Posted on September 1, 2019
It’s midnight and I’m right back where my day had started 21 hours earlier. Standing in the frigid dark beside Lake Wanaka, I feel equal parts energized and exhausted by the longest photography day of my life. And for the first time all day, I’m alone.
With the moon’s arrival still a couple of hours away, most of my attention is on aligning the Milky Way with the much photographed Wanaka willow tree. But photographing the Milky Way with the tree also put the glow of the Wanaka’s lights directly in my field of view. As someone who always strives to photograph the natural world untouched by humans, this would have been a deal-breaker for the old me. But what the heck—the reflection is crisp, the light’s amber glow illuminating the fog is kind of pretty, and since I’m already out here….
Once I embrace the moment, I’m free to click and enjoy. For most of this night the fog ebbed and flowed in the distance, adding character to the scene without subtracting too many stars. I’m having a blast, city lights or not. But eventually the fog starts to take over, slowly expanding upward until it completely swallows most of the Milky Way. Bedtime….
But just as I decide to pack it in, the fog pulls back and the stars briefly rally. Much of the Milky Way is still obscured, but the sky in the west has opened and I quickly reposition, pointing my camera away from the fog, city, and Milky Way, and toward the dark, pristine sky. As my exposure begins, long, undulating ripples stir the lake surface that had been still all night, and I’m concerned that I’ll loose my reflection. Instead, the long exposure smooths the ripples and stretches the brightest stars into oblong balls of light.
With pretty much any mirrorless or DSLR camera, a sturdy tripod, fast lens, and just little knowledge, you can now capture landscapes beneath more stars than you ever imagined possible. A camera’s ability to accumulate light allows it to reveal stars far fainter than the naked eye sees; rapidly advancing digital SLR technology now enables usable (low noise) images at the extreme ISOs necessary for star-freezing shutter speeds in very low light.
I’m starting with the assumption that you have a relatively new mirrorless camera or digital SLR, one that allows you to capture fairly clean (low noise) images at 3200 ISO or higher. You’ll need to be fairly comfortable with managing the controls in the dark, and know how to get it into manual and bulb modes. For star trails a locking remote release is essential (one that allows you to lock down the shutter rather than forcing you to hold it down for the duration of the exposure).
And of course don’t even think about trying any of this without a rock-solid tripod (you don’t need to spend tons of money, but neither can you assume any tripod will work). A wide (28mm or wider on full frame is best), fast (at least f/2.8, but the faster the better) lens is best. Oh yeah, and take off your polarizer.
Moonlight photography is great for photographing landscapes beneath a few bright stars, but a sky filled with stars (and maybe even the Milky Way) can only happen when there’s no moon and city light washing out the faint stars.
When I go out on a moonless night, whether my goal is pinpoint stars, star trails, or both, I start with a test frame to determine the amount of light my planned image requires. The test frame also allows me to check my exposure, focus, level, and composition in light that’s nearly opaque to my eyes.
My initial test frame is usually no more than a 30-second, high ISO (the goal isn’t a usable image, it’s solely to determine exposure, focus, and composition) and my lens’s widest aperture. After each click I check my composition and focus, adjust, and reshoot. The first frame is mostly to gauge the light; subsequent frames refine both the exposure and composition. I’m usually ready to go after two or three test frames.
Once I have an exposure that works (the desired combination of stars and foreground light), I just need to decide which shutter speed will give me the star effect I want—short for pinpoint stars, long for star trails. With that, finding the ISO and/or f-stop that adds or subtracts the light subtracted or added by my chosen shutter speed is just simple math.
For example, let’s say my test exposure was perfect at ISO 12,800, f/2.8, and 30 seconds. A 30-minute star trail image will gather a lot more light (than my 30-second test exposure), so I start by figuring out how many stops 30 minutes adds to 15 seconds. Since I have to double ¼ minute (15 seconds) seven times to get to 32 minutes, I know going from 15 seconds to 32 minutes adds 7 stops of light. (2×1/4=1/2 minute -> 2×1/2=1 -> 2×1=2 -> 2×2=4 -> 2×4=8 -> 2×8=16 -> 2×16=32.)
A moonless night doesn’t have enough light to see the controls on your camera, the contents of your bag, and the tripod leg you’re about to kick. Needless to say, there’s not enough light to focus either, at least in the traditional ways.
Because we’re usually wide, and very rarely concerned about close detail, all of our night subjects are probably at least 25 feet away with an infinity focus point. Unfortunately, that old prime lens habit of twisting the focus ring to the end for infinity focus doesn’t work on a zoom lens—every focal length has a different focus point (I’ve found this to be true even for lenses labeled parfocal). While I’ve simplified my night photography by usually going with my Sony 24mm f/ 1.4 GM lens, when I do use a zoom (usually my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM), I almost always use it at its widest focal length. Not only does a wide lens maximize the amount of sky in my frame, the extra depth of field increases my range of focus tolerance. And sticking with a single focal length reduces the times I need to mess with focus—once I get it sharp, I’m done with the focus hassle.
Despite the hardships, there are a number of methods for focusing at infinity in the dark. Here they are in my order of preference:
1. Autofocus on a bright planet or star. Some camera/lens combinations have excellent autofocus (the faster the lens, the better). I always start by picking out the brightest planet/star. Venus is great, but it won’t be up during the darkest hours of the night. Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars can work, as can Sirius and maybe a few other bright stars. Regardless, you don’t need to know what you’re pointing at—find something bright in the sky, center it in your viewfinder, and try to autofocus. (Any bright, distant object will do—headlights, a plane overhead, whatever.) Don’t forget to take your lens out of autofocus as soon as it’s focused.
2. Live-view focus on a bright planet or star. With my camera on my tripod I center the brightest object in the sky in my viewfinder and lock it in place. I go into live-view mode, center the star/planet in the LV magnification square, then magnify the view to the maximum (it’s 10x on my Canon), and manually focus. Since switching to Sony mirrorless, this is my preferred focus technique and I rarely try 1 or 3.
