I’d be to have brought my gear….

What followed was what Don and I later agreed was probably the single most memorable workshop shoot either of us had ever experienced. Gathering in the lobby of Grand Canyon Lodge, we saw lightning flashes across the canyon, but it was impossible to tell in the darkness how far away it was. Hiking to the vista, we saw several distinct bolts stab the rim, and by the time our gear was set up, the show had intensified, delivering numerous violent strikes in multiple directions that illuminated the canyon several times per minute.

The morning’s pyrotechnics continued for over two hours, awing us first in the dark, then through twilight, and finally into and beyond a magenta sunrise. And as if that wasn’t enough, as the sun crested the horizon behind us, a small but vivid fragment of rainbow materialized on the canyon’s rim, hanging there like a target for the lightning to take potshots at it.

This was more than just good photography, this was a once-in-a-lifetime convergence of weather, location, and light that more than made up for the many times nature has disappointed. Rather than bore you with more words, here are a few images from that morning:

Lightning Before Dawn, Bright Angel Point, North Rim, Grand CanyonLightning Before Dawn, Bright Angel Point, North Rim, Grand Canyon
Arriving on the rim about 45 minutes before sunrise, we found the South Rim under full attack. This 30 second exposure captured a pair of strikes near Mojave Point.

 

Three Strikes, Bright Angel Point, North Rim, Grand Canyon

Three Strikes, Bright Angel Point, Grand Canyon
As the sun neared the eastern horizon, I couldn’t help sneaking an occasional peek behind me. Seeing clear skies in the rising sun’s direction, I crossed my fingers for the clouds to hold off long enough to allow the sunlight to illuminate the lightning show before us. As the sun topped the horizon, its rays caught the rain falling along the rim, balancing a nearly vertical section of rainbow atop Powell Point. In this single, 1/3 second exposure, I managed to capture the rainbow briefly sharing the rim with three simultaneous lighting strikes.

 

Lightning and Rainbow, Bright Angel Point, North Rim, Grand CanyonColor and Light, Bright Angel Point, North Rim, Grand Canyon
The rainbow persisted as the lightning continued. Confident that I’d captured enough horizontal frames, I switched to a vertical composition in time to catch one more strike with the rainbow.

 

Incoming Storm, Bright Angel Point, North Rim, Grand CanyonStorm’s Approach, Bright Angel Point, North Rim, Grand Canyon
As the sun rose, the rocks reddened and the storm edged closer. Ridges visible earlier were slowly overtaken by the advancing rain, and long, rolling waves of thunder echoed overhead. Preceding the rain were billowing clouds; here I went with an extreme wide (17mm) vertical composition to capture the incoming storm skewering the rim with by a single bolt. I had to retreat to shelter shortly thereafter.

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A Lightning Gallery

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More Monsoon Magic

Gary Hart Photography: Lightning V, Grand Canyon

Lightning V, Grand Canyon
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 G
1/10 second
F/8
ISO 160

Greetings from the Grand Canyon. It’s pretty hard to post a blog in the middle of a workshop, and downright near impossible when the Internet is down and your cellular carrier has capped your roaming data at 200 megabytes (which I ripped through in 3 days, with only 12 days to go—thank you very much, T-Mobile). But here I am, a day late, with some thoughts on improving your lightning photography and an update on the Grand Canyon monsoon activity so far.

Subtracting one year lost to COVID, this is my eighth year doing at least two monsoon workshops at the Grand Canyon—this year it’s three. In previous years I’ve done these workshops in partnership with my friend and fellow Sony Artisan Don Smith; this year I’m flying solo, grateful for the assistance of my friend (photographer, sensor cleaning guru, and essential lightning tracker) Curt Fargo.

Being solely responsible for the success and wellbeing of a dozen photographers isn’t without its stress. Despite the always breathtaking beauty that comes with the Grand Canyon monsoon, make no mistake about it: people sign up for these workshops for the lightning. And while I make it very clear that enrollment comes with no guarantees, and do my absolute best to prepare everyone well in advance, I still stress until each person in my group has captured at least one bolt.

Many factors contribute to lightning success, but when you measure success by the results of a dozen other people, things get even more complicated. And since we’re in the midst of lightning season for most of the Northern Hemisphere, I thought I’d share my thoughts on maximizing lightning success. In no particular order, here are my essential lightning preparation tips:

