Good Things Come to Those Who Wait

Gary Hart Photography: Nightfall, Yosemite Valley Moonrise

Nightfall, Yosemite Valley Moonrise
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 G
.8 second
F/10
ISO 400

So much to do after two workshops in the last two weeks (and all the planning and recovery that goes with them). I had ambitious plans to return home late Friday night and hit the ground running first thing Saturday morning, so imagine my frustration to walk into my chilly house (I’d turned off the heat before I left), equal parts hungry and tired, at about 11 p.m. to find my internet down. When I discovered no dial tone on my landline (yes, I still have a landline), I realized this was a Comcast problem. Uh-oh. Having dealt with Comcast problems in the past (don’t get me started on their automated phone support system), I set aside food, warmth, and sleep to immediately call Comcast tech support. (Cold, hungry, tired, and no internet—suddenly I knew how the Donner Party must have felt.)

After about two hours on the phone (no, I do not want to reset my modem for the eighth time!), the best I could do was arrange for a Sunday house call—not bad for Comcast, but certainly not great for someone with a business to run, especially given all I had to do. I went to bed strategizing my Saturday, figuring I could at least load and process my images, and handle my basic internet needs by turning my phone into a wifi hot spot. But Saturday morning when I tried to connect  my computer to my phone and load a page, my computer just stared back dumbly. I checked my reception and saw it bouncing between one and zero bars. I found a corner by the window that at least seemed to stay at one bar and called T-Mobile. Turns out a tower was down, but at least they were sorry. (I actually think T-Mobile’s tech support is very good, especially after dealing with Comcast.) And for some reason my Adobe Creative Suite wouldn’t load either (usually it works fine without connectivity, but I didn’t have the bandwidth to debug the problem without internet).

The additional technical frustration between then and now included multiple support calls with Comcast and T-Mobile and a trip to the Comcast store to swap out my modem, all culminating with a visit from a very nice Comcast technician who fixed the problem and told me the support rep I talked to yesterday could have fixed it over the phone. Sigh.

So here I am, it’s Sunday night and have a blog to write. I loaded my images, grabbed one from Friday night, processed it, and here you go. Now for something to say….

I’d scheduled my Yosemite Winter Moon workshop around this grand finale, a full moon rising from directly behind Half Dome right at sunset on Friday evening. The rest of the workshop had already been really nice—multiple rainbows on Yosemite Falls (Upper and Lower), a warmup moonrise on Thursday night, and even a bonus Horsetail Fall shoot (I’d made it clear that the moon, not Horsetail Fall, was the priority for this workshop) when it became clear the conditions would be perfect, and I had cracked this year’s NPS Horsetail Fall restrictions code—but this moonrise is what we’d all been looking forward to.

Because of the crowds in the park and the fact that the moonrise was apparently not a secret (how I long for the good old days), we got to our moonrise spot above the Tunnel View vista about two hours early. After not seeing a single cloud for the entire workshop, the first thing we saw as we unpacked and set up our gear was a bank of thin clouds that had set up camp low on the horizon, directly behind Half Dome. At first they appeared to be moving on and I was pretty optimistic about our moonrise, but as the appointed hour approached I grew increasingly pessimistic—not only were clouds thickening, they were expanding.

Sure enough, zero hour arrived with no sign of the moon, but we did get some nice color in the clouds and the group, while disappointed, seemed happy enough with what did get. The scene was so nice in fact that we were in no rush to leave despite the darkening landscape. Which is why we were still primed and ready for action when I noticed a faint glow in the clouds above Sentinel Rock. Could it be?

Yes it could. What started as a glow quickly revealed itself to be the lunar disk we’d been waiting for. And though it wasn’t apparent to our eyes, it was clear that the moon had edged into a patch of thinner clouds, because as we frantically clicked, actual lunar detail started to emerge. In fact, the clouds that originally thwarted our moonrise turned out to be a benefit when they moderated the moon’s brightness enough to allow us to photograph long after it have been too bright.

In my prior blog post I wrote about the joy of unexpected gifts from nature, events that seem to come out of nowhere, just when you’ve about given up hope. Now it had happened in consecutive workshops. I realize that moments like this are the exception, but they really do more than make up for all the disappointment nature likes to deal.