3. Autofocus on a nearby flashlight. When all else fails, I have somebody stand 50 feet or so away with a flashlight and autofocus on that. If I’m by myself, I rest the flashlight on a rock (or whatever) and walk (stumble?, grope?) 50 feet away. Believe it or not, if I focus my 24mm f/1.4 lens (for example), on a point 50 feet away, I’ll be sharp from about 25 feet to infinity, so you should be fine too unless your lens is significantly longer (which I don’t recommend for night photography) or faster (lucky you). Don’t forget to take your lens out of autofocus as soon as it’s focused.
Don’t forget!: Because there’s no fixed infinity on a zoom lens, if you change your focal length, you must refocus. And no matter what method you choose to focus, you must check the sharpness on the LCD before assuming it’s sharp (once you’ve verified sharpness, you don’t need to refocus or check sharpness again until you change your focal length).
Because I love stars, and it’s the stars that really set a night image apart, most of my night images are at least 2/3 sky. The foreground is usually more of a placeholder, an excuse to dazzle you with the celestial ceiling. But that does not mean the foreground doesn’t matter. Quite the contrary, because the sky is a relative constant, the foreground is the difference between another pretty picture and something that pulls people to a print from across the room.
It’s not necessary, but when possible I always try to include something recognizable, such as the Milky Way (my favorite), or a recognizable constellation like the Big Dipper, Orion, or Cassiopeia. This is especially nice in pinpoint star images. If you don’t know the night sky, spend a little time familiarizing yourself with the major constellations—there are many, many smartphone apps to help with this.
Most people’s vision subconsciously runs along the long edge of an image. Since the primary feature or a night image is the sky, most of my night images are oriented vertically. Regardless of my orientation preference for a particular night shoot, I always make sure I have at least one vertical and horizontally oriented image.
I’m constantly on the lookout for a striking foreground to feature beneath a starry sky. Bold objects without a lot of intricate detail work well, such as a prominent or mountain. Reflective subjects, like water, granite, and sand, work well too.
In Yosemite I like Half Dome for the way it stands out against the sky. For years I struggled getting enough light into the dark hole of the Grand Canyon at night, but today’s digital sensors and fast lenses have changed that. had better luck with Grand Canyon my star trail images because the long shutter time allows enough light at a very clean ISO. My current favorite location for night photography is New Zealand, which I always visit in June (winter). The skies are dark and clear, the nights are long (the Milky Way is up all night in June), and the foregrounds are off the charts
Successful star photography is all about managing star motion—either minimizing their motion or maximizing it. Unfortunately there’s an inverse relationship between the number of stars you capture and your ability to freeze their motion—for any given ISO and f-stop, the longer your shutter is open, the more stars you’ll expose, but the more they’ll move during your exposure.
Pinpoint star images require (relatively) fast shutter speeds to (more or less) freeze the stars’ motion; star trail images us long shutter speeds (either in one frame, or a series of blended frames), the longer the better, to maximize star motion. (Of course it’s not the stars’ motion we’re capturing, it’s Earth’s rotation against a fixed backdrop of stars, but you already knew that.)
Some nights I shoot both pinpoint stars and star trails; other nights I only photograph pinpoint stars. Because a pinpoint star exposure is usually only 15 to 30 seconds, even after I’ve completed my test exposures, they’re the best way to make sure I have everything right before moving on to the quite lengthy star trail exposures.
I’ve seen a formula floating around that’s supposed to ensure pinpoint stars. It’s called the “Rule of 600” (or 500) and says: “Divide 600 by your focal length to ensure a shutter speed that will freeze the stars.” My concern with solutions like this is that they sound far more precise than they are, and they create a false sense of security, often leading to longer or shorter exposures than the scene calls for.
The problem is, the amount of motion is a function of (among other things) a star’s distance from the axis of rotation. For example the North Star, which is less than a degree from Earth’s north axis, will show very little motion in exposures of many minutes or even hours; Betelgeuse, on the other hand, because it’s near the celestial equator will show a significant amount of motion in just a few minutes. For pinpoint stars I think it’s more important to find an exposure that delivers enough light with the least amount of noise.
My biggest problem with exposure speed rules like this is that they can create a worse problem than they correct. Night photography is all about compromise—less than ideal aperture, ISO, and shutter speeds. To me the most unrecoverable compromise, the thing that will render an image unusable more than anything, is too much noise. I generally will forgive the slight amount of star motion of a 30-second exposure (that’s not usually even visible at standard viewing distance) if it saves me from a too dark foreground or unsatisfactory ISO. I find that I’m satisfied with my results if I keep my shutter speeds to 30-seconds and below—the faster the lens, the more likely I am to drop my shutter speed into the 10-20 second range.
I currently (as of September 2019) shoot with a Sony a7SII and Sony 24mm f/1.4 GM lens. I know I can get usable images that clean up nicely with noise reduction software (DxO Prime and/or Topaz DeNoise is my choice) at 12800 ISO, which allows me to stop down to f/2.0 and/or use a 10-second shutter speed. ISO 12800 is higher than I’d use with most cameras, but it seems today’s full frame (and even some APS-C) sensors do fine at ISO 3200, which might require a 30-second shutter speed to get enough light for the foreground.
The Milky Way may just be the single most beautiful everyday feature of Earth’s night sky. Sadly, increased light pollution has made it all but unknown to the vast majority of us. Once upon a time observing the Milky Way’s glowing band stretching across the sky was for most people a matter of walking out and looking up on a dark, clear night; seeing it now usually requires planning and travel.
As most know, the Milky Way is the galaxy of which our Solar System is a very insignificant piece (the Sun is one star in nearly a half trillion). When you see the Milky Way, you’re looking toward our galaxy’s center and seeing the accumulated light of billions of stars. The dark areas you see aren’t areas without stars, they’re regions of interstellar dust so dense that it obscures all starlight (the occasional pinpoint of starlight in these dark regions are nearby stars between us and the galactic center).
