Posted on September 25, 2022
So what’s happening here? (I thought you’d never ask.)
The orange glow at the bottom of this frame is light from 1,800° F lava bubbling in Halemaʻumaʻu Crater atop Hawaii’s Kilauea, the world’s most active volcano. It’s also a beautiful example of the final act of our planet’s auto-recycling process.
Propelled by the mantle’s inexorable convection engine, Earth’s tectonic plates endlessly jostle about, sometimes sliding past each other, often colliding. When the lighter of the colliding plates is pushed upward, mountains form. While this is happening, the denser plate is forced downward, beneath the uplifting plate, a process called subduction. As the downward force persists, the subjected crust continues downward into the mantle, where intense heat melts the rock until it’s absorbed into the mantle.
Around the globe subduction is constantly, albeit very slowly (on the human scale), adding new material to the mantle. To make room for this new material, magma somewhere else is forced out at weak points in Earth’s crust and volcanoes are born. Sometimes these volcanoes push up above the land in front of the subducting plate—that’s what’s happening in the Cascade Range of the the Pacific Northwest.
A hot spot can also form in the middle of a tectonic plate. For the last 40 million years the Pacific Plate has drifted slowly northwest above a hot spot, leaving a string of 80 or so volcanoes in its wake. Most of these have since eroded away, or never made it to the surface at all. The Hawaiian Islands as the youngest in this island chain, haven’t had time to erode into their eventual oblivion. The Big Island of Hawaii is the youngest of the islands, and the only one still volcanically active, though it’s believed that Maui isn’t completely finished.
Another island, Kamaehuakanaloa Seamount, is building up south of Hawaii and should make its appearance sometime in the next 100,000 years (could be much sooner). But until that happens, we get to enjoy Kilauea—and eventually (inevitably) Mauna Loa (last eruption, 1984), Hualalai (last eruption, 1801), and maybe even Kohala (last eruption, 120,000 years ago) and Mauna Kea (last eruption 4 million years ago) could come back to life.
The vertical white band above the crater represents world building on an entirely different scale. You no doubt recognize it as light cast by billions of stars at the center of our Milky Way galaxy. So dense and distant are the stars in the Milky Way’s core, their individual points are lost to the surrounding glow. The dark patches partially obscuring the Milky Way core’s glow are large swaths of interstellar gas and dust, the leftovers of stellar explosions—and the stuff of future stars. Completing the scene are pinpoint stars in our own neighborhood of the Milky Way, stars close enough that we see them as discrete points of light that humans imagine into mythical shapes: the constellations.
The Milky Way galaxy is home to every single star we see when we look up at night, and 300 billion (-ish) more we can’t see—that’s nearly 50 stars for every man, woman, and child on Earth in our galaxy alone. And recent estimates put the total number of galaxies in the Universe at 2 trillion—a number too large to comprehend.
Our Sun, the central cog in the Solar System, is an insignificant outpost in the Milky Way suburbs. It resides in a spiral arm, a little more than halfway between the urban congestion at the galaxy’s core and the empty wilderness of open space.
Everything we see is made possible by light—light created by the object itself (like the stars and lava), or created elsewhere and reflected (like the planets, or Halemaʻumaʻu’s walls). Light travels incredibly fast, fast enough that it can span even the two most distant points on Earth faster than humans can perceive, fast enough that we consider its arrival from any terrestrial origin instantaneous. But distances in space are so great that we don’t measure them in terrestrial units of distance like miles or kilometers. Instead, we measure interstellar distance by the time it takes a photon of light to travel between two objects: one light-year is the distance light travels in one year—nearly 5.9 trillion miles.
The ramifications of cosmic distances are mind-bending. While the caldera’s proximity makes its glow about as “right now” as anything in our Universe can be—for all intents and purposes, the caldera and its viewers are sharing the same instant in time. On the other hand, the light from the stars above the caldera is tens, hundreds, or thousands of years old—it’s new to me, but to the stars it’s old history.
Imagine Proxima d, a planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, a mere four light-years distant and the star closest to our solar system. If we had a telescope with enough resolving power to see all the way down to Proxima d’s surface, we’d be watching what was happening there four years ago. Likewise, if someone on Proxima d today (2022) were peering at us, they’d be viewing a pre-Covid world and learn that Dunkin’ Donuts was dropping “Donuts” from their name (how did I miss that?). Halemaʻumaʻu Crater, which paused its activity in August 2018, would be black. (Anything you regret doing in the last 4 years? Take heart in the knowledge that everywhere in the Universe outside our Solar System, it hasn’t happened yet.)
So what’s the point of all this mind bending? Perspective, I guess. To me, the best landscape images don’t just tip the “that’s beautiful” scale, they also activate deeper insights into our relationship with the natural world. And few things do that better for me than combining, in one frame, light that’s 25,000 years old with light caused by the formation of Earth’s newest rock.
About this image
In 2018, after years of reliable activity, Halemaʻumaʻu Crater went out in a blaze of glory. This renewed vigor included fountaining lava, daily earthquakes, and the complete collapse of the crater as I’d known it.
Even more impactful, lava draining from the summit flowed into the Pacific to create nearly 900 acres of brand new land, on the way overrunning nearly 14 square miles of land and destroying more than 500 homes. The spectacle ended in August, one month before that year’s Big Island workshop.
Kilauea’s current eruption started in September 2021, just two weeks after that year’s workshop ended. Between sporadic eruptions and Covid, I haven’t been able to enjoy one of my favorite sights, the Milky Way above an active Kilauea, since 2017. Needless to say, in the weeks leading up to this year’s trip I kept my fingers crossed that Kilauea would keep going. It didn’t disappoint.
Given the caldera’s collapse and the new eruption, I knew things on Kilauea were completely different from any previous visit. So on my first evening back on the Big Island (I always fly in 3 days before the workshop to check all my locations), I made the 40 minute drive up from Hilo to get my eyes on it.
At the vista that once housed the now closed Jagger Volcano Museum, and that used to be the primary place to view the eruption, I started chatting with a photographer who was set up with a long telephoto, waiting for the full moon to rise. It turned out that she volunteers at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and does a lot of photography for the park. She very generously provided me with great information that saved me a lot of scouting time, including the best places to view the new eruption, and how to avoid the crowds I’d heard so much about.
