Posted on May 5, 2018
A couple of years ago I was blessed to witness one of our planet’s most spectacular phenomena: an erupting volcano. Kilauea on Hawaii’s Big Island has been in near constant eruption for centuries (millennia?), slowly elevating Hawaii’s slopes and expanding its shoreline with lava that cools and hardens to form the newest rock on Earth. This island building process has been ongoing for the last five-million or so years, as the Pacific Plate slowly slides northwest over a hot spot in Earth’s mantle, building the northwest/southeast-trending Hawaiian chain of islands. The Hawaiian Islands get successively older moving northwest up the chain, with the island of Hawaii currently on the hot-seat, making it the youngest of the chain’s exposed islands (though there is a newer, still submerged island rising south of Hawaii).
As active as Kilauea is, much of its volcanic activity occurs out of the view of the average visitor. But on my annual visit in September of 2016, my workshop group and I got a firsthand look at Kilauea’s island-building furnace when the lava lake inside Halemaumau Crater rose high enough to be seen from the safety of the caldera’s rim. (Read more about this experience in my 2016 blog post, Nature’s Transcendent Moments.)
This week Kilauea is back in the news with an eruption far more significant (and destructive) than the event I captured in this 2016 image. The 2016 experience resulted from the good fortune of catching an elevated phase of the normal summit crater activity that started in 2008. The Kilauea activity that started this week, complete with earthquakes and lava flows, is a new eruption in Kilauea’s east rift zone. It could be over in hours or days, or could continue for decades.
The relatively fluid nature of Hawaiian lava makes its eruptions less “run for your life!” crises and more, “Well, I guess I better start packing up,” events that range from inconvenience to financial disasters, but are rarely life threatening. Local residents know the risk and are generally philosophical and positive when Pele points her fiery finger in their direction.
On the other hand, a volcanic eruption in the Cascade mountains of the Pacific Northwest is potentially far more dangerous than a typical Hawaiian eruption. We only need to look back on the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980, a relatively minor event on the continuum of possible Cascade eruptions, to see the extreme power of an explosive eruption. The viscous lava of the Cascade volcanoes makes their eruptions far more dangerous than Hawaii’s eruptions. While Hawaii’s basalt lava flows easily when internal forces push it to the surface, the Cascade lava resists, setting up an irresistible force versus immovable object standoff that is resolved suddenly and explosively (in favor of the irresistible force) as a cataclysmic explosion.
The undeniable aesthetic appeal of the Cascades is actually a byproduct of the the viscous lava that makes them so explosive. As it emerges and flows down the mountain’s side, Cascade lava doesn’t spread too far before cooling in place. The result is a strato-volcano that builds more vertically to form the towering symmetrical cone that photographers love to photograph. The more fluid Hawaiian basalt spreads rather than builds, wreaking slow-motion havoc on the countryside and accumulating over thousands of years to form massive, but visually unimpressive, flat, shield volcanoes.
Having just returned from a couple of weeks photographing in the Pacific Northwest, the beauty of the Cascade volcanoes is fresh in my mind. But nothing compares to witnessing the actual mountain making process in action.
Posted on April 22, 2018
I have many “favorite” photo locations—many are known to all; others aren’t exactly secrets, but they’re far enough off the beaten path to be overlooked by the vacationing masses. And while I always like to have a spot or two at my favorite photo destinations where I can count on being alone, I’m usually happy to share prime photographic real estate with a kindred spirit.
But. In recent years I’ve noticed more photographers abusing nature in ways that at best betrays their ignorance, and at worst reveals their indifference to the fragility of the very subjects that inspire them to click their shutters in the first place. Of course it’s impossible to have zero impact on the natural world: Starting from the time we leave home we consume energy that directly or indirectly pollutes the atmosphere and contributes greenhouse gases that precipitate climate change. And once we arrive at our destination, every footfall alters the world in ways ranging from subtle to dramatic–not only do our shoes crush rocks, plants, and small creatures, our noise clashes with the natural sounds that comfort humans and communicate to animals, and our vehicles and clothing scatter microscopic, non-indiginous flora and fauna.