Earth’s position in one of the Milky Way’s spiral arms is kind of like being in the distant suburbs of a large city. While all the discrete stars we view and imagine into constellations are the porch lights of our neighbors (technically they’re part of the Milky Way too, just as some cities have city limits that extend all the way out to the suburbs), when we view the Milky Way we’re looking beyond our neighborhood toward our galaxy’s distant, much more densely populated, urban skyline. Due to our Solar System’s skewed orientation (we don’t orbit the Sun on the same plane on which the Milky Way is laid out), parts of the Milky Way are visible regardless of the side of the Sun Earth is on.
The constellations the Milky Way “passes through” (from our perspective—in reality we’re looking through these constellations to the Milky Way center beyond) include Perseus, Cassiopeia, Lacerta, Cygnus, Aquila, Sagittarius, Ophiuchus and Scorpius, Norma, Circinus, Crux, and Carina. If you want to see it, simply pick one of these constellations, figure out when and where it will be visible (an star chart or app will do), pick a clear, moonless night, and position yourself a location
far from city lights. For example, in the Northern Hemisphere Cassiopeia is visible year-round more or less opposite the Big Dipper with Polaris (the North Star) in the center—you might be able to go out tonight to see it (assuming there’s no moon and you can get away from city lights).
But the Milky Way isn’t particularly bright in Cassiopeia—for most photographers (or anyone else who appreciates beauty) it’s the Milky Way center we’re looking for. For that Northern Hemisphere viewers need to look to the southern sky, toward Sagittarius, the constellation that aligns most closely with the Milky Way’s dense (most brilliant) center. And since the Sun is in or near Sagittarius (when we look in the direction of Sagittarius, we’re also looking toward the sun) in winter, we need to wait until Earth has circled around to the other side of the sun—summer.
In other words, viewing (and photographing) the Milky Way’s bright center is a summer (-ish—late spring and early fall will work too) activity. Get out your star chart/app and find a summer night when the moon is below the horizon while Sagittarius is above it (the closer to a new moon, the better your odds). Then get yourself as far from city lights as you can (mountains or desert are great), look to the south, and prepare to be awestruck. Stand there and appreciate the view for a while—when you’re ready to photograph, follow the instructions for pinpoint stars above.
Many people enjoy great success photographing star trails by combining many consecutive, relatively short exposures. In general this approach reduces noise and results in a cleaner image. But since all my images are captured in a single frame (I’m a film shooter with a digital camera), you’ll need to look elsewhere for guidance on that method.
My star trail images are usually 20-30 minute exposures, which I find to be more than adequate to achieve the motion effect I’m looking for. Start with pinpoint star frames and stick with those shots until you’re happy with your composition, exposure, and focus. When you’re ready for star trails, without changing your composition, focal length, or focus:
Before I start, let me just say that there are just about as many processing approaches as there are photographers. And there are far fewer absolute right/wrong ways to do things than you might read/hear/see. So what I’ll tell you here is the way I process a night image, rather than the way to process night image. If you already have a workflow you like, or if somebody else tells you a way you like better mine, go for it.
I wouldn’t even consider photographing night scenes in anything but raw. Not only do jpeg captures reduce your margin for error, a jpeg capture makes processing decisions that are difficult to impossible to reverse.
Posted on July 7, 2019
After one of the most exhausting, exhilarating, and just plain productive photography days of my life, our van rolled into Wanaka a little before midnight and everyone’s thoughts, including my own, were on sleep. But the stars were out and the moon was not (yet), and I knew it would be at least a year before I’d get another chance like this. With a warm bed and blissful sleep beckoning, was I really going to go back out to the lake in the frigid dark for the second time that day? You betcha.
Just what could inspire such craziness? Driven by more than a nice photo opportunity, I’d been infused with the infectious energy of a dozen young, Sony-sponsored social media influencers: the Sony Alpha Imaging Collective (AIC). (It would be doing them a disservice to label them mere photographers.) After spending months arranging this trip on Sony’s behalf, my ostensible role for its execution was as a guide and mentor. But the aggressive creativity of these visual artists was an inspiration to this conventional photographer’s vintage muse, and I can’t imagine that I was able to offer them nearly as much as they gave me.
So, with the Health app on my iPhone reporting that I’d already logged 9 miles and climbed the equivalent of 58 flights of stairs, I found myself standing alone, in icy lake water, photographing something I’d vowed I’d never photograph. So how did I get here?
3:00 a.m.: Note to self
When my alarm went off at 3 a.m. that morning, I’d staggered from bed without high expectations. This wasn’t the first time I’d tried rising photograph the Milky Way above the lone willow in Lake Wanaka, but I’d always been thwarted by fog. This morning, instead of another foggy reprieve and a few more hours of welcome sleep, the stars were out.
Despite a 48% waning gibbous moon, the Milky Way was clearly visible and I photographed for about an hour with three or four others from the AIC group. Having never photographed the Milky Way here, I made mental notes for how it could be better the next time. First, the galactic center was a little left of the tree and quite high. And the moon, while adding light to the foreground, washed out the sky a little too much.
Note to self: Next time, come earlier and make sure the moon isn’t up.
11:00 a.m.: Stop the van!
The three hour drive from Wanaka to Aoraki / Mt. Cook National Park had been slowed by a detour, a couple of unplanned stops, and now dense fog. With at least an hour’s drive and a full photography schedule ahead head of us, we couldn’t really afford to stop. But… Oh. My. God. Look at those trees, glazed with hoarfrost and shrouded with fog… The visibility was so limited, by the time the scene popped out of the fog we were past them, but when a simultaneous command issued from every seat, “Stop the van!”, stop we did. (It didn’t hurt that our driver was a photographer too.)
Doubling back, we poked along the shoulder until we found a narrow, unpaved road on which to park, then sprinted toward the trees—which turned out to line a small lake. Wow. The next hour was some of the most magical photography I’ve ever experienced. When the fog started to thin, the sun broke through, framing the trees with a shimmering fogbow that I just had time to capture.
