That Didn’t Suck

Gary Hart Photography: Glacial Reflection, Nun's Veil and Tasman Lake, New Zealand

Reflection on the Rocks, Nun’s Veil and Tasman Lake, New Zealand
Sony a7RIII
Sony 24-105 f/4 G
1/13 second
F/11
ISO 100

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.”

New Zealand Photo Workshop



Like reflections? Here’s an article on reflections I wrote a few years ago.

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Reflections

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

Gary Hart Photography: Sunset Palette, Half Dome from Sentinel Dome, Yosemite

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

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

When the water’s in motion

Gary Hart Photography: On the Rocks, El Capitan and the Merced River, Yosemite

On the Rocks, El Capitan and the Merced River, Yosemite

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.

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Reflection, El Capitan, Yosemite

Autumn Reflection, El Capitan, Yosemite

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

Think ahead

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

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.

 

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A Reflection Gallery

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New Zealand on Ice

Gary Hart Photography: Glacial Flow, Tasman River, New Zealand

Glacial Flow, Tasman River, New Zealand
Sony 24-105 f/4 G
1 1/3 second
F/16
ISO 50

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.

New Zealand Photography Workshop


The Best of New Zealand

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New Zealand Night

Gary Hart Photography: Mars Rising, Milky Way and Lake Hawea, New Zealand

Mars Rising, Milky Way and Lake Hawea, New Zealand
Sony a7S II
Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM
15 seconds
F/2.8
ISO 12800

One of the questions I get the most about the New Zealand workshop Don Smith and I do is, “Why winter?” The simple answer is that it’s the best time to photograph there. This answer is usually followed with, “But isn’t it cold?” Not really—it’s more like a Northern California or Oregon winter, with highs in the 40s and 50s, and lows in the 20s and 30s. Also like Northern California and Oregon, New Zealand’s South Island gets some rain and fog in the lowlands, and snow in the mountains—so much better for photography than the persistent blue skies of the California summer I left behind.

While the conditions are certainly tolerable, and winter storms whiten the many peaks and fill the skies with interesting clouds, when pressed for more specifics on my preference for a New Zealand winter, it’s usually not long before I get to the night sky. With clean air and minimal light pollution, New Zealand is an astrophotographer’s paradise any season. But winter is when the Milky Way’s brilliant center shines prominently all night, rising much higher above the horizon than my Northern Hemisphere eyes are accustomed to.

One night in Wanaka Don and I took the group for short drive out to a vista overlooking Lake Hawea, one of many large glacial lakes decorating the South Island. I knew we’d get the Milky Way, but had forgotten about Mars, near opposition and shining brighter than it has in 15 years. We found it rising across the lake, so bright that it cast a sparkling reflection on the water. I started with vertical compositions, but soon switched to horizontal to include both Mars and the snow-capped peaks rising above the north shore.

Here are a couple of links to help with your night photography:

A New Zealand Winter Gallery

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Anchor Management

Gary Hart Photography: Dawn on the Rocks, Lake Pukaki, New Zealand

Dawn on the Rocks, Lake Pukaki, New Zealand
Sony a7R III
Sony 24-105 f/4 G
15 seconds
F/18
ISO 50

Virtually every scene I approach with a camera is beautiful, but a beautiful scene is rarely enough for a great image. Human experience of the world differs greatly from what the camera captures—the photographer’s job is to understand and use those differences.

I’ve always felt that viewers of an image are more comfortable exploring the frame—and therefore tend to linger longer with the image—when they have a starting and return place. So the first thing I do when trying to turn a beautiful scene into a beautiful picture is create that place by finding something to anchor my frame. Sometimes this anchor is an object that’s beautiful in its own right (such as a reflection, a flower, or the moon), but often it’s just a grounding element that aligns with the scene’s more striking features.

When I approached this scene on the shore of Lake Pukaki in New Zealand, I was struck first by the rich glacial turquoise water (I’ve seen a few lakes with similar color, but none that were nearly as big as Lake Pukaki), and second by the snowcapped peaks lining the distant shore. And in the pre-sunrise gloaming I could see that the sky was very nice too—maybe not spectacular, but with lots of character in the clouds plus the potential for soft, warm light when the sun finally arrived. Given all the scene had going for it, I probably could have raised my camera and composed something decent from any spot with a view of the lake, but a scene like this deserves something more than decent.

