Posted on August 18, 2019
So lately I’ve been thinking about the things I photograph and why I photograph them. Then the other day, after boarding a plane following my recent Grand Canyon monsoon trip, I squeezed into my seat and rummaged through my computer bag, loading the knee-jamming magazine holder on the seat-back in front of me with the two books I’m currently reading. One was “All About Lightning,” by Martin Uman (published in 1971 and revised in 1986); the other was “The Weather Machine: A Journey Inside the Forecast,” by Andrew Blum. On my AirPods was an astronomy podcast (“Orbital Path”). I have no illusions (anymore) of becoming an astronomer or a meteorologist, and the movie version these books is unlikely to be coming soon to a theater near you—no, I’m filling my mind with this stuff simply because it interests me. A lot.
I think everyone has those things that fascinate them so much that there’s no effort learning them. I have a history of finding something interesting and devouring every possible word on the subject. Some were passing obsessions (handwriting analysis, Lincoln head pennies, and—uhhhhh… The Monkees), and others have stuck with me (baseball, astronomy, geology, meteorology, and certain writers).
Which brings me back to the things I photograph, and the realization that we can probably tell a lot about most photographers’ relationship with the world by viewing their images. Anyone who checks the percentage of my images that have a weather or celestial component wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) be surprised by my in-flight entertainment, or to learn that for a few misspent college semesters I majored in astronomy, then geology (and have since kept them as hobbies, where they belong).
The longer I do this, the more I appreciate how lucky I am to actually make my living photographing only the things I love. Nearly 15 years ago I left a good career in the tech industry, naively planning to turn a photography passion into a profession. I can’t tell you how many people since then have told me that doesn’t work—fortunately, I didn’t hear them until it was too late.
For photographers, there’s a fine line between self-employed and unemployed, a line I didn’t fully appreciate when I made my decision to jump into it with both feet. Like millions of other photographers, all I wanted to make a living photographing the beautiful natural world I love so much—how hard could that be? But as many have learned (some sooner than others), not only is there very little market for landscape images, there seems to be pretty much infinite competition—competition that causes landscape photographers to sell digital images for pennies, and prints for little more than their cost. But somehow, for reasons I like to attribute to foresight but must acknowledge dash of shovel full of good luck as well, I’ve managed to make my living photographing only what I love.
Before leaving my tech job, I was doing art shows and making pretty decent money for a weekend’s work. But a weekend art show is so much more than just a weekend of effort, and after doing the math I realized that I’d need to be on the road at least 40 weeks per year to even have a chance to make ends meet through art shows. Gallery sales were a non-starter because the galleries just want too much of the small number of sales they generate, and the stock photography market was already on life support. Open my own gallery? That just sounded like an anchor that would prevent me from taking pictures.
So I started leading photo workshops, which were just starting to catch on and seemed ideally suited to my skillset. Not only was I intimately familiar with Yosemite and other California destinations that pretty much sell themselves, my background was in technical communications (tech writing, training, support), and I genuinely like people.
When I started offering workshop, I still did the art shows, but then came 2008 and the economic downturn. Despite a lot of hand wringing, my workshops continued filling, helped a lot by repeat customers who kept me afloat through the recession. And after one particularly unsuccessful weekend in San Francisco, I decided to drop the art shows altogether and focus on the workshops. I haven’t looked back.
Since making my mid-life career change, I’ve also managed to create a small niche as a writer, both through this blog (which pays nothing but has developed a pretty loyal following), and as a regular contributor to “Outdoor Photographer” and other photography publications (and which earns just slightly more than nothing). Not enough to live on, but at least enough to scratch my life-long writing itch.
So here I am, nearly 15 years into this ride and still going strong. I’m not getting rich, and least financially, but there are better measures of success than dollars. Whether alone or sharing with others, I still get as excited as anyone when the moon rises behind Half Dome, the Milky Way brightens above a New Zealand lake, or the setting sun paints a rainbow against a Grand Canyon sky.
About this image
After a day with a lot more rain than lightning, Don Smith and I took our Grand Canyon Monsoon photo workshop group up to Point Imperial for sunset. The vestiges of the storm still lingered as we set up, but there was no sign of the lightning that had been in the forecast, or even the rain that had drenched us for most of the day. Though lightning was on everyone’s mind, soft light in the canyon and the play of sunlight and clouds overhead kept everyone happy as we waited for sunset.
We’d been photographing for about a half hour when I noticed a tiny fragment of rainbow balanced atop the rim in the south. Not nearly prominent enough to be a prime subject, I nevertheless pointed it out to others and composed a few frames of my own before moving on to other opportunities in a view filled with them. Since there was no sign of rain, I only occasionally checked on the tiny rainbow, each time fully expecting it to have vanished, but each time noticed that it was hanging in there—not really any bigger, but still somewhere on the continuum from vivid to nearly-faded-to-oblivion.
Just a few minutes before sunset and with no rain visible, that little spot of color intensified and stretched skyward. Those of us with eyes on it alerted the rest of the group, sending everyone into a shooting frenzy that lasted until the light faded with the setting sun. I’ve photographed bigger rainbows, and (slightly) brighter rainbows, but only a few that have thrilled me as much as this one that seemed to come out of nowhere.
Click an image for a closer look and to view a slide show.
Posted on August 11, 2019
Confession: 4:30 wake-ups aren’t my favorite part of being a landscape photographer. But honestly, the worst part of an early wake-up starts the instant the alarm goes off and lasts until I get out of bed, so I’ve trained myself to set my alarm with zero time to spare, which forces me to rip off the wake-up bandaid.
Though sunrise doesn’t always work out photographically, it rarely lets me down emotionally. There’s no better time of the day to be outside, when all nature’s sensory inputs are coming alive and the din of humankind is still asleep. Even in a crowded national park like Grand Canyon, it’s the best time of the day to hear the birds conversing and savor the whisper of water and wind. And with the atmosphere unfiltered by human pollutants, the spectacular sights never feel closer.
I just wrapped up two workshops at Grand Canyon. These workshops were built to maximize our lightning capture opportunities, and in that regard each workshop was a major success. But we had other memorable moments that had nothing to do with lightning, with probably most memorable being the second group’s first sunrise. (Or the first group’s first sunset, but that’s a story for a different day.)