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Worth Waiting For

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

Natural Tension

Gary Hart Photography: Clearing Storm, Half Dome Reflection from Sentinel Bridge, Yosemite

Clearing Storm, Half Dome Reflection from Sentinel Bridge, Yosemite
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 G
Breakthrough 6-stop dark polarizer
2.5 seconds
F/16
ISO 50

Since the start of the pandemic, many (most?) of us have have found lots of time to catch up on books and movies (among other things). Of course that also includes me, and as a photographer I find it hard not to find parallels between my chosen creative medium and these others. The tension in books and movies, whether dramatic, comedic, or some combination of both, originates from the interaction of characters with each other and/or their surroundings, and the change that interaction spawns over time. Which of course got me thinking about whether it’s possible to create tension in a still photograph, and if so, how?

Relationships

Though we might not be conscious of it, the best photographic images do indeed convey a form of tension. It’s human nature to seek relationships, not just in our lives, but in our art as well. Every relationship has inherent tension, an invisible connecting thread that pulls tighter as the relationship strengthens.

Lacking the passing of time and the change it brings, still-photographers must create tension by setting up relationships between disparate elements in our frame. We signal these relationships, thereby dialing up the tension, through careful positioning of compositional elements (Google “rule of thirds” and “golden ratio”).

The most obvious relationships available to landscape photographers is the juxtaposing independent physical elements in the scene. For example, pairing a foreground tree or flower with a distant peak permanently creates a relationship between two formerly unrelated subjects. Reflections are an easy way to connect a nearby water feature to a distant subject. And then there are the dynamic celestial elements like the moon and stars, and ephemeral weather phenomena such as lightning and rainbows, that make powerful connections with terrestrial subjects.

But wait, there’s more…

Even though no time passes in a still frame, landscape photographers can and do signal time’s advance. Whether conscious of it or not, when we photograph the color and light of the natural boundaries separating day and night, the broken clouds and rainbows of a clearing a storm, or the juxtaposition of elements distinctive to two seasons, we signal the passage of time and the tension inherent in its inexorable march.

Lacking other features to set them apart, the cliched nature of sunrises and sunset images diminishes their power to generate tension—in other words, sunrises and sunsets are a dime a dozen, so if you’re going to photograph one, you’d better make an effort to put it with a strong scene. On the other hand, though it’s always important to seek a strong composition regardless of the conditions, the more rare the change, the better it can overcome an otherwise ordinary scene.

A clearing storm can feel like catching lightning in a bottle (a nice rainbow can elevate nearly any scene), but an even rarer opportunity to capture change is a scene with clear signs of two seasons. That’s especially true in my home state of California, where seasons tend to be more of an afterthought. But that doesn’t mean opportunities to photograph seasonal change here are nonexistent. California does get spectacular spring wildflower blooms, and our autumn color display (though maybe not as spectacular as some other places), can be very nice.

Bracketing spring and autumn on one side is summer, hands-down California’s least photographically compelling season. But on the other side of spring and autumn is winter. While most of the state doesn’t get snow, our mountains do (and lots of it)—capturing late snow on wildflowers and dogwood (an extremely rare event), and early snow on fall color, are real treats.

So maybe I should have warned you that there’d be math…

Which brings me to this image from my visit to Yosemite during an early November snowstorm. I really don’t need to go on any more about this day—if you’ve been reading my blog for the last couple of months, you’re probably well beyond sick of hearing about it. But it does illustrate the synergy of combining two seasons in one image. No one can deny that fall color is beautiful, and fresh snow is beautiful too (which of these is more beautiful is in the eye of the beholder, and a debate for another day). But if we were somehow able to quantify beauty, I suspect that we’d find the total amount of beauty (“beauty-units,” “beauty-bucks”?) in a fresh snow on fall color image would exceed the sum of the beauty derived from an image with fall color plus the beauty of an image with fresh snow.

You could attribute this synergy to the relative rarity of snow on fall color, but I think the power goes deeper than that. There’s just something about change the ups the stakes, so even though this is nothing more than a (totally unprovable) mental exercise (maybe I’ve been locked up too long), I’m sticking with the theory that the synergistic power of an image that combines the distinctive best of two seasons is the tension of change it conveys.


