Posted on September 25, 2022
So what’s happening here? (I thought you’d never ask.)
The orange glow at the bottom of this frame is light from 1,800° F lava bubbling in Halemaʻumaʻu Crater atop Hawaii’s Kilauea, the world’s most active volcano. It’s also a beautiful example of the final act of our planet’s auto-recycling process.
Propelled by the mantle’s inexorable convection engine, Earth’s tectonic plates endlessly jostle about, sometimes sliding past each other, often colliding. When the lighter of the colliding plates is pushed upward, mountains form. While this is happening, the denser plate is forced downward, beneath the uplifting plate, a process called subduction. As the downward force persists, the subjected crust continues downward into the mantle, where intense heat melts the rock until it’s absorbed into the mantle.
Around the globe subduction is constantly, albeit very slowly (on the human scale), adding new material to the mantle. To make room for this new material, magma somewhere else is forced out at weak points in Earth’s crust and volcanoes are born. Sometimes these volcanoes push up above the land in front of the subducting plate—that’s what’s happening in the Cascade Range of the the Pacific Northwest.
A hot spot can also form in the middle of a tectonic plate. For the last 40 million years the Pacific Plate has drifted slowly northwest above a hot spot, leaving a string of 80 or so volcanoes in its wake. Most of these have since eroded away, or never made it to the surface at all. The Hawaiian Islands as the youngest in this island chain, haven’t had time to erode into their eventual oblivion. The Big Island of Hawaii is the youngest of the islands, and the only one still volcanically active, though it’s believed that Maui isn’t completely finished.
Another island, Kamaehuakanaloa Seamount, is building up south of Hawaii and should make its appearance sometime in the next 100,000 years (could be much sooner). But until that happens, we get to enjoy Kilauea—and eventually (inevitably) Mauna Loa (last eruption, 1984), Hualalai (last eruption, 1801), and maybe even Kohala (last eruption, 120,000 years ago) and Mauna Kea (last eruption 4 million years ago) could come back to life.
The vertical white band above the crater represents world building on an entirely different scale. You no doubt recognize it as light cast by billions of stars at the center of our Milky Way galaxy. So dense and distant are the stars in the Milky Way’s core, their individual points are lost to the surrounding glow. The dark patches partially obscuring the Milky Way core’s glow are large swaths of interstellar gas and dust, the leftovers of stellar explosions—and the stuff of future stars. Completing the scene are pinpoint stars in our own neighborhood of the Milky Way, stars close enough that we see them as discrete points of light that humans imagine into mythical shapes: the constellations.
The Milky Way galaxy is home to every single star we see when we look up at night, and 300 billion (-ish) more we can’t see—that’s nearly 50 stars for every man, woman, and child on Earth in our galaxy alone. And recent estimates put the total number of galaxies in the Universe at 2 trillion—a number too large to comprehend.
Our Sun, the central cog in the Solar System, is an insignificant outpost in the Milky Way suburbs. It resides in a spiral arm, a little more than halfway between the urban congestion at the galaxy’s core and the empty wilderness of open space.
Everything we see is made possible by light—light created by the object itself (like the stars and lava), or created elsewhere and reflected (like the planets, or Halemaʻumaʻu’s walls). Light travels incredibly fast, fast enough that it can span even the two most distant points on Earth faster than humans can perceive, fast enough that we consider its arrival from any terrestrial origin instantaneous. But distances in space are so great that we don’t measure them in terrestrial units of distance like miles or kilometers. Instead, we measure interstellar distance by the time it takes a photon of light to travel between two objects: one light-year is the distance light travels in one year—nearly 5.9 trillion miles.
The ramifications of cosmic distances are mind-bending. While the caldera’s proximity makes its glow about as “right now” as anything in our Universe can be—for all intents and purposes, the caldera and its viewers are sharing the same instant in time. On the other hand, the light from the stars above the caldera is tens, hundreds, or thousands of years old—it’s new to me, but to the stars it’s old history.
Imagine Proxima d, a planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, a mere four light-years distant and the star closest to our solar system. If we had a telescope with enough resolving power to see all the way down to Proxima d’s surface, we’d be watching what was happening there four years ago. Likewise, if someone on Proxima d today (2022) were peering at us, they’d be viewing a pre-Covid world and learn that Dunkin’ Donuts was dropping “Donuts” from their name (how did I miss that?). Halemaʻumaʻu Crater, which paused its activity in August 2018, would be black. (Anything you regret doing in the last 4 years? Take heart in the knowledge that everywhere in the Universe outside our Solar System, it hasn’t happened yet.)
So what’s the point of all this mind bending? Perspective, I guess. To me, the best landscape images don’t just tip the “that’s beautiful” scale, they also activate deeper insights into our relationship with the natural world. And few things do that better for me than combining, in one frame, light that’s 25,000 years old with light caused by the formation of Earth’s newest rock.
About this image
In 2018, after years of reliable activity, Halemaʻumaʻu Crater went out in a blaze of glory. This renewed vigor included fountaining lava, daily earthquakes, and the complete collapse of the crater as I’d known it.
Even more impactful, lava draining from the summit flowed into the Pacific to create nearly 900 acres of brand new land, on the way overrunning nearly 14 square miles of land and destroying more than 500 homes. The spectacle ended in August, one month before that year’s Big Island workshop.
Kilauea’s current eruption started in September 2021, just two weeks after that year’s workshop ended. Between sporadic eruptions and Covid, I haven’t been able to enjoy one of my favorite sights, the Milky Way above an active Kilauea, since 2017. Needless to say, in the weeks leading up to this year’s trip I kept my fingers crossed that Kilauea would keep going. It didn’t disappoint.
Given the caldera’s collapse and the new eruption, I knew things on Kilauea were completely different from any previous visit. So on my first evening back on the Big Island (I always fly in 3 days before the workshop to check all my locations), I made the 40 minute drive up from Hilo to get my eyes on it.
At the vista that once housed the now closed Jagger Volcano Museum, and that used to be the primary place to view the eruption, I started chatting with a photographer who was set up with a long telephoto, waiting for the full moon to rise. It turned out that she volunteers at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and does a lot of photography for the park. She very generously provided me with great information that saved me a lot of scouting time, including the best places to view the new eruption, and how to avoid the crowds I’d heard so much about.
Based on her input, after sunset I parked at the Kilauea Visitor Center and took a 1/2 mile walk along the Crater Rim Trail to the point where my new friend had promised the lava would be visible. I chose this spot over the closer view that most people seemed to prefer for a couple of reasons: fewer people (and easier parking), it would be an easier walk for my group (you can only go as far, or as fast, as the slowest person), and (especially) because I thought it would align better with the Milky Way.
To say that I was thrilled with the new view would be an understatement. Though clouds obscured the Milky Way that evening, I was pretty confident the alignment would be fine—not the perfect alignment I got from the spot I’d always used before, but definitely close enough that it would be no problem getting the eruption and Milky Way in the same frame.
The thing that excited me most was that I could actually see the lava. In my 12 years visiting Kilauea, I’ve only been able to see lava at the summit once (check the gallery below)—in the other visits we could clearly see the lava’s beautiful orange glow, but the lava lake was too low to be visible from the rim. But now not only was the lava visible, the perspective was close enough to actually see it bubbling and splattering on the lake’s surface. I hadn’t brought my camera, but I took a quick snap with my iPhone, then walked back to the car in the dark, pretty stoked by what I’d be able to share with my group.
I returned to the volcano the next night to check out more locations, especially interested in my old viewing spot. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I could still see the glow at least as well as I could with the earlier eruption, and that it still aligned perfectly with the Milky Way.
I took my workshop group up to Kilauea on our second night—since it’s a real highlight, I like to do the volcano early in the workshop so we can come back if clouds shut us out. After a few other stops waiting for darkness, we started the short (and easy) hike out to the new lava viewing sight shortly after sunset.
Fog hovering over the caldera obscured the sky at the vista, but no one cared because for most (all?), it was the first time they’d seen lava. Without stars, this was a total telephoto shot—since everyone in the group was shooting mirrorless, we could all magnify our viewfinder and get an up-close, live look at the bubbling lava. It appeared to be bursting from a vent near the caldera wall, like a massive waterfall springing from a mountainside. In addition to the constant rolling and popping on the lake’s surface, every minute or so we could see a much bigger explosion that sent lava careening about the crater—pretty cool for all of us.
I spent most of my time working with people in the group and didn’t photograph too much. Eventually I did manage a few telephoto frames and was pretty happy with how things were going in general—not so much for my images, but mostly because everyone seemed as excited as I’d hoped they’d be.
About the time I was thinking of heading over to my other spot, the fog suddenly thinned and the Milky Way appeared. Everyone immediately switched to wide angle lenses and started working on completely different images. For the next 20 minutes or so we alternated between clicking and waiting as the fog came and went. Again I spent much of that time working with my group, but I managed to get in a few Milky Way frames, including this one.
I’ve got my Milky Way exposure down, and focus for this image was actually easier than most Milky Way scenes because of the brightness in the caldera. Since the Milky Way requires an exposure too long to freeze most motion, all detail in the lava was lost, but I still think it’s pretty cool to know what that glow really is. (Full disclosure: I used Photoshop’s Content Aware Fill tool to fill in a tiny blown-out white patch where the hottest lava was too bright for my night exposure.) The biggest problem I had to deal with is the guy standing next to me (not in my group), who insisted on using a red light (great for telescope or naked eye view, but absolutely the worst light source for night photography). So I had to time my clicks for the times he turned it off, then hope he kept if off until my exposure complete.
Eventually the clouds thickened and showed no sign of leaving. Since everyone was pretty happy with what they had, we packed up and headed back. But it turns out we weren’t done, because by the time we made it backto the cars, the stars were back out—so I took everyone over to my other view. There was no fog at this spot and the Milky Way remained out the entire time we were there. We had another great shoot, despite a crazy wind that hadn’t bothered us at all at our first spot. But that’s a story for another day…
Click any image to scroll through the gallery LARGE
Posted on July 17, 2022
Are you as thrilled as I am by the mesmerizing images we’re seeing from the James Webb Space Telescope? There’s nothing like a heaping dose of perspective to remind humans of our insignificance in the grand scheme things, and these images deliver perspective in spades.
I think my favorite Webb image is the view deep into a seemingly tiny black region of sky that reveals thousands of galaxies. How tiny? According to the NASA website, “This slice of the vast universe covers a patch of sky approximately the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length by someone on the ground.”) The light from these galaxies traveled as far as 13.1 billion years to reach us, which means we’re getting a view of our nascent Universe as it was less than a billion years after the Big Bang.
I get another dose of perspective, albeit on a much smaller scale, each time I visit the Southern Hemisphere. After a lifetime living north of the equator, I pretty much take for granted the Northern Hemisphere night sky. When I’m outside after dark, I reflexively look up and locate the Big Dipper. Using the Dipper’s pointer stars, my eyes slide to Polaris (the North Star) to locate north, then slowly scan the surrounding sky for other familiar features: bright stars Arcturus and Spica, constellations Cassiopeia and Corona Borealis, among many. If it’s dark enough, I try to pick out the Little Dipper and the Andromeda Galaxy.
