Posted on September 14, 2018
Each year I do back-to-back workshops in Hawaii, one on the Big Island and one on Maui (it’s a tough job, but…, well, you know…). This year’s Big Island workshop was complicated first by the recent Kilauea eruption, and then by Hurricane Lane, which deposited 50 inches of rain on our host city Hilo just days before the workshop.
To get my eyes on the damage wrought by Mother Nature, and to scout more alternate locations, I flew to the Big Island five days early (see “tough job” reference above). Despite the complications, the workshop turned out great, with a fantastic group and a few new locations (including a beautiful sunset and Milky Way shoot atop Mauna Kea) added to my tried and true favorites, and I breathed a sigh of relief.
But my dreams of a stress-free Maui workshop were dashed when Hurricane Olivia took laser aim at Maui. Each day I’d check the forecast hoping to see that she had changed course, and each day I was disappointed. Finally, with just a couple days to go, I completely overhauled the workshop, switching lodging and itinerary to avoid the worst of the storm and get the most the island had to offer. I’m happy to say that despite Olivia, we only missed one morning of the workshop and managed to get our Haleakala sunrise in, plus spend a nice day on the Hana road.
My first location adjustment was switching one of my favorite Maui sunset locations, usually a second day destination, to the workshop’s first night because I wasn’t sure we’d be able to get out there the rest of the week. Between dense rainforest and steep, uneven lava, even the walk down here is a bit harrowing, so when I told the group that a few years ago I tried to drive down to this spot, they couldn’t quite believe it. Returning to this spot made me think that it might be time to share the story of my self-inflicted misadventure again. So I dusted off a blog post from five years ago (can’t believe it’s been that long!):
On my September scouting trip for my upcoming Maui workshop I hiked cross-country down the rugged flank of West Maui, searching for lava-rock tide pools I’d read about. Scrambling down a steep hill and over sharp rocks, I found the beach I was looking for but decided it was too dangerous for a group. Rather than return the way I came, I continued picking my way along the shore and eventually found another spot I liked better. At first I thought this wouldn’t be suitable for a group either, but climbing out I found an overgrown dirt road/trail leading back to the highway (“highway” in this case is the one-and-a-half lane, mostly-paved, rental-agreement-voiding Highway 340 circling West Maui). But fearing I’d miss this obscure spur from the main road, I saved the trailhead on my GPS.
Last Sunday, the day before my Maui workshop started, I picked up Don Smith (Don assisted this workshop; I’ll return the favor in one of Don’s workshops) at the airport and was excited to share with him the spot I’d “discovered” (it’s not as if I’m the Lewis and Clark of landscape photography—there’s enough debris down there to indicate the spot is known to locals) and off we went. The steady rain that had been falling for most of the afternoon increased with the road’s remoteness and soon we were slaloming around boulders dislodged from the surrounding cliffs by the downpour—at one point we passed a car waylaid by a grapefruit-size rock embedded in its windshield.
Undeterred, we soldiered on through the intensifying rain. This was Don’s first Maui visit, so I narrated the tour with vigor, enthusiastically pointing out the island’s scenic highlights as we passed them, pausing only occasionally to reassure Don that the highway was navigable despite increasing evidence to the contrary, punctuating my confidence with, “And just wait until you see the scene at the end of this ‘secret’ road I discovered.”
Closely monitoring my GPS, at the prescribed location and without hesitation (for dramatic effect) I veered left into a barely distinguishable gap in the trees almost as if I had a brain. The narrow track unfolded between rapidly oscillating wipers, immediately plummeting the steep hill and twisting right. Dense foliage brushed both sides of the car, which by now was clearly losing purchase in the mud. Don hadn’t quite finished a sentence that started, “Are you sure…,” when it began to dawn on me that I’d never intended to actually drive this road, that my plan when I marked it six months earlier was to park at the top and walk down. Oops.
Propelled by momentum and without the benefit of traction put us completely at gravity’s mercy, careening downward (picture the jungle mudslide scene from “Romancing the Stone”). Steering seemed to have more influence on the direction the car faced than it did on its direction of travel and I quickly gave that up. Were it not for the deep ruts that occasionally nudged us back on course, I’m sure we’d have bounced into the jungle. I held my breath as we approached a boulder jutting from the roadbed and exhaled when the undercarriage passed above unscathed. Shortly thereafter the slope moderated somewhat and we slid to a stop, miraculously still on the “road” (more or less).