A certain amount of damage is an unavoidable consequence of keeping the natural world accessible to all who would like to appreciate it, a tightrope our National Park Service (to name just one public caretaker) does an excellent job navigating. It’s even easy to believe that I’m not the problem–I mean, who’d have thought merely walking on “dirt” could impact the ecosystem for tens or hundreds of years? But, for example, before straying off the trail for that unique perspective of Delicate Arch, check out this admonition from Arches National Park.
Hawaii’s black sand beaches may appear unique and enduring, but the next time you consider scooping a sample to share with friends back on the mainland, know that Hawaii’s black sand is a finite, ephemeral phenomenon that will be replaced with “conventional” white sand as soon as its volcanic source is tapped–as evidenced by the direct correlation between the islands with the most black sands beaches and the islands with the most recent volcanic activity.
While Yosemite’s durable granite may lull photographers into environmental complacency, its meadows and wetlands are quite fragile, hosting many plants and insects that are an integral part of the natural balance that makes Yosemite special (and photogenic!). Despite all this, I can’t tell you how often I see people in Yosemite (photographers in particular, I’m afraid) trampling meadows, either to get in position for a shot or simply as a shortcut.
Still not convinced? If I can’t appeal to your environmental conscience, consider that simply wandering about with a camera and/or tripod labels you, “Photographer.” In that role you represent the entire photography community: when you do harm as Photographer, most observers (the general public and decision makers) go no farther than applying the Photographer label to anyone with a tripod or big camera, and lumping all of us into the same offending group.
Like it or not, one photographer’s indiscretion affects the way every photographer is perceived, potentially bringing restrictions that directly or indirectly impact all of us. So if you like fences, permits, and rules, just keep going wherever you want to go, whenever you want to go there. But if you’re like me and would prefer unrestricted access to nature’s beauty, please respect your surroundings and consider the ramifications of your actions.
Environmental responsibility doesn’t require joining Greenpeace or dropping off the grid (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Simply taking a few minutes to understand natural concerns specific to whatever area you visit is a good place to start. Most public lands have websites with information they’d love you to read before visiting. And most park officials are more than happy to share literature on the topic (you might in fact find useful information right there in that stack of papers you jammed into the center console as you drove away from the entrance station).
When you’re in the field, think before advancing. Train yourself to anticipate each future step with the understanding of its impact–believe it or not, this isn’t a particularly difficult habit to form. Whenever you see trash, just pick it up even if it isn’t yours. And don’t be shy about reminding other photographers whose actions risk soiling the reputation for all of us.
A few years ago, as a condition of my Death Valley workshop permit, I was guided to The Center for Outdoor Ethics and their “Leave No Trace” initiative. There’s great information here–much of it is just plain common sense, but I guarantee you’ll learn things too.
Now go out and enjoy nature–and please save it for the rest of us.
About this image
My favorite places to visit (and photograph) are the usually ones that are different from any place I’ve seen. Near the top of that list is the bamboo forest near Ohe’o Gulch on Maui. Conditions permitting, I make it a point to get my Maui workshop group here during our two-day stay in Hana, and it never disappoints.
On last year’s visit it rained for most of the walk up to the forest, and well into our stay there—not a torrential downpour, but enough to make photography tricky. Since overcast sky provides the best light for photographing in this incredibly dense, dark environment, so I welcomed the challenge. The rain stopped and patches of blue sky appeared just as it was time to leave. Despite the extreme dynamic range, before packing up I couldn’t resist trying a few frames to see if I could capture the diaphanous glow of the backlit bamboo leaves.
To emphasize the backlit leaves, I attached my Sony 12-24G to my Sony a7RII and pointed straight up. I moved around a bit until I found a couple of leaning bamboo stalks to add a little visual tension to my frame. I was so focused on my immediate surroundings that it wasn’t until a sunstar appeared in my viewfinder that I realized the sun had popped out. Positioning myself to place a bamboo stalk between the sun and my camera, I composed this scene, stopped down to f/18, and waited for the sun to pop out.