  • The right equipment
    • Mirrorless or DSLR camera with minimal shutter lag: Sony is the fastest, followed closely by Nikon; Canon is fast enough. I don’t have enough experience with the other brands to know which work well and which don’t. And new cameras come out so fast, my information isn’t necessarily current, so the other manufacturers could have upped their shutter-lag game (or not). One more thing: it helps to have a camera that goes down to ISO 50 (this often needs to be turned on in the menu).
    • 24-105 (ideal) or 24-70 lens: Since you don’t know exactly where the lighting will land, it’s best to compose a little loose and crop in post, making long telephotos of limited use. And if you find yourself needing to go wider than 24mm, you’re too close (trust me).
    • Lightning sensor: No one is fast enough to consistently capture lighting without a device that detects lightning and triggers the shutter. Period. There are a lot of lightning sensor options, but the only one I’ve seen work reliably, at a range of up to 40 miles, is the Lightning Trigger. (FYI, this name is trademarked, so it’s the only lightning sensor that can legally be called Lightning Trigger.) I recommend Lightning Trigger to all of my workshop students, and always hold my breath when someone shows up with something different. (I get no kick-back or other benefit from this recommendation—it just makes my life much easier when workshop participants use something I know works.)
    • Polarizer or (even better) a 3- to 6-stop neutral density filter: For lightning, sometimes you need a little help getting to a slow enough shutter speed. I use a 6-stop Dark Polarizer from Breakthrough Filters.
    • Sturdy tripod: You’ll be shooting at shutter speeds no faster than 1/15 second. Not only that, there’s a lot of waiting in lightning photography, and your camera must be primed for action at all times, making hand-holding impractical (and downright uncomfortable).
    • Wet weather gear: I rarely get wet photographing lightning because I try not to be in the storm I’m photographing (which is one thing that makes the Grand Canyon, with its distant views, such a great lighting location), but sometimes  I get caught out in the rain.
      • Waterproof hat, parka, pants, shoes
      • Umbrella
      • I haven’t found a rain cover for my camera gear that isn’t more trouble than it’s worth, a problem compounded by having my Lightning Trigger mounted atop my camera. In the rare situation that I decide to stay out in the rain and shoot, I just use my umbrella (AKA, portable lightning rod).
  • Equipment knowledge: When photographing something as fickle and ephemeral as lightning, all the equipment in the world won’t do you much good if you don’t know how to use it without conscious thought.
  • Exposure knowledge: Lightning photography requires very specific shutter speeds that vary with conditions. Not only do you need to get the exposure right, you have to know how to do it in a very specific shutter speed range.
  • Weather/lightning knowledge
    • Learn how to identify the cells will deliver lightning.
    • Recognize the direction the lightning is moving.
    • The faster you can recognize and respond to potential lightning, the better your results will be. If you wait until a strike hits before heading in that direction, you’re asking for disappointment.
  • Weather/lightning resources
    • National Weather Service: There may be other reliable sources, but most use the NWS data. The NWS is far from perfect (like all weather forecasting entities), but it’s more consistently reliable than any other source.
    • Real-time lightning reporting app: This is a huge benefit that allows me to monitor storm and lightning activity, on a scale ranging from macro (national) to micro (local). Many apps offer this service, but the one I use and consider absolutely essential is My Lightning Tracker Pro. (I’m not a tester, so like all of my recommendations, this endorsement is based on personal experience and comparison to other apps I’ve used and observed, not any systematic tests.)
  • Location knowledge
    • Know when the lightning tends to start.
    • Know where the lightning is most likely to strike.
    • Know the best/safest vantage points and how to get to them quickly.
    • Escape routes: Don’t photograph a location without knowing where to retreat when lightning gets too close.

I do my best to fill my groups with all this knowledge and more, before we start. Even though we’ve been been shut out a few times, I’ll take a little credit for the overall success rate—so far my workshop lightning batting average (everyone in the workshop gets at least one strike) is probably somewhere around .700, and in a few workshops some, or even most, had a success.

But really, regardless of the preparation, the biggest factor in capturing lightning in a workshop that was scheduled more than a year in advance, comes down to just plain luck, and like all weather phenomena, lighting is random. But preparation does give you the best possible chance of success if you’re lucky enough to get a chance. And honestly, it’s the unknown that makes chasing lightning so much fun.

Read my complete lightning photography how-to guide in my Photo Tips Lightning article. 

Back to the present

So anyway…

This morning I wrapped up the first of three consecutive Grand Canyon monsoon workshops. To say that we started with a bang would be an understatement. For just the second time since I started doing this, we postponed our 1 p.m. orientation because the lightning started around noon. Fortunately, a couple of days before our start I’d sent an e-mail letting everyone know this was possible, and to show up at the orientation with gear and prepared to hit the ground running. And that’s what we did.

For the workshop’s first two hours, we photographed a very active electrical storm across the canyon from our North Rim perch at Grand Canyon Lodge. By the time we were done, I’d captured 35 frames with lightning, only one person in the group didn’t have at least one lightning strike (most had many more)—the person who showed up with a lightning sensor that wasn’t a Lightning Trigger.

The next day we got our morning shoot and training session in, but the afternoon training session was almost immediately preempted by another crazy lightning storm. This storm started fairly mild, then intensified as it moved much closer and eventually chased us inside. This time everyone captured multiple lightning strikes, which makes me think that one of the things that distinguishes the Lightning Trigger from the other brands is its range. But whatever the reason, I could finally relax.

Of course throughout the workshop we photographed a lot of nice stuff that wasn’t lightning, so by our last night I think everyone was pretty satisfied with their bounty. Which of course didn’t prevent us from being greedy. Departing for our final sunset with low expectations, we were instead treated to maybe the best show of the workshop. This storm wasn’t as prolific as the earlier two, and the lightning was more than 20 miles away, but it happened above some of my favorite Grand Canyon scenery, and was accompanied by a towering thunderhead, beautiful sunset color, and a massive rain curtain to catch the sunset color and light.

I wish I could tell you that I have photographic proof of all this drama to share right now, but I’ve been just a little busy. So I’m sharing the only image from the workshop that I’ve processed so far. This V-shaped pair came toward the end of the first afternoon’s storm, and while I’m always happy to get multiple lighting bolts in one frame, I’m pretty sure I ended up with captures I like even better. But we’ll just have to wait…

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Grand Canyon Monsoon Lightning Success

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Everyone’s a Photographer Until…

Gary Hart Photography: Limestone Cascades, Little Colorado River, Grand Canyon

Limestone Cascades, Little Colorado River, Grand Canyon
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 G
4 seconds
F/16
ISO 100

I have a T-shirt that says, “Everyone’s a photographer until…,” above a picture of a camera exposure-mode dial set to Manual. In my mind, this is one of those declarations that’s as true as it is funny (if you don’t see the humor, you’re probably not a photographer anyway).

I write this with no very little judgement or condescension. Photography needs to make you happy, and if having to think about shutter speeds, f-stops, and ISO saps your joy, then set your camera’s dial to Auto and have a blast. And my goal isn’t to shame auto-shooters, it’s just to point out (again) that photography’s greatest opportunity for creativity comes with mastery of your scene’s “creative triad”: motion, light, and depth. And you can’t master the creative triad without mastering the exposure variables: shutter speed, ISO, and f/stop. Period.

Though it’s quite possible to get fantastic pictures in full automatic exposure mode by simply framing up a composition and clicking, composition is only one of the variables that combine to make a successful image (see “creative triad” above). And composition happens to be the variable that’s easiest to master competently. So I’m afraid if you want to distinguish yourself as a photographer, you really need to bite the bullet and master exposure.