5:30 p.m.: I can’t believe I’ve never been here
After a beautiful hike to Kea Point (where I opened my bag and realized I’d left my camera in the van—oops, don’t tell anyone), we wrapped our daylight hours with a sunset shoot at Tasman Lake. Normally I scale the 335 steps to the vista overlooking the lake, but it didn’t take much urging to get me to join the group who took the longer but less steep hike to the foot of the lake, where I’d never been.
Getting to the lake from the end of the trail was a short boulder-hopping scramble down a steep hillside, but once I made it down I couldn’t believe I’d never been here. Icebergs, large and small, mingled with the reflection of snowcapped peaks in the clear, turquoise water. We didn’t have clouds to provide an electric sunset, but New Zealand’s impossibly pristine air delivered something I found even more beautiful, the deep magenta of the Belt of Venus.
7:00 p.m.: You’re gonna need a bigger lens
From the very first time my eyes feasted on it, I marveled at what a spectacular spot the vista above Tasman Lake would be for Milky Way photography. I was especially pleased to be guiding an entire group of photographers who were as excited about photographing the Milky Way as I was, so this shoot was the plan since before the workshop started. But as the sky darkened, I was still down at the foot of the lake (just off the screen on the far right) where I’d photographed sunset. Most of the group wanted to stay there for the Milky Way shoot, and while I had to admit that spot would be no less spectacular, I just had to check the higher view off my list. Plus, I knew the Milky Way would align better with the peaks up here. So I scrambled back up the boulders and made the roughly two kilometer walk up here in virtual darkness to make it happen.
I thought a couple others in the group would already be up here, but I arrived to find the view empty. While I was happy to eventually be joined by a couple of others, the solitude I enjoyed for the first 30 minutes I was up here was downright spiritual. Going with my dedicated night camera, the Sony a7SII, I started with my default night lens, the amazing Sony 24mm f/1.4. But the scene was so expansive that I soon switched to my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM for a wider view. That did the job for a while, but when I found myself wanting an even bigger view, I reached for my Sony 12-24 f/4 G lens. F/4 is a little slow for night photography, but the a7SII can handle 10,000 ISO without any problem, and at 12mm the star motion of a 30-second exposure isn’t too bad. It didn’t hurt that the best parts of the scene, the snow and water, were highly reflective, and the dark rock wasn’t really essential to the scene.
12:00 Midnight: Completing the Circle
I’d spent the week sharing my favorite New Zealand South Island sights with the Sony AIC crew. With lots of night photography and driving, each day had been long, but this one took the record. I’d started 21 hours earlier and had been a non-stop blur of driving to the beat of music I’d never heard (Bubble Butt?), hiking to and through breathtaking scenery both old and new, and taking pictures, lots and lots of pictures.
Despite all this, no one got tired. It would have been easy to attribute this group’s boundless energy to youth, but the more I watched them work this week, the more I realized their carpe diem passion for experiencing and expressing our world was the driving real force. While I lack some of the non-photography technical skills they employ so effortlessly (specifically video and the computer as an artistic tool), as soon as followed their lead and I allowed myself to stretch my own personal boundaries in other ways, I had no problem keeping up with the pace. (Though I did draw the line at the all-night processing parties.)
As I’d expected when I returned to the lake late that night, the sky was moonless and the Milky Way better aligned with the Wanaka Willow that anchors the scene. But photographing the Milky Way with the tree also put the glow of the Wanaka sky directly in my field of view. As someone who always strives to photograph the natural world untouched by humans, this would have been a deal-breaker for the old me. But what the heck—those lights are kind of pretty, and I’m already out here….
Once I embraced the moment, I was free to click and enjoy. And enjoy I did. For the entire time I was out here, I was completely alone (though a couple of others in the group did come out to shoot shortly after I left). The fog was barely visible in the distance when I arrived, but while I was there I got to watch it ebb and flow like the tide, dropping down to lake level, expanding upward until at times it nearly obscured the sky completely. Benefiting from the extra light my camera could capture (beyond what I saw), what appeared to my eyes as a faint amber hue in the clouds registered on my LCD as a vivid gold even more brilliant than what you see in this image (I toned it down slightly simply for credibility).
And when the bank of fog receded at one point to expose most of the southern hemisphere stars, I pointed my camera away from city lights, toward the darkest sky. Just as my new composition and exposure were ready, a rogue patch of fog wafted up, providing the ideal background for the tree. As if in collaboration with the fog, the lake chose that instant to smooth its ripples and dial up the reflection.
After this night I can’t say that cityscapes are going to become a regular part of my repertoire, but for one night it was liberating discard my shackles and roll with the scene—and I’ll be much less hesitant to do it the next time. But more than the images, it was simply a joy being out there to watch the fog dance with the stars.
Posted on June 30, 2019
I just returned from New Zealand, that remarkable upside-down world where water is clear, summer is winter, and today is yesterday (or maybe it’s the other way around). I’ve been visiting there for a few years, ostensibly to lead photo workshops, but at least as much for my own joy. Each visit focuses on the same region of the South Island, all within 100 kilometers of Queenstown, the area that Don Smith and I determined would give us the most bang for our (and our customers’) photography bucks.
New Zealand’s South Island is a land of rain forests and glaciers, where snow-capped peaks reflect in water clear enough to drink from. Lake Wakatipu is one of these lakes, narrow and S-shaped, with about the same surface area as Lake Tahoe. Wakatipu’s north and east sides are skirted by a road; the south and west sides are accessible only by boat or off-road vehicle.
This image is from the final shoot of this year’s first workshop, just before the fleeting vestiges of a spectacular sunrise disappeared above Lake Wakatipu. I have lots of pictures with more dramatic color, but as I scanned through my thumbnails in Lightroom, the serenity of this one stopped me.
While this scene is from Bob’s Cove, about a 15-minute drive west of Queenstown on the Glenorchy Road, it could be pretty much anywhere along Lake Wakatipu—or for that matter, from any of the dozens of other large and glacial lakes decorating the South Island. For this one I stood in a few inches of water and dropped to just a couple of feet above lake level. With my eye on the viewfinder, I dialed my polarizer just enough to reveal the nearby submerged lakebed without erasing the reflection of the distant peaks.
