Posted on December 15, 2019
On Wednesday I wrote about featuring the sky in my images, and how my love for all things astronomical and meteorological reflects in my photography. On the other hand…
As much as I love photographing the moon, stars, rainbows, and lightning to my images, there are many photo-worthy subjects right here on terra firma. And usually the best way to feature them is to minimize or exclude the sky. Which is why many of my favorite images have little or no sky. To sky, or not to sky? That really comes down to playing the hand I’m dealt, and understanding that there’s no law that says you need to include the sky in your image.
One thing I won’t do is include a boring sky, a sky that’s nothing but a homogenous, horizon-to-horizon sheet of blue or gray. While everyone who’s not a vampire loves being outside on a sunny day, given a choice between photographing a sky that’s all blue or all gray, I actually prefer gray because clouds cast diffuse light that cuts contrast, creating a natural softbox that’s ideal for photographing pretty much anything in the landscape.
On the other hand, when there’s sunlight on the landscape, I either search for subjects in full shade, or try to find creative ways to use the sunlight.
One popular sunlight technique (some would argue too popular) is a sunstar. Not only can you create a sunstar when the sun is on the horizon, it can also be achieved by positioning yourself in the shade of any terrestrial object, such as a nearby tree or rock, and letting the sun move into your frame.
The smaller your aperture, the sharper, more clearly defined the sunstar will be. I recommend f/16 or smaller, and usually go with f/18 or f/20. Sunstar quality also varies from lens to lens, with higher quality wide lenses generally delivering the best results.
Another sunlight solution is overexposing a large part of the frame to create a high-key image with darker subjects that standout against washed out or completely white surroundings. For these images, I usually look for something backlit, such as a flower or leaves, and position myself so the leaf or flower is against the bright sky. I then meter on my darker, backlit subject and push the exposure until the sky is severely or completely overexposed, creating a brilliant canvas for my subject.
When I find myself in a forested area with dark shade punctuated with splashes of light, I often look for a primary subject in direct light, and juxtapose it against a darker background. Sometimes some of those splashes of light poke through, creating a jeweled effect in the background.
Searching for shade
As fun as it is to try to find ways to work the sun into my images, probably my favorite boring sky solution is to work on subjects in full shade. Everything is in the same light, making exposure easy, colors saturate, and providing the opportunity to feature any subject that catches my eye. While images that use direct sunlight can be quite dramatic, images in overcast or shade often have a more soothing feel.
I almost always wait until I can find water in shade or overcast before photographing it. Not only does shade subdue contrast, it gives me more flexibility to control the amount of motion blur in the water.
About this image
I returned Wednesday from my Yosemite Winter Moon photo workshop. While the moon received top billing in this workshop, there are a lot of reasons to love photographing Yosemite in winter. This week’s group hit most of them: snow (though none fell during the workshop), fog, beautiful clouds, and even enough water in Yosemite Falls to make it worth photographing.
Despite the great conditions, I had to make a few on-the-fly adjustments, as is often the case in Yosemite’s fickle winter. For example, when Tuesday’s forecast called for cloudy skies that threatened to wipe out the evening’s sunset moonrise plan, I decided to take advantage of the clouds to photograph scenes that are normally sunlit scenes (while secretly wishing for clear sky so the moon would come out).
When the clouds failed to materialize as promised, I adjusted my plans again and took the group to Valley View. With its riverside views and reflections of El Capitan, Cathedral Rocks, and Bridalveil Fall, Valley View is one of the most photographed scenes in Yosemite. Even better, in winter Valley View never gets sunlight, making a good spot for blue sky photography.
With El Capitan in full sun and the Merced River in shade, the El Cap reflection was spectacular, but I was drawn more to the low fog hovering in shady Bridalveil Meadow. While some of the group concentrated on the El Capitan view, I worked with a few just upstream from the parking lot, where the view of Bridalveil Fall was best—and the reflection wasn’t too shabby either.
I moved along the riverbank until I could juxtapose the diagonal tree trunk against Bridalveil Fall, and quickly settled on this composition because it completely excluded the very boring sky. The reflection became an essential element of this composition, especially for the way it forms the bottom half of V with the diagonal trunk.
Once I was satisfied with my composition, I played with a range of shutter speeds for a variety of water blur effects, both in the fall and in the bubbles drifting by atop the river. I also had to monitor the ebb and flow of the fog and time my exposures for when it was high enough to stand out, but not so high that it obscured the row of trees beneath the fall.