What IS exposure mastery?

It’s important to understand that the correct exposure for most images requires some level of compromise—a shutter speed, f-stop, or ISO that’s less than ideal. (Especially true if you’re not using a tripod—fortunately landscape photography is particularly suited to tripod use.) For example, achieving a shutter speed fast enough to freeze flowing water might require a less than ideal f-stop or ISO.

Exposure mastery means being able to achieve your desired motion, light, and depth with the absolute minimum exposure compromise. It also means knowing when your creative goal isn’t possible—for example, when there’s no usable exposure combination that will get both a foreground and background subject sharp, or blur a water feature (while still getting the light right).

(For the record, even though I’m a fulltime Manual shooter, Aperture/Shutter Priority shooters who do it the right way qualify as Manual shooters in my book because they are making decisions about all of their exposure variables. What’s the “right way”? Setting the shutter speed or f-stop based on what their creative vision calls for, and knowing how to manage exposure compensation to get the exposure right.)

The good news is, you don’t need to use Manual metering (or Aperture/Shutter Priority) all the time. But you really should know how to use it, and be able to identify when it does and doesn’t matter. Fortunately, it isn’t as difficult as most people fear.

Rather than reinvent the wheel, here’s my Photo Tips article on Digital Metering.

About this image

Exploring the bank of the Little Colorado River during this year’s Grand Canyon raft trip, I hunted compositions and waited for the late afternoon shade to arrive. One feature I especially wanted to highlight was the linear limestone shelves that formed long, stair-step ledges. After a little searching, I found the cascade in this image  just upstream from where most in the group had gathered to swim and photograph.

Lacking an obvious foreground anchor, I settled for a small, c-shaped cascade, and lowered my tripod to within a couple of feet to exaggerate the feature’s prominence. When the shade finally arrived, the dynamic range instantly became a non-factor for my Sony a7RIV, making the light part of my exposure decision pretty straightforward.

The motion and depth part of the equation, however, were a different story. The churning cascades created random splashes that I knew would distracting in a still image, so I chose to eliminate them with a long shutter speed to smooth the water. Even though I was now in full shade, there was too much light to achieve enough motion blur without the help of a neutral density filter, so I added my Breakthrough 6-stop dark polarizer to my Sony 24-105 f/4 G lens. This also allowed me to polarize distracting sheen on the rocks and water’s surface.

I also really wanted front-to-back sharpness, far from a sure thing with a foreground so close and background so distant (an f-stop decision I’d never trust to one of the auto exposure modes). After consulting my hyperfocal app, I stopped down to f/16, focused on the cascade just behind the nearby rock protrusion, pushed my shutter speed until my pre-capture histogram looked right (4 seconds), and clicked.


Managing Motion, Light, and Depth

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Ion the Prize

Gary Hart Photography: Comet NEOWISE With Ion Tail, Taft Point, Yosemite

Comet NEOWISE With Ion Tail, Taft Point, Yosemite
Sony a7RIV
Sony 100-400 GM
6 seconds
F/5
ISO 12800

Comets were once harbingers of doom, so it’s likely that in times past the appearance of a bright comet coincident with a worldwide pandemic would have stoked great fear. Instead, (thanks to knowledge gained through centuries of scientific discovery) Comet NEOWISE infused a kernel of joy into an otherwise bleak year.

Spurred by the first NEOWISE anniversary earlier this month, over the previous week or two I revisited the images from last July’s four NEOWISE shoots (two in Yosemite, two at Grand Canyon) to see if I’d overlooked anything. It was great to mentally revisit those nights, which were each in their own way among the most memorable night sky experiences of my life:

On my search I found many process-worthy images, but most were fairly similar to what I already had. One exception is the image I share here. Rather than casting the magnificent comet in a costarring role with landscape and/or celestial icons (Half Dome, El Capitan, Grand Canyon, Big Dipper, Venus), NEOWISE is the one and only star of this image. And more than my other NEOWISE images, what sets this one apart is the spectacular ion tail.

Of my four NEOWISE shoots, the comet was probably at its most striking for my two in Yosemite—each for a different reason. My first NEOWISE experience came during a pre-sunrise visit to Glacier Point that coincided with the comet’s peak visibility.

While it had brightened to somewhere between magnitude 0 and 1 (the lower the magnitude, the brighter) shortly after its July 3 perihelion (closest approach to the sun), NEOWISE was too close to the sun to stand out in the against the brightening sky. But by the time of my Yosemite trip on July 10, NEOWISE had climbed out of the sun’s glow, while still shining in the magnitude 1 to 2 range—somewhere between the brightness of Spica and Polaris—making it easily the most prominent object in that part of the sky.

Six days later I returned to Yosemite, this time taking the one mile hike out to Taft Point to photograph NEOWISE above El Capitan after sunset. When the sky darkened, NEOWISE was clearly visible to the naked eye, but noticeably dimmer. But what made this night’s show special was the development of a spectacular ion tail. Faintly visible to the unaided eye, this new addition was a thing of beauty in my viewfinder and images.

I digress

I’m going to digress briefly to mention an important aspect of my photography that I’m not sure everyone shares. In the simplest possible terms, I can’t imagine photographing subjects—celestial, terrestrial, atmospheric—that I don’t understand. Rather than a personal “rule,” this need to understand my subjects is so ingrained in my personality that I didn’t fully appreciate its significance until recently.

My proclivity manifests in many ways, from obsessively buying geology books on every new location, to pouring over scientific articles explaining an obscure cloud formation, to mentally running orbital geometry in my head as I go to sleep (really). And sometimes understanding is the catalyst, inspiring me to pursue with my camera subjects that have fascinated me for years: lightning, solar eclipse, the aurora. (Still dreaming about that first tornado.)

My own internal connection between visual beauty and the natural phenomena that beauty represents probably explains why my blog is such an integral part of my photography. While I can capture nature’s visual gifts with my camera, I need my blog to connect it to the underlying processes. Another, no less important, component of blogging about my subjects is that researching and writing it often becomes as much of a learning experience for me as it is for my readers. (So thank you.)