Here is a (partial) list of favorite New Zealand features in alphabetical order, plus a brief description of each.
Click an image for a closer look and to view a slide show.
Posted on June 23, 2019
Several people in this month’s New Zealand workshop had stated pretty emphatically that the Milky Way was a prime reason for attending—one guy even said his wife had told him not to come home without a Milky Way picture (we think she was joking). So no pressure. I reassured everyone in the orientation that I had multiple Milky Way shoots planned, but as the workshop’s nights ticked off, each Milky Way plan was doused—first by clouds, later by moonlight. And with the moon brightening and closer in the sky to the Milky Way each night, the we’d about run out of time.
I’d known all along that a waxing moon meant that our best Milky Way chances would come in the first half of the workshop. And I’d decided long before the workshop started that our final night would be especially problematic for the Milky Way not just because of the moon, but because of our location. But desperate times call for desperate measures, so with just a couple of days to go, I decided to recheck my calculations for about the millionth time (maybe a slight exaggeration, but you get the point). The two nights in Twizel were out of the question—the moon would be pretty much in the Milky Way. But our last night, in Queenstown…. Hmmm, maybe, just maybe, we’d have a 30-45 minute window between sunset and moonrise when the sky might be dark enough for the Milky Way to shine.
But the moon wasn’t the only obstacle. The forecast called for “high clouds,” a frustratingly vague forecast. And even if the sky darkened enough and the clouds cleared, we were in Queenstown, where I’d long ago decided that city lights and the orientation of Lake Wakatipu made finding Milky Way vantage point with a dark enough sky (no light pollution) and a nice enough foreground (lake and mountains) impossible. The moonlight and clouds risk were irrelevant if I couldn’t find a Milky Way location. But I had to give it a shot. Zooming in on the map, my eyes landed on one small tiny of lakeshore with enough of a twist that might work, though I’d never photographed there or even considered its Milky Way potential. But that was enough for me to circle the date and location and tell the group that we were going to give the Milky Way one more shot. All that was left to do was monitor the forecast and wait.
Wanting to be certain (and to avoid hunting blindly in the dark), on the way to our final sunset shoot I asked the driver to swing by my potential spot. I was relieved to confirm that the angle was good, and that there was an open, easily accessible stretch of beach. Yay. Down the road at our sunset location I just watched the clouds and hoped. The sky seemed clear enough there, but looked a little less promising back in the direction of my Milky Way location.
Arriving in twilight I hopped out of the van and checked the twilight sky—In addition to the promised high clouds, an accumulation of thicker clouds sat on the horizon more or less where the brightest part of the galactic center would be. And there were indeed a few high clouds, but Jupiter’s appearance was a relief because I knew Jupiter was on the leading edge of the Milky Way that night. Waiting for darkness, I prepared the group and just tried to stay positive. Every few minutes I’d return to my camera and fire a test frame to see if the sky was dark enough and look for any hint of moonlight.
You can’t imagine my excitement the first time my LCD displayed the faint glow of the Milky Way angling above 6000 foot Cecil Peak—we were in business. As the sky darkened, the Milky Way unfurled overhead in all its Southern Hemisphere glory, flanked by Jupiter and thousands of other stars in completely unfamiliar arrangements.
I started with my dedicated night photography setup, my Sony a7SII body and Sony 24 f/1.4 GM lens, trying a variety of horizontal and vertical compositions. After about 15 minutes I switched to my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM, sacrificing two stops of light for a wider field of view (more Milky Way). I liked the extra sky and stuck with that lens for the rest of the shoot.
After about 30 minutes of happy shooting we started to detect a brightening that signaled the moon’s approach behind The Remarkables (my hands-down favorite mountain range name). But rather than being a show stopper, the moonlight added a diaphanous sheen to the previously dark clouds and we kept going. As we wound down, the entire group was giddy with excitement, and I was giddy with relief. Just as we were started to pack up, I detected the faint reflection of Cecil Peak on the lake’s surface and adjusted my composition to include it.
To say that this night exceeded my expectations would be an understatement. In fact, my expectations almost dashed the entire shoot. It was a good a reminder not to get too locked in to preconceived notions. Had I stuck with my original belief that our final night in Queenstown wouldn’t work, I’d never have found a great Milky Way location—and one of the best shoots of an already great workshop would never have happened.
Click an image for a closer look and to view a slide show.
Posted on June 16, 2019
What a crazy life this is. Last month I was rafting the Grand Canyon in short pants and flip-flops, this month I’m bouncing around the New Zealand countryside in my warmest wool and down. Between timezone shock and temperature whiplash, my body isn’t quite sure whether it’s coming or going, but the relentless beauty down here seems to transcend all that difficulty enough to keep me going.
Mirror Lakes is a must-stop on the road to Milford Sound in Fiordland National Park. It’s a popular stop even in mid-winter, but with the help of our New Zealand-based driver, Don Smith and I have figured out how to thread the needle between the tour buses originating in nearby Te Anau, and the tour buses originating in distant Queenstown, and still make it just before the morning sun reaches the water and washes out the reflection.
When our van pulled up here on Friday morning, I was surprised to see a large tour bus right out front, but Steve (our driver) said don’t worry, they’ll be loading up any second—sure enough, within five minutes we had this gorgeous view to ourselves with at least 45 minutes of shade remaining on the water. As pretty as the scene is, limited views through the surrounding foliage make it a little tricky to photograph, so I’m usually content to stand back and let the group work with the prime photography real estate. But on this morning chilly morning last week, I found the clouds and reflection so irresistible that I went looking for a way to photograph the scene without getting in anyone’s way.
