Posted on October 4, 2020
This morning, while going through unprocessed images looking for something to blog about, I came across this image from last June in New Zealand. I realize the world probably doesn’t need any more pictures of this tree (which is why I’d never processed it), but after nearly two months of smoky skies that have robbed California of anything close to a normal sunset, sunrise/sunset color seemed to be a worthy topic, and this image definitely got my juices flowing.
Following a morning that had started with a beautiful sunrise reflection at Mirror Lakes in Milford Sound National Park, Don Smith and I (well, technically it was our driver) pulled the van carrying our New Zealand workshop group into Wanaka a couple of hours before sunset. We had a sunset spot in mind, but with a little time to spare we decided to give the group a quick preview of our sunrise subject, the iconic lone willow tree of Lake Wanaka. We never left.
It was pretty apparent from the instant of our arrival that the ingredients for a spectacular sunset were in place: clouds, clean air, and a clear spot on the western horizon to let sunlight through. Of course nothing in nature is guaranteed, but based on what we saw, Don and I made a calculated decision to alter our plan. Even though our original sunset spot would benefit from the same conditions, we decided that, because the opportunity to photograph this tree was one of the prime reasons most of the group signed up for the workshop in the first place, and sunrise conditions are never a sure thing, staying would give our group the best opportunity for a memorable experience here. Boy did we make the right call.
For this image I used my Breakthrough 6-stop neutral-density polarizer (X4 Dark CPL) to smooth a slight chop rippling the lake. Not only did the resulting 30-second exposure soften the lake surface, it added an ethereal blur to the distant clouds and fog.
Sunrise was in fact completely washed out by fog, but that didn’t mean it was a failure, just different….
And speaking of sunrise/sunset color, I’ve revised my Photo Tips article on that very topic and added it below. So if you want to know why the sky is blue and sunsets are red, read on.
A sunset myth
If your goal is a colorful sunset/sunrise and you have to choose between pristine or hazy air, which would you choose? If you said clean air, you’re in the minority. You’re also right. Despite some pretty obvious evidence to the contrary, it seems that the myth that a colorful sunset requires lots of particles in the air persists. But if particles in the air were necessary for sunset color, Los Angeles would be known for its vivid sunsets and Hawaii’s main claim to fame would be its beaches. (Okay, and maybe its luaus. And waterfalls. And pineapples. And Mai Tais. And…. Well, maybe lots of great stuff, but not its sunsets.)
So what is the secret to a great sunset? Granted, a cool breeze, warm surf, and a Mai Tai are a good start, but I’m thinking more photographically than recreationally. I look for a mix of clouds (to catch the color) with an opening for the sun to pass through and light the clouds. But even with a nice mix of clouds and sky, sometimes the color fizzles. Often the missing ingredient, contrary to common belief, is clean air—the cleaner the better.
Light and color
Understanding sunset color starts with understanding how sunlight and the atmosphere interact to color the sky. Visible light reaches our eyes in waves of varying length. The color we perceive is a function of wavelength, ranging from short to long: violet, indigo, blue, green, yellow, orange, and red. (These color names are arbitrary labels we’ve assigned to the colors we perceive at various wavelength points along the visible portion of the electromagnetic spectrum—there are an infinite number of wavelength-depenedent colors between each of these colors.)
Because a beam of sunlight passing in a vacuum (such as space) moves in a straight line (we won’t get into relativity and the effect of gravity on a beam of light), all its wavelengths reach our eyes simultaneously and we perceive the light as white. When a beam of sunlight encounters something (like Earth’s atmosphere), its light can be absorbed or scattered, depending on the wavelength and the properties of the interfering medium, and we see as color the remaining wavelength that reach our eyes.
For example, when sunlight strikes a leaf, all of its wavelengths except those that we perceive as green are absorbed, while the green wavelengths bounce to our eyes.
Color my world
Since our atmosphere is not a vacuum, sunlight is changed simply by passing through it. In an atmosphere without impurities (such as smoke and dust), light interacts only with air molecules. Air molecules are so small that they scatter only a very narrow range of wavelengths. This atmospheric scattering acts like a filter that scatters the violet and blue wavelengths first, allowing the longer wavelengths to pass through. When our sunlight has traveled through a relatively small amount of atmosphere (as it does when the sun is overhead), the wavelengths that reach our eyes are the just-scattered violet and blue wavelengths, and our sky looks blue (the sky appears more blue than violet because our eyes are more sensitive to blue light).
On the other hand, because the longer orange and red wavelengths are less easily scattered, they travel a much greater distance through the atmosphere. When the sun is on the horizon, its light has passed through much more atmosphere than it did when it was directly overhead, so the only light reaching our eyes at sunrise or sunset has been stripped of its shorter (blue and violet) wavelengths by its lengthy journey, leaving only the longer, orange and red wavelengths to color our sky. Sunset! (Or sunrise.)
Pollution dampens the filtering process. Rather than only scattering specific colors, light that encounters a molecule larger than its wavelength is more completely scattered—in other words, instead of scattering only the blue and violet wavelengths, polluted air catches some orange and reds too. Anyone who has blended a smoothie consisting of a variety of brightly colored ingredients (such as strawberries, blueberries, cantaloupe, and kale—uhh, yum?) knows the smoothie’s color won’t be nearly as vivid as any of its ingredients, not even close. Instead you’ll end up with a brownish or grayish muck that might at best be slightly tinted with the color of the predominant ingredient. Midday light that interacts with large particles in the atmosphere is similarly muddied, while polluted sunrise and sunset light has already had much of its red stripped out.
