Posted on August 16, 2020
In a previous life I spent a dozen or so years doing technical support. In this job a key role was convincing people that, despite all failures and error messages to the contrary, they are in fact smarter than their computers. Most errors occur because the computer just didn’t understand: If I misspel a wurd, you still know what I meen (rite?). Not so with a computer. A computer can’t anticipate, reason, or create; assigned a task, it will blithely continue repeating a mistake, no matter how egregious, until it is instructed otherwise, fails, or destroys itself.
All this applies equally to today’s “smart” cameras, which are essentially computers at their core. But no matter how advanced its technology, a camera just can’t compete with your brain. Really.
For example, if I’d allowed my camera to decide the exposure for this crescent moon scene from 2016, I’d have ended up with a useless mess: While this image is all about color and shape, automatic exposure, deciding that the foreground hillside is important, would have brightened the scene enough to expose distracting detail and completely wash out the color in the sky. But I knew better. Wanting to simplify the scene, I manually metered and banished the extraneous foreground detail to the black shadows, capturing only the moon’s delicate shape and a solitary oak silhouetted against the indigo twilight.
Digital cameras become more technologically advanced each year, and their auto-exposure and -focus capabilities are quite good, good enough that nobody should feel they must switch to manual if they fear it will diminish the pleasure they get from photography. But if your photographic pleasure comes from getting the best possible images, it would benefit you to spend a little time mastering manual metering (and hyperfocal focus), then using that knowledge to override your camera’s programmed inclinations. It might help to know that in my photo workshops I teach (but never require) manual metering to all who are interested, and most who try it are surprised by how easy and rewarding it is to take control of their camera.
Trust your histogram
Exposure control starts by learning to use a histogram, a graph of the tones in an image (read more about histograms). Not only does every digital camera show us a histogram of the scene we just photographed, modern cameras (all mirrorless for sure, and all of the latest DSLRs that I know of) display the histogram for the scene we’re currently metering, before the shutter is clicked.
With a histogram, instead of clicking and hoping as we did in the film days, or clicking, checking, and adjusting as we did in the pre-live-view histogram days, the addition of a histogram before we shoot provides advance knowledge of the image’s exposure. For those who know how to read a histogram, manual exposure has never been easier—just monitor the histogram as you prepare your shot and dial the exposure until the histogram looks right. Click.
Setting up your live-view histogram
To ensure a valid pre-capture histogram (on your DSLR’s live-view screen, or your mirrorless camera’s live-view or viewfinder screen), make sure you are in whatever your camera manufacturer calls exposure simulation. When the camera simulates exposure, rather than always showing the ideal exposure on the live-view screen, it attempts to emulate the exposure settings you’re using. Here is a far from comprehensive guide to the exposure simulation designation used by the major camera manufacturers (though I can’t guarantee that all cameras from the same manufacturer do it the same way):
On most camera’s the metering mode (the way the camera’s meter views the scene—not to be confused with exposure mode, which is the way the camera sets the exposure) doesn’t affect the pre-capture histogram, but to be safe, instead of spot or partial metering, I choose a metering mode that uses the entire frame. (With my Sony mirrorless bodies, I set my metering mode to Entire Screen Average.)
Once you’ve turned on exposure simulation, you need to figure out how to display the histogram. Most cameras, mirrorless or DSLR, offer multiple live-view screen options that display a variety of information about the scene you’re photographing. On most cameras, only one or two of these screens displays the histogram—finding it is usually a simple matter of cycling through the various displays until the histogram appears. To minimize the number of screens I need to scroll through to get to the information I need (such as the histogram or level), I always go into my camera’s menu system and disable the live-view screens I don’t use.
Using your live-view histogram
Using my pre-capture histogram, I start the metering process as I always have. In manual exposure mode, I start in my camera’s best ISO (100 for my Sony a7RIV), and the best f-stop for my composition (unless motion, such as wind or star motion, forces me to compromise my ISO and/or f-stop). With ISO and f-stop set, I slowly adjust my shutter speed with my eye on the histogram in my viewfinder (or LCD).
Most mirrorless bodies offer highlight warnings in their pre-capture view (often called “zebras”). While these alerts aren’t nearly as reliable as the histogram and should never be relied on for final exposure decisions, I use their appearance as a reminder to check my histogram. The first time I meter a scene, my current exposure settings (based on my prior scene) can be far from what the current scene requires—in this case, I push my shutter speed fast until the zebras appear (if my prior exposure was too dark) or disappear (if my prior exposure was too bright), then refine the exposure more slowly while watching the histogram.
In a low or moderate contrast scene, I’ll have room on both the shadows and highlights sides of the histogram—a pretty easy scene to expose. But in a high dynamic range scene (dark shadows and bright highlights), the difference between the darkest shadows and brightest highlights might stretch the histogram beyond its boundaries. When the high dynamic range is so great that I have to choose between saving the highlights or the shadows, I almost always bias my exposure choice toward sparing the highlights, carefully dialing the exposure until the histogram bumps against the right side—at that point I stop adding exposure, even if my shadows are cut off (black).
Because the post-capture histogram is more reliable than the pre-capture histogram, when high dynamic range gives me little margin for error, I verify my exposure by checking the post-capture histogram. Here’s where the RGB (red, green, blue) histogram becomes important. While the luminosity (white) histogram gives you the detail you captured, it doesn’t tell you if you lost color. Washed out color is always a risk when you push the histogram all the way to the right, so it’s best to check the post-capture RGB histogram to ensure that none of the image’s color channels are clipped.
An often overlooked aspect of mastering in-camera metering is simply learning how your camera reports exposure. Not only does every camera interpret and display its exposure information differently, the histogram returned is based on the jpeg, so raw shooters always have more information than their camera reports—it’s important to know how much more. With my Sony a7Rx bodies, I know I’m usually safe pushing my histogram’s exposure graph up to a full stop beyond the left or right (highlights and shadows) boundary—I have no problem using every available photon.