I soon found myself over in one the far corner of the most popular railed viewing deck, a zone where the patient (and not-so-patient) wait behind thick overhanging branches for better views to open up. My first thought as I eyed the scene was how cool the branches look—too bad they block the view. But then I realized that by lowering my camera almost all the way to the deck, I could completely eliminate the most dense set of branches at the very top of the frame, and use the lower branches as diagonal compositional elements—without blocking the snowy peaks, or their reflection.
The problem with this idea was that I needed my camera to be on the other side of the deck’s protective railing, and the vertical bars in the railing were too closely spaced to fit my lens through. But just for laughs I pulled the lens out anyway and tested its width against the bars. Sure enough, every opening was too narrow—well, every opening except one. For some reason, the gap separating one, and only one, pair of bars was about an inch wider than all the others, making a gap just wide enough to slip my lens through.
The technical part of the scene was pretty straightforward, though potentially quite awkward with my camera about eight inches off the ground (it’s not the getting down to ground level that’s a problem, it’s the getting up). These are the very situations where I’ve grown to love the articulating LCD on my Sony a7RIII. In this case I was able to compose, level, focus, and meter from the (relative) comfort of my knees.
After centering Mt. Eglinton, I focused on the branches knowing that at f/16 and 18mm, I’d be sharp all the way to infinity. The dynamic range was pretty extreme, but my histogram told me that it was workable if I was careful. With all that out of the way, the biggest problem remaining was the ducks that insisted on swimming through the reflection—fortunately, I’m nothing if not patient (stubborn), and was able to out-wait them long enough to click this frame.
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Posted on May 12, 2019
I returned Friday from my annual Grand Canyon Raft Trip for Photographers and am playing catch-up on all aspects of my photography life. I’ve barely looked at the my raft trip images, but chose this one for a couple of reasons: first, because I think it perfectly conveys the intimate serenity that always catches me by surprise in this landscape known mostly for it’s broad vistas; and second, because it’s the only image I’ve processed so far.
This is Blacktail Canyon, one of hundreds (thousands?) of narrow slot canyons cutting into the Grand Canyon’s towering walls. Most of them we just float past, sometimes because of the physical challenges required to explore their depths, but usually because there just isn’t time to stop at every slot canyon. On my trips we pick our slots for their photo opportunities, and this year Blacktail Canyon was a particular highlight.
With tall, tightly spaced walls, Blacktail Canyon spends most of its daylight hours in full shade, ideal for photography on sunny days. It doesn’t always have water, but this year’s wet winter meant water in lots of places that don’t always get it. We found the little creek that splits the canyon carrying just enough water to create a series of reflective pools before disappearing into the stream bed, only to reappear farther downstream.
What first drew my eye to this scene was a tiny sapling sprouting from an overhanging ledge, but I soon realized that the tree would best serve me as a visuall element to hold the top of my frame rather than the primary subject. The most interesting thing, I decided, was the blue sky reflection like a jewel embedded in the creek bed.
To create this composition, I dropped my tripod to about a foot above the canyon floor and positioned myself so the lines connecting my primary focal points (the sky reflection, the pair of boulders, and the green tree) created a triangle. Fitting all this into the frame required a vertical orientation of my Sony a7RIII, using virtually the entire width of my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 G lens. Even at this wide focal length, the smooth pebbles at my feet were only about a foot away; getting both the nearby pebbles and glowing (from bounced sunlight) sandstone above the tree sharp, meant choosing my exposure settings and focus point very carefully. My hyperfocal app told me that at f/16, by focusing two feet away, I could achieve my sharpness goal. Watching the rapidly changing sky, I timed my click for the best blend of clouds and sky filling the reflection.
What’s the point?
It seems like one of photography’s great mysteries is achieving proper focus: the camera settings, where to place the focus point, even the definition of sharpness are all sources of confusion. If you’re a tourist just grabbing snapshots, everything in your frame is likely at infinity and you can just put your camera in full auto mode and click away. But if you’re a photographic artist trying to capture something unique with your mirrorless or DSLR camera and doing your best to have important visual elements objects at different distances throughout your frame, you need to stop letting your camera decide your focus point and exposure settings.
Of course the first creative focus decision is whether you even want the entire frame sharp. While some of my favorite images use selective focus to emphasize one element and blur the rest of the scene, most (but not all) of what I’ll say here is about using hyperfocal techniques to maximize depth of field (DOF). I cover creative selective focus in much greater detail in another Photo Tip article: Creative Selective Focus.
Beware the “expert”
I’m afraid that there’s some bad, albeit well-intended, advice out there that yields just enough success to deceive people into thinking they’ve got focus nailed, a misperception that often doesn’t manifest until an important shot is lost. I’m referring to the myth that you should focus 1/3 of the way into the scene, or 1/3 of the way into the frame (two very different things, each with its own set of problems).
For beginners, or photographers whose scene doesn’t include subjects from near to far, the 1/3 technique may be a useful rule of thumb. But taking the 1/3 approach to focus requires that you understand DOF and the art of focusing well enough to know when 1/3 won’t work, and how to adjust your focus point and settings. And once you achieve that level of understanding, you may as well do it the right way from the start. Focus control becomes especially important in those scenes where missing the focus point by just a few feet or even inches can make or break and image.
Back to the basics
Understanding a few basic focus truths will help you make focus decisions:
Depth of field discussions are complicated by the fact that “sharp” is a moving target that varies with display size and viewing distance. But it’s safe to say that all things equal, the larger your ultimate output and closer the intended viewing distance, the more detail your original capture should contain.
To capture detail a lens focuses light on the sensor’s photosites. Remember using a magnifying glass to focus sunlight and ignite a leaf when you were a kid? The smaller (more concentrated) the point of sunlight, the sooner the smoke appeared. In a camera, the finer (smaller) a lens focuses light on each photosite, the more detail the image will contain at that location. So when we focus we’re trying to make the light striking each photosite as concentrated as possible.