But anyway…

If you follow me at all, you know my love of astronomy in general, and of comets in particular. So when I saw NEOWISE’s ion tail, I knew what it was, but wanted to more completely understand things like why a comet’s ion tail is always separated from its brighter dust tail, and why the ion tail appears blue in my images (is this real, a color temperature thing, or maybe some color artifact introduced in-camera?).

At risk of repeating myself, a comet is a lump of dust and ice in an extreme elliptical (it’ll be back) or parabolic (one-and-done) orbit of the sun. Most of the comet’s journey is pretty ordinary, but as it approaches the sun, things start to happen—its speed increases, and the sun’s heat starts melting the ice, freeing gas and dust molecules to form a fuzzy coma surrounding the frozen nucleus.

As the comet accelerates toward the sun, the temperature continues rising and the rate of liberated molecules increases. The mass and momentum of the comet’s nucleus allows it to continue on its orbital path, but the freed dust molecules, now under the influence of the solar wind, are nudged back, away from the sun: a tail is born.

Over time this dust tail grows and spreads, becoming the signature feature of most comets. Like most of the comet, the dust tail doesn’t create its own light, but rather is illuminated solely reflected sunlight. Varying somewhat with the composition of its molecules, the dust tail will appear yellow-white to our eyes.

But I’ve saved the best for last. Gas molecules shed by the comet’s nucleus, being lighter than dust molecules, are whisked straight back by the solar wind. Instead of fanning out like the dust tail, these gas molecules form a narrow ion tail that points directly away from the sun. Some of these gas molecules are ionized (stripped of an electron). Unlike the dust tail that shines by reflected light, the ion tail shines by fluorescence, taking on a blue color courtesy of the predominant CO (carbon monoxide) ion.

Of course there’s a time for pondering the marvels of nature, and a time for simply basking in its beauty. So as I was photographing this scene, I wasn’t thinking about all the physics and chemistry unfolding before me, I was focused on capturing the product of the underlying processes (the comet) and its relationship with the surrounding landscape. On this night most of my images were variations of NEOWISE with El Capitan and/or the nearby Big Dipper. But I’m glad I took the time to include a few frames that put this magnificent comet itself front-and-center.

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A Comet NEOWISE Retrospective

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It’s Not an Etch a Sketch

Gary Hart Photography: Grand Morning, Yavapai Point, Grand Canyon

Grand Morning, Yavapai Point, Grand Canyon
Sony a6300
Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f4
.6 seconds
F/10
ISO 200

Who remembers the Etch A Sketch? For those who didn’t have a childhood, an Etch A Sketch is a mechanical drawing device that’s erased by turning it upside-down and shaking vigorously. 

One of the great misconceptions among photographers (and who isn’t a photographer these days?) is that the tripod’s sole value is to eliminate camera shake. I bring this up because I frequently hear photographers brag that they rarely use a tripod anymore because image stabilization is so good—and anyway, even when stabilization won’t be enough to prevent camera shake, they can just increase the ISO.

But before you throw out your tripod, consider that digital capture has given it a new lease on life. Unlike film cameras, a digital camera gives lets us instantly review each image to check the composition, exposure, and sharpness. Photographing on a tripod, when I find something that requires fixing, rather than attempting to recreate the shot, I can refine the composition I just evaluated. Let me explain.

When I come across a scene that I deem photo-worthy, I treat my first click like a rough draft, the first step toward the final image. I stand back with my capture displayed on my LCD, critique my effort, refine it, then click again. I repeat this process until I’m satisfied. In other words, each frame becomes an improvement of the preceding frame.

Taking this approach without a tripod, I feel like I’m erasing an Etch A Sketch after each click. That’s because after each click, I have to drop the camera from my eye and extend it in front of me to review the image, essentially wiping clean my previous composition. Before I can make the inevitable adjustments to my most recent capture, I must return the camera to my eye and completely recreate the composition I just evaluated.

Before I continue, let me just acknowledge that there are indeed many valid reasons to not use a tripod. For example, you get a tripod pass if your subject is in motion (sports, wildlife, kids, etc.), you photograph events or in venues that don’t allow tripods, you have physical challenges prevent you from carrying a tripod, or even if you just plain don’t want to (first and foremost, photography has to make you happy!). But if you’re a landscape shooter who wants the best possible images, Because now I can get a sharp enough image hand-holding” is not a valid reason for jettisoning the tripod.

For example

A few years ago I was at the Grand Canyon, looking for a scene to try out my new (just released) Sony a6300 camera. My first morning started at Mather Point about 45 minutes before sunrise, but as I often do at Mather, I took the trail along the rim to Yavapai Point (about a mile), ending up at a tree I’d been eyeing for years.

On all previous attempts at this tree, something had foiled me: either the light was wrong, the sky was boring, or there were too many people. One sunrise a few years prior, I found the tree and canyon bathed in beautiful warm light, and the sky filled with dramatic, billowing clouds—perfect, except for the young couple dangling their legs over the edge and making goo-goo eyes beneath “my” tree. They looked so content, I just didn’t have the heart to shove them over the edge (I know, I know, you don’t have to say it—I’m a saint).

But this morning, everything finally aligned for me: nice clouds, beautiful sunrise color, and not a soul in sight. I went to work immediately, trying compositions, evaluating, refining—well, you know the drill. As I worked, I started honing in on the proper balance of foreground and sky, alignment of the tree with the background, depth of field, focus point, framing—I was in the zone.

When I thought I had everything exactly right, I stood back for a final critique and realized I’d missed one thing: The tree intersected the horizon. While not a deal-breaker, it’s something I try to avoid whenever possible. To fix the problem, my camera needed to be about eight inches higher. I made the small refinement, so when the color reached its crescendo a few minutes later, my composition was ready.