Looking up at night in the Southern Hemisphere is downright disorienting. Most of the stars and constellations are completely unfamiliar (but no less beautiful), and those that are familiar (like Orion), appear “upside down.” (There’s no true up and down in space because up/down, left/right is always relative to the viewer’s frame of reference.) The Milky Way down here is reversed, and I’ll never forget the first time I watched a Southern Hemisphere moonrise and realized that it moved left (north) as it rose—duh.
A personal Southern Hemisphere highlight is the opportunity to see the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds. Like the first (only) time I saw the Taj Mahal and Stonehenge, my first view of the Magellanic Clouds was like spotting a celebrity I’d heard about my entire life but never imagined I’d see in person.
The Magellanic Clouds are satellite galaxies of our Milky Way. The Large Magellanic Cloud is about 160 light years from Earth and estimated to contain 30 billion or so stars; the Small Magellanic Cloud is about 200 light years distant and weighs in at around 3 billion stars. It also appears the the SMC orbits the LMC, making it a satellite of a satellite.
In a dark Southern Hemisphere sky, both Magellanic Clouds appear as smudges of light, faint but clearly visible. The diameter of the LMC is about 5 degrees, while the SMC spans less than 2 degrees (for reference, the Sun and Moon are each about 1/2 degree across when viewed from Earth). None of Magellanic Clouds’ individual stars are bright enough to be resolved with the human eye.
About this image
In an earlier post I detailed the night I photographed the Milky Way over Cecil Peak and Lake Wakatipu. It was the first night of the New Zealand winter photo workshop Don Smith and I do each year, and we were pretty pleased that the conditions cooperated so nicely.
We came straight here from our sunset shoot, then waited for the sky to darken enough for the Milky Way to appear. Toward the end of the shoot, once everyone was locked in and feeling good about their results, I started to look for ways to do something a little different and my eyes landed on the Magellanic Clouds. But there were a couple of problems: first, there’s a lot of sky between them and the Milky Way, which was still going to be my primary subject; second, they were both above a blob of large shrubs (or small trees) on the lakeshore.
It’s times like this that I especially love the wide field of view of my Sony 14 f/1.8 GM lens. This lens is always great in New Zealand because the Milky Way’s core here is so high in the sky, the wide field of view enables me to get lots of Milky Way and foreground. This evening I found that by going horizontal at 14mm, I could in fact get the Milky Way and Small Magellanic Cloud in my frame without crowding either too close to the border.
But now the ugly shrubs were in my frame too. The solution for that problem was simply to walk about 50 yards up the lake. Engaging the Bright Monitoring feature on my Sony a7SIII (Sony shooters need to look up this underused feature that’s fantastic for night photography—mine’s assigned to a custom button on all of my bodies), I saw in my viewfinder that the shrubs were no longer a problem.
I only shot here for about 5 minutes, but by the time I made it back to the group, the group was ready to head back to the hotel for dinner—always a good sign that everyone was happy with their results.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on December 12, 2021
Between a lot of travel last week and preparing for a workshop that starts this week, I somehow managed to process an image yesterday. And today I’m going to attempt to squeeze out a quick blog post around a gathering that’s a 5-hour roundtrip away. Let’s see what happens…
This image makes me think about other memorable shoots that might not have happened had I stuck with the original plan, or succumbed to the easy (more comfortable) exit. These experiences are a testament to the Wayne Gretzky (or was it Michael Scott?) wisdom that you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.
I’m thinking about the rainbow above Yosemite Valley that I wouldn’t have gotten had I stuck with my plan to meet a private workshop student for dinner—instead, I met him and his girlfriend at the restaurant and insisted that we forego dinner to go sit in the rain, because I thought a rainbow might be possible. Or a very cold morning at Lake Wanaka, New Zealand, when I woke to fog so thick that I could barely see 100 yards. Or setting my alarm for 4:30 a.m. to photograph sunrise, even though I had a 12-hour drive home and the forecast promised a zero-percent chance of rain—only to be gifted a 2-hour electrical storm that ended with a rainbow.
Normally I do the Milky Way shoot in the bristlecones on my Eastern Sierra workshop’s second night, but new permit restrictions thwarted that plan (turns out clouds and wildfire smoke would have stopped us anyway). So I resorted to Plan B, promising that we’d give the Milky Way a try after the Olmsted Point sunset shoot on the workshop’s final night.
But ascending Tioga Pass, we encountered smoke from one of the many wildfires scorching California. The smoke thickened as we headed west, and by the time we arrived at Olmsted Point, we could barely make out the outline of Half Dome in the smoky distance. We stayed long enough to enjoy a red-rubber-ball sunset, then blew off our “wait for the Milky Way” plan and drove back down to Lee Vining for dinner.
Though we were all a little disappointed to be missing the Milky Way shoot, as we queued up at the Whoa Nellie Deli (look it up), I sensed that many in the group looked forward to a warm and restful evening. Still, at one point I snuck out into the cold to check the sky. Seeing that clouds, smoke, or some combination of both had snuffed them, I confirmed to the group that the Milky Way shoot was off.
Walking outside after dinner, I was already mentally back in my room, but nevertheless glanced skyward and was surprised to see stars. Lots and lots of stars. Without the smoke/cloud blanket to hold in what little warmth remained, the temperature felt like it had dropped another 10 degrees. Part of me really, really wanted to pretend I hadn’t seen the stars and just herd everyone to the cars before they noticed them too, but I knew the Milky Way was a priority for many, and this opportunity was too good to pass. When I suggested that we give it a shot, almost the entire group was onboard (I can’t remember whether anyone opted out, but most didn’t). So we drove out to South Tufa, bundled up, and traipsed down to the lake.
I’ve photographed here more times than I can count (it’s possible there aren’t even numbers that go that high anyway), but only once or twice at night, many years ago. I didn’t have a specific spot in mind, but since South Tufa is on the south side of the lake, and the Milky Way is in the southern sky, I figured we’d likely be shooting in a tufa garden, with the lake at our back and the calcium carbonate towers in the foreground.
But walking east along the lake shore in the dark, we came upon a small peninsula jutting into the lake. Despite having walked by this spot countless times, I suddenly realized it might protrude far enough to allow us to shoot southward and back cross the water, toward a few tufa towers, with the Milky Way in the background.
We used flashlights to walk out and set up, but then photographed by the light of nothing but the stars. Working with an entire group out here in the dark, with no more than three very craggy feet of space between the lake at our feet and a wall of tufa behind us, was a real challenge. Each time someone called for help I had to navigate a treacherous route in near total darkness, taking care not to bump anyone, and being very mindful that the slightest misstep could send me sprawling into the frigid, salty lake (not to mention what that would do to the reflection).
Each time I passed my camera, I checked my previous image, made quick adjustments, and clicked a new frame before moving on to the next person who needed help. I only managed a handful of shots, and while they all looked pretty similar to this, that was just fine. We stayed here for 30 minutes or so, then moved on to the tufa garden I’d originally considered. That was nice too, though many of those images were spoiled by someone light painting the tufa nearby.
Looking over the images from that night, I’m reminded not just of the great photography we enjoyed, but also of how much fun we had out there in the dark, doing something we never imagined we’d be able to do. It would have been very easy after dinner to return with our full stomachs to our warm rooms, and turn in early to be rested for our early start the next morning. But I’ve been doing this long enough to know that the best memories often come from the most challenging conditions. If we’d have followed the strong urge to return to the hotel right after dinner, we almost certainly would have been quite comfortable, content, and completely oblivious to what we’d missed. And what a sad thing that would have been.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on September 19, 2021
More than anything else, photography needs to make you happy. When photography was my hobby, that wasn’t really a problem—I photographed what I wanted, where I wanted, when I wanted, with no pressure to please anyone else. Pretty nice. But, as I mulled turning photography into my livelihood (nearly 20 years ago!), I couldn’t help thinking about the photographers who had become unhappy after turning their passion into their profession. Suddenly their choices were fueled not by their own creative juices, but rather by their need to pay the bills.
So one of the promises I made to myself when I decided to pursue photography as a career was that I’d only photograph what I want to photograph. Over the years that approach has evolved to cover more than just subject choices—it also applies to my overall approach to photography, from capture through processing, all the way to what I share and how I share it. So I think a more accurate way of expressing my personal key to photography happiness would be that I photograph to please no one but myself.
When you look at one of my images, you’re viewing a subject that resonates with me personally (while I don’t think every photographer can say that, I also don’t think this makes me unique). That personal connection is why most of my images feature some version of the natural processes that have always fascinated me, camera or not: weather and its many manifestations (such as clouds, rainbows, lightning, and snow), geology (like mountains, volcanism, and the other natural processes of landscape building), and of course all things celestial. Communicating that connection is also why I virtually never share an image without writing something about it and/or the natural processes at play.
This need for connection to my subjects also influences my personal photography rules—not the same “rules” that guide and constrain aspiring photographers, but my own rules for what and how I photograph. Rules like natural light only (no light painting, flash, or any other artificial light), and no arranging of subjects in my scene, and so on.
One and done
A big personal rule for me is one-click capture. Though I never really felt much nostalgia for the color transparencies I shot for over 25 years, I’m still driven by a film photographer’s mindset. That doesn’t mean I don’t process my images, or that I don’t appreciate the power of digital processing to convey my subjects at their very best. But I do (among other things) like knowing that each image represents the photons that struck my sensor in the span of a single shutter click. In other words, I am a one-click photographer who gets no pleasure from merging, blending, combining multiple images into a single image.
It seems that every time I try to explain these personal motivations and guiding principles, I get a few defensive responses from people who believe I’m saying that everyone should follow my rules, or that I’m somehow superior to photographers who don’t do things the way I do them. Nope. I’m simply saying that my images need to please me and no one else, and hope your own images, however they’re achieved, make you just as happy as mine make me.
Which brings me to…
I’m thinking about all this because today I’m sharing a Milky Way image from my recently concluded Hawaii Big Island photo workshop. And nothing underscores the difference between my own (dinosaur?) approach than today’s computer-enabled (and beautiful) astro images.
For most of my photography life, I was frustrated by the camera’s low light limitations. In my pre-digital days, using my medium of choice (color slides) to photograph the Milky Way above a landscape was just a dream. And my first digital cameras, while perhaps better than slides in darkness, were still not up to the night photography task.
But over the last fifteen or so years, I watched technology improve to the point that one-shot, night-landscape photography became possible—and it keeps getting better. In my first digital attempts, I found that while I could capture the Milky Way, there was not enough light for the camera to pull in discernible landscape detail to go with it. Instead, in those early digital days I settled for moonlight night images—no Milky Way, but plenty of stars above a beautifully moonlit scene.
