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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It ain’t over till it’s over

Gary Hart Photography: After Twilight, Valley View, Yosemite

After Twilight, Valley View, Yosemite
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 24-70 f4
30 seconds
F/8
ISO 800

(How many photography blogs out there quote Yogi Berra? Just sayin’….) During the 1973 baseball season, Yogi Berra was asked about his last place Mets’ chances in the pennant race. His reply, “It ain’t over till it’s over,” was greeted with chuckles, but Yogi got the last laugh when the Mets rallied to make it all the way to the World Series. I couldn’t help thinking of Yogi’s quote on my drive home Monday night with this image, my final click of the day, still fresh in my mind.

When the weatherman promised snow down to 2500 feet on Monday, I drove to Yosemite late Sunday night so I could beat sunrise and have an entire day to play. And snow I found, lots and lots of it, and still falling. The snowfall continued throughout morning, so heavy that my first few hours were limited to photographing close scenes, interspersed with lots of waiting for conditions to improve. But a little before noon the clouds started to thin and the snow became more showery and I was in business.

When the clearing started in earnest I was at Valley View (but it didn’t look anything like this). The rest of the day I spent dashing around Yosemite Valley, chasing the clouds’ parting and the light that came with it. It’s so much fun watching a storm clear in Yosemite, poised beneath Yosemite Falls or Half Dome or El Capitan, and wait for the big reveal when the clouds to pull back.

For sunset I ended up trudging through about 18 inches of virgin snow to a favorite Half Dome reflection spot by the Merced River, recently rendered much less accessible by major roadwork underway in the valley. Throughout the day I’d crossed paths several times with good friend Don Smith who had driven up for the day with our mutual friends Scott and Mike, and they eventually joined me at sunset. As we shot we shared stories of the day—for example, how they had just missed getting crushed by a falling tree (true story). After a half hour of really nice photography, a large cloud set up shop atop Half Dome right around sunset, completely obscuring the scene’s main attraction. Satisfied with a tremendous day of photography, we declared the day, “Over.”

It wasn’t until I was back at my car that fully appreciated how wet everything was—my gear, my car, and even me (a day of plunging through snowdrifts had been enough for the snow to find its way over the top my waterproof boots and underneath my waterproof outer pants). I decided I’d swing into Valley View on my way out of the valley to use the bathroom and change into drier clothes. In the back of my mind was possibility of a parting shot of El Capitan in the late, blue twilight.

The west end of Yosemite Valley gets much less winter sunlight, so while trees had already started shedding the snow on the east side (where I’d photographed sunset), I pulled in at Valley View to find virtually every exposed surface still glistening white. Bridalveil Fall and Cathedral Rocks clearly visible in the fading light, but El Capitan was cloud-shrouded from top to bottom. Still quite cold, tired, and more than a little hungry, this would have been a perfect excuse to beeline home. But the scene was so beautiful, and the light so perfect, that after changing my clothes I just sat in my car, peeled an orange, and waited for El Capitan to show itself.

I didn’t have to wait long. At the first sign of clearing I hopped out and was completely set up by the river before El Capitan appeared. Bumping my ISO to 800, I composed the standard horizontal frame with El Capitan on the left, Leaning Tower on the right, and the Merced River in the foreground. Often the most difficult thing about shooting in low light like this is finding focus, but despite the fact that it was more 30 minutes after sunset, my Sony a7RII was able to autofocus on Cathedral Rocks. I spent a several clicks refining that original composition and was about to call the day “Over” one more time when something moved me to shift my view to the right. As soon as the image popped up on my LCD I knew I was onto something. I refined for about a half dozen more frames, culminating with the one you see here, until I was satisfied that a great day truly was over.

The lesson here, one I learned many years ago but I see many photographers struggle to grasp, is that the camera can still do fantastic things long after your eyes tell you the show is over. Another satisfying reminder from this day is that it’s still possible to enjoy Yosemite in glorious peace. As someone who has seen Yosemite at its congested worst, I relish the solitude possible when I choose times that the average person (tourists, fair weather photographers) won’t venture out: miserable weather, late at night, before sunrise. The entire time I was out there at Valley View that evening I was alone, and only two cars drove by. As Yogi would say, “Nobody goes there anymore—it’s too crowded.”

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A Twilight Gallery

Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the window to reorder the display.

My 2016

Gary Hart Photography: Milky Way and Meteor, Bristlecone Pine Forest, White Mountains, California

Milky Way and Meteor, Bristlecone Pine Forest, White Mountains, California
Bristlecone Night, White Mountains, California
Sony a7SII
Rokinon 24mm f1.4
20 seconds
F/2.0
ISO 6400

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Tonight the calendar clicks over to a new year, ready or not. Most are ready. The general consensus is that 2016 has been a difficult year. Our warming planet lost too many creative souls, and was rubbed raw by contentious elections in every hemisphere. But here we are knocking on the door of 2017.

