Compromise less, smile more

Gary Hart Photography: Night Fire, Milky Way Above Kilauea Caldera, Hawaii

Night Fire, Milky Way Above Kilauea Caldera, Hawaii
Sony a7S II
Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM
10 seconds
F/2.8
ISO 3200

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.


The Milky Way

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Rules are a crutch

Gary Hart Photography: Looking Up, Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden, Hawaii

Looking Up, Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden, Hawaii
Sony a7R II
Sony 12-24 f4 G
12mm
1/8 second
F/8
ISO 800

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 example

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.

Homework

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.)

Mahalo!


Breaking the rules

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All’s well that ends well

Gary Hart Photography: Rainbow Reflection, Queen's Bath, Kauai, Hawaii

Rainbow Reflection, Queen’s Bath, Kauai, Hawaii
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 16-35
1/15 second
F/11
ISO 100

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.

Read more about rainbows


A Rainbow Gallery

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Photograph the Milky Way: Part Two

Gary Hart Photography: Fire and Mist, Halemaumau Crater, Kilauea, Hawaii

Fire and Mist, Halemaumau Crater, Kilauea, Hawaii
Sony a7S
Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f4
10 seconds
F/4
ISO 3200

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.

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 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.)

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 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.

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 (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. 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.

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 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.

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. 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.

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 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.

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, 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:

  • 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 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.

* 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 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.

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A Milky Way Gallery

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Nature’s transcendent moments

Gary Hart Photography: Kilauea Fountain, Hawaii

Kilauea Fountain, Hawaii
Sony a7RII
Tamron 150-600 (Canon-mount with Metabones IV adapter)
1/100 second
F/8
ISO 400

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.

Join me in Hawaii


A Gallery of my Transcendent Moments

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Practicing what I preach

Gary Hart Photography: Raindrops on Orchid, Lava Tree State Park, Hawaii

Raindrops on Orchid, Lava Tree State Park, Hawaii
Sony a7R II
Sony FE 90mm f2.8 Macro
1/30 second
F/11
ISO 800

The morning (last week) I started this post I was photographing South Tufa at Mono Lake in 26 degree temperatures. It’s hard to believe that less than three weeks earlier I was wearing a tank top, shorts, and flip-flops while photographing orchids in Hawaii. And later today I’m off to Moab, Utah.

I’d taken my Hawaii workshop group to Lava Tree State Park, long a personal favorite spot for its quiet beauty and intimate scenes. A recent heavy downpour had soaked the ground and left virtually every square inch of foliage glistening with raindrops. Recognizing an opportunity for some extreme close-focus photography, I immediately loaded my macro and extension tubes into my bag and herded my group onto the loop trail that circumnavigates the park.

In the shade just off the trail at the back of the park, a solitary, raindrop-laden orchid caught my eye—exactly what I look for when close-focus photography is my goal. Unfortunately, even with my tripod extended to its maximum height (6 inches above my head), the flower was a few inches too high to photograph at what I considered a good angle. No matter how I tried, I couldn’t find a position that allowed me to emphasize the orchid and its raindrops without blowing out the brilliant sky in the background. Tugging at the back of my brain as I stalked my subject was that frequently uttered photographic mantra, “Never blow the highlights.” But rather than give up, I stood back and considered my options.

Photographic rules are usually based on sound, proven reasoning that guides the neophyte to competent, appealing images. And while I’ll acknowledge that a broken photographic rule can indeed ruin an image, I’ve also spent my entire photographic career espousing the creative merits of breaking rules. If true artistic achievement means doing something new, and there’s already a rule for something, doesn’t that mean it’s been done? In other words, genuine creativity requires breaking the very rules that are supposed to lead to good images.

So what was my problem? Among the most ubiquitous and absolute pieces of photograph dogma is, “Never blow your highlights!” And for the most part I agree that blown highlights ruin an image—in fact I’ve spent a lot of time writing about how to deal with difficult light, and it’s all been based on the premise that we need to save the highlights at all costs. Over the years I’ve written and spoken about exposure techniques, graduated neutral density filters, HDR blending, and silhouettes to save the highlights.

In this case, after exhausting my conventional solutions, it would have been far easier to move on to a different orchid. But I liked this orchid, with its rich color and shimmering raindrops, and the more time I spent with it, the more I liked it. So what if I make it okay to blow the highlights? What if instead of trying to subdue them, I made the highlights a feature of my scene?