On that morning’s eastward drive to Grandview Point, we’d passed through a couple of rain showers, but through the trees I caught a glimpse of an opening on the eastern horizon. Clouds overhead with a gap low in the east is the recipe for a colorful sunrise, but not wanting to jinx us, I kept my mouth shut until the pre-shoot orientation (a quick summary of the site—where to go and what to look for). I also suggested the possibility of a rainbow and where it would be, and gave everyone a quick refresher on how to capture a sunstar before setting them free to explore and create.
Our morning started with a deep red glow on the eastern horizon that slowly brightened and spread across the sky. With the brightening horizon behind Desert View signaling the sun’s approach, the clouds took on a shimmering pink hue. Anticipating a sunstar opportunity, I composed my scene and stopped my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 lens (my favorite sunstar lens) down to f/18. I had several minutes to spare and spent them taking in my surroundings, then snapped to action with the first brilliant rays of direct sunlight. Unlike many mornings, the color hung in there for a couple of minutes after the sun’s arrival, all the time I needed to capture this frame.
Right in the midst of my sunstar shoot someone in the group shouted “Rainbow!” and I whipped around to confirm. I’d already decided this was a pretty special sunrise, but thought the rainbow, though not complete or ideally positioned, would be the cherry on top. But the show wasn’t over—when the sun rose into the clouds and the light flattened, people started to pack up. But I noticed a few holes that would almost certainly soon send crepuscular rays (god rays) into the canyon, so we hung around long enough to add that to the morning’s checklist. Color, sunstar, rainbow, god-rays—not a bad way to start the day. (I haven’t processed the rainbow and crepuscular rays images yet—stay tuned.)
Posted on August 8, 2019
I don’t usually write a brand new blog in the middle of a workshop, but I have to share last night’s experience
August 7, 2019
Scanning the southern horizon from the view deck of Grand Canyon Lodge on the North Rim, I saw no sign of lightning. Far to the south was a somewhat promising curtain of rain, maybe 30 miles beyond the South Rim. With nothing to do until I met the group for our sunset departure, I found a composition I liked and pointed my camera (with Lightning Trigger engaged) in that direction.
Soon others joined me—with my lightning app showing activity 50 miles distant in the general direction my camera pointed, I made the call to bag the sunset shoot and put all our eggs in the lightning basket. (A decision I might not have made had this second workshop group already had the lightning success the first had). Turns out that was a good call.
About an hour later, when lightning started firing to the west, I stubbornly stuck with my composition, but instructed the rest of the group to point their cameras toward the more sure thing. My reasoning was that since I had over 100 lightning strikes from the first workshop, I could afford to be selective and take a chance on the composition I preferred, but everyone who hadn’t had a success should play the odds.
My storm completely fizzled, but the storm cell to the west was very active and appeared to be moving closer. I finally admitted defeat and gave up on my cell, turning my attention to the active cell just about the time we started hearing thunder. Within minutes the storm was on top of us and suddenly we couldn’t tell which thunder went with which bolt.
Huddled in relative safety beneath the lodge’s lightning rods, the next 20 minutes provided the most jaw-dropping electrical this California boy has ever seen—maybe all lightning storms are this spectacular, but I’ve never been that close. We gave everyone the option of retreating to the lodge’s enclosed viewing deck, but everyone steadfastly stuck to their tripods. The lightning was firing two or three times per minute, each strike so close that we couldn’t couldn’t fit the entire bolt in our frame. Then the wind kicked up and soon thereafter the sky opened, so we grabbed our cameras and headed inside.
As the lightning flashed in the pictures windows, we reviewed our captures on our LCDs and shared our bounty with each other. Everyone had multiple lightning captures, and it seemed like virtually all in the group had some version of this bolt striking Oza Butte, about one mile away. It was interesting to compare the differences between each person’s capture—not only did they vary with the composition, they also varied with the exposure time (more or fewer strokes and filaments) and camera type (some cameras trigger their shutters faster than others).
This image is a perfect example of what I love about still photography: It freezes an instant in time that is already memory by the time my brain registers it, allowing me to spend as much time as I want scrutinizing detail I’d never see otherwise. I can’t tell you how long I’ve studied this image already, and I’m still find new things.
Posted on August 5, 2019
In a day of surprises, I think the most surprising thing was finding myself completely alone on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon—in the middle of a workshop. The sun had set, the tourists had gone to dinner, and the rest of my group, thanks to an unexpected turn of events (stay tuned), was with my workshop partner Don Smith at Desert View, about ten miles east. I love leading workshops, but the opportunity to enjoy a summer sunset alone at the Grand Canyon was too rare to not to appreciate. And as if that wasn’t enough, I was being treated to one of the most spectacular lightning displays I’d seen in all my years of photographing the Grand Canyon monsoon.
The weather gods had been messing with us since the workshop’s start two days earlier. The forecast for our first two days was so good, Don and I had virtually guaranteed everyone a lightning bolt (or ten, or 20, or…) on their memory cards by the time we headed to the South Rim on Day 3. But on Day 1 we got too much rain and not enough lightning (not unprecedented), a loss largely assuaged by a gorgeous rainbow at sunset (phew). No worries, the Day 2 lightning forecast was even more promising.
While we did see a bolt or two on the second day, we got nothing close to the classic lightning displays the North Rim frequently serves up during the Grand Canyon Monsoon. Even without any lightning photos, the day was salvaged by the night’s fantastic Milky Way shoot at Cape Royal—an evening so warm that most of us kept the jackets packed and did the whole thing in T-shirts.
But lighting is this workshop’s Holy Grail, and the pressure was building for Don and me. For a few reasons, the North Rim is usually generates about 80 percent of our lightning success. But after being shut out for our two North Rim days, now it was time to motor to the much more crowded South Rim, where the crowds are oppressive and weather forecast called for a measly 10 percent chance of thunderstorms. Suddenly my optimism was waning.
Mother Nature is fickle, and I’m pretty sure she was punishing me for being a little too cocky at the beginning of the workshop. Because on the road to the South Rim (about the time I started to admit serious doubts about our lightning chances), she started filling my windshield with billowing cumulus clouds—not friendly cotton-ball puffs, these clouds were dark, angry towers. By the time we checked into our hotel, our lightning app was showing signs of sneaking activity sneaking up from the south (behind us).
