Star Struck

a7SIIGCRTMay2018_DSC0357Camp118GCMilkyWay_screenaver

Grand Night, Milky Way Above the Colorado River, Grand Canyon
Sony a7S II
Rokinon 24mm f/1.4
20 seconds
F/1.4
ISO 6400

Nothing in my life delivers a more potent dose of perspective than viewing the world from the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Days are spent at the mercy of the Colorado River, alternately drifting and hurtling beneath mile-high rock layers that tell more than a billion years of Earth story. And when the sun goes down, the ceiling becomes a cosmological light show, each pinpoint representing a different instant in our galaxy’s past.

More than any of my five trips through the Grand Canyon, I’ll remember this year’s for its night skies. The wall-to-wall blue that dogged our daylight photography darkened to just what the night-photography doctor ordered, and we took full advantage. Excited about the potential for stars, each day I powwowed with our lead guide, the amazing Lindsay, to identify potential campsites with the best views of the night sky in general, and the best views of our Milky Way’s brilliant galactic core in particular.

But targeting a Milky Way campsite is easier in theory than execution. In the Northern Hemisphere, even when the galactic core reaches its highest point, it’s still fairly low in the southern sky. So given the Grand Canyon’s general east/west orientation, the best Milky Way views are usually blocked by the canyon’s towering walls. Even identifying a potential campsite on a north/south oriented stretch of the river doesn’t ensure success because Colorado River campsites in the Grand Canyon are first-come, first-served. So even though the other groups on the river don’t usually think strategically about photographing the night sky like I do, each campsite has its own appealing qualities and there’s never a guarantee that any given one will be free when we get there.

In general, my raft trips’ first night or (maybe) two usually provide our best Milky Way opportunities because the first 75 miles of the Colorado River downstream from our put-in at Lee’s Ferry runs pretty much north/south. With the river running north/south, the canyon walls are to the east and west and we usually get a pretty clear view of the north and south horizons. Just downstream from the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado Rivers, the canyon bends more or less permanently east/west and Milky Way core views are few and far between.

This year, our day-one campsite got us a decent but not quite perfect view of the southern sky. Nevertheless, many rafters rose and gave it a try, with varying degrees of success—at the very least, it was good practice, and much was learned. On day two we had a magnificently open sky, but the southern horizon was behind us as we faced the river, so the Milky Way’s center rose above lots of shrubs and rocks. That night I and a few others photographed the view across the river toward the Big Dipper, North Star, and fainter part of the Milky Way in Cassiopeia, but a handful had some success photographing the brighter Milky Way from a hill facing south.

I knew days four and five would be long shots for Milky Way photography because Lindsay and I had in mind an east/west trending day-4 site directly across the river from Deer Creek Fall (fingers crossed), one of the trip’s photographic highlights. And there were no good candidates for day 5 (we ended up camping beneath Toroweap). But Lindsay had an ace up her sleeve for day 3, our first day on the east/west portion of the river, if we could pull it off.

In addition to being the day we bend west, day three is the much anticipated “rapid day.” After warming up with a couple of days of fairly infrequent mild to medium rapids, the action on day three ramps up considerably, both in rapid frequency and intensity. Rapid day is always so much fun, for most of the rafters the thoughts of night photography take backseat thrills and laughter.

While everyone else’s attention was on the river, in the back of my mind I was crossing my virtual fingers for the prosaically named Camp 118 (for the number of miles downstream from our starting point at Lee’s Ferry). Camp 118 had been on my radar since Lindsay had told me about it on our first day, citing a bend in the river that gives the spot a view of the southern sky that’s very rare on this part of the river. But she warned me that Camp 118 has other benefits that make it popular among all the trips on the river, and gave us a no better than 50 percent chance of scoring it.

Equal parts exhausted and exhilarated, late in the afternoon of day three we rounded a bend and found Camp 118 free and clear. Phew. As soon as we landed I did a quick check with my compass app and confirmed that the river here pointed due south. Camp 118 also had a long south-facing sandy beach that would give everyone ample room to setup and move around in the dark without getting in anyone else’s way. Once the boat was off-loaded I gathered the troops and told them to prepare for some the best Milky Way photography of the trip.