Posted on December 1, 2019
Among the many things I’m giving thanks for this Thanksgiving weekend is the return of rain and snow to California. Normally I’d have rearranged my schedule to be in Yosemite for the season’s first snow, but because family trumps photography, I had more important things to do. So Yosemite will just have to be beautiful without me.
As much as I love photographing Yosemite with fresh snow, spending quality time family this weekend was a no-brainer for me. I can’t say that foregoing a photo opportunity has always been so easy (and I’ve been blessed with a family that would have understood had I abandoned them for a day or two to chase the snow), but never let it be said that I’ve learned nothing from my photography career.
In general, being self-employed has time challenges that I’m still learning to manage, but I’m getting better. I do have to admit that sometimes the idea of a 9-5 job with weekends and paid vacations sounds mighty good (I realize I’m speaking in very general terms and don’t mean to offend anyone pinned a cubicle 12 hours per day just to pay the bills), but the bottom line is that I love the flexibility of having complete control of my schedule.
When I left the 9-5 world 15 years ago to pursue this crazy passion, the missing safety net was a great motivator—I was only as successful as the next art show (which I no longer do) or photo workshop. Weekends? Holidays? Irrelevant. And the closest thing I got to a vacation was when my wife and I would travel to a new location to scout for a new workshop.
But as the years go by (is it me, or is time moving faster?), I’ve come to appreciate the autonomy of self employment. I can look at my calendar, whether the day be tomorrow or two years from now, and if nothing’s there, I can do whatever I want. Of course that might mean cramming the things that need to be done into times when others might be watching Netflix from their recliner or body-surfing at the beach, but it’s 100 percent my choice and I love it.
I often tell people that photography must be a source of pleasure, but there’s a difference between happiness and pleasure, and I know now that what I really mean is that photography must make you happy. I probably would have gotten great pleasure from my images had I gone to Yosemite this Thanksgiving weekend, but I know in the long run I’m much happier for my choice to stay home.
A few words about this image
I’d love to give you a detailed description of the entire process that went into photographing this beautiful scene, but I have no specific memory of its capture. I took it at the beginning of a March visit to Yosemite, one of those semi-spontaneous up and back trips I do when the Yosemite forecast calls for snow. I can infer from my exposure settings (specifically, because I was at ISO 50 and f/16) that I was going for a little motion blur to smooth the ripples in the Merced River. But since my shutter speed was .6 seconds, I must have decided that adding a neutral density filter would have robbed the river of some of its texture. (Or maybe I was just too lazy to fish my ND from my bag.) I can also tell by looking at the clouds and the snow on the trees that the snow had just stopped, but not necessarily for good (this is confirmed by the images preceding this one on the card).
The real lesson in this image is the reminder that we all have a lot of unmined gems on our hard drives. I found this one a few weeks ago by employing an approach I often use when I have extra time between trips: picking a previously processed image taken in particularly nice conditions, and revisiting other images from that shoot.
When you make your living from photography, often (usually) the business part of it has to take priority over the photography part, and there just aren’t enough hours in the day for everything. In a perfect world I’d identify and process every single keeper the day after returning from a trip, but that’s simply not possible because of that whole time thing. So possible keepers slip through the cracks and languish on my hard drive(s). But that’s okay, because I never delete anything, and I get comfort from the knowledge that whenever I need a new image, I don’t need to run out with my camera and make one right now.
Not only is this retro photography exercise productive, it’s far more fun than it should be—kind of like finding money on the sidewalk (with none of the guilt about benefiting from someone else’s misfortune).
I still have a couple of spaces in next week’s Yosemite Winter Moon photo workshop
Click an image for a closer look and to view a slide show.
Posted on November 17, 2019
(Offered with apologies to the Rolling Stones)
I looked that night at the reflection
My focus app in my hand
I pondered my focus selection
About six feet from where I stand
You can’t always get what you want
You can’t always get what you want
You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometimes, you just might find
You get what you need
What we wanted was clouds; what we got was, well, the opposite of clouds.
Photographers love clouds for the soft light they spread across the landscape, and their potential to add color and drama to the sky. And if you’ve been following my recent blogs, you no doubt know about the wall-to-wall blue skies in last month’s Yosemite Fall Color workshop. But as much as we love them, perfect light and spectacular skies can make photographers lazy. On the other hand, dealing with conditions that are less than ideal can create opportunities that otherwise would have been missed.