Though nothing was happening near the canyon yet, experience has taught us to be proactive when the storms are building. So rather than wait until the planned sunset departure time, Don and I herded the group to the cars and we bolted for the rim as soon as we could get everyone assembled. Turning east on Desert View Road toward our sunset destination, Desert View, we pulled over at the very first vista. We hopped out to take a look and as Don and I surveyed the view, someone spotted lightning directly across the canyon. Showtime.
This was indeed a great show, with at least one or two bolts per minute for nearly an hour. Within 15 minutes it was pretty clear that everyone had captured multiple strikes and Don and I could relax—everyone would go home with the lightning photos they came for. The storm was still active when increasing wind and threatening clouds led us to decide it would be prudent to move on.
The next stop on the way to our way to Desert View was Grandview Point, and that’s where things took an unexpected turn. First, when I went to change the precariously low battery on my Sony a7RIII, I realized my backup battery was at home on the charger (gone are my Sony a7RII days when I carried six batteries). But that crisis was soon set aside when one of the members of the group had an emergency that required her to return to the hotel. After a bit of discussion and a little math (Do we have enough seats for the rest of the group to continue to Desert View for sunset? Answer: Yes, with none to spare), I drove her back while everyone else continued on to photograph sunset.
Back at the hotel I did a bit more math and realized there was no way I could make it all the way out to Desert View in the 50 minutes remaining until sunset. But seized by FOMO*, I grabbed my a7RII, checked the battery (fully charged—yay!), and headed back to the rim with no particular plan—even if I couldn’t make it back to the group, I just wanted to be somewhere for sunset. At the junction with Desert View Road I headed east again, away from the Grand Canyon Village congestion and toward some of the less crowded vistas.
The entire sky was gray and at first I thought sunset might be a dud, but then I caught a thin layer of brightness in my rearview mirror and realized there was a hole on the horizon—when the sun drops into it, everything might just light up for a few minutes. I checked my watch and goosed the accelerator hoping to make it as far as Grandview Point. Unfortunately, in the national parks you can only go as fast as the next Winnebago, and sunset was less than 10 minutes away when I dove into my Grandview parking space. I grabbed my camera bag and dashed down the trail to my favorite view atop an exposed rock outcrop, not realizing until headed off-trail that I was still in my flip-flops. But with no time to go back for more sane footwear, I continued slip-sliding my way down to my destination and (barely) made it with all limbs intact.
The color was starting but as soon as my camera was set up, but I took a few seconds to get my adrenalin under control. The first thing that struck me was the quiet, most unusual for a Grand Canyon summer sunset. I attributed it to the storm, which had just moved on from here, and the fact that Grandview isn’t heralded as a sunset location (because most non-photographers like their sunset views to face west, and there are better spots at Grand Canyon for that).
As expected, there was indeed great color that evening, but even more exciting was all the lightning in the east: Cloud to ground, cloud to cloud, cloud flashes, multiple bolts, extreme zig-zags—pretty much a who’s who of lightning, several times per minute. Most of the lightning was firing somewhere in the empty desert beyond Desert View, but it looked far enough away that the group was safe. From my perspective there was no canyon or anything else interesting in the direction of extreme activity, so I pointed my camera at a somewhat promising curtain of rain that aligned better with my view of the canyon—and hoped.
Photographing lightning is more thrilling than I can describe, and I can think of no better place for it than Grand Canyon. The distance of the views here relieves (most of) the anxiety that comes with viewing lightning—so far on this trip I’ve captured 116 frames with lightning (yes, I count them) and still haven’t been close enough to any of them to have heard their thunder. And Grand Canyon puts the actual lightning experience on steroids because during the long peaceful periods between strikes you’re gazing upon one of the most breathtaking views on Earth. When a bolt explodes from the clouds, its metaphorical jolt to my psyche seems to match it’s actual 50,000 (ish) volt electrostatic jolt.
I only captured a half-dozen or so strikes over the canyon that evening, but all I need is one. This one touched down several minutes after sunset, about 30 miles away. It came right at the peak of the color and couldn’t have been more perfectly timed or placed. And as I waited for the next bolt to trigger my camera, I got to enjoy this view the same, infinitely more spectacular, light show the rest of the group was enjoying—in glorious, absolute quiet.
Posted on July 28, 2019
In a couple of days I’m off to the Grand Canyon for my annual trip with good friend and fellow pro photographer Don Smith. We’ll be leading two workshops where we’ll chase lightning, rainbows, and whatever else the monsoon throws at us. But wild weather or not, I’ll be at the Grand Canyon. But anyway…
Left, left, left, right, left
The Grand Canyon is a very difficult place to photograph. Or maybe I should say, the Grand Canyon is a very difficult place to photograph well. More than any place I photograph, the Grand Canyon incites right/left (creative/logical) battles that can kill an image. Despite (and likely because of) the Grand Canyon’s sweeping grandeur, you can’t expect to simply walk up to the rim and find a shot that does the scene justice. The view at the rim puts your emotional, creative brain on overload—the very things that make the Grand Canyon so breathtaking in person, its depth and breadth, are completely lost to the camera’s two-dimensional, confined perspective.
Overcoming this requires:
With all that mastered (easier said than done: practice, practice, practice), you’re ready to formulate and execute an actual plan for approaching the scene you plan to photograph. For me, implementing all this means arriving early and spending every non-shooting moment familiarizing myself with my surroundings, the light, and whatever is going on in the sky. Not only does arriving early give me time to formulate my plan, it gives me a feel for the scene that becomes increasingly important as the time to shoot approaches.
Once I’ve analyzed my scene, identifying its compositional elements and how I want to handle them, I turn off my left (logical) brain and engage my right (creative) brain. This isn’t conscious, nor is it genius—it’s pretty much just the product of years of repetition. Putting my camera to my eye, I compose the scene by moving the view up/down, forward/backward, left/right, and zooming in and out until feels “right” (whatever that means).
Then I have to jump back to my left brain to determine how to apply my exposure variables: How much depth of field do I need? Is there motion to freeze or blur—and if so, how much? Do I have extreme dynamic range to contend with? And so on.
Despite all the analysis and planning that goes into setting up a shot, I ultimately have to switch back to my right brain and try to click the shutter with my heart.