Based on her input, after sunset I parked at the Kilauea Visitor Center and took a 1/2 mile walk along the Crater Rim Trail to the point where my new friend had promised the lava would be visible. I chose this spot over the closer view that most people seemed to prefer for a couple of reasons: fewer people (and easier parking), it would be an easier walk for my group (you can only go as far, or as fast, as the slowest person), and (especially) because I thought it would align better with the Milky Way.
To say that I was thrilled with the new view would be an understatement. Though clouds obscured the Milky Way that evening, I was pretty confident the alignment would be fine—not the perfect alignment I got from the spot I’d always used before, but definitely close enough that it would be no problem getting the eruption and Milky Way in the same frame.
The thing that excited me most was that I could actually see the lava. In my 12 years visiting Kilauea, I’ve only been able to see lava at the summit once (check the gallery below)—in the other visits we could clearly see the lava’s beautiful orange glow, but the lava lake was too low to be visible from the rim. But now not only was the lava visible, the perspective was close enough to actually see it bubbling and splattering on the lake’s surface. I hadn’t brought my camera, but I took a quick snap with my iPhone, then walked back to the car in the dark, pretty stoked by what I’d be able to share with my group.
I returned to the volcano the next night to check out more locations, especially interested in my old viewing spot. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I could still see the glow at least as well as I could with the earlier eruption, and that it still aligned perfectly with the Milky Way.
I took my workshop group up to Kilauea on our second night—since it’s a real highlight, I like to do the volcano early in the workshop so we can come back if clouds shut us out. After a few other stops waiting for darkness, we started the short (and easy) hike out to the new lava viewing sight shortly after sunset.
Fog hovering over the caldera obscured the sky at the vista, but no one cared because for most (all?), it was the first time they’d seen lava. Without stars, this was a total telephoto shot—since everyone in the group was shooting mirrorless, we could all magnify our viewfinder and get an up-close, live look at the bubbling lava. It appeared to be bursting from a vent near the caldera wall, like a massive waterfall springing from a mountainside. In addition to the constant rolling and popping on the lake’s surface, every minute or so we could see a much bigger explosion that sent lava careening about the crater—pretty cool for all of us.
I spent most of my time working with people in the group and didn’t photograph too much. Eventually I did manage a few telephoto frames and was pretty happy with how things were going in general—not so much for my images, but mostly because everyone seemed as excited as I’d hoped they’d be.
About the time I was thinking of heading over to my other spot, the fog suddenly thinned and the Milky Way appeared. Everyone immediately switched to wide angle lenses and started working on completely different images. For the next 20 minutes or so we alternated between clicking and waiting as the fog came and went. Again I spent much of that time working with my group, but I managed to get in a few Milky Way frames, including this one.
I’ve got my Milky Way exposure down, and focus for this image was actually easier than most Milky Way scenes because of the brightness in the caldera. Since the Milky Way requires an exposure too long to freeze most motion, all detail in the lava was lost, but I still think it’s pretty cool to know what that glow really is. (Full disclosure: I used Photoshop’s Content Aware Fill tool to fill in a tiny blown-out white patch where the hottest lava was too bright for my night exposure.) The biggest problem I had to deal with is the guy standing next to me (not in my group), who insisted on using a red light (great for telescope or naked eye view, but absolutely the worst light source for night photography). So I had to time my clicks for the times he turned it off, then hope he kept if off until my exposure complete.
Eventually the clouds thickened and showed no sign of leaving. Since everyone was pretty happy with what they had, we packed up and headed back. But it turns out we weren’t done, because by the time we made it backto the cars, the stars were back out—so I took everyone over to my other view. There was no fog at this spot and the Milky Way remained out the entire time we were there. We had another great shoot, despite a crazy wind that hadn’t bothered us at all at our first spot. But that’s a story for another day…
Click any image to scroll through the gallery LARGE
Posted on June 19, 2022
Last night I completed a 30-hour odyssey that started in Sacramento, included stops in San Francisco, Fiji, and Aukland, before finally reaching its merciful conclusion in Queenstown, New Zealand (one car, one taxi, one bus, three airplanes, and lots of airport walking throughout). So forgive me if I’m not in shape (or in the mood) for writing a new blog. Instead, in honor of Father’s Day, I’m sharing this blog post from a couple of years ago honoring my father. I did, however, muster the energy to write few paragraphs about this image taken on the first night of last month’s Grand Canyon raft trip, which I have added at the bottom of this post, just above the gallery.
Had we not lost him 18 years ago, my dad would be turning 92 next month. He was a such a vibrant, healthy person, both mentally and physically, that I have no doubt he’d still be going strong if Alzheimer’s hadn’t taken him. I have always been grateful for Dad’s love, gentle discipline, wisdom, advice, and laughs (can’t forget the laughs), but it takes being a parent to fully appreciate our own parents’ love, and their influence on the adults we become.
Dad was a United Methodist minister who literally practiced what he preached. Just one example: In 1965, when Martin Luther King issued a plea for clergy to join him on his voting rights march to Montgomery, Dad borrowed money and flew across the country to join Dr. King in Selma, Alabama (where he was on national TV getting arrested with hundreds of other marchers).
His was an inclusive, Jesus-centric theology that honored all religions and people. He’d do things like open his pulpit to the local rabbi on Sunday morning, then reciprocate the following Saturday with a sermon of his own at the synagogue. Dad welcomed everyone into his churches, and became an outspoken advocate for LGBT rights long before it reached the mainstream. He frequently provided odd-jobs around the church to people who were down on their luck, and I lost track of the number of homeless people, including families with young children, we housed while they tried to get back on their feet.
In addition to the values he instilled, so many of the things that define my personality are directly attributable to my dad’s influence. My positive spirit, sense of humor, and love for sports were absolutely modeled by Dad. And when asked how I became a photographer, the instant answer has always been that my dad was a serious amateur photographer whose 80-hour work week offered too little time to pursue his passion, so he made up for lost time on our summer family vacations. So frequent were our photo stops, I grew up believing that a camera was just a standard outdoor accessory.