Verify this for yourself the next time a storm clears as the sun sets, and compare the color you see to the color on a hazy, summer evening in the city.
Tips for maximizing sunset color in a photograph
Any time rain has cleared the atmosphere and the remaining clouds are mixed with sunlight, there’s a good chance for vivid sunrise or sunset color. I have a few go-to locations near home, and at my frequently visited photo locations (Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Death Valley, Hawaii, and so on) that I beeline to when there’s a chance for color in the sky.
When I’m on location and preparing my shot before the sunset show begins, I look for clouds receiving direct sunlight. This is the light that will most likely color up at sunset, starting with an amber glow that transitions to pink, red, and eventually a deep orange.
An often overlooked color opportunity when the air is clean is the horizon opposite the sun after sunset or before sunrise. When the sun is below the horizon, the opposite horizon reveals the transition between the blues of night and the pinks of the sun’s first or last rays the best color of the day. This is especially true when there are no clouds in the direction of the sun. Photographing this twilight color with your back to the sun’s horizon has the added advantage of being much less contrasty and easier to manage with a camera.
Maximizing sunset color in your images requires careful exposure and composition decisions. By far the most frequent problem is overexposure—giving the scene more light than necessary. In scenes of such extreme contrast, your camera can’t capture the entire range of light your eyes see. And of course your camera has no idea what you’re photographing, so if you leave the exposure decision up to automatic metering, you’ll likely end up with a compromise exposure that tries to pull detail out of the shadows at the expense of color in the sky.
Since it’s the color you’re most interested in capturing, it’s usually best to spare the color in the highlights and let your shadows darken. This usually requires some planning—finding striking finding foreground subjects that stand out against the brighter sky, or water to reflect the sky’s color.
When you’ve found your sunset subject and are ready to shoot, base your exposure decisions on your camera’s histogram, not the way the picture looks on the LCD (never a reliable gauge of actual exposure). Remember, since your camera can’t capture what your eyes see anyway, the amount of light you give your scene is a creative decision. After you’ve exposed, make sure you check your RGB histogram to ensure that you haven’t clipped one of your color channels (most likely the red channel).
You can read more about metering in my Manual Exposure article.
For example: Sentinel Dome, Yosemite
Sentinel Dome in Yosemite provides a 360 degree view of Yosemite and surrounding Sierra peaks. Among the many reasons it’s such a great sunset spot is that from atop Sentinel Dome you can see what’s happening on the western horizon and plan your shoot long before sunset arrives. On this summer evening I was up there shortly after an afternoon rain shower. Though air was crystal clear, lots of clouds remained—and there was an opening on the western horizon for the sun to slip through just before disappearing for the night.
Rather than settle for a more standard Half Dome composition, I wandered around a bit in search of an interesting foreground. I ended up targeting this group of dead pines on Sentinel’s northeast slope, a couple of hundred feet down from the summit. It was no coincidence that sunset that night, one of the most vivid I’ve ever seen, came shortly after a storm had cleansed the atmosphere. Not only did the clouds fire up, the color was so intense that its reflection colored the granite, trees, and pretty much every other exposed surface.
For example: Hilltop Oaks, Sierra Foothills
I was driving the Sierra foothills east of Sacramento looking for the right subject to put with this fiery sunset. Earlier in the sunset it had simply been a been a matter of finding a photogenic tree (or trees), but with the sun more than 15 minutes below the horizon, the foreground was so dark I needed a subject to silhouette against the sky—anything else would have been lost in the rapidly blackening shadows. These trees showed up just in the nick of time.
Color like this comes late (or, at sunrise, early), in the direction of the sun long after most people have gone to dinner (or while they’re still in bed). Everything in this scene that’s not sky is black, which is why my subject needed to stand out against the sky. I was so happy with my discovery that these trees have become go-to subjects for me—browse my galleries and count how many times you see one or both of them (often with a crescent moon).
For example: South Tufa, Mono Lake
The air on Sierra’s east side is much cleaner than air on the more populated west side, and the clouds formed as the prevailing westerly wind descends the Sierra’s precipitous east side are both unique and dramatic. Mono Lake makes a particularly nice subject for the Eastern Sierra’s brilliant sunrise/sunset shows. Not only does it benefit from the clean air and photogenic clouds, Mono Lake’s tufa formations and often glassy surface make a wonderful foreground. The openness of the terrain surrounding Mono Lake allows you to watch the entire sunrise or sunset unfold. Many times over the course of a sunrise or sunset I’ve photographed in every direction.
The image here was captured at the start of a particularly vivid sunrise. The air was clean, with just the right mix of clouds and clear sky; perfectly calm air allowed the lake’s surface to smooth to glass. I find that the more I can anticipate skies like this, the better prepared I am when something spectacular happens. In this case I was at the lake well before the color started, but because it looked like all the sunrise stars were aligning, I was able to plan my composition and settings well before the color started.
Posted on September 1, 2019
It’s midnight and I’m right back where my day had started 21 hours earlier. Standing in the frigid dark beside Lake Wanaka, I feel equal parts energized and exhausted by the longest photography day of my life. And for the first time all day, I’m alone.