Throughout last month’s workshop I strongly encouraged everyone to minimize or eliminate the sky and instead emphasize the reflection (rather than the reflected subject). This approach is especially effective on sunny days because the best reflections usually happen with the subject is fully lit, the brighter the better.
Besides a sunlit subject, the other half of the reflection equation is a shaded reflective surface. Long removed from the fury of the spring snow melt, but not yet bolstered by the winter storm reinforcements, the Merced River’s low and slow autumn flow means reflections at most riverside vantage points. And while Yosemite’s towering granite walls create nice shade in any season if you know where to look, the low sun of autumn and winter spreads the shade farther and longer—by late autumn, some sections of the Merced get little or no sun all day.
Since this was the first Yosemite visit for many in the group, at each photo location I’d suggest starting with the more conventional mirror reflection composition (the primary subject above its inverted counterpart), but then move on to compositions that concentrate on the reflection itself.
One important aspect of reflection-only compositions is (upright) foreground elements to orient the viewer—a solid object between the reflection and the reflective subject to signal that the world is in fact not upside down. Sometimes a small section of the opposite shore works (taking care to avoid direct sunlight that can pull the eye away from the reflection), but I especially like adding foreground elements that mingle with the reflection.
A side benefit of a reflection-only approach is exposure management, because photographing a fully lit primary subject above its shaded reflection creates dynamic range challenges. Even if you can capture the scene’s entire range of light, the sunlit subject and blue sky are often washed out, while the reflection and its surroundings remain relatively dark. Since the human eye is drawn to a scene’s brightest elements, the shaded reflection is easily overshadowed (pun unavoidable). Not only does eliminating the sunlit portion of the scene simplify exposure, it makes the reflection the brightest part of the frame.
I found this little scene beside the Merced River on the workshop’s final shoot. Arriving just as the face of Half Dome started to warm with late light, I scanned the riverbank until I found a pool lined with yellow cottonwood leaves jettisoned by trees just upstream. I started with my Sony 100-400 GM lens on my Sony a7RIV, targeting a tight composition that featured a pair of leaves (faintly visible here floating atop the dark trees reflected near the base of Half Dome) embedded in Half Dome’s face. But I wanted to include more of the colorful leaves and soon switched to my Sony 24-105 f/4 G lens.
This might be a good time to mention the significant difference an even slight position shift can make in a reflection image. From my original vantage point, Half Dome’s reflection was surrounded by a large void of bland, empty water. That was no problem in a tight composition, but from my original upright position, going wide enough to include all the leaves shrunk Half Dome and added a lot of extraneous scene. So I moved back slightly and dropped my camera to near river level, moving the yellow leaves closer to Half Dome, framing the reflection with color and eliminating most of the empty water.
Another essential and often overlooked consideration when photographing reflections is the counterintuitive truth that the focus point for a reflection is the reflective subject, not the reflective surface. That means that in this scene, even though its reflection was bobbing on water no more than ten feet away, because Half Dome was about three miles distant, the reflection’s focus point is infinity (the same as Half Dome). When you stop to consider that I’m also including leaves that are no more than five feet away, it becomes pretty clear that I have depth of field to consider.
My focal length here was around 35mm, and while I wanted Half Dome’s reflection sharp, the leaves had to be sharp. A quick check of my hyperfocal app told me the hyperfocal distance at 35mm and f/16 (the smallest aperture I use unless I have no choice) was around 8 feet (on my full frame Sony body). In extreme depth of field scenes, not only do I want to bias my sharpness to the closer object(s), when the more distant object is a reflection, a little softness is usually tolerable. Given all this, and since most hyperfocal tables are based on a fairly liberal definition of “acceptable sharpness,” to ensure foreground sharpness I focused about six feet into the frame. And as you can see, Half Dome turned out pretty darn sharp too.
Everyone wants spectacular conditions, and while this group may not have gotten what it wanted, after seeing the results of the workshop (both my own and the group’s), it appears that we got just we need.
Click an image for a closer look and to view a slide show.
Posted on November 3, 2019
Update, November 4
Since posting this image yesterday, I’ve gotten a few comments ranging from “Magnificent!” to “What is it?”. If you think it’s magnificent, thanks. For those scratching their head (I understand), it’s a reflection of El Capitan in the Merced River. This sheltered pool was covered with pine needles, with a collection of colorful leaves resting atop the floating pine needles. One problem with sharing this online is that it’s a 61 megapixel capture using my Sony a7RIV; with so much detail, it really needs to be seen on a screen bigger than your cell phone’s, the bigger the better. But of course I can only post so big online (in this case, 1200×800 pixels), and even that relatively low resolution is compromised by website (WordPress, Facebook, Instagram, and so on) compression, so I doubt that even on a computer screen you’ll see the detail as clearly as I can. And I realize in this day of eye-grabbing computer art, images like this don’t go viral, but this kind of photography makes me happy.