After a few seconds of cathartic expletives, I scanned our surroundings. Backing up the slippery road was out of the question, but a little farther down the slope we spotted a flat, clear space with a small Y-spur that might enable us to at least turn around. I scrutinized the dash for the switch that would engage the 4-wheel drive (I swear) the guy at rental agency promised my SUV had. When we didn’t find it Don dug the manual from the glovebox—apparently 4WD is an option the powers-that-be at Alamo deem unnecessary on Maui. Uh-oh.
With crossed fingers I gave the car some gas and felt the wheels spin with no effect. More expletives. Don and I exited into the rain to survey our predicament: the road was fast graduating to creek status, and where rubber tires were supposed to be, instead were four mud disks. Scraping the tires clean had little value because the next revolution simply reapplied a fresh layer.
Back in the car I found that cranking the steering wheel hard in both directions gained just enough traction to un-mire the tires and I gingerly rolled the car downhill, away from safety, but at least into a relatively flat, open space. Yay! Once on level ground, and with only a little bit of slip/slide drama, I gingerly pivoted the car into the adjacent spur and nudged back around to face the direction we’d just come. Progress!
Now for the hard part. Looking for the first time toward freedom, we came to grips with the chute that had deposited us: Not only was it steep, at the steepest (and muddiest) point it curved hard-left, but banked hard-right—not exactly an arrangement that would be embraced at Daytona.
I inhaled and goosed the gas and we shot upward, fishtailing like a hooked marlin before losing momentum before coming to a stop a mere fifty feet closer to freedom. This maneuver had also managed to skew the car at a 45-degree angle to the road, its left-front fender in the jungle on one side, its right-rear fender in the jungle on the other. When I gave the car gas the tires spun hopelessly.
Facing defeat we started strategizing Plan B: With an hour of daylight remaining and no cell service, we’d need to walk up to the highway and hope to flag down, in the rain, a good samaritan willing to drive two disheveled, mud-caked strangers back to civilization (about 45 minutes away), then hope to summon a tow truck that would extricate us.
While Don trudged through the rain up to the main road to get help, I stayed with the car, licking my wounds and feeling pretty foolish. It occurred to me that since the road was too narrow for a tow truck, and the distance and tight curve would make winching difficult, even a tow truck wouldn’t guarantee freedom.
Watching Don head back up the hill to seek help, I decided to give extraction one more shot. I shifted the car into reverse, gave it some gas, and cranked the steering wheel back and forth violently until the tires broke free and the car rolled out of the jungle and back onto the muddy trail and back down to the clearing below. So far so good. Once there, I gave the pedal a gentle nudge and reversed slowly all the way to the clearing’s back side (another 20 feet), where I hoped there might be a little more gravel and less mud—and most importantly, a little more room to gather momentum.
With a small prayer I slipped the transmission into in first and floored the accelerator, rocketing ahead with enough forward speed to avoid much of the fishtailing I’d experienced earlier. Peering through flailing wipers I aimed for the small opening that had deposited us, shooting past crumpled shrubs and protruding rocks until the road steepened. With the steepened incline the energy of my forward momentum was replaced by spinning wheels that spewed mud like a dirty firehose, but I just kept my foot to the floor.
Approaching the curve I felt the car start to tilt right and slow almost to 0, but somehow the tires maintained just enough grip to avoid a complete stop. The fishtailing had returned, now exceeded the forward motion but I didn’t care as long as I still had forward motion. I rounded the curve and surprised Don, who dove into the jungle just up the road and turned to cheer me forward. Just as my forward motion was about to to hopelessly be completely transformed into spinning wheels the road leveled, my rear tires grabbed something solid, and I shot forward. Not wanting to slow until the tires kissed pavement I lowered my window and high-fived Don as I flew past and onto the highway. At the top we just couldn’t stop laughing, both at the foolish predicament I’d created, and our utter disbelief that we’d made it out.