With the moon’s arrival still a couple of hours away, most of my attention is on aligning the Milky Way with the much photographed Wanaka willow tree. But photographing the Milky Way with the tree also put the glow of the Wanaka’s lights directly in my field of view. As someone who always strives to photograph the natural world untouched by humans, this would have been a deal-breaker for the old me. But what the heck—the reflection is crisp, the light’s amber glow illuminating the fog is kind of pretty, and since I’m already out here….
Once I embrace the moment, I’m free to click and enjoy. For most of this night the fog ebbed and flowed in the distance, adding character to the scene without subtracting too many stars. I’m having a blast, city lights or not. But eventually the fog starts to take over, slowly expanding upward until it completely swallows most of the Milky Way. Bedtime….
But just as I decide to pack it in, the fog pulls back and the stars briefly rally. Much of the Milky Way is still obscured, but the sky in the west has opened and I quickly reposition, pointing my camera away from the fog, city, and Milky Way, and toward the dark, pristine sky. As my exposure begins, long, undulating ripples stir the lake surface that had been still all night, and I’m concerned that I’ll loose my reflection. Instead, the long exposure smooths the ripples and stretches the brightest stars into oblong balls of light.
With pretty much any mirrorless or DSLR camera, a sturdy tripod, fast lens, and just little knowledge, you can now capture landscapes beneath more stars than you ever imagined possible. A camera’s ability to accumulate light allows it to reveal stars far fainter than the naked eye sees; rapidly advancing digital SLR technology now enables usable (low noise) images at the extreme ISOs necessary for star-freezing shutter speeds in very low light.
I’m starting with the assumption that you have a relatively new mirrorless camera or digital SLR, one that allows you to capture fairly clean (low noise) images at 3200 ISO or higher. You’ll need to be fairly comfortable with managing the controls in the dark, and know how to get it into manual and bulb modes. For star trails a locking remote release is essential (one that allows you to lock down the shutter rather than forcing you to hold it down for the duration of the exposure).
And of course don’t even think about trying any of this without a rock-solid tripod (you don’t need to spend tons of money, but neither can you assume any tripod will work). A wide (28mm or wider on full frame is best), fast (at least f/2.8, but the faster the better) lens is best. Oh yeah, and take off your polarizer.
Moonlight photography is great for photographing landscapes beneath a few bright stars, but a sky filled with stars (and maybe even the Milky Way) can only happen when there’s no moon and city light washing out the faint stars.
When I go out on a moonless night, whether my goal is pinpoint stars, star trails, or both, I start with a test frame to determine the amount of light my planned image requires. The test frame also allows me to check my exposure, focus, level, and composition in light that’s nearly opaque to my eyes.
My initial test frame is usually no more than a 30-second, high ISO (the goal isn’t a usable image, it’s solely to determine exposure, focus, and composition) and my lens’s widest aperture. After each click I check my composition and focus, adjust, and reshoot. The first frame is mostly to gauge the light; subsequent frames refine both the exposure and composition. I’m usually ready to go after two or three test frames.
Once I have an exposure that works (the desired combination of stars and foreground light), I just need to decide which shutter speed will give me the star effect I want—short for pinpoint stars, long for star trails. With that, finding the ISO and/or f-stop that adds or subtracts the light subtracted or added by my chosen shutter speed is just simple math.
For example, let’s say my test exposure was perfect at ISO 12,800, f/2.8, and 30 seconds. A 30-minute star trail image will gather a lot more light (than my 30-second test exposure), so I start by figuring out how many stops 30 minutes adds to 15 seconds. Since I have to double ¼ minute (15 seconds) seven times to get to 32 minutes, I know going from 15 seconds to 32 minutes adds 7 stops of light. (2×1/4=1/2 minute -> 2×1/2=1 -> 2×1=2 -> 2×2=4 -> 2×4=8 -> 2×8=16 -> 2×16=32.)
A moonless night doesn’t have enough light to see the controls on your camera, the contents of your bag, and the tripod leg you’re about to kick. Needless to say, there’s not enough light to focus either, at least in the traditional ways.
Because we’re usually wide, and very rarely concerned about close detail, all of our night subjects are probably at least 25 feet away with an infinity focus point. Unfortunately, that old prime lens habit of twisting the focus ring to the end for infinity focus doesn’t work on a zoom lens—every focal length has a different focus point (I’ve found this to be true even for lenses labeled parfocal). While I’ve simplified my night photography by usually going with my Sony 24mm f/ 1.4 GM lens, when I do use a zoom (usually my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM), I almost always use it at its widest focal length. Not only does a wide lens maximize the amount of sky in my frame, the extra depth of field increases my range of focus tolerance. And sticking with a single focal length reduces the times I need to mess with focus—once I get it sharp, I’m done with the focus hassle.
Despite the hardships, there are a number of methods for focusing at infinity in the dark. Here they are in my order of preference:
1. Autofocus on a bright planet or star. Some camera/lens combinations have excellent autofocus (the faster the lens, the better). I always start by picking out the brightest planet/star. Venus is great, but it won’t be up during the darkest hours of the night. Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars can work, as can Sirius and maybe a few other bright stars. Regardless, you don’t need to know what you’re pointing at—find something bright in the sky, center it in your viewfinder, and try to autofocus. (Any bright, distant object will do—headlights, a plane overhead, whatever.) Don’t forget to take your lens out of autofocus as soon as it’s focused.