One more Grand Canyon Milky Way obstacle I forgot to mention is that even in the most favorable locations, the galactic core doesn’t rotate into the slot between the canyon walls until 2:00 a.m. or later. Often rafters go to bed with every intention of rising to photograph it, but when the time comes, their resolve has burrowed deep into the cozy folds of their sleeping bag. The best antidote is to be as prepared as possible before going to bed. At the very least, I prescribe the following: identify your composition, set up your camera, lens, and tripod, set your exposure, focus at infinity, and have your camera ready atop the tripod beside your cot. Better still, if it can be done without risk of someone stumbling over it in the dark, leave the camera composed and focused at your predetermined shooting spot.

I woke at 2:00 a.m. and found many already at work on the Milky Way, which was just making its way into view above the canyon wall in the east. During the next two-and-a-quarter hours I worked the scene while the galactic core slid from left to right, first above the river and finally down toward the wall on the west side of the river. I used both my Sony a7SII and a7RIII bodies, and my Rokinon 24mm f/1.4, Sony 12-24 f/4 G, and Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM lenses.

Since getting my 42 megapixel a7RIII, I’ve been happy enough with its night photography results that I’d almost forgotten about my 12 megapixel a7SII. In fact, I seriously considered leaving my a7SII at home for this trip. I’m so glad I didn’t. Using the two side-by-side like this, offered an instant reminder why the a7SII is the night photography king. Combined with the light gathering ability of an f/1.4 lens, with my a7SII I can look through my viewfinder and focus perfectly in about three seconds. I can also get crazy-bright images in crazy-dark conditions like this.

I usually feel like the “star” of night images is the sky; because vertical orientation gives me the most sky and least foreground, most of my night images are oriented vertically, especially when the more or less vertically oriented Milky Way is present. But one of my goals for this trip was more horizontal Milky Way images, so I made a point of setting aside my vertical bias and shooting a lot of horizontal frames. This image (like all of my images) is a single click (no composite of multiple frames) with no artificial light added (no light painting or any other light besides stars and skylight). I saw several meteors that night, but have no specific memories of the small one darting across the upper middle of this frame.

I wrapped up with this scene a little before 4:00 a.m., but heading back to bed I saw the Big Dipper cradled between the two canyon walls, just above the north horizon, too beautiful to resist. I ended up photographing another 20 minutes or so on the other side of camp, ending up with one of my favorite images of the trip, including a meteor I very much remember. But that’s a story for another day….

Join me on next year’s Grand Canyon Raft Trip for Photographers


A few tips for photographing the Milky Way

I have an entire article that spells out Milky Way photography, but here’s the CliffsNotes (is that still a thing?) version:

  • The galactic core is in Sagittarius (a summer constellation), low in the Northern Hemisphere’s southern sky.
  • Learn to control your camera in the dark. (!)
  • I prefer a lens that’s 24mm (full frame) or wider, but speed trumps focal length as long as the faster lens is 28mm or wider.
  • Red lights are death to night photography and should be banned from any night shoot (this my new crusade). Yes, they’re great for maintaining night vision, so if you want to use one to get to and from your location, fine. But once the shutters start opening, they should be off, off, off. I’ve seen so many images ruined by red lights that I’ve started banning them entirely at all night shoots I lead. I much prefer compromising night vision with a white light for a few minutes if it means no one will accidentally turn on a red light while we’re shooting. During a shoot, no flashlight of any kind or color. My preferred night-shoot light source is a cell phone screen (not the cell phone’s flashlight, just the illuminated screen), which is sufficient for seeing camera controls and about a 3-foot radius, but won’t leak into anyone’s frame.
  • Night photography is about the sky, so you’ll want at least half, and usually more of your frame to be sky. Most of my night images are at least 2/3 sky.
  • Focus will be your most difficult task. Never assume you can just dial your lens to “infinity”—zoom lenses don’t have a reliable fixed infinity point, and a prime’s infinity point is often not where you expect it to be. Instead, pre-focus before it gets dark whenever possible (then don’t touch anything!). If you need to focus in the dark, it will probably need to be manually.
    • Center a bright star or planet in your viewfinder and magnify it on your LCD. Slowly dial the focus ring until the star/planet is the smallest possible point.
    • Sony and other mirrorless shooters can use focus peaking (red works best) and dial the focus ring until the number of highlighted stars is maximized.
    • Autofocus on a bright light at least 50 feet away.
    • After you think you’ve achieved focus, regardless of the method, always (!) magnify the first image on your LCD to verify focus.
  • Exposure is all about compromise. Basically, unless you’re satisfied with silhouettes, you want to give your scene as much light as you can without ruining the image: widest aperture, highest ISO, longest shutter speed you can get away with. This is where it’s essential to know your camera’s capabilities—how far can you push the ISO and get usable results. And just because you get relatively noise-free images at 6400 (or whatever) ISO when you’re shooting 1/5 second exposures at the Counting Crows concert (one of the few bands that actually allows anyone to bring in a camera and telephoto lens, I might add), doesn’t mean an image will be clean for a 30-second exposure (trust me on this). You’ll want at least an f/2.8 lens, but faster is better. And because light is so essential, if I really need the light, I usually prefer a little star motion from a 30-second exposure to the extra noise a higher ISO gives (but I don’t go longer than 30 seconds).