But I think his influence on my photography goes deeper than that. More than simply modeling camera use, Dad instilled in me his appreciation of nature’s beauty, and his longing for its soothing qualities. I realize now, because I see it in myself, that it’s not simply photography that dad loved, he was motivated by an insatiable desire to record and share the people and places he loved.
On a minister’s budget, our family summer vacations were, without exception, camping trips—always tent-camping, though in the later years we splurged on a used, very basic tent trailer (no kitchen, bathroom, or any of the other luxuries available in today’s tent trailers). These vacations usually took advantage of the mountain scenery within a few hours of our California home (we were just as close to the ocean, but our vacations were almost always in the mountains), but a few times our family (Dad, Mom, my two younger brothers, and I) hit the road for a much longer camping trip. Some of my most significant childhood memories came on the full month we camped all the way across the United States and back, and a multi-week camping adventure into and around the Canadian Rockies.
Of our more frequently visited destinations, Yosemite was the clear favorite. Marveling at the Firefall from Camp Curry and Glacier Point, waiting in lawn chairs with hundreds of fellow tourists at the Yosemite garbage dump for the bears to arrive for their evening meal (really), rising in the dark for a Dad and Gary (only) fishing expedition to Tuolumne Meadows, family hikes up the Mist Trail to Vernal and Nevada Falls, are just a few of the memories that I realize in hindsight formed the bedrock of my Yosemite connection.
My favorite Dad photography story happened when I was about ten. It involves an electrical storm atop Sentinel Dome, and his desire to photograph a lightning bolt, a desire so great that it trumped common sense. As his ignorant but trusting assistant, to keep his camera dry I stretched high to extend an umbrella above Dad’s head. (In his defense, as Californians, the novelty of lightning obscured a full comprehension of its dangers.) We didn’t get the lightning, and more importantly, it didn’t get us. But that’s not the end of the story.
After risking our lives on Sentinel Dome, the family ended up at Glacier Point, just down the road. Dad had returned to tourist mode as we browsed the shop at Glacier Point Lodge, no doubt seeking souvenirs that would fit our meager budget. But when a vivid rainbow appeared out of nowhere to arc across the face of Half Dome, Dad was ready with his camera still draped around his neck. Watching Dad’s excitement, better than any souvenir, this felt as if God was giving him a much deserved, “I got your back.”
I love you, Dad.
About this image
Another life-long interest I can thank my dad for is my love for astronomy. Even though Dad’s interest in astronomy was little more than an enthusiastic marveling at the stars we saw on our summer camping trips, as soon as he sensed my attraction to the night sky, he went to work figuring out how to get me a telescope. Limited, as always, by his minister’s salary, he somehow negotiated with a fellow Kiwanis member and serious amateur photographer the gift of a no longer used 6-inch reflector telescope that was far better than anything I could have hoped for. (I was especially proud to discover this photographer’s name in the photo credit for a nebula image in one of my astronomy books.)
Today I trace my lifetime fascination with the night sky all the way back to this simple act of support from my father, a fascination that manifests today in a love for photographing the stars above my favorite landscapes. It’s why so many of my workshops attempt to account for the night photography opportunities, including my annual Grand Canyon raft trip, which I always schedule a moonless week in May.
Because in May a view of the brilliant core of the Milky Way requires a good view toward the southern horizon, and the Grand Canyon trends mostly east-west, and campsites are first-come, first-served, it’s not necessarily a sure thing. Other important factors are an open view of the river for a foreground, and raft parking upstream from our river view.
In the eight years I’ve done this trip, I’ve identified several target campsites, and on the first night of this year’s trip we found at a new camp that instantly became one of my favorites. The problem here was the only place to put the rafts was right in front of the view, so as soon as we had the rafts unloaded I went exploring and found a great little beach a couple of hundred yards downstream.
The problem was that getting here required a little boulder scrambling that was doable for most in broad daylight, but not an option in the utter darkness of a Grand Canyon night. But just past the boulder field I found a spot with enough room for campsites and a straight, easy walk down to the river. So I advised the group that anyone interested the best night photography should lug their gear up the hill and over the boulders now.
At least six others took my advice. Relying on my aging body’s inability to sleep through the night, I didn’t bother setting an alarm and woke up naturally (always the best way) around 2 a.m., just as the Milky Way’s core was slipping over the canyon wall. I found two or three already shooting away at the river, and during the hour or so I was down there we were joined by several others.
Most of us started at the most easily accessed spot right on the river, but after a while I moved a few dozen yards downstream to see what the view was like there. After negotiating a few boulders, I found myself on a flat sandstone platform just a couple of feet above the river, with what I thought was an even better view. I let everyone know my discovery and was soon joined by two or three more adventurous souls. A great start to a great trip.
One more thing
I’m sure my dad had no idea at the time the significance his simple act of support would have on the rest of my life. Just something that I hope all parents, or prospective parents, keep in mind.
Posted on July 5, 2021
Last week I posted a Milky Way reflection image (and the story of its capture) from my recent Grand Canyon raft trip, and this week I’m sharing another one from the same night. What I didn’t share last week is the rather circuitous (and somewhat embarrassing) path to offering my images from that night. So here goes…
There’s a certain mystique that comes with being a professional photographer that I must say isn’t always completely deserved. I mean, sometimes it feels we’re viewed as creative savants who never make mistakes, when in reality we struggle to make things happen just like everyone else. Like you, I’ve checked my EXIF data and wondered what in the world I was thinking when I chose f/16 or ISO 800 (or whatever), left a shoot just a little early or arrived a little late, decided not to bring (or simply forgotten to pack) the right lens, not charged a battery (or brought a spare), clumsily dropped a valuable piece of precision electronics, deleted important images, or…, well, let’s just say I could go on.
Case in point: As I’ve said as recently as last week, the Milky Way may just be my favorite thing to photography on my Grand Canyon raft trip. So important in fact, that I always spend a significant amount of the trip’s precious (and strictly enforced) equipment-weight budget on a camera body and lens that will be used for nothing but the Milky Way. But one year unseasonal rain and clouds that provided spectacular photography also unfortunately completely wiped out the trip’s night shoots. Which is why I didn’t discover until returning home that instead of packing the 20mm f/1.4 dedicated night lens (at the time), I’d packed my 90mm macro (which was a similar size but didn’t really look anything like the 20mm).