The Tension of Change

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

 

To the Pain

Gary Hart Photography: White Gold, Half Dome Reflection, Yosemite

White Gold, Half Dome Reflection, Yosemite
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 G
Breakthrough 6-stop dark polarizer
4 seconds
F/16
ISO 50

When you stop to consider all the components that have to fit into place to make a successful landscape image, it’s a wonder we don’t all just stay inside and watch TV. First there’s mastery of photography’s creative side, which requires the ability to distill our dynamic, multi-sensory, three-dimensional world into a coherent two-dimensional image. Then there’s the technical side, where we juggle our camera’s aperture, shutter speed, and ISO settings to control the scene’s depth, light, and motion. And as if meshing all these moving parts into something visually appealing weren’t daunting enough, don’t forget to factor in photography’s mental component: knowing where to be and when to be there; the foresight to recognize what might happen next and the patience to wait for for it; and finally, the fortitude to endure hunger, sleep depravation, and whatever elements Mother Nature throws our way.

Yet somehow photography happens. And like most things in life, I’ve always thought photography’s greatest joy comes from doing the hard work and overcoming difficulty. Sometimes spectacular just falls in our lap, but most of my favorite images simply those images I feel like I earned.

Nature photography’s 3 P’s

To remind myself (and others) of the photography’s mental side, many years ago I identified what I call, “The 3 P’s of nature photography.” These sacrifices, large and small, a nature photographer must make to consistently create successful images.

  1. Preparation is your foundation, the research that gets you in the right place at the right time, plus the vision and mastery of your camera that allows you to wring the most from the moment. It’s controlling exposure and focus, knowing your equipment, and understanding the subject. Preparation is also just having the right equipment for the moment, from the lenses in your bad to weather-appropriate clothing.
  2. Persistence is patience with a dash of stubbornness. It’s what keeps you going back when the first, second, or hundredth attempt has been thwarted by unexpected light, weather, or a host of other frustrations, and keeps you out there long after any sane person would have given up. And just as important, persistence is a willingness to wait as long as necessary for the moment to be right, and not just settling for “good enough.”
  3. Pain is suffering for your craft. I’m not suggesting that you risk your life for the sake of a coveted capture, but you do need to be able to ignore the tug of a warm fire, full stomach, sound sleep, and dry clothes, because the unfortunate truth is that the best photographs almost always seem to happen when most of the world would rather be inside.

An assignment

The truth is, you almost certainly already do it. Pick some of your favorite captures, pop them onto the screen, and try to put yourself back at that time and place. Ask yourself which of the 3 P’s you employed, and be generous with yourself and not too quick to write an image off to blind luck.

Practicing what I preach, here’s my stab at the assignment for this image:

  • Preparation: Some would argue that I was lucky to be in Yosemite last month just as several inches of snow fell on peak fall color. And while my good fortune that day isn’t lost on me, the fact that I was there was no accident. I monitored the weather forecast for snow in Yosemite Valley, adjusted my schedule, and packed the right clothes for the conditions. Of course I also had an intimate familiarity of my subject, from the locations themselves to the best time to be there for the current conditions.
  • Persistence: I can’t tell you the number trips I’ve taken to Yosemite and elsewhere that didn’t amount to anything. In 2013 I scheduled an entire workshop around the arrival of Comet ISON, only to have the comet disintegrate just a couple of days before the workshop. Many times I’ve made the long drive to Yosemite to photograph snow that turned out to be rain. But no matter how many times Mother Nature throws me a curve, I keep coming back and sometimes it pays off. Like this time.
  • Pain: It’s not like I trekked solo across the arctic, or summited Everest without oxygen, for this image. Though this day was cold and wet, and getting to Yosemite required an 8-hour roundtrip drive in less than ideal conditions, I didn’t do anything most other people couldn’t do—I just pried myself from the recliner and hit the road. The drive was sometimes boring (I’ve done it hundreds of times), sometimes stressful (turns out my Outback needed new tires—uhhh, reference Preparation section above), and standing in the snowy cold was less comfortable than lounging inside by a fire. It’s insidious the way these small inconveniences and discomforts try to lure us into staying home, but the payoff happens enough to justify the sacrifice.

A few words about this image

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Snowfall, Half Dome Reflection, Yosemite

Autumn Snowfall, Half Dome Reflection, Yosemite

Sentinel Bridge is such an iconic view of Half Dome that it would be photographic malpractice not to share it with a workshop group, but when I’m in Yosemite by myself I rarely stop here because it lacks compositional variety (it’s hard to find something I don’t already have). But because the conditions on this day were spectacularly unique, I actually stopped here twice. This image was from my first stop, when a light snow still fell and storm clouds ruled the scene.