This year’s visit was far less eventful. We parked at the top and entire group made it down to the water on foot, without incident. After receiving a brief summary of the scene and a return time, the group quickly scattered in search of one of the seemingly infinite number of great photos here. I kept my camera in the bag as I moved around to work with everyone, eventually finding myself atop a jagged rock ridge about 20 feet above pounding surf.
When I saw the sunset color reflecting in the water, I pulled out my Sony a7RIII and added my Breakthrough 6-stop neutral density filter to my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM lens. Carefully monitoring my histogram, I dialed in a long exposure that smoothed the surf and blurred the streaking clouds. In my Canon days I’d have needed a graduated neutral density filter (or multiple images) to capture the entire dynamic range in this scene, but the a7RIII has about 3-stops more dynamic range (an entire GND worth!) than my Canon DSLRs did, enabling me to capture this scene’s entire range of light with one click.
Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the window to reorder the display.
Posted on September 9, 2018
One of the questions I get the most about the New Zealand workshop Don Smith and I do is, “Why winter?” The simple answer is that it’s the best time to photograph there. This answer is usually followed with, “But isn’t it cold?” Not really—it’s more like a Northern California or Oregon winter, with highs in the 40s and 50s, and lows in the 20s and 30s. Also like Northern California and Oregon, New Zealand’s South Island gets some rain and fog in the lowlands, and snow in the mountains—so much better for photography than the persistent blue skies of the California summer I left behind.
While the conditions are certainly tolerable, and winter storms whiten the many peaks and fill the skies with interesting clouds, when pressed for more specifics on my preference for a New Zealand winter, it’s usually not long before I get to the night sky. With clean air and minimal light pollution, New Zealand is an astrophotographer’s paradise any season. But winter is when the Milky Way’s brilliant center shines prominently all night, rising much higher above the horizon than my Northern Hemisphere eyes are accustomed to.
One night in Wanaka Don and I took the group for short drive out to a vista overlooking Lake Hawea, one of many large glacial lakes decorating the South Island. I knew we’d get the Milky Way, but had forgotten about Mars, near opposition and shining brighter than it has in 15 years. We found it rising across the lake, so bright that it cast a sparkling reflection on the water. I started with vertical compositions, but soon switched to horizontal to include both Mars and the snow-capped peaks rising above the north shore.
Here are a couple of links to help with your night photography:
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Posted on August 24, 2018
Yesterday Nikon finally jumped into the mirrorless game with its Z6 and Z7 announcement, a welcome development that can only keep pushing everyone’s mirrorless technology forward.
I made the switch to mirrorless about four years ago and haven’t looked back. At the beginning mirrorless was touted for its compactness, and while mirrorless bodies (and to a lesser extent, lenses) are more compact, it turns out that, for me at least, it’s the mirrorless viewfinder that has hooked me: with real-time exposure simulation, focus assist (peaking), highlight alert (zebras), and a pre-capture histogram, I don’t think I could go back to a DSLR.
While I shoot with the Sony a7RIII and am very much committed to the Sony mirrorless universe, I’m not going to get into the “my camera can beat up your camera” debate—Nikon makes great cameras and I’m sure their mirrorless bodies will be no exception. In fact, the Z7 looks like it compares very closely to the Sony a7RII, which is a fantastic camera that I still carry as a backup and don’t hesitate to use when the situation calls for it.
As happy as I am with my mirrorless conversion, I do have some insights that might spare Nikon shooters of some of the transition pains I went through when I switched from Canon DSLRs (1DSIII and 5DIII) to the Sony a7R series of mirrorless bodies.
None of these points is a reason to not get a Nikon Z6 or Z7, but for me it would be a reason not to pre-order. Instead, if it were me, I’d wait and let others discover the frustrations so I could go into the non-trivial transition from DSLR to mirrorless with realistic expectations.
I’m guessing that current Nikon shooters will probably endure fewer frustrations than I had with my first mirrorless body, the Sony a7R—Sony was still trying to figure out the whole interface thing that Nikon has nailed (I’ve never been a fan of Nikon’s interface, but Nikon shooters like it and that’s what matters). On the other hand, I was probably more forgiving than Nikon shooters might be because the a7R image quality was so much better for my needs than the Canon 5DIII it replaced. Dynamic range is king in the landscape world, and the a7R gave me 2-3 stops more dynamic range than my 5DIII—slow transition plan notwithstanding, I literally didn’t click another frame after my first a7R shoot.
