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 June 30, 2019
I just returned from New Zealand, that remarkable upside-down world where water is clear, summer is winter, and today is yesterday (or maybe it’s the other way around). I’ve been visiting there for a few years, ostensibly to lead photo workshops, but at least as much for my own joy. Each visit focuses on the same region of the South Island, all within 100 kilometers of Queenstown, the area that Don Smith and I determined would give us the most bang for our (and our customers’) photography bucks.
New Zealand’s South Island is a land of rain forests and glaciers, where snow-capped peaks reflect in water clear enough to drink from. Lake Wakatipu is one of these lakes, narrow and S-shaped, with about the same surface area as Lake Tahoe. Wakatipu’s north and east sides are skirted by a road; the south and west sides are accessible only by boat or off-road vehicle.
This image is from the final shoot of this year’s first workshop, just before the fleeting vestiges of a spectacular sunrise disappeared above Lake Wakatipu. I have lots of pictures with more dramatic color, but as I scanned through my thumbnails in Lightroom, the serenity of this one stopped me.
While this scene is from Bob’s Cove, about a 15-minute drive west of Queenstown on the Glenorchy Road, it could be pretty much anywhere along Lake Wakatipu—or for that matter, from any of the dozens of other large and glacial lakes decorating the South Island. For this one I stood in a few inches of water and dropped to just a couple of feet above lake level. With my eye on the viewfinder, I dialed my polarizer just enough to reveal the nearby submerged lakebed without erasing the reflection of the distant peaks.
Here is a (partial) list of favorite New Zealand features in alphabetical order, plus a brief description of each.
Click an image for a closer look and to view a slide show.
Posted on June 23, 2019
Several people in this month’s New Zealand workshop had stated pretty emphatically that the Milky Way was a prime reason for attending—one guy even said his wife had told him not to come home without a Milky Way picture (we think she was joking). So no pressure. I reassured everyone in the orientation that I had multiple Milky Way shoots planned, but as the workshop’s nights ticked off, each Milky Way plan was doused—first by clouds, later by moonlight. And with the moon brightening and closer in the sky to the Milky Way each night, the we’d about run out of time.
I’d known all along that a waxing moon meant that our best Milky Way chances would come in the first half of the workshop. And I’d decided long before the workshop started that our final night would be especially problematic for the Milky Way not just because of the moon, but because of our location. But desperate times call for desperate measures, so with just a couple of days to go, I decided to recheck my calculations for about the millionth time (maybe a slight exaggeration, but you get the point). The two nights in Twizel were out of the question—the moon would be pretty much in the Milky Way. But our last night, in Queenstown…. Hmmm, maybe, just maybe, we’d have a 30-45 minute window between sunset and moonrise when the sky might be dark enough for the Milky Way to shine.
But the moon wasn’t the only obstacle. The forecast called for “high clouds,” a frustratingly vague forecast. And even if the sky darkened enough and the clouds cleared, we were in Queenstown, where I’d long ago decided that city lights and the orientation of Lake Wakatipu made finding Milky Way vantage point with a dark enough sky (no light pollution) and a nice enough foreground (lake and mountains) impossible. The moonlight and clouds risk were irrelevant if I couldn’t find a Milky Way location. But I had to give it a shot. Zooming in on the map, my eyes landed on one small tiny of lakeshore with enough of a twist that might work, though I’d never photographed there or even considered its Milky Way potential. But that was enough for me to circle the date and location and tell the group that we were going to give the Milky Way one more shot. All that was left to do was monitor the forecast and wait.
Wanting to be certain (and to avoid hunting blindly in the dark), on the way to our final sunset shoot I asked the driver to swing by my potential spot. I was relieved to confirm that the angle was good, and that there was an open, easily accessible stretch of beach. Yay. Down the road at our sunset location I just watched the clouds and hoped. The sky seemed clear enough there, but looked a little less promising back in the direction of my Milky Way location.
Arriving in twilight I hopped out of the van and checked the twilight sky—In addition to the promised high clouds, an accumulation of thicker clouds sat on the horizon more or less where the brightest part of the galactic center would be. And there were indeed a few high clouds, but Jupiter’s appearance was a relief because I knew Jupiter was on the leading edge of the Milky Way that night. Waiting for darkness, I prepared the group and just tried to stay positive. Every few minutes I’d return to my camera and fire a test frame to see if the sky was dark enough and look for any hint of moonlight.
You can’t imagine my excitement the first time my LCD displayed the faint glow of the Milky Way angling above 6000 foot Cecil Peak—we were in business. As the sky darkened, the Milky Way unfurled overhead in all its Southern Hemisphere glory, flanked by Jupiter and thousands of other stars in completely unfamiliar arrangements.