So before advancing any further, I performed my standard scan for something to anchor my frame, a visual element to surround with the scene’s inherent beauty. I was instantly drawn to an area of the beach where a few rocks protruded from the lake and quickly made my way down to the water. At the shore, in addition to the rocks that drew me I found a striking mosaic of rocks submerged beneath the clear water. A bonus for sure, but as beautiful as these submerged rocks were, as I tried to get all the visual pieces to fit together I quickly realized that they introduced a layer of complication as well.

For the next 10 or 15 minutes I wandered the lakeshore experimenting with compositions that used a variety of foreground rock combinations, but couldn’t really find anything that thrilled me. I’d click a frame or two, evaluate the result, but just couldn’t seem to organize all the foreground rocks with the mountains and sky to form something coherent.

But this wasn’t the time to become discouraged. I knew something was here and continued experimenting, hoping to find it before the light changed. As the sky brightened, I settled on the trio of rocks you see in this image. They aligned nicely with the mountains, better than anything else I’d found so far. But they were also orbited by a disorganized arrangement of satellite rocks that competed with the simple foreground I sought. I moved closer, extending my tripod as far into the water as I could, then dropped low and composed a fairly tight frame.

Eliminating the superfluous rocks made my foreground all about the rock trio, and with a few tweaks (preliminary frames followed by adjustments) arrived at the composition you see here. At this point the rocks were just a few feet from my camera, making depth of field a concern. Assisted by my hyperfocal app, I stopped down to f/18 and focused at the back of the farthest rock, taking only a couple of frames before I was confident my hyperfocal distance was dialed in.

The final piece of the puzzle was dealing with the chop in the water. Sometimes water motion can be a feature and I try to find a middle ground that softens it while retaining a bit of shape or texture. In this case I wanted simplicity, and felt that anything that wasn’t mountains, rocks, or color would be a distraction. The solution was to smooth the water as much as possible with a 15-second shutter speed.

There’s nothing inherently special about the rocks I used to anchor this image. The scene’s true beauty lies in the water and mountains, but if I’d have settled for an image that was just water and mountains, there would have been nowhere for your eye to land. Adding a simple foreground element to anchor my frame serves as a visual launching pad from which you’re free to explore the rest of this beautiful scene.

Join Don Smith and Me in New Zealand


Visual Anchors

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That’s so fake…

Gary Hart Photography: Crimson Morning, Lake Wanaka, New Zealand

Crimson Morning, Lake Wanaka, New Zealand
Sony a7R III
Sony 24-105 f/4 G
4 seconds
F/16
ISO 50

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.

Sunrise/sunset color

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.

New Zealand Photo Workshops


Sunrise, Sunset

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Oh, What a Night…

Gary Hart Photography: Dark Sky Dreams, Lake Matheson, New Zealand

Dark Sky, Lake Matheson, New Zealand
Sony a7S II
Rokinon 24mm f/1.4
30 seconds
F/1.4
ISO 12800

(Jump to the bottom for a “how-to” and my starlight photography exposure recipe)

Five photographers followed bouncing headlamps through the chilly dark. Even in midday the trail through the dense rainforest surrounding Lake Matheson has a twilight feel; on a moonless winter night like this, the path becomes downright cave-like. Soon our footsteps were in sync, each tap broken by a beat of eerie silence. For me, the solitary experience at the front of the line was simultaneously serene and disconcerting, a feeling enhanced by occasional rustling and primal cries from the primitive world outside radius of my light.

I was midway through the second of back-to-back New Zealand Winter photo workshops. Just a couple of hours earlier the entire group had completed the nearly 2 1/2 mile loop in daylight. So striking was the sunset reflection of Mt. Tasman and Mt. Cook on that hike, that when we looked up after dinner and saw stars, a few of us hardcore night shooters couldn’t resist returning to the lake to photograph the Milky Way above the peaks.

Rather than hike all the way out there, we reasoned that we could satisfy our objective with a relatively short walk to Jetty Viewpoint, the closest view of the lake and mountains, less than a quarter of the way along the loop. Given the spur-of-the-moment nature of our adventure, I hadn’t done my usual (obsessive) plotting of the Milky Way’s position before bundling up and heading our to the lake. I knew only that it would be more or less vertical, in the general direction of the peaks.

What I hadn’t fully accounted for is how much higher in the sky as the Milky Way is in New Zealand. So unfortunately, by the time the five of us arrived at Jetty Viewpoint, we found the Milky Way was so high that capturing the bright galactic core and its reflection required a vertical composition. And it had rotated so far north that including the Milky Way and the peaks required a horizontal composition. After trying a few versions of those either/or compositions, we decided that since the reflection was the real star of the show, we may as well just continue another 20 minutes to the Lake Matheson’s best view point, Reflection Island.