As I became hooked on moonlight photography, I watched other photographers start having Milky Way success by blending two (and sometimes more) images—one for the Milky Way, and another much longer exposure for the landscape. I actually tried this approach myself, had enough success to appreciate the technique, but soon realized that I derived absolutely no pleasure from these manufactured images and stopped doing it without ever sharing a blended creation with another soul.
My first real Milky Way success came at Kilauea, about ten years ago. Here the orange glow from the churning lava lake provided enough light to illuminate the surrounding caldera, and sometimes even painting the clouds with its volcanic glow. I was hooked.
The next major Milky Way milestone came when I switched to Sony and started using the Sony a7S. Suddenly, not only could I include lots of foreground detail in my one-click Milky Way images, I could see the scene in my viewfinder well enough to compose and focus quickly, without guessing.
And while my night cameras been evolving—from the a7S, then the Sony a7SII, and now the a7SIII—Sony has slipped the final piece of the night photography jigsaw into place with a great selection of fast, wide, and sharp lenses that seem made for the Milky Way.
For many years I looked forward to my Hawaii workshop more than any other workshop, in no small part because of the opportunity to return to Kilauea, the location of my first Milky Way success and still one of my very favorite Milky Way locations. Then, in August 2018, the Kilauea eruption went out in a blaze of glory—suddenly, I had to scramble for Milky Way locations on the Big Island.
With many locations lost to the recent eruption, in September 2018 I took my group to the Mauna Kea summit, nearly 14,000 above the Pacific. We had a great shoot among the array of telescopes at the summit, but the only thing more brutal than the wind and cold at the top was drive up there. My rental car started losing power and flashing an engine warning light, and a couple of other drivers were (understandably) less than thrilled about violating their rental car agreements. We also had to send a couple of people back down the mountain when they started feeling altitude sickness. (I’d still recommend the experience to anyone—it’s just not something I’m comfortable doing with a group.)
In 2019 scouted the Puna Coast for a good spot, but found much of the access still limited by the 2018 lava flow. I finally settled for section of brand new lava above the ocean, but clouds and moisture-thickened air hindered visibility, and the moonless darkness made it very difficult to safely get close enough to include much crashing surf. The Milky Way made enough of an appearance that were were able to photograph it, but the overall experience was less than ideal.
Given all the obstacles Mother Nature had thrown at me—not just locations and access lost to lava flows, but recent hurricane and flood damage to other locations too—I decided to take 2020 off from Hawaii. (Turns out I’d have had to cancel anyway.) But I missed Hawaii and realized, eruption and Milky Way or not, it’s a pretty great place to photograph. So the Big Island went back on my schedule in 2021.
Despite the aborted eruption and the prior night location difficulties, I was determined to give the Milky Way another shot in 2021. Thinking it might be easier to photograph away from the coast, I found a nice elevated view on Chain of Craters Road in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. It was about three miles from the coast, but had a great view of the ocean and recent lava flows, and a few striking trees for the foreground.
I gave the group some Milky Way training on our second afternoon, then drove out to the chosen spot after that evening’s sunset shoot. While the view was indeed magnificent, the wind was so strong that we couldn’t even consider setting up tripods. But since we were there anyway, I kept everyone out long enough for everyone to see the Milky Way emerge from the darkness. While that was more of a consolation prize for people with their hearts set on Milky Way images, it was pretty cool, especially for the folks who have never really seen the Milky Way’s core in a truly dark sky.
Some groups are more excited than others about the chance to photograph the Milky Way, and I could tell that this group was pretty disappointed that our shoot didn’t work out. So I decided to give it one more shot, on the workshop’s final night—no guarantees, but we’d at least go down trying.
Since our final sunset would be on the Puna Coast, I decided that we’d just find a spot out there for the Milky Way. A check of the map confirmed that the galactic core would align nicely with the rocky coast from MacKenzie Point, my planned sunset spot, we just stayed put there and waited for the Milky Way to come to us.
The downside of this location is that it’s rather precariously perched above quite violent surf. But since we were already out there for sunset, I knew everyone would be able to get situated and set up for the Milky Way early enough to avoid moving around much (or at all) in the dark.
The biggest unknown in this plan was the clouds that always seem to lurk along the Puna Coast. But after a day of sky mostly obscured by clouds, a little opening appeared in the south around sunset, and I crossed my fingers. We ended enjoying the most colorful sunset/sunrise of the workshop, then crossed our fingers that the sky would remain open until darkness was complete.
For this shoot I used my Sony a7SIII and Sony 14 f/1.8 GM exclusively. Usually my Milky Way compositions favor the sky over the foreground. But here, long exposures of the waves exploding against jagged volcanic rock created ethereal motion blur that nicely complimented the Milky Way, so I wanted to include as much surf as sky. Not only did I want more foreground than usual, the lower the latitude, the higher in the sky the Milky Way’s core is—having such a wide lens allowed me to include lots of surf and sky.
I only managed to capture seven frames while I “bounced” (tiptoed gingerly) in near total darkness, hyper-conscious of the consequences of a misstep, between people to provide assistance. The southern sky was virtually clear in my first two captures, but each subsequent click revealed an ominous cloud bank encroaching on our sky. Knowing how quickly the rain can strike in Hawaii, and wanting to avoid anything that might cause people to move suddenly in the dark, I called the shoot after about 30 minutes. This is my final image of the night.
Since this was the workshop’s last night and there were no more image reviews, I can’t say that everyone finished that shoot with a great Milky Way image. But I do know that everyone did at least capture the Milky Way, and gained enough insight to do it better the next time. I also know that everyone was happy with the entire experience—which is really what it’s all about.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on July 5, 2021
Last week I posted a Milky Way reflection image (and the story of its capture) from my recent Grand Canyon raft trip, and this week I’m sharing another one from the same night. What I didn’t share last week is the rather circuitous (and somewhat embarrassing) path to offering my images from that night. So here goes…
There’s a certain mystique that comes with being a professional photographer that I must say isn’t always completely deserved. I mean, sometimes it feels we’re viewed as creative savants who never make mistakes, when in reality we struggle to make things happen just like everyone else. Like you, I’ve checked my EXIF data and wondered what in the world I was thinking when I chose f/16 or ISO 800 (or whatever), left a shoot just a little early or arrived a little late, decided not to bring (or simply forgotten to pack) the right lens, not charged a battery (or brought a spare), clumsily dropped a valuable piece of precision electronics, deleted important images, or…, well, let’s just say I could go on.
Case in point: As I’ve said as recently as last week, the Milky Way may just be my favorite thing to photography on my Grand Canyon raft trip. So important in fact, that I always spend a significant amount of the trip’s precious (and strictly enforced) equipment-weight budget on a camera body and lens that will be used for nothing but the Milky Way. But one year unseasonal rain and clouds that provided spectacular photography also unfortunately completely wiped out the trip’s night shoots. Which is why I didn’t discover until returning home that instead of packing the 20mm f/1.4 dedicated night lens (at the time), I’d packed my 90mm macro (which was a similar size but didn’t really look anything like the 20mm).
In my defense, I try not to make the same mistake twice, and every subsequent trip I’ve double- and triple-checked my gear to make sure I have everything I’ll need. This year’s night setup was my brand new Sony a7SIII and relatively new Sony 20mm f/1.8 G lens, and I’m happy to report that both made it onboard and downstream, and were ready for action when we scored a prime Milky Way campsite on the trip’s third night. In fact, I managed to navigate the entire shoot that night with the right camera and lens, proper camera settings, everything in focus, plenty of space on the SD card, and without dropping a single thing. What could possibly go wrong?
The next day I was pretty excited about what I’d captured, and couldn’t wait to get home and look the images on my computer. That afternoon was hot, and we arrived at our campsite early. With the sun still quite high as we prepared to motor across the river for some quality photography, swimming, and hiking at Deer Creek Fall, out of an abundance of caution, I removed from my duffle the small case containing my a7SIII and 20mm, carefully setting it in the cool shade of a nearby rock. Do you see where this is going?
Like most mornings, the next morning was a blur of activity as we ate breakfast, packed up our campsite, and hit the river. At Havasu Creek, about 30 miles downstream, I had the sudden realization that I had no memory of returning the camera and lens to my duffle, a thought that I quickly attributed to what I call the “garage door axiom”: just because you don’t remember doing something, doesn’t mean you didn’t do it (how many times have you not remembered closing the garage door and u-turned home only to find it closed tight?). Which is why I wasn’t really that concerned at camp that night, but I figured I’d better check my duffle anyway, just in case.
I was instantly reminded that no matter how many times you check a spot for something that you know should be there but isn’t, doesn’t make it appear. My panic eventually turned to embarrassment as my mind processed the ramifications. Not only were my camera and lens gone, so were the SD cards containing the only copies of the previous night’s bounty. The Colorado River is a one-way juggernaut, so going back was not an option. And with no connectivity at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, there would be no getting the word out until we returned to civilization.
I tried consoling myself with the knowledge that the camera and lens were insured, but the rationalization the Milky Way images were the only irreplaceable loss was little comfort. And that certainly didn’t make me feel any less stupid. It gets worse…
The first thing I did upon returning to the land of connectivity was report the loss to Trent at Western River Expeditions, the director of operations who puts together my charter each year. The second thing I did was gather the information necessary to file an insurance claim. So imagine my surprise when I realized that I’d somehow forgotten to add my new a7SIII to my insurance policy. Oops.
At first Trent was hopeful that some Good Samaritan would find my gear and do the right thing, but when two weeks passed with no word, my faith in humankind started to wane. But just about the time I’d given up all hope, I got a text from Trent saying that someone had just exited the canyon and posted online that he’d found a camera across from Deer Creek Fall and was trying to find the rightful owner. The next few days were a blur of online searching, messaging, effusive gratitude, shipping, tracking, and finally more effusive gratitude when I actually had my camera, lens, and SD cards in my possession.
I don’t know if there’s a real moral to this story, other than it’s nice to be reminded that humans are generally good and most people will do the right thing when the opportunity presents itself. That, and I’m a pretty lucky guy.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on June 27, 2021
It seems that photographing the Milky Way gets a little easier with every passing year. I’m not talking about the dazzling composite hybrids (one frame for the sky, combined with a second frame for the foreground) that have become so popular, I’m talking about the old fashioned (well, as old fashioned as a digital image can be) single-click captures that use only the photons that strike a sensor during a single exposure.
Whether it’s a new low-light camera body, the latest ultra-fast wide lens, or breakthrough noise reduction software, there’s always something to new to look forward to on any of my workshops that include the Milky Way. 2020 was a lost year, so not only was I especially looking forward to returning to my go-to dark sky spots, I was really looking forward to trying out two years of technology advancement: my new Sony a7SIII, (relatively) new Sony 20mm f/1.8 G (the 14mm f/1.8 GM lens didn’t make it in time), and applying my new Topaz DeNoise AI software to the results.