2. Live-view focus on a bright planet or star. With my camera on my tripod I center the brightest object in the sky in my viewfinder and lock it in place. I go into live-view mode, center the star/planet in the LV magnification square, then magnify the view to the maximum (it’s 10x on my Canon), and manually focus. Since switching to Sony mirrorless, this is my preferred focus technique and I rarely try 1 or 3.
3. Autofocus on a nearby flashlight. When all else fails, I have somebody stand 50 feet or so away with a flashlight and autofocus on that. If I’m by myself, I rest the flashlight on a rock (or whatever) and walk (stumble?, grope?) 50 feet away. Believe it or not, if I focus my 24mm f/1.4 lens (for example), on a point 50 feet away, I’ll be sharp from about 25 feet to infinity, so you should be fine too unless your lens is significantly longer (which I don’t recommend for night photography) or faster (lucky you). Don’t forget to take your lens out of autofocus as soon as it’s focused.
Don’t forget!: Because there’s no fixed infinity on a zoom lens, if you change your focal length, you must refocus. And no matter what method you choose to focus, you must check the sharpness on the LCD before assuming it’s sharp (once you’ve verified sharpness, you don’t need to refocus or check sharpness again until you change your focal length).
Because I love stars, and it’s the stars that really set a night image apart, most of my night images are at least 2/3 sky. The foreground is usually more of a placeholder, an excuse to dazzle you with the celestial ceiling. But that does not mean the foreground doesn’t matter. Quite the contrary, because the sky is a relative constant, the foreground is the difference between another pretty picture and something that pulls people to a print from across the room.
It’s not necessary, but when possible I always try to include something recognizable, such as the Milky Way (my favorite), or a recognizable constellation like the Big Dipper, Orion, or Cassiopeia. This is especially nice in pinpoint star images. If you don’t know the night sky, spend a little time familiarizing yourself with the major constellations—there are many, many smartphone apps to help with this.
Most people’s vision subconsciously runs along the long edge of an image. Since the primary feature or a night image is the sky, most of my night images are oriented vertically. Regardless of my orientation preference for a particular night shoot, I always make sure I have at least one vertical and horizontally oriented image.
I’m constantly on the lookout for a striking foreground to feature beneath a starry sky. Bold objects without a lot of intricate detail work well, such as a prominent or mountain. Reflective subjects, like water, granite, and sand, work well too.
In Yosemite I like Half Dome for the way it stands out against the sky. For years I struggled getting enough light into the dark hole of the Grand Canyon at night, but today’s digital sensors and fast lenses have changed that. had better luck with Grand Canyon my star trail images because the long shutter time allows enough light at a very clean ISO. My current favorite location for night photography is New Zealand, which I always visit in June (winter). The skies are dark and clear, the nights are long (the Milky Way is up all night in June), and the foregrounds are off the charts
Successful star photography is all about managing star motion—either minimizing their motion or maximizing it. Unfortunately there’s an inverse relationship between the number of stars you capture and your ability to freeze their motion—for any given ISO and f-stop, the longer your shutter is open, the more stars you’ll expose, but the more they’ll move during your exposure.
Pinpoint star images require (relatively) fast shutter speeds to (more or less) freeze the stars’ motion; star trail images us long shutter speeds (either in one frame, or a series of blended frames), the longer the better, to maximize star motion. (Of course it’s not the stars’ motion we’re capturing, it’s Earth’s rotation against a fixed backdrop of stars, but you already knew that.)
Some nights I shoot both pinpoint stars and star trails; other nights I only photograph pinpoint stars. Because a pinpoint star exposure is usually only 15 to 30 seconds, even after I’ve completed my test exposures, they’re the best way to make sure I have everything right before moving on to the quite lengthy star trail exposures.
I’ve seen a formula floating around that’s supposed to ensure pinpoint stars. It’s called the “Rule of 600” (or 500) and says: “Divide 600 by your focal length to ensure a shutter speed that will freeze the stars.” My concern with solutions like this is that they sound far more precise than they are, and they create a false sense of security, often leading to longer or shorter exposures than the scene calls for.
The problem is, the amount of motion is a function of (among other things) a star’s distance from the axis of rotation. For example the North Star, which is less than a degree from Earth’s north axis, will show very little motion in exposures of many minutes or even hours; Betelgeuse, on the other hand, because it’s near the celestial equator will show a significant amount of motion in just a few minutes. For pinpoint stars I think it’s more important to find an exposure that delivers enough light with the least amount of noise.
My biggest problem with exposure speed rules like this is that they can create a worse problem than they correct. Night photography is all about compromise—less than ideal aperture, ISO, and shutter speeds. To me the most unrecoverable compromise, the thing that will render an image unusable more than anything, is too much noise. I generally will forgive the slight amount of star motion of a 30-second exposure (that’s not usually even visible at standard viewing distance) if it saves me from a too dark foreground or unsatisfactory ISO. I find that I’m satisfied with my results if I keep my shutter speeds to 30-seconds and below—the faster the lens, the more likely I am to drop my shutter speed into the 10-20 second range.