A few more words about this image
In addition to taking control of the exposure for this image, roaming a hilly cow pasture in the foothills east of Sacramento gave me full freedom of movement to control the new moon’s position relative to the tree. As the sky darkened and the moon dropped, I literally ran up and down the hill to capture as many moon/tree/frame relationships as possible before the moon disappeared.
In addition the standard photographic imperatives (composition, exposure, focus), I had to hopscotch around abundant piles of fresh “fertilizer” and stay alert to the potential for an encounter with the fertilizer’s source. And then there were the gopher holes, and the nagging fear that I might surprise a rattlesnake…. When all was said and done, I’m happy to report that no photographers were harmed in the making of this image.
This is the week (August 16-21, 2020) to photograph a crescent moon. My recommendation is Monday morning on the eastern horizon before sunrise, and Wednesday or Thursday low in the west after sunset.
Posted on June 14, 2020
Here’s a brand new image that’s nearly six years old. Brand new because I processed it for the first time just yesterday; six years old because I found it after loading my pre-Lightroom raw files from 2014 into Lightroom, something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time and I finally ran out of reasons not to do it. Before 2015 I did all my raw processing in Adobe Camera Raw, which worked fine as far as individual image processing was concerned, but also made it pretty easy for things to get out of control on my hard-disk because there was no underlying organization to my import process. Want proof? I’m actually missing about a month’s worth of images from 2013—I know because I have several processed jpegs from that span for which I have no originals. Sigh.
This is also just my 282nd image after switching to Sony mirrorless in the fall of 2014. While I have no specific memories of this evening (there have been many, many like this, as you’ll see in the gallery), I imagine that I was still struggling with the Sony interface—partly because mirrorless was a new trick for this old dog, and partly because the original a7R’s interface pretty much sucked (a problem that has been incrementally, and now completely, addressed in succeeding models). But it was fun processing this “old” image and recalling why I was able to forgive the lousy interface and abysmal battery life (also addressed) of the a7R: man, even right out of the gate that Sony dynamic range just doesn’t quit.
Skeptics might might look at this image and think I added the moon because it appears to be in front of the clouds. Anyone who has been in one of my workshops, or who knows me even just a little, knows I don’t do that. But for the skeptics in the audience, let me assure you that it is indeed possible for clouds to catch sunset color while still being translucent enough for the moon to shine through (you can actually see other examples below).
It saddens me that photography has reached a point where every beautiful, or interesting, or revealing image is (often justifiably, I’m afraid) scrutinized with a cynical eye. Photographers have brought this on themselves with their never-ending quest for more social media Likes, or to make a case for something for which they have no evidence (as we’ve seen in some of the recent news reporting).
After spending a good chunk of my photography life as a color transparency (slides) shooter who was pretty much stuck with whatever came back from the lab, I appreciate the ability to process my images as much as the next photographer. But there’s a continuum with basic processing on one end (there’s no such thing as an unprocessed image, whether you do it yourself or leave the processing to your camera) and Frankenstein hybrids on the other. To me the decision about where to draw the line on the processing continuum is similar to the decision between wearing nice clothes and putting on makeup and resorting to cosmetic surgery (yes, I understand that there are in fact many valid reasons for cosmetic surgery, and that this is not a flawless analogy).
So it really comes down to honesty—a commitment not to deceive. I love nature and want to share my love by portraying my subjects at their absolute best, but I want people’s first thought when they see one of my images to be, “Wow, I need to get out in nature more,” and not, “Wow, what a great photographer, or, “Wow, that’s impossible.” The scene you see in this image really happened, and there’s a photo of it because I put myself in position for the (very predictable) confluence of a new moon hanging above rolling hills dotted with statuesque oaks, plus the fortuitous addition of thin clouds that lingered just long enough to catch sunset color. It helped that I had a camera that could easily handle the difference between the brilliant sky and darkening hills, and enough photographic skill to properly frame and expose the scene. The image itself was remarkably easy to process and required very little digital help. This image is a success if it first helps you realize how beautiful even the simplest foothill scenes are, without being distracted by my skill as a photographer (good or bad), or the processing decisions I made.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on December 9, 2018
Earth’s climate is changing, and the smoking gun belongs to us. Sadly, in the United States policy lags insight and reason, and the world is suffering.
Climate change science is complex, with many moving parts that make it difficult to communicate to the general public. Climate change also represents a significant reset for some of the world’s most profitable corporations. Those colliding realities created a perfect storm for fostering the doubt and confusion that persists among people who don’t understand climate science and the principles that underpin it.
I’m not a scientist, but I do have enough science background (majors in astronomy and geology before ultimately earning my degree in economics) to trust the experts and respect the scientific method. I also spent 20 years doing technical communication in the tech industry (tech writing, training, and support) for companies large and small. So I know that the fundamentals of climate change don’t need to intimidate, and the more accessible they can be to the general public, the better off we’ll all be.
Recently it feels like I’ve been living on the climate change front lines. On each visit to Yosemite, more dead and dying trees stain forests that were green as recently as five years ago. And throughout the Sierra (among other places), thirsty evergreens, weakened by drought, are under siege by insects that now thrive in mountain winters that once froze them into submission. More dead trees means more fuel, making wildfires not just more frequent, but bigger and hotter.
Speaking of wildfires, for a week last month I couldn’t go outside without a mask thanks to smoke from the Camp Fire that annihilated Paradise (70 miles away). I have friends who evacuated from each of this November’s three major California wildfires (Camp, Hill, and Woolsey), and last December the Thomas Fire forced a two-week evacuation of Ojai, where my wife and I rent a small place (to be near the grandkids). Our cleanup from the Thomas fire took months, and we still find ash in the most unexpected places (and we were among the lucky who had a home to clean).