My first Milky Way opportunity of 2021 came on Grand Canyon raft trip in May. On moonless nights the Grand Canyon has some of the darkest skies possible, but towering walls and the general east-west trend of the Colorado River make it tricky to find views of the southern horizon where the Milky Way’s brilliant core is found. And since all Colorado River campsites are first come, first served, and campsites with a Milky Way view are rare, viewing the Milky Way at the bottom of the Grand Canyon is far from a sure thing.
This was the seventh time I’ve done this trip, so my lead river guide and I have become pretty good at maximizing our Milky Way opportunities. Nevertheless, on this trip we didn’t get a campsite that worked until our fourth night. It was actually our second choice for that night, but when we found the site we’d originally targeted occupied, we ended up at our Plan B spot about a mile downstream.
My first thought was that a less than ideal angle of view meant the Milky Way wouldn’t appear until after 1 a.m., and wouldn’t rotate into the prime viewing region above the canyon until after 2 a.m. But after I scoping out the view while waiting for dinner, I found a couple of reasons to like our location. First was the spacious beach that provided room for everyone to set up without jostling for position, a real luxury compared to most of the campsites. The second that gave me hope was that our beach was on a bend in the river that created a large pool of still, reflective water—if the wind held off (never a sure thing), we could have some pretty nice reflections.
After dinner I gave everyone in the group a little orientation, letting them know where to set up, and when and where the Milky Way would appear. I also encouraged them to pre-compose and pre-focus before it got dark. (One of the great things about night photography at the Grand Canyon is that you can set up your shot in advance and leave your camera set up on the tripod without worrying about it “walking away.”)
When I got up at 1 a.m. the Milky Way was cresting the canyon wall on the left, and a few others were already happily clicking away. The air was still, so the reflection was everything I’d hoped it would be.
My early frames were horizontal, but as the Milky Way rotated upward, I started to mix in more vertical frames. Night photography is all about compromise: choosing less than ideal exposure values to capture enough light to bring out the stars and even a little foreground detail. As I do with most of my Milky Way images, before moving on to my next composition I tried a variety of exposure settings, varying the ISO between 6400 to 12800, shutter speeds from 10 to 30 seconds, and f-stops from f/1.8 to f/2.8.
Milky Way nights are so dark that sometimes I go for silhouettes. Silhouettes require less light, but also need a distinctive outline against the sky. I didn’t think silhouettes here were very good, so I exposed for more light to pull out foreground detail. For this image I used ISO 6400, f/1.8, 30 seconds, deciding that ISO 6400 gave me the most manageable noise, and my Sony 20mm f/1.8 G lens is good enough wide open that I really don’t need to stop-down. And given the amount of foreground detail I wanted, I preferred the slight star motion of a 30-second exposure to the extra noise ISO 12800 and 15 seconds gave me. (But this is a personal choice—if even extremely slight star motion bothers you, you might be okay with a little more noise to reduce it.)
Here’s an updated version of the Milky Way how-to article in my Photo Tips section
Look heavenward on a moonless summer night (in the Northern Hemisphere) far from city light. The first thing to strike you is the shear volume of stars, but as your eyes adjust, your gaze is drawn to a luminous band spanning the heavens. Ranging from magnificently brilliant to faintly visible, this is the Milky Way, home to our sun and nearly a half trillion other stars of varying age, size, and temperature.
Though every star you’ve ever seen is part of our Milky Way galaxy, stargazers use the Milky Way label more specifically to identify this luminous river of starlight, gas, and dust encircling the night sky. As you feast your eyes, appreciate that some of the Milky Way’s starlight has traveled 25,000 years to reach your eyes, and that light from a star on one edge of the Milky Way would take 100,000 years to reach the other side.
The rest of the sky appears to be filled with far more discrete stars than the region containing the Milky Way, but don’t let this deceive you. Imagine that you’re out in the countryside where the individual lights of a distant city blend into a homogeneous glow—similarly, the stars in the Milky Way’s luminous band are simply too numerous and distant to resolve individually. On the other hand, much like the lights of nearby farmhouses, the distinct pinpoints of starlight that we name and mentally assemble into constellations are simply closer. The dark patches in the Milky Way aren’t empty space, they’re starlight-blocking interstellar dust and gas, remnants of exploded stars and the stuff of future stars—like the trees and mountains that block our view of the city,.
Just as it’s impossible to know what your house looks like by peering out a window, it’s impossible to know what the Milky Way looks like by simply looking up on a dark night. Fortunate for us, really smart people have been able to infer from painstaking observation, measurement, reconstruction, and comparison with other galaxies that our Milky Way is flat (much wider than it is tall) and spiral shaped, like a glowing pinwheel, with two major arms and several minor arms spiraling out from its center. Our solar system is in one of the Milky Way’s minor arms, a little past midway between the center and outer edge.
Sadly, artificial light and atmospheric pollution have erased the view of the Milky Way for nearly a third of the world’s population—eighty percent of Americans. Worse still, even though some part of the Milky Way is overhead on every clear night, many people have never seen it.
The good news is that advances in digital technology have spurred a night photography renaissance that has enabled the Milky Way challenged to enjoy images of its splendor from the comfort of their recliner. But there’s nothing quite like viewing it in person. Fortunately, with just a little knowledge and effort, you too can enjoy the Milky Way firsthand; add the right equipment and a little more knowledge, and you’ll be able to photograph it as well.
Understanding that our Solar System is inside the Milky Way’s disk makes it easier to understand why we can see some portion of the Milky Way on any night (assuming the sky is dark enough). In fact, from our perspective, the plane of the Milky Way forms a complete ring around Earth (but of course we can only see half the sky at any given time), with its brightness varying depending on whether we’re looking toward our galaxy’s dense center or sparse outer region.
Though the plane of the Milky Way stretches all the way across our sky, when photographers talk about photographing the Milky Way, they usually mean the galactic core—the Milky Way’s center and most densely packed, brightest region. Unfortunately, our night sky doesn’t always face the galactic core, and there are many months when this bright region is not visible at all.
To understand the Milky Way’s visibility in our night sky, it helps to remember that Earth both rotates on its axis (a day), and revolves around the sun (a year). When the side of the planet we’re on rotates away from the sun each day, the night sky we see is determined by our position on our annual trip around the sun—when Earth is between the sun and the galactic core, we’re in position to see the most brilliant part of the Milky Way; in the months when the sun is between earth and the galactic core, the bright part of the Milky Way can’t be seen.
Put in terrestrial terms, imagine you’re at the neighborhood playground, riding a merry-go-round beneath a towering oak tree. You face outward, with your back to the merry-go-round’s center post. As the merry-go-round spins, your view changes—about half of the time you’d rotate to face the oak’s trunk, and about half the time your back is to the tree. Our solar system is like that merry-go-round: the center post is the sun, the Milky Way is the tree, and in the year it takes our celestial merry-go-round to make a complete circle, we’ll face the Milky Way about half the time.
Just like every other celestial object outside our solar system, the Milky Way’s position in our sky changes with the season and time of night you view it, but it remains constant relative to the other stars and constellations. This means you can find the Milky Way by simply locating any of the constellations in the galactic plane. Here’s an alphabetical list of the constellations* through which the Milky Way passes (with brief notes by a few of the more notable constellations):
If you can find any of these constellations, you’re looking in the direction of some part of the Milky Way (if you can’t see it, your sky isn’t dark enough). But most of us want to see the center of the Milky Way, where it’s brightest, most expansive, and most photogenic. The two most important things to understand about finding the Milky Way’s brilliant center are:
Armed with this knowledge, locating the Milky Way’s core is as simple as opening one of my (too many) star apps to find out where Sagittarius is. Problem solved. Of course it helps to know that the months when the galactic core rises highest and is visible longest are June, July, and August, and to not even consider looking before mid-March, or after mid-October. If you can’t wait until summer and don’t mind missing a little sleep, starting in April, Northern Hemisphere residents with a dark enough sky can catch Sagittarius and the galactic core rising in the southeast shortly before sunrise. After its annual premier in April, the Milky Way’s core rises slightly earlier each night and is eventually well above the horizon by nightfall.
People who enjoy sleep prefer doing their Milky Way hunting in late summer and early autumn, when the galactic core has been above the horizon for most of the daylight hours, but remains high in the southwest sky as soon as the post-sunset sky darkens enough for the stars to appear. The farther into summer and autumn you get, the closer to setting beneath the western horizon the Milky Way will be at sunset, and the less time you’ll have before it disappears.
The Milky Way is dim enough to be easily washed out by light pollution and moonlight, so the darker your sky, the more visible the Milky Way will be. To ensure sufficient darkness, I target moonless hours, from an hour or so after sunset to an hour before sunrise. New moon nights are easiest because the new moon rises and sets (more or less) with the sun and there’s no moon all night. But on any night, if you pick a time before the moon rises, or after it sets, you should be fine. Be aware that the closer the moon is to full, the greater the potential for its glow to leak into the scene from below the horizon.
Getting away from city lights can be surprisingly difficult (and frustrating). Taking a drive out into the countryside near home is better than nothing, and while it may seem dark enough to your eyes, a night exposure in an area that you expect to be dark enough reveals just how insidious light pollution is as soon as you realize all of your images are washed out by an unnatural glow on the horizon. Since the galactic core is in the southern sky in the Northern Hemisphere, you can mitigate urban glow in your Milky Way images by heading south of any nearby population area, putting the glow behind you as you face the Milky Way.
Better than a night drive out to the country, plan a trip to a location with a truly dark sky. For this, those in the less densely populated western US have an advantage. The best resource for finding world-class dark skies anywhere on Earth is the International Dark-Sky Association. More than just a resource, the IDA actively advocates for dark skies, so if the quality of our night skies matters to you, spend some time on their site, get involved, and share their website with others.
Viewing the Milky Way requires nothing more than a clear, dark sky. (Assuming clean, clear skies) the Milky Way’s luminosity is fixed, so our ability to see it is largely a function of the darkness of the surrounding sky—the darker the sky, the better the Milky Way stands out. But because our eyes can only take in a fixed amount of light, there’s a ceiling on our ability to view the Milky Way with the unaided eye.
A camera, on the other hand, can accumulate light for a virtually unlimited duration. This, combined with technological advances that continue increasing the light sensitivity of digital sensors, means that when it comes to photographing the Milky Way, well…, the sky’s the limit. As glorious as it is to view the Milky Way with the unaided eye, a camera will show you detail and color your eyes can’t see.
Knowing when and where to view the Milky Way is a great start, but photographing the Milky Way requires a combination of equipment, skill, and experience that doesn’t just happen overnight (so to speak). But Milky Way photography doesn’t need to break the bank, and it’s not rocket science.
Bottom line, photographing the Milky Way is all about maximizing your ability to collect light: long exposures, fast lenses, high ISO.