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Posted on November 28, 2017
Night photography always requires some level of compromise: extra equipment, ISOs a little too noisy, shutter speeds a little too long, f-stops a little too soft. For years the quality threshold beyond which I wouldn’t cross came far too early and I’d often find myself having to decide between an image that was too dark and noisy, or simply not shooting at all.
Because the almost total darkness of night photography requires a fast lens, the faster the better, one of the first compromises night photography forced on me was adding a night-only lens—a prime lens that was both ultra-fast and wide. Ultra-fast to maximize light capture, wide enough to give me lots of sky and to reduce the star streaking that occurs with the long shutter speeds night photography requires (the wider the focal length, the less visible any motion in the frame).
I started doing night photography as a Canon shooter, so my first night lens was a Canon-mount Zeiss 28mm f/2.0—it did the job but wasn’t quite as fast or wide as I’d have liked. After switching to Sony I added a Sony-mount Rokinon 24mm f/1.4—I loved shooting at f/1.4, and 24mm was a definite improvement over 28mm, but I still found myself wishing for something wider. And the Rokinon had other shortcomings as well: because the camera doesn’t even know the lens is mounted (f-stop set on the lens, not in the camera), I always had to guess the f-stop I used to capture an image. Worse than that, at f/1.4 the Rokinon had pretty significant comatic aberration that made my stars look like little comets.
Since switching to Sony, one compromise I’ve happily made is carrying an extra body that’s dedicated to night photography. Because the Sony a7S and (later) a7SII are just ridiculously good at high ISO, I was able to compensate for the Rokinon’s distortion by stopping down to f/2 or f/2.8 at a higher ISO. The a7SII is worth the extra weight, but I’ve longed for the day when I could replace the Rokinon lens with something wider, and something that had a better relationship with my camera.
That day came earlier this year, when Sony released the 16-35 f/2.8 GM lens. I got to sample this lens before it was released and was surprised by its compactness despite being so wide and fast—it wasn’t long before the 16-35 f/2.8 GM occupied a full-time spot in my camera bag. And in the back of my mind I couldn’t help thinking that the 16-35 GM might just work as a night lens.
I don’t have the time or temperament to be a pixel-peeper, but I had a sense that this lens was pretty sharp wide open, and few things reveal comatic aberration more than stars. I finally got my chance to test the 16-35 GM lens at night on the Hawaii Big Island workshop in September. When this year’s Milky Way images revealed that the 16-35 GM is sharp and pretty much aberration free at f/2.8, I couldn’t have been happier.
As with every night shoot, this night at the caldera I tried a variety of exposure settings to maximize my processing options later. I was pretty pleased to get a clean exposure at 10 seconds (minimal star motion) and f/2.8 (maximum light). While the a7SII doesn’t even breathe hard at the ISO 3200 I used for this image, I know if I were shooting someplace without its own light source (for example, at the Grand Canyon, the bristlecone pine forest, or pretty much any other location lacking an active volcano), I’d probably need to be at ISO 6400 or even 12800 to make a 10 second exposure work. But it’s nice to know that the a7SII and 16-35 f/2.8 GM will do the job even in darkness that extreme.
One more thing
A couple of weeks ago while in Sedona for Sony I got the opportunity to use the new a7RIII. One highlight of that trip was two night shoots with the new camera. I haven’t had a chance to spend any quality time with those images, but I got the sense that its high ISO performance is nearly as good as the a7SII. If that’s true, that will be one less compromise and a lighter camera bag—at least until Sony releases the a7SIII.
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Posted on September 17, 2017
Aloha from Hawaii!