Putting it all together
My “plan” for this evening at the Grand Canyon’s Hopi Point was to photograph a full moon rising in the east, above the canyon, an image I’ve long sought. But when clouds hugging the eastern horizon thickened, I started having second thoughts. I could have stubbornly stuck to my guns and hoped the moon would somehow find its way through the muck, but I knew if the moon didn’t show and something nice started in the west (where the sky looked more promising), I’d have to scramble to the other side and hope to quickly find a composition that did the moment justice. That’s not easy even in ideal circumstances, but Hopi Point at sunset is like a Tokyo subway at rush hour. Anxious to avoid reactive photography, I jettisoned the east-facing moonrise plan and headed over to re-familiarize myself with Hopi Point’s west side and stake out a spot before the crowd assembled.
The Grand Canyon is great for this kind of anticipatory photography because the unobstructed view of the horizon from the rim provides good insight into what’s in store. Once I switched views, I spent quality time walking Hopi Point’s western rim, identifying trees, shrubs, and rocks that could anchor my frame and balance the distant ridges, river, sun, and clouds. I also had to be aware of the sun’s path, because its brightness was certain to be a significant photographic element. And not wanting to settle for a nice sky above the canyon, I sought foreground subjects to create near/far relationships. I finally chose this spot where a small (albeit unassuming) shrub jutted from the textured rim rock.
Given the extreme depth of field my composition required, I opted for f16, focusing on the rock just behind the shrub. A gusty breeze forced me to bump my ISO to 400 and time my shutter click to coincide with the wind’s intermittent lulls. This was before I switched to Sony, so I had to use a 3-stop reverse graduated neutral density filter to reduce the significant dynamic range to a manageable level (then later smooth the GND transition in Photoshop).
The moon that evening was in fact a no-show, but the view to the west rewarded me with about forty-five minutes of productive, continuously improving photography as the sun slipped in and out of gaps in the clouds before finally dropping below the horizon. The highlight came couple of minutes after sunset, when a fan of thin clouds spewing from the sun’s exit point throbbed crimson, creating a flame-like effect. After spending most of my shooting time emphasizing the canyon’s vast lateral expanse with wide, horizontal compositions, when the color kicked in I wanted a vertical composition that would turn the emphasis to flaming sky and the canyon’s depth.
While I’d love to claim that I was conscious of the virtual diagonals connecting the flaming sky and flame-shaped shrub, and the shimmering sliver of the Colorado River and nearby vein of light colored rock, I really wasn’t. But neither do I believe relationships like this are accidental—I’ve done this long enough to know that compositional relationships happen organically when I free my mind from distractions that force me to think when I should be creating. This is what I mean when I say I want to click the shutter with my heart.
Posted on May 26, 2019
Do I have a favorite place to in the Grand Canyon? Difficult to say, but I definitely have a shortlist, and Deer Creek Fall is on it. Of course this beautiful waterfall is right on the river and far from a secret, so it’s often overrun by other rafting trips (in general the bottom of the Grand Canyon is wonderfully not crowded, but people do tend to congregate at certain spots). Having done this trip six times now, I (with the help of my guides) have learned the timing to minimize or eliminate the people at these popular spots.
This year we found one other group enjoying Deer Creek Fall, but it wasn’t long before they pushed off and we had it to ourselves. In addition to many nice views at river level, there are some great scenes above the fall. The trail to the slot canyon that feeds the fall is steep, with a few spots that require a little non-technical climbing to get to the next level, but the payoff makes the effort worth it. The view of the river and Grand Canyon is (cliché alert) breathtaking, and from there a short trek through a beautiful slot canyon opens to an emerald oasis called “The Patio.” I’ve made the hike to the Patio once, but was kind of unnerved by a 20-foot stretch of 2-foot wide trail carved into a vertical wall and vowed not to do it again (give me something to hold onto and I could stand on top of Mt. Everest, but Alex Honnold I’m not).
Despite the threat of rain, I joined a handful of hikers in my group who followed a couple of our guides through the creek and up the trail. My plan was to stick with them to the view right before the slot canyon entrance, but after stopping briefly to photograph this scene, I climbed up nearby rocks to chase the group and immediately found more photo-worthy scenes overlooking the fall. The cloud cover created such wonderful light, I decided to forego the hike in favor of new photo opportunities.
After 30-minutes photographing Deer Creek Fall from a series of elevated ledges, I scrambled back down to my original river level scene. I’d rushed it earlier and wanted more quality time here. I worked it for another half hour before moving to other views of the fall. Here I used a 5-second exposure that blurred the water in the fall and nearby cascade, and which also captured a small swirl of foam near the rocks.
Full disclosure: My shutter speed options were limited by the fact that I’d departed for this trip thinking that my 82mm polarizer was in its normal place, affixed to my Sony 16-35 GM lens, but it turned out that what I thought was a polarizer was actually my Breakthrough 6-stop neutral density polarizing filter—the polarizer was in a pocket back home. Oops. So to get the polarization I wanted, I had no choice but to use the ND filter, which prevented me from capturing anything but extreme motion blur.
I once had a photographer tell me that he didn’t like blurred water images because they’re “not natural.” The conversation continued something like this:
Me: “So how would you photograph that waterfall?”
Misguided Photographer: “I’d use a fast shutter speed to freeze the water.”
Me: “And you think that’s more natural than blurred water?”
Misguided Photographer: “Of course.”
Me: “And how many times have you seen water droplets frozen in midair?”
Misguided Photographer: “Uhhh….”
The truth is, “natural” is a target that shifts with perspective. Humans experience the world as a 360 degree, three-dimentional, multi-sensory reel that unfolds in an infinite series of connected instants that our brain seamlessly processes as quickly as it comes in. But the camera discards 80 percent of the sensory input, limits the view to a rectangular box, and compresses those connected instants into a single, static frame. In other words, it’s impossible for a camera to duplicate human reality—the sooner photographers get that, the sooner they can get to work on expressing the world using their camera’s very different but quite compelling reality.
Despite the creative opportunities in their hands (or on their tripod), many photographers expend a great deal of effort trying to force their cameras closer to human reality (HDR, focus blending, and so on)—not inherently wrong, but in so doing they miss opportunities to reveal overlooked aspects of our complex natural world. Subtracting the distractions from the non-visual senses, controlling depth of focus, and banishing unwanted elements to the world outside the frame, a camera can distill a scene to its overlooked essentials, offering perspectives that are impossible in person.