I currently (as of September 2019) shoot with a Sony a7SII and Sony 24mm f/1.4 GM lens. I know I can get usable images that clean up nicely with noise reduction software (DxO Prime and/or Topaz DeNoise is my choice) at 12800 ISO, which allows me to stop down to f/2.0 and/or use a 10-second shutter speed. ISO 12800 is higher than I’d use with most cameras, but it seems today’s full frame (and even some APS-C) sensors do fine at ISO 3200, which might require a 30-second shutter speed to get enough light for the foreground.
The Milky Way may just be the single most beautiful everyday feature of Earth’s night sky. Sadly, increased light pollution has made it all but unknown to the vast majority of us. Once upon a time observing the Milky Way’s glowing band stretching across the sky was for most people a matter of walking out and looking up on a dark, clear night; seeing it now usually requires planning and travel.
As most know, the Milky Way is the galaxy of which our Solar System is a very insignificant piece (the Sun is one star in nearly a half trillion). When you see the Milky Way, you’re looking toward our galaxy’s center and seeing the accumulated light of billions of stars. The dark areas you see aren’t areas without stars, they’re regions of interstellar dust so dense that it obscures all starlight (the occasional pinpoint of starlight in these dark regions are nearby stars between us and the galactic center).
Earth’s position in one of the Milky Way’s spiral arms is kind of like being in the distant suburbs of a large city. While all the discrete stars we view and imagine into constellations are the porch lights of our neighbors (technically they’re part of the Milky Way too, just as some cities have city limits that extend all the way out to the suburbs), when we view the Milky Way we’re looking beyond our neighborhood toward our galaxy’s distant, much more densely populated, urban skyline. Due to our Solar System’s skewed orientation (we don’t orbit the Sun on the same plane on which the Milky Way is laid out), parts of the Milky Way are visible regardless of the side of the Sun Earth is on.
The constellations the Milky Way “passes through” (from our perspective—in reality we’re looking through these constellations to the Milky Way center beyond) include Perseus, Cassiopeia, Lacerta, Cygnus, Aquila, Sagittarius, Ophiuchus and Scorpius, Norma, Circinus, Crux, and Carina. If you want to see it, simply pick one of these constellations, figure out when and where it will be visible (an star chart or app will do), pick a clear, moonless night, and position yourself a location
far from city lights. For example, in the Northern Hemisphere Cassiopeia is visible year-round more or less opposite the Big Dipper with Polaris (the North Star) in the center—you might be able to go out tonight to see it (assuming there’s no moon and you can get away from city lights).
But the Milky Way isn’t particularly bright in Cassiopeia—for most photographers (or anyone else who appreciates beauty) it’s the Milky Way center we’re looking for. For that Northern Hemisphere viewers need to look to the southern sky, toward Sagittarius, the constellation that aligns most closely with the Milky Way’s dense (most brilliant) center. And since the Sun is in or near Sagittarius (when we look in the direction of Sagittarius, we’re also looking toward the sun) in winter, we need to wait until Earth has circled around to the other side of the sun—summer.
In other words, viewing (and photographing) the Milky Way’s bright center is a summer (-ish—late spring and early fall will work too) activity. Get out your star chart/app and find a summer night when the moon is below the horizon while Sagittarius is above it (the closer to a new moon, the better your odds). Then get yourself as far from city lights as you can (mountains or desert are great), look to the south, and prepare to be awestruck. Stand there and appreciate the view for a while—when you’re ready to photograph, follow the instructions for pinpoint stars above.
Many people enjoy great success photographing star trails by combining many consecutive, relatively short exposures. In general this approach reduces noise and results in a cleaner image. But since all my images are captured in a single frame (I’m a film shooter with a digital camera), you’ll need to look elsewhere for guidance on that method.
My star trail images are usually 20-30 minute exposures, which I find to be more than adequate to achieve the motion effect I’m looking for. Start with pinpoint star frames and stick with those shots until you’re happy with your composition, exposure, and focus. When you’re ready for star trails, without changing your composition, focal length, or focus:
Before I start, let me just say that there are just about as many processing approaches as there are photographers. And there are far fewer absolute right/wrong ways to do things than you might read/hear/see. So what I’ll tell you here is the way I process a night image, rather than the way to process night image. If you already have a workflow you like, or if somebody else tells you a way you like better mine, go for it.
I wouldn’t even consider photographing night scenes in anything but raw. Not only do jpeg captures reduce your margin for error, a jpeg capture makes processing decisions that are difficult to impossible to reverse.
Posted on July 7, 2019
After one of the most exhausting, exhilarating, and just plain productive photography days of my life, our van rolled into Wanaka a little before midnight and everyone’s thoughts, including my own, were on sleep. But the stars were out and the moon was not (yet), and I knew it would be at least a year before I’d get another chance like this. With a warm bed and blissful sleep beckoning, was I really going to go back out to the lake in the frigid dark for the second time that day? You betcha.
Just what could inspire such craziness? Driven by more than a nice photo opportunity, I’d been infused with the infectious energy of a dozen young, Sony-sponsored social media influencers: the Sony Alpha Imaging Collective (AIC). (It would be doing them a disservice to label them mere photographers.) After spending months arranging this trip on Sony’s behalf, my ostensible role for its execution was as a guide and mentor. But the aggressive creativity of these visual artists was an inspiration to this conventional photographer’s vintage muse, and I can’t imagine that I was able to offer them nearly as much as they gave me.