Read more about photographing the Milky Way


A Milky Way Gallery

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A Galaxy Far, Far Away

Gary Hart Photography: Andromeda Galaxy, Local Group, 2.5 Million Light Years

Andromeda Galaxy, Local Group, 2.5 Million Light Years
Sony a7RIII
Unknown telescope (sorry)
ISO 8000
20 seconds

I won’t pretend that this picture is a creative achievement of any sort—I captured it at a Sony-organized night shoot during last month’s Sedona media event promoting the Sony a7RIII. All I did was attach my a7RIII to someone else’s telescope (equipped with a computerized tracking mechanism to cancel the earth’s rotation), dial in the recommended exposure settings, focus, and click my shutter. But that does’t change the fact that I think this is one of my coolest images ever. It truly epitomizes the reason I say my favorite thing about photography isn’t the way it reproduces my reality, it’s the way enhances it.

I’ve been interested in astronomy since I was a kid, and one of the first celestial objects to intrigue me was the Andromeda Galaxy. (At the risk of stating the obvious, it’s called Andromeda because we view it in the constellation Andromeda.) Armed with this knowledge and a simple star chart, on camping trips I’d shun the tent to sleep beneath the stars, hoping to get a glimpse of the Andromeda Galaxy but not knowing exactly what I was looking for. I know now that even under in the darkest, clearest sky, I’d have only seen the this massive collection of stars as an unimpressive smudge. But my failure to find my target didn’t dampen my enthusiasm—the search was as much an excuse to take in the entire night sky and ponder its mysteries.

When I wasn’t observing, I was reading. I learned that Andromeda Galaxy is the largest galaxy in the “Local Group” of more than 50 gravitationally connected galaxies that also includes our Milky Way. Both the Milky Way and Andromeda are spiral galaxies, but with a trillion stars, Andromeda is at least twice the size of the Milky Way. Andromeda is also on a collision course with the Milky Way—put on your helmets and mark your calendar for 4.5 billion years.

The light that struck my sensor to render this image traveled more than 2.5 million years, making the Andromeda Galaxy the farthest we can see with the naked eye—that’s about 150,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles, so fill up before you leave. Because everything we know about the Andromeda Galaxy happened 2.5 million years ago, we’ll need to wait another 2.5 million years to know what’s happening there right now. But while Andromeda is indeed far, far away from our earthbound perspective, it’s actually the closest galaxy to us (Magellanic Clouds notwithstanding). There are a couple trillion or so galaxies even farther away.

Knowing all this stuff made my search for the Andromeda Galaxy quite thrilling. In recent years I’ve actually captured it in a few frames targeting something else, clearly visible but not particularly impressive. But the Sedona experience took my thrill to the next level. Leveraging the telescope’s supreme magnification and light gathering capabilities, I let my sensor collect light for 20 seconds at ISO 8000, long enough for the galaxy’s spiral arms start to appear. Also popping into view are two fuzzy objects that I’d only seen in pictures—these are satellite galaxies bound by gravity to the Andromeda Galaxy, much like the Magellanic Clouds that grace our Southern Hemisphere sky. All the pinpoint stars in the image are part of the Milky Way—much closer and unrelated to the Andromeda Galaxy, just in the line of sight (much the way sensor dust or a lens smudge is not part of a scene you photograph).

