Breathtaking Comet NEOWISE

Gary Hart Photography: Comet Neowise and Venus, Half Dome from Glacier Point, Yosemite

Comet NEOWISE and Venus, Half Dome from Glacier Point, Yosemite
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 G
10 seconds
F/5.6
ISO 3200

When I was ten, my best friend Rob and I spent most of our daylight hours preparing for our spy careers—crafting and exchanging coded messages, surreptitiously monitoring classmates, and identifying “secret passages” that would allow us to navigate our neighborhood without being observed. But after dark our attention turned skyward. That’s when we’d set up my telescope (a castoff generously gifted by an astronomer friend of my dad) on Rob’s front lawn to scan the heavens in the hope that we might discover something: a supernova, comet, black hole, UFO—it didn’t really matter.

Our celestial discoveries, while not Earth-changing, were personally significant. Through that telescope we saw Jupiter’s moons, Saturn’s rings, and the changing phases of Venus. We also learned to appreciate the vastness of the universe with the insight that, despite their immense size, stars never appeared larger than a pinpoint, no matter how much magnification we threw at them.

Here I am with the fifth grade science project that started it all. (This is only half of the creative team—somewhere there’s a picture that includes Rob.)

To better understand what we saw, Rob and I turned to astronomy books. Pictures of planets, galaxies, and nebula amazed us, but we were particularly drawn to the comets: Arend-Roland, Ikeya–Seki, and of course the patriarch of comets, Halley’s Comet (which wouldn’t return until 1986, an impossible wait that might as well have been infinity). With their brilliant comas and sweeping tails, it was difficult to imagine that anything that beautiful could be real. When the opportunity came to do a project to enter in our school’s Science Fair, comets were an easy choice. And while we didn’t set the world on fire with our project presentation, Rob and I were awarded a yellow ribbon, good enough to land us a spot in the San Joaquin County Fair.

The next milestone in my comet obsession occurred a few years later, after my family had moved to Berkeley and baseball had taken over my life. One chilly winter morning my dad woke me and urged me outside to view what I now know was Comet Bennett. Mesmerized, my smoldering comet fascination flamed instantly, expanding to include all things celestial, and stayed with me through high school (when I wasn’t playing baseball).

I can trace my decision to enter college with an astronomy major all the way back to my early interest in the night sky in general, and comets in particular. I stuck with the astronomy major for several semesters, until the (unavoidable) quantification of magnificent concepts sapped the joy from me.

Though I went on to pursue other interests, my affinity for astronomy hadn’t been dashed, and comets in particular remained special. Of course with affection comes disappointment: In 1973 Comet Kohoutek broke my heart, a failure that somewhat prepared me for Halley’s anticlimax in 1986. By the time Halley’s arrived, word had come down that it was poorly positioned for its typical display (“the worst viewing conditions in 2,000 years”), that it would be barely visible this time around (but just wait until 2061!). Nevertheless, venturing far from the city lights one moonless January night, I found great pleasure locating (with much effort) Halley’s faint smudge in Aquarius.

After many years with no naked-eye comets of note, 1996 arrived with the promise of two great comets. While cautiously optimistic, Kohoutek’s scars prevented me from getting sucked in by the media frenzy. So imagine my excitement when, in early 1996, Comet Hyakutake briefly approached the brightness of Saturn, with a tail stretching more than twenty degrees (forty times the apparent width of a full moon). But as beautiful as it was, Hyakutake proved to be a mere warm-up for Comet Hale-Bopp, which became visible to the naked eye in mid-1996 and remained visible until December 1997—an unprecedented eighteen months. By spring of 1997 Hale-Bopp had become brighter than Sirius (the brightest star in the sky), its tail approaching 50 degrees. I was in comet heaven.

Things quieted considerably comet-wise after Hale-Bopp. Then, in 2007, Comet McNaught caught everyone off-guard, intensifying unexpectedly to briefly outshine Sirius, trailing a thirty-five degree, fan-shaped tail. But because of its proximity to the sun, Comet McNaught had a very small window of visibility in the Northern Hemisphere and was easily lost in the bright twilight—it didn’t become anywhere near the media event Hale-Bopp did. I only learned about it on the last day it would be easily visible in the Northern Hemisphere. With little time to prepare, I grabbed my camera and headed to the foothills east of Sacramento, where I managed to capture a few faint images and barely pick the comet out of the twilight with my unaided eyes. McNaught saved its best show for the Southern Hemisphere, where it became one of the most beautiful comets ever to grace our skies (google Comet McNaught and you’ll see what I mean).

After several years of comet crickets, in 2013 we were promised two spectacular comets, PanSTARRS and ISON. A fortuitous convergence of circumstances allowed me to photograph PanSTARRS from the summit of Haleakala on Maui—just 3 degrees from a setting crescent moon, it was invisible to my eye, but beautiful to my camera. Comet ISON on the other hand, heralded as the most promising comet since Hale-Bopp, pulled an Icarus and and disintegrated after flying too close to the sun.

Since 2013 Earth has been in a naked-eye comet slump. Every once in a while one will tease us, then fizzle. In fact, 2020 has already seen two promising comets flop: Comets Atlas and Swan. So when Comet NEOWISE was discovered in March of this year, no one got too excited. But by June I started hearing rumblings that NEOWISE might just sneak into the the naked-eye realm. Then we all held our breath while it passed behind the sun on July 2.

Shortly after NEOWISE’s perihelion, astronomers confirmed that it had survived, and images started popping up online. The first reports were that NEOWISE was around magnitude 2 (about as bright as Polaris, the North Star) and showing up nicely in binoculars and photos. Unfortunately, NEOWISE was so close to the horizon that it was washed-out to the naked eye by the pre-sunrise twilight glow.

Based on my experience with PanSTARRS, a comet I’d captured wonderfully when I couldn’t see it in the twilight glow, I started making plans to photograph Comet NEOWISE. But I needed to find a vantage point with a good view of the northeast horizon, not real easy in Sacramento, where we’re in the shadow of the Sierra just east of town. After doing a little plotting, I decided my best bet would be to break my stay-away-from-Yosemite-in-summer vow and try it from Glacier Point. Glacier Point is elevated enough to offer a pretty clear view of the northeast horizon, and from there Half Dome and the comet would align well enough to easily include both in my frame.

While Yosemite is currently under COVID restrictions that require reservations (sold out weeks in advance) to enter, I have a CUA (Commercial Use Authorization that allows me to guide photo workshops) that gives me access to the park if I follow certain guidelines. So, after checking with my NPS Yosemite CUA contact to make sure all my permit boxes were checked, my brother Jay and I drove to the park on Thursday afternoon, got a room just outside the park, and went to bed early.

The alarm went off at 2:45 the next morning, and by 2:55 we were on the road to Glacier Point. After narrowly averting one self-inflicted catastrophe (in the absolute darkness, I missed a turn I’ve been taking for more than 40 years), by 4:00 we were less than a mile from Glacier Point and approaching Washburn Point, the first view of Half Dome on Glacier Point Road. Unable to resist the urge to peek (but with no expectation of success), I quickly glanced in that direction and instantly saw through my windshield Comet NEOWISE hanging above Mt. Watkins, directly opposite Tenaya Canyon from Half Dome. I knew there’d be a chance NEOWISE would be naked-eye visible, but I never dreamed it would be this bright.