So, with the Health app on my iPhone reporting that I’d already logged 9 miles and climbed the equivalent of 58 flights of stairs, I found myself standing alone, in icy lake water, photographing something I’d vowed I’d never photograph. So how did I get here?
3:00 a.m.: Note to self
When my alarm went off at 3 a.m. that morning, I’d staggered from bed without high expectations. This wasn’t the first time I’d tried rising photograph the Milky Way above the lone willow in Lake Wanaka, but I’d always been thwarted by fog. This morning, instead of another foggy reprieve and a few more hours of welcome sleep, the stars were out.
Despite a 48% waning gibbous moon, the Milky Way was clearly visible and I photographed for about an hour with three or four others from the AIC group. Having never photographed the Milky Way here, I made mental notes for how it could be better the next time. First, the galactic center was a little left of the tree and quite high. And the moon, while adding light to the foreground, washed out the sky a little too much.
Note to self: Next time, come earlier and make sure the moon isn’t up.
11:00 a.m.: Stop the van!
The three hour drive from Wanaka to Aoraki / Mt. Cook National Park had been slowed by a detour, a couple of unplanned stops, and now dense fog. With at least an hour’s drive and a full photography schedule ahead head of us, we couldn’t really afford to stop. But… Oh. My. God. Look at those trees, glazed with hoarfrost and shrouded with fog… The visibility was so limited, by the time the scene popped out of the fog we were past them, but when a simultaneous command issued from every seat, “Stop the van!”, stop we did. (It didn’t hurt that our driver was a photographer too.)
Doubling back, we poked along the shoulder until we found a narrow, unpaved road on which to park, then sprinted toward the trees—which turned out to line a small lake. Wow. The next hour was some of the most magical photography I’ve ever experienced. When the fog started to thin, the sun broke through, framing the trees with a shimmering fogbow that I just had time to capture.
5:30 p.m.: I can’t believe I’ve never been here
After a beautiful hike to Kea Point (where I opened my bag and realized I’d left my camera in the van—oops, don’t tell anyone), we wrapped our daylight hours with a sunset shoot at Tasman Lake. Normally I scale the 335 steps to the vista overlooking the lake, but it didn’t take much urging to get me to join the group who took the longer but less steep hike to the foot of the lake, where I’d never been.
Getting to the lake from the end of the trail was a short boulder-hopping scramble down a steep hillside, but once I made it down I couldn’t believe I’d never been here. Icebergs, large and small, mingled with the reflection of snowcapped peaks in the clear, turquoise water. We didn’t have clouds to provide an electric sunset, but New Zealand’s impossibly pristine air delivered something I found even more beautiful, the deep magenta of the Belt of Venus.
7:00 p.m.: You’re gonna need a bigger lens
From the very first time my eyes feasted on it, I marveled at what a spectacular spot the vista above Tasman Lake would be for Milky Way photography. I was especially pleased to be guiding an entire group of photographers who were as excited about photographing the Milky Way as I was, so this shoot was the plan since before the workshop started. But as the sky darkened, I was still down at the foot of the lake (just off the screen on the far right) where I’d photographed sunset. Most of the group wanted to stay there for the Milky Way shoot, and while I had to admit that spot would be no less spectacular, I just had to check the higher view off my list. Plus, I knew the Milky Way would align better with the peaks up here. So I scrambled back up the boulders and made the roughly two kilometer walk up here in virtual darkness to make it happen.
I thought a couple others in the group would already be up here, but I arrived to find the view empty. While I was happy to eventually be joined by a couple of others, the solitude I enjoyed for the first 30 minutes I was up here was downright spiritual. Going with my dedicated night camera, the Sony a7SII, I started with my default night lens, the amazing Sony 24mm f/1.4. But the scene was so expansive that I soon switched to my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM for a wider view. That did the job for a while, but when I found myself wanting an even bigger view, I reached for my Sony 12-24 f/4 G lens. F/4 is a little slow for night photography, but the a7SII can handle 10,000 ISO without any problem, and at 12mm the star motion of a 30-second exposure isn’t too bad. It didn’t hurt that the best parts of the scene, the snow and water, were highly reflective, and the dark rock wasn’t really essential to the scene.
12:00 Midnight: Completing the Circle
I’d spent the week sharing my favorite New Zealand South Island sights with the Sony AIC crew. With lots of night photography and driving, each day had been long, but this one took the record. I’d started 21 hours earlier and had been a non-stop blur of driving to the beat of music I’d never heard (Bubble Butt?), hiking to and through breathtaking scenery both old and new, and taking pictures, lots and lots of pictures.
Despite all this, no one got tired. It would have been easy to attribute this group’s boundless energy to youth, but the more I watched them work this week, the more I realized their carpe diem passion for experiencing and expressing our world was the driving real force. While I lack some of the non-photography technical skills they employ so effortlessly (specifically video and the computer as an artistic tool), as soon as followed their lead and I allowed myself to stretch my own personal boundaries in other ways, I had no problem keeping up with the pace. (Though I did draw the line at the all-night processing parties.)
As I’d expected when I returned to the lake late that night, the sky was moonless and the Milky Way better aligned with the Wanaka Willow that anchors the scene. But photographing the Milky Way with the tree also put the glow of the Wanaka sky directly in my field of view. As someone who always strives to photograph the natural world untouched by humans, this would have been a deal-breaker for the old me. But what the heck—those lights are kind of pretty, and I’m already out here….