The shear volume of stars in the pure New Zealand darkness is mesmerizing, but it’s disorienting to look up at night and not see a single familiar constellation, . Once we were settled in at Reflection Island, I spent the time during exposures wandering my gaze about the foreign sky.

A camera can “see” much better in the dark than we can, a capability that only continues to improve. For many years my night photography was limited by technology to moonlight only, but the low-light capability of the newest cameras has opened the door to a world that’s been invisible to the naked eye. Combining a modern camera that captures clean high ISO images with a fast lens not only enables moonless night photography, it pulls unseen wonders from the darkness.

I only use my Sony a7SII and Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 lens when photographing extreme dark skies, but when I do, I never cease to be blown away by what they “see.” Packing for four weeks in winter without exceeding the airline’s weight limits is difficult. But anticipating the opportunity to photograph the Southern Hemisphere night sky, I bit the bullet and added my dedicated night photography gear to my camera bag.  Every time an exposure completed, I couldn’t take my eyes off the image on my LCD. As saturated with stars as the sky appeared, each image revealed far more stars than were visible to my eyes, and the brightest stars stood out like an approaching locomotive.

A quick check of my astronomy app told me that the bright star burning a hole in the sky above the trees on the right is Achernar, well known Down Under but new to me. Slightly brighter than magnitiude .5 (the lower the number, the brighter the star), it’s the ninth brightest star in the night sky—the Achernar photons that landed on my sensor started their Earthward journey nearly 140 years ago.

The Magellanic Clouds (satellite galaxies gravitationally bound to the Milky Way but not visible in the Northern Hemisphere) that were faint fuzzy blurs to my eyes took on actual shapes. And while I couldn’t fit the mountains and both of the Magellanic Clouds in my frame, I was able to included the Small Magellanic Cloud in this image.

More exciting than the volume of stars revealed by my camera was the spectacular reflection it pulled from the seemingly black void of the lake’s surface. This ability to view beauty hidden from my eyes by darkness is the best part of night photography.

Starlight exposure made simple

Based on many years experience teaching starlight photography (not to be confused with moonlight photography), I’ve come up with what I think is the simplest approach to the most frequently asked night photography question: “What exposure settings should I use?”

The problem is, there isn’t a single set of ISO, f-stop, and shutter speed settings you can plug in for great results because the setting you use (and the results you get) depend on your equipment. Starlight photography is all about capturing light, the more the better. But as good as today’s camera technology is, successful night photography is still about making compromises. As you try to maximize the light reaching your sensor, you’ll need to manage these exposure compromises:

  • Shutter speed: Star motion is a function of the time the shutter is open, the focal length, and the direction your lens points—the faster the shutter speed, wider the lens, and closer to the poles (due north or south) you’re composed, the less star motion you’ll record. As much as we like pinpoint stars, I’ve always felt that getting enough light is more important than perfect pinpoints. Your compromise comes as you try to decide how much motion you can live with. My drop-dead shutter speed that I won’t exceed is 30 seconds.
  • F-stop: Sharpness and distortion, especially on the edges, becomes a concern when any lens is wide open. With some lenses it’s a livable problem, with others you’ll probably want to stop-down a stop or two. A starlight f-stop rule of thumb I follow is that (assuming a current camera with good high ISO capability) at f/4, the best you’ll be able to hope for is silhouettes; at f/2.8, you can probably get decent but dark landscape detail; making the scene significantly brighter than your eyes see (like this image) usually requires f/2 or faster. Given that, I like to shoot starlight at f/1.4 (hence my dedicated night lenses), and just live with slightly less than perfect quality in the corners.
  • ISO: Noise is the threshold that most limits our night efforts. If we didn’t have to deal with noise, we could push our ISO as far as necessary to eliminate star motion and lens flaws. High ISO noise varies a lot with the camera—some cameras struggle mightily beyond ISO 1600, others deliver very usable results at ISO 12800 or even higher. As a general rule, the larger the sensor, and the fewer the megapixels, the better the high ISO performance (larger, farther apart photosites mean more light gathering and less heat). So an APS-C sensor will usually yield cleaner high ISO images than a 4/3 sensor (Olympus and Panasonic), and a full frame sensor will yield cleaner high ISO images than an APS-C sensor. This is by no means an absolute—today’s 40+ megapixel sensors are much better at high ISOs than yesterday’s 12 megapixel sensors, and some of today’s high resolution sensors (for example, the Sony a7RIII) are far superior to contemporary sensors with lower resolution. My night camera is the 12 megapixel Sony a7SII. Regardless of the camera, and I can’t emphasize this too much, is to know your camera and how far you can push your ISO and still yield usable results. One more thing: because high ISO performance decreases significantly with shutter speed, base your high ISO evaluations on long shutter speeds, 15-30 seconds.