When I was a kid, I loved power outages. As an adult…, uh, not so much. And if you’ve been living under a rock, you may not have heard about the wildfires charring California’s hillsides and soiling our skies, and PG&E’s dubious strategy to mitigate decades of mismanagement by simply shutting off the power to millions of customers on days the fire risk is deemed extreme. I’m fortunate to live Sacramento, which doesn’t get its electricity from PG&E, which means these outages haven’t really been my problem. Until last week.
When I schedule a photo workshop, I do my best to time it for ideal photography conditions, but sadly, some things are beyond my control. In the 15 or so years I’ve been doing this, I’ve had workshops impacted by rain, snow, wind, fog, wildfires, rock slides, and a tropical storm. I can now add power outage to that list.
Last week’s Yosemite Fall Color workshop coincided with the latest round of wind-induced PG&E power outages. We started Monday, and I learned on Sunday that the power had been shut down in Yosemite and the surrounding area, with no estimate for its reactivation. I e-mailed the group an update Sunday evening, reassuring them that our hotel was open even without power, and that the workshop would go on, power or not. There was still no power in Yosemite when I left home early Monday morning, so all I could do was drive and hope for the best.
With no power at workshop start time, I jettisoned my normal orientation presentation and just winged the group introductions and preparation info in the semi-darkness of the hotel’s lounge area. With only one exception, the group’s attitude was wonderfully positive and up for a we’re-all-in-this-together experience (the exception bailed for home in the first ten minutes, which was probably for the best).
One thing you’re quickly reminded of in a hotel without power is that it’s not just darkness you’re dealing with—we also had no heat, no hot water, and no juice to recharge cameras, computers, and cell phones (and no WiFi!). Between flashlights, headlamps, and battery-powered lanterns, most everyone came armed with enough light to navigate their room in the dark. For emergency battery charging, I brought a couple of fully charged power bricks, and Curt, the photographer assisting me with this workshop, came with an industrial strength portable charger that could have illuminated Vegas for a week. The rooms didn’t seem to get too cold until close to bedtime, but extra blankets in every room fixed that. The biggest problem was the no hot water thing—on the first morning I managed to make myself sufficiently presentable with a sponge bath (applied with prayer for power and hot water by the time the next morning rolled around).
Meeting the group before sunrise Tuesday morning I braced for a mutiny, but everyone remained spectacularly upbeat. And because there was little reason to hang in the rooms without light or heat, I ended up replacing some of my standard mid-day break and training time with extra shooting. Even without power, Curt was able to do his sensor cleaning talk, and clean everyone’s sensor, which was a big hit. And with extra time for shooting, I decided to make the 75-minute one-way drive to Olmsted Point (where I haven’t taken a Yosemite group in years), for a sunset and Milky Way shoot.
Much to our delight, we returned from Olmsted Point on Tuesday night to find the hotel lit up like Christmas—lights, heat, and hot water, but alas, no internet for the rest of the week. We had survived about 30 hours without power (from the time the workshop started until our return from the Milky Way shoot) in remarkably good spirits, and in fact I think the whole experience drew the group even closer. The workshop’s final two days went off without a hitch, and by the end, people who were complete strangers at the start were making plans for post-workshop meals and more photography.
The lesson here, one that we already know but sometimes need to be reminded, is that our experience of the world is shaped more by our attitude than the world. We were in Yosemite for heaven’s sake, in one of the most beautiful times to be there, sharing the experience with a group of like-minded individuals. Doing 12-18 workshops a year for nearly 15 years, memories of the individual workshops tend to run together, but this is one I’ll definitely never forget!
About this image
Landscape photographers love clouds, both for the drama they add to the sky and for the way they soften harsh light. So besides the power thing, the other difficulty this workshop faced was no clouds. For four days: Not. One. Cloud. Fortunately, I’ve been photographing Yosemite long enough to know how to make it work without clouds, and the fall color was pretty great—not just on the trees, but also on the ground and in the water.