I started with my dedicated night photography setup, my Sony a7SII body and Sony 24 f/1.4 GM lens, trying a variety of horizontal and vertical compositions. After about 15 minutes I switched to my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM, sacrificing two stops of light for a wider field of view (more Milky Way). I liked the extra sky and stuck with that lens for the rest of the shoot.
After about 30 minutes of happy shooting we started to detect a brightening that signaled the moon’s approach behind The Remarkables (my hands-down favorite mountain range name). But rather than being a show stopper, the moonlight added a diaphanous sheen to the previously dark clouds and we kept going. As we wound down, the entire group was giddy with excitement, and I was giddy with relief. Just as we were started to pack up, I detected the faint reflection of Cecil Peak on the lake’s surface and adjusted my composition to include it.
To say that this night exceeded my expectations would be an understatement. In fact, my expectations almost dashed the entire shoot. It was a good a reminder not to get too locked in to preconceived notions. Had I stuck with my original belief that our final night in Queenstown wouldn’t work, I’d never have found a great Milky Way location—and one of the best shoots of an already great workshop would never have happened.
Click an image for a closer look and to view a slide show.
Posted on June 16, 2019
What a crazy life this is. Last month I was rafting the Grand Canyon in short pants and flip-flops, this month I’m bouncing around the New Zealand countryside in my warmest wool and down. Between timezone shock and temperature whiplash, my body isn’t quite sure whether it’s coming or going, but the relentless beauty down here seems to transcend all that difficulty enough to keep me going.
Mirror Lakes is a must-stop on the road to Milford Sound in Fiordland National Park. It’s a popular stop even in mid-winter, but with the help of our New Zealand-based driver, Don Smith and I have figured out how to thread the needle between the tour buses originating in nearby Te Anau, and the tour buses originating in distant Queenstown, and still make it just before the morning sun reaches the water and washes out the reflection.
When our van pulled up here on Friday morning, I was surprised to see a large tour bus right out front, but Steve (our driver) said don’t worry, they’ll be loading up any second—sure enough, within five minutes we had this gorgeous view to ourselves with at least 45 minutes of shade remaining on the water. As pretty as the scene is, limited views through the surrounding foliage make it a little tricky to photograph, so I’m usually content to stand back and let the group work with the prime photography real estate. But on this morning chilly morning last week, I found the clouds and reflection so irresistible that I went looking for a way to photograph the scene without getting in anyone’s way.
I soon found myself over in one the far corner of the most popular railed viewing deck, a zone where the patient (and not-so-patient) wait behind thick overhanging branches for better views to open up. My first thought as I eyed the scene was how cool the branches look—too bad they block the view. But then I realized that by lowering my camera almost all the way to the deck, I could completely eliminate the most dense set of branches at the very top of the frame, and use the lower branches as diagonal compositional elements—without blocking the snowy peaks, or their reflection.
The problem with this idea was that I needed my camera to be on the other side of the deck’s protective railing, and the vertical bars in the railing were too closely spaced to fit my lens through. But just for laughs I pulled the lens out anyway and tested its width against the bars. Sure enough, every opening was too narrow—well, every opening except one. For some reason, the gap separating one, and only one, pair of bars was about an inch wider than all the others, making a gap just wide enough to slip my lens through.
The technical part of the scene was pretty straightforward, though potentially quite awkward with my camera about eight inches off the ground (it’s not the getting down to ground level that’s a problem, it’s the getting up). These are the very situations where I’ve grown to love the articulating LCD on my Sony a7RIII. In this case I was able to compose, level, focus, and meter from the (relative) comfort of my knees.
After centering Mt. Eglinton, I focused on the branches knowing that at f/16 and 18mm, I’d be sharp all the way to infinity. The dynamic range was pretty extreme, but my histogram told me that it was workable if I was careful. With all that out of the way, the biggest problem remaining was the ducks that insisted on swimming through the reflection—fortunately, I’m nothing if not patient (stubborn), and was able to out-wait them long enough to click this frame.
Click an image for a closer look and to view a slide show.
Posted on November 5, 2018
One evening in New Zealand
I get to a lot of locations and see so many spectacular sights that they sometimes run together. But every once in a while I experience a shoot I know I’ll never forget.
One of (many) highlights of the New Zealand workshop is the hike to Tasman Lake in Aoraki / Mt. Cook National Park. The reward for this short, steep (335 stairs) hike is a 270 degree view that includes 12,000 foot Mt. Cook, icebergs drifting atop turquoise Tasman Lake, Nun’s Veil (pictured here), and the Tasman Valley.
At the trailhead most of the workshop group decided the trail was too icy and opted for a beautiful but less treacherous view a couple miles back down the road. As Don led them to the alternate spot, I guided four members who wanted to brave the icy trail. It turns out the ice wasn’t a big problem, and in fact was completely gone from the trail within a couple hundred yards, and we made it to the vista short of breath but otherwise unscathed.