Everything after that is a blur (except my images, thankfully). Jay and I rushed out to the railed vista at the far end of Glacier Point and were thrilled to find it completely empty. We found Half Dome beautifully bookended by Comet NEOWISE on the left, and brilliant Venus on the right. I set up two tripods, one for my Sony a7RIV and 24-105 G lens, and one for my Sony a7RIII and Sony 100-400 GM lens. Shut out of all the locations I love to photograph by COVID-19, I hadn’t taken a serious picture since March, so I composed and focused carefully to avoid screwing something up. The image I share here is one of the first of the morning, taken with my a7RIV and 24-105.

By 4:30 or so (about 80 minutes before sunrise) the horizon was starting to brighten, but the comet stayed very prominent and photogenic until at about 4:50 (about an hour before sunrise). When we wrapped up at around 5:00, NEOWISE was nearly washed out to the unaided eye; while our cameras were still picking it up, we knew that the best part of the show was over.

It’s these experiences that so clearly define for me the reason I’m a photographer. Because I’ve always felt that photography, more than anything else, needs to make the photographer happy (however he or she defines happiness), many years ago I promised myself that I’d only photograph what I want to photograph, that I’d never take a picture just because I thought it would earn me money or acclaim. My own photographic happiness comes from nature because I grew up outdoors (okay, not literally, but outdoors is where my best memories have been made) and have always been drawn to the natural world—not merely its sights, but the natural processes and forces that, completely independent of human intervention and influence, shape our physical world.

I think that explains why, rather than settle for pretty scenes, I try to capture the interaction of dynamic natural processes with those scenes. The moon and stars, the northern lights, sunrise and sunset color, weather events like rainbows and lightning—all of these phenomena absolutely fascinate me, and the images I capture are just a small part of my relationship with them. I can’t imagine photographing something that doesn’t move me enough to understand it as thoroughly as I can, and enjoy learning about my subjects as much as I enjoy photographing them.

The converse of that need to know my subjects is a need to photograph those things that drive me to understand them. Most of the subjects that draw me are relatively easy to capture with basic preparation, some effort, and a little patience. But the relative rarity of a few phenomena make photographing them a challenge. This is especially true of certain astronomical events. I’m thinking specifically about the total solar eclipse that I finally managed to photograph in 2017, and the northern lights, which finally found my sensor last year. But comets have proven even more elusive, and while I’ve seen a few in my life, and even photographed a couple, I’ve never had what I’d label an “epic” comet experience that allowed me to combine a beautiful comet with a worthy foreground. Until this week. And I’m one happy dude.


Comet Class

Comets in General

I want to tell you how to photograph Comet NEOWISE, but first I’m going to impose my personal paradigm and explain comets.

A comet is a ball of ice and dust a few miles across (more or less), typically orbiting the sun in an eccentric elliptical orbit: Imagine a circle stretched way out of shape by grabbing one end and pulling–that’s what a comet’s orbit looks like. Looking down on the entire orbit, you’d see the sun tucked just inside one extreme end of the ellipse. (Actually, some comets’ orbits are parabolic, which means they pass by once and then move on to ultimately exit our solar system.)

The farther a comet is from the sun the slower it moves, so a comet spends the vast majority of its life in the frozen extremities of the solar system. Some periodic comets take thousands or millions of years to complete a single orbit; others complete their trip in just a few years.

As a comet approaches the sun, stuff starts happening. It accelerates in response to the sun’s increased gravitational pull (but just like the planets, the moon, or the hour hand on a clock, a comet will never move so fast that we’re able to visually discern its motion). And more significantly, increasing solar heat starts melting the comet’s frozen nucleus. Initially this just-released material expands to create a mini-atmosphere surrounding the nucleus; at this point the comet looks like a fuzzy ball when viewed from Earth. As the heat increases, some of the shedding material is set free and dragged away by the solar wind (charged particles) to form a tail that glows with reflected sunlight (a comet doesn’t emit its own light) and always points away from the sun. The composition and amount of material freed by the sun, combined with the comet’s proximity to Earth, determines the brilliance of the display we see. While a comet’s tail gives the impression to some that it’s visibly moving across the sky, a comet is actually about as stationary against the stellar background as the moon and planets—it will remain in one place relative to the stars all night, then appear in a slightly different place the next night.

With millions of comets in our Solar System, it would be natural to wonder why they’re not regular visitors to our night sky. Actually, they are, though most comets are so small, and/or have made so many passes by the sun, that their nucleus has been stripped of reflective material and they just don’t have enough material left to put on much of a show. And many comets don’t get close enough to the sun to be profoundly affected by its heat, or close enough to Earth to stand out.

Most of the periodic comets that are already well known to astronomers have lost so much of their material that they’re too faint to be seen without a telescope. One notable exception is Halley’s Comet, perhaps the most famous comet of all. Halley’s Comet returns every 75 years or so and usually puts on a memorable display. Unfortunately, Halley’s last visit, in 1986, was kind of a dud; not because it didn’t perform, but because it passed so far from Earth that we didn’t have a good view of its performance on that pass.

Comet NEOWISE in particular (and some tips for photographing it)

Comet NEOWISE is a periodic comet with an elliptical orbit that will send it back our way in about 6700+ years. On it’s current iteration, NEOWISE zipped by the sun on July 2 and is on its way back out to the nether reaches of our solar system. The good news is that NEOWISE survived the most dangerous part of its visit, its encounter with the sun. The bad news is that NEOWISE’s intrinsic brightness decreases as it moves away from the sun. But if all goes well, we’ll be able to see it without a telescope, camera, or binoculars for at least a few more weeks. And it doesn’t hurt that until perigee on July 22, NEOWISE is still moving closer to Earth.

Because a comet’s tail always points away from the sun, and NEOWISE is now moving away from the sun, it’s actually following its tail. If you track the comet’s position each night, you’ll see that it rises in the northeast sky before sunrise, which makes it a Northern Hemisphere object (the Southern Hemisphere has gotten the best 21st century comets, so it’s definitely our turn). Each morning NEOWISE will rise a little earlier, placing it farther from the advancing daylight than the prior day, so even if its intrinsic brightness is waning, it should stand out better because it’s in a darker part of the sky. And as a bonus, the moon is waning, so until the new moon on July 21, there will be no moonlight to compete with NEOWISE.

Until now, Comet NEOWISE has been an exclusively early morning object, but that’s about to change as it climbs a little higher each day. Starting tonight (July 12), you might be able to see it shortly after sunset near the northwest horizon, and each night thereafter it will be a little higher in the northwest sky. Your best chance to view Comet NEOWISE in the evening is to find an open view of the northwest sky, far from city lights.

Photographing Comet NEOWISE will require some night photography skill. Since the moon is waning, you won’t have the benefit of moonlight that I had when I photographed the comet in Yosemite on the morning of July 10, when the moon was about 75% full. This won’t be a huge problem if you just want to photograph NEOWISE against the stars, but if you want to include some landscape with it, your best bet may be to stick to silhouettes, or stack multiple exposures, one for the comet and one or more for the foreground.

To photograph it against the starry sky, I recommend a long telephoto to fill the frame as much as possible. If you want to include some landscape, go as wide as necessary, but don’t forget that the wider you go, the smaller the comet becomes. Whatever method you use to focus (even if you autofocus on the comet itself), I strongly recommend that you verify your focus each time you change your focal length. If you choose the multi-exposure blend approach, please, please, please, whatever you do, don’t blend a telephoto NEOWISE image with a wide angle image of the landscape (because I’ll know and will judge you for it).

Camera or not, I strongly encourage you to make an effort to see this rare and beautiful object, because you just don’t know when the next opportunity will arise—it could be next month, or it might not happen again in your lifetime.