Raising the camera would have been no simple task if I’d been hand-holding, but (since my Really Right Stuff TVC-24L tripod, with head and camera, elevates to about six inches above my head) it was no problem with my tripod. But the extra tripod height was just a bonus. The true moral of this story, the thing that so perfectly illustrates the tripod’s value, is that there is no way I’d have gotten all the moving parts just right with a hand-held point-and-click approach.

Of course your results may vary, and as I say, photography must must make you happy. So if using a tripod truly saps the joy from your photography, by all means leave it home (and enjoy your $3,000 Etch A Sketch). But if your photography pleasure comes from getting the absolute best possible images, the tripod is your friend.


A Grand Canyon Gallery

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The Rest of the Story

Gary Hart Photography: Dark Night, Milky Way Reflection, Grand Canyon

Dark Night, Milky Way Reflection, Grand Canyon
Sony a7SIII
Sony 20mm f/1.8 G
ISO 12800
f/1.8
20 seconds

Last week I posted a Milky Way reflection image (and the story of its capture) from my recent Grand Canyon raft trip, and this week I’m sharing another one from the same night. What I didn’t share last week is the rather circuitous (and somewhat embarrassing) path to offering my images from that night. So here goes…

There’s a certain mystique that comes with being a professional photographer that I must say isn’t always completely deserved. I mean, sometimes it feels we’re viewed as creative savants who never make mistakes, when in reality we struggle to make things happen just like everyone else. Like you, I’ve checked my EXIF data and wondered what in the world I was thinking when I chose f/16 or ISO 800 (or whatever), left a shoot just a little early or arrived a little late, decided not to bring (or simply forgotten to pack) the right lens, not charged a battery (or brought a spare), clumsily dropped a valuable piece of precision electronics, deleted important images, or…, well, let’s just say I could go on.

Case in point: As I’ve said as recently as last week, the Milky Way may just be my favorite thing to photography on my Grand Canyon raft trip. So important in fact, that I always spend a significant amount of the trip’s precious (and strictly enforced) equipment-weight budget on a camera body and lens that will be used for nothing but the Milky Way. But one year unseasonal rain and clouds that provided spectacular photography also unfortunately completely wiped out the trip’s night shoots. Which is why I didn’t discover until returning home that instead of packing the 20mm f/1.4 dedicated night lens (at the time), I’d packed my 90mm macro (which was a similar size but didn’t really look anything like the 20mm).

In my defense, I try not to make the same mistake twice, and every subsequent trip I’ve double- and triple-checked my gear to make sure I have everything I’ll need. This year’s night setup was my brand new Sony a7SIII and relatively new Sony 20mm f/1.8 G lens, and I’m happy to report that both made it onboard and downstream, and were ready for action when we scored a prime Milky Way campsite on the trip’s third night. In fact, I managed to navigate the entire shoot that night with the right camera and lens, proper camera settings, everything in focus, plenty of space on the SD card, and without dropping a single thing. What could possibly go wrong?

The next day I was pretty excited about what I’d captured, and couldn’t wait to get home and look the images on my computer. That afternoon was hot, and we arrived at our campsite early. With the sun still quite high as we prepared to motor across the river for some quality photography, swimming, and hiking at Deer Creek Fall, out of an abundance of caution, I removed from my duffle the small case containing my a7SIII and 20mm, carefully setting it in the cool shade of a nearby rock. Do you see where this is going?

Like most mornings, the next morning was a blur of activity as we ate breakfast, packed up our campsite, and hit the river. At Havasu Creek, about 30 miles downstream, I had the sudden realization that I had no memory of returning the camera and lens to my duffle, a thought that I quickly attributed to what I call the “garage door axiom”: just because you don’t remember doing something, doesn’t mean you didn’t do it (how many times have you not remembered closing the garage door and u-turned home only to find it closed tight?). Which is why I wasn’t really that concerned at camp that night, but I figured I’d better check my duffle anyway, just in case.

I was instantly reminded that no matter how many times you check a spot for something that you know should be there but isn’t, doesn’t make it appear. My panic eventually turned to embarrassment as my mind processed the ramifications. Not only were my camera and lens gone, so were the SD cards containing the only copies of the previous night’s bounty. The Colorado River is a one-way juggernaut, so going back was not an option. And with no connectivity at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, there would be no getting the word out until we returned to civilization.

I tried consoling myself with the knowledge that the camera and lens were insured, but the rationalization the Milky Way images were the only irreplaceable loss was little comfort. And that certainly didn’t make me feel any less stupid. It gets worse…

The first thing I did upon returning to the land of connectivity was report the loss to Trent at Western River Expeditions, the director of operations who puts together my charter each year. The second thing I did was gather the information necessary to file an insurance claim. So imagine my surprise when I realized that I’d somehow forgotten to add my new a7SIII to my insurance policy. Oops.

At first Trent was hopeful that some Good Samaritan would find my gear and do the right thing, but when two weeks passed with no word, my faith in humankind started to wane. But just about the time I’d given up all hope, I got a text from Trent saying that someone had just exited the canyon and posted online that he’d found a camera across from Deer Creek Fall and was trying to find the rightful owner. The next few days were a blur of online searching, messaging, effusive gratitude, shipping, tracking, and finally more effusive gratitude when I actually had my camera, lens, and SD cards in my possession.

I don’t know if there’s a real moral to this story, other than it’s nice to be reminded that humans are generally good and most people will do the right thing when the opportunity presents itself. That, and I’m a pretty lucky guy.

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Grand Canyon from the Bottom Up

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Grand Canyon Milky Way Reflection

Gary Hart Photography: Milky Way Reflection, Colorado River, Grand Canyon

Milky Way Reflection, Colorado River, Grand Canyon
Sony a7SIII
Sony 20mm f/1.8 G
ISO 6400
f/1.8
30 seconds

It seems that photographing the Milky Way gets a little easier with every passing year. I’m not talking about the dazzling composite hybrids (one frame for the sky, combined with a second frame for the foreground) that have become so popular, I’m talking about the old fashioned (well, as old fashioned as a digital image can be) single-click captures that use only the photons that strike a sensor during a single exposure.