Despite its inevitable (and long overdue) death, the climate change debate continues to stagger on like a mindless zombie. We used to have to listen to the skeptics claim that our climate wasn’t changing at all, so I guess hearing them acknowledge that okay-well-maybe-the-climate-is-changing-but-humans-aren’t-responsible can be considered progress.
Despite what you might read on social media or fringe websites, climate change alternative “explanations” like “natural variability” and “solar energy fluctuations” have been irrefutably debunked by rigorously gathered, thoroughly analyzed, and closely scrutinized data. (And don’t get me started on the whole “scientists motivated by grant money” conspiracy theory.)
One thing that everyone does agree on is the existence of the greenhouse effect, which has been used for centuries to grow plants in otherwise hostile environments.
As you may already know, a greenhouse’s transparent exterior allows sunlight to penetrate and warm its interior. The heated interior radiates at longer wavelengths (infrared) that don’t escape as easily through the greenhouse’s ceiling and walls. That means more heat is added to a greenhouse than exits it, so the interior is warmer than the environment outside.
Perhaps the most common misperception about human induced climate change is that it’s driven by all the heat we create when we burn stuff. But that’s not what’s going on, not even close.
Our atmosphere behaves like a greenhouse, albeit with far more complexity. The sun bathes Earth with continuous electromagnetic radiation that includes infrared, visible light, and ultraviolet. Solar radiation not reflected back to space reaches Earth’s surface to heat water, land, and air. Some of this heat makes it back to space, but much is absorbed by molecules in Earth’s atmosphere, forming a virtual blanket that makes Earth warmer than it would be without an atmosphere. In a word, inhabitable.
Because a molecule’s ability to absorb heat depends on its structure, some molecules absorb heat better than others. The two most common molecules in Earth’s atmosphere, nitrogen (N2: two nitrogen atoms) and oxygen (O2: two oxygen atoms), are bound so tightly that they don’t absorb heat. Our atmospheric blanket relies on other molecules to absorb heat: the greenhouse gases.
Also not open for debate is that Earth warms when greenhouse gases in the atmosphere rise, and cools when they fall. The rise and fall of greenhouse gases has been happening for as long as Earth has had an atmosphere. So our climate problem isn’t that our atmosphere contains greenhouse gases, it’s that human activity changes our atmosphere’s natural balance of greenhouse gases.
Earth’s most prevalent greenhouse gas is water vapor. But water vapor responds quickly to temperature changes, leaving the atmosphere relatively fast as rain or snow, while other greenhouse gases hold their heat far longer.
The two most problematic greenhouse gases are carbon dioxide (CO2: one carbon atom bonded with two oxygen atoms) and methane (CH4: one carbon atom bonded with four hydrogen atoms). The common denominator in these “problem” gases is carbon. (There are other, non-carbon-based, greenhouse gases, but for simplicity I’m focusing on the most significant ones.)
Carbon exists in many forms: as a solo act like graphite and diamond, and in collaboration with other elements to form more complex molecules, like carbon dioxide and methane. When it’s not floating around the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas, carbon in its many forms is sequestered in a variety of natural reservoirs called a “carbon sink,” where it does nothing to warm the planet.
Oceans are Earth’s largest carbon sink. And since carbon is the fundamental building block of life on Earth, all living organisms, from plants to plankton to people, are carbon sinks as well. The carbon necessary to form greenhouse gases has always fluctuated naturally between the atmosphere and natural sinks like oceans and plants.
For example, a growing tree absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, keeping the carbon and expelling oxygen (another simplification of a very complex process)—a process that stops when the tree dies. As the dead tree decomposes, some of its carbon is returned to the atmosphere as methane, but much of it returns to the land where it is eventually buried beneath sediments. Over tens or hundreds of millions of years, some of that sequestered carbon is transformed by pressure and heat to become coal.
Another important example is oil. For billions of years, Earth’s oceans have been host to simple-but-nevertheless-carbon-based organisms like algae and plankton. When these organisms die they drop to the ocean floor, where they’re eventually buried beneath sediment and other dead organisms. Millions of years of pressure and heat transforms these ancient deposits into…: oil.
Coal and oil (hydrocarbons), as significant long-term carbon sinks, were quite content to lounge in comfortable anonymity as continents drifted, mountains lifted and eroded, and glaciers advanced and retreated. Through all this slow motion activity on its surface, Earth’s temperatures ebbed and flowed and life evolved accordingly.
Enter humans. We have evolved, migrated, and built civilizations based on a relatively stable climate. And since the discovery of fire we humans have burned plants for warmth and food preparation. Burning organic material creates carbon dioxide, thereby releasing sequestered carbon into the atmosphere. Who knew that such a significant advance was the first crack in the climate-change Pandora’s Box?
For thousands of years the demand for fuel was met simply by harvesting dead plants strewn about on the ground and the reintroduction of carbon to the atmosphere was minimal. But as populations expanded and technology advanced, so did humans’ thirst for fuel to burn.
We nearly killed off the whales for their oil before someone figured out that those ancient, subterranean metamorphosed dead plants burn really nicely. With an ample supply of coal and oil and a seemingly boundless opportunity for profit, coal and oil soon became the driving force in the world’s economy. Suddenly, hundreds of millions of years worth of sequestered carbon was being reintroduced to our atmosphere as fast as it could be produced—with a corresponding acceleration in greenhouse gases (remember, when we burn hydrocarbons, we create carbon dioxide).
Compounding the fossil-fuel-as-energy problem is the extreme deforestation taking place throughout the world. Not only does burning millions of forest and jungle acres each year instantly reintroduce sequestered carbon to the atmosphere, it destroys a significant sink for present and future carbon.