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Gifts From Heaven

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

Garbage in, garbage out

Gary Hart Photography: Magenta Moonrise, Half Dome and the Merced River, Yosemite

Magenta Moonrise, Half Dome and the Merced River, Yosemite
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 G
1/13 second
F/11
ISO 100

True story: I once saw a guy taking 10-second exposures of the moonbow at the base of Yosemite Falls, hand-held. When I gently suggested that his image might be a little soft, he assured me that he would just sharpen it in Photoshop.

I won’t deny that digital capture and processing has given photographers more flexibility and control than ever, and processing can indeed correct a number of problems, but processing is not a panacea—if the image was garbage going in, it’ll be garbage going out. Processing software and skills are an essential part of good photography, but the best images are still created in the camera.

Just as Ansel Adams visualized the finished print before clicking the shutter, success in digital photography still starts with understanding how the camera’s vision differs from your own, and taking the steps necessary to leverage those differences at capture. While Adams was indeed a master in the darkroom, that skill would have been wasted without his intimate knowledge of his camera and film, combined with his understanding of exposure, that ensured the best possible negative and print once he got into the darkroom.

Of course (spoiler alert) photography has come a long way since Ansel Adams’ roamed the earth. Digital photographers now have more control than ever, and incredible capture tools that allow us to correct problems instantly. But I fear all this power has intimidated some photographers, and made others lazy. Fortunately, like many things that seem scary-complex going in, just scratching the surface a little starts to reveal a foundation of very simple principles.

One of the simplest things you can do is learn how to read a histogram, then train yourself to rely on it. It’s the relying on the histogram part where most photographers fall short. One of the most frequent mistakes I see inexperienced photographers make is basing their exposure decision on the way the picture looks on the back of their camera. The LCD is great for composition, but trusting it for exposure is a huge mistake.

Additionally, and here’s another thing that’s often overlooked: take the time to learn how your camera’s actual capture differs from what its histogram tells you. The histogram is based on a jpeg preview, but if you’re shooting raw, you almost always have more information than the histogram shows you. Each camera model is different, so you need to do a little observing or testing to determine how far you can push your camera’s histogram beyond its boundaries and still get usable data. Shooting this way, the jpeg that comes out of the camera may indeed show blown highlights or unrecoverable shadows, but they’ll come back like magic in Lightroom/Photoshop (or whatever your processing paradigm).

When I photographed this moon rising above Yosemite Valley last February, even though the color and exposure of the finished image you see here is pretty close to what my eyes saw, the image that appeared on my camera’s LCD screen looked nothing like this. The sky was washed out, and the reflection was lost in the shadows. But a quick check of my luminosity histogram told me that I’d captured all the scene’s detail, and verifying with the RGB histogram confirmed that I’d gotten all the color as well.

Usually a perfect histogram is all you need to get the exposure right, but in this case I also had make sure I had detail in the moon, which was by far the brightest thing in the scene. Normally I only use my camera’s highlight alert features (“zebras” pre-capture, blinking highlights post-capture) as a reminder to check my (nearly always more reliable) histogram, but here the moon was too small to register on the histogram. So as I added light, I closely monitored my highlight alert, bumping the exposure in 1/3-stop increments until the flashing appeared. But wait, there’s more! Just seeing the highlight alert wasn’t enough to tell me the moon was blown out. I know my Sony a7RIV well enough to know that I can push my exposure at least a stop beyond where the moon starts blinking and still recover the lunar details in post. This little piece of knowledge enables me to give my moon images the most light possible, ensuring less noise when I pull up the shadows.

In Lightroom I pulled down the highlights, pulled up the shadows, tweaked a few other things (color temperature, vibrance, clarity), then moved the image to Photoshop, where I did some noise reduction (Topaz DeNoise AI), dodging and burning, and (finally) sharpening. Voilà.


More Twilight Magic

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You Can’t Always Get What You Want…

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Accent, Half Dome, Yosemite

Autumn Accent, Half Dome, Yosemite
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 G
1 second
F/16
ISO 100

(Offered with apologies to the Rolling Stones)

I looked that night at the reflection
My focus app in my hand
I pondered my focus selection
About six feet from where I stand

You can’t always get what you want
You can’t always get what you want
You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometimes, you just might find
You get what you need

What we wanted was clouds; what we got was, well, the opposite of clouds.

Photographers love clouds for the soft light they spread across the landscape, and their potential to add color and drama to the sky. And if you’ve been following my recent blogs, you no doubt know about the wall-to-wall blue skies in last month’s Yosemite Fall Color workshop. But as much as we love them, perfect light and spectacular skies can make photographers lazy. On the other hand, dealing with conditions that are less than ideal can create opportunities that otherwise would have been missed.

Throughout last month’s workshop I strongly encouraged everyone to minimize or eliminate the sky and instead emphasize the reflection (rather than the reflected subject). This approach is especially effective on sunny days because the best reflections usually happen with the subject is fully lit, the brighter the better.

Besides a sunlit subject, the other half of the reflection equation is a shaded reflective surface. Long removed from the fury of the spring snow melt, but not yet bolstered by the winter storm reinforcements, the Merced River’s low and slow autumn flow means reflections at most riverside vantage points. And while Yosemite’s towering granite walls create nice shade in any season if you know where to look, the low sun of autumn and winter spreads the shade farther and longer—by late autumn, some sections of the Merced get little or no sun all day.

Since this was the first Yosemite visit for many in the group, at each photo location I’d suggest starting with the more conventional mirror reflection composition (the primary subject above its inverted counterpart), but then move on to compositions that concentrate on the reflection itself.

One important aspect of reflection-only compositions is (upright) foreground elements to orient the viewer—a solid object between the reflection and the reflective subject to signal that the world is in fact not upside down. Sometimes a small section of the opposite shore works (taking care to avoid direct sunlight that can pull the eye away from the reflection), but I especially like adding foreground elements that mingle with the reflection.

A side benefit of a reflection-only approach is exposure management, because photographing a fully lit primary subject above its shaded reflection creates dynamic range challenges. Even if you can capture the scene’s entire range of light, the sunlit subject and blue sky are often washed out, while the reflection and its surroundings remain relatively dark. Since the human eye is drawn to a scene’s brightest elements, the shaded reflection is easily overshadowed (pun unavoidable). Not only does eliminating the sunlit portion of the scene simplify exposure, it makes the reflection the brightest part of the frame.

I found this little scene beside the Merced River on the workshop’s final shoot. Arriving just as the face of Half Dome started to warm with late light, I scanned the riverbank until I found a pool lined with yellow cottonwood leaves jettisoned by trees just upstream. I started with my Sony 100-400 GM lens on my Sony a7RIV, targeting a tight composition that featured a pair of leaves (faintly visible here floating atop the dark trees reflected near the base of Half Dome) embedded in Half Dome’s face. But I wanted to include more of the colorful leaves and soon switched to my Sony 24-105 f/4 G lens.

This might be a good time to mention the significant difference an even slight position shift can make in a reflection image. From my original vantage point, Half Dome’s reflection was surrounded by a large void of bland, empty water. That was no problem in a tight composition, but from my original upright position, going wide enough to include all the leaves shrunk Half Dome and added a lot of extraneous scene. So I moved back slightly and dropped my camera to near river level, moving the yellow leaves closer to Half Dome, framing the reflection with color and eliminating most of the empty water.