While I expect the Z6/Z7 bodies will be ergonomically more mature than my original a7R, Nikon’s full frame bodies already deliver exceptional image quality, so most Nikon full-frame DSLR shooters transitioning from the D800/810/850 won’t have the euphoria of much better image quality that sustained me until the release of Sony’s a7RII and (especially) a7RIII.
On the other hand…
(Full disclosure: I’m a Sony Artisan of Imagery)
These Nikon mirrorless cameras are great for committed Nikon shooters who are completely invested in the Nikon ecosystem and have no plans to completely replace their lens lineup. But for any photographer planning to make the full jump to mirrorless that includes all native lenses, I think Sony is (at least) several years ahead of Nikon, and given their resources and commitment, will remain at least that far ahead for many years.
One of the early complaints about the Sony mirrorless system was its lack of lenses compared to Nikon and Canon, but valid as that criticism was, that disadvantage has shrunk to virtually the point of irrelevance, and Sony is already very far along on many more native Sony FE-mount lenses. Sony is several laps ahead of everyone else in the mirrorless world—with deep pockets and its foot hard on the mirrorless pedal, I don’t see that lead shrinking muchsoon.
As good as it is for a first generation offering, the Nikon Z7 is much closer to the 3-year old Sony a7RII than it is to the (already 1-year old) a7RIII, and for sports and wildlife (and anything else that moves), it isn’t even in the same league as the (more than 1-year old) Sony a9.
I have no idea how or when Sony will respond to the mirrorless offerings from Nikon and (soon) Canon, but I’m guessing it won’t be long, and am pretty confident that will be a great day to be a Sony shooter. Competition is great for all of us, and Nikon just gave the mirrorless wave a huge boost that I’m looking forward to riding as far as it takes me.
A few words about this image
I can’t tell you that this is my favorite Sony mirrorless image, but it would definitely be on the list. I chose it for this post because it’s one of the few Sony images I have that used a Canon lens with the Metabones adapter.
Leading a workshop in Yosemite a few years ago, I guided the group to a meadow flooded by the Merced River during a particularly extreme spring runoff year. My widest lens at the time was my Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f/4 (which I love, BTW), but the scene called for something wider. When he photographer assisting me offered to let me use his Canon 11-24 f/4 with my Metabones adapter, I snatched it before he could change his mind. Given that everything in the scene was stationary, I was able to bypass any adapter-induced autofocus frustration and take the time to manually focus (it didn’t hurt that depth of field at 11mm is extremely forgiving).
I’d never used a lens that wide and was so excited by the extra field of view that I returned from Yosemite fully prepared to purchase the Canon lens, adapter or not. Fortunate for my budget (and my back), I let the lens sit in my shopping cart long enough for sanity to prevail. Not only was the Canon lens quite expensive, it weighed a ton, and I had a feeling it wouldn’t be long before Sony offered something similar. Those instincts were rewarded a year later when Sony released a 12-24 f/4 G lens that is just as sharp and half the size (and much less money).
Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the window to reorder the display.
Posted on July 24, 2018
We’ve all heard it: “That’s so fake,” or “You Photoshopped that,” or some other derisive barb implying that an image is trying to be something it isn’t. But before you say that about this image, let me say that I processed it five times, each time dialing down the saturation, attempting to create something that would appear credible to the dubious masses. And with each pass, the color looked a little less like what we saw this unforgettable New Zealand morning. So finally I just said, enough is enough—you’ll just have trust me when I tell you that for the sake of credibility, you’re already being cheated of that morning’s full spectacle.
Don Smith and I got our New Zealand winter workshop group up early to photograph sunrise at the famous Wanaka willow tree. The tree was just a short walk from our hotel, and even though we still had 45 minutes until sunrise, it was apparent the second we stepped outside that something special was in store. Though it was still dark enough to require flashlights, already the entire sky radiated a rich ruby red. Since we’d shown the group the tree the prior afternoon, a few rushed ahead, but Don and I held back with the stragglers. Nevertheless, even the stragglers pace quickened as the red deepened, and by the time we reached the tree we were pretty much jogging.