Let’s have a show of hands: Who feels like their photography has stagnated? Let me suggest to all with your hands up that what’s holding you back may be the very rules that helped elevate you to your current level of proficiency. I’ll be the first to acknowledge that rules are important, the glue of civilization. Bedtimes, homework, and curfews got us through childhood and taught us to self-police as adults. Now we get enough sleep (right?), meet deadlines at work, and toe the line well enough to have become productive members of society with very little supervision (give yourself a gold star). But let me suggest that many of us have become so conditioned to follow rules that we honor them simply because they’ve been labeled “rule.”
As important as this conditioning is to the preservation of society, our reluctance to question rules sometimes impacts areas of our lives that might not be so cut-and-dried. One example would be photographers’ blind adherence to the (usually) well-intended “experts” proliferating online, in print, and at the local camera club. These self-proclaimed authorities spew absolutes for their disciples to embrace: Expose to the right!; Never center your subject!; Tack-sharp front-to-back!; Blurred water is cliché! Blah, blah, blah…. (My standard advice to anyone seeking photographic guidance is to beware of absolutes, and when you hear one, beeline to the nearest exit because the truth is, there are very, very few absolutes in photography.)
Rules serve a beginning photographer the way training wheels serve a five-year-old on a bike: They’re great for getting started, but soon get in the way. At first, following expert guidance, beginners’ photography improves noticeably and it’s easy to attribute all this success to rules. But by the time the improvement slows or even ceases altogether, those rules have become so deeply ingrained that it’s difficult to realize they now hold us back. You wouldn’t do Tour de France with training wheels, or run the Boston Marathon on crutches.
If photography were entirely rule-bound, engineers could write algorithms and design robots that did our photography for us. But the very definition of creativity is venturing beyond the comfortable confines of our preconceptions to create something new. In other words, if you’re not breaking the rules, you’re not being creative.
For the last eight years I’ve spent one or two weeks on Hawaii’s Big Island. And on each trip I make multiple visits to the (fabulous) Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden just north of Hilo. There’s so much to love here, but I’m always drawn to the bottom of the garden overlooking Onomea Bay, where the luxuriant jungle unfolds beneath an interlaced canopy of towering monkeypod trees (albizia saman). Every time I’m down here I try to find a composition that captures the lushness I feel in the saturated air, and the way the monkeypod’s branches seem etched against the sky. And each time I come away a little disappointed.
This year, armed with my new Sony 12-24 f/4 G lens, I decided to give the scene another shot beneath the late afternoon overcast. With a decent breeze stirring the leaves, I pushed my ISO to 800 to be safe. Widening my view to 12mm and pointing up, it soon became clear that the palm tree I needed to anchor my frame belonged in the middle. And even without metering I knew that the crazy dynamic range (the shaded side of every leaf juxtaposed against a bright sky) would force me to sacrifice the texture in the clouds in favor of the essential detail and color in the jungle’s dense shadows.
Both of these important considerations flew in the face of rules that have constrained photographers for years. For as long as we’ve held a camera, our inclination to bullseye every subject has been stifled by voices whispering the “rule” of thirds (horizon 1/3 up from the bottom or down from the top; primary subjects at the intersections of an imaginary tic-tac-toe grid on our frame) in our ear. And of course digital photographers everywhere know to never blow the highlights.
In this case, even though it would get me booted from many camera club photo competitions, I’ve been scoffing at the rule of thirds long enough that centering the palm tree wasn’t hard. But seeing nearly half my frame flashing highlight warnings was a little more difficult. Nevertheless, I held my breath and went ahead with the shot you see here. And it turns out, instead of creating a problem, the white (overexposed) sky becomes a feature that only enhances the rich green and etched branches.
Sit down and write out your strongest, longest held photography rules (trust me, they’re there). Challenge yourself to break at least one of these rules each time you go out with your camera. Don’t expect miracles—at first your resulting images might not thrill you, but I promise that you’ll grow as a photographer, and you just might learn something in the process. (Oh, and you can put your hands down now.)
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Posted on July 30, 2017
Most photographers will tell you that some of the best locations are a bit of a pain to get to. Not necessarily death-defying dangerous, just a pain. Not only is Queen’s Bath on Kauai one of those locations, this year getting there required dealing with the Hawaii equivalent of the troll who lives under the bridge.