This image has rekindled my passion for astronomy. It reminds me of my very small place in a universe that’s too large for even the greatest minds to comprehend. Because there’s a lifetime worth of cool stuff to view up there and time’s wasting, I’m seriously considering getting a telescope and letting my camera show me what I’ve been missing. Stay tuned….



Retirement announcement

(No, not me)

Since I just switched to the Sony a7RIII, my a7RII has been relegated to backup status. As excited as I am about my new camera, I’m already a bit nostalgic about my a7RII, the best camera I’ve ever owned, as well as my favorite camera ever to shoot with (not necessarily the same thing).

I made the switch to Sony mirrorless more than three years ago, starting with the a7R. The image quality of the a7R was so much better than what I had been shooting that I was able to forgive its interface and usability shortcomings. The a7RII was a huge improvement over the a7R, both in image quality and usability, so much better that it soon felt more like an extra limb with a direct connection to my brain than an inanimate tool. It’s clear already that I’ll soon love using the a7RIII even more, but right now I just want to give a shout-out to my a7RII as it enters semi-retirement.


Here some scenes my a7RII and I saw

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Compromise less, smile more

Gary Hart Photography: Night Fire, Milky Way Above Kilauea Caldera, Hawaii

Night Fire, Milky Way Above Kilauea Caldera, Hawaii
Sony a7S II
Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM
10 seconds
F/2.8
ISO 3200

Night photography always requires some level of compromise: extra equipment, ISOs a little too noisy, shutter speeds a little too long, f-stops a little too soft. For years the quality threshold beyond which I wouldn’t cross came far too early and I’d often find myself having to decide between an image that was too dark and noisy, or simply not shooting at all.

Because the almost total darkness of night photography requires a fast lens, the faster the better, one of the first compromises night photography forced on me was adding a night-only lens—a prime lens that was both ultra-fast and wide. Ultra-fast to maximize light capture, wide enough to give me lots of sky and to reduce the star streaking that occurs with the long shutter speeds night photography requires (the wider the focal length, the less visible any motion in the frame).

I started doing night photography as a Canon shooter, so my first night lens was a Canon-mount Zeiss 28mm f/2.0—it did the job but wasn’t quite as fast or wide as I’d have liked. After switching to Sony I added a Sony-mount Rokinon 24mm f/1.4—I loved shooting at f/1.4, and 24mm was a definite improvement over 28mm, but I still found myself wishing for something wider. And the Rokinon had other shortcomings as well: because the camera doesn’t even know the lens is mounted (f-stop set on the lens, not in the camera), I always had to guess the f-stop I used to capture an image. Worse than that, at f/1.4 the Rokinon had pretty significant comatic aberration that made my stars look like little comets.

Since switching to Sony, one compromise I’ve happily made is carrying an extra body that’s dedicated to night photography. Because the Sony a7S and (later) a7SII are just ridiculously good at high ISO, I was able to compensate for the Rokinon’s distortion by stopping down to f/2 or f/2.8 at a higher ISO. The a7SII is worth the extra weight, but I’ve longed for the day when I could replace the Rokinon lens with something wider, and something that had a better relationship with my camera.

That day came earlier this year, when Sony released the 16-35 f/2.8 GM lens. I got to sample this lens before it was released and was surprised by its compactness despite being so wide and fast—it wasn’t long before the 16-35 f/2.8 GM occupied a full-time spot in my camera bag. And in the back of my mind I couldn’t help thinking that the 16-35 GM might just work as a night lens.

I don’t have the time or temperament to be a pixel-peeper, but I had a sense that this lens was pretty sharp wide open, and few things reveal comatic aberration more than stars. I finally got my chance to test the 16-35 GM lens at night on the Hawaii Big Island workshop in September. When this year’s Milky Way images revealed that the 16-35 GM is sharp and pretty much aberration free at f/2.8, I couldn’t have been happier.

As with every night shoot, this night at the caldera I tried a variety of exposure settings to maximize my processing options later. I was pretty pleased to get a clean exposure at 10 seconds (minimal star motion) and f/2.8 (maximum light). While the a7SII doesn’t even breathe hard at the ISO 3200 I used for this image, I know if I were shooting someplace without its own light source (for example, at the Grand Canyon, the bristlecone pine forest, or pretty much any other location lacking an active volcano), I’d probably need to be at ISO 6400 or even 12800 to make a 10 second exposure work. But it’s nice to know that the a7SII and 16-35 f/2.8 GM will do the job even in darkness that extreme.