Understanding these compromises, you’re ready for my starlight-exposure-made-simple axiom: Give the scene as much light as you can without ruining the image. In other words, for the most light possible, use the longest shutter speed, widest aperture, and highest ISO that gives you results you can live with.

Taking this approach doesn’t mean that I don’t vary my exposure settings. Once I’ve settled on a composition, I use a variety exposure-setting combinations. Not only does this give me as many options as possible at processing time, it’s also an opportunity better understand my cameras’ and lenses’ limitations to learn how far I can push the exposure threshold next time.

New Zealand 2019

Workshop Schedule || Purchase Prints


A Starlight Gallery

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

 

 

 

 

Off to a great start

Gary Hart Photography: Last Light, Lake Wakatipu, New Zealand

Last Light, Lake Wakatipu, New Zealand
Sony a7R III
Sony 24-105 f/4 G
.8 seconds
F/18
ISO 50

It’s a little ironic that on my first day back from New Zealand, I’m (finally) starting a blog post about the start of my winter workshops there. When I departed for New Zealand about a month ago, I had the best intentions to post several times per week, but soon realized there was going to be precious little time for that. I’ve processed a few images from the trip, but have only just scratched the surface of what I’m certain will turn out to be the most photographically rewarding four weeks of my life. But the rewards of this trip turned out to be so much more than photographic, and I have some great stories to share.

First, a little background

I’ve been leading photo workshops for a dozen years. From the outset my friend and fellow pro photographer Don Smith and I have had a reciprocal workshop relationship: he assists a few of my workshops, and I assist a like number of his workshops. In 2013 Don and I added a collaborative workshop at the Grand Canyon during the monsoon season (lightning photography)—instead of the workshop being owned by one and assisted by the other, we share the planning, marketing, and leading responsibilities 50/50. The Grand Canyon workshop became so successful (and enjoyable for both of us) that we’ve since added collaborative workshops at the Columbia River Gorge and on the Oregon Coast.

The next frontier

The New Zealand workshops take our collaborative workshop model to a new level. Not only are they our first international workshops, they’re much longer and more immersive. We’ve always provided lodging, but for New Zealand we added transportation (including a driver) and many meals.

Organizing a 10-day, 5 town workshop half-way around the world adds unprecedented layers of complications. Not just finding the best photo locations with good backups for weather closures, but also arranging lodging, meals, and permits. Though we’d scouted our locations thoroughly, had the permits, lodging, meals, and transportation arranged, we had no idea what it would be like photographing, eating, and traveling with a group for many consecutive hours, every day for 10 days. It turns out that our anxiety was completely unfounded.

It’s a sign

After the workshop orientation we hit Glenorchy Road on the shores of Lake Wakatipu for our first sunset shoot. Following a preliminary stop at Wilson Bay, where we were treated to beautiful light on the peaks across the lake, we headed farther down the road to our sunset destination—a spectacular view of the Humboldt Mountains (among others) above the lake. The sky looked especially promising for something special, so as we drove I gave everyone a quick primer on photographing a sunstar.

We pulled up to the vista just before the sun dropped out of the clouds. With just a few minutes until it disappeared behind the mountains, everyone scrambled out of the Sprinter (the 16-passenger Mercedes van that would be our chariot for the next 10 days) and set up. The sunstar window opened and closed quickly, but it was followed by a show of color and light that turned out to be a harbinger of upcoming good fortune.

I haven’t processed those images yet, so I’m sharing this one from the previous sunset, when I photographed a sunstar from the same location. (Honestly, the group got a much better sunset than this one.)

Why winter?

Ever since Don and I scheduled this workshop, I’ve had to answer the “Why winter?” question. Most photographers get it—not only does the lower sun angle make the light better, the mountains are covered with snow, and I’ve always felt that winter weather makes great skies. And a New Zealand South Island winter isn’t much different from the kinds of winters we get in Northern California and Oregon. During the four weeks we were in New Zealand, we dealt with lows in the 20s and 30s, and highs in the 40s and 50s—cold, but unlike the summer heat most of you endured while I was in New Zealand, nothing that couldn’t be easily handled with the right clothing.

Over the next few weeks I hope to share enough New Zealand winter images that I hope will further prove my point. Until then, below you’ll find a collection of winter images, from a variety of locations, for a little vicarious cooling on a hot summer day.

New Zealand 2019

A Winter Gallery

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

 

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