In photography we call that small circle of light your lens makes for each photosite its “circle of confusion.” The larger the CoC, the less concentrated the light and the more blurred the image will appear. Of course if the CoC is too small to be seen as soft, either because the print is too small or the viewer is too far away, it really doesn’t matter. In other words, areas of an image with a large CoC (relatively soft) can still appear sharp if small enough or viewed from far enough away. That’s why sharpness can never be an absolute term, and we talk instead about acceptable sharpness that’s based on print size and viewing distance. It’s actually possible for the same image to be sharp for one use, but too soft for another.
So how much detail do you need? The threshold for acceptable sharpness is pretty low for an image that just ends up on an iPhone or an 8×10 calendar on the kitchen wall, but if you want that image to fill the wall above the sofa, acceptable sharpness requires much more detail. And as your print size increases (and/or viewing distance decreases), the CoC that delivers acceptable sharpness shrinks correspondingly.
Many factors determine the a camera’s ability to record detail. Sensor resolution of course—the more resolution your sensor has, the more important it becomes that to have a lens that can take advantage of that extra resolution. And the more detail you want to capture with that high resolution sensor and tack-sharp lens, the more important your depth of field and focus point decisions become.
The foundation of a sound approach to maximizing sharpness for a given viewing distance and image size is hyperfocal focusing, an approach that uses viewing distance, f-stop, focal length, and focus point to ensure acceptable sharpness.
The hyperfocal point is the focus point that provides the maximum depth of field for a given combination of sensor size, f/stop, and focal length. Another way to express it is that the hyperfocal point is the closest you can focus and still be acceptably sharp to infinity. When focused at the hyperfocal point, your scene will be acceptably sharp from halfway between your lens and focus point all the way to infinity. For example, if the hyperfocal point for your sensor (full frame, APS-C, 4/3, or whatever), focal length, and f-stop combinition is twelve feet away, focusing there will give you acceptable sharpness from six feet (half of twelve) to infinity—focusing closer will soften the distant scene; focusing farther will keep you sharp to infinity but extend the area of foreground softness.
Because the hyperfocal variable (sensor size, focal length, f-stop) combinations are too numerous to memorize, we usually refer to an external aid. That used to be awkward printed tables with long columns and rows displayed in microscopic print, the more precise the data, the smaller the print. Fortunately, those have been replaced by smartphone apps with more precise information in a much more accessible and readable form. We plug in all the variables and out pops the hyperfocal point distance and other useful information
It usually goes something like this:
You’re not as sharp as you think
Since people’s eyes start to glaze over when CoC comes up, they tend to use the default returned by the smartphone app. But just because the app tells you you’ve nailed focus, don’t assume that your work is done. An often overlooked aspect of hyperfocal focusing is that app makes assumptions that aren’t necessarily right, and in fact are probably wrong.
The CoC your app uses to determine acceptable sharpness is a function of sensor size, display size, and viewing distance. But most app’s hyperfocal tables assume that you’re creating an 8×10 print that will be viewed from a foot away—maybe valid 40 years ago, but not in this day of mega-prints. The result is a CoC three times larger than the eye’s ability to resolve.
That doesn’t invalidate hyperfocal focusing, but if you use published hyperfocal data from an app or table, your images’ DOF might not be as ideal as you think it is for your use. If you can’t specify a smaller CoC in your app, I suggest that you stop-down a stop or so more than the app/table indicates. On the other hand, stopping down to increase sharpness is an effort of diminishing returns, because diffraction increases as the aperture shrinks and eventually will soften the entire image—I try not to go more than a stop smaller than my data suggests.
Keeping it simple
As helpful as a hyperfocal app can be, whipping out a smartphone for instant in-the-field access to data is not really conducive to the creative process. I’m a big advocate of keeping photography as simple as possible, so while I’m a hyperfocal focus advocate in spirit, I don’t usually use hyperfocal data in the field. Instead I apply hyperfocal principles in the field whenever I think the margin of error gives me sufficient wiggle room.
Though I don’t often use the specific hyperfocal data in the field, I find it helps a lot to refer to hyperfocal tables when I’m sitting around with nothing to do. So if I find myself standing in line at the DMV, or sitting in a theater waiting for a movie (I’m a great date), I open my iPhone hyperfocal app and plug in random values just to get a sense of the DOF for a given f-stop and focal length combination. I may not remember the exact numbers later, but enough of the information sinks in that I accumulate a general sense of the hyperfocal DOF/camera-setting relationships.
Finally, something to do
Unless I think I have very little DOF margin for error in my composition, I rarely open my hyperfocal app in the field. Instead, once my composition is worked out and have determined the closest object I want sharp—the closest object with visual interest (shape, color, texture), regardless of whether it’s a primary subject.
Of course these distances are very subjective and will vary with your focal length and composition (not to mention the strength of your pitching arm), but you get the idea. If you find yourself in a small margin for error focus situation without a hyperfocal app (or you just don’t want to take the time to use one), the single most important thing to remember is to focus behind your closest subject. Because you always have sharpness in front of your focus point, focusing on the closest subject gives you unnecessary near sharpness at the expense of distant sharpness. By focusing a little behind your closest subject, you’re increasing the depth of your distant sharpness while (if you’re careful) keeping your foreground subject within the zone of sharpness in front of the focus point.
And finally, foreground softness, no matter how slight, is almost always a greater distraction than slight background softness. So, if it’s impossible to get all of your frame sharp, it’s usually best to ensure that the foreground is sharp.
Why not just automatically set the aperture to f/22 and be done with it? I thought you’d never ask. Without delving too far into the physics of light and optics, let’s just say that there’s a not so little light-bending problem called “diffraction” that robs your images of sharpness as your aperture shrinks—the smaller the aperture, the greater the diffraction. Then why not choose f/2.8 when everything’s at infinity? Because lenses tend to lose sharpness at their aperture extremes, and are generally sharper in their mid-range f-stops. So while diffraction and lens softness don’t sway me from choosing the f-stop that gives the DOF I want, I try to never choose an aperture bigger or smaller than I need.
Now that we’ve let the composition determine our f-stop, it’s (finally) time to actually choose the focus point. Believe it or not, with this foundation of understanding we just established, focus becomes pretty simple. Whenever possible, I try to have elements throughout my frame, often starting near my feet and extending far into the distance. When that’s the case I stop down focus on an object slightly behind my closest subject (the more distant my closest subject, the farther behind it I can focus).