Scientists have many ways to confirm humans’ climate change culpability. The most direct is probably the undeniable data showing that for millennia carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere hovered rather steadily around 280 parts per million (ppm). Then, corresponding to the onset of the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century, atmospheric carbon dioxide has risen steadily and today sits somewhere north of 400 ppm, with a bullet.
Humans don’t get a pass on atmospheric methane either. While not nearly as abundant in Earth’s atmosphere as carbon dioxide, methane is an even more powerful greenhouse gas, trapping about 30 times more heat than its more plentiful cousin. Methane is liberated to the atmosphere by a variety of human activities, from the decomposition of waste (sewage and landfill) to agricultural practices that include rice cultivation and bovine digestive exhaust (yes, that would be cow farts).
While the methane cycle is less completely understood than the carbon dioxide cycle, the increase of atmospheric methane also correlates to fossil fuel consumption. Of particular concern (and debate) is the cause of the steeper methane increase since the mid-2000s. Stay tuned while scientists work on that….
For humans, the most essential component of Earth’s habitability is the precarious balance between water’s three primary states: gas (water vapor), ice, and liquid. Since the dawn of time, water’s varied states have engaged in a complex, self-correcting choreography of land, sea, and air inputs—tweak one climate variable here, and another one over there compensates.
Earth’s climate remains relatively stable until the equilibrium is upset by external input like solar energy change, volcanic eruption, or (heaven forbid) a visit from a rogue asteroid. Unfortunately, humans incremented the list of climate catalysts by one with the onset of the Industrial Revolution, and our thirst for fossil fuels.
As we’re learning firsthand in realtime, even the smallest geospheric tweak can initiate a self-reinforcing chain reaction with potentially catastrophic consequences for humanity’s long-term wellbeing. For example, a warmer planet means a warmer ocean and less ice, which means more liquid water and water vapor. Adding carbon dioxide to water vapor kicks off a feedback loop that magnifies atmospheric heat: More carbon dioxide raises the temperature of the air—>warmer air holds more water vapor—>more water vapor warms the air more—>and so on.
But that’s just the beginning. More liquid water swallows coastlines; increased water vapor means more clouds, precipitation, and warmer temperatures (remember, water vapor is a greenhouse gas). Wind patterns and ocean currents shift, changing global weather patterns. Oh yeah, and ice’s extreme albedo (reflectivity) bounces solar energy back to space, so shrinking our icecaps and glaciers means less solar energy returned to space even more solar energy to warm our atmosphere, which only compounds the problems.
Comparing direct measurements of current conditions to data inferred from tree rings, ice and sediment cores, and many other proven methods, makes it clear that human activity has indeed upset the climate balance: our planet is warming. What we’re still working on is how much we’ve upset it (so far), what’s coming, and where the tipping point is (or whether the tipping point is already in our rearview mirror).
We do know that we’re already experiencing the effects of these changes, though it’s impossible to pinpoint a single hurricane, fire, or flood and say this one wouldn’t have happened without climate change. And contrary to the belief of many, everyone will not be warmer. Some places are getting warmer, others are getting cooler; some are wetter, others are drier. The frequency and intensity of storms is changing, growing seasons are changing, animal habitats are shifting or shrinking, and the list goes on….
We won’t fix the problem by simply adjusting the thermostat, building dikes and levees, and raking forests. Until we actually reduce greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, things will get worse faster than we can adjust. But the first step to fixing a problem is acknowledging we have one.
The Camp Fire had been burning for ten days, devouring Paradise and filling the air in Sacramento with brown smoke so thick that at times not only could we not see the sun, we couldn’t see the end of the block. But on this afternoon, when an orange ball of sun burned through the smoke I donned a mask, grabbed my camera bag, and headed for the hills.
I have a collection of go-to foothill oak trees for sun and moonsets, but most of these trees are too close to my shooting position for the extreme telephoto image I had in mind. Too close because at this kind of focal length, the hyperfocal distance is over a mile. So I made my way to a quiet country road near Plymouth where I thought the trees might just be distant enough to work. But I’m less familiar with this location than many of my others, so I didn’t know exactly how the trees and sun would align. Turning onto the road, I drove slowly, glancing at the sun and trees until they lined up. Because there wasn’t a lot of room to park on either side, I was pleased that the shoulder at the location that worked best was just wide enough for my car.
Envisioning a maximum telephoto shot, I added my Sony 2X teleconverter to my Sony 100-400 GM lens. While my plan was to use my 1.5-crop Sony a6300, when I arrived the sun was high enough that that combination provided too much magnification, so I started with my full frame Sony a7RIII. But soon as the sun dropped to tree level I switched to the a6300 and zoomed as tight as possible.
When I started the sun was still bright enough that capturing its color made the trees complete silhouettes, with no detail or color in the foreground. But as the setting sun sank into increasingly thick smoke, it became redder and redder and my exposure became easier. It always surprises me how fast the sun and moon move relative to the nearby horizon, so found myself running around to different positions to get the right sun and tree juxtaposition as the sun fell. The smoke near the horizon was so thick that it swallowed the sun before it actually set.
Later I plotted my location and the sun’s position on a map and realized that I was pointing right at San Francisco, about 100 miles away, with a large swath of the Bay Area in between. Then I thought about this air that was thick enough to completely obscure the sun, and the millions of people who had been breathing that air for weeks.
I’d be lying if I said I don’t like this image—it’s exactly what I was going for. But I’d be very happy if I never got another opportunity to photograph something like this.
Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the window to reorder the display.
Posted on September 20, 2018
Today Sony announced the lens I’ve been waiting for: the Sony 24, f/1.4 GM. I got a sneak preview of this lens on Maui last week, and again once I got home home. Hurricane Olivia, my workshop (no one was supposed to see me using the lens), and food poisoning significantly limited my use of it, but I did get to play with it enough to share a few thoughts.