Whether it’s a new low-light camera body, the latest ultra-fast wide lens, or breakthrough noise reduction software, there’s always something to new to look forward to on any of my workshops that include the Milky Way. 2020 was a lost year, so not only was I especially looking forward to returning to my go-to dark sky spots, I was really looking forward to trying out two years of technology advancement: my new Sony a7SIII, (relatively) new Sony 20mm f/1.8 G (the 14mm f/1.8 GM lens didn’t make it in time), and applying my new Topaz DeNoise AI software to the results.

My first Milky Way opportunity of 2021 came on Grand Canyon raft trip in May. On moonless nights the Grand Canyon has some of the darkest skies possible, but towering walls and the general east-west trend of the Colorado River make it tricky to find views of the southern horizon where the Milky Way’s brilliant core is found. And since all Colorado River campsites are first come, first served, and campsites with a Milky Way view are rare, viewing the Milky Way at the bottom of the Grand Canyon is far from a sure thing.

This was the seventh time I’ve done this trip, so my lead river guide and I have become pretty good at maximizing our Milky Way opportunities. Nevertheless, on this trip we didn’t get a campsite that worked until our fourth night. It was actually our second choice for that night, but when we found the site we’d originally targeted occupied, we ended up at our Plan B spot about a mile downstream.

My first thought was that a less than ideal angle of view meant the Milky Way wouldn’t appear until after 1 a.m., and wouldn’t rotate into the prime viewing region above the canyon until after 2 a.m. But after I scoping out the view while waiting for dinner, I found a couple of reasons to like our location. First was the spacious beach that provided room for everyone to set up without jostling for position, a real luxury compared to most of the campsites. The second that gave me hope was that our beach was on a bend in the river that created a large pool of still, reflective water—if the wind held off (never a sure thing), we could have some pretty nice reflections.

After dinner I gave everyone in the group a little orientation, letting them know where to set up, and when and where the Milky Way would appear. I also encouraged them to pre-compose and pre-focus before it got dark. (One of the great things about night photography at the Grand Canyon is that you can set up your shot in advance and leave your camera set up on the tripod without worrying about it “walking away.”)

When I got up at 1 a.m. the Milky Way was cresting the canyon wall on the left, and a few others were already happily clicking away. The air was still, so the reflection was everything I’d hoped it would be.

My early frames were horizontal, but as the Milky Way rotated upward, I started to mix in more vertical frames. Night photography is all about compromise: choosing less than ideal exposure values to capture enough light to bring out the stars and even a little foreground detail. As I do with most of my Milky Way images, before moving on to my next composition I tried a variety of exposure settings, varying the ISO between 6400 to 12800, shutter speeds from 10 to 30 seconds, and f-stops from f/1.8 to f/2.8.

Milky Way nights are so dark that sometimes I go for silhouettes. Silhouettes require less light, but also need a distinctive outline against the sky. I didn’t think silhouettes here were very good, so I exposed for more light to pull out foreground detail. For this image I used ISO 6400, f/1.8, 30 seconds, deciding that ISO 6400 gave me the most manageable noise, and my Sony 20mm f/1.8 G lens is good enough wide open that I really don’t need to stop-down. And given the amount of foreground detail I wanted, I preferred the slight star motion of a 30-second exposure to the extra noise ISO 12800 and 15 seconds gave me. (But this is a personal choice—if even extremely slight star motion bothers you, you might be okay with a little more noise to reduce it.)

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Here’s an updated version of the Milky Way how-to article in my Photo Tips section


a7SES2015Oct_DSC0924BristleconeMilkyWay_screensaver

Bristlecone Night, Milky Way from the White Mountains, California
Sony a7S
Rokinon 24mm f1.4
15 seconds
F/2
ISO 6400

See the Milky Way

Look heavenward on a moonless summer night (in the Northern Hemisphere) far from city light. The first thing to strike you is the shear volume of stars, but as your eyes adjust, your gaze is drawn to a luminous band spanning the heavens. Ranging from magnificently brilliant to faintly visible, this is the Milky Way, home to our sun and nearly a half trillion other stars of varying age, size, and temperature.

Size and shape

Though every star you’ve ever seen is part of our Milky Way galaxy, stargazers use the Milky Way label more specifically to identify this luminous river of starlight, gas, and dust encircling the night sky. As you feast your eyes, appreciate that some of the Milky Way’s starlight has traveled 25,000 years to reach your eyes, and that light from a star on one edge of the Milky Way would take 100,000 years to reach the other side.

Spiral Galaxy (Milky look-alike): This is what our galaxy would look like from above.

Milky Way look-alike spiral galaxy: This is what our galaxy would look like from the outside, looking in. (The individual stars visible here are “local” and not part of the spiral galaxy depicted here.) Earth would be between two of the spiral arms, about halfway out from the center.

The rest of the sky appears to be filled with far more discrete stars than the region containing the Milky Way, but don’t let this deceive you. Imagine that you’re out in the countryside where the individual lights of a distant city blend into a homogeneous glow—similarly, the stars in the Milky Way’s luminous band are simply too numerous and distant to resolve individually. On the other hand, much like the lights of nearby farmhouses, the distinct pinpoints of starlight that we name and mentally assemble into constellations are simply closer. The dark patches in the Milky Way aren’t empty space, they’re starlight-blocking interstellar dust and gas, remnants of exploded stars and the stuff of future stars—like the trees and mountains that block our view of the city,.

Just as it’s impossible to know what your house looks like by peering out a window, it’s impossible to know what the Milky Way looks like by simply looking up on a dark night. Fortunate for us, really smart people have been able to infer from painstaking observation, measurement, reconstruction, and comparison with other galaxies that our Milky Way is flat (much wider than it is tall) and spiral shaped, like a glowing pinwheel, with two major arms and several minor arms spiraling out from its center. Our solar system is in one of the Milky Way’s minor arms, a little past midway between the center and outer edge.