When I’m not sure, or if I don’t think I can get the entire scene sharp, I err on the side of closer focus to ensure that the foreground is sharp. Sometimes before shooting I check my DOF with the DOF preview button, allowing time for my eye to adjust to the limited light. And when maximum DOF is essential and I know my margin for error is small, I don’t hesitate to refer to the DOF app on my iPhone.
A great thing about digital capture is the instant validation of the LCD—when I’m not sure, or when getting it perfect is absolutely essential, after capture I pop my image up on the LCD, magnify it to maximum, check the point or points that must be sharp, and adjust if necessary. Using this immediate feedback to make instant corrections really speeds the learning process.
Sometimes less is more
The depth of field you choose is your creative choice, and no law says you must maximize it. Use your camera’s limited depth of field to minimize or eliminate distractions, create a blur of background color, or simply to guide your viewer’s eye. Focusing on a near subject while letting the background go soft clearly communicates the primary subject while retaining enough background detail to establish context. And an extremely narrow depth of field can turn distant flowers or sky into a colorful canvas for your subject.
There’s no substitute for experience
No two photographers do everything exactly alike. Determining the DOF a composition requires, the f-stop and focal length that achieves the desired DOF, and where to place the point of maximum focus, are all part of the creative process that should never be left up to the camera. The sooner you grasp the underlying principles of DOF and focus, the sooner you’ll feel comfortable taking control and conveying your own unique vision.
About this image
Yosemite may not be New England, but it can still put on a pretty good fall color display. A few years ago I arrived at Valley View on the west side of Yosemite Valley just about the time the fall color was peaking. I found the Merced River filled with reflections of El Capitan and Cathedral Rocks, framed by an accumulation of recently fallen leaves still rich with vivid fall color.
To emphasize the colorful foreground, I dropped my tripod low and framed up a vertical composition. I knew my hyperfocal distance at 24mm and f/11 would be 5 or 6 feet, but with the scene ranging from the closest leaves at about 3 feet away out to El Capitan at infinity, I also knew I’d need to be careful with my focus choices. For a little more margin for error I stopped down to f/16, then focused on the nearest rocks which were a little less than 6 feet away. As I usually do when I don’t have a lot of focus wiggle room, I magnified the resulting image on my LCD and moved the view from the foreground to the background to verify front-to-back sharpness.
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Posted on March 24, 2019
I’ve been to Valley View in Yosemite about a million times. For those not familiar with Yosemite Valley, Valley View (sometimes called Gates of the Valley) is the classic view of El Capitan, Cathedral Rocks, and Bridalveil Fall, with the Merced River in the foreground, that represents Yosemite in countless calendars, postcards, and advertisements. Though all this attention is justified, after a million visits and counting (okay, so maybe I’m exaggerating just a little), you’d think it would be easy to take Valley View’s beauty for granted. But I don’t get tired of visiting here, not ever.
Like most spots in Yosemite, the scene at Valley View varies greatly with the season and weather. In spring, Bridalveil Fall explodes from beneath Cathedral Rocks, and the surrounding forest is dotted with blooming dogwood. In autumn, rocks dot the Merced River, and colorful leaves mingle with glassy reflections. And on still winter mornings, a low mist hugs Bridalveil Meadow just across the river, while churning clouds surrounding El Capitan after a storm are a sight to behold. Nevertheless, I’m often content to keep my camera in the bag and just privately appreciate Valley View’s majesty.
But I’m a photographer, and sometimes it’s hard to experience this beauty passively. On those visits when I’m moved to photograph Valley View, I challenge myself to find something that hasn’t been done a million times. The final morning of last week’s Yosemite Moonbow and Wildflowers photo workshop was gray and damp, with occasional sprinkles lingering from a heavier overnight rain. We’d been here earlier in the workshop (in different conditions), and I hadn’t planned to photograph this time, but spotting raindrops clinging to the branches of the shrubs that line the river, I recognized a unique opportunity.
If you know optics, you know that a convex shape bends outward (so water striking its surface would run off; water striking a concave surface would pool inside). Due to this curvature, photons passing through a convex lens are diverted toward the center, where they converge and cross to create an inverted image at the point of convergence (focal point).
In fact, the human eye is a convex lens, projecting its inverted image onto the back its sphere, an image your brain promptly reverses. And photographic lenses are a complex arrangement of convex lens elements that ultimately project onto your camera’s sensor an upside-down image that’s flipped for display by the camera’s firmware.
Compared to these two examples, a dangling raindrop is elegant simplicity. Bound by surface tension, water molecules naturally form a spherical shape that is flattened or stretched slightly by gravity. Because water molecules form an electrostatic bond with foreign surfaces as well, they also adhere to things like leaves and branches, sometimes appearing to defy gravity. This small gift from nature turns a raindrop into a natural convex lens. Courtesy of this natural lens, those who peer closely into a water drop will see an inverted microcosm of the surrounding world, a view that changes with the viewing angle.
There’s potential beauty inside every water drop, but on this morning at Valley View I was in the fortuitous position to photograph raindrops holding one of the most beautiful scenes on Earth. I found a quintet of raindrops lining a branch that had nothing behind it but river. Tiptoeing close, I aligned myself and the raindrops with the Valley View scene and extended my tripod to branch level. I started with my Sony 90mm on my Sony a7RIII, adding extension tubes to get even closer. After working with this combination for a few minutes, I switched to my Sony 100-400 GM (still with extension tubes).
The image you see here is from the 100-400. Depth of field with such a close focus point is paper thin, so I stopped down to f/20 and bumped I my ISO to 3200 to ensure a shutter speed fast enough to minimize the risk of motion blur. To focus, I magnified the raindrop scene in my mirrorless viewfinder. Exposing to avoid blowing out the bright highlights in the (inverted) sky also darkened the river, creating the ideal background.