Night photography is all about capturing light, the more the better. We bump our ISO as high as the image quality permits, dial in our lens’s widest aperture, and open our shutter as long as we can without obvious star streaks, pushing each exposure variable as far as possible squeeze out every last photon. The shortcomings of each of these compromises is mitigated by an improvement in the others, which is why night photography with the fastest possible lens means I can get the same exposure with a little less star motion and/or noise. So f/1.4 is great, currently pretty much as good as it gets for a lens wide enough for night photography.
Of course fast and wide isn’t much good if the lens is lousy, or difficult to use. I haven’t used the 24 GM a lot, but I’ve used it enough to know that lousy and difficult won’t be a concern.
My very first impression, and I suspect this will be everyone’s first impression, is how small this lens is. When I knew it was coming my way I started strategizing how I’d rearrange my bag to accommodate it, but it turns out all I needed to do was empty the slot with a couple of extension tubes and my 2X teleconverter. Contrast that with the Sigma 20mm f/1.4, which is an absolute beast of a lens, both in weight and volume, that could never just live in my bag. But I flew home with the Sony in my bag and was completely unaware of the extra weight. Well done, Sony!
I only got one night to use the on Maui before I had to return to the real world, and my location options had been severely limited by the recent passage Tropical Storm Olivia (downgraded from a hurricane shortly before landfall), so I drove about half-hour from my condo in Napili to the ultra-dark skies on the northern-most tip of West Maui, where I stumbled in the dark down to the edge of a cliff above the Nakalele Blowhole and shot into a 30-MPH headwind. Not the most ideal conditions, but I made it work for my purposes.
The benefit of a fast lens like this is not just the amount of light it allows into an image, it starts with the simple ability to see enough to simply compose and focus. And as I expected, both composition and manual focus were a piece of cake with Sony 24 1.4. For the Maui night shoot I composed, then magnified the viewfinder of my Sony a7SII and twisted the focus ring until the stars were the finest possible points of light—it took all of about 3 seconds. After my first exposure I magnified the image to verify that it was indeed sharp, then didn’t worry about focus again.
The image on the right features the dimmest part of the Milky Way, opposite the brilliant galactic core we all love to photograph. As a bonus, I also captured M-31, the Andromeda Galaxy—its fuzzy glow in the upper right has traveled over 2 million lightyears and is the farthest we can see with the unaided eye.
About this image
I’d have liked to have done more starlight photography after getting home from Maui, but by the time I recovered enough from a most unwelcome bout of food poisoning that showed up the day I returned, the moon was too prominent in the night sky. Nevertheless, a couple of days ago I sucked it up and drove out to the foothills about an hour from my home and put the lens through its paces beneath a 70 percent gibbous moon.
With the moon high over my right shoulder I looked for scenes facing northeast, where the skies were the least polluted by city glow. I eventually settled on a nearby hillside dotted with oaks fortuitously punctuated by an organized formation of the only clouds in the sky. With so much moonlight present I went with the Sony a7RIII instead of the Sony a7SII. Shooting moonlight at f/1.4 enabled me to get away with a 10-second exposure at ISO 1600.
In the past I’ve usually auto-focused on the moon for my moonlight scenes, but for laughs this night I tried autofocusing on the trees and was shocked to hear my focus indicator beep. Wow, I’ve never been able to autofocus on anything by moonlight, even when the moon was completely full. Next I tried autofocusing on a random star and again heard the confirmation beep—another first. And finally I magnified the view and manually focused on the tree: 3-for-3. Admittedly, with the recent ability to do starlight photography (moonless nights), I don’t do as much moonlight photography as I once did, and I’ve never done it with an f/1.4 lens (because it really isn’t necessary). Nevertheless, I think night focus struggles will be a thing of the past with this lens.
Processing my night images, the first thing I checked was the stars in the corners. In many years of night photography I used three dedicated “night” lenses (lenses that I only use for night photography): Zeiss 28mm f/2, Rokinon 24mm f/1.4, and Sigma 20mm f/1.4. In quest of more light I’ve shot all of them wide open, but I’ve had to live with a fair amount of coma (comatic aberration). My first reaction is that is that this lens is cleaner wide open than any of them.
The bottom line
I haven’t had tons of time to spend with my images, but my first impression is that I’m blown away by this lens. I’ve grown to accept that if I want quality in a lens I need to accept bulk along with it. Apparently that’s not the case, because this lens gave me crazy sharp images wide open, yet felt not much larger than a baseball in my hand.
Posted on September 24, 2016
In a previous life, I spent a dozen or so years doing technical support. In this role, job-one was convincing people that, despite all failures and error messages to the contrary, they are in fact smarter than their computers. Most errors occur because the computer just didn’t understand: If I misspel a wurd, you still know what I meen (rite?); not so with a computer. A computer can’t anticipate, reason, or create; given a task, it will blithely continue repeating a mistake, no matter how egregious, until it is instructed otherwise, fails, or destroys itself.
All this applies equally to today’s “smart” cameras—no matter how advanced its technology, a camera just can’t compete with your brain. Really. If I’d have allowed my camera to decide the exposure for this crescent moon scene, I’d have ended up with a useless mess: The camera would have decided that the foreground hillside was important and allowed in enough light to expose distracting detail and completely wash out the color in the sky. But I knew better. Wanting to simplify the scene, I manually metered and banished the insignificant details to the black shadows, capturing only the moon’s delicate shape and a solitary oak silhouetted against the indigo twilight.
It’s scenes like this that cause me to never trust my camera’s decision making, and why, in my (many) decades of serious photography, I’ve never used anything but manual metering. And since I try to have elements at different depths throughout my frame, focus is almost always my decision, not my camera’s, as well.