One more thing

A couple of weeks ago while in Sedona for Sony I got the opportunity to use the new a7RIII. One highlight of that trip was two night shoots with the new camera. I haven’t had a chance to spend any quality time with those images, but I got the sense that its high ISO performance is nearly as good as the a7SII. If that’s true, that will be one less compromise and a lighter camera bag—at least until Sony releases the a7SIII.

Hawaii Photo Workshops


The Milky Way

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It’s only cold on the outside

Gary Hart Photography: Moonstar, Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Moonstar, Thor’s Hammer, Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
Sony a7R II
Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM
30 seconds
F/8
ISO 3200

We all all have different hot/cold comfort thresholds, a temperature above or below which it’s just too hot or cold to feel human. Of course wind and moisture can move the needle a little bit, but let me just say that regardless of the other factors, after spending a few days in Bryce Canyon NP co-teaching a workshop with Don Smith, I’ve determined that the comfort threshold for my California bones is somewhere north of 20 degrees.

That Bryce is cold in November wasn’t really a revelation because couple of Novembers ago I experienced one of the coldest shoots of my life there, a sunrise at Rainbow Point (9,000 feet) where the temperature was 10F and the wind was a constant 35 MPH. Informed by that experience, I showed up this year with full body armor that included multiple layers of silk, wool, down, fleece, and pretty much every other insulation material known to humankind. This visit wasn’t nearly as cold as I experienced a couple of years ago, but layers or not, cold finds exposed skin like a hungry mosquito and virtually ever minute outdoors tested my comfort threshold.

But despite appearances to the contrary, I’m not complaining. Discomfort is part of being a nature photographer, and miserable conditions definitely keep the crowds at bay. These thoughts bring to mind a phenomenon I’ve been aware of my entire photography life: when the shooting is good, the conditions just don’t matter. I’m not saying that I’m not aware that it’s cold, or hot, or wet, I’m saying that good photography somehow turns off the part of my brain that registers discomfort.

On this year’s Bryce visit we had low temperatures in the teens and low twenties, with a little wind. We also had quite a few clouds, but on our last night, when the skies cleared and the stars appeared, Don and I took the group to Thor’s Hammer for a night shoot. With a 95% moon rising more than 90 minutes after sunset, we knew we’d have about an hour or so of quality dark sky photography. The air that night was wonderfully clear, but without the cloud’s insulation, the temperature plummeted as soon as the sun went down and we found ourselves shooting in the coldest temperatures of the trip—somewhere in the teens, I’m certain.

I was well bundled head-to-toe, but gloves and photography don’t mix, especially night photography when you need to locate and adjust all the camera’s controls by feel. So I spent most of the evening with my delicate digits exposed to the elements, full commando. Of course adjusting camera settings with finger-shaped ice cubes is only marginally better than the gloved alternative, but somehow I managed.

It didn’t hurt that the pristine air and remote, moonless darkness made for a dazzling sky. I positioned myself to align Thor’s Hammer with the faint, outward-facing part of the Milky Way in Cassiopeia, trying both vertical and horizontal compositions. Without moonlight, the faint-to-the-eye Milky Way seemed to leap from the blackness on my LCD. Especially exciting were my vertical frames, which revealed near the top the fuzzy disk of the Andromeda Galaxy, our sister galaxy, a mere two-and-a-half million light-years away.

I was having so much fun that I completely forgot how cold I was, and I think that goes for the rest of the group as well. About the time we thought we’d accomplished all there was to accomplish, the clouds on the eastern horizon came alive with the glow of the approaching moon. Everyone seemed to be having such a good time that Don and I decided we should stick around long enough to catch the first rays of moonlight on the red hoodoos.

Most of my full(-ish) moon photography takes place when there’s enough ambient daylight to capture both landscape and lunar detail in a single frame. But since daylight was long gone well before the moon arrived, my exposures that night had been all about maximizing the amount of light reaching my sensor to bring out the foreground. So when the moon showed up my original exposure became far too much and I needed a different plan. I had a couple of options: either find a composition that didn’t include the moon, or figure out a way include the moon in my frame without ruining the picture.