Suddenly unshackled, an entirely new world of possibilities opened for me. I eyed the background and realized that turning the bright sky white, I’d have a striking contrast for the properly exposed orchid. Furthermore, the sky breaking through the canopy overhead would be softened by a paper-thin depth of field—if I could find the right aperture, the effect could be quite appealing.

To focus as close as possible, I added a 15mm extension tube to my macro and worked on identifying the angle of view and front/back relationships, eventually refining my the composition in small increments until all felt right. To mitigate a very slight breeze, I set my ISO to 800 and metered on the flower, ignoring the violently flashing highlights. The final piece of the puzzle was determining the f/stop that would give me the best effect. Rather than trust the result on my LCD, I ran the range of f/stops from f/2.8 to f/16, increasing my shutter speed to keep the exposure uniform. Regardless of the f/stop, with my lens more or less parallel to the orchid’s stem, I had a fairly large area of sharpness that included all of the raindrops, most the flower, and much of the stem.

I know this scene won’t garner as much attention as a vivid sunrise or dramatic lightning strike, but really like this image. So I guess the moral here is if you find yourself bound by rules, aggressively seek the unconventional. If a “rule” applies, go ahead and follow the rule for a shot or two, then challenge yourself to break it. You may end up with more failures than successes (but of course nobody needs to know that), but I’ll bet your successes will turn out to be among your favorite images.

Photo Workshop Schedule


Playing with light

(Creative use of the camera’s “limited” dynamic range)

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From One Second to the Next

Gary Hart Photography: Here Comes the Sun, Lydgate Beach, Kauai, Hawaii

Here Comes the Sun, Lydgate Beach, Kauai, Hawaii
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f4
1/5 second
F/16
ISO 50

I don’t know about you, but my earliest memories of photography are of Dad pulling the family wagon up to an iconic vista, beelining to the railed viewpoint, and snapping a few frames (that would be quickly forgotten, until the slides came back from the lab and Dad sequestered the family in our darkened living room until each Kodak Carousel had completed its cycle). Though Dad’s photo stops were never timed for light or conditions (you can’t plan a family vacation around the best time for photography), he loved recording nature’s beauty, and I think we all felt comfort in the knowledge that the next time we went to Yosemite, the beach, or wherever, everything would still look pretty much as it did in Dad’s pictures.

I suspect many photographers had a similar start, snapping pictures simply content to record the experience of being there. But those of us who grew frustrated with the similarity of our captures to all the other images of the same locations longed for more. Looking for ways to make our efforts unique, we took advantage of the predictability of nature’s permanent features, and tried to pair them with nature’s more dynamic elements, like a sunrise or sunset, the moon, fresh snow, a rainbow, the Milky Way, and so on.

Melding these static scenes with nature’s changing conditions is a great start, but sometimes we get so caught up in the thrill of seeing Half Dome with fresh snow, or the first rays of a Hawaiian sunrise, that we overlook our scene’s most dynamic features, its scooting clouds and flowing water that literally change by the second.

Nowhere do I need to be more vigilant about my scene’s transient features than Hawaii, where the ubiquitous clouds form, transform, and scoot through a scene with startling speed, and where even a fraction of a second can mean the difference between lapping surf and an exploding wave.

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The image at the top of the screen was captured at Kauai’s Lydgate Beach, less than 20 minutes after the image in my July 4 post. As you can see, the compositions are quite similar, but the overall feel is very different. Not only has the color changed significantly, the surf is completely different, and the clouds have very little in common.

Though my position on the beach was more or less the same, I did make adjustments to accommodate the changing conditions. I started with the rapidly shifting clouds, with each frame recomposed slightly from the previous to account for the clouds’ movement as I sought the best place for the frame’s border, trying not to cut the clouds awkwardly (or at all).

The other consideration was the wave motion. In the earlier image, wave timing was less important because my 5-second exposure smoothed the activity. Though I didn’t freeze the motion in this image, my 1/5 second exposure stopped the water enough to make timing important.

I liked the sunlight’s gold reflection on the wet sand, but that required a receding wave to capture the most reflective water (an advancing wave was just non-reflective white foam; between waves, the sand wasn’t wet enough). I also wanted a wave that moved diagonally across the bottom of my frame. While most waves arrived more straight-on, I’d been living with these waves for at least a half hour and knew that every once in a while one would sweep the beach at an angle. And of course while waiting for the ideal wave to arrive, I had to continue monitoring the clouds to ensure that they didn’t shift enough to alter my composition. After about a half dozen or so clicks, I finally got all the elements to align.

From One Second to the Next

Images where timing was essential

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