Today’s cameras are more technologically advanced than ever—their auto exposure and focus capabilities are quite good, good enough that nobody should feel they must switch to manual if they fear it will diminish the pleasure they get from photography. But if you define photographic pleasure as getting the best possible images, try spending a little time mastering manual metering and hyperfocal focus, then use that knowledge to override your camera’s inclinations. In my workshops, where I teach (but never require) manual metering and hyperfocal focus to all who are interested, people frequently marvel at how easy and satisfying it is to take control of their camera.
(Images I couldn’t have done in Auto mode)
Posted on July 24, 2015
I travel a lot. A lot. Don’t get me wrong—I know I’m incredibly fortunate to see and photograph the things I do, but sometimes it’s nice to be home. Despite the world-class locations I get to visit, I don’t cease being a photographer just because I’m home. I spend a lot of time exploring and photographing the unsung landscapes near home, landscapes that few would cross borders to photograph, but landscapes that I feel a particular connection to by virtue of a lifetime in California.
Look to the sky
The landscape is only half of an image. Since the best photography is usually more than simply a picture of a pretty thing, I always try to juxtapose my terrestrial subjects with an interesting sky. And unlike stationary terrestrial subjects, you can stand in one place and without moving, watch the sky do some pretty spectacular stuff: moon, stars, clouds, rainbows, whatever.
Sadly, as nice as California’s landscapes are, compared to most places, California has relatively boring skies. If I lived somewhere that gets summer thunderstorms (pretty much anywhere in the United States except the West Coast), I’d find a photogenic tree or creek, then make sure I was there the next time the sky did something special. But in California, I end up doing a lot of moon and star photography (not that there’s anything wrong with that).
My foreground options near Sacramento are rivers and oaks (and wildflowers in spring), and I particularly love our oaks (the rivers near town are often overrun with people). The criteria I use when searching for oaks to put with my sky images are a striking shape (with an oak, that’s usually a given), a distant vantage point that allows me to use a telephoto (to magnify to moon without losing most of the tree), and elevation that puts the tree against the sky instead of other hills and trees. Over the years I’ve collected a number of these spots, and will never tire of looking for more.
Chasing the moon
Last week I drove to the foothills east of Sacramento to photograph a thin slice of moon on the western horizon just after sunset. This wasn’t an exploration mission, it was specifically planned to take advantage of a spot I’d found earlier this year.
Unfortunately, (as I feared) the developers had found my spot too, and I arrived to find “my” trees surrounded by new homes in varying stages of completion—lucky for a handful of homebuyers, but not so much for all the rest of us who enjoy the foothills’ solitude and pristine views.
Just down the hill from this recently found-and-lost spot was the subject of my very first planned moon shoot, an oak-topped hillside that I’d photographed at sunset many years ago, decided that it would look really nice with a crescent moon, then figured out when to return.
But this time I found the moon far north (to the right) of its position all those years ago (the closer to the summer solstice, the farther north a crescent moon sets), and it soon became clear that only spot that would work was on a shoulderless, blind curve of a busy, two-land road. Compounding the difficulty, the moon this night was also closer to new (thinner and nearer the horizon), significantly shrinking my window of shooting opportunity, which limited the distance I could hike to get there in time. I made several passes in both directions before finding a safe(ish) place to park, then crammed my car all the way up against a tilting fence, two tires in a drainage ditch, and put on my hazard blinkers.
Why did the photographer cross the road?
Getting the alignment I wanted required crossing the road, scaling a barbed-wire fence, and traipsing through knee-high weeds. The knowledge that rattlesnakes pretty much rule these foothills made me acutely aware that the weeds were so thick that I couldn’t really see the landing spot for each step.
I photographed the entire scene with my Tamron 150-600 on my Sony a7R. As the moon dropped, sliding left to right, I moved forward along the fence line to control the relationship between the descending moon and the trees, starting with wider focal lengths that included some or all of the eight to ten trees capping the hill. Because my route dropped as I moved forward, the moon quickly fell into the trees from my perspective, allowing me to include the moon and trees increasingly tighter compositions.
For the night’s grand finale I found an alignment that cradled the moon in the silhouetted branches of a single tree, zooming to 600mm to magnify the moon and eliminate all but one tree. Because a 600mm focal length will catch even the slightest vibration, I went to 800 ISO to maximize my shutter speed in the deepening twilight. Once I shot this I actually rescaled the fence and darted back across the highway attempting to get the moon on the other side of the tree, but by the time I got everything aligned, the trees had been swallowed by the too-dark sky.
Every location has features that set its landscape apart. Trees, rivers, lakes, mountains, hills, farmland—I could go on, but you get the point. Your local subject doesn’t need to be spectacular, because when the sky is spectacular, all you need is an interesting terrestrial anchor for your image.
The next time you find yourself with time to kill, explore your outskirts and identify unique subjects that you can add to a striking sky. Now, get to work!
Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show. Refresh the screen to reorder the display.
Posted on February 3, 2014
Maria von Trapp had them, you have them, I have them. They’re the favorite places, moments, and subjects that provide comfort or coax a smile no matter what life has dealt. Not only do these “favorite things” improve our mood, they’re the muse that drives our best photography. Mine include the translucent glow of a California poppy, a black sky sprinkled with stars, a breathtaking sunrise duplicated in reverse by still water, and the vivid arc of a rainbow following a cleansing rain. Also on my list (as you may have guessed by now) are the rolling hills and stately oaks of the Sierra foothills, a delicate slice of moon hovering above the horizon, and the subtle band of shifting color separating day and night.
I do my best to put myself in position to photograph all of these moments—the more I can combine, the better. For example, on my calendar each month (among other things) are the best days to photograph the old moon before sunrise, and the new moon after sunset. And in my GPS is a collection of foothill locations (though by now I’m sure my car could navigate to these spots on its own) with hilltop oak trees that stand against the sky.