Since the moon was above the best part of the scene, I decided to try for a “moonstar” and repositioned myself to balance it with Thor’s Hammer. Letting the moonlight do the heavy lifting on the hoodoos, I was able to get all the foreground detail I needed, with enough light left over to enhance my moonstar by stopping down to f/8. When we were finished the walk up from Thor’s Hammer is short but steep, perfect for warming my frigid blood, but despited my frozen digits, I honestly have no memory of discomfort.

This was a truly exceptional experience I’ll never forget, a perfect memory to highlight on the eve of Thanksgiving here in America.


A Starry Night Gallery

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Starry, starry night

Gary Hart Photography: Starry Night, Colorado River and Evans Butte, Grand Canyon

Starry Night, Colorado River and Evans Butte, Grand Canyon
Sony a7S II
Rokinon 24mm f1.4
20 seconds
F/2
ISO 12800

Few experiences in nature surpass a dark sky brimming with an impossible number of stars. The darker the sky the better, and the sky doesn’t get much darker, or more impossible, than a moonless night at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. I schedule my annual Grand Canyon raft trip for the week of the new moon to ensure the darkest skies and the most stars; I prefer May because canyon temperatures are comfortably warm but not yet hot, and the Colorado River runs clear, unmuddied by sediment stirred by the summer monsoon.

As darkness seeps into the mile-deep gorge, the first pinpoints overhead are the planets, some combination of Venus, Jupiter, Mars, Mercury, and Saturn. Soon the darkness is as complete as we ever see it at home, and the planets are joined by the brightest stars in recognizable constellations. But unlike home, the darkening continues, and with every passing minute comes more stars, until it seems the sky can’t possibly hold any more.

Pausing to take it all in, the first thing to catch your eye in the unprecedented dark might be the Big Dipper—in May it’s high overhead as darkness falls, a comforting sight to disoriented observers still not convinced that this sky is real. Perhaps you’ll be temporarily distracted by the blinking lights of a distant jetliner, a silent reminder of the world left behind. A keen eye may discern a faint “star” moving among its neighbors—a satellite, possibly monitoring the weather, or sending GPS coordinates, or maybe even a foreign country secretly observing (smile!). And if you’re patient you might see a streaking meteor (or two, or three…), as if a hidden star has sprinted across the darkness and into a new hiding place.

But this visual feast is only the appetizer, because the main course, the Milky Way’s glowing band, isn’t served until close to midnight (or later, depending on the part of the sky that’s visible from the chosen vantage point). The Milky Way rises in the east, a band of light running north and south, ascending until it eventually spans the sky. Fainter in the north, the Milky Way brightens as your eyes follow it south, toward the glowing galactic core. The photogenic galactic core rises highest in the southern sky, so we hope for campsites with an open view in that direction. Since the Grand Canyon sky is crowded by tight, towering walls, the best views of the sky are usually up- or down-canyon.

Our best south-sky opportunities come on the trip’s first two nights, when we’re in Marble Canyon, the north/south trending section of the Grand Canyon that ends at the Little Colorado River confluence. At the confluence the canyon walls open to offer the trip’s best view of the sky, but just downriver the Colorado turns westward and the walls rise and squeeze closer. Fortunately, rather than beeline to Lake Mead, the Colorado River meanders a bit, bending north here and south there, providing an occasional view of the southern sky throughout the Grand Canyon.

Pulling into camp after a long day on the river, the first thing I do is find a spot for my cot that will ensure the best possible view of the night sky as I fall asleep. With my claim staked, I survey the surroundings for potential night photography scenes. Campsites on the Colorado River are first-come, first-served, and we have to hope we find one that’s oriented properly and has photogenic vantage points. Usually that means down by the river, but sometimes it’s an elevated location with the river in the distance. But if the campsite doesn’t have a photogenic vantage point, I’m not disappointed because nothing can take away my bedtime canopy.

If I find a scene I like, I compose, dial in my night exposure settings, and focus my camera well before dark. Sometimes I’ll compose and leave the camera poised on the tripod, ready for my return in the wee hours of the morning. If I’m afraid someone might stumble on my tripod in the dark, I leave it beside my cot, camera loaded and ready for action when I wake later.