It also didn’t hurt that the reflections in the Merced River were off the charts (as they pretty much always are in autumn). Virtually every stop offered some reflection of Half Dome or El Capitan in the Merced. And we didn’t have to look to hard to find color to add to the reflections. Frequently it was in the trees lining the far riverbank, but I set my own sights on the yellow and red leaves floating on the near riverbank. With a little careful positioning, I was usually able to juxtapose the floating leaves with the reflection du jour.
On Tuesday morning we found our first nice El Capitan reflection near El Capitan Bridge. I walked along the riverbank until I found this bed of floating pine needles punctuated with an assortment of colorful leaves. I set up my tripod and positioned it so my camera framed the reflection with the most colorful leaves, placing El Capitan in an area with fewer pine needles (and more reflection). I used a polarizer darken the water, but not so much that I lost the reflection of El Capitan (which I dodged slightly in Photoshop to help it stand out).
Click an image for a closer look and to view a slide show.
Posted on October 27, 2019
True story: I once had a workshop participant who put her Nikon D4 in continuous mode, metered, then pressed the shutter and sprayed in a 180 degree arc until the buffer filled. When I asked her what she was doing, she shrugged and said, “It’s Yosemite—there’s sure to be something good in there.” While I couldn’t really disagree with her, I’m guessing she wasn’t seeing a lot of growth as a photographer.
I tend to fall on the other end of the photography spectrum. Rather than a high volume of low-effort images (spray-and-pray), much of my photography style carries over from my film days. Back then, a photographer who wasn’t careful might return from Europe to find that, between the film and the processing, the photographs cost more than the trip. With our wallets forcing us to be more discriminating, we took our time, and checked (and double-checked) every composition and exposure variable before clicking.
Times have changed. While every film click cost us money, every digital click increases the return on our investment. And thanks to ridiculous frame rates, seemingly infinite memory cards, and the ease of deleting in the field, I’m afraid it has become so easy to fire at will that many digital shooters are far too casual with each frame.
The best approach is probably a hybrid of the film and digital paradigms: Careful attention to detail, combined with a no-fear freedom to fail frequently. Just as it’s important to have some kind of plan or objective, it’s just as important to be okay with not knowing how you’re going to get there. In other words, sometimes success can only when you aren’t afraid to create crappy images on the way.
I’ll often approach a scene knowing there’s a image there, but start with no idea were it is. One approach that often works in these situations is to just frame something up and click. Other times I’ll play “what-if” games with myself: What if I do this? Or that? If it works, great; if it doesn’t, I’ve learned something.
There’s a draft in here
As someone who has been writing and taking pictures for a long time, I’ve found a real connection between the creation process of each craft. We can probably agree that few writers create a polished piece of writing in a single pass. Whether it’s an important e-mail, a weekly blog, or a magazine article, I start with an idea and just go with it. But before sending, publishing, or submitting (or deleting), I read, revise, then re-read and re-revise more times than I can count—until I’m satisfied that it’s “perfect.”
Similarly, photographers shouldn’t be afraid to create “draft” images that move them forward without necessarily delivering them all the way where they want to be with one click. When I find a scene that might be photo-worthy, I compose and expose my first click more by feel, without a lot of analysis. But I’m not done after that first click, not even close. And I don’t particularly care that it’s not perfect. This is my first draft, a proof of concept that creates a foundation to build on. When that draft pops up on my LCD, I evaluate it, make adjustments, and click again, repeating this cycle until I’m satisfied, or until I decide there’s not an image there.
Sorry, but there really is no substitute for a tripod
I hear a lot of landscape photographers claim that stabilized bodies and lenses, combined with clean high-ISO sensors, have made the tripod obsolete. Since photography must be a source of pleasure, I won’t argue with anyone who says using a tripod saps their joy. But…. If the joy you receive from photography requires getting the best possible images, you really should be using a tripod.
Applying my draft/revise approach without a tripod is like trying to draw with an an Etch A Sketch (is that still a thing?), then erasing the screen after each click. That’s because after every hand-held click, what’s the first thing you do? If you’re like most photographers, to check your image, you drop the camera from your eye and extend it out front. Before you can make the inevitable adjustments to that hand-held capture, you must return the camera to your eye and completely recreate the composition before making your adjustments.
It’s the tripod that makes this shoot/critique/refine process work. Much the way a computer allows writers to save, review, and incrementally improve what they’ve written, a tripod holds your composition while you decide how to make it better. Shooting this way, each frame becomes an incremental improvement of the preceding frame.