The best evenings for the new moon in the most recent lunar cycle were Friday and Saturday, January 31 and February 1. With plans for Friday, I blocked Saturday and made the drive up to the foothills, where I waited at a favorite spot for the sun to drop and the moon to appear. Over the years I’ve accumulated lots of pictures of these trees beneath a variety of skies, with and without the moon. My composition decisions on each visit were mostly determined by the conditions: clouds, color, the moon’s direction, and the moon’s elevation above the horizon.
Saturday night’s cloudless, unspectacular sky spread a simple canvas that emphasized the crescent moon floating above the day/night transition I love so much. As an added bonus, Mercury joined the party, leading the moon to the horizon (above the tree on the right). In the deepening darkness I moved up and down the road to change the moon’s position relative to the trees. With the moon fairly high, I found that moderately wide, vertical compositions worked best. I underexposed slightly to and emphasize the trees’ shape with a silhouette; with nothing else to balance my frame, I decided on the symmetry of an isosceles triangle connecting the trees and moon.
Posted on July 21, 2013
A few years ago I proposed an article to “Outdoor Photographer” magazine on photographing the moon. The editor at the time (not the current OP editor) replied that moon photographs don’t work because the moon appears so much smaller in a photograph than people remember it. I couldn’t argue—the moon does indeed look smaller in a photograph than we perceive it in person. But I’ve never thought the moon needs to appear large to be an effective subject because its emotional power gives even the smallest moon enough visual weight to grab the eye and hold a disproportional segment of the frame. Ansel Adams certainly had this figured out, making a small moon the prime focal point of many images, including the image that’s arguably his most famous, “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico.” Nevertheless, it took a new editor to finally get OP to acknowledge that size doesn’t matter and publish my “Shoot the Moon” article.
Today, more photographers than ever are using a small moon to accent familiar landscapes. But as nice as these images can be, sometimes it’s nice to make the moon BIG. I’m afraid the vast majority of images displaying a BIG moon looming over an iconic scene are composites, wide compositions with a telephoto moon superimposed on top. My feeling about these moon composites ranges from “Ugh,” when the photographer has at least had the integrity to label it a composite, to “Foul!,” when the photographer pretends that the entire scene was captured with a single click.
Your ability to enlarge the moon naturally (with a single click) is determined by the amount of telephoto you use: The longer your focal length, the larger your moon. But increasing the focal length shrinks the field of view, so matching a large moon with a particular scene requires positioning yourself a long way from the scene. For example, if I want to photograph the moon rising above Lake Tahoe, Tahoe’s size means I’m pretty much stuck with a wide angle (small moon) scene. In the Emerald Bay sunrise scene below, I was about a half mile from the lake, but even at 40mm I’m unable to fit all of the bay, and the moon is quite small.
On the other hand, Yosemite Valley offers many distant vantage points that allow me to isolate Half Dome or El Capitan with a telephoto lens. I make a point of knowing when I can align a crescent or full moon with Half Dome and do my best to get myself (or a workshop group) there to photograph it. The image here is a 400mm (full frame) shot that completely isolates Half Dome from the rest of the scene.
Compare it to the image taken from the same location—at 105mm, Half Dome shrinks and the moon becomes an accent in a much larger scene.
The image at the top of this frame perfectly illustrates my approach to moon photography. Because I can’t always get to Yosemite (and I like some variety in my images), I keep a mental database of nearby locations that align with a subject I can silhouette against the east or west horizon (the general direction of the moon’s rise and set) when viewed from a distant vantage point. Near the top of my list is a pair of trees topping a hill in the foothills east of Sacramento (the same trees featured in my July 12 post). Not only can I photograph these trees against the sky, from a distance, the ability to shift a fairly good distance north or south without losing my view of the trees allows me to juxtapose them against the moon, which shifts a significant amount from month to month.
The July 12 image was photographed the same night at 330mm with my full frame 5D Mark III; today’s image was photographed at 300mm with a 1.6 crop camera, for an effective focal length of 480mm. I plan to return to this spot a few more times for even tighter (larger moon) captures. I’d also like to try some with the full moon—since the view here is to the west, I’ll need to photograph the full moon when it sets at sunrise. Stay tuned….
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About my new camera
Some photographers may be mortified to see that I shot this with a Canon Rebel SL1. For those who don’t know, the Rebel line is Canon’s entry level, consumer camera (by inference, something no self-respecting pro would ever be caught dead using). But, while the Rebel cameras have some limitations, image quality isn’t one of them. So here’s my reasoning.
For about a year my primary camera has been my 5D Mark III. While the 5DIII gives me more dynamic range and better high ISO performance than my five year old 1DSIII, rather than sell the 1DSIII (still a great camera), I decided to keep it as a backup. Unfortunately, it’s also a brick, an absolute pain to lug around in the remote chance my 5DIII goes down. And its an even bigger pain to fly with.
Another problem with my 1DSIII as my prime backup is, like my 5DIII, it has a full frame sensor. I prefer having a “crop” (smaller sensor) body as my backup, because it gives me something I don’t have with a full frame (60% more reach from my lenses). So when I heard about Canon’s SL1, I checked it out and learned: It takes all my lenses; has an 18mp sensor; and is incredibly compact, hands down the tiniest SLR I’ve ever seen (if I didn’t shoot everything on a tripod, I might find it almost too small to shoot). It’s also only $650. So I bought one.
Now my 1DSIII will still travel with me wherever I drive (as will my 5DIII and my SL1), because I’ll have room. And if my 5dIII ever goes down for an extended period, my 1DSIII will become my primary body until the 5DIII returns to health. But when I fly anywhere, it’ll just be my 5DIII and my SL1. And in those situations where I want to carry two cameras in the field—for example, when I photograph the moon and want both wide and long shots—the tiny SL1 will always be the second camera. (So I guess size also matters when I’m choosing a backup camera.)