In my defense, I try not to make the same mistake twice, and every subsequent trip I’ve double- and triple-checked my gear to make sure I have everything I’ll need. This year’s night setup was my brand new Sony a7SIII and relatively new Sony 20mm f/1.8 G lens, and I’m happy to report that both made it onboard and downstream, and were ready for action when we scored a prime Milky Way campsite on the trip’s third night. In fact, I managed to navigate the entire shoot that night with the right camera and lens, proper camera settings, everything in focus, plenty of space on the SD card, and without dropping a single thing. What could possibly go wrong?
The next day I was pretty excited about what I’d captured, and couldn’t wait to get home and look the images on my computer. That afternoon was hot, and we arrived at our campsite early. With the sun still quite high as we prepared to motor across the river for some quality photography, swimming, and hiking at Deer Creek Fall, out of an abundance of caution, I removed from my duffle the small case containing my a7SIII and 20mm, carefully setting it in the cool shade of a nearby rock. Do you see where this is going?
Like most mornings, the next morning was a blur of activity as we ate breakfast, packed up our campsite, and hit the river. At Havasu Creek, about 30 miles downstream, I had the sudden realization that I had no memory of returning the camera and lens to my duffle, a thought that I quickly attributed to what I call the “garage door axiom”: just because you don’t remember doing something, doesn’t mean you didn’t do it (how many times have you not remembered closing the garage door and u-turned home only to find it closed tight?). Which is why I wasn’t really that concerned at camp that night, but I figured I’d better check my duffle anyway, just in case.
I was instantly reminded that no matter how many times you check a spot for something that you know should be there but isn’t, doesn’t make it appear. My panic eventually turned to embarrassment as my mind processed the ramifications. Not only were my camera and lens gone, so were the SD cards containing the only copies of the previous night’s bounty. The Colorado River is a one-way juggernaut, so going back was not an option. And with no connectivity at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, there would be no getting the word out until we returned to civilization.
I tried consoling myself with the knowledge that the camera and lens were insured, but the rationalization the Milky Way images were the only irreplaceable loss was little comfort. And that certainly didn’t make me feel any less stupid. It gets worse…
The first thing I did upon returning to the land of connectivity was report the loss to Trent at Western River Expeditions, the director of operations who puts together my charter each year. The second thing I did was gather the information necessary to file an insurance claim. So imagine my surprise when I realized that I’d somehow forgotten to add my new a7SIII to my insurance policy. Oops.
At first Trent was hopeful that some Good Samaritan would find my gear and do the right thing, but when two weeks passed with no word, my faith in humankind started to wane. But just about the time I’d given up all hope, I got a text from Trent saying that someone had just exited the canyon and posted online that he’d found a camera across from Deer Creek Fall and was trying to find the rightful owner. The next few days were a blur of online searching, messaging, effusive gratitude, shipping, tracking, and finally more effusive gratitude when I actually had my camera, lens, and SD cards in my possession.
I don’t know if there’s a real moral to this story, other than it’s nice to be reminded that humans are generally good and most people will do the right thing when the opportunity presents itself. That, and I’m a pretty lucky guy.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on June 13, 2021
It’s a Saturday afternoon (Sunday evening by the time you read this) and I’m working on less than 4 hours sleep. I’m not complaining, but before I pass out, I want to share the story of my latest shoot, and the reason I’m so sleep deprived.
If you follow my blog, you might know that in April Don Smith and I got an unexpected opportunity to preview Sony’s brand new 14mm f/1.8 GM lens in Oregon, before its announcement a week or so later. (Read more here.) But that experience was just a tease, because just as I started to fully appreciate the new lens’s potential for night photography (and other stuff, but I’m especially excited by night photography), we had to send it back.
When I finally got my own copy of the lens early this month, I couldn’t wait to try it out on the Milky Way (which wasn’t possible in Oregon because of the direction the Bandon views faced, and a waning moon). June is primetime for Milky Way photography because the brilliant galactic core is up all night—all you need is a dark sky far from city lights, and without the moon.
With a waxing moon invading the sky starting this week, the June dark sky window was quickly closing when I accepted an invitation to join a couple of photographer friends on their night photography trip to Joshua Tree NP this weekend. Then, just two days before we were supposed to leave, my friends decided to go to Denmark instead (a likely story—who else remembers the “Friends” episode where Chandler ditched Janice by telling her he was going to Yemen? Oh. My. God.), leaving me to fend for myself.
I could have stuck with the Joshua Tree plan, but a solo, 16+ hour roundtrip to spend a couple of nights photographing a spot I don’t really know didn’t sound like the best use of my time. Instead, I decided to recruit my brother Jay for a quick trip to more familiar environs.
Yosemite Valley’s towering walls and east/west orientation make it less than ideal for Milky Way photography. And while Yosemite’s high country has potential, accessibility (no roads, backcountry permit requirements) make it next to impossible for a last-minute trip. But…, at 8000 feet, Olmsted Point certainly qualifies as Yosemite high country. And because it’s right on Tioga Road (Highway 120), no backcountry permit is required. There’s still the problem of this summer’s COVID-induced Yosemite reservation system, but photo workshop permit gives me an exemption from (I do still have to get approval first).
Another nice thing about Olmsted Point is that it offers a view of Half Dome that’s quite a bit different than what we’re used to seeing from Yosemite Valley. While the Yosemite Valley views of Half Dome face east, from Olmsted Point Half Dome rises in the southwest, at the end of Tenaya Canyon.
Jay and I pulled into the Olmsted Point parking area at about 8:30 Friday night. The sun had just set, but we still had at least an hour until the sky darkened enough for the Milky Way to appear. With time to kill, after bundling into my cold weather clothes and organizing my gear, I twisted my Sony 100-400 onto my Sony a7RIV and scaled a nearby granite ridge to photograph the thin sliver of new moon disappearing in the west. An impromptu bonus that set the tone for the night.