Once I embraced the moment, I was free to click and enjoy. And enjoy I did. For the entire time I was out here, I was completely alone (though a couple of others in the group did come out to shoot shortly after I left). The fog was barely visible in the distance when I arrived, but while I was there I got to watch it ebb and flow like the tide, dropping down to lake level, expanding upward until at times it nearly obscured the sky completely. Benefiting from the extra light my camera could capture (beyond what I saw), what appeared to my eyes as a faint amber hue in the clouds registered on my LCD as a vivid gold even more brilliant than what you see in this image (I toned it down slightly simply for credibility).
And when the bank of fog receded at one point to expose most of the southern hemisphere stars, I pointed my camera away from city lights, toward the darkest sky. Just as my new composition and exposure were ready, a rogue patch of fog wafted up, providing the ideal background for the tree. As if in collaboration with the fog, the lake chose that instant to smooth its ripples and dial up the reflection.
After this night I can’t say that cityscapes are going to become a regular part of my repertoire, but for one night it was liberating discard my shackles and roll with the scene—and I’ll be much less hesitant to do it the next time. But more than the images, it was simply a joy being out there to watch the fog dance with the stars.
Posted on July 24, 2018
We’ve all heard it: “That’s so fake,” or “You Photoshopped that,” or some other derisive barb implying that an image is trying to be something it isn’t. But before you say that about this image, let me say that I processed it five times, each time dialing down the saturation, attempting to create something that would appear credible to the dubious masses. And with each pass, the color looked a little less like what we saw this unforgettable New Zealand morning. So finally I just said, enough is enough—you’ll just have trust me when I tell you that for the sake of credibility, you’re already being cheated of that morning’s full spectacle.
Don Smith and I got our New Zealand winter workshop group up early to photograph sunrise at the famous Wanaka willow tree. The tree was just a short walk from our hotel, and even though we still had 45 minutes until sunrise, it was apparent the second we stepped outside that something special was in store. Though it was still dark enough to require flashlights, already the entire sky radiated a rich ruby red. Since we’d shown the group the tree the prior afternoon, a few rushed ahead, but Don and I held back with the stragglers. Nevertheless, even the stragglers pace quickened as the red deepened, and by the time we reached the tree we were pretty much jogging.
Turns out we needn’t have rushed. For the next 30 minutes the red intensified until everything in sight seemed to buzz with color. I’ve experienced color like this a few times in my life, and the best way to describe is that it feels like the light possesses a physical component that penetrates my skin and everything else it touches. And with the sky throbbing in all directions, I felt like I might get dizzy whirling about to avoid missing something. Soon we all just started laughing at how unbelievable the show was, knowing that every picture we shared would be met with the obligatory “That’s so fake” skepticism.
All this got me thinking again about what causes color in the sky, so I dusted off a post I wrote a few years ago, tweaked a few things, and…
A sunset myth
If your goal is a colorful sunset/sunrise and you have to choose between pristine or polluted air, which would you choose? If you said clean air, you’re in the minority. You’re also right. But despite some pretty obvious evidence to the contrary, it seems that the myth that a colorful sunset requires lots of particles in the air persists. If particles in the air were necessary for sunset color, Los Angeles would be known for its incredible sunsets and Hawaii would only be known for its beaches.
But what is the secret to a great sunrise or sunset? Granted, a cool breeze, warm surf, and a Mai Tai are a great start, but I’m thinking more photographically than recreationally (sorry). I look for a mix of sky (to pass the sunlight) and clouds (to catch the color), with a particular emphasis on a clear horizon in the direction of the sun. But even with a nice mix of clouds and sky, sometimes the color fizzles. Often the missing ingredient, contrary to common belief, is clean air, the cleaner the better. And like most things, it all makes sense when you understand what’s going on.
Light and color
Understanding sunset color starts with understanding how sunlight and the atmosphere interact to make the sky blue. As you probably know, visible light reaches our eyes in waves of varying length, with each wavelength perceived as a different color. Starting with the shortest wavelengths and moving toward the longest, visible light goes from violet, indigo, blue, green, yellow, orange, and red. (These color names are arbitrary labels we’ve assigned to the colors we perceive at various points along the visible portion of the electromagnetic spectrum—there are an infinite number of colors in between each of these colors.) When a beam of light passes through a vacuum (such as space), it moves in a straight line, without interference, so all its wavelengths reach our eyes simultaneously and we perceive the light as white.
Why is the sky blue?
When light interacts with a foreign object—for example, when a beam of sunlight enters our atmosphere—different wavelengths respond differently depending on the size of the molecules they encounter. If sunlight encounters molecules that are larger than its wavelengths, such as atmospheric impurities like dust or smoke, all of the wavelengths bounce off (reflect). Because these large molecules are of varying sizes, a variety of wavelengths (colors) get blended into a murky sky with a gray or brown cast. If all the wavelengths get bounced equally, the sky will appear white(ish).
