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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Posted on June 11, 2014
It occurs to me sharing the full story of this image will require me to share delicate details not normally seen in a photo blog.
(So consider yourself warned.)
But before getting to the details of this image, let me just say that among a very long list of life-highlights and personal firsts, probably my very favorite thing about spending a week at the bottom of the Grand Canyon was going to sleep to the beneath a sky brimming with more stars than I’d ever seen in my life.
After dark, day one
(Foolishly) imagining that my home bedtime reading habit would transfer seamlessly to the Grand Canyon, I’d packed several books to drift off to sleep to. But just five minutes into the first night I discarded that folly and simply basked in starlight, utterly mesmerized by the volume and variety of stars, constellations, planets, meteors, and satellites overhead. I fought sleep like a two-year-old at nap time—if I would have had access to duct tape I’d have considered taping my eyelids to my forehead.
After dark, day two
Topping off a long but relatively quiet day on the river, on our second night Wiley navigated our rafts into a fantastic campsite with a wide downriver view that opened to the southern sky. Immediately after dinner (before the darkness made composing and focusing extremely difficult) I had everyone line up along the river to set up their shots and focus. I gave a little orientation to everyone who was new to night photography, then we all just kicked back and waited for nightfall.
When the sky darkened and the stars popped out, we had a blast photographing star trails and pinpoint stars above the river. By 11:00 or so, long before the Milky Way rotated into view, everyone was ready for sleep. When I told the group that the best time to photograph the Milky Way would be between 2:00 and 4:00 a.m., there wasn’t a lot of interest. Following a long day in the sun that had started at around 5:00 a.m., the sleep was indeed as wonderful as you might imagine, but the next morning those of us who woke fully rested started having second thoughts when we saw the images captured by the few who rose at 2:00 for the Milky Way. Oh well.
After dark, day three
Day three was all about the rapids, which seemed to come fast and furious all day, rarely allowing more than a few minutes of calm water before we had to hold on tight and “suck rubber” for the next one. Unkar, Hance, Crystal, the gem series, to name just a few, were equal parts thrilling and chilling to us whitewater novices. And also physically draining.
At about 5:00 p.m., equal parts exhilarated and exhausted, we staggered into camp near the canyon’s 110-milestone. Despite my fatigue, I couldn’t help notice that while southern horizon was partially obstructed by the canyon walls, there just might be enough sky there for some of the Milky Way’s brilliant core to appear. Even so, not even another fantastic dinner could completely recharge the group, and for most the visions of another night photography marathon quickly succumbed to the gravitational pull of cot and sleeping bag. Nevertheless, I was one night smarter.
(Now for the delicate part.) I’ll start by going back to the orientation delivered by Wiley, our lead river guide, as it pertains to the evacuation of, uh, personal liquid waste: Peeing. Contrary to everything I’d learned from a lifetime of camping and backpacking, Wiley gave us very explicit instructions to pee nowhere but in the river. That’s right. Apparently the Colorado River’s volume will sufficiently dilute the pee of the several hundred people enjoying the Grand Canyon from the river any given time; the alternative, we learned, would be all these visitors targeting riverside rocks and trees to turn each campsite and trail into a giant litter-box. To achieve this goal the women were issued handy little buckets that allowed them to evacuate their bladders wherever they felt comfortable, then discreetly deposit the contents in the river; the guys, on the other hand, were expected to simply apply the tried and true ready-aim-fire approach.
Wiley had also admonished the group about the hazards of dehydration, imploring us to consume copious amounts of water day and night. While this strategy achieved the desired effect (no one in the group succumbed to dehydration), an unfortunate byproduct was nature’s inevitable call in the, uh, “wee” hours of the morning.
But what could all this possibly have to do with photographing the Milky Way?
Knowing that there was a pretty good chance I’d be trekking down to the river at around two or three in the morning, the last thing I did before crawling into my sleeping bag that night was mount my camera on my tripod, attach my 28mm Zeiss f2 (my night lens), focus it at infinity, and dial in all the exposure settings necessary for a Milky Way shoot. Genius!
When I woke at around two o’clock the next morning, I hopped from my sleeping bag, grabbed my tripod/camera, and made my way down the river. (You’d be amazed at the amount of light cast starlight in a deep canyon with no other light source.) At the river I quickly set up my shot, clicked my shutter (a 30 second exposure), and went about the rest of my business. As a life-long Northern Californian I’m accustomed to sharing delicious fresh water with parched and thirsty Los Angeles—standing there, I couldn’t help find comfort in the knowledge of the ultimate destination of my current contribution.
I’m doing it all over again in 2015 (May 11-18)—contact me if you’d like to join me.
Posted on September 8, 2013
Caving to demand, I took my Hawaii workshop group back up to Kilauea last Thursday night. While we didn’t get stars this time (not even close), we found something that was equal parts different and cool. If the first night’s display was Heavenly, the reprise was Hellish. We finished Tuesday with a new appreciation for our small place in this magnificent Universe; Thursday we were left awestruck by the power of nature’s creative force churning beneath us.
Everyone was thrilled to have the dark, clear skies we saw Tuesday night, but given that this was the first time doing night photography for most of the group, everyone wanted another opportunity apply their new-found skill. Before departing, I reminded them of Mother Nature’s fickle inclinations, and warned them that repeating Tuesday’s clear skies was far from a sure thing. However, I told them, clouds can be pretty cool too. They were dubious, and somewhat disappointed upon arrival—until the first images popped up on their LCDs.
Believe it or not, these images from our two volcano nights are pretty much what we all saw on our camera LCDs (very little processing necessary). They’re a good reminder of our camera’s ability to show aspects of the natural world that are missed in the human experience. A frequent photographer’s lament is the camera’s limited dynamic range (the range of tones between the darkest shadows and brightest highlights), but one advantage a camera does have over human vision is its ability to accumulate light over time. On Tuesday night, our sensors pulled from the darkness stars that were invisible to the naked eye (and also nicely brightened the Milky Way); on Thursday night, a long exposure revealed unseen cloud detail illuminated by Halemaʻumaʻu’s orange glow. Also, on Tuesday night so much of Kilauea’s glow escaped into space that the caldera floor (beyond the inner crater) remained nearly black despite a lengthy, high ISO, large aperture exposure. But on Thursday night the clouds reflected the volcano’s light back to Earth, bathing the caldera floor in an orange glow that our cameras captured beautifully.
Our cameras also allowed us to infer one more difference between the two nights: The crater glowed significantly brighter on Thursday night. I learned from a rim-side chat with a naturalist on Tuesday that Halemaʻumaʻu’s luminosity varies with the composition of its output—the higher the ratio of sulfur gas to water vapor, the brighter it glows. While this difference is sometimes difficult to detect with the naked eye from one night to the next, it became obvious when I realized that in Tuesday’s images the highlights in the crater’s burning core were recoverable in Lightroom, while the same bright region in Thursday’s images was hopelessly blown at the same exposure. Fortunately, on Thursday night I opted for a shorter shutter speed to better “freeze” Halemaʻumaʻu’s gas plume—this left the caldera a little dark (but still brighter than Tuesday), but really reveals the plume’s character.