We made the 5-minute walk out to Olmsted Point’s granite dome at around 9 p.m. I’ve been up here more times than I can count, so even in the dwindling light I was able to quickly identify the scene I wanted to start with, set up my camera (Sony a7SIII and Sony 14mm f/1.8 GM), and frame up a composition. Then I just kicked back on the granite and watched the stars pop out.
Viewed from the Northern Hemisphere, in June the Milky Way’s core rises nearly horizontal in the southeast sky shortly after sunset. As our planetary viewing platform rotates, the glowing core appears to pivot on an unseen point below the south-southwest horizon, moving up and southward (to the right) until it stands vertical in the southwest. The northern hemisphere nights are so short in June that the Milky Way fades from view before setting.
By 9:30 we could see the Milky Way peeking just above the granite ridge that leads to Clouds Rest. It was well east of Half Dome, so for these early frames I was very thankful to have a 14mm lens that allowed me to include the Milky Way in the same frame as Half Dome. I spent those early moments tweaking my exposure, refining my composition, and verifying that my focus was good.
Once I’d gotten everything just as I wanted it, I told myself that there was no reason to rush because with each passing minute, the Milky Way was a little higher in the sky and closer to Half Dome—that meant every click I took would be just a little better than the one preceding it. So after the initial exhilaration passed, I just sat on a nearby rock and appreciated the view. Few things are more humbling than reclining beneath a dark sky on a still night (especially when you’re sufficiently bundled against the high elevation chill).
We stayed until nearly 1:00 a.m. As I photographed (and gazed), I kept mentally pushing back our planned departure time, mentally subtracting hours of sleep by rationalizing that sometimes sleep is overrated. This was definitely one of those times.
A few words about my night photography
All of the night scenes you see on my website, in my blog, or anywhere else my images appear, were captured with one click. I don’t blend, composite, or in any other way combine multiple captures to create a single image. I’m not saying I think there’s anything wrong with blending images (there isn’t)—I just don’t get any pleasure from that kind of photography. So, while my night images may not look as dazzling as some of the other (truly beautiful) night composites being created today, you can at least be confident that you’re looking only at the photons that struck my sensor in one contiguous span of time.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on April 25, 2021
Last week I got to preview the brand new, and top secret (at the time) Sony 14mm f/1.8 GM lens. I really didn’t have time for this, but this was the lens I’ve been praying for pretty much my entire photography life and I just couldn’t say no. This isn’t so much a review as it is a summary of my experience using it, and my first impressions.
It was a Monday morning (April 12) and Don Smith, his wife Beri, and I were on the road to Bandon, Oregon when the call from Sony came in. It went something like this:
Sony: Would you be willing to try out the new Sony 14mm f/1.8 GM lens.
Don and Gary: Duh—uh, sure!
Sony: We’d need 10 images each, including 2 night images apiece, by Sunday.
Don and Gary: We have a workshop starting tomorrow, but we’ll figure it out.
Sony: Oh, this lens is a secret, so nobody can see you using it.
Don and Gary: Oh, wow—okay, we’ll be careful.
Sony: And one more thing. There’s only one lens, so you guys will need to share.
Don and Gary: (Eyeing each other suspiciously) Uh, sure…
The lens was overnighted arrived the next day, just as the workshop started. By then Don and I had agreed to a sharing plan that would give each of us equal opportunity to use the lens without affecting the workshop, and had even come up with an answer in the (we hoped) unlikely event that anyone asked what lens we were using. (I only had to lie once.)
I checked the moon schedule and determined that the only two nights that week suitable for night photography were our first two with the lens, which were our only two remaining nights in Bandon. Fortunately, with late sunsets and early sunrises, we had no group night shoots planned), so the only cost was sleep.
Don got it the first night, but I went out with him to scout for potential compositions and get up to speed on my as yet unused (thank-you-very-much, COVID) Sony a7SIII. The next night was my night—I went out solo and I had the entire beach to myself.
The first thing to strike me about this lens was its compactness, which just blew me away. How can a lens so wide, and so fast, be so small and light? But it also felt quite solid in my hand, which I took as a good sign. It has an aperture control ring on the lens (with a toggle to choose between click or “unclick”), but I especially appreciated the aperture ring’s “A” position, which allows me to set my aperture with the camera’s aperture control dial as I do with all my other lenses. (Since I will use this lens a lot at night and need to do everything by memory and feel, the more I can control my settings without doing something different, the better.)
I have loved, loved, loved night photography with the first two Sony a7Sx series bodies, but, despite having the a7SIII since last summer, this was the first time I’ve been able to use it. All I can say is that it only took a couple of minutes to know that the a7SIII and 14mm GM are a match made in heaven. Not only does the a7SIII give me clean files at 12800 ISO, when paired with a fast lens like the 14mm GM, even with nothing but starlight, I can compose and focus (without guessing) in seconds. But the thing that excited me most this night was the amount of sky I could capture at 14mm—until now my night lenses have always been the (wonderful) Sony 24mm f/1.4 GM and Sony 20mm f/1.8 G, but
Turns out I’d underestimated the breadth of the 14mm lens’s field of view and my ability to deal with the thin, 6% crescent moon hovering near the western horizon. The amount of light necessary to bring out the stars and beach detail also rendered the much brighter moon a large white blob, meaning that many of the compositions I’d planned were simply not doable without being photobombed by the moon. So I spent most of my time on the south end of the beach, concentrating my compositions on Wizard’s Hat. Bandon’s other iconic sea stacks would need to wait for a future visit.
The tide was out, which allowed me to get pretty close to Wizard’s Hat and its neighbors. That was a good thing, because with a 14mm lens, close is essential, the closer the better. It was also a bad thing, because at the beach, the closer the wetter. Fortunately, the long, nearly flat beach meant no rogue waves crashing atop me without warn, it just meant that when a big wave did crash a couple of hundred feet out, it washed up and over my quickly saturated boots and socks. It wasn’t long before I just resigned myself to wet feet if I wanted to include Wizard’s Hat and the spectacular reflection in the sheen left by receding waves.