Turns out we needn’t have rushed. For the next 30 minutes the red intensified until everything in sight seemed to buzz with color. I’ve experienced color like this a few times in my life, and the best way to describe is that it feels like the light possesses a physical component that penetrates my skin and everything else it touches. And with the sky throbbing in all directions, I felt like I might get dizzy whirling about to avoid missing something. Soon we all just started laughing at how unbelievable the show was, knowing that every picture we shared would be met with the obligatory “That’s so fake” skepticism.
All this got me thinking again about what causes color in the sky, so I dusted off a post I wrote a few years ago, tweaked a few things, and…
A sunset myth
If your goal is a colorful sunset/sunrise and you have to choose between pristine or polluted air, which would you choose? If you said clean air, you’re in the minority. You’re also right. But despite some pretty obvious evidence to the contrary, it seems that the myth that a colorful sunset requires lots of particles in the air persists. If particles in the air were necessary for sunset color, Los Angeles would be known for its incredible sunsets and Hawaii would only be known for its beaches.
But what is the secret to a great sunrise or sunset? Granted, a cool breeze, warm surf, and a Mai Tai are a great start, but I’m thinking more photographically than recreationally (sorry). I look for a mix of sky (to pass the sunlight) and clouds (to catch the color), with a particular emphasis on a clear horizon in the direction of the sun. But even with a nice mix of clouds and sky, sometimes the color fizzles. Often the missing ingredient, contrary to common belief, is clean air, the cleaner the better. And like most things, it all makes sense when you understand what’s going on.
Light and color
Understanding sunset color starts with understanding how sunlight and the atmosphere interact to make the sky blue. As you probably know, visible light reaches our eyes in waves of varying length, with each wavelength perceived as a different color. Starting with the shortest wavelengths and moving toward the longest, visible light goes from violet, indigo, blue, green, yellow, orange, and red. (These color names are arbitrary labels we’ve assigned to the colors we perceive at various points along the visible portion of the electromagnetic spectrum—there are an infinite number of colors in between each of these colors.) When a beam of light passes through a vacuum (such as space), it moves in a straight line, without interference, so all its wavelengths reach our eyes simultaneously and we perceive the light as white.
Why is the sky blue?
When light interacts with a foreign object—for example, when a beam of sunlight enters our atmosphere—different wavelengths respond differently depending on the size of the molecules they encounter. If sunlight encounters molecules that are larger than its wavelengths, such as atmospheric impurities like dust or smoke, all of the wavelengths bounce off (reflect). Because these large molecules are of varying sizes, a variety of wavelengths (colors) get blended into a murky sky with a gray or brown cast. If all the wavelengths get bounced equally, the sky will appear white(ish).
When a beam of sunlight hits the much smaller molecules of the gases that comprise our atmosphere (such as nitrogen and oxygen), some of its wavelengths are absorbed while others are reflected and scattered in all directions. Because the shorter wavelengths (violet and blue) scatter most easily; the longer wavelengths (orange and red) continue on to color the sky of someone farther away. The more direct the sunlight’s path to our eyes, the less atmosphere it passes through and the more we see the first (blue) wavelengths to scatter. When the sun is high in our sky, its light takes the most direct path through the atmosphere and our sky is most blue (assuming no pollutants have altered the scattering). In the mountains, sunlight has passed through even less atmosphere and the sky appears even more blue than it does at sea level.
When the sun is on the horizon, the light that reaches us has traveled through so much atmosphere that at the very least it has been stripped of its blueness because the blue wavelengths are the first to scatter (those wavelengths are coloring the sky of someone whose sun is high overhead). And if that sunrise/sunset light hasn’t encountered larger dust and smoke molecules on its journey, only the red wavelengths will have survived unscathed, and everyone enjoys the show.
The cleaner the air, the more vivid the sunrise/sunset color. To understand the mixing effect that happens when a variety of wavelengths are bounced around by large airborne particles, think about blending a smoothie consisting of a variety of brightly colored ingredients (such as strawberries, blueberries, and spinach—yum). Your smoothie’s color won’t be nearly as vivid as any of its ingredients, not even close. Instead you’ll end up with a brownish or grayish muck that might at best be slightly tinted with the color of the predominant ingredient. That’s what happens to the color when the light has to interact with large airborne particles like dust, smoke, and smog. Because these particles aren’t of uniform size, they each reflect a slightly different color rather than allowing one vivid color to dominate. In the middle of the day pollution means less blue; at sunrise/sunset, it’s less pink, red, and orange.