Half Dome had been swallowed by clouds for a while, but crossing the bridge I saw that it had just emerged so I whipped into the adjacent parking lot. Rather than mess with my entire kit, I just grabbed my tripod, Sony a7RIV, and Sony 24-105 f/4 G lens and jogged up to the rail (maybe 100 feet from the car).

I always do my best to position myself so the trees frame Half Dome without obscuring any of its face, not always easy at this extremely popular spot. I was lucky this time that there were only a couple of other photographers set up so I didn’t have any trouble finding a spot that worked. With the scene so perfect, I didn’t want to get too fancy and risk losing Half Dome to the clouds. I quickly identified the elements I wanted to feature—Half Dome, the upstream trees, and of course the gorgeous reflection—and went to work.

I often start with a vertical composition on Sentinel Bridge, but surveying the scene, when my eyes were drawn to the serpentine ribbon of autumn leaves clinging to the south riverbank I opted to start with a horizontal frame. That left me with a decision about what to about the trees on both sides of the river—how many to include, and whether to cut them off at the top. I finally decided that not cutting them off would give me more sky than I wanted.

With the frame’s top/bottom established, I panned left and right until I was satisfied: enough of the floating leaves—check; Half Dome properly centered (Half Dome has so much visual weight, putting it too far left or right can throw off the balance)—check; the diagonal trunk and snow-capped rock far enough from the left edge that they create compositional balancing elements for that side of the frame—check.

With a few gentle ripples ruffling the reflection, I added my Breakthrough 6-stop dark polarizer, stopped down to f/16, and dialed my ISO to 50. This gave me a 4-second exposure that smoothed the water just enough to allow the reflection to stand out nicely. Once I was satisfied that this composition was a success, I went on to shoot the scene in a variety of other ways as well: wider, tighter, and vertical. (You can see the vertical version in the gallery below.)

Returning to Sentinel Bridge a few hours later, the sun had broken through to light up Half Dome and the tops of the trees, creating a completely different, but no less beautiful, scene (that I haven’t had a chance to process yet).

Many of you no doubt recognize the reference in this post’s title; for those who don’t (inconceivable!), treat yourself to this scene from the best movie ever.


Preparation, Persistence, and Pain

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

Photography With Friends

Gary Hart Photography: Twilight Moonrise, Half Dome and Bridalveil Fall, Yosemite

Twilight Moonrise, Half Dome and Bridalveil Fall, Yosemite
Sony a7RIV
Sony 70-200 f/4 G
ISO 200
f/10
1/8 second

One of my favorite things about landscape photography is the opportunity to experience nature in complete solitude. But since COVID has forced us all to socially distance, I’ve realized that another one of my favorite things about landscape photography is the opportunity to experience nature in the company of others.

There’s a lot of waiting in landscape photography: for the light to be right, the lightning to fire, the sky to darken, the clouds to part, or the moon moon to arrive. But it wasn’t until I started leading photo workshops that I fully appreciated how much I miss sharing that waiting with people who appreciate nature’s beauty as much as I do. Whether it’s actively engaging in conversation, or just watching my workshop students enjoy the company of friends new and old. And then there are the many lasting friendships that formed in workshops.

So about a week before the late November full moon (that I’d circled on my calendar over a year ago), I got the bright idea to invite a half-dozen or so of my favorite photography friends to join me for one of my favorite things in nature: a full moon rising above Yosemite Valley. I sent an e-mail invitation detailing what was going to happen, where I was going to photograph it, and when I’d be there.

My brother Jay and I left for Yosemite late that morning, arriving at Tunnel View about four hours later. After about ten minutes circling and waiting for a place to park (I’ve never seen Yosemite more crowded in November), we made it up to the designated spot right around 4 p.m. I was thrilled to see nearly everyone I’d invited, some who had driven as long as six hours to get there. A couple of them had brought their wives, and one brought a friend.

The standard Tunnel View vista was crowded enough to qualify as a super-spreader event, but since I’d chosen a broad, unmarked slab of granite above the parking lot, we were able to socialize while remaining safely socially distant. The moon would arrive at 4:25, so after enthusiastic greetings and a few elbow-bumps, I opened my bag and went to work.

For this event I set up two tripods: one with a Sony a7RIV and Sony 200-600 with a Sony 2X Teleconverter; one with my other a7RIV and Sony 70-200 f/4. (Normally I’d have used my Sony 24-105 f/4 G, but I’ve shot this moonrise wide so many times that I decided before leaving that I was going to go all telephoto.)