About this image
Composition isn’t limited to the arrangement and framing of elements in a scene—it can also be the way the image conveys the scene’s light, depth, and motion. Setting up this sunrise image, I had to coordinate all of those moving parts.
I’d arrived here with my Eastern Sierra workshop group about 45 minutes before sunrise, plenty of time to familiarize myself with the scene and plan my sunrise composition. I started by identifying my foreground elements, then determined the focus point that would deliver foreground-to-infinity depth of field, and finally worked out my strategy for getting the exposure right using a long enough exposure to smooth the rippled water and maximize the foreground reflection (thanks to my Breakthrough 6-stop ND filter). In my pre-Sony days I’d have had to wrestle with a graduated neutral density filter to manage the highlights, but I knew if I was careful with my histogram, my Sony a7RIII would handle it.
One of the nice things about photographing sunrise at Mono Lake is that you anticipate the sun’s arrival on the eastern horizon by monitoring the shadows sliding down the mountains in the west. So after I found my general composition, I had the luxury of ten minutes of just playing with all the variables, firing frames I knew I wouldn’t use, then evaluating each for balance, depth, and motion effect. I don’t have any specific memory of this frame, but if I look at the series of images leading up to it, I can tell what I was doing.
Oh, and full disclosure: Even though I don’t really remember this specific click, I can tell I was thinking about a sunstar because I shot it at f/18, an f/stop I virtually never use unless I want a sunstar (at 16mm, I certainly didn’t need f/18 for DOF). I could defend myself by saying I stopped down to f/18 to get my exposure to the four seconds I used here (to smooth the water), but that doesn’t fly either because I was at ISO 200. I know if I’d have been paying attention, I’d have used ISO 100 and f/13, allowing the same shutter speed at a cleaner ISO and sharper f-stop. So I guess the moral of this small digression is, don’t let the desire to be perfect hinder your creativity—mistakes happen, they’re usually not the end of the world, and the results will almost certainly be better than spray-and-pray.
Click an image for a closer look and to view a slide show.
Posted on October 7, 2019
Nature photographers have a tenuous relationship with clocks and calendars. They’re useful when we need to interact with the rest of the world on its terms, but pursuing our craft requires us to defer to the fundamental laws of nature: the Earth’s rotation on its axis, the Earth’s revolution about the sun, and the moon’s motion relative to the Earth and sun.
While my years are ruled by the changing angle of the sun’s rays, and my days are tied to the sun’s and moon’s arrival and departure, I can’t help fantasize about a world where I could schedule my Grand Canyon monsoon workshop for the lightning bolt and rainbow combination that graces the canyon every August 5 at 2:40 p.m., or the ability to mark my calendar for the blizzard that blankets Yosemite in white every February 7. But nature, despite human attempts to manipulate, subvert, and (when convenient) ignore it, is its own boss. The best I can do is schedule my monsoon workshops to ensure the best odds for lightning and rainbows, or monitor the weather forecast and rush to Yosemite when a snowstorm is promised (then wait with my fingers crossed).
The insignificance of clocks and calendars is never more clear than the first morning following a time change. On the second Sunday of March (or whatever the powers-that-be have changed it to this year), when “normal” people moan about rising an hour earlier, and the first Sunday of November, as others luxuriate in their extra hour of sleep, it’s business as usual for me. Each spring, thumbing its nose at Daylight Saving Time, the sun rises a mere minute (or so) earlier than it did the day before; so do I. And each fall, on the first sunrise of Standard Time, I get to sleep an an entire minute longer. Yippee.
Honestly, I marvel at nature’s blend of precision and (apparent) randomness. I love being able to point to the horizon and say, the moon will appear right there at exactly 5:44. But I also love going out with my camera and an expectation of what might happen, then being completely surprised by what actually does happen.
The aurora in today’s image was certainly not on anyone’s calendar when Don Smith and I planned last January’s Iceland trip. We’d done our best to maximize our odds by scheduling the trip for the heart of aurora season, then performed our due diligence by monitoring the forecast and waiting in the cold and dark each night for something to happen. But nature, while maybe absolutely precise on a cosmic scale, is still largely a mystery to humans. So while it’s possible that the northern lights we witnessed that night were preordained from the Big Bang’s first peep (Heisenberg’s protests notwithstanding), all that matters to me is that I was there to witness them.
Learn about the aurora, and read the story of this night: Chasing the Northern Lights
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.