When a beam of sunlight hits the much smaller molecules of the gases that comprise our atmosphere (such as nitrogen and oxygen), some of its wavelengths are absorbed while others are reflected and scattered in all directions. Because the shorter wavelengths (violet and blue) scatter most easily; the longer wavelengths (orange and red) continue on to color the sky of someone farther away. The more direct the sunlight’s path to our eyes, the less atmosphere it passes through and the more we see the first (blue) wavelengths to scatter. When the sun is high in our sky, its light takes the most direct path through the atmosphere and our sky is most blue (assuming no pollutants have altered the scattering). In the mountains, sunlight has passed through even less atmosphere and the sky appears even more blue than it does at sea level.
When the sun is on the horizon, the light that reaches us has traveled through so much atmosphere that at the very least it has been stripped of its blueness because the blue wavelengths are the first to scatter (those wavelengths are coloring the sky of someone whose sun is high overhead). And if that sunrise/sunset light hasn’t encountered larger dust and smoke molecules on its journey, only the red wavelengths will have survived unscathed, and everyone enjoys the show.
The cleaner the air, the more vivid the sunrise/sunset color. To understand the mixing effect that happens when a variety of wavelengths are bounced around by large airborne particles, think about blending a smoothie consisting of a variety of brightly colored ingredients (such as strawberries, blueberries, and spinach—yum). Your smoothie’s color won’t be nearly as vivid as any of its ingredients, not even close. Instead you’ll end up with a brownish or grayish muck that might at best be slightly tinted with the color of the predominant ingredient. That’s what happens to the color when the light has to interact with large airborne particles like dust, smoke, and smog. Because these particles aren’t of uniform size, they each reflect a slightly different color rather than allowing one vivid color to dominate. In the middle of the day pollution means less blue; at sunrise/sunset, it’s less pink, red, and orange.
Clouds can enhance sunrise/sunset color by catching the red wavelengths and reflecting them back to our eyes, but only if there’s an opening on the horizon for the light pass through. Without clouds, the red wavelengths continue on to color the horizon opposite the sun—a “twilight wedge” when the color is in the sky, and “alpenglow” when mountains jut into the colored region of the sky and take on the color themselves.
So. To the skeptics who reflexively dismiss pictures like this, you might want to suggest that they spend more time out in nature. Whether it’s a tropical bird, a fluttering butterfly, a field of wildflowers, or a New Zealand sunrise, there really is nothing subtle about color in nature.
Posted on July 17, 2017
For those who don’t recognize it, this is the much-photographed willow tree that inhabits Lake Wanaka on New Zealand’s South Island. I’ve seen it described “the most photographed tree in the world,” and while I doubt that’s true, it is at least among the world’s more photographed trees.
Seeing a popular subject like this for the first time is a lot like meeting a celebrity. While I’ve never been one to be terribly star-struck by famous subjects, I could certainly understand the tree’s appeal—a graceful trunk and spreading branches beside a shimmering lake beneath snow-capped peaks. Adding to the tree’s appeal is the fact that it usually juts from the lake and is surrounded by reflections.
Though we’d heard stories of mornings with close to 100 photographers crowding around the tree, the morning Don and I visited, the crowds had no doubt been kept at bay by a recent drought that has exposed the tree’s base, and by temperatures in the 20s. We were fortunate to share the scene with a half-dozen or so other good natured photographers who were more than happy to work together to ensure that no one was in anyone else’s way.
I was well aware of the popularity of this tree, and the difficulty of finding a fresh interpretation on my one-and-only visit. But that didn’t keep me from doing my best, and for such a simple image, there’s a lot going on behind the scenes to make it happen: foreground/background relationships, framing, depth of field, motion, and light all factored into my creation of this image.
Don and I had walked down to the tree the night before, so I’d had 12 hours or so to chew on my approach. Evaluating the scene in the pre-dawn gloaming, I started by determining the background I wanted. Since the snowy peaks were easily the most striking background feature, I found a position that I thought best aligned the peaks with the tree, eliminating most of the less appealing brown peaks on the right and all of a grove of evergreens on the left. But this just established the line I needed to be on—I still had to find the right distance and framing.
Since I didn’t find the exposed lakebed terribly appealing, and the pre-sunrise sky was pretty boring, I wanted a tight composition that minimized both. Most of the other photographers seemed to be shooting the scene fairly wide, but I found that by moving about 40 back from the tree, at around 70mm I could both compress the distance to the mountains and fill my frame with the tree. But 70mm created depth of field considerations that required careful selection of my f-stop and focus point. My DOF app told me that stopping down to f/16 and focusing about 40 feet behind the tree gave me sharpness from the tree back to the mountains, a fact I confirmed on my LCD after clicking this frame.
There was no wind to move the branches, but the lake surface was slightly disturbed by small waves. Because this was about 20 minutes before sunrise, the scene was still fairly dark and I had no problem using a long exposure to flatten the water.
But how much light? Often when presented with a striking tree, I try to put the tree entirely against the sky and underexpose slightly, so the tree stands out in silhouette. But the only way to position this tree against enough sky for an effective silhouette would have been to lay beneath it and shoot up. Not only would this have required an extremely wide focal length that would have shrunk the mountains and introduced far too many other less interesting elements, it would have also put me smack in the middle of everyone else’s frame.
Instead of a silhouette, I went the other direction, giving the scene extra light to allow the dark tree stand out in contrast to the bright lake, mountains, and sky. I’m not sure I would have tried this high-key solution had a silhouette been feasible, but in hindsight this was clearly the way to go. It’s a good reminder to not get so stuck in my conventional approach that I lose sight of other possibilities.
Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the window to reorder the display.