I’d been up here a few times, but it was the first time for the others, so it was fun to watch their reaction as they summited. Because the trail ends here and the viewing platform is fairly compact, we were able to work in close proximity all evening—having others to share our awe with enhanced the experience even more.
The Tasman Lake view is one of those vistas that’s far too broad to capture with a single frame; any attempt to do so shrinks every feature to the point of insignificance. Opting to divide and conquer by identifying and isolating the scene’s most compelling features, my eye instantly landed on the reflection of Nun’s Veil’s in a small pool down the slope. I soon hopped the vista’s small retaining wall to better center the reflection in the pool, then spent much of the evening here working on compositions that included the reflection. My clicking intensified as light on Nun’s Veil warmed, coloring the wind-whipped snow encircling the peak.
As if all that wasn’t enough, a few minutes after the light left Nun’s Veil, a full moon appeared just to the right of the peak. Despite the advancing night, we were able to photograph the moonrise for a few minutes before the scene became too dark to capture detail in the foreground and moon. But even facing a walk down the icy trail in the dark, we lingered in the moonlight just to marvel at the majesty. As we donned our headlamps for the walk back down the trail, I heard one of the members of the group call my name. “Gary,” long pause. “That didn’t suck.”
Who doesn’t love the soothing tranquility of a good reflection? And like a metaphor in writing, a reflection is an indirect representation that can be more powerful than its literal double by virtue of its ability to engage the brain in different ways than we’re accustomed. Rather than processing the scene directly, we first must mentally reassemble the reflection’s reverse world, and in the process perhaps see the scene a little differently.
Reflections are a powerful photographic tool as well. Water’s universal familiarity makes it an ideal subject for photographers frustrated by their camera’s static representation of our dynamic world. Just as we freeze or blur a waterfall to express turbulent motion, we can include a reflection to convey serenity.
Water reflections come in many forms, from a mirror-sharp reverse of a mountain atop a still pool, to an abstract shuffle of color and texture on a choppy lake. Without getting too far into the physics of light, it’s important to understand that every object we see and photograph (that doesn’t generate its own light) comes to us courtesy of reflected light.
Mirror reflection recipe
The ingredients for a crisp, mirror reflection like the El Capitan image at the top of the page is pretty simple: still water, a reflection subject that’s much brighter than the water’s surface (the greater the contrast the better), and a view angle that matches the angle from the water’s surface to the reflection subject. (The best reflections are usually found on shaded water because there are fewer photons to compete with the photons bouncing from the reflected subject.)
The El Capitan reflection above was a perfect confluence of reflection conditions. Clean, still air, dense shade on the river, and El Capitan’s fully exposed, reflective granite, make early morning the best time for El Capitan reflections. On this April morning I made my way down to the Merced River hoping to photograph the first light on El Capitan reflected in the Merced River. Finding my route down to the river blocked by spring flooding, I was forced to improvise. The morning air was clean and calm, and the ephemeral lake was mirror-still.
Circling the flooded meadow, I found a gap in the trees that opened onto the most complete view and reflection of El Capitan and the Three Brothers I’ve ever seen. So complete in fact, that I couldn’t include it all with my 16-35mm lens at its widest focal length. Fortunately, I was able to borrow a Canon 11-24 lens and Metabones IV adapter from a friend (thanks, Curt!), just wide enough to fit the entire scene at the lens’s shortest focal length.
Playing the angles
Understanding that reflected photons leave the water’s surface at the same angle at which they arrive—imagine the way a tennis ball bounces (if it weren’t affected by spin, wind resistance, or gravity)—helps us get in position for the reflection we want.
A few years ago I found myself atop Sentinel Dome right after an intense rain shower had turned indentations in the granite into small, glistening pools. Rather than simply settle for the vivid sunset coloring the clouds above, I decided to include the sunset reflected in the pools as well. At eye-level the pools reflected blue sky, so I dropped my tripod as low as it would go, almost to granite level, positioning my lens at the same angle to the pools that the red light leaving the clouds struck the water.
When the water’s in motion
As spectacular as a crisp, mirror reflection in still water is, it’s easy to overlook the visual potential in a reflection that’s not crisp, or to forget your camera’s ability to render a soft or abstract reflection much better than your eyes view it. While a crisp reflection often dominates the primary subject in an image, a splash of reflected color or shape can provide a striking accent to a dominant primary subject. And a reflection disturbed by the continuously varying angles of rippled or choppy water magically appears when a long exposure smoothes the water’s surface.