Clouds can enhance sunrise/sunset color by catching the red wavelengths and reflecting them back to our eyes, but only if there’s an opening on the horizon for the light pass through. Without clouds, the red wavelengths continue on to color the horizon opposite the sun—a “twilight wedge” when the color is in the sky, and “alpenglow” when mountains jut into the colored region of the sky and take on the color themselves.
So. To the skeptics who reflexively dismiss pictures like this, you might want to suggest that they spend more time out in nature. Whether it’s a tropical bird, a fluttering butterfly, a field of wildflowers, or a New Zealand sunrise, there really is nothing subtle about color in nature.
Posted on July 17, 2018
(Jump to the bottom for a “how-to” and my starlight photography exposure recipe)
Five photographers followed bouncing headlamps through the chilly dark. Even in midday the trail through the dense rainforest surrounding Lake Matheson has a twilight feel; on a moonless winter night like this, the path becomes downright cave-like. Soon our footsteps were in sync, each tap broken by a beat of eerie silence. For me, the solitary experience at the front of the line was simultaneously serene and disconcerting, a feeling enhanced by occasional rustling and primal cries from the primitive world outside radius of my light.
I was midway through the second of back-to-back New Zealand Winter photo workshops. Just a couple of hours earlier the entire group had completed the nearly 2 1/2 mile loop in daylight. So striking was the sunset reflection of Mt. Tasman and Mt. Cook on that hike, that when we looked up after dinner and saw stars, a few of us hardcore night shooters couldn’t resist returning to the lake to photograph the Milky Way above the peaks.
Rather than hike all the way out there, we reasoned that we could satisfy our objective with a relatively short walk to Jetty Viewpoint, the closest view of the lake and mountains, less than a quarter of the way along the loop. Given the spur-of-the-moment nature of our adventure, I hadn’t done my usual (obsessive) plotting of the Milky Way’s position before bundling up and heading our to the lake. I knew only that it would be more or less vertical, in the general direction of the peaks.
What I hadn’t fully accounted for is how much higher in the sky as the Milky Way is in New Zealand. So unfortunately, by the time the five of us arrived at Jetty Viewpoint, we found the Milky Way was so high that capturing the bright galactic core and its reflection required a vertical composition. And it had rotated so far north that including the Milky Way and the peaks required a horizontal composition. After trying a few versions of those either/or compositions, we decided that since the reflection was the real star of the show, we may as well just continue another 20 minutes to the Lake Matheson’s best view point, Reflection Island.
The shear volume of stars in the pure New Zealand darkness is mesmerizing, but it’s disorienting to look up at night and not see a single familiar constellation, . Once we were settled in at Reflection Island, I spent the time during exposures wandering my gaze about the foreign sky.
A camera can “see” much better in the dark than we can, a capability that only continues to improve. For many years my night photography was limited by technology to moonlight only, but the low-light capability of the newest cameras has opened the door to a world that’s been invisible to the naked eye. Combining a modern camera that captures clean high ISO images with a fast lens not only enables moonless night photography, it pulls unseen wonders from the darkness.
I only use my Sony a7SII and Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 lens when photographing extreme dark skies, but when I do, I never cease to be blown away by what they “see.” Packing for four weeks in winter without exceeding the airline’s weight limits is difficult. But anticipating the opportunity to photograph the Southern Hemisphere night sky, I bit the bullet and added my dedicated night photography gear to my camera bag. Every time an exposure completed, I couldn’t take my eyes off the image on my LCD. As saturated with stars as the sky appeared, each image revealed far more stars than were visible to my eyes, and the brightest stars stood out like an approaching locomotive.
A quick check of my astronomy app told me that the bright star burning a hole in the sky above the trees on the right is Achernar, well known Down Under but new to me. Slightly brighter than magnitiude .5 (the lower the number, the brighter the star), it’s the ninth brightest star in the night sky—the Achernar photons that landed on my sensor started their Earthward journey nearly 140 years ago.