On the trip’s third evening we pulled into camp exhausted but exhilarated after the trip’s most intense day of rapids. I found a view I liked near camp—getting there required a little rock scrambling that was no big deal with the sun out, but would require a bit more care. The Milky Way in May reaches its zenith in the south at around 3 a.m., but since we didn’t have a good view of the southern sky from this site, I decided the best views of the Milky Way would come earlier, when I could photograph it downstream, in the eastern sky. I woke at 1 a.m., grabbed my camera, and stumbled by the screen of my iPhone (the less artificial light my eyes are exposed to, the better they function when I try to photograph in the dark) to the spot I’d chosen. I could tell by a handful of glowing LCDs scattered downstream that I wasn’t the only one shooting. (On the first night I’d given the group instruction and guidance on photographing the Milky Way, but after that everyone was free to pick their spot and time, or stay in bed.)

I shot exclusively with my Sony a7SII and Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 lens. Once I’d perfected the composition and verified the sharpness, sticking with a 20 second shutter speed, I varied my ISO and aperture for more processing options later: ISO 3200, 6400, and 12,800; f1.4 and f2. At these settings I capture more light than my eyes take in—not only does this reveal more of the canyon than I can see, it also reveals even more stars.

I only photographed for about 20 minutes, but was so wired when I returned to my cot that I lay awake for another hour, mesmerized by my glittering ceiling.

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A Starry, Starry Gallery

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Silent Night

Gary Hart Photography: Silent Night, Yosemite Valley from Tunnel View

Silent Night, Yosemite Valley from Tunnel View
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f/4
20 seconds
F/5.6
ISO 1250

One perk of being a photographer is the opportunity to experience normally crowded locations in relative peace. That’s because the best nature photography usually happens at most people’s least favorite time to be outside: crazy weather and after dark. A couple of weeks ago in Yosemite I got the opportunity to enjoy both.

After spending a snowy Sunday guiding a couple around Yosemite Valley in a snowstorm, I dropped them back at (the hotel formerly known as) The Ahwahnee with nothing but the drive home on my mind. But winding through the valley in the fading twilight I saw signs of clearing skies and made a snap decision to check out the scene at Tunnel View.

I found the vista at Tunnel View gloriously empty. By the time I’d set up my camera and tripod the darkness was nearly complete, but as my eyes adjusted I could make out large, black holes in the once solid clouds overhead. Soon stars dotted the blackness above El Capitan and the white stripe of Bridalveil Fall. Each time light from the waxing gibbous moon slipped through the shifting clouds, the entire landscape lit up as if someone had flipped a switch.

Because the best parts of the view were in a narrow strip starting with the snow-glazed trees beneath me and continuing through the scene and up into the star-studded sky, I opted for a vertical composition. To include as much foreground and sky as possible, I went nearly as wide as my 16-35 lens would allow, more or less centering El Capitan and Bridalveil Fall to give the snow and stars equal billing.

Being completely comfortable with my a7RII’s high ISO performance, I didn’t stress the 1250 ISO that allowed me to stop down to a slightly sharper f/5.6 (virtually every lens is a little sharper stopped down from its largest aperture). Night focus with the Sony a7RII is extremely easy, easier than any camera I’ve ever used that isn’t an a7S/a7SII. Often I manually focus on the stars and use focus peaking* to tell me I’m sharp; in this case I back-button auto-focused on the contrast between the moonlit snow and dark granite near Bridalveil Fall. I chose a long enough shutter speed to capture motion blur in the rapidly moving clouds, knowing the potential for visible star streaking was minimized by my extremely wide focal length.

My favorite thing about that evening? The 20 seconds my shutter was open, when I didn’t have anything to do but stand there and enjoy the view in glorious silence.

* Focus peaking is a mirrorless feature that highlights in the viewfinder the in-focus areas of your scene.

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Yosemite After Dark

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Photograph the Milky Way: Part Two

Gary Hart Photography: Fire and Mist, Halemaumau Crater, Kilauea, Hawaii

Fire and Mist, Halemaumau Crater, Kilauea, Hawaii
Sony a7S
Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f4
10 seconds
F/4
ISO 3200

Previously on the Eloquent Nature blog: Photograph the Milky Way: Part One

Viewing the Milky Way requires nothing more than a clear, dark sky. 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 things your eyes can’t see. In fact, not only does the right camera in the right hands resolve far more Milky Way detail than we can see, it also reveals color too faint for the human eye.

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.

Equipment

Bottom line, photographing the Milky Way is all about maximizing your ability to collect light: long exposures, fast lenses, high ISO.