Equipment ready and compositions set, I checked my watch and saw that we still had 15 minutes until the moon arrived. Perfect. Because this shoot was as much about reconnecting with friends as it was about photography, before leaving I’d filled two large thermoses with boiling water, and brought enough cocoa mix for each of us to warm our insides with two steaming cups of chocolate goodness. Sipping cocoa, we enjoyed the view and waited for the moon, chatting, laughing, and simply catching up—just like the good old days.

The moon arrived just as the last sunlight bathed Half Dome in warm hues that started amber and transitioned to soft pink before finally fading. As the moon rose through the darkening sky, the conversation was replaced by clicking shutters.

The image below is one of my first clicks; at the top of the post is one of my final images, captured shortly before the foreground became too dark to capture (with one click) without overexposing the moon.

Gary Hart Photography: Lunar Arrival, Half Dome, Yosemite

Lunar Arrival, Half Dome, Yosemite
Sony a7RIV
Sony 200-600 G
Sony 2x teleconverter
ISO 800
f/18
1/60 second

Down in the parking lot we chatted more in the darkness, reluctant to acknowledge that our gathering was over so fast. I’ve always thought that there are few experiences in nature better than watching the moon rise above Yosemite Valley, but as far as I’m concerned, the highlight of this evening was reconnecting with friends.

Read how I plan my moon shoots

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A Tunnel View Moonrise Gallery

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

Snow Falling on Autumn


Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Snow, Half Dome Reflection, Yosemite

Autumn Snow, Half Dome Reflection, Yosemite
Sony a7RIV
Sony 12-24 f/2.8 GM
1/100 second
F/16
ISO 200

Between peak fall color dancing on reflections everywhere, and a sky that oscillated all day between heavy snowfall and dramatic clearing, this November day was just one of those days when it was best to keep moving. In these conditions that’s easier said than done because whatever I’m photographing is so beautiful, it’s hard to leave. The result is a memory card full of spectacular, but similar, images. So, after a lifetime of photographing Yosemite in spectacular conditions, I’ve learned not to forget that it’s just as beautiful somewhere else.

By the time I made it out to this Half Dome view just a couple of Merced River bends upstream from Sentinel Bridge, I’d circled the valley so many times I was almost dizzy. My usual lens here is my Sony 24-105 f/4 G because I don’t usually think the surrounding scenery justifies shrinking Half Dome and its reflection with a wide lens. But with snow draping towering evergreens and golden cottonwoods, and a mosaic of autumn leaves lining the riverbank, this was no ordinary day.

Though I’d just gotten the Sony 12-24 f/2.8 GM in August, this was only the second time I’d gotten to use it (thank-you-very-much coronavirus), so I figured what the heck and twisted it onto my Sony a7RIV. Then I moved up and down the riverbank looking for the best foreground to put with the rest of this glorious scene. I eventually settled on this spot, drawn by the way the colorful leaves arced and seemed to frame Half Dome’s reflection.

To shrink the empty area between the leaves and reflection, I splayed my tripod legs and dropped it as low as possible, then plopped down in the snow to compose (grateful for my camera’s articulating LCD). The closest leaves were just a couple of feet away, but I really, really wanted the scene to be completely sharp throughout my frame. I was pretty sure that at 12mm and f/11 I had enough depth of field to safely focus anywhere, but why take a chance? I opened my hyperfocal app and confirmed that my hyperfocal distance was just one foot. Nevertheless, since the databases these apps use don’t take into account the extreme resolving power of a GM lens on 61 megapixel sensor, I bumped to f/16 (diffraction be damned) and went to work.

At first I was annoyed by the constant drips from overhead branches that kept disturbing my reflection, but quickly discovered that by timing my clicks, I could use the concentric waves as an accent, without losing the reflection. The single leaf that floated in just below (above?) Half Dome’s reflection was a bonus.

I just updated the Reflections article in my Photo Tips section, but am sharing it below as well

(and check out the Reflections Around the World gallery at the bottom)



Reflections

Reflection

Dictionary.com: The return of light, heat, sound, etc., after striking a surface.

Okay, so that’s pretty basic. How about this one?

Wikipedia: The change in direction of a wavefront at an interface between two different media so that the wavefront returns into the medium from which it originated

Whoa, I hope that’s not on the test.