The Magellanic Clouds (satellite galaxies gravitationally bound to the Milky Way but not visible in the Northern Hemisphere) that were faint fuzzy blurs to my eyes took on actual shapes. And while I couldn’t fit the mountains and both of the Magellanic Clouds in my frame, I was able to included the Small Magellanic Cloud in this image.
More exciting than the volume of stars revealed by my camera was the spectacular reflection it pulled from the seemingly black void of the lake’s surface. This ability to view beauty hidden from my eyes by darkness is the best part of night photography.
Starlight exposure made simple
Based on many years experience teaching starlight photography (not to be confused with moonlight photography), I’ve come up with what I think is the simplest approach to the most frequently asked night photography question: “What exposure settings should I use?”
The problem is, there isn’t a single set of ISO, f-stop, and shutter speed settings you can plug in for great results because the setting you use (and the results you get) depend on your equipment. Starlight photography is all about capturing light, the more the better. But as good as today’s camera technology is, successful night photography is still about making compromises. As you try to maximize the light reaching your sensor, you’ll need to manage these exposure compromises:
Understanding these compromises, you’re ready for my starlight-exposure-made-simple axiom: Give the scene as much light as you can without ruining the image. In other words, for the most light possible, use the longest shutter speed, widest aperture, and highest ISO that gives you results you can live with.
Taking this approach doesn’t mean that I don’t vary my exposure settings. Once I’ve settled on a composition, I use a variety exposure-setting combinations. Not only does this give me as many options as possible at processing time, it’s also an opportunity better understand my cameras’ and lenses’ limitations to learn how far I can push the exposure threshold next time.
Posted on June 3, 2018
It was 4:00 a.m. and I’d spent the last two hours photographing the Milky Way’s brilliant core above the Colorado River. In about 75 minutes the guides would be ringing the “coffee’s ready” gong, signaling the start of another day at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Collapsing my tripod, I performed a little mental math and found slight relief in the knowledge that I might be able to squeeze in one more hour of sleep. That relief vanished in the time it took to turn and glance toward the northern sky and see the Big Dipper, suspended like a celestial mobile in the notch separating the canyon walls.
My Milky Way position had been chosen for its unobstructed view of the southern sky; the best view of the Big Dipper was clear across the campsite, at a sheltered pool just beyond our rafts. The moonless night sky at the bottom of the Grand Canyon is so dark that the Milky Way casts a slight shadow, but once your eyes adjust, it’s surprisingly easy to navigate without adding light. Trudging across through the sand, I passed a handful of other solitary photographers, anonymous shapes enjoying the darkness as much as I was. I stopped few times to answer questions and point out the Big Dipper, then moved on.
Setting up on the steep, sandy slope above the river, I gazed at the Big Dipper and privately chuckled at my good fortune—this prime photo opportunity hadn’t manifest because I proactively made myself seek a scene away from my original subject (as I encourage my students to do), it was a chance glance after I’d mentally put myself to bed. When we landed at that spot the prior afternoon, I’d been so focused on the southern exposure and the Milky Way opportunity in that direction that I hadn’t even considered that there might be something facing north too. Shame on me, but sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.
Checking my first Big Dipper frame, a couple of things became instantly obvious: though sunrise was still an hour away, and my eyes could detect no sign of its approach, with the same exposure I’d been using for most of the night, the sky was noticeably brighter on my LCD; more significantly, the Big Dipper was reflecting in the river. I realized that pool below me, while not flowing, was sloshing enough that the reflection didn’t stand out to my eyes, but it was smoothed enough by a multi-second exposure that the water mirrored a blurred but clearly visible reflection of the bright Dipper stars.
From my elevated vantage point, part of the handle’s reflection was lost to the sandy beach—I needed to move closer to the river to include the entire reflection. Remember when I said it’s surprisingly easy to navigate in the moonless darkness? On my first step toward the river I learned that functional night vision applies to avoiding objects, not to depth perception. So, as that first step dropped earthward and I waited for it to touch down, where I expected sand I found only air. The rest of me followed quickly and I was in free-fall. Fortunately the fall was not far, just a couple of feet, but it’s amazing how the disorientation of a blind fall slowed time enough for me to curse the darkness before my graceless splat onto the damp beach.