Another essential and often overlooked consideration when photographing reflections is the counterintuitive truth that the focus point for a reflection is the reflective subject, not the reflective surface. That means that in this scene, even though its reflection was bobbing on water no more than ten feet away, because Half Dome was about three miles distant, the reflection’s focus point is infinity (the same as Half Dome). When you stop to consider that I’m also including leaves that are no more than five feet away, it becomes pretty clear that I have depth of field to consider.

My focal length here was around 35mm, and while I wanted Half Dome’s reflection sharp, the leaves had to be sharp. A quick check of my hyperfocal app told me the hyperfocal distance at 35mm and f/16 (the smallest aperture I use unless I have no choice) was around 8 feet (on my full frame Sony body). In extreme depth of field scenes, not only do I want to bias my sharpness to the closer object(s), when the more distant object is a reflection, a little softness is usually tolerable. Given all this, and since most hyperfocal tables are based on a fairly liberal definition of “acceptable sharpness,” to ensure foreground sharpness I focused about six feet into the frame. And as you can see, Half Dome turned out pretty darn sharp too.

Everyone wants spectacular conditions, and while this group may not have gotten what it wanted, after seeing the results of the workshop (both my own and the group’s), it appears that we got just we need.

2020 Yosemite Fall Color Photo Workshop


A Lot of Reflections

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The Milky Way Saves the Day

Gary Hart Photography: Yosemite Night, Half Dome and Milky Way from Olmsted Point

Yosemite Night, Half Dome and Milky Way from Olmsted Point
Sony a7SII
Sony 24mm f/1.4 GM
20 seconds
F/1.6
ISO 3200

I’m a one-click photographer (no composites or blending), so all of my Milky Way images were captured in a single frame.

I stress a lot before and during a photo workshop. A lot more than people know, and a lot more than I probably should. Some of that stress probably helps me ensure things go smoothly, but some things are just plain irrational because people know I don’t have any control over things like the weather, dogwood bloom, the northern lights, to name just a few of Nature’s fickle whims. But I stress nevertheless.

For example, I schedule my Yosemite Fall Color photo workshop for the best chance to catch peak color. But when you schedule an autumn trip, there’s no guarantee of nailing the color’s peak (I also learned that there’s no guarantee that your hotel will have power, but that’s another story). My ace-in-the-hole for dealing with Yosemite unknowns like this is that even on a “bad” day, it’s still Yosemite. I also remind myself that Yosemite is blessed with a wide variety of deciduous trees to stretch the fall color season, and the low and slow Merced River means ubiquitous mirror reflections. But still, I stress.

I’ve found that the key to minimizing my stress is having options to fall back on when Plan A doesn’t materialize, something that will make the workshop memorable even when things aren’t exactly what we’d hoped for. Which is why, when possible, I try to schedule my workshops around astrophotography options. That way, when I don’t get clouds (which are always preferred over blank blue skies), the conditions are good for astrophotography. But I can’t schedule my fall workshops around the night sky because peak color trumps everything—I just have to take the moon and Milky Way in whatever state I find it. More stress.

This year’s Yosemite autumn workshop got the color and reflections I’d hoped for, but not one cloud in four days. Not only that, a power outage meant no lights, heat, hot water, or WiFi in our hotel for the first two days. The group knew the power outage wasn’t my fault, but that’s not really my idea of how to make a workshop memorable. So I started to look for options.

While I hadn’t planned this workshop around astrophotography, when it started to become clear that no clouds were in our future, I started looking for night sky options. And as luck would have it and through no planning on my part, this workshop straddled the new moon, which meant a possible crescent at sunrise or sunset. Unfortunately, neither the sunrise or sunset crescent aligns with any of Yosemite’s nice views in autumn. Of course another nice thing about a new moon is dark skies, ideal for night and (especially) Milky Way photography. Hmmm….

But trying to photograph the Milky Way posed another problem. In autumn, the Milky Way’s brilliant core glows above the southwest horizon after sunset, then disappears for the night before midnight. And unfortunately, nearly all of Yosemite’s best views face east. The one exception is Olmsted Point, a southwest-facing view of Half Dome on the Tioga road near Tenaya Lake and Tuolumne Meadows. (This was no great discovery—people have been photographing the Milky Way from Olmsted Point for awhile.) Though I’d never done it, the Milky Way from Olmsted Point has been on my to-do list for a long time, but I’ve always resisted taking a group up there because it’s about a 2 1/2 hour roundtrip from our hotel. And at 8000 feet, at the end of October, Olmsted Point is quite chilly after dark.

When I pitched the Milky Way idea to the group, everyone was all for it (the option was to return to a hotel without lights, heat, hot water, or WiFi). Before leaving I gave the group some Milky Way photography training, made sure they had equipment that would work (sturdy tripod, fast and wide lens), and (especially) reminded them to bring their warmest clothing (including a hat and gloves). As a bonus, to break up the drive we made a 30-minute stop at Siesta Lake for some nice color and reflections. Even with that stop, we made it up to Olmsted Point about an hour before sunset.

Olmsted Point is a granite dome with great views of Half Dome’s face from the opposite side viewed from Yosemite Valley. In addition to having some of my favorite foreground options for Half Dome, it’s a great spot to get up close and personal with evidence of Yosemite’s glacial past. Most obvious are the glacial erratics, large (some car-size and larger) boulders carried by glaciers and deposited in place as the glaciers retreated. But you don’t have to look hard to spot other signs of glaciation, like glacial polish (granite with glassy smooth and reflective finish), and glacial striations (grooves scoured in the granite by rocks embedded in the moving ice sheets).

For the sunset shoot we made the five minute walk out to the point itself, but I brought everyone back to the vista at the parking lot for the Milky Way shoot because I didn’t want anyone to get hurt scrambling down in the dark. After dark the temperatures dropped and the wind picked up, so some of the group opted for the warmth of the cars, but the rest of us set up our tripods and cameras, picked our compositions, and focused before it got too dark. Then we waited.

The only restaurant option closed at 9 p.m., which gave us only about 45 minutes of quality Milky Way time before we had to head back down the mountain to avoid missing dinner, but that turned out to be just about right—everyone who stayed out to shoot got nice stuff, and no one froze. I hadn’t been sure that adding this unplanned Milky Way shoot was the right thing to do, but on the drive back I breathed a private sign of relief because the trip had gone even better than I’d hoped. My stress lifted completely when we pulled into the hotel parking lot to find the lights on.


To help you understand and photograph the Milky Way, here’s the Milky Way article from my Photo Tips section

Photograph the Milky Way

Gary Hart Photography: Bristlecone Night, Milky Way from the White Mountains, California

Bristlecone Night, Milky Way from the White Mountains, California

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 sky. Ranging from magnificently brilliant to faintly visible, this is the Milky Way, home to our sun and nearly a half trillion other stars of varying age, size, and temperature.

Size and shape

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

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 lights of a distant city blend into a homogeneous glow—similarly, the stars in the Milky Way’s luminous band are simply too numerous and distant to resolve individually. On the other hand, the individual pinpoints of starlight that we name and mentally assemble into constellations are just closer, much like the lights of nearby farmhouses. And the dark patches in the Milky Way aren’t empty space—like the trees and mountains that block our view of the city, they’re starlight-blocking interstellar dust and gas, remnants of exploded stars and the stuff of future stars.