For many years I’ve been helping my friend Don Smith with his Kauai workshop (it’s a tough job, but, well, you know…). One of the highlights of the Kauai trip is Queen’s Bath, a surf-pounded lava shelf accessed by a short but steep trail through dense rainforest. When it’s dry the trail isn’t a big deal if you can avoid the deep ruts and protruding roots, but after any rain the route down is more waterslide than trail. We’ve had enough falls (including a broken bone that happened when someone who had been in the group tried to go down on her own after the workshop), that we won’t even attempt the hike if it has rained.
Queen’s Bath is on the wet side of Hawaii’s wettest island. Most years we pull up to the trailhead in the dark (well before sunrise), inspect the conditions, and move on to another location because the QB trail is too slippery. But after last year’s disappointment it occurred to me that maybe the funky tire-chain-like shoe attachments (AKA, YakTrax) that I use in winter to keep from slipping on ice might be worth a try. Don took that suggestion and ran with it; after a little research he found actual crampons on sale on Amazon, sent the upcoming group the link, and told them crampons or YakTrax would be required footwear for Queen’s Bath.
On our scouting mission to Queen’s Bath before the workshop started we negotiated the slick slope like velcroed mountain goats. While congratulating ourselves on our genius down at Queen’s Bath, we were warned by a couple who had arrived a little after us that there was a “crazy lady” (their description, not ours) yelling at everyone parking in the Queen’s Bath parking area for making too much noise. (Mind you, this is Kauai, where the roosters are at full volume well before sunrise.) We shook our heads and chuckled, but didn’t think much about it.
Driving away later that morning, we discovered that our SUV had a flat tire—weird, but stuff happens. We soon learned that there’s only one AAA truck on all of Kauai, so rather than wait, Don and I decided to answer the age-old question, “How many photographers does it take to change a tire.” (FYI, it’s two: one to change the tire, and one to make sure everyone knows he’s doing it all wrong.)
Fast forward to the next morning when, group in tow now, we charged down slope in the rain without a single slip. (Score one for genius.) The rain intensified soon after we arrived on the lava shelf, and for a while it looked like we might need to retreat. But soon we saw brightening clouds in the east, and not much later the rain stopped and out popped a full rainbow. The rainbow lasted at least 15 minutes, and the light stayed nice much longer than that. Thanks in no small part to the crampons, no one fell on the muddy trail or rain-slickened basalt, and everyone ended up with some fantastic photos and the morning seemed a huge success.
We were still basking in the glow of our beautiful morning as we returned to the cars—until someone noticed that the license plates were missing from our three vehicles. Huh? Suddenly yesterday’s ranting neighbor and our flat tire took on an entirely new meaning: Crazy Lady had vandalized our cars. I understand that photographers can be a little insensitive to their impact on their surroundings, but in our defense, Don and I always lecture the group about being quiet in the Queen’s Bath parking area, then monitor closely to ensure that no one forgets. We don’t allow any conversation or laughter in or near the parking area, so the only sounds we make are doors closing and feet shuffling—not completely silent, but certainly quieter than Kauai’s ubiquitous chicken population.
It’s possible that our nemesis was interrupted in her vile act, because we soon found the license plates and screws, as if they’d been haphazardly stashed as she made a hasty retreat. We recovered our property and with the help of someone’s screwdriver reinstalled the plates and departed without further incident. I have no idea how regularly this neighbor’s crazy manifests, but since it happened to Don and me on consecutive days (and we had exchanged our rental car with the flat tire, so there’s no way she knew it was the same people), I suspect she’s a serial vandal. But the bottom line is, no real harm was done, and we ended up with a great story and some fantastic images. So I guess all’s well that ends well.