In general, the larger your camera’s sensor and photosites (the “pixels” that capture the light), the more efficiently it collects light. Because other technology is involved, there’s not an absolute correlation between sensor and pixel size and light gathering capability, but a small, densely packed sensor almost certainly rules out your smartphone and point-and-shoot cameras for anything more than a fuzzy snap of the Milky Way. At the very least you’ll want a mirrorless or DSLR camera with an APS-C (1.5/1.6 crop) size sensor. Better still is a full frame mirrorless or DSLR camera. (A 4/3 Olympus or Panasonic sensor might work, but as great as these cameras are for some things, high ISO photography isn’t their strength.
Another general rule is that the newer the technology, the better it will perform in low light. Even with their smaller, more densely packed sensors, many of today’s top APS-C bodies outperform in low light full frame bodies that have been out for a few years, so full frame or APS-C, if your camera is relatively new, it will probably do the job.
If you’re shopping for a new camera and think night photography might be in your future, compare your potential cameras’ high ISO capabilities—not their maximum ISO. Read reviews by credible sources like DP Review, Imaging Resource, or DxOMark (among many others) to see how your camera candidates fare in objective tests.
An often overlooked consideration is the camera’s ability to focus in extreme low light. Autofocusing on the stars or landscape will be difficult to impossible, and you’ll not be able to see well enough through a DSLR’s viewfinder to manually focus. Some bodies with a fast lens might autofocus on a bright star or planet, but it’s not something I’d count on (though I expect within a few years before this capability will become more common).
Having photographed for years with Sony and Canon, and working extensively with most other mirrorless and DSLR bodies in my workshops, I have lots of experience with cameras from many manufacturers. In my book, focus peaking makes mirrorless the clear winner for night focusing. Sony’s current mirrorless bodies (a7RII/RIII, a7S/SII) are by far the easiest I’ve ever used for focusing in the dark—what took a minute or more with my Canon, I can do in seconds using focus peaking with my Sony bodies (especially the S bodies). I use the Sony a7SII, but when I don’t want to travel with a body I only use for night photography, the Sony a7RIII does the job too. Of the major DSLR brands, I’ve found Canon’s superior LCD screen (as of 2019) makes it much easier to focus in extreme low light than Nikon. (More on focus later.)
Put simply, to photograph the Milky Way you want fast, wide glass—the faster the better. Fast to capture as much light as possible; wide to take in lots of sky. A faster lens also makes focus and composition easier because the larger aperture gathers more light. How fast? F/2.8 or faster—preferably faster. How wide? At least 28mm, and wider is better still. I do enough night photography that I have a dedicated, night-only lens—my original night lens was a Canon-mount Zeiss 28mm f/2; my current night lens is the Sony 24mm f/1.4.
It goes without saying that at exposure times up to 30 seconds, you’ll need a sturdy tripod and head for Milky Way photography. You don’t need to spend a fortune, but the more you spend, the happier you’ll be in the long run (trust me). Carbon fiber provides the best combination of strength, vibration reduction, and light weight, but a sturdy (albeit heavy) aluminum tripod will do the job.
An extended centerpost is not terribly stable, and a non-extended centerpost limits your ability to spread the tripod’s legs and get low, so I avoid tripods with a centerpost. But if you have a sturdy tripod with a centerpost, don’t run out and purchase a new one—just don’t extend the centerpost when photographing at night.
Read my tips for purchasing a tripod here.
To eliminate the possibility of camera vibration I recommend a remote release; without a remote you’ll risk annoying all within earshot with your camera’s 2-second timer beep. You’ll want a flashlight or headlamp for the walk to and from the car, and your cell phone for light while shooting. And it’s never a bad idea to toss an extra battery in your pocket. And speaking of lights, never, never, NEVER use a red light for night photography (more on this later).
Keep it simple
There are just so many things that can go wrong on a moonless night when there’s not enough light to see camera controls, the contents of your bag, and the tripod leg you’re about to trip over. After doing this for many years, both on my own and helping others in workshops, I’ve decided that simplicity is essential.
Simplicity starts with paring down to the absolute minimum camera gear: a sturdy tripod, one body, one lens, and a remote release (plus an extra battery in my pocket). Everything else stays at home, in the car, or if I’m staying out after a sunset shoot, in my bag.
Upon arrival at my night photography destination, I extract my tripod, camera, lens (don’t forget to remove the polarizer), and remote release. I connect the remote and mount my lens—if it’s a zoom I set the focal length at the lens’s widest—then set my exposure and focus (more on exposure and focus below). If I’m walking to my photo site, I carry the pre-exposed and focused camera on the tripod (I know this makes some people uncomfortable, but if you don’t trust your tripod head enough to hold onto your camera while you’re walking, it’s time for a new head), trying to keep the tripod as upright and stable as possible as I walk.
Flashlights/headlamps are essential for the walk/hike out to to and from my shooting location, but while I’m there and in shoot mode, it’s no flashlights, no exceptions. This is particularly important when I’m with a group. Not only does a flashlight inhibit your night vision, its light leaks into the frame of everyone who’s there. And while red lights may be better for your night vision and are great for telescope view, red light is especially insidious about leaking into everyone’s frame, so if you plan to take pictures, no red light! If you follow my no flashlight rule once the photography begins, you’ll be amazed at how well your eyes adjust. I can operate my camera’s controls in the dark—it’s not hard with a little practice, and well worth the effort to learn. If I ever do need to see my camera to adjust something, or if I need to see to move around, my cell phone screen (not the phone’s flashlight, just its illuminated screen) gives me all the light I need.
A good Milky Way image is distinguished from an ordinary Milky Way image by its foreground. Simply finding a location that’s dark enough to see the Milky Way is difficult enough; finding a dark location that also has a foreground worthy of pairing with the Milky Way usually takes a little planning.
Since the Milky Way’s center is in the southern sky (for Northern Hemisphere observers), I look for remote (away from light pollution) subjects that I can photograph while facing south (or southeast or southwest, depending on the month and time of night). Keep in mind that unless you have a ridiculous light gathering camera (like the Sony a7S or a7S II) and an extremely fast lens (f/2 or faster), your foreground will probably be more dark shape than detail. Water’s inherent reflectivity makes it a good foreground subject as well, especially if the water includes rocks or whitewater.
When I encounter a scene I deem photo worthy, not only do I try to determine its best light and moon rise/set possibilities, I also consider its potential as a Milky Way subject. Can I align it with the southern sky? Are there strong subjects that stand out against the sky? Is there water I can include in my frame?
I’ve found views of the Grand Canyon from the North Rim, the Kilauea Caldera, and the bristlecone pines in California’s White Mountains that work spectacularly. And its hard to beat the dark skies and breathtaking foreground possibilities at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. On the other hand, while Yosemite Valley has lots to love, you don’t see a lot of Milky Way images from Yosemite Valley because not only is there a lot of light pollution, and Yosemite’s towering, east/west trending granite walls give its south views an extremely high horizon that blocks much of the galactic core from the valley floor.
The last few years I’ve started photographing the Milky Way above the spectacular winter scenery of New Zealand’s South Island, where the skies are dark and the Milky Way is higher in the sky than it is in most of North America.
To maximize the amount of Milky Way in my frame, I generally (but not always) start with a vertical orientation that’s at least 2/3 sky. On the other hand, I do make sure to give myself more options with a few horizontal compositions as well. Given the near total darkness required of a Milky Way shoot, it’s often too dark to see well enough to compose that scene. If I can’t see well enough to compose I guess at a composition, take a short test exposure at an extreme (unusable) ISO to enable a relatively fast shutter speed (a few seconds), adjust the composition based on the image in the LCD, and repeat until I’m satisfied.
Needless to say, when it’s dark enough to view the Milky Way, there’s not enough light to autofocus (unless you have a rare camera/lens combo that can autofocus on a bright star and planet), or even to manually focus with confidence. And of all the things that can ruin a Milky Way image (not to mention an entire night), poor focus is number one. Not only is achieving focus difficult, it’s very easy to think you’re focused only to discover later that you just missed.
Because the Milky Way’s focus point is infinity, and you almost certainly won’t have enough light to stop down for more depth of field, your closest foreground subjects should be far enough away to be sharp when you’re wide open and focused at infinity. Before going out to shoot, find a hyperfocal app and plug in the values for your camera and lens at its widest aperture. Even though it’s technically possible to be sharp from half the hyperfocal distance to infinity, the kind of precise focus focusing on the hyperfocal point requires is difficult to impossible in the dark, so my rule of thumb is to make sure my closest subject is no closer than the hyperfocal distance.
For example, I know with my Sony 24mm f/1.4 wide open on my full frame Sony a7SII, the hyperfocal distance is about 50 feet. If I have a subject that’s closer (such as a bristlecone pine), I’ll pre-focus (before dark) on the hyperfocal distance, or shine a bright light on an object at the hyperfocal distance and focus there, but generally I make sure everything is at least 50 feet away. Read more about hyperfocal focus in my Depth of Field article.
By far the number one cause of night focus misses is the idea that you can just dial any lens to infinity; followed closely by the idea that focused at one focal length means focused at all focal lengths. Because when it comes to sharpness, almost isn’t good enough, if you have a zoom lens, don’t even think of trying to dial the focus ring to the end for infinity. And even for most prime lenses, the infinity point is a little short of all the way to the end, and can vary slightly with the temperature and f-stop. Of course if you know your lens well enough to be certain of its infinity point by feel (and are a risk taker), go for it. And that zoom lens that claims to be parfocal? While it’s possible that your zoom will hold focus throughout its entire focal range, regardless of what the manufacturer claims, I wouldn’t bet an entire shoot on it without testing first.
All this means that the only way to ensure night photography sharpness is to focus carefully on something before shooting, refocus every time your focal length changes, and check focus frequently by displaying and magnifying an image on your LCD. To simplify (there’s that word again), when using a zoom lens, I usually set the lens at its widest focal length, focus, verify sharpness, and (once I know I’m focused) never change the focal length again.
While the best way to ensure focus is to set your focal length and focus before it gets dark, sometimes pre-focusing isn’t possible, or for some reason you need to refocus after darkness falls. If I arrive at my destination in the dark, I autofocus on my headlights, a bright flashlight, or a laser 50 feet or more away. And again, never assume you’re sharp by looking at the image that pops up on the LCD when the exposure completes—always magnify your image and check it after you focus.
For more on focusing in the dark, including how to use stars to focus, read my Starlight Photo Tips article.
Exposing a Milky Way image is wonderfully simple once you realize that you don’t have to meter—because you can’t (not enough light). Your goal is simply to capture as many photons as you can without damaging the image with noise, star motion, and lens flaws.
Basically, with today’s technology you can’t give a Milky Way image too much light—you’ll run into image quality problems before you overexpose a Milky Way image. In other words, capturing the amount of light required to overexpose a Milky Way image is only possible if you’ve chosen an ISO and/or shutter speed that significantly compromises the quality of the image with excessive noise and/or star motion.