After my first few frames I magnified the image in my viewfinder and scrutinized the stars and sea stacks. I checked the sea stacks for focus softness and found none—wow, is focus easy with the a7SIII and a fast lens! I also checked for noise all the way up to ISO 12800 and saw nothing that I knew wouldn’t be cleaned up easily by Topaz DeNoise AI. In the stars I looked for distortion, especially in the corners. I did the entire shoot at f/1.8 to really put it to the test and was blown away by the complete lack of distortion throughout the frame. With each close look confirming what I’d seen in the previous checks, I soon stopped checking and just concentrated on taking pictures.
I love the night sky, and am thrilled that recent technology has allowed me to photograph it so easily. But I always found myself longing for a wider field of view to get as many stars as possible, especially in New Zealand where the Milky Way is so high in the June sky, or at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, where I find myself always wanting to include more sky and foreground. I know the Sony 12-24 f/2.8 lens will give me the breadth I long for, but f/2.8, while fast enough in a pinch, isn’t as fast as I’d like (especially in the near total darkness at the bottom of the Grand Canyon). And a fast lens that requires me to stop down a stop or two to maximize image quality doesn’t really provide much of an advantage. Until now I’ve had to work around these compromises. There are other lenses as fast as, or even a little faster, but the Sony 14mm GM’s combination of breadth, speed, and compactness sets it apart. Factor in the the distortionless corner-to-corner sharpness I saw, and I think I’m ready to declare the Sony 14mm f/1.4 GM my perfect night lens.
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Posted on December 14, 2017
I won’t pretend that this picture is a creative achievement of any sort—I captured it at a Sony-organized night shoot during last month’s Sedona media event promoting the Sony a7RIII. All I did was attach my a7RIII to someone else’s telescope (equipped with a computerized tracking mechanism to cancel the earth’s rotation), dial in the recommended exposure settings, focus, and click my shutter. But that does’t change the fact that I think this is one of my coolest images ever. It truly epitomizes the reason I say my favorite thing about photography isn’t the way it reproduces my reality, it’s the way enhances it.
I’ve been interested in astronomy since I was a kid, and one of the first celestial objects to intrigue me was the Andromeda Galaxy. (At the risk of stating the obvious, it’s called Andromeda because we view it in the constellation Andromeda.) Armed with this knowledge and a simple star chart, on camping trips I’d shun the tent to sleep beneath the stars, hoping to get a glimpse of the Andromeda Galaxy but not knowing exactly what I was looking for. I know now that even under in the darkest, clearest sky, I’d have only seen the this massive collection of stars as an unimpressive smudge. But my failure to find my target didn’t dampen my enthusiasm—the search was as much an excuse to take in the entire night sky and ponder its mysteries.
When I wasn’t observing, I was reading. I learned that Andromeda Galaxy is the largest galaxy in the “Local Group” of more than 50 gravitationally connected galaxies that also includes our Milky Way. Both the Milky Way and Andromeda are spiral galaxies, but with a trillion stars, Andromeda is at least twice the size of the Milky Way. Andromeda is also on a collision course with the Milky Way—put on your helmets and mark your calendar for 4.5 billion years.
The light that struck my sensor to render this image traveled more than 2.5 million years, making the Andromeda Galaxy the farthest we can see with the naked eye—that’s about 150,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles, so fill up before you leave. Because everything we know about the Andromeda Galaxy happened 2.5 million years ago, we’ll need to wait another 2.5 million years to know what’s happening there right now. But while Andromeda is indeed far, far away from our earthbound perspective, it’s actually the closest galaxy to us (Magellanic Clouds notwithstanding). There are a couple trillion or so galaxies even farther away.
Knowing all this stuff made my search for the Andromeda Galaxy quite thrilling. In recent years I’ve actually captured it in a few frames targeting something else, clearly visible but not particularly impressive. But the Sedona experience took my thrill to the next level. Leveraging the telescope’s supreme magnification and light gathering capabilities, I let my sensor collect light for 20 seconds at ISO 8000, long enough for the galaxy’s spiral arms start to appear. Also popping into view are two fuzzy objects that I’d only seen in pictures—these are satellite galaxies bound by gravity to the Andromeda Galaxy, much like the Magellanic Clouds that grace our Southern Hemisphere sky. All the pinpoint stars in the image are part of the Milky Way—much closer and unrelated to the Andromeda Galaxy, just in the line of sight (much the way sensor dust or a lens smudge is not part of a scene you photograph).
This image has rekindled my passion for astronomy. It reminds me of my very small place in a universe that’s too large for even the greatest minds to comprehend. Because there’s a lifetime worth of cool stuff to view up there and time’s wasting, I’m seriously considering getting a telescope and letting my camera show me what I’ve been missing. Stay tuned….
(No, not me)
Since I just switched to the Sony a7RIII, my a7RII has been relegated to backup status. As excited as I am about my new camera, I’m already a bit nostalgic about my a7RII, the best camera I’ve ever owned, as well as my favorite camera ever to shoot with (not necessarily the same thing).
I made the switch to Sony mirrorless more than three years ago, starting with the a7R. The image quality of the a7R was so much better than what I had been shooting that I was able to forgive its interface and usability shortcomings. The a7RII was a huge improvement over the a7R, both in image quality and usability, so much better that it soon felt more like an extra limb with a direct connection to my brain than an inanimate tool. It’s clear already that I’ll soon love using the a7RIII even more, but right now I just want to give a shout-out to my a7RII as it enters semi-retirement.
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Posted on November 28, 2017
Night photography always requires some level of compromise: extra equipment, ISOs a little too noisy, shutter speeds a little too long, f-stops a little too soft. For years the quality threshold beyond which I wouldn’t cross came far too early and I’d often find myself having to decide between an image that was too dark and noisy, or simply not shooting at all.
Because the almost total darkness of night photography requires a fast lens, the faster the better, one of the first compromises night photography forced on me was adding a night-only lens—a prime lens that was both ultra-fast and wide. Ultra-fast to maximize light capture, wide enough to give me lots of sky and to reduce the star streaking that occurs with the long shutter speeds night photography requires (the wider the focal length, the less visible any motion in the frame).