Camera

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 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 I’ve not been overly impressed with the high ISO images I’ve seen from these smaller sensors.)

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, but read some reviews to see how your camera candidates fare in objective tests by credible sources like DP Review or Imaging Resource (there are many others).

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 will 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 becomes 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 (a7R II, a7S, and a7S II) 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. That said, of the major DSLR brands, I’ve found Canon’s superior LCD screen makes it much easier to focus in extreme low light than Nikon. (More on focus later.)

Lens

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 its larger aperture gathers more light. How fast? F/2.8 or faster—preferably faster. How wide? At least 28mm, and 24mm or 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 a Rokinon 24mm f/1.4.

Tripod

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 (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.

Other stuff

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. Don’t forget a flashlight or headlamp for the walk to and from the car. And it’s never a bad idea to toss an extra battery in your pocket.

Getting the shot

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 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 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, they’re particularly insidious about leaking into everyone’s frame (so before you ask, no red light!). If you follow my no flashlight rule, 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 screen) gives me all the light I need.

Composition

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. 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 other features to add a little visual weight.

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 any 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. 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 there just aren’t that many south views there, 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.

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.

Focus

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 this 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 Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 wide open on my full frame Sony a7S II, 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. 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, then never change the focal length again once I know I’m focused. And remember, the best way to ensure focus is to set your focal length and focus before it gets dark.

But 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—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.

Exposure

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, you can’t give a Milky Way image too much light. What I mean by that is, 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? Each exposure variable causes a different problem when pushed too far:

  • ISO: Raising ISO to increase light sensitivity comes with a corresponding increase in noise that muddies detail. The noise at any particular ISO varies greatly with the camera, so it’s essential to know your camera’s low-light capability(!). Some of the noise can be cleaned up with noise reduction software (I use Topaz DeNoise 6)—the amount that cleans up will depend on the noise reduction software you use, your skill using that software, and where the noise is (is it marring empty voids or spoiling essential detail?).
  • Shutter speed: The longer the shutter stays open, the more motion blur spreads the stars’ distinct pinpoints into streaks. I’m not a big fan of formulas that dictate star photography shutter speeds because I find them arbitrary and inflexible, and they fail to account for the fact that the amount of apparent stellar motion varies with the direction you’re composing (you’ll get less motion the closer to the north or south poles you’re aimed). My general shutter-speed rule of thumb is 30-seconds or less, preferably less—I won’t exceed 30 seconds, and do everything I can to get enough light with a faster shutter speed.
  • F-stop: At their widest apertures, lenses tend to lose sharpness (especially on the edges) and display optical flaws like comatic aberration (also called coma) that distorts points of light (like stars) into comet shaped blurs. For many lenses, stopping down even one stop from wide open significantly improves image quality.

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 is that a subjective question 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, the only foreground that worked well enough was Kilauea Caldera, because it was its own light source.

Today (early 2017) I photograph the Milky Way with a Sony a7S II and a Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 lens. I get cleaner images from my Sony at ISO 6400 than got a ISO 1600 on my Canon 1DSIII, and the light gathering capability of an f/1.4 lens revelatory. Now I can stop down slightly to reduce lens aberrations, drop my shutter speed to 20 or 15 seconds to cut 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 them. 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 a7SII/Rokinon combo, I usually start at ISO 3200, f/2, 20 seconds. Those settings will usually get me enough light for Milky Way color and a little foreground detail. But if I want more light (for example, if I’m shooting into the black pit of the Grand Canyon from the North Rim), my first exposure compromise is to increase to ISO 6400; if I decide I need even more light, my next compromise is to open up to f/1.4; if that still isn’t enough light, my next compromise is to bump my shutter speed to 30 seconds. Finally, if I want more light that ISO 6400, f/1.4, 30 seconds delivers, I’ll try ISO 12,800 (and cross my fingers)*. If that’s not enough, I go home (or just sit and enjoy the view).

These thresholds are guidelines rather than hard-and-fast rules, and they apply to my setup only—your results may vary. And even though I’m pretty secure with this workflow, for every 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.

* In normal situations the Sony a7SII can handle ISO 12,800 without even breathing hard, but the long exposure time required of night photography generates a lot of heat on the sensor with a corresponding increase in noise.

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 a distinct 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 DSLR 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. If you’ve never done it 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.

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A Milky Way Gallery

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