A few words about this image
Rainbows feel like random gifts from heaven, but there’s really nothing random about them. Monitoring the conditions, you can usually anticipate the rainbow and get yourself in the best position to photograph it. What’s the best position? Successful photography is all about juxtaposition of visual elements, and (as much as we wish it were so) very rarely is the perfect relationship between the various elements in a scene exactly where you happen to be standing right now.
When a rainbow is one of your elements, it helps to understand that the rainbow’s center will always be at the anti-solar point (where your shadow points) and the rainbow will move with you. If you want your rainbow over that tree, or mountain, or lake, just move until they align.
In Hawaii, or any location where rain showers are possible, the first thing I do is figure out where the rainbow will appear, and identify compositions to put with it. On this morning at Queen’s Bath, when I arrived I made a mental note of where the rainbow would appear, and when the sky near the eastern horizon started to brighten while the rain continued falling in the west, I moved closer to the ocean to get as much ocean and rainbow as possible in my frame. I also shifted toward an area with a collection of small reflective pools that I thought would make a great foreground, rainbow or not.
When the rainbow appeared, I was ready. After photographing it with a variety of foregrounds for a few minutes, I thought it would be pretty cool to get a reflection of the rainbow. I didn’t have to move far to align myself with the little pool you see in my image; from there it was about micro-positioning, moving closer/farther and up/down to maximize the rainbow’s reflection without cutting off the pools with the edge of my frame. For this image, I ended up about three feet from the pools and just a couple of feet above the rocks.
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Posted on March 9, 2017
Previously on the Eloquent Nature blog: Photograph the Milky Way: Part One
Viewing the Milky Way requires nothing more than a clear, dark sky. 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 things your eyes can’t see. In fact, not only does the right camera in the right hands resolve far more Milky Way detail than we can see, it also reveals color too faint for the human eye.
Knowing when and where to view the Milky Way is a great start, but photographing the Milky Way requires a combination of equipment, skill, and experience that doesn’t just happen overnight (so to speak). But Milky Way photography doesn’t need to break the bank, and it’s not rocket science.
Bottom line, photographing the Milky Way is all about maximizing your ability to collect light: long exposures, fast lenses, high ISO.
In general, the larger your camera’s sensor and photosites (the “pixels” that capture the light), the more efficiently it collects light. Because other technology is involved, there’s not an absolute correlation between sensor and pixel size and light gathering capability, but a small, densely packed sensor almost certainly rules out your smartphone and point-and-shoot cameras 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 I’ve not been overly impressed with the high ISO images I’ve seen from these smaller sensors.)
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, but read some reviews to see how your camera candidates fare in objective tests by credible sources like DP Review or Imaging Resource (there are many others).
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 will 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 becomes 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 (a7R II, a7S, and a7S II) 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. That said, of the major DSLR brands, I’ve found Canon’s superior LCD screen makes it much easier to focus in extreme low light than Nikon. (More on focus later.)
Put simply, to photograph the Milky Way you want fast, wide glass—the faster the better. Fast to capture as much light as possible; wide to take in lots of sky. A faster lens also makes focus and composition easier because its larger aperture gathers more light. How fast? F/2.8 or faster—preferably faster. How wide? At least 28mm, and 24mm or 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 a Rokinon 24mm f/1.4.
It goes without saying that at exposure times up to 30 seconds, you’ll need a sturdy tripod and head for Milky Way photography. You don’t need to spend a fortune, but the more you spend, the happier you’ll be in the long run (trust me). Carbon fiber provides the best combination of strength, vibration reduction, and light weight, but a sturdy (heavy) aluminum tripod will do the job.
An extended centerpost is not terribly stable, and a non-extended centerpost limits your ability to spread the tripod’s legs and get low, so I avoid tripods with a centerpost. But if you have a sturdy tripod with a centerpost, don’t run out and purchase a new one—just don’t extend the centerpost when photographing at night.
Read my tips for purchasing a tripod here.
To eliminate the possibility of camera vibration I recommend a remote release; without a remote you’ll risk annoying all within earshot with your camera’s 2-second timer beep. Don’t forget a flashlight or headlamp for the walk to and from the car. And it’s never a bad idea to toss an extra battery in your pocket.