A still image can’t display actual motion, but it can convey the illusion of motion that, among other things, frees the viewer’s imagination and establishes the scene’s mood. While nothing like our experience of the world, a camera can freeze the extreme chaos of a single instant, or combine a series of instants into a blur that conveys a pattern of motion.
Combining creative vision and technical skill, a photographer chooses where on the continuum that connects these extremes of motion will fall: The sudden drama of a crashing wave, or the soothing calm of soft surf; the explosive power of a plunging river, or the silky curves of tumbling cascades. Or perhaps someplace in the midrange of the motion continuum, stopping the action enough that discrete elements stand out, but not so much that a sense of flow is lost.
One question I’m quite frequently asked is, “How do I blur water?” And while there’s no magic formula, no shutter speed threshold beyond which all water blurs, blurring water isn’t that hard (as long as you use a tripod). In fact, when you photograph in the full shade or cloudy sky conditions I prefer, it’s usually more difficult to freeze moving water than it is to blur it (which is why I have very few images of water drops suspended in midair).
In addition to freezing motion or revealing a pattern of motion, an often overlooked opportunity is the smoothing effect a long exposure has on choppy water. I photograph at a lot of locations known for their reflections, but sometimes I arrive to find a wind has stirred the water into a disorganized, reflection-thwarting frenzy. In these situations a long exposure can smooth the chop, allowing the reflection to come through. Rather than the mirror reflection I came for, I get an ethereal, gauzy effect that still captures the reflection’s color and shape.
The amount of water motion blur you get depends on several variables:
Of these variables, it’s shutter speed that gets the most attention. That’s because focal length and subject distance are compositional considerations, and we usually don’t start thinking about blurring the water until after we have our composition. (This is as it should be—when composition doesn’t trump motion, the result is often a gimmicky image without much soul.)
You have several tools at your disposal for reducing the light reaching your sensor (and thereby lengthening your shutter speed), each with its advantages and disadvantages:
Because blurring water depends so much on the amount of light reaching your sensor, I can’t emphasize too much the importance of actually understanding metering and exposure, and how to manage the zero-sum relationship between shutter speed, aperture (f-stop), and ISO.
Read my Exposure basics Photo Tips article
Bracketing for motion
Back in the film days, we used to bracket (multiple clicks of the same scene with minor adjustments) for exposure. But in today’s world of improved dynamic range and pre- and post-capture histograms, exposure bracketing is (or at least should be) limited to photographers who blend multiple exposures. Today I only bracket for scene changes that will give me a variety of images to choose between later.
Often my scene bracketing is for depth of field, as I run a series of clicks with a range of f-stops, then decide later whether I want a little or a lot of DOF. But my most frequent use of scene bracketing is to capture a variety of water motion effects. I start by finding a composition I like, then adjust my shutter speed (compensating for the exposure change with ISO and/or f-stop changes) to get different motion blur.
River and stream whitewater is usually (but not always) fairly constant, so my adjustments are usually just to vary the amount of motion blur. But when I’m photographing waves, the timing of the waves is as important as the motion blur. It helps to stand back and observe the waves for a while to get a sense for any patterns. Watching the direction of the waves and the size of the approaching swells not only allows me to time my exposures more efficiently, it also keeps me safe (and dry).
Few images validate the power of the camera’s unique vision better than a scene etched with the parallel arcs of rotating stars (yes, I know it’s not actually the stars that are rotating). Nothing like human reality, the camera’s view of the night sky is equal parts beautiful and revealing. (Can you think of a faster, more effective way to demonstrate Earth’s rotation than a star trail image?)
Here are the factors that determine the amount of stellar motion:
As with water motion, you can choose between a long exposure that exaggerates stellar motion, or a shorter exposure that freezes the stars in place to display a more conventional night sky (albeit with more stars than our eyes can discern).
Read more in my Starlight photography Photo Tips article
The other end of the motion continuum is stopping it in its tracks with an exposure of extremely short duration. Sometimes simply to avoid blurring something that should be stationary, like flowers or leaves. But just as a long exposure can blur water to reveal patterns in its motion that aren’t visible to the unaided eye, using a short exposure to freeze a fast moving or ephemeral subject freezing can reveal detail that happens too fast for the unaided eye to register.
Stopping motion in an image often requires exposure compromises, such as a larger than ideal aperture or ISO, or removing a polarizer. In my landscape world, f-stop rules all, so I won’t compromise my f-stop unless it’s truly irrelevant—for example, when everything in the scene is at infinity at all f-stops. And I’m reluctant to remove a polarizer because its effect, even when small, can’t be duplicated in Photoshop. Fortunately, compromising ISO is relatively painless given today’s digital cameras stellar high ISO capabilities.
Wind-blown leaves, breaking surf, and plummeting waterfalls examples of detail that can be frozen in the act, but my favorite example of an instant frozen in time is a lightning strike. Lightning comes and goes so fast that the human experience of it is always just a memory—it’s gone before we register its existence. Read how to photograph lighting in my Lightning article in the Photo Tips section of my blog.
In the static world of a photograph, it’s up to the photographer to to create a sense of motion. Sometimes we achieve this with lines that lead the eyes through the scene, but even more powerful is an image that uses motion to tap its viewers imagination. Whether it’s freezing an instant, or connecting a series of instants in a single frame, the way you handle motion in your scene is a creative choice that’s enabled by your creative vision and technical skill.
Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show. Refresh the screen to reorder the display.
Posted on May 19, 2019
In the Beginning
I grew up in a camping family. My dad was a minister, so pricey airline/hotel/restaurant vacations were out of the question for the five of us, as of course were weekend camping trips. But for as far back as I can remember, each summer my family went camping somewhere. Usually it was a week or two in Yosemite, Sequoia/Kings Canyon, the California coast, or some other relatively close scenic destination, but every few years we’d hook up the tent trailer, pile into the station wagon, and take a road trip.
The one constant in this numbing succession of summer campsites was the dark sky far from city lights, and the vast sprinkle of stars that mesmerized me. I soon learned that stargazing is the one thing a child can do for as long as he wants after bedtime without getting in trouble. I enjoyed playing connect-the-dots with the stars, identifying named constellations, or making up my own. It turned out all this scanning was a great way to catch shooting stars, and soon my goal was to stay awake until one flashed across my vision. And satellites were still something of a novelty back then, so another camping bedtime exercise was to slowly scan the sky looking for a “star” that moved; when I found one, I’d track it across the until it disappeared behind the horizon—or my eyelids.