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

Blinded by the light

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

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

Horizon to Horizon

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

Where the action is

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

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Endless Possibilities

Gary Hart Photography: Winter Moonrise, Horsetail Fall and Half Dome, Yosemite

Winter Moonrise, Horsetail Fall and Half Dome, Yosemite
Sony a7RII
Sony 100-400 GM
ISO 200
f/10
1/160 seconds

This picture from last February features two beautiful photographic phenomena, one with (literally) thousands of cameras trained on it, the other virtually ignored. You might be surprised to learn that for most, the “main event” about to take place in this scene wasn’t the moonrise, it was the light on the thin stripe of waterfall trickling down the diagonal shoulder of El Capitan (the top is in shadow). But while (it seemed) virtually the entire photographic world was elbow-to-elbow in Yosemite Valley hoping for their shot at the day’s last light on Horsetail Fall, I was one of a half dozen or so photographers chilling at Tunnel View, waiting for the moon to rise.

When I’d arrived at Tunnel View and saw a herd of several dozen photographers already set up, I was initially heartened to think that so many photographers had foregone the Horsetail mayhem in favor of the moonrise. But why had they set up so far down the wall, behind trees that obstructed their view of Half Dome? It wasn’t hard to conclude that they weren’t there for the moon at all, they were there for Horsetail Fall. And as I waited for the moon, still more photographers showed up, and though there was plenty of room at spots with a far better view of the entire scene (including Horsetail Fall), every single new arrival crammed in to the scrum pointed at Horsetail Fall.

Photographing Horsetail Fall is kind of like dropping a quarter in a slot machine and hoping all the cherries line up: 1. Sun angle—the light’s right only at sunset for a couple of weeks in February (and October, when the fall is dry); 2. Snowmelt—no snowmelt, no waterfall; 3: Sunlight—all it takes is one cloud to block the sun and send everyone home disappointed. The jackpot? Some version of a picture that’s not much different from thousands (millions?) of other pictures.

Don’t get me wrong—the Horsetail Fall phenomenon is breathtaking, unique, and absolutely photo-worthy. But I do think that photographers, myself included, can be somewhat myopic when it comes to subject choice, deciding far too soon what “the” shot is and missing something even better as a consequence. And when they’re not sure what the shot is, instead of trusting their own vision, they just do what everyone else is doing.

We all could be a little better about considering photo opportunities beyond the obvious. Never is this more clear than in the image reviews in my photo workshops. In my image reviews everyone shares an image taken during the workshop (I project the image for all to see), and I offer constructive feedback. When I started doing workshops, I assumed that the prime benefit from the image reviews would be my “expert” critique, and while I like to think my suggestions do help, I didn’t anticipate how effective this image sharing is at conveying to everyone the unlimited possibilities each scene offers. We’re all photographing the same locations, but the variety of images always catches me off guard. In fact, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked at a workshop student’s image and thought, wow, how did I miss that?

It turns out the photographers who locked in on Horsetail this evening were disappointed. A rogue cloud, low in the west and unseen from Yosemite Valley, blocked the sun at just the wrong time. But that’s not the point—even if Horsetail Fall had lit up like red magma, there were other things to photograph in Yosemite that evening. And I wonder how many photographers would have opted to photograph the moonrise had they known about it.

I don’t share this image to pat myself on the back—I came to Yosemite specifically for this shot and didn’t really look for anything else. Therefore, it’s entirely possible that something even more special was happening behind me. (One reason I write these blogs is to remind myself of stuff like this.)

In life, we stop learning the instant we believe we have the answer. It’s equally true that photographers stop being creative the instant they “know” what the shot is. Our ability to grow as photographers is determined by our ability to open our eyes (and mind!) to the endless possibilities not yet visible.

An Evening’s Rewards

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Alternate Perspectives

(Views Away from the Conventional Scene)

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It’s All About Relationships

Gary Hart Photography: Moon and Mist,Tunnel View, Yosemite

Moon and Mist,Tunnel View, Yosemite
Sony a7R
Sony/Zeiss 24-70 f4
1 second
F/11
ISO 100

Think about how much our lives revolve around relationships: romance, family, friends, work, pets, and so on. They’re such a big part of human existence that it’s no wonder most of the significant compositional choices photographers make involve relationships between elements in our scenes, either to one another or to their environment.

A pretty sunset is nice, but a pretty sunset over the Grand Canyon especially nice. Likewise, why be satisfied with an image of mountain cascade when we can accent the scene with an autumn leaf? And wouldn’t that tree up there on the hill look great beneath a setting crescent moon? Conscious choice or not, these are all relationships—distinct elements connected in a shared moment.

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Some photographers are better than others at creating relationships; some do it instinctively, seemingly pulling relationship from thin air no matter where they are to find a nearby tree that perfectly complements a distant peak; others are more calculating, identifying the potential for a future relationship and taking the steps to be there when it happens—a moonrise, the Milky Way, or a rainbow. Most photographers fall somewhere on the continuum connecting these two extremes. And contrary to what you might read online or hear in your camera club, there is no single “best” approach to creating photographic relationships.

The more we can think in terms of finding relationships in nature, adding that extra element to our primary subject, or finding multiple elements and organizing them, through positioning and framing, in a way that guides the eye through the frame, the more our images will connect on a subconscious level that draws people closer and holds them longer.

Relationship heaven

Yosemite visitors burst from the darkness of the Wawona Tunnel like Dorothy stepping from her monochrome farmhouse into the color of Oz. This is Tunnel View, a veritable who’s-who of Yosemite icons chock full of ready-made relationships for photographers to feast on: El Capitan, Cloud’s Rest, Half Dome, Sentinel Rock, Sentinel Dome, Cathedral Rocks, Leaning Tower, and Bridalveil Fall. That’s a lot of stuff to take in without a camera, so it’s easy, especially for first-time or infrequent visitors, to just snap a picture of the whole thing and call it good.

If you keep the camera out a little longer, or visit Tunnel View a few times, relationships within the relationships start to pop out: El Capitan and Half Dome, Half Dome and Bridalveil Fall, Bridalveil Fall and Cathedral Rocks, and so on. But as nice as these combinations are, Yosemite’s truly special stuff doesn’t happen until the conditions cooperate by serving up a clearing storm, rainbow, fresh snow, or rising moon.

I’m fortunate to live close enough to Yosemite to time visits with the idea of adding these little extras to my images. Some of these trips come up at the last minute, spurred by a weather forecast that promises snow or lightning. Other trips I can plan months or years in advance, based on where the sun, moon, or stars will be, or maybe to catch a seasonal feature like fall color. These are the visits that I usually time my Yosemite workshops for: light on Horsetail Fall in February, a moonbow or the dogwood bloom in spring, fall color each autumn, or a rising full moon in winter.

About this image

My goal this December evening a few years ago was a nearly full (96%) moon rising through the twilight hues above Half Dome. It had been on my calendar for over a year, but thanks to a winter storm, the main event was in doubt when I arrived. Fortunately, the clouds soon relented, parting just as the sky started to pink up. As a bonus, the departing storm left the valley floor glazed with a treetop hugging mist. (Talk about an embarrassment of riches.)

When I photograph a scene with so much going on, I first decide the feature or features to highlight—which brings me back to the relationship thing. The entire scene this evening, from El Capitan on the left to Leaning Tower on the right, was beautiful, but I knew the more of it I included, the smaller the moon became—and to me the moon was the star of this show.

When assembling elements in any composition, I start by identifying the objects with visual weight—the objects that will draw viewers’s eyes. Contrast, mass, color, position all play a role in determining visual weight. In this case I identified the moon, Half Dome, and Bridalveil Fall (in that order). Sometimes I can adjust these obects’ relationships to each other by strategic positioning—moving left/right, forward/backward, up/down—but here I was perched on a cliff behind the conventional Tunnel View vista, which limited my mobility.