Who doesn’t love the soothing tranquility of a crisp reflection? And like a metaphor in writing, a reflection is an indirect representation that can be more powerful than its literal double thanks to its ability to engage the brain in different ways than we’re accustomed. Rather than processing the scene directly, we first must mentally reassemble the reflection’s reverse world, and in the process perhaps see the scene a little differently.

Reflections are a powerful photographic tool as well. Water’s universal familiarity makes it an ideal subject for photographers frustrated by their camera’s static representation of our dynamic world. Just as we freeze or blur a waterfall to express turbulent motion, we can include a reflection to convey serenity.

Water reflections come in many forms, from a mirror-sharp inverted mountain shimmering atop a still pool, to an abstract shuffle of color and texture on an undulating lake. Without getting too far into the physics of light, it’s important to understand that every object we see and photograph (that doesn’t generate its own light) comes to us courtesy of reflected light. For example, when sunlight strikes Half Dome in Yosemite, some of the sun’s photons bounce straight back into our eyes, and there it is.

But other photons head off in different directions—some are captured by other sets of eyes, while others land on the surface of the Merced River. Some of these photons penetrate the water to reveal the submerged riverbed, while others carom off at the same angle at which they struck the water, like a pool ball striking the cushion, or a hockey puck off the boards. The ricocheting photons that travel from Half Dome and bounce off the river, reach our eyes as a reflection. In other words, what we call a reflection is in fact re-reflected light (reflected first from El Capitan, then by the river).

Mirror reflection recipe

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Reflection, El Capitan and Three Brothers, Yosemite

Autumn Reflection, El Capitan and Three Brothers, Yosemite

The ingredients for a crisp, mirror reflection is pretty simple: still water, a sunlit subject that’s much brighter than the water’s surface (the greater the contrast the better), and a view angle that matches the angle from the water’s surface to the reflection subject. (The best reflections are usually found on shaded water because there are fewer photons to compete with the photons bouncing from the reflected subject.)

In the image on the left, with El Capitan in direct sunlight but the slow moving Merced River still shaded, my biggest challenge was finding floating fall leaves to include with my reflection. Once I found this spot, my only option was to use my Sony 12-24 f/2.8 GM lens (on my Sony a7RIV body), which gave me a field of view just wide enough to fit El Capitan, Three Brothers, the reflection, and the floating leaves into my frame.

Sunset Palette, Half Dome from Sentinel Dome, Yosemite

Sunset Palette, Half Dome from Sentinel Dome, Yosemite

Playing the angles

Understanding that reflected photons leave the water’s surface at the same angle at which they arrive—imagine the way a tennis ball bounces (if it weren’t affected by spin, wind resistance, or gravity)—helps us get in position for the reflection we want.

A few years ago I found myself atop Sentinel Dome right after an intense rain shower had turned indentations in the granite into small, glistening pools. Rather than simply settle for the vivid sunset coloring the clouds above, I decided to include the sunset reflected in the pools as well. At eye-level the pools reflected blue sky, so I dropped my tripod as low as it would go, almost to granite level, positioning my lens at the same angle to the pools that the red light leaving the clouds struck the water.

When the water’s in motion

Gary Hart Photography: Red Sunset, Lake Wanaka, New Zealand

Red Sunset, Lake Wanaka, New Zealand

As spectacular as a crisp, mirror reflection in still water is, it’s easy to overlook the visual potential of a reflection that’s not crisp, or to forget your camera’s ability to render a soft or abstract reflection much better than your eyes view it. While a crisp reflection often dominates the primary subject in an image, a splash of reflected color or shape can provide a striking accent to a dominant primary subject. And a reflection that’s lost to the continuously varying angles of rippled or choppy water, magically appears when a long exposure smoothes the water’s surface.

In this image from Lake Wanaka on the South Island of New Zealand, all the ingredients were in place for a special sunset reflection until a light breeze disturbed the lake’s surface with gentle undulations. By attaching a Breakthrough 6-stop neutral density filter to my Sony 24-105 f/4 G lens (Sony a7RIII camera), I was able to achieve a 30-second exposure that complete smoothed the lake’s surface. While not a perfect mirror, the resulting reflection has a very pleasing soft, gauzy look. The long exposure smoothed the distant clouds as well.