At some point I became aware of a hazy band of light stretching across my night sky. On the darkest nights, when my vantage point faced the right direction, the widest and brightest part of this band reminded me of sugar spilled on pooled ink. But the Milky Way wasn’t as dramatic some of the other stuff in my night skies, so the childhood Me was oblivious to its inherent coolness for many years.
On these nightly scans I was more interested in the apparent randomness in the patterns overhead—the consistency of certain stellar arrangements, while a few bright “stars” would be in different positions each night relative to these recognizable patterns. Someone explained to me the difference between stars and planets, that stars were far and planets were close, and that was good enough for me. For a while.
Then, when I was about ten, my best friend and I did a science project on comets, which ignited a sudden and intense interest in all things astronomical. I was gifted a second-hand telescope by a friend of my dad, which we’d set up in my best friend’s front yard on summer nights. Through the telescope the stars remained (boring) points of light, no matter how much I magnified them, but the planets became fascinating disks, each with its own personality. I learned that Venus and Mercury were actually crescents of varying size, just like a mini moon. After searching in vain for the canals on Mars, I was thrilled to (barely) see Saturn’s rings, and to watch the nightly dance of the four pin-prick Galilean moons.
All this stargazing helped me develop a rudimentary understanding of celestial relationships, the vastness of space, the sun’s dominant role in our solar system, and its utter insignificance in the Universe. And the more I learned about astronomy, the more fascinating our home galaxy became. Rather than just passively observing it, the Milky Way became a catalyst for pondering the mysteries of the Universe and my favorite night sky feature.
Then came college, marriage, family, jobs, cameras (lots of cameras) until I found myself at the bottom of the Grand Canyon on this moonless night in May. It was the second night of my annual Grand Canyon Raft Trip for Photographers, a highlight in a year full of highlights, and my first opportunity each year to reconnect with my favorite celestial feature. After night one hadn’t worked out, I told myself that we still had four more chances, but at bedtime on night two I was a little more pessimistic.
The prescription for a successful Milky Way photograph includes a clear view of the southern sky with a nice foreground. There’s no shortage of foreground in the Grand Canyon, but southern sky views are not quite so plentiful. The first night had been spectacularly clear, but our otherwise spectacular campsite was on an east/west trending section of river (I try to select each campsite for its astrophotography potential, but the sites can’t be reserved, and sometime there are other factors to consider), which placed the rising galactic core behind a towering canyon wall. On our second day we’d scored prime real estate on a north/south section of river a few miles upstream from Desert View, but now thin clouds threatened to spoil the show.
In May the Milky Way doesn’t usually crest the canyon walls until 2:00 or 3:00 a.m. (depending on the location), but as we prepared for bed that second day, only a handful of stars smoldered in the gauzy veil above. But with six hours for conditions to improve, I prepared anyway, identifying my foreground, setting up my tripod next to my cot, and mounting my Sony a7SII body and Sony 24mm f/1.4 lens with ISO, f-stop, and shutter speed set.
Waking a little before 3:00, I instantly saw far more stars than had been visible at bedtime. But more importantly, there was the Milky Way, directly overhead. I sat up and peered toward the river—the soft glow of several LCD screens told me others were already shooting, so I grabbed my tripod and stumbled down to the river’s edge in the dark (to avoid illuminating the others’ scene). It’s quite amazing how well you can see by the light of the Milky Way once your eyes adjust.
After a few frames I saw that a few thin clouds remained, creating interesting patterns against the starry background. By about 4 a.m., an hour-and-a-half before sunrise, loss of contrast in my images that wasn’t visible to my eyes told me the approaching sun was already starting to brighten the sky. I photographed for about an hour that morning, then managed to catch another 45 minutes of contented sleep before the guides’ coffee call got me up for good.
I continue updating my Photo Tips articles—here’s my just-updated Milky Way article,
with all you need to know to locate and photograph our home galaxy
Look heavenward on a moonless (Northern Hemisphere) summer night far from city light. The first thing to strike you is the shear volume of stars, but as your eyes adjust, your gaze is drawn to a luminous band spanning the sky. Ranging from magnificently brilliant to faintly visible, this is the Milky Way, home to our sun and nearly a half trillion other stars of varying age, size, and temperature.
Though every star you’ve ever seen is part of our Milky Way galaxy, stargazers use the Milky Way label more specifically to identify this river of starlight, gas, and dust spanning the night sky. As you feast your eyes, appreciate that some of the Milky Way’s starlight has traveled 25,000 years to reach your eyes, and light from a star on one edge of the Milky Way would take 100,000 years to reach the other side.
The rest of the sky appears to be filled with far more discrete stars than the region containing the Milky Way, but don’t let this deceive you. Imagine that you’re out in the countryside where the lights of a distant city blend into a homogeneous glow—similarly, the stars in the Milky Way’s luminous band are simply too numerous and distant to resolve individually. On the other hand, the individual pinpoints of starlight that we name and mentally assemble into constellations are just closer, much like the lights of nearby farmhouses. And the dark patches in the Milky Way aren’t empty space—like the trees and mountains that block our view of the city, they’re starlight-blocking interstellar dust and gas, remnants of exploded stars and the stuff of future stars.
Just as it’s impossible to know what your house looks like by peering out a window, it’s impossible to know what the Milky Way looks like by simply looking up on a dark night. Fortunate for us, really smart people have been able to infer from painstaking observation, measurement, reconstruction, and comparison with other galaxies that our Milky Way is flat (much wider than it is tall) and spiral shaped, like a glowing pinwheel, with two major arms and several minor arms spiraling out from its center. Our solar system is in one of the Milky Way’s minor arms, a little past midway between the center and outer edge.
Sadly, artificial light and atmospheric pollution have erased the view of the Milky Way for nearly a third of the world’s population, and eighty percent of Americans. Worse still, even though some part of the Milky Way is overhead on every clear night, many people have never seen it.
Advances in digital technology have spurred a night photography renaissance that has enabled the Milky Way challenged to enjoy images of its splendor from the comfort of their recliner, but there’s nothing quite like viewing it in person. With just a little knowledge and effort, you too can enjoy the Milky Way firsthand; add the right equipment and a little more knowledge, and you’ll be able to photograph it as well.