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 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 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, they’re particularly insidious about leaking into everyone’s frame (so before you ask, no red light!). If you follow my no flashlight rule, 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 screen) gives me all the light I need.
A good Milky Way image is distinguished from an ordinary Milky Way image by its foreground. Simply finding a location that’s dark enough to see the Milky Way is difficult enough; finding a dark location that also has a foreground worthy of pairing with the Milky Way usually takes a little planning.
Since the Milky Way’s center is in the southern sky (for Northern Hemisphere observers), I look for remote (away from light pollution) subjects that I can photograph while facing south. 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 other features to add a little visual weight.
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 any 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. 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 there just aren’t that many south views there, 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.
To maximize the amount of Milky Way in my frame, I generally (but not always) start with a vertical orientation that’s at least 2/3 sky. On the other hand, I do make sure to give myself more options with a few horizontal compositions as well. Given the near total darkness required of a Milky Way shoot, it’s often too dark to see well enough to compose that scene. If I can’t see well enough to compose I guess at a composition, take a short test exposure at an extreme (unusable) ISO to enable a relatively fast shutter speed (a few seconds), adjust the composition based on the image in the LCD, and repeat until I’m satisfied.
Needless to say, when it’s dark enough to view the Milky Way, there’s not enough light to autofocus (unless you have a rare camera/lens combo that can autofocus on a bright star and planet), or even to manually focus with confidence. And of all the things that can ruin a Milky Way image (not to mention an entire night), poor focus is number one. Not only is achieving focus difficult, it’s very easy to think you’re focused only to discover later that you just missed.
Because the Milky Way’s focus point is infinity, and you almost certainly won’t have enough light to stop down for more depth of field, your closest foreground subjects should be far enough away to be sharp when you’re wide open and focused at infinity. Before going out to shoot, find a hyperfocal app and plug in the values for your camera and lens at its widest aperture. Even though it’s technically possible to be sharp from half the hyperfocal distance to infinity, the kind of precise focus this 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 Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 wide open on my full frame Sony a7S II, 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. 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, then never change the focal length again once I know I’m focused. And remember, the best way to ensure focus is to set your focal length and focus before it gets dark.
But 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—always magnify your image and check it after you focus.
For more on focusing in the dark, including how to use stars to focus, read my Starlight Photo Tips article.
Exposing a Milky Way image is wonderfully simple once you realize that you don’t have to meter because you can’t (not enough light)—your goal is simply to capture as many photons as you can without damaging the image with noise, star motion, and lens flaws.
Basically, you can’t give a Milky Way image too much light. What I mean by that is, 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? Each exposure variable causes a different problem when pushed too far:
Again: My approach to metering for the Milky Way is to give my scene as much light as I can without pushing the exposure compromises to a point I can’t live with. Where exactly is that point? Not only is that a subjective question 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, the only foreground that worked well enough was Kilauea Caldera, because it was its own light source.
Today (early 2017) I photograph the Milky Way with a Sony a7S II and a Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 lens. I get cleaner images from my Sony at ISO 6400 than got a ISO 1600 on my Canon 1DSIII, and the light gathering capability of an f/1.4 lens revelatory. Now I can stop down slightly to reduce lens aberrations, drop my shutter speed to 20 or 15 seconds to cut 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 them. 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 a7SII/Rokinon combo, I usually start at ISO 3200, f/2, 20 seconds. Those settings will usually get me enough light for Milky Way color and a little foreground detail. But if I want more light (for example, if I’m shooting into the black pit of the Grand Canyon from the North Rim), my first exposure compromise is to increase to ISO 6400; if I decide I need even more light, my next compromise is to open up to f/1.4; if that still isn’t enough light, my next compromise is to bump my shutter speed to 30 seconds. Finally, if I want more light that ISO 6400, f/1.4, 30 seconds delivers, I’ll try ISO 12,800 (and cross my fingers)*. If that’s not enough, I go home (or just sit and enjoy the view).