In a perfect world, I’d take every image at ISO 100 and f/8—the best ISO and f-stop for my camera and lens. But that’s not possible when photographing in near total darkness—a usable Milky Way image requires exposure compromises. What kind of compromises? The key to getting a properly exposed Milky Way image is knowing how far you push your camera’s exposure settings before the light gained isn’t worth the diminished quality. Each exposure variable causes a different problem when pushed too far:
Again: My approach to metering for the Milky Way is to give my scene as much light as I can without pushing the exposure compromises to a point I can’t live with. Where exactly is that point? Not only does that question require a subjective answer that varies with each camera body, lens, and scene, as technology improves, I’m less forgiving of exposure compromises than I once was. For example, when I started photographing the Milky Way with my Canon 1DS Mark III, the Milky Way scenes I could shoot were limited because my fastest wide lens was f/4 and I got too much noise when I pushed my ISO beyond 1600. This forced me compromise by shooting wide open with a 30-second shutter speed to achieve even marginal results. In fact, given these limitations, despite trying to photograph the Milky Way from many locations, when I started the only Milky Way foreground that worked well enough was Kilauea Caldera, because it was its own light source (an erupting volcano).
Today (mid-2019) I photograph the Milky Way with a Sony a7S II and a Sony 24mm f/1.4 lens. I get much cleaner images from my Sony at ISO 6400 than got a ISO 1600 on my Canon 1DSIII, and the night light gathering capability of an f/1.4 lens revelatory. At ISO 6400 (or higher) I can stop down slightly to eliminate lens aberrations (though I don’t seem to need to with the Sony lens), drop my shutter speed to 20 or 15 seconds to reduce star motion 33-50 percent, and still get usable foreground detail by starlight.
I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to know your camera’s and lens’s capabilities in low light, and how for you’re comfortable pushing the ISO and f-stop. For each of the night photography equipment combos I’ve used, I’ve established a general exposure upper threshold, rule-of-thumb compromise points for each exposure setting that I won’t exceed until I’ve reached the compromise threshold of the other exposure settings. For example, with my Sony a7SII/24mm f/1.4 combo, I usually start at ISO 6400, f/1.4, and 20 seconds. Those settings will usually get me enough light for Milky Way color and pretty good foreground detail. But if I want more light (for example, if I’m shooting into the black pit of the Grand Canyon from the canyon rim), my first exposure compromise might be to increase to ISO 12800; if I decide I need even more light, my next compromise is to bump my shutter speed to 30 seconds. Or if I want a wider field of view than 24mm, I’ll put on my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 G lens and increase to ISO 12800 and 30 seconds.
These thresholds are guidelines rather than hard-and-fast rules, and they apply to my preferences only—your results may vary. And though I’m pretty secure with this workflow, for each Milky Way composition I try a variety of exposure combinations before moving to another composition. Not only does this give me a range of options to choose between when I’m at home and reviewing my images on a big monitor, it also gives me more insight into my camera/lens capabilities, allowing me to refine my exposure compromise threshold points.
One other option that I’ve started applying automatically is long exposure noise reduction, which delivers a noticeable reduction in noise for exposures that are several seconds and longer.
It’s time to click that shutter
You’re in position with the right gear, composed, focused, and exposure values set. Before you actually click the shutter, let me remind you of a couple of things you can do to ensure the best results: First, lower that center post. A tripod center post’s inherent instability is magnified during long exposures, not just by wind, but even by nearby footsteps, the press of the shutter button, and slap of the mirror (and sometimes it seems, by ghosts). And speaking of shutter clicks, you should be using a remote cable or two-second timer to eliminate the vibration imparted when your finger presses the shutter button.
When that first Milky Way image pops up on the LCD, it’s pretty exciting. So exciting in fact that sometimes you risk being lulled into a “Wow, this isn’t as hard as I expected” complacency. Even though you think everything’s perfect, don’t forget to review your image sharpness every few frames by displaying and magnifying and image on your LCD. In theory nothing should change unless you changed it, but in practice I’ve noticed an occasional inclination for focus to shift mysteriously between shots. Whether it’s slight temperature changes or an inadvertent nudge of the focus ring as you fumble with controls in the dark, you can file periodically checking your sharpness falls under “an ounce of prevention….” Believe me, this will save a lot of angst later.
And finally, don’t forget to play with different exposure settings for each composition. Not only does this give you more options, it also gives you more insight into your camera/lens combo’s low light capabilities.
The bottom line
Though having top-of-the-line, low-light equipment helps a lot, it’s not essential. If you have a full frame mirrorless or DSLR camera that’s less than five years old, and a lens that’s f/2.8 or faster, you probably have all the equipment you need to get great the Milky Way images. Even with a cropped sensor, or an f/4 lens, you have a good chance of getting usable Milky Way images in the right circumstances. If you’ve never photographed the Milky Way before, don’t expect perfection the first time out. What you can expect is improvement each time you go out as you learn the limitations of your equipment and identify your own exposure compromise thresholds. And success or failure, at the very least you’ll have spent a magnificent night under the stars.
Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the window to reorder the display.
Posted on June 13, 2021
It’s a Saturday afternoon (Sunday evening by the time you read this) and I’m working on less than 4 hours sleep. I’m not complaining, but before I pass out, I want to share the story of my latest shoot, and the reason I’m so sleep deprived.
If you follow my blog, you might know that in April Don Smith and I got an unexpected opportunity to preview Sony’s brand new 14mm f/1.8 GM lens in Oregon, before its announcement a week or so later. (Read more here.) But that experience was just a tease, because just as I started to fully appreciate the new lens’s potential for night photography (and other stuff, but I’m especially excited by night photography), we had to send it back.
When I finally got my own copy of the lens early this month, I couldn’t wait to try it out on the Milky Way (which wasn’t possible in Oregon because of the direction the Bandon views faced, and a waning moon). June is primetime for Milky Way photography because the brilliant galactic core is up all night—all you need is a dark sky far from city lights, and without the moon.
With a waxing moon invading the sky starting this week, the June dark sky window was quickly closing when I accepted an invitation to join a couple of photographer friends on their night photography trip to Joshua Tree NP this weekend. Then, just two days before we were supposed to leave, my friends decided to go to Denmark instead (a likely story—who else remembers the “Friends” episode where Chandler ditched Janice by telling her he was going to Yemen? Oh. My. God.), leaving me to fend for myself.
I could have stuck with the Joshua Tree plan, but a solo, 16+ hour roundtrip to spend a couple of nights photographing a spot I don’t really know didn’t sound like the best use of my time. Instead, I decided to recruit my brother Jay for a quick trip to more familiar environs.
Yosemite Valley’s towering walls and east/west orientation make it less than ideal for Milky Way photography. And while Yosemite’s high country has potential, accessibility (no roads, backcountry permit requirements) make it next to impossible for a last-minute trip. But…, at 8000 feet, Olmsted Point certainly qualifies as Yosemite high country. And because it’s right on Tioga Road (Highway 120), no backcountry permit is required. There’s still the problem of this summer’s COVID-induced Yosemite reservation system, but photo workshop permit gives me an exemption from (I do still have to get approval first).
Another nice thing about Olmsted Point is that it offers a view of Half Dome that’s quite a bit different than what we’re used to seeing from Yosemite Valley. While the Yosemite Valley views of Half Dome face east, from Olmsted Point Half Dome rises in the southwest, at the end of Tenaya Canyon.
Jay and I pulled into the Olmsted Point parking area at about 8:30 Friday night. The sun had just set, but we still had at least an hour until the sky darkened enough for the Milky Way to appear. With time to kill, after bundling into my cold weather clothes and organizing my gear, I twisted my Sony 100-400 onto my Sony a7RIV and scaled a nearby granite ridge to photograph the thin sliver of new moon disappearing in the west. An impromptu bonus that set the tone for the night.
We made the 5-minute walk out to Olmsted Point’s granite dome at around 9 p.m. I’ve been up here more times than I can count, so even in the dwindling light I was able to quickly identify the scene I wanted to start with, set up my camera (Sony a7SIII and Sony 14mm f/1.8 GM), and frame up a composition. Then I just kicked back on the granite and watched the stars pop out.
Viewed from the Northern Hemisphere, in June the Milky Way’s core rises nearly horizontal in the southeast sky shortly after sunset. As our planetary viewing platform rotates, the glowing core appears to pivot on an unseen point below the south-southwest horizon, moving up and southward (to the right) until it stands vertical in the southwest. The northern hemisphere nights are so short in June that the Milky Way fades from view before setting.
By 9:30 we could see the Milky Way peeking just above the granite ridge that leads to Clouds Rest. It was well east of Half Dome, so for these early frames I was very thankful to have a 14mm lens that allowed me to include the Milky Way in the same frame as Half Dome. I spent those early moments tweaking my exposure, refining my composition, and verifying that my focus was good.
Once I’d gotten everything just as I wanted it, I told myself that there was no reason to rush because with each passing minute, the Milky Way was a little higher in the sky and closer to Half Dome—that meant every click I took would be just a little better than the one preceding it. So after the initial exhilaration passed, I just sat on a nearby rock and appreciated the view. Few things are more humbling than reclining beneath a dark sky on a still night (especially when you’re sufficiently bundled against the high elevation chill).
We stayed until nearly 1:00 a.m. As I photographed (and gazed), I kept mentally pushing back our planned departure time, mentally subtracting hours of sleep by rationalizing that sometimes sleep is overrated. This was definitely one of those times.
A few words about my night photography
All of the night scenes you see on my website, in my blog, or anywhere else my images appear, were captured with one click. I don’t blend, composite, or in any other way combine multiple captures to create a single image. I’m not saying I think there’s anything wrong with blending images (there isn’t)—I just don’t get any pleasure from that kind of photography. So, while my night images may not look as dazzling as some of the other (truly beautiful) night composites being created today, you can at least be confident that you’re looking only at the photons that struck my sensor in one contiguous span of time.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on April 25, 2021
Last week I got to preview the brand new, and top secret (at the time) Sony 14mm f/1.8 GM lens. I really didn’t have time for this, but this was the lens I’ve been praying for pretty much my entire photography life and I just couldn’t say no. This isn’t so much a review as it is a summary of my experience using it, and my first impressions.
It was a Monday morning (April 12) and Don Smith, his wife Beri, and I were on the road to Bandon, Oregon when the call from Sony came in. It went something like this:
Sony: Would you be willing to try out the new Sony 14mm f/1.8 GM lens.
Don and Gary: Duh—uh, sure!
Sony: We’d need 10 images each, including 2 night images apiece, by Sunday.
Don and Gary: We have a workshop starting tomorrow, but we’ll figure it out.
Sony: Oh, this lens is a secret, so nobody can see you using it.
Don and Gary: Oh, wow—okay, we’ll be careful.
Sony: And one more thing. There’s only one lens, so you guys will need to share.