Evaluating the scene, pretty much everything I wanted in this image was between Half Dome and Cathedral Rocks. I quickly decided that a vertical composition would be best to feature the color in the sky and fog on the valley floor without going wider than necessary. And while I’d normally try to avoid having the two “heaviest” objects on the same side of my frame (the moon and Half Dome), in this scene the right side of the frame had enough extra stuff to balance things. In addition to Bridalveil Fall, I also had bulky Cathedral Rocks and a solitary evergreen standing boldly against the fog.

My final decision was how to handle the nearby evergreen lurking on the right. To gain some separation between the tree and Bridalveil, I moved as far left as my surroundings allowed, enabling me to use the tree as a natural frame on the right border. Click.


Yosemite Relationships

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Yosemite for the First Time—Again

Last Light on Half Dome, Yosemite Valley
Sony a7R III
Sony 24-105 f/4 G
1/9 second
F/9
ISO 100

On Wednesday I made a quick trip to Yosemite to meet my (old and new) friends and fellow photography pros Don Smith and Ron Modra, plus Ron’s wife MB. Since I’d never met Ron and MB in person (though from conversations with Don I felt like I already knew them), and Ron had never been to Yosemite, I broke my personal rule to stay clear of Yosemite from Memorial Day through September (summer is for the tourists). Plus, after a lifetime of visiting Yosemite, there are few Yosemite firsts remaining, so I live vicariously through the first Yosemite experiences of others.

We met in El Portal, where I deposited my car and hopped in the back of Don’s car with MB. With Don driving and Ron riding shotgun, we headed up the hill discussing a strategy to make the most of our time. The plan we crafted was quickly discarded when we learned at the Arch Rock entrance station that Glacier Point, which had been closed since Saturday night, had just opened.

After a quick stop at Tunnel View to give Ron what should be everyone’s first Yosemite view, we zipped up to Glacier Point. Getting out of the car at Glacier Point, I immediately discovered that the beautiful spring day I’d dressed for had turned to winter. But cold is no match for the enthusiasm of the first time witnessing any of Yosemite’s spectacular views. Not only were the clouds spectacular, they did us the courtesy of parting just enough to illuminate Half Dome for a few minutes.

Our successful Glacier Point detour foreshadowed a spectacular day pinballing about Yosemite Valley, hitting all the spots a first-timer needs to see. Even the weather gods smiled on us, delivering thunderstorms filled the sky with billowing clouds and spread beautiful diffuse light across the park, without much rain.

I’m usually the driver for others’ first time Yosemite experiences, so riding in the back seat allowed me to rubberneck like an actual first-timer. There’s El Capitan! there’s Bridalveil Fall! there’s Sentinel Rock! And on down the list of Yosemite celebrities wearing their spring best. We were a little late for the dogwood, and the blooms that remained were in tatters, but everything else was green and the waterfalls were thundering, even for May. At each stop Ron’s excitement reminded me of a kid on Christmas morning, and seeing it all through his eyes, I totally got it. (Ron shot for Sports Illustrated for many decades—I imagine his reaction was no more enthusiastic than mine would be my first time in a Major League clubhouse.)

By 6:30 or so we’d worn Ron and MB out (well, Ron at least). With the rain starting to fall again, they declared their mission accomplished. With little sign of an impending sunset, and against the advice from Don and me, they decided to call it a day so Ron could get back and open the presents he’d so enthusiastically collected all day.

Our last stop was Valley View, where I realized that despite the beautiful conditions, I’d been so caught up in the view that hadn’t taken my camera from my bag all day. Chatting with MB while Don and Ron worked the beautiful scene, we agreed that sometimes it’s nice to enjoy nature without a camera. I know I missed some gorgeous photography, but I felt enriched by the conversation and laughter, and the sublime surroundings I often miss behind a camera.

But…

Saying our goodbyes in El Portal, I noticed breaks in the clouds. Hmmm. Instead of returning to my home in Sacramento, my destination that night was a heretofore undermined hotel between Yosemite and my Thursday destination in Southern California. But with an hour to go until sunset, I did a quick calculation and decided to forego the quickest route (down 140 to Mariposa) and detour back through Yosemite.

Back in the park I found the clouds still hanging in there, delivering the same nice but unspectacular light we’d enjoyed all day. But encouraged by my preview of the sky approaching from the west, I parked at Tunnel View for a few minutes, just to see what happened. I chose Tunnel View for its proximity to my (revised) route, and because when good stuff happens in Yosemite, it usually starts at Tunnel View. Plus, it’s pretty hard to mess up this classic view. And given that my long day was still several hours from ending, I simply wanted to take a pretty picture and Tunnel View was just the low hanging fruit I needed.

So there I waited in my car, one eye on the view, the other on my watch—30 minutes until sunset, 25 minutes, 20 minutes…. About 30 seconds after deciding nothing was going to happen, the granite next to Leaning Tower (the flat granite face just right of Bridalveil Fall) lit up like it had been hit with a spotlight. I was in business.

To get away from the photographers and tourists teeming about the standard vista, I climbed the granite behind the parking lot until I felt alone. I started wide, with my Sony a7RIII and Sony 24-105 lens (I’ve always felt 16-35 is too wide for Tunnel View). When a second spotlight hit Half Dome, I reached into my bag for my Sony a7RII and Sony 100-400 GM. I spent the rest of the shoot switching between the two bodies, trying all the compositions I’ve become so familiar with over the years. My goal this evening wasn’t an artistic masterpiece or some never seen Yosemite perspective, I simply wanted a low-stress shoot that captured this iconic Yosemite scene at its very best. Mission accomplished.

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A Yosemite Spring Gallery

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Get Out of the Way

(And Let the Scene Speak for Itself)

Gary Hart Photography: Nightfall, Full Moon and Yosemite Valley, Yosemite

Nightfall, Full Moon and Yosemite Valley, Yosemite
Sony a7R III
Sony 24-105 f/4 G
1/6 second
F/10
ISO 100

As aggressively as I seek creative ways to express nature with my camera, and as important as I think that is, sometimes a scene is so beautiful that it’s best to just get out of the way and let the scene speak for itself. I had one of those experiences last month at Tunnel View in Yosemite.

There’s a reason Tunnel View is one of the most photographed vistas in the world: El Capitan, Half Dome, Cathedral Rocks, Bridalveil Fall—each would be a landscape icon by itself; put them all together in one view and, well…. But the view this evening was truly transcendent, even by Yosemite standards. In Yosemite Valley below, trees and granite still glazed with the snowy vestiges of a departing storm seemed to throb with their own luminance. And above Half Dome a full moon rose through a sky that had been cleansed of all impurities by the departing storm, an otherworldly canvas of indigo, violet, and magenta.

On these crystal-clear, winter-twilight moonrises, the beauty rises with the moon, reaching a crescendo about 20 minutes after sunset, after which the color quickly fades and the landscape darkens. Unfortunately, a some point before the crescendo, the dynamic range becomes so extreme that no camera (not even the dynamic range monster Sony a7RIII) can simultaneously extract usable detail from a daylight-bright moon and dark landscape.

I’d driven to Yosemite solely to photograph this moonrise, an eight hour roundtrip for 40-minutes of photography. Starting with the moon’s arrival about 20 minutes before sunset, I’d juggled three camera bodies and two tripods, first shooting ultra long, then gradually widening to include more of the snowy landscape. Already my captures had more than justified the time and miles the trip would cost me, but watching the moon traverse the deepening hues of Earth’s shadow, I wasn’t ready to stop.