Epilogue: The image in this post was captured on my very first shoot with the SL1, and I’m happy to report that it performed wonderfully.
Posted on July 12, 2013
Nature photography is a particularly serendipitous art form. We do our best to get ourselves in the right place at the right time, but it’s ultimately up to Mother Nature to deliver. Fortunately, some things in nature are more certain than others. Among them is the phase, location, and timing of the moon, each of which can be anticipated with near absolute precision. Another certainty I’ve grown to depend on is clear skies in California in July. Armed with those two truths, Wednesday night a friend and I headed to the foothills to photograph a thin crescent moon in the western twilight.
My criteria for photographing any twilight scene include finding a striking shape to silhouette against the sky. And like a portrait photographer who can’t get enough of a particular model, there a number of “go-to” trees scattered about the foothills that I return to whenever I get the urge to photograph a sunset near home. For a long time I’ve known the hilltop perch of one pair would allow me to juxtapose them with a setting moon. I’d already photographed this pair many times with good success (one of these images was on a magazine cover), and one time got them with a crescent moon. But that success only made me greedy for a tight shot with the moon large, among the trees. I check the moon info each month to see if its phases and position align with my schedule (for obvious reasons, I’m often away from home when the moon is at its photographic best), and Wednesday night looked like everything might just fit into place, so out we went.
By about two hours before sunset it became pretty clear that clouds would be part of our sky that evening. While not unprecedented, this unexpected intrusion could be: A) Good, if the clouds added sunset color while parting enough to reveal the moon; or B) Bad, if the clouds thickened to obscure the moon and block the color. Serendipity.
Mark and I pulled up to “my” trees about fifteen minutes before sunset, but with the clouds starting to look like they might deliver a colorful sunset, and since we didn’t need to be in position for the moon until 25 or 30 minutes after sunset, I made the snap decision to continue about five miles down the road to another group of trees that I thought would be particularly nice for a colorful sunset. The sunset was indeed worth the detour, but that’s a story for another day. When it was over, we hightailed it back to the hilltop tree spot to find the moon playing hide and seek with the clouds above and just a little south of the trees. Definitely photo-worthy, but not aligned so perfectly that I could get the tight telephoto shot I’d envisioned.
While photographing from the narrow shoulder here is fairly easy (though a bit unnerving), the angle we needed to align the trees and moon required scaling a small hill. Behind a barbed wire fence. Hmmm. But wait—what’s this? A gate! And it’s unlocked! So, all with about as much restraint as two ten-year olds at the all-you-can-eat dessert bar, up the hill we traipsed, dodging cow patties and listening for rattlesnakes. As expected, the new vantage point provided exactly the angle we needed, but I have to say that in the growing darkness my impulsiveness enthusiasm was soon replaced by visions of tomorrow’s headlines:
Fortunately, none of that stuff happened, and Mark and I made it back to my car, undetected and intact. Impulsive urges notwithstanding, I ended up with several “keeper” images, thanks in no small part to the convergence of my plan with the fortuitous appearance of clouds to color our summer sky. Sometimes things just work out.
Later, I had to admit that going up there like that violated one of my personal rules: Get permission before entering private property (I’ll often offer a print as thanks). But this time I rationalized that since we’d do no harm, and because time was absolutely of the essence, it would be okay to maybe go just a little bit beyond the fence. And while it worked out this time, that’s the kind of decision that inspires hindsight (and I have the stories to prove it).
A Crescent Moon Gallery
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Posted on December 11, 2012
A new moon debuts this week, and with it some nice opportunities for photographers to accent favorite scenes with a delicate crescent. This morning the diminishing vestiges of the waning moon rose in the east, a couple of hours before sunrise (did you see it?); tomorrow morning, what remains of the “old” moon will be too thin and close to the sun to be seen at all. Thursday night’s sky will be moonless, as the Earth/Moon/Sun alignment puts the moon’s dark side facing us. On Friday the (rejuvenated) moon reappears, this time in the evening twilight, a three percent crescent trailing the sun to the western horizon.
Because it frustrates me no end to see a graceful slice of moon suspended above the landscape when I’m on my way to somewhere else, I now put these lunar milestones in my calendar. When my schedule permits, I’ll schedule a trip around the sunrise or sunset crescent moon, but often I’ll just head up to the foothills east of town.
It helps to know that the more of the moon that’s illuminated, the farther in the sky from the sun it appears (a full moon is exactly opposite the sun, rising at sunset and setting at sunrise). A crescent moon is always in close proximity to the sun, hanging in the brightest part of the post-sunset/pre-sunrise sky, above a (relatively) dark landscape. A camera’s limited dynamic range makes it impossible to photograph a crescent moon against twilight color and landscape detail in a single frame. In these scenes, subtle subjects and fine detail are lost in the dark foreground. Instead, look for strong shapes to silhouette against the colorful twilight sky, or bodies of water that reflect the sky.
For my foothill forays I’ve identified a number of hilltop oaks that stand out against the sky. The best ones for a moon are those that are far enough from my vantage point to allow me to magnify the moon with a telephoto. But even without a telephoto, the moon holds so much “emotional weight” (I’ll need to write about that sometime) that even the tiniest sliver can carry a large portion of the frame.
The tree in the image at the top of this post stands on a ridge south of El Dorado Hills. I come here often, and have a variety of images from this spot that please me (one appeared on the cover of Sierra Heritage magazine a few years ago). When I arrived that evening I feared that the clouds would shut me out, but they turned out to be thin enough to let the moon shine through as the sky darkened. Just a couple of minutes later the thicker clouds rose to obscure the moon, but as they did the pink deepened to a rich crimson and I just kept shooting.
Learn more on my Crescent moon page.