Where to focus

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Reflection, El Capitan, Yosemite

Autumn Reflection, El Capitan, Yosemite

An often misunderstood aspect of reflection photography is where to focus. Though it seems counterintuitive, the focus point of a reflection is the reflection subject, not the reflection surface. This isn’t such a big deal in a scene like the Half Dome reflection at the top of the post, where the focus point of everything of visual significance is infinity, but it’s a very big deal when you want both your reflection and rocks or leaves on the nearby water surface sharp.

The El Capitan reflection on the right is very different from the Half Dome reflection above, where the extreme depth of field ensured sharpness whether I’d focused on anything in the scene or on the reflection. But here the leaves that were my scene’s primary emphasis were just a couple of feet from my camera, while El Capitan was several thousand feet distant. Even though the leaves floated atop the El Capitan reflection, focusing on El Capitan would have softened the leaves. To increase my depth of field, I stopped down to f/18 and focused several feet into the foreground leaves, then magnified the image on my LCD to verify that all of the leaves were sharp. Though El Capitan is slightly soft, a soft reflection is far more forgivable than a soft foreground.

Think ahead

It seems that reflections often feel like a fortuitous gift that we just stumbled upon. But given that reflections are entirely beholden to the laws of physics, they’re far more predictable than many of the natural elements we photograph. Taking a little time to understand the nature of reflections, and how they’re revealed by a camera, enables photographers to anticipate their appearance.

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Reflections Around the World

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

Starstruck

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Morning, Half Dome and Sunstar from Sentinel Bridge, Yosemite

Autumn Morning, Half Dome and Sunstar from Sentinel Bridge, Yosemite
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 G
1/15 seconds
F/20
ISO 100

I just wrapped up my Yosemite Fall Color and Reflections photo workshop, my first workshop since February. And as you can see from this image taken on our final morning, this year’s workshop absolutely lived up to its name. We enjoyed lots of fall color, and reflections at virtually every twist and turn of the Merced River. We also got to photograph a nearly full moon rising above Yosemite Valley at sunset, and saw more bears than I’ve seen in years (maybe even since my childhood).

All the great photography more than compensated for COVID-related and other difficulties that tried to mess with our mojo. We started with the threat of a fire-danger-induced PG&E power outage and a missing (essential) computer cable. The power shutoff never manifested (phew), but I have no one to blame but myself for the missing HDMI cable that allows me to connect my computer to a TV or projector, and that always lives in my computer bag, I swear (I’ll use the 8-month hiatus as an excuse). Apparently HDMI technology hasn’t made it to Yosemite yet, but a 90-minute round-trip drive to a hardware store Mariposa set things right and we were off and running. Everyone was onboard with the COVID protocol that included masks for group gatherings, outdoor meetings (which worked surprisingly well once I ditched my not-quite-bright-enough projector and moved the TV outside), and suspension of ride-sharing. The no ride-sharing thing is what concerned me most, but a few people volunteered to partner up (completely optional—anyone who wanted to drive alone, could), and we ended up with “only” six cars in our caravan. By pulling over regularly to reassemble, and proactively coordinating our parking strategy, not a single car got separated or missed a shoot.

One of the workshop’s highlights came on our final morning, when we photographed Half Dome from Sentinel Bridge. Because Half Dome’s face stays shaded until late in the day, Sentinel Bridge is normally a late afternoon to sunset location, but in autumn the first sunlight to reach the valley floor pours down the river to illuminate cottonwoods lining the far riverbank. I’d taken very few pictures during this workshop (I’ve been to Yosemite once or twice before), but when I saw the opportunity to add a sunstar to this already beautiful scene, I raced back to my car and grabbed my tripod, Sony a7RIV, and Sony 24-105.

Sunstars have become ubiquitous to the point of cliché, but they can be cool when done right. And sometimes they create a lemonade-from-lemons opportunity to add visual interest to a blank sky, high-contrast scene that has little else going for it. In this case the backlit trees made the Half Dome reflection scene pretty nice anyway, but I thought the sunstar gave it a little punch that took it to the next level. And getting a second sunstar from the reflection was a bonus.

Sunstars happen when light spreads out as it passes through the intersection of the lens’s aperture blades, with the number of blades determining the number of points in the star effect. The lens opening (a.k.a., the aperture, which we measure in f-stops), that is made larger or smaller to allow more or less light to reach the sensor,  is not a perfect circle that expands and shrinks uniformly. Rather, it’s a circular(-ish), symetrical polygon of overlapping blades that expands or contracts depending on the f-stop setting. While never a perfect circle, the larger the aperture is, the closer to round the opening becomes, and the less the light is spread out by the blades and the less pronounced the sunstar will be. Conversely, the smaller the aperture, the more the blades are closed down, and the more extreme the angles at the intersection of each overlapping blade. Therefore, the general rule for photographing a sunstar is to stop down to a small aperture (high f-stop number). I resist closing all the way down because that can create other problems, like diffraction and soft edges, and find f/16-f/20 to be absolutely fine.