Blinded by the light

Sadly, artificial light and atmospheric pollution have erased the view of the Milky Way for nearly a third of the world’s population—eighty percent of Americans. Worse still, even though some part of the Milky Way is overhead on every clear night, many people have never seen it.

The good news is that advances in digital technology have spurred a night photography renaissance that has enabled the Milky Way challenged to enjoy images of its splendor from the comfort of their recliner. But there’s nothing quite like viewing it in person. Fortunately, with just a little knowledge and effort, you too can enjoy the Milky Way firsthand; add the right equipment and a little more knowledge, and you’ll be able to photograph it as well.

Horizon to Horizon

Understanding that our Solar System is inside the Milky Way’s disk makes it easier to understand why we can see some portion of the Milky Way on any night (assuming the sky is dark enough). In fact, from our perspective, the plane of the Milky Way forms a complete ring around Earth (but of course we can only see half the sky at any given time), with its brightness varying depending on whether we’re looking toward our galaxy’s dense center or sparse outer region.

Where the action is

Milky Way and Halemaʻumaʻu Crater, Kilauea, Hawaii

The Milky Way’s brilliant center, its “galactic core,” radiates above Kilauea on Hawaii’s Big Island

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):

  • Aquila
  • Ara
  • Auriga—faintest
  • Canis Major—faint
  • Carina
  • Cassiopeia—faint; its easily recognized “w” (or “m”) shape makes Cassiopeia a good landmark for locating the Milky Way in the northern sky
  • Cepheus
  • Circinus
  • Crux
  • Cygnus—bright
  • Gemini
  • Lacerta
  • Lupus
  • Monoceros
  • Musca
  • Norma
  • Ophiuchus
  • Orion—faint; another easy to recognize constellation that’s good for finding the galactic plane
  • Perseus—faint
  • Puppis
  • Pyxis
  • Sagitta
  • Sagittarius—brightest, galactic core
  • Scorpius—bright
  • Scutum
  • Serpens
  • Taurus—faint
  • Triangulum
  • Vela
  • Vulpecula
* 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

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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.

Equipment

Bottom line, photographing the Milky Way is all about maximizing your ability to collect light: long exposures, fast lenses, high ISO.

Camera

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.)

Lens

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.

Tripod

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.

Other stuff

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.

Composition

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.

Focus

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.

Exposure

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.

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A Milky Way Gallery

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

 

Expect the Unexpected

Gary Hart Photography: High Sierra Nightfall, Crescent Moon and Venus, Yosemite

High Sierra Nightfall, Crescent Moon and Venus, Yosemite
Sony a7RIV
Sony 100-400 GM
1/2 second
F/16
ISO 400

With so many natural variables beyond our control, and no matter how creatively we visualize, thoroughly we plan, and precisely we execute, landscape photographers go into every shoot uncertain of success. But making consistently successful images depends not only on our ability to visualize, plan, and execute, but also on our ability to recognize and respond to unexpected opportunities.

The truth is, your creativity’s greatest limitation is probably your own biases. Put in more practical terms, don’t allow yourself to be swayed by preconceived notions of what “the shot” is, what equipment you’ll need, and whether the opportunities are exhausted.

We cover this kind of stuff in my workshops, where one of my most frequently asked questions is, what lens should I bring? I’ve been doing this long enough to know that the underlying essence of this question is, what lens can I leave behind? And since it’s a photography truism that the lens you need is the one you left at home, I’m usually reluctant to give an absolute answer. In fact, I usually encourage people to bring all they can carry.

A couple of weeks ago my brother Jay and I made a quick trip to Olmsted Point in Yosemite to photograph the Milky Way. I’d chosen Olmsted because I think it’s the best easily accessible (with a car) place to photograph Half Dome with the Milky Way; I chose this night because clear skies were forecast, and a brand new moon meant the darkest possible sky. Though I knew a small sliver of one-percent moon would be visible for an hour or so after sunset, as soon as I realized the moon would be nowhere near Half Dome, I didn’t give it another thought—this trip was all about the Milky Way and Half Dome. Period. Nevertheless, I packed all my gear because…. Well, why not?

I’m afraid that for me, “all I can carry” requires at least two camera bags, which of course isn’t usually practical when flying, given the space and weight constraints. But when I drive to a location from home, I forgo the Sophie’s Choice equipment decisions and just pack everything. Everything. Which is why, for a trip on which I’d only planned to use my Sony a7SIII and (brand new!) Sony 14mm f/1.8 GM lens, the back of my Outback contained (among many other things) my Sony a7RIV and Sony 100-400 GM.

The other part of being prepared is to no be so locked onto your objective that you fail to recognize other opportunities. This is a problem I’m frequently reminded of in my workshop image review sessions, when everyone shares one of their images from the workshop for my feedback. We’re all going to the same locations at the same time, but it’s a rare session that at least one person doesn’t share something that causes others, myself included, to exclaim, “Wow, I didn’t see that!” The lesson here is, the instant you think you know “the” shot is the instant your creative door slams shut.

This lesson also applies to the belief that the show is over, or that the show isn’t going to happen. Some of my most unforgettable photography experiences have happened because I stayed just a little longer after it seemed pretty obvious that Mother Nature was done, or decided to go out when there was every indication that nothing was going to happen.

We pulled into Olmsted Point a little after sunset. Job-one was changing out of my Sacramento-summer T-shirt and shorts, and into my High-Sierra-night long-johns, flannel-lined jeans, wool shirt, and down jacket. But while changing, I couldn’t keep my eyes off the wisp of crescent moon setting behind a granite ridge far north of the scene I’d come to photograph. And joining the moon on its journey to the horizon was Venus, a visual bonus I hadn’t anticipated.

Sufficiently fortified against the elements and unable to take my mind off the moon and Venus, I discarded my plan to make the 1/4 mile hike up to Olmsted Point before the darkness was complete (rationalizing that I could probably do this hike blindfolded anyway). Standing at the car I mentally framed a shot, then extracted my tripod, a7RIV, and 100-400. While setting up in the parking lot would have worked, I decided to scramble up the adjacent granite slope for an elevated vantage point that reduced some of the foreground clutter.