I’ve learned that with a scene this spectacular, conveying the majesty doesn’t require me to pursue the ideal foreground, or do creative things with motion, light, or depth of field. In fact, I’ve come to realize that sometimes a scene can be so beautiful that creative interpretations can dilute or distract from the very beauty that moves me. On this evening in particular, I didn’t want to inject myself into that breathtaking moment, I just wanted to share it.

To simply my images, I opted for a series of frames that used tried-and-true compositions that I’d accumulated after years (decades) of photographing here, the compositions I suggest as “starters” for people who are new to Yosemite, or use myself to jump-start my inspiration: relatively tight horizontal and vertical frames of El Capitan, Half Dome, Bridalveil Fall; El Capitan and Half Dome; or Half Dome and Bridalveil Fall. In the image I share above I concentrated on Half Dome and Bridalveil Fall, capping my frame with the wispy fringes of a large cloud that hovered above Yosemite Valley.

Simplifying my compositions had the added benefit of freeing all of my (limited) brain cells to concentrate on the very difficult exposure. The margin for error when photographing a moon this far after sunset is minuscule—if you don’t get the exposure just right, there’s no fixing it in Photoshop later: too dark and there’s too much noise in the shadows; too bright and lunar detail is permanently erased. The problem starts with the understandable inclination to expose the scene to make the landscape look good on the LCD, pretty much guaranteeing that the moon will be toast. Compounding this problem is the histogram, which most of us have justifiably come to trust as the final arbiter for all exposures. But when a twilight moon (bright moon, dark sky) is involved, even the histogram will fail you because the moon is such a small part of the scene, it barely (if at all) registers on the histogram.

Rather than the histogram, for these dark sky moon images I monitor my LCD’s highlight alert (“blinking highlights”), which is usually the only way to to tell that the moon has been overexposed. If the moon is flashing, I know I’ve given the scene too much light and need to back off until the flashing stops—no matter how dark the foreground looks. This is where it’s essential to know your camera, and how far you can push its exposure beyond where the histogram and highlight alert warn you that you’ve gone too far.

When I’m photographing a full moon rising into a darkening sky, I push the exposure to the point where my highlight alert just starts blinking (only the brightest parts of the moon, not the entire disk, are flashing), then I give it just a little more exposure. I know my Sony a7RIII well enough to know that I can still give it a full stop of light beyond this initial flash point and still recover the highlights later. The shadows? In a scene like this they’ll look nearly black, a reality my histogram will confirm, but I never cease to be amazed by how much detail I can pull out of my a7RIII’s shadows in Lightroom and Photoshop.

I continued shooting for several minutes after this frame, and discovered later that even my final capture contained usable highlights and shadows. I chose this image, captured nearly five minutes before I quit, because it contained the best combination of color, lunar detail, and clean (relatively noise-free) Yosemite Valley.

Photograph the full moon above Half Dome with me this December

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Letting Nature Speak for Itself

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Thinking Inside the Box

Winter Moonrise, Full Moon and Half Dome, Yosemite
Sony a6300
Sony 100-400 GM
Sony 2x teleconverter
ISO 200
f/11
1/400 second

Roll over, Ansel

Several years ago, while thumbing through an old issue of “Outdoor Photographer” magazine, I came across an article on Lightroom processing. It started with the words:

“Being able to affect one part of the image compared to another, such as balancing the brightness of a photograph so the scene looks more like the way we saw it rather than being restricted by the artificial limitations of the camera and film is the major reason why photographers like Ansel Adams and LIFE photographer W. Eugene Smith spent so much time in the darkroom.”

While it’s true that Ansel Adams and W. Eugene Smith were indeed darkroom masters, statements like this only perpetuate the myth that the photographer’s job is to reproduce the scene “the way we saw it.” And because I imagine that using Ansel Adams himself to peddle this notion must send Ansel rolling in his grave, I’ll start by quoting the Master himself:

  • “When I’m ready to make a photograph, I think I quite obviously see in my mind’s eye something that is not literally there in the true meaning of the word.”
  • “Photography is more than a medium for factual communication of ideas. It is a creative art.”
  • “Dodging and burning are steps to take care of mistakes God made in establishing tonal relationships!”

Do these sound like the thoughts of someone lamenting the camera’s “artificial limitations” and photography’s inability to duplicate the world the “way we saw it”? Take a look at just a few of Ansel Adams’ images and ask yourself how many duplicate the world as we see it: nearly black skies, exaggerated shadows and/or highlights, and skewed perspectives that intentionally emphasize one subject over another, and on and on. And no color! (Not to mention the fact that every image is a two-dimensional rendering of a three-dimensional world.) Ansel Adams wasn’t trying to replicate scenes more like he saw them, he was trying to use his camera’s unique (not “artificial”) vision to show us aspects of the world he wanted us to see, qualities we might otherwise miss or fail to appreciate.

The rest of the OP article contained solid, practical information for anyone wanting to come closer to replicating Ansel Adams’ traditional darkroom techniques in the contemporary digital darkroom. But the assertion that photographers are obligated to photograph the world as they saw it baffles me.

You’ve heard me say this before

The camera’s vision isn’t artificial, it’s different. Dynamic range, focus, motion, and depth are all rendered differently in a camera than they are to the human eye. And while the human experience of any scene is 360 degrees, a still images is constrained by a rectangular box. Forcing images to be more human-like doesn’t just deny the camera’s unique ability to expand viewers’ perception of the world, it’s literally impossible. Which is why I’ve always felt that the best photographers are the ones who embrace their camera’s vision rather than trying to “fix” it.

For example, limiting dynamic range allows us to emphasize color and shapes that get lost in the clutter of human vision; a narrow range of focus can guide the eye and draw attention to particular elements of interest and away from distractions; and the ability to accumulate light over a photographer-controlled interval exposes color and detail hidden by darkness, and conveys motion in an otherwise static medium.

The box

But what about that rectangular box that constrains the world of a still image? I can think of no better way to excise distractions and laser-focus viewers’ attention on the target subject than taking advantage of the camera’s finite world. While many nature photographers default to their wide angle lenses to expand the visual box surrounding their landscape images and save their long lenses for wildlife, a telephoto lens is an essential landscape tool. The world can be a busy place—in even the most spectacular of vistas, so much is happening visually that going wide in a still photo to include as much beauty as possible introduces many extraneous features, and risks shrinking the scene’s most compelling elements to virtual insignificance.

The best way to overcome wide angle scene dilution is to forego the conventional view (the first thing everyone sees), identify the aspects of the scene that make it special, and isolate them with a telephoto lens. Whether it’s a striking mountain or tree, backlit poppy, or rising moon, isolation enlarges the target subject and removes any ambiguity about what the image is about. And an intimate, up-close perspective of a subject more commonly seen from a distance can be truly mesmerizing.

About this image

Gary Hart Photography: Winter Moonrise, Half Dome, Yosemite

Winter Moonrise, Half Dome, Yosemite

I stood atop two feet of packed snow at Tunnel View, more than eight miles from Half Dome, and ten miles from the ridge that would be ground zero for the moonrise that had drawn me in the first place. Along with two other photographers who also seemed aware of the moon’s plans, I had the best (least obstructed) Tunnel View vantage point to myself. Rising full moon or not, before me the table was set for a spectacular Yosemite feast: Brand new snow glazed every exposed surface, and in the pristine winter air, Tunnel View’s veritable who’s who of Yosemite landmarks—El Capitan, Cloud’s Rest, Half Dome, Sentinel Rock, Sentinel Dome, Cathedral Rocks, and Bridalveil Fall—seemed etched into the scene. Above, dark clouds boiled atop El Capitan, while wispy fog radiated from the valley floor.