As appealing as a sunstar can be, adding one also creates problems that include lens flare and extreme dynamic range, not to mention a brilliant sunstar can be a distracting eye magnet that risks overpowering the rest of the scene. The good news is, despite the difficulties, creating a sunstar is relatively straightforward, and most of the potential problems can be minimized if you’re careful. Here’s a quick recipe:

  • Start with a brilliant, fine point of light: The sun is the most logical, and easiest, candidate, but you can do it with the moon, stars, and pretty much any bright artificial light (lighthouse, headlights, and so on). The smaller the light source, the smaller and more precise the star effect will be, and the less lens flare and blown highlights you’ll have—but also the smaller the sunstar will be. If you use the sun, rather than include the entire sun ( which will work, albeit often to the point of overpowering the scene), it’s usually best to only expose only a small sliver of sun. The most common way to achieve this is to wait until the sun is just barely above the horizon, but you can also also use any terrestrial object: a rock, a tree, a building, and so on. If you use a relatively nearby object rather than the horizon, just position yourself directly on the shadow line—often you can move as the sun moves, staying on the shadow line to extend the sunstar time-window and control the size of the sunstar.
  • The smaller your aperture, the better your sunstar will look: I generally use f16 or smaller (larger f-number).
  • Remove any filters: I usually have a polarizer on each of my lenses, but I take mine off when photographing a sunstar. A polarizer doesn’t make a difference when you’re pointing into the sun, and the extra glass just adds to the lens flare potential by creating more reflections.
  • Watch the highlights: When the sun is actually in your frame, you have highlights that are much brighter than the much of the scene, requiring care to avoid hopelessly white highlights or black shadows. If you have a distinctive foreground shape against the sky, you could turn it into a silhouette, but usually I want more than that in my image. In my Canon days (10D through 5DIII), I used a graduated neutral density filter to subdue the brilliant sun; since switching to Sony, I just monitor my histogram and push the highlights as far to the right as possible without clipping anything more than the center of the sun itself. The result is an image that, except for the sun, looks very dark to almost black on my LCD. But I take comfort in the histogram, which, while bunched up on the left (with a thin spike on the right edge), confirms that most of the shadows are intact. The very first thing I do after importing the image into Lightroom is drag the Highlights slider all the way to the left, and the Shadows slider all the way to the right, and voilà, there’s my scene.
  • Different lenses will yield different results: Experiment with your lenses to see which one gives the most pleasing sunstar effect. Generally wider focal lengths render the best sunstars, as do the higher quality lenses.
  • Practice: You can practice sunstars any time the sun’s out. Just go outside with your camera, dial in a small aperture, and hide the sun behind whatever object is convenient (a tree, your house, etc.).

Armed with this knowledge, I planted myself in an opening along the Sentinel Bridge rail, dialed my lens to f/20, framed up my composition, and waited for the sun to peek from behind a tree. Sunstars with a mirrorless camera are easy because you can see exactly what you’ll get before clicking—with my eye shifting between the sunstar and my histogram, I started clicking, adjusting my shutter speed by 1/3 to 2/3 of a stop with each click to maximize my options later (more/less light, larger/smaller sunstar). When the sun disappeared behind another tree I stopped shooting, pretty pleased with my initial results. But standing there, waiting for the sun, I realized that when it rose enough for its reflection to bounce off the river, we’d have a chance for a double sunstar—one through the trees, the other off of the reflection. (Technically this isn’t a sunstar reflection because the sunstar happens in the lens, not on the water.)

Since we were all standing in a slightly different spot, the sun appeared and disappeared at a different time for each of us, but I alerted everyone of the double sunstar opportunity so they wouldn’t stop as soon as the sun disappeared behind a tree. While waiting for the sun to return to my position, I enjoyed the reactions as others in the group started having success. I gotta say, as much as I missed my workshop locations during the pandemic “break” (I did!), it’s this group experience that I missed the most. It’s great to be back.

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A Galaxy of Sunstars

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

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