It was pretty dark by the time I was in position and had everything assembled, but since I was only interested in creating silhouetted shapes to go with the moon, the darkness wasn’t a big problem. I shot until the moon dropped out of sight. Because I had to move around a bit to adjust the relationships between the trees and the descending moon and Venus, I only managed nine frames before the moon was gone

The Milky Way delivered as expected, but I found extra pleasure thinking about this moon shoot that kicked off the night and delivered something as satisfying as it was unexpected.

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A Gallery of the Unexpected

Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.

Sleep is Overrated

Gary Hart Photography: Summer Night, Milky Way Over Yosemite, Olmsted Point

Summer Night, Milky Way Over Yosemite, Olmsted Point
Sony a7SIII
Sony 14mm f/1.8 GM
ISO 8000
f/1.8
15 seconds

It’s a Saturday afternoon (Sunday evening by the time you read this) and I’m working on less than 4 hours sleep. I’m not complaining, but before I pass out, I want to share the story of my latest shoot, and the reason I’m so sleep deprived.

If you follow my blog, you might know that in April Don Smith and I got an unexpected opportunity to preview Sony’s brand new 14mm f/1.8 GM lens in Oregon, before its announcement a week or so later. (Read more here.) But that experience was just a tease, because just as I started to fully appreciate the new lens’s potential for night photography (and other stuff, but I’m especially excited by night photography), we had to send it back.

When I finally got my own copy of the lens early this month, I couldn’t wait to try it out on the Milky Way (which wasn’t possible in Oregon because of the direction the Bandon views faced, and a waning moon). June is primetime for Milky Way photography because the brilliant galactic core is up all night—all you need is a dark sky far from city lights, and without the moon.

With a waxing moon invading the sky starting this week, the June dark sky window was quickly closing when I accepted an invitation to join a couple of photographer friends on their night photography trip to Joshua Tree NP this weekend. Then, just two days before we were supposed to leave, my friends decided to go to Denmark instead (a likely story—who else remembers the “Friends” episode where Chandler ditched Janice by telling her he was going to Yemen? Oh. My. God.), leaving me to fend for myself.

I could have stuck with the Joshua Tree plan, but a solo, 16+ hour roundtrip to spend a couple of nights photographing a spot I don’t really know didn’t sound like the best use of my time. Instead, I decided to recruit my brother Jay for a quick trip to more familiar environs.

Yosemite Valley’s towering walls and east/west orientation make it less than ideal for Milky Way photography. And while Yosemite’s high country has potential, accessibility (no roads, backcountry permit requirements) make it next to impossible for a last-minute trip. But…, at 8000 feet, Olmsted Point certainly qualifies as Yosemite high country. And because it’s right on Tioga Road (Highway 120), no backcountry permit is required. There’s still the problem of this summer’s COVID-induced Yosemite reservation system, but photo workshop permit gives me an exemption from (I do still have to get approval first).

Another nice thing about Olmsted Point is that it offers a view of Half Dome that’s quite a bit different than what we’re used to seeing from Yosemite Valley. While the Yosemite Valley views of Half Dome face east, from Olmsted Point Half Dome rises in the southwest, at the end of Tenaya Canyon.

Jay and I pulled into the Olmsted Point parking area at about 8:30 Friday night. The sun had just set, but we still had at least an hour until the sky darkened enough for the Milky Way to appear. With time to kill, after bundling into my cold weather clothes and organizing my gear, I twisted my Sony 100-400 onto my Sony a7RIV and scaled a nearby granite ridge to photograph the thin sliver of new moon disappearing in the west. An impromptu bonus that set the tone for the night.

We made the 5-minute walk out to Olmsted Point’s granite dome at around 9 p.m. I’ve been up here more times than I can count, so even in the dwindling light I was able to quickly identify the scene I wanted to start with, set up my camera (Sony a7SIII and Sony 14mm f/1.8 GM), and frame up a composition. Then I just kicked back on the granite and watched the stars pop out.

Viewed from the Northern Hemisphere, in June the Milky Way’s core rises nearly horizontal in the southeast sky shortly after sunset. As our planetary viewing platform rotates, the glowing core appears to pivot on an unseen point below the south-southwest horizon, moving up and southward (to the right) until it stands vertical in the southwest. The northern hemisphere nights are so short in June that the Milky Way fades from view before setting.

By 9:30 we could see the Milky Way peeking just above the granite ridge that leads to Clouds Rest. It was well east of Half Dome, so for these early frames I was very thankful to have a 14mm lens that allowed me to include the Milky Way in the same frame as Half Dome. I spent those early moments tweaking my exposure, refining my composition, and verifying that my focus was good.

Once I’d gotten everything just as I wanted it, I told myself that there was no reason to rush because with each passing minute, the Milky Way was a little higher in the sky and closer to Half Dome—that meant every click I took would be just a little better than the one preceding it. So after the initial exhilaration passed, I just sat on a nearby rock and appreciated the view. Few things are more humbling than reclining beneath a dark sky on a still night (especially when you’re sufficiently bundled against the high elevation chill).

We stayed until nearly 1:00 a.m. As I photographed (and gazed), I kept mentally pushing back our planned departure time, mentally subtracting hours of sleep by rationalizing that sometimes sleep is overrated. This was definitely one of those times.


A few words about my night photography

All of the night scenes you see on my website, in my blog, or anywhere else my images appear, were captured with one click. I don’t blend, composite, or in any other way combine multiple captures to create a single image. I’m not saying I think there’s anything wrong with blending images (there isn’t)—I just don’t get any pleasure from that kind of photography. So, while my night images may not look as dazzling as some of the other (truly beautiful) night composites being created today, you can at least be confident that you’re looking only at the photons that struck my sensor in one contiguous span of time.


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A Night Sky Gallery

Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.

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