The beach was damp because the place I landed had been river when I went to bed. I popped up almost as quickly as I landed, the unwitting beneficiary of artificial tides induced by upstream releases from the Glen Canyon Dam, timed to meet the power needs of Las Vegas and the rest of the Southwest sprawl. Had I fallen a few hours earlier, I’d have splashed in chilly river water—not enough river to sweep me to my death, but definitely enough to soak me and my camera. So I found myself sandy but otherwise unscathed—glancing about to see if anyone had seen my fall, I instantly forgave the darkness that had made me more or less invisible. The Rokinon lens I’d had on my camera was caked with sand; since it was too dark to clean it, I switched to my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM.
The rest of the shoot was fairly uneventful, at least until my final frame. Over the next few minutes I inched even closer to the river, which I discovered had receded enough to add about six feet of soggy shore. With each frame I verified my focus, tweaked my composition, and experimented with different exposures.
On my final few frames I was comfortable enough with all of the photography variables that I wasn’t even thinking about the next shot, and instead simply stood and took in the night sky. As I waited for my last frame of the night to complete, a brilliant meteor sprung from the darkness and split the Dipper’s handle. It came and went in a heartbeat, and I held my breath until the image popped up on my LCD and I confirmed that I’d captured it. The perfect cap to a spectacular night.
Posted on April 15, 2018
(With apologies to The Hollies.)
The road is long, with many a winding turn…
But that’s no excuse to cut corners. Probably the question I am most asked on location is some variation of, “What lens should I use?” While I’m always happy to answer questions, this one always makes me cringe because the implicit question is, “Which lenses can I leave behind?”
What many photographers fail to realize is that the “proper” lens is determined by the photographer, not by the scene. While there is often a consensus on the primary composition at a location, that usually only means the first composition everyone sees. But if your goal is to capture something unique, those are just the compositions to avoid. And as every photographer knows, the best way to guarantee you’ll need a lens is to not pack it. I’m not suggesting that you lug Hermione’s purse to every shoot—just try to remember that your images will last far longer than your discomfort.
In my Canon life, my personal rule of thumb was to always carry lenses that cover 16-200mm, regardless of the scene, then add “specialty” lenses as my plans dictated: macro for wildflowers, fast and wide prime for night, and super telephoto for a moon. That meant the 16-35, 24-105, and 70-200 were permanent residents of my Canon bag, and my 100-400, 100 macro, or wide and fast prime came along when I needed them.
Shooting Sony mirrorless, with its more compact bodies and lenses, I now carry a much wider focal in a lighter camera bag. My new baseline (always with me) lens lineup is the Sony 12-24 G, 24-105 G, and 100-400 GM, plus the Sony 2x teleconverter. My macro and night lenses still stay behind (but they’re usually in the car), but in my bag I always have lenses to cover 12-800mm, a significant advantage over my Canon 16-200 configuration.
It’s kind of a cliché in photography to say “It’s the photographer, not the equipment.” And as much as I agree in principle, sometimes the equipment does help. Wherever I am, I regularly find compositions beyond 200mm, compositions I never would have considered before. And the 12-24 lens has enabled me to approach familiar scenes with a completely fresh eye.
A recent example came on a snowy day in Yosemite early last month. Moving fast to keep up with the rapidly changing clouds and light, I stopped at El Capitan Bridge, directly beneath El Capitan. Having shot this scene for years (decades), I was quite familiar with the perspective. So wide is the top-to-bottom, left-to-right view of El Capitan here, even at 16mm I’ve always had to choose between all of El Capitan or all of the reflection, never both. I never dreamed I’d be able to get El Capitan and its reflection in a single frame. But guess what….
Standing above the river near the south side of the bridge, I framed up a vertical composition and saw that at 12mm I could indeed fit El Capitan and the reflection, top to bottom. Whoa. With very little margin for error on any side of the frame, I moved around a bit to get the scene balanced, eventually framing the right side with the snowy trees lining the Merced. My elevated perch above the river allowed me to shoot straight ahead (no up or down tilt of the camera) and avoid the extreme skewing of the trees that’s so common at wide focal lengths.
12mm provides so much depth of field that I could focus anywhere in the scene and get front-to-back sharpness; the flat light made exposure similarly simple. With composition, focus, and exposure set, all I had to do was watch the clouds and click the shutter, my heart filled with gladness….
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