In the image on the right, the El Capitan reflection undulating atop the Merced River was barely perceptible to my eyes. But the reflection came to in a 25 second exposure achieved with the help of 2-stop hard graduated neutral density filter that subdued the day’s last rays on the clouds and El Capitan, and a neutral polarizer (with the reflection dialed up) that cut the light on the entire scene by a couple of stops. And since a reflection is never as bright as the actual scene, using a GND meant I need to do a little dodging and burning in Photoshop.
Where to focus
An often misunderstood aspect of reflection photography is where to focus. Though it seems counterintuitive, the focus point of a reflection is the reflection subject, not the reflection surface. This isn’t such a big deal in a scene like the El Capitan reflection at the top of the post, where the focus point of everything of visual significance is infinity, but it’s a very big deal when you want both your reflection and rocks or leaves on the nearby water surface sharp.
The El Capitan reflection on the right is very different from the El Capitan reflection above, where the extreme depth of field ensured sharpness had I focused on anything in the scene or the reflection. But here the leaves that were my scene’s primary emphasis were just a couple of feet from my camera, while El Capitan was several thousand feet distant. Even though the leaves floated atop the El Capitan reflection, focusing on El Capitan would have softened the leaves. To increase my depth of field, I stopped down to f/18 and focused several feet into the foreground leaves, then magnified the image on my LCD to verify that all of the leaves were sharp. Though El Capitan is slightly soft, a soft reflection is far more forgivable than a soft fore
It seems that reflections often feel like a fortuitous gift that we just stumbled upon. But given that reflections are entirely beholden to the laws of physics, they’re far more predictable than many of the natural elements we photograph. Taking a little time to understand the nature of reflections, and how they’re revealed by a camera, enables photographers to anticipate their appearance.
For example, in Yosemite I know that low flow makes autumn the best time for reflections in the Merced River. On the other hand, when the Merced is rushing with spring runoff, Yosemite’s meadows often shimmer beneath tranquil vernal pools. I plan many trips (and workshops) to take advantage of these opportunities.
Click an image for a closer look and slide show.
Posted on October 28, 2018
One summer when I was a kid my family took a camping vacation to the Canadian Rockies. Bits and pieces of that trip return to me as vague memories, but one memory permanently etched in my brain is the color of Lake Louise and Moraine Lake. My dad, a very passionate amateur photographer, was frothing with excitement and must have gone through half his film budget (remember those days?) at Moraine Lake alone. Nevertheless, and despite my dad’s pictures, I couldn’t fully process a world where water could be that color and for many years after that doubted my memory.
Long before visiting New Zealand I accepted that water really can be that color, but still had few opportunities to view it. Then I started visiting New Zealand, where photographing the lakes and rivers gives me a little déjà vu—it’s just plain disorienting to see water this color.
So what’s going on?
In areas of persistent cold, snow can accumulate faster than it melts. Over many years of accumulating, the snow’s weight compresses it into ice and a glacier is born. A glacier is incredibly heavy; since pressure decreases the freezing point of ice, at the interface between the glacier and the underlying rock (where the pressure of the ice’s weight is greatest), melting ice lubricates the glacier and allows it to move downhill. The glacier’s extreme weight combined with this forward motion breaks up the rock. Embedded with these rock fragments, the glacier behaves like sandpaper, grinding the rock on which it slides into finer and finer particles. The finest of these particles is called “glacial flour.”
Meltwater from the glacier flows downhill, carrying scoured rock with it. While the larger rock particles simply sink, the glacial flour remains suspended in the runoff. While most of the sunlight striking water infused with glacial flour is absorbed by the suspended particles, the green and blue wavelengths aren’t absorbed; instead they scatter back to our eyes and we are treated to turquoise water. The water’s exact hue (whether it appears more green or blue) is determined by the size of the suspended particles, which dictates the relative amount of green and blue wavelengths they scatter.
About this image
The Hooker Valley track is a spectacular 3-mile hike beneath Mt. Cook to Hooker Lake. This gradually sloped trail follows the Hooker River’s twisting turquoise ribbon, snaking back and forth across the water on three swinging suspension bridges. It doesn’t take too much time on the trail to understand why this is one of the most popular hikes in New Zealand.
This year’s workshop group didn’t have time to do the entire 6-mile roundtrip, but since the beauty starts pretty much in the first 100 yards and doesn’t let up, we guided them up the track with instructions to take their time and photograph without concern for how far they got. It turns out most only made it to the first bridge, initially stopped by the view of the river and mountains, and then by the sunset that colored the clouds above the peaks.
This image came from fairly early in our bridge shoot, when clouds capped the scene and I took advantage of the soft light to stretch my exposure and smooth the water. Here I was a few yards up the trail from the bridge, which allowed me to make the river a diagonal stripe across the frame. Less than thrilled with the fairly boring foreground shrubs, I moved around a bit until I found a large rock to occupy the that part of the frame.
Click an image for a closer look and a slide show