Don and Gary: (Eyeing each other suspiciously) Uh, sure…
The lens was overnighted arrived the next day, just as the workshop started. By then Don and I had agreed to a sharing plan that would give each of us equal opportunity to use the lens without affecting the workshop, and had even come up with an answer in the (we hoped) unlikely event that anyone asked what lens we were using. (I only had to lie once.)
I checked the moon schedule and determined that the only two nights that week suitable for night photography were our first two with the lens, which were our only two remaining nights in Bandon. Fortunately, with late sunsets and early sunrises, we had no group night shoots planned), so the only cost was sleep.
Don got it the first night, but I went out with him to scout for potential compositions and get up to speed on my as yet unused (thank-you-very-much, COVID) Sony a7SIII. The next night was my night—I went out solo and I had the entire beach to myself.
The first thing to strike me about this lens was its compactness, which just blew me away. How can a lens so wide, and so fast, be so small and light? But it also felt quite solid in my hand, which I took as a good sign. It has an aperture control ring on the lens (with a toggle to choose between click or “unclick”), but I especially appreciated the aperture ring’s “A” position, which allows me to set my aperture with the camera’s aperture control dial as I do with all my other lenses. (Since I will use this lens a lot at night and need to do everything by memory and feel, the more I can control my settings without doing something different, the better.)
I have loved, loved, loved night photography with the first two Sony a7Sx series bodies, but, despite having the a7SIII since last summer, this was the first time I’ve been able to use it. All I can say is that it only took a couple of minutes to know that the a7SIII and 14mm GM are a match made in heaven. Not only does the a7SIII give me clean files at 12800 ISO, when paired with a fast lens like the 14mm GM, even with nothing but starlight, I can compose and focus (without guessing) in seconds. But the thing that excited me most this night was the amount of sky I could capture at 14mm—until now my night lenses have always been the (wonderful) Sony 24mm f/1.4 GM and Sony 20mm f/1.8 G, but
Turns out I’d underestimated the breadth of the 14mm lens’s field of view and my ability to deal with the thin, 6% crescent moon hovering near the western horizon. The amount of light necessary to bring out the stars and beach detail also rendered the much brighter moon a large white blob, meaning that many of the compositions I’d planned were simply not doable without being photobombed by the moon. So I spent most of my time on the south end of the beach, concentrating my compositions on Wizard’s Hat. Bandon’s other iconic sea stacks would need to wait for a future visit.
The tide was out, which allowed me to get pretty close to Wizard’s Hat and its neighbors. That was a good thing, because with a 14mm lens, close is essential, the closer the better. It was also a bad thing, because at the beach, the closer the wetter. Fortunately, the long, nearly flat beach meant no rogue waves crashing atop me without warn, it just meant that when a big wave did crash a couple of hundred feet out, it washed up and over my quickly saturated boots and socks. It wasn’t long before I just resigned myself to wet feet if I wanted to include Wizard’s Hat and the spectacular reflection in the sheen left by receding waves.
After my first few frames I magnified the image in my viewfinder and scrutinized the stars and sea stacks. I checked the sea stacks for focus softness and found none—wow, is focus easy with the a7SIII and a fast lens! I also checked for noise all the way up to ISO 12800 and saw nothing that I knew wouldn’t be cleaned up easily by Topaz DeNoise AI. In the stars I looked for distortion, especially in the corners. I did the entire shoot at f/1.8 to really put it to the test and was blown away by the complete lack of distortion throughout the frame. With each close look confirming what I’d seen in the previous checks, I soon stopped checking and just concentrated on taking pictures.
I love the night sky, and am thrilled that recent technology has allowed me to photograph it so easily. But I always found myself longing for a wider field of view to get as many stars as possible, especially in New Zealand where the Milky Way is so high in the June sky, or at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, where I find myself always wanting to include more sky and foreground. I know the Sony 12-24 f/2.8 lens will give me the breadth I long for, but f/2.8, while fast enough in a pinch, isn’t as fast as I’d like (especially in the near total darkness at the bottom of the Grand Canyon). And a fast lens that requires me to stop down a stop or two to maximize image quality doesn’t really provide much of an advantage. Until now I’ve had to work around these compromises. There are other lenses as fast as, or even a little faster, but the Sony 14mm GM’s combination of breadth, speed, and compactness sets it apart. Factor in the the distortionless corner-to-corner sharpness I saw, and I think I’m ready to declare the Sony 14mm f/1.4 GM my perfect night lens.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on October 25, 2020
One of the great joys of making my living photographing nature is the opportunity to witness the most beautiful scenes in the world. The problem is, most of these places aren’t a secret, so it can be difficult to have them at their best: alone. Fortunately, the best time to take pictures is usually the worst time to be outside—like rain and snow, freezing cold, and ungodly hours. To this list of good times to take pictures, this summer I added one more: During a global pandemic.
In July my brother Jay and I made two visits to Yosemite to photograph Comet NEOWISE, and one to the Grand Canyon to photograph lightning. With the world largely shutdown due to the pandemic, we got to experience firsthand what it must have been like to visit these congested summer destinations before they were overrun by tourists. I remember circling Yosemite Valley on our first visit and feeling disoriented by the lack of cars and the abundance of relaxed wildlife just chilling in the meadows and on the roadside. And at the Grand Canyon, with just two days notice, I was able to get a room just a few hundred yards from the rim for a rate I’d have been thrilled to get in the dead of winter.
One particular highlight in this year achingly short of highlights came on our last night at the Grand Canyon. Though we’d made this trip primarily because lightning was in the forecast, I also knew that rapidly fading Comet NEOWISE would be hanging in the northern sky after sunset. Unfortunately, the vestiges of those thunderstorms we’d come to photograph blocked most of our comet views. We struck out completely on the first night, but the second night we enjoyed a short but sweet comet shoot at Grandview Point before the clouds moved back in. The arrival of clouds following a successful shoot is often enough to send me packing, but having not seen a single other person our entire time out there, I wasn’t quite ready to let go of the opportunity to experience glory the Grand Canyon in absolute solitude.
Instead of driving back to our hotel, we continued east along the rim, all the way to the end of the road (normally this road continues to Cameron and beyond, but it was closed near the park’s east entrance), ending up at Navajo Point. I had little hope for more glimpses of NEOWISE, but with a view that really didn’t need any help, I set up my camera anyway. Though it was impossible for Navajo Point to be any more empty or quiet than Grandview Point had been, I think the distance from civilization made us feel even more isolated.
Beneath a mix of clouds and stars, Jay and I photographed and gazed for about a half hour. With the canyon illuminated by the light of a 25% waning crescent moon, we could see clearly all the way down to the river. But my Sony a7SII (long my dedicated night camera, since replaced by the Sony a7SIII) did even better, pulling seemingly invisible detail from the darkest shadows. Just as we were about to leave, the clouds parted and there was NEOWISE, as if it wanted to say farewell before embarking on its multi-millennia journey to the fringe of our solar system. I clicked a few frames before the clouds snapped shut and bid my friend goodbye.
I’m not going to pretend that the pandemic was a good thing, or that I’m in any way happy that it happened, but I’ve always believed that our state of mind is what we make it. Like everyone else, I can’t wait for things to return to normal, but when I find myself dwelling on the countless negatives of 2020, I try to remind myself of the year’s blessings that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. Perhaps small consolation in light of all the loss, but this night on the rim of the Grand Canyon was one such blessing, not just a high point of my year, but a high point of my life.
Posted on July 12, 2020
When I was ten, my best friend Rob and I spent most of our daylight hours preparing for our spy careers—crafting and exchanging coded messages, surreptitiously monitoring classmates, and identifying “secret passages” that would allow us to navigate our neighborhood without being observed. But after dark our attention turned skyward. That’s when we’d set up my telescope (a castoff generously gifted by an astronomer friend of my dad) on Rob’s front lawn to scan the heavens in the hope that we might discover something: a supernova, comet, black hole, UFO—it didn’t really matter.
Our celestial discoveries, while not Earth-changing, were personally significant. Through that telescope we saw Jupiter’s moons, Saturn’s rings, and the changing phases of Venus. We also learned to appreciate the vastness of the universe with the insight that, despite their immense size, stars never appeared larger than a pinpoint, no matter how much magnification we threw at them.
To better understand what we saw, Rob and I turned to astronomy books. Pictures of planets, galaxies, and nebula amazed us, but we were particularly drawn to the comets: Arend-Roland, Ikeya–Seki, and of course the patriarch of comets, Halley’s Comet (which wouldn’t return until 1986, an impossible wait that might as well have been infinity). With their brilliant comas and sweeping tails, it was difficult to imagine that anything that beautiful could be real. When the opportunity came to do a project to enter in our school’s Science Fair, comets were an easy choice. And while we didn’t set the world on fire with our project presentation, Rob and I were awarded a yellow ribbon, good enough to land us a spot in the San Joaquin County Fair.
The next milestone in my comet obsession occurred a few years later, after my family had moved to Berkeley and baseball had taken over my life. One chilly winter morning my dad woke me and urged me outside to view what I now know was Comet Bennett. Mesmerized, my smoldering comet fascination flamed instantly, expanding to include all things celestial, and stayed with me through high school (when I wasn’t playing baseball).
I can trace my decision to enter college with an astronomy major all the way back to my early interest in the night sky in general, and comets in particular. I stuck with the astronomy major for several semesters, until the (unavoidable) quantification of magnificent concepts sapped the joy from me.
Though I went on to pursue other interests, my affinity for astronomy hadn’t been dashed, and comets in particular remained special. Of course with affection comes disappointment: In 1973 Comet Kohoutek broke my heart, a failure that somewhat prepared me for Halley’s anticlimax in 1986. By the time Halley’s arrived, word had come down that it was poorly positioned for its typical display (“the worst viewing conditions in 2,000 years”), that it would be barely visible this time around (but just wait until 2061!). Nevertheless, venturing far from the city lights one moonless January night, I found great pleasure locating (with much effort) Halley’s faint smudge in Aquarius.
After many years with no naked-eye comets of note, 1996 arrived with the promise of two great comets. While cautiously optimistic, Kohoutek’s scars prevented me from getting sucked in by the media frenzy. So imagine my excitement when, in early 1996, Comet Hyakutake briefly approached the brightness of Saturn, with a tail stretching more than twenty degrees (forty times the apparent width of a full moon). But as beautiful as it was, Hyakutake proved to be a mere warm-up for Comet Hale-Bopp, which became visible to the naked eye in mid-1996 and remained visible until December 1997—an unprecedented eighteen months. By spring of 1997 Hale-Bopp had become brighter than Sirius (the brightest star in the sky), its tail approaching 50 degrees. I was in comet heaven.