I started doing night photography as a Canon shooter, so my first night lens was a Canon-mount Zeiss 28mm f/2.0—it did the job but wasn’t quite as fast or wide as I’d have liked. After switching to Sony I added a Sony-mount Rokinon 24mm f/1.4—I loved shooting at f/1.4, and 24mm was a definite improvement over 28mm, but I still found myself wishing for something wider. And the Rokinon had other shortcomings as well: because the camera doesn’t even know the lens is mounted (f-stop set on the lens, not in the camera), I always had to guess the f-stop I used to capture an image. Worse than that, at f/1.4 the Rokinon had pretty significant comatic aberration that made my stars look like little comets.
Since switching to Sony, one compromise I’ve happily made is carrying an extra body that’s dedicated to night photography. Because the Sony a7S and (later) a7SII are just ridiculously good at high ISO, I was able to compensate for the Rokinon’s distortion by stopping down to f/2 or f/2.8 at a higher ISO. The a7SII is worth the extra weight, but I’ve longed for the day when I could replace the Rokinon lens with something wider, and something that had a better relationship with my camera.
That day came earlier this year, when Sony released the 16-35 f/2.8 GM lens. I got to sample this lens before it was released and was surprised by its compactness despite being so wide and fast—it wasn’t long before the 16-35 f/2.8 GM occupied a full-time spot in my camera bag. And in the back of my mind I couldn’t help thinking that the 16-35 GM might just work as a night lens.
I don’t have the time or temperament to be a pixel-peeper, but I had a sense that this lens was pretty sharp wide open, and few things reveal comatic aberration more than stars. I finally got my chance to test the 16-35 GM lens at night on the Hawaii Big Island workshop in September. When this year’s Milky Way images revealed that the 16-35 GM is sharp and pretty much aberration free at f/2.8, I couldn’t have been happier.
As with every night shoot, this night at the caldera I tried a variety of exposure settings to maximize my processing options later. I was pretty pleased to get a clean exposure at 10 seconds (minimal star motion) and f/2.8 (maximum light). While the a7SII doesn’t even breathe hard at the ISO 3200 I used for this image, I know if I were shooting someplace without its own light source (for example, at the Grand Canyon, the bristlecone pine forest, or pretty much any other location lacking an active volcano), I’d probably need to be at ISO 6400 or even 12800 to make a 10 second exposure work. But it’s nice to know that the a7SII and 16-35 f/2.8 GM will do the job even in darkness that extreme.
One more thing
A couple of weeks ago while in Sedona for Sony I got the opportunity to use the new a7RIII. One highlight of that trip was two night shoots with the new camera. I haven’t had a chance to spend any quality time with those images, but I got the sense that its high ISO performance is nearly as good as the a7SII. If that’s true, that will be one less compromise and a lighter camera bag—at least until Sony releases the a7SIII.
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Posted on March 21, 2017
One perk of being a photographer is the opportunity to experience normally crowded locations in relative peace. That’s because the best nature photography usually happens at most people’s least favorite time to be outside: crazy weather and after dark. A couple of weeks ago in Yosemite I got the opportunity to enjoy both.
After spending a snowy Sunday guiding a couple around Yosemite Valley in a snowstorm, I dropped them back at (the hotel formerly known as) The Ahwahnee with nothing but the drive home on my mind. But winding through the valley in the fading twilight I saw signs of clearing skies and made a snap decision to check out the scene at Tunnel View.
I found the vista at Tunnel View gloriously empty. By the time I’d set up my camera and tripod the darkness was nearly complete, but as my eyes adjusted I could make out large, black holes in the once solid clouds overhead. Soon stars dotted the blackness above El Capitan and the white stripe of Bridalveil Fall. Each time light from the waxing gibbous moon slipped through the shifting clouds, the entire landscape lit up as if someone had flipped a switch.
Because the best parts of the view were in a narrow strip starting with the snow-glazed trees beneath me and continuing through the scene and up into the star-studded sky, I opted for a vertical composition. To include as much foreground and sky as possible, I went nearly as wide as my 16-35 lens would allow, more or less centering El Capitan and Bridalveil Fall to give the snow and stars equal billing.
Being completely comfortable with my a7RII’s high ISO performance, I didn’t stress the 1250 ISO that allowed me to stop down to a slightly sharper f/5.6 (virtually every lens is a little sharper stopped down from its largest aperture). Night focus with the Sony a7RII is extremely easy, easier than any camera I’ve ever used that isn’t an a7S/a7SII. Often I manually focus on the stars and use focus peaking* to tell me I’m sharp; in this case I back-button auto-focused on the contrast between the moonlit snow and dark granite near Bridalveil Fall. I chose a long enough shutter speed to capture motion blur in the rapidly moving clouds, knowing the potential for visible star streaking was minimized by my extremely wide focal length.
My favorite thing about that evening? The 20 seconds my shutter was open, when I didn’t have anything to do but stand there and enjoy the view in glorious silence.
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Posted on December 31, 2016
Tonight the calendar clicks over to a new year, ready or not. Most are ready. The general consensus is that 2016 has been a difficult year. Our warming planet lost too many creative souls, and was rubbed raw by contentious elections in every hemisphere. But here we are knocking on the door of 2017.
I’m lucky to have photography and the dose of perspective it provides. Whether it’s a double rainbow above the Grand Canyon, fountains of lava on Kilauea, or a meteor slicing the Milky Way above 4000-year-old trees, our terrestrial problems just seem a little less significant when I’m behind my camera.
As I review 2016’s contributions to my portfolio, I have to admit that the year wasn’t a complete loss. To me these images are so much more than photographs, they’re a reminder that I was there to witness each of these gifts from Nature.
So, without further adieu, here’s a selection of personal highlights from this emotional, transformative, contentious, unforgettable year.
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Happy New Year, everyone. Here’s to a great 2017.
Posted on August 20, 2015
How to offend a photographer
Gallery browser: “Did you take that picture?”
Gallery browser: “Wow, you must have a good camera.”
Few things irritate a photographer more than the implication that it’s the equipment that makes the image, not the photographer. We work very hard honing our craft, have spent years refining our vision, and endure extreme discomfort to get the shot. So while the observer usually means no offense, comments discounting a photographer’s skill and effort are seldom appreciated.