These thresholds are guidelines rather than hard-and-fast rules, and they apply to my setup only—your results may vary. And even though I’m pretty secure with this workflow, for every 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.
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 a distinct 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 DSLR 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. If you’ve never done it before, don’t expect perfection the first time out. What you can expect is improvement each time you go out as you learn the limitations of your equipment and identify your own exposure compromise thresholds. And success or failure, at the very least you’ll have spent a magnificent night under the stars.
Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the window to reorder the display.
Posted on October 28, 2016
It’s a rare photo trip that doesn’t include a moment to savor, a special confluence of location and light that seems to virtually assure great images. But every year or two I get to witness something that transcends photography, a moment that will be forever etched in my brain, camera or not. These moments are special not simply for their visual gifts, but also for the emotional connection to nature they foster.
I’ve written about some of these experiences here:
Last month I added a new transcendent moment to my list, this time on the summit of Kilauea on Hawaii’s Big Island. While spending the prior week dodging raindrops on Maui, I started hearing rumblings of extreme activity in Kilauea’s Halemaumau Crater. Though this eruption has been going since 1983, it’s usually not directly visible from the caldera’s rim (which is as close the public is allowed)—from here the only sign of crater’s churning lava lake is the rising plume of gas and steam, and the red glow that colors the sky after the sun goes down. But according to reports, the lake had risen high enough to be viewed directly from the rim, and there were even rumors of lava fountains.
On the evening before the workshop I visited Kilauea’s Jaggar Museum vista to see what all the excitement was about (though it’s about a mile from the crater, this is the closest and best view). The lake was indeed high enough to see from the rim (a personal first!), but all I could see was a mostly static black crust of cooling basalt lava. Several times a submerged wave opened a crack in the crust, creating a thin, barely visible window to the orange liquid below. It was cool to witness, but not anything particularly dramatic.
Two days later I guided my workshop group to Kilauea. Everyone was most excited about the chance to photograph the caldera beneath the Milky Way, but before the Milky Way the plan was to kill time with a trip the Visitor Center, a walk through the Thurston Lava Tube, sunset at the Jaggar vista, and a nice dinner. Everything went as planned until we reached Jaggar.
We pulled into the parking lot without high expectations, and as the group gathered their equipment, I jogged over to the caldera. To my complete shock (and awe), since my last visit, subterranean forces had whipped the previously placid lava lake into a roiling frenzy. Even from a mile away the volcano’s power was on plain display. Undulating jigsaw cracks zigzagged across the entire lake surface, but the main activity was focused on one region that every few seconds sent a new fountain of lava exploding skyward, splattering the lake surface and nearby wall with molten droplets. I turned and raced back to hurry the group.
Everyone quickly spread out along the wall and started shooting. After making checking on everyone I could find, I went to work with my Sony a6300 and Tamron 150-600. It was still daylight when we started, but dark by the time we had to leave for dinner. At some point during the festivities I remember uttering (and probably multiple times) to all within earshot that this was one of the highlights of my life. That night’s Milky Way shoot was lost to clouds, but no one felt cheated (and we finally got it a couple of nights later).
We returned to the caldera the next night, ostensibly to try again for the Milky Way, not daring to hope for a volcanic reprise. Again the clouds obscured the stars, but to our amazement, we found the lake as at least as agitated as the first night and everyone got a chance to correct whatever mistakes they’d made the previous night. For example, I decided I didn’t need the extra reach of the a6300’s 1.5 crop sensor and switch to my Sony a7RII. I also made a point of taking time to savor the experience a little more. The image I share here is from that second shoot.
The third night the caldera’s activity had calmed, but we finally got the Milky Way. I’ve loved the night sky since I was a kid, and will never tire of photographing the Milky Way above Kilauea. But I’m equally fascinated by the tectonic forces that mold our planet (enough to major in geology for several semesters), and will be forever grateful for (and humbled by) this experience on Kilauea and the opportunity to witness the process firsthand.