Occasionally a tourist would wander up and request help identifying Horsetail’s microscopic filament on El Capitan’s vast granite; one or two even pointed at Bridalveil Fall and asked if that was Horsetail Fall. A couple of people, blissfully oblivious to the Horsetail Fall phenomenon, simply wanted their picture taken with this iconic Yosemite backdrop.

About 150 feet down the wall to my right, at least two-dozen photographers on tripods were inexplicably crammed into a significantly less desirable view. While that vantage point gave them an acceptable sightline to Horsetail Fall (as did my own), the rest of the magnificent Tunnel View vista was partially obscured by trees. The only explanation I could muster for their odd choice was that the first to arrive for some reason set up there, and each subsequent photographer assumed that since others have set up here, this must be the spot.

While Horsetail Fall was irrelevant to my objective this evening, the overnight snow still clinging to the trees was undeniable bonus. Getting to Tunnel View had been an adventure, worse even than I’d expected, and I was glad that I’d allowed ample time. The difficulty started with a 30-minute (Horsetail Fall gawker infused) queue at the Arch Rock entrance station. My suspicion that these were mostly inexperienced photographers and tourists (who’d just read an article or seen a news segment and decided to check it out) was confirmed when I was forced to navigate a slalom course of slipping, sliding, spinning cars that had ignored the very clearly communicated chain controls. The serious photographers, those who had photographed Horsetail Fall before, or who had the sense to research the phenomenon well in advance, had been in position for the five-minute show for hours.

With the moon’s imminent arrival upon a scene that already bordered on visual overload, my plan to ensure that the main purpose of my visit didn’t get swallowed by Tunnel View’s conventional post-storm majesty was to start, while the moon was still right on the horizon, with extremely tight compositions. As the moon rose, I planned to widen my focal length, gradually including more scene and turning the moon into more of an accent.

To achieve this, I was flanked by two tripods, and had three camera bodies fired up and ready for action: my Sony a7RIII, a7RII, and a6300. Atop my Really Right Stuff TVC-24L tripod was my a6300 loaded with my Sony 100-400 GM and Sony 2X teleconverter. This combination gave me a 600-1200mm full-frame equivalent focal range (because the a6300 is a 1.5-crop APS-C sensor). When including the rising moon required reducing my focal length below 800mm, I’d switch to my higher resolution, full frame Sony a7RII. And because the moon would rise just about 20 minutes before sunset, I also had to be aware of the possibility that Horsetail Fall would fire up. To handle that possibility, and to cover all my general wide composition needs, mounted on my RRS TQC-14 tripod was my Sony a7RIII and Sony 24-105 f/4 lens.

I pointed my a6300/100-400 at the point where I expected the moon to appear about 20 minutes before sunset, zoomed all the way out to 800mm (1200mm full-frame equivalent), metered, focused, and waited. I started clicking almost immediately after seeing the moon’s leading edge nudge through the trees, refining my composition slightly after each click until I had the right balance of moon and Half Dome. It always surprises me how quickly the moon moves, speed that’s magnified tremendously at such an extreme focal length. Spending the next 40 minutes frantically changing focal lengths, switching lenses and camera bodies, re-metering and re-focusing, and bouncing between tripods, I felt like the percussionist in a jazz band.

When the moon climbed far above Yosemite Valley and the dynamic range between the daylight-bright moon and nighttime landscape made photography impossible, I paused before packing up my gear and just marveled at the beauty. Horsetail Fall had caught a few late rays of sunlight but never did completely light up. I thought about the disappointment of frigid photographers who had waited patiently in the valley below for a show that didn’t happen, and counted my blessings.

Photograph next year’s February full moon in my Yosemite Winter Moon photo workshop


Isolation Sensation

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Winter Moonrise

Gary Hart Photography: Winter Moon, Half Dome, Yosemite

Winter Moonrise, Half Dome, Yosemite
Sony a7RIII
Sony 100-400 GM
Sony 2x teleconverter
ISO 100
f/11
1/25 second

With a wide variety of spectacular and diverse east-facing views, I can think of no better place to photograph a moonrise than Yosemite. I especially like the December full moon because it aligns so well with Half Dome, not just on the night it’s full, but on the nights leading up to the full moon.

When I realized that this year’s December full moon was so close to Christmas, I almost didn’t schedule my annual Yosemite Winter Moon workshop, but then I figured that since I’ll be there anyway, I may as well. I’m so glad I did—the workshop filled, and the skies were clear enough (never a sure thing in December) that we photographed the moon on three of the workshop’s four nights, culminating in a very special moonrise to wrap up the workshop (a topic for a future blog post).

The closer it is to full, the closer to sunset the moon rises, arriving several hours before sunset a few days before it’s full, then a little later each evening before rising right around sunset on the full moon day. Since a waxing (increasing in fullness) moon is always higher at sunset than it will be the next day, with a little planning, it’s possible to time several consecutive days’ shoots to coincide with the moon rising right around sunset. For this year’s workshop I’d planned three sunset moonrises for my group, each (more or less) aligning the moon and Half Dome, getting farther from Half Dome each day.

About this image

While the first of my planned moonrise shoots was Wednesday, when the moon rose above the flat horizon about two hours before sunset, the horizon in Yosemite is anything but flat. I took my group to a favorite location beside the Merced River on Yosemite Valley’s east side, less than three miles from Half Dome, where the relatively steep view angle to the top of Half Dome means that it takes the moon a couple of hours to climb into view here.

Though not labeled on the map, this spot isn’t a secret to photographers, so I arrived about 45 minutes early, partly to allow everyone time to prepare, but also to ensure that we wouldn’t need to battle anyone else for position. I told everyone that the moon would appear at around 4:30 from directly above the top of Half Dome, and suggested that they be ready with their compositions beforehand.

My own composition had been planned long in advance—having photographed more than my share of moonrises from this wide angle location, I decided on an extreme telephoto approach this time. I added my Sony 2X teleconverter to my Sony 100-400 GM lens, mounted the pair on my tripod, and attached my (full frame) Sony a7RIII. I pointed my 800mm of focal length at Half Dome’s summit and waited. <Continues below>

Prior Moonrises From This Location

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I never tire of seeing the glow of the moon’s leading edge peak above the horizon, and this evening was no exception. When the moon nudged into view, the sounds of chatter and laughter were instantly replaced by clicking shutters. Watching the moon grow in my viewfinder, I adjusted my composition slightly before each click. When the moon gained separation from the granite to become fully visible, I panned slowly to the right and saw that with the right framing it would appear nestled into a subtle bowl-shaped curve atop Half Dome and locked in a composition that would last for a few minutes as the moon continued its ascent. A thin wisp of cloud scooted through the scene as I clicked this frame, lit by the day’s final rays.

One more thing

Looking at the distant world at 800mm reveals previous invisible detail. So once I’d settled on a composition that I could stick with for a few clicks, I allowed my eye wander the frame and noticed dangling icicles lining Half Dome’s rim. I continue to be blown away by the sharpness of the Sony 100-400; not only is this lens unbelievably sharp, I literally cannot tell a difference when I pair it with the Sony 2X teleconverter.

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Yosemite Moons

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