Things quieted considerably comet-wise after Hale-Bopp. Then, in 2007, Comet McNaught caught everyone off-guard, intensifying unexpectedly to briefly outshine Sirius, trailing a thirty-five degree, fan-shaped tail. But because of its proximity to the sun, Comet McNaught had a very small window of visibility in the Northern Hemisphere and was easily lost in the bright twilight—it didn’t become anywhere near the media event Hale-Bopp did. I only learned about it on the last day it would be easily visible in the Northern Hemisphere. With little time to prepare, I grabbed my camera and headed to the foothills east of Sacramento, where I managed to capture a few faint images and barely pick the comet out of the twilight with my unaided eyes. McNaught saved its best show for the Southern Hemisphere, where it became one of the most beautiful comets ever to grace our skies (google Comet McNaught and you’ll see what I mean).
After several years of comet crickets, in 2013 we were promised two spectacular comets, PanSTARRS and ISON. A fortuitous convergence of circumstances allowed me to photograph PanSTARRS from the summit of Haleakala on Maui—just 3 degrees from a setting crescent moon, it was invisible to my eye, but beautiful to my camera. Comet ISON on the other hand, heralded as the most promising comet since Hale-Bopp, pulled an Icarus and and disintegrated after flying too close to the sun.
Since 2013 Earth has been in a naked-eye comet slump. Every once in a while one will tease us, then fizzle. In fact, 2020 has already seen two promising comets flop: Comets Atlas and Swan. So when Comet NEOWISE was discovered in March of this year, no one got too excited. But by June I started hearing rumblings that NEOWISE might just sneak into the the naked-eye realm. Then we all held our breath while it passed behind the sun on July 2.
Shortly after NEOWISE’s perihelion, astronomers confirmed that it had survived, and images started popping up online. The first reports were that NEOWISE was around magnitude 2 (about as bright as Polaris, the North Star) and showing up nicely in binoculars and photos. Unfortunately, NEOWISE was so close to the horizon that it was washed-out to the naked eye by the pre-sunrise twilight glow.
Based on my experience with PanSTARRS, a comet I’d captured wonderfully when I couldn’t see it in the twilight glow, I started making plans to photograph Comet NEOWISE. But I needed to find a vantage point with a good view of the northeast horizon, not real easy in Sacramento, where we’re in the shadow of the Sierra just east of town. After doing a little plotting, I decided my best bet would be to break my stay-away-from-Yosemite-in-summer vow and try it from Glacier Point. Glacier Point is elevated enough to offer a pretty clear view of the northeast horizon, and from there Half Dome and the comet would align well enough to easily include both in my frame.
While Yosemite is currently under COVID restrictions that require reservations (sold out weeks in advance) to enter, I have a CUA (Commercial Use Authorization that allows me to guide photo workshops) that gives me access to the park if I follow certain guidelines. So, after checking with my NPS Yosemite CUA contact to make sure all my permit boxes were checked, my brother Jay and I drove to the park on Thursday afternoon, got a room just outside the park, and went to bed early.
The alarm went off at 2:45 the next morning, and by 2:55 we were on the road to Glacier Point. After narrowly averting one self-inflicted catastrophe (in the absolute darkness, I missed a turn I’ve been taking for more than 40 years), by 4:00 we were less than a mile from Glacier Point and approaching Washburn Point, the first view of Half Dome on Glacier Point Road. Unable to resist the urge to peek (but with no expectation of success), I quickly glanced in that direction and instantly saw through my windshield Comet NEOWISE hanging above Mt. Watkins, directly opposite Tenaya Canyon from Half Dome. I knew there’d be a chance NEOWISE would be naked-eye visible, but I never dreamed it would be this bright.
Everything after that is a blur (except my images, thankfully). Jay and I rushed out to the railed vista at the far end of Glacier Point and were thrilled to find it completely empty. We found Half Dome beautifully bookended by Comet NEOWISE on the left, and brilliant Venus on the right. I set up two tripods, one for my Sony a7RIV and 24-105 G lens, and one for my Sony a7RIII and Sony 100-400 GM lens. Shut out of all the locations I love to photograph by COVID-19, I hadn’t taken a serious picture since March, so I composed and focused carefully to avoid screwing something up. The image I share here is one of the first of the morning, taken with my a7RIV and 24-105.
By 4:30 or so (about 80 minutes before sunrise) the horizon was starting to brighten, but the comet stayed very prominent and photogenic until at about 4:50 (about an hour before sunrise). When we wrapped up at around 5:00, NEOWISE was nearly washed out to the unaided eye; while our cameras were still picking it up, we knew that the best part of the show was over.
It’s these experiences that so clearly define for me the reason I’m a photographer. Because I’ve always felt that photography, more than anything else, needs to make the photographer happy (however he or she defines happiness), many years ago I promised myself that I’d only photograph what I want to photograph, that I’d never take a picture just because I thought it would earn me money or acclaim. My own photographic happiness comes from nature because I grew up outdoors (okay, not literally, but outdoors is where my best memories have been made) and have always been drawn to the natural world—not merely its sights, but the natural processes and forces that, completely independent of human intervention and influence, shape our physical world.
I think that explains why, rather than settle for pretty scenes, I try to capture the interaction of dynamic natural processes with those scenes. The moon and stars, the northern lights, sunrise and sunset color, weather events like rainbows and lightning—all of these phenomena absolutely fascinate me, and the images I capture are just a small part of my relationship with them. I can’t imagine photographing something that doesn’t move me enough to understand it as thoroughly as I can, and enjoy learning about my subjects as much as I enjoy photographing them.
The converse of that need to know my subjects is a need to photograph those things that drive me to understand them. Most of the subjects that draw me are relatively easy to capture with basic preparation, some effort, and a little patience. But the relative rarity of a few phenomena make photographing them a challenge. This is especially true of certain astronomical events. I’m thinking specifically about the total solar eclipse that I finally managed to photograph in 2017, and the northern lights, which finally found my sensor last year. But comets have proven even more elusive, and while I’ve seen a few in my life, and even photographed a couple, I’ve never had what I’d label an “epic” comet experience that allowed me to combine a beautiful comet with a worthy foreground. Until this week. And I’m one happy dude.
Comets in General
I want to tell you how to photograph Comet NEOWISE, but first I’m going to impose my personal paradigm and explain comets.
A comet is a ball of ice and dust a few miles across (more or less), typically orbiting the sun in an eccentric elliptical orbit: Imagine a circle stretched way out of shape by grabbing one end and pulling–that’s what a comet’s orbit looks like. Looking down on the entire orbit, you’d see the sun tucked just inside one extreme end of the ellipse. (Actually, some comets’ orbits are parabolic, which means they pass by once and then move on to ultimately exit our solar system.)
The farther a comet is from the sun the slower it moves, so a comet spends the vast majority of its life in the frozen extremities of the solar system. Some periodic comets take thousands or millions of years to complete a single orbit; others complete their trip in just a few years.
As a comet approaches the sun, stuff starts happening. It accelerates in response to the sun’s increased gravitational pull (but just like the planets, the moon, or the hour hand on a clock, a comet will never move so fast that we’re able to visually discern its motion). And more significantly, increasing solar heat starts melting the comet’s frozen nucleus. Initially this just-released material expands to create a mini-atmosphere surrounding the nucleus; at this point the comet looks like a fuzzy ball when viewed from Earth. As the heat increases, some of the shedding material is set free and dragged away by the solar wind (charged particles) to form a tail that glows with reflected sunlight (a comet doesn’t emit its own light) and always points away from the sun. The composition and amount of material freed by the sun, combined with the comet’s proximity to Earth, determines the brilliance of the display we see. While a comet’s tail gives the impression to some that it’s visibly moving across the sky, a comet is actually about as stationary against the stellar background as the moon and planets—it will remain in one place relative to the stars all night, then appear in a slightly different place the next night.
With millions of comets in our Solar System, it would be natural to wonder why they’re not regular visitors to our night sky. Actually, they are, though most comets are so small, and/or have made so many passes by the sun, that their nucleus has been stripped of reflective material and they just don’t have enough material left to put on much of a show. And many comets don’t get close enough to the sun to be profoundly affected by its heat, or close enough to Earth to stand out.
Most of the periodic comets that are already well known to astronomers have lost so much of their material that they’re too faint to be seen without a telescope. One notable exception is Halley’s Comet, perhaps the most famous comet of all. Halley’s Comet returns every 75 years or so and usually puts on a memorable display. Unfortunately, Halley’s last visit, in 1986, was kind of a dud; not because it didn’t perform, but because it passed so far from Earth that we didn’t have a good view of its performance on that pass.
Comet NEOWISE in particular (and some tips for photographing it)
Comet NEOWISE is a periodic comet with an elliptical orbit that will send it back our way in about 6700+ years. On it’s current iteration, NEOWISE zipped by the sun on July 2 and is on its way back out to the nether reaches of our solar system. The good news is that NEOWISE survived the most dangerous part of its visit, its encounter with the sun. The bad news is that NEOWISE’s intrinsic brightness decreases as it moves away from the sun. But if all goes well, we’ll be able to see it without a telescope, camera, or binoculars for at least a few more weeks. And it doesn’t hurt that until perigee on July 22, NEOWISE is still moving closer to Earth.
Because a comet’s tail always points away from the sun, and NEOWISE is now moving away from the sun, it’s actually following its tail. If you track the comet’s position each night, you’ll see that it rises in the northeast sky before sunrise, which makes it a Northern Hemisphere object (the Southern Hemisphere has gotten the best 21st century comets, so it’s definitely our turn). Each morning NEOWISE will rise a little earlier, placing it farther from the advancing daylight than the prior day, so even if its intrinsic brightness is waning, it should stand out better because it’s in a darker part of the sky. And as a bonus, the moon is waning, so until the new moon on July 21, there will be no moonlight to compete with NEOWISE.
Until now, Comet NEOWISE has been an exclusively early morning object, but that’s about to change as it climbs a little higher each day. Starting tonight (July 12), you might be able to see it shortly after sunset near the northwest horizon, and each night thereafter it will be a little higher in the northwest sky. Your best chance to view Comet NEOWISE in the evening is to find an open view of the northwest sky, far from city lights.
Photographing Comet NEOWISE will require some night photography skill. Since the moon is waning, you won’t have the benefit of moonlight that I had when I photographed the comet in Yosemite on the morning of July 10, when the moon was about 75% full. This won’t be a huge problem if you just want to photograph NEOWISE against the stars, but if you want to include some landscape with it, your best bet may be to stick to silhouettes, or stack multiple exposures, one for the comet and one or more for the foreground.
To photograph it against the starry sky, I recommend a long telephoto to fill the frame as much as possible. If you want to include some landscape, go as wide as necessary, but don’t forget that the wider you go, the smaller the comet becomes. Whatever method you use to focus (even if you autofocus on the comet itself), I strongly recommend that you verify your focus each time you change your focal length. If you choose the multi-exposure blend approach, please, please, please, whatever you do, don’t blend a telephoto NEOWISE image with a wide angle image of the landscape (because I’ll know and will judge you for it).
Camera or not, I strongly encourage you to make an effort to see this rare and beautiful object, because you just don’t know when the next opportunity will arise—it could be next month, or it might not happen again in your lifetime.