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.
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.
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):
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:
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.
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.
Viewing the Milky Way requires nothing more than a clear, dark sky. (Assuming clean, clear skies) the Milky Way’s luminosity is fixed, so our ability to see it is largely a function of the darkness of the surrounding sky—the darker the sky, the better the Milky Way stands out. But because our eyes can only take in a fixed amount of light, there’s a ceiling on our ability to view the Milky Way with the unaided eye.
A camera, on the other hand, can accumulate light for a virtually unlimited duration. This, combined with technological advances that continue increasing the light sensitivity of digital sensors, means that when it comes to photographing the Milky Way, well…, the sky’s the limit. As glorious as it is to view the Milky Way with the unaided eye, a camera will show you detail and color your eyes can’t see.
Knowing when and where to view the Milky Way is a great start, but photographing the Milky Way requires a combination of equipment, skill, and experience that doesn’t just happen overnight (so to speak). But Milky Way photography doesn’t need to break the bank, and it’s not rocket science.
Bottom line, photographing the Milky Way is all about maximizing your ability to collect light: long exposures, fast lenses, high ISO.
In general, the larger your camera’s sensor and photosites (the “pixels” that capture the light), the more efficiently it collects light. Because other technology is involved, there’s not an absolute correlation between sensor and pixel size and light gathering capability, but a small, densely packed sensor almost certainly rules out your smartphone and point-and-shoot cameras for anything more than a fuzzy snap of the Milky Way. At the very least you’ll want a mirrorless or DSLR camera with an APS-C (1.5/1.6 crop) size sensor. Better still is a full frame mirrorless or DSLR camera. (A 4/3 Olympus or Panasonic sensor might work, but as great as these cameras are for some things, high ISO photography isn’t their strength.
Another general rule is that the newer the technology, the better it will perform in low light. Even with their smaller, more densely packed sensors, many of today’s top APS-C bodies outperform in low light full frame bodies that have been out for a few years, so full frame or APS-C, if your camera is relatively new, it will probably do the job.
If you’re shopping for a new camera and think night photography might be in your future, compare your potential cameras’ high ISO capabilities—not their maximum ISO. Read reviews by credible sources like DP Review, Imaging Resource, or DxOMark (among many others) to see how your camera candidates fare in objective tests.
An often overlooked consideration is the camera’s ability to focus in extreme low light. Autofocusing on the stars or landscape will be difficult to impossible, and you’ll not be able to see well enough through a DSLR’s viewfinder to manually focus. Some bodies with a fast lens might autofocus on a bright star or planet, but it’s not something I’d count on (though I expect within a few years before this capability will become more common).
Having photographed for years with Sony and Canon, and working extensively with most other mirrorless and DSLR bodies in my workshops, I have lots of experience with cameras from many manufacturers. In my book, focus peaking makes mirrorless the clear winner for night focusing. Sony’s current mirrorless bodies (a7RII/RIII, a7S/SII) are by far the easiest I’ve ever used for focusing in the dark—what took a minute or more with my Canon, I can do in seconds using focus peaking with my Sony bodies (especially the S bodies). I use the Sony a7SII, but when I don’t want to travel with a body I only use for night photography, the Sony a7RIII does the job too. Of the major DSLR brands, I’ve found Canon’s superior LCD screen (as of 2019) makes it much easier to focus in extreme low light than Nikon. (More on focus later.)
Put simply, to photograph the Milky Way you want fast, wide glass—the faster the better. Fast to capture as much light as possible; wide to take in lots of sky. A faster lens also makes focus and composition easier because the larger aperture gathers more light. How fast? F/2.8 or faster—preferably faster. How wide? At least 28mm, and wider is better still. I do enough night photography that I have a dedicated, night-only lens—my original night lens was a Canon-mount Zeiss 28mm f/2; my current night lens is the Sony 24mm f/1.4.
It goes without saying that at exposure times up to 30 seconds, you’ll need a sturdy tripod and head for Milky Way photography. You don’t need to spend a fortune, but the more you spend, the happier you’ll be in the long run (trust me). Carbon fiber provides the best combination of strength, vibration reduction, and light weight, but a sturdy (albeit heavy) aluminum tripod will do the job.
An extended centerpost is not terribly stable, and a non-extended centerpost limits your ability to spread the tripod’s legs and get low, so I avoid tripods with a centerpost. But if you have a sturdy tripod with a centerpost, don’t run out and purchase a new one—just don’t extend the centerpost when photographing at night.
Read my tips for purchasing a tripod here.
To eliminate the possibility of camera vibration I recommend a remote release; without a remote you’ll risk annoying all within earshot with your camera’s 2-second timer beep. You’ll want a flashlight or headlamp for the walk to and from the car, and your cell phone for light while shooting. And it’s never a bad idea to toss an extra battery in your pocket. And speaking of lights, never, never, NEVER use a red light for night photography (more on this later).
Keep it simple
There are just so many things that can go wrong on a moonless night when there’s not enough light to see camera controls, the contents of your bag, and the tripod leg you’re about to trip over. After doing this for many years, both on my own and helping others in workshops, I’ve decided that simplicity is essential.
Simplicity starts with paring down to the absolute minimum camera gear: a sturdy tripod, one body, one lens, and a remote release (plus an extra battery in my pocket). Everything else stays at home, in the car, or if I’m staying out after a sunset shoot, in my bag.
Upon arrival at my night photography destination, I extract my tripod, camera, lens (don’t forget to remove the polarizer), and remote release. I connect the remote and mount my lens—if it’s a zoom I set the focal length at the lens’s widest—then set my exposure and focus (more on exposure and focus below). If I’m walking to my photo site, I carry the pre-exposed and focused camera on the tripod (I know this makes some people uncomfortable, but if you don’t trust your tripod head enough to hold onto your camera while you’re walking, it’s time for a new head), trying to keep the tripod as upright and stable as possible as I walk.
Flashlights/headlamps are essential for the walk/hike out to to and from my shooting location, but while I’m there and in shoot mode, it’s no flashlights, no exceptions. This is particularly important when I’m with a group. Not only does a flashlight inhibit your night vision, its light leaks into the frame of everyone who’s there. And while red lights may be better for your night vision and are great for telescope view, red light is especially insidious about leaking into everyone’s frame, so if you plan to take pictures, no red light! If you follow my no flashlight rule once the photography begins, you’ll be amazed at how well your eyes adjust. I can operate my camera’s controls in the dark—it’s not hard with a little practice, and well worth the effort to learn. If I ever do need to see my camera to adjust something, or if I need to see to move around, my cell phone screen (not the phone’s flashlight, just its illuminated screen) gives me all the light I need.