As much as we’d like to believe that our great images are 100 percent photographic skill, artistic vision, and hard work, a good camera sure does allow us to squeeze the most out of our skill, vision, and effort.
As a one-click shooter (no HDR or image blending of any kind), I’m constantly longing for more dynamic range and high ISO capability. So, after hearing raves about Sony sensors for several years, late last year (October 2014) I switched to Sony. My plan was a gradual transition, shooting Sony for some uses and Canon for others, but given the dynamic range and overall image quality I saw from my Sony a7R starting day one, I haven’t touched my Canon bodies since picking up the Sony.
While I don’t think my Sony cameras have made me a better photographer, I do think ten months is long enough to appreciate that I’ve captured images that would have been impossible in my Canon days. I instantly fell in love with the resolution and 2- to 3-stop dynamic range improvement of my Sony a7R (and now the a7R II) over the Canon 5D III, the compactness and extra reach of my 1.5-crop a6000 (with little loss of image quality), and my a7S’s ability to pretty much see in the dark.
But what will Sony do for my night photography?
I need more light
I visit Grand Canyon two or three times each year, and it’s a rare trip that I don’t attempt to photograph its inky dark skies. But when the sun goes down and the stars come out, Grand Canyon’s breathtaking beauty disappears into a deep, black hole. Simply put, I needed more light.
Moonlight was my first Grand Canyon night solution—I’ve enjoyed many nice moonlight shoots here, and will surely enjoy many more. But photographing Grand Canyon by the light of a full moon is a compromise that sacrifices all but the brightest stars to achieve a night scene with enough light to reveal the canyon’s towering spires, receding ridges, and layered red walls.
What about the truly dark skies? For years (with my Canon bodies) the only way to satisfactorily reveal Grand Canyon’s dark depths with one click was to leave my shutter open for 30 minutes or longer. But the cost of a long exposure is the way Earth’s rotation stretches those sparkling pinpoints into parallel arcs.
As with moonlight, I’m sure I’ll continue to enjoy star trail photography. But my ultimate goal was to cut through the opaque stillness of a clear, moonless Grand Canyon night to reveal the contents of the black abyss at my feet, the multitude of stars overhead, and the glowing heart the Milky Way.
So, ever the optimist, on each moonless visit to Grand Canyon, I’d shiver in the dark on the canyon’s rim trying to extract detail from the obscure depths without excessive digital noise or streaking stars. And each time I’d come away disappointed, thinking, I need more light.
The dynamic duo
Early this year, with night photography in mind, I added a 12 megapixel Sony a7S to my bag. Twelve megapixels is downright pedestrian in this day of 50+ megapixel sensors, but despite popular belief to the contrary, image quality has very little to do with megapixel count (in fact, for any given technology, the lower the megapixel count, the better the image quality). By subtracting photosites, Sony was able to enlarge the remaining a7S photosites into light-capturing monsters, and to give each photosite enough space that it’s not warmed by the (noise-generating) heat of its neighbors.
With the a7S, I was suddenly able to shoot at ridiculously high ISOs, extracting light from the darkest shadows with very manageable noise. Stars popped, the Milky Way throbbed, and the landscape glowed with exquisite detail. I couldn’t wait to try it at Grand Canyon.
My first attempt was from river level during this year’s Grand Canyon raft trip in May. Using my a7S and Canon-mount Zeiss 28mm f2 (after switching to Sony, I was able to continue using my Zeiss lens with the help of a Metabones IV adapter), I was immediately blown away by what I saw on my LCD, and just as excited when I viewed my captures on my monitor at home.
But I wasn’t done. Though I’d been quite pleased with my go-to dark night Zeiss lens, I wanted more. So, in my never-ending quest for more light, just before departing for the August Grand Canyon monsoon workshop, I purchased a Rokinon 24mm f1.4 to suck one more stop’s worth of photons from the opaque sky. The new lens debuted last Friday night, and I share the results here.
About this image
Don Smith and I were at Grand Canyon for our annual back-to-back monsoon workshops. On the night between workshops, Don and I photographed sunset at Cape Royal, then walked over to Angel’s Window where we ate sandwiches and waited for the Milky Way to emerge. The sky was about 80 percent clouds when the sun went down and we debated packing it in, but knowing these monsoon clouds often wane when the sun drops, we decided to stick it out.
Trying to familiarize myself with the capabilities of my new dark night lens, I photographed a handful of compositions at varying settings. To maximize the amount of Milky Way in my frame, everything oriented vertically. As with all my images, the image I share here is a single click.
Despite the moonless darkness, exposing the a7S at ISO 6400 for 20 seconds at f1.4 enabled me to fill my entire histogram from left to right (shadows through highlights) without clipping. Bringing the shadows up a little more in Lightroom revealed lots of detail with just a moderate amount of very manageable noise.
This is an exciting time indeed for photographers, as technology advances continue to push the boundaries of possibilities. Just a few years ago an image like this would have been unthinkable in a single click—I can’t wait to see what Sony comes up with yet.
Some comments on processing night images
Processing these dark sky images underscores the quandary of photography beyond the threshold of human vision—no one is really sure how it’s supposed to look. We’re starting to see lots of night sky images from other photographers, including many featuring the Milky Way, and the color is all over the map. Our eyes simply can’t see color with such little light, but a long exposure and/or fast lens and high ISO shows that it’s still there—it’s up to the photographer to infer a hue.
So what color should a night scene be? It’s important to understand that an object’s color is more than just a fixed function of an inherent characteristic of that object, it varies with the light illuminating it. I can’t speak for other photographers, but I try to imagine how the scene would look if my eyes could capture as much light as my camera does.
To me a scene with blue cast is more night-like than the warmer tones I see in many night images (they look like daylight with stars), so I start by cooling the color temperature below 4,000 degrees in Lightroom. The purplish canyon and blue sky in this image is simply the result of the amount of light I captured, Grand Canyon’s naturally red walls, and me cooling the image’s overall color temperature in Lightroom. For credibility, I actually decided to desaturate the result slightly. (The yellow glow on the horizon is the lights of Flagstaff and Williams, burned and desaturated in Photoshop.)
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