A good Milky Way image is distinguished from an ordinary Milky Way image by its foreground. Simply finding a location that’s dark enough to see the Milky Way is difficult enough; finding a dark location that also has a foreground worthy of pairing with the Milky Way usually takes a little planning.
Since the Milky Way’s center is in the southern sky (for Northern Hemisphere observers), I look for remote (away from light pollution) subjects that I can photograph while facing south (or southeast or southwest, depending on the month and time of night). Keep in mind that unless you have a ridiculous light gathering camera (like the Sony a7S or a7S II) and an extremely fast lens (f/2 or faster), your foreground will probably be more dark shape than detail. Water’s inherent reflectivity makes it a good foreground subject as well, especially if the water includes rocks or whitewater.
When I encounter a scene I deem photo worthy, not only do I try to determine its best light and moon rise/set possibilities, I also consider its potential as a Milky Way subject. Can I align it with the southern sky? Are there strong subjects that stand out against the sky? Is there water I can include in my frame?
I’ve found views of the Grand Canyon from the North Rim, the Kilauea Caldera, and the bristlecone pines in California’s White Mountains that work spectacularly. And its hard to beat the dark skies and breathtaking foreground possibilities at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. On the other hand, while Yosemite Valley has lots to love, you don’t see a lot of Milky Way images from Yosemite Valley because not only is there a lot of light pollution, and Yosemite’s towering, east/west trending granite walls give its south views an extremely high horizon that blocks much of the galactic core from the valley floor.
The last few years I’ve started photographing the Milky Way above the spectacular winter scenery of New Zealand’s South Island, where the skies are dark and the Milky Way is higher in the sky than it is in most of North America.
To maximize the amount of Milky Way in my frame, I generally (but not always) start with a vertical orientation that’s at least 2/3 sky. On the other hand, I do make sure to give myself more options with a few horizontal compositions as well. Given the near total darkness required of a Milky Way shoot, it’s often too dark to see well enough to compose that scene. If I can’t see well enough to compose I guess at a composition, take a short test exposure at an extreme (unusable) ISO to enable a relatively fast shutter speed (a few seconds), adjust the composition based on the image in the LCD, and repeat until I’m satisfied.
Needless to say, when it’s dark enough to view the Milky Way, there’s not enough light to autofocus (unless you have a rare camera/lens combo that can autofocus on a bright star and planet), or even to manually focus with confidence. And of all the things that can ruin a Milky Way image (not to mention an entire night), poor focus is number one. Not only is achieving focus difficult, it’s very easy to think you’re focused only to discover later that you just missed.
Because the Milky Way’s focus point is infinity, and you almost certainly won’t have enough light to stop down for more depth of field, your closest foreground subjects should be far enough away to be sharp when you’re wide open and focused at infinity. Before going out to shoot, find a hyperfocal app and plug in the values for your camera and lens at its widest aperture. Even though it’s technically possible to be sharp from half the hyperfocal distance to infinity, the kind of precise focus focusing on the hyperfocal point requires is difficult to impossible in the dark, so my rule of thumb is to make sure my closest subject is no closer than the hyperfocal distance.
For example, I know with my Sony 24mm f/1.4 wide open on my full frame Sony a7SII, the hyperfocal distance is about 50 feet. If I have a subject that’s closer (such as a bristlecone pine), I’ll pre-focus (before dark) on the hyperfocal distance, or shine a bright light on an object at the hyperfocal distance and focus there, but generally I make sure everything is at least 50 feet away. Read more about hyperfocal focus in my Depth of Field article.
By far the number one cause of night focus misses is the idea that you can just dial any lens to infinity; followed closely by the idea that focused at one focal length means focused at all focal lengths. Because when it comes to sharpness, almost isn’t good enough, if you have a zoom lens, don’t even think of trying to dial the focus ring to the end for infinity. And even for most prime lenses, the infinity point is a little short of all the way to the end, and can vary slightly with the temperature and f-stop. Of course if you know your lens well enough to be certain of its infinity point by feel (and are a risk taker), go for it. And that zoom lens that claims to be parfocal? While it’s possible that your zoom will hold focus throughout its entire focal range, regardless of what the manufacturer claims, I wouldn’t bet an entire shoot on it without testing first.
All this means that the only way to ensure night photography sharpness is to focus carefully on something before shooting, refocus every time your focal length changes, and check focus frequently by displaying and magnifying an image on your LCD. To simplify (there’s that word again), when using a zoom lens, I usually set the lens at its widest focal length, focus, verify sharpness, and (once I know I’m focused) never change the focal length again.
While the best way to ensure focus is to set your focal length and focus before it gets dark, sometimes pre-focusing isn’t possible, or for some reason you need to refocus after darkness falls. If I arrive at my destination in the dark, I autofocus on my headlights, a bright flashlight, or a laser 50 feet or more away. And again, never assume you’re sharp by looking at the image that pops up on the LCD when the exposure completes—always magnify your image and check it after you focus.
For more on focusing in the dark, including how to use stars to focus, read my Starlight Photo Tips article.
Exposing a Milky Way image is wonderfully simple once you realize that you don’t have to meter—because you can’t (not enough light). Your goal is simply to capture as many photons as you can without damaging the image with noise, star motion, and lens flaws.
Basically, with today’s technology you can’t give a Milky Way image too much light—you’ll run into image quality problems before you overexpose a Milky Way image. In other words, capturing the amount of light required to overexpose a Milky Way image is only possible if you’ve chosen an ISO and/or shutter speed that significantly compromises the quality of the image with excessive noise and/or star motion.
In a perfect world, I’d take every image at ISO 100 and f/8—the best ISO and f-stop for my camera and lens. But that’s not possible when photographing in near total darkness—a usable Milky Way image requires exposure compromises. What kind of compromises? The key to getting a properly exposed Milky Way image is knowing how far you push your camera’s exposure settings before the light gained isn’t worth the diminished quality. Each exposure variable causes a different problem when pushed too far:
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.
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.
Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the window to reorder the display.