I’m lucky to have photography and the dose of perspective it provides. Whether it’s a double rainbow above the Grand Canyon, fountains of lava on Kilauea, or a meteor slicing the Milky Way above 4000-year-old trees, our terrestrial problems just seem a little less significant when I’m behind my camera.

As I review 2016’s contributions to my portfolio, I have to admit that the year wasn’t a complete loss. To me these images are so much more than photographs, they’re a reminder that I was there to witness each of these gifts from Nature.

So, without further adieu, here’s a selection of personal highlights from this emotional, transformative, contentious, unforgettable year.

2016 Highlights

Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the window to reorder the display.

Happy New Year, everyone. Here’s to a great 2017.

– Gary


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The night sky and me

a7RIIYNP16AprSpringDSC5629ElCapitanSpringMoonlight_screensaver

Moonlight Reflection, El Capitan and the Three Brothers, Yosemite
Sony a7R II
Canon 11-24 f/4L with Metabones IV adapter @11mm
20 seconds
F/4
ISO 3200

My relationship with the night sky started when I was ten. Astronauts were my generation’s cowboys, so when I was given a castoff, six-inch reflector telescope by an amateur astronomer friend of my dad, I jumped at the opportunity to explore the celestial frontier on my terms. On clear nights my best friend Rob and I dragged that old black tube onto the front lawn and pointed it, randomly and full of wonder, at the brilliant points of light overhead. With guidance from our dads and the books of Herbert S. Zim, we learned the difference between stars, which despite their great size and temperature, are at such great distance that even the strongest telescope only sees discrete points of light, and planets, nearby worlds reflecting sunlight, which my telescope revealed as glowing disks.

With that telescope Rob and I searched in vain for comets and galaxies, watched Venus and Mercury cycle through phases just like the moon’s, tracked the nightly dance of Jupiter’s Galilean moons, and monitored the changing tilt of Saturn’s rings. Suddenly and hopelessly infected with the astronomy bug, on camping trips I declined the luxury of the family tent in favor of a sleeping bag beneath more stars than I imagined possible. There, nestled to my neck in the bag’s warmth, I’d stretch beneath the boundless ceiling, counting “shooting stars” and scouring the sky for satellites, fighting sleep for as long as my eyelids could hold out. In my later teen years I discovered backpacking and with it skies that inspired ponderings of infinity. My first college major was astronomy, a most impractical aspiration that I managed to correct before quantification of the universe spoiled my appreciation of its elegance.

In my early twenties I discovered photography, but, frustrated by my film camera’s inability to capture the night sky’s beauty, quickly moved on to more terrestrial subjects. Fast forward to the twenty-first century, when the advent of digital photography offered light capturing and processing capabilities impossible with film. My first night subject was the Big Dipper; since then I’ve tried to include some form of night photography in most of my workshops and as many personal shoots as possible, seeking to use my camera’s unique perspective to convey the emotion the night experience brings me, rather than attempt the impossible task of recreating the sky literally.

Among other subjects, I’ve developed a particular fondness for photographing the gold/blue transition-zone separating day and night. Arriving on location well before sunrise gives me a front-row view of the indigo night’s slow retreat in favor of the golden promise of a new day; lingering long after the sun sets, I watch the day’s vestiges linger on the horizon, as if waiting with me for the stars to materialize.

About this image

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This year’s Yosemite Moonbow and Wildflowers workshop group had the good fortune to photograph Yosemite brimming with more water than I’ve seen in years. A particular highlight was this location beside the Merced River, one of my favorite early morning spots. The morning we arrived we found my normal vantage points flooded beyond recognition, but rather than let the flooding turn us around, I explored the new shoreline and found view through the trees onto a crystal clear reflection. We stayed and photographed here until bad light and empty stomachs finally drove us to breakfast.

Excited by our good fortune that morning (read The Power of Reflections), I offered to return that night with anyone who wanted to photograph the scene by moonlight. Though I already had a moonbow shoot scheduled for later in the workshop, the moonlight potential here was so great that I wanted to at least give everyone the option of photographing it (on the other hand, with such early mornings, I knew from experience that I needed to give everyone the option to return to the hotel for an early bedtime).

Despite a long drive back from our sunset at Glacier Point, about half the group still joined me for what turned out to be a very memorable moonlight shoot. The already somewhat limited space was made even more difficult by the darkness (we were shaded from the moonlight by trees and the valley wall behind us), but we made it work with great cooperation and no shortage of laughter.

Among other things, this image highlights one of the great joys of photography with today’s advanced technology: the camera’s improving ability to reveal a world previously obscured by night’s dark curtain. (It will only get better.)

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A moonlight gallery

Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the window to reorder the display.

 

The dark night

Gary Hart Photography: Angel's View, Milky Way from Angel's Window, Grand Canyon

Angel’s View, Milky Way from Angel’s Window, Grand Canyon
Sony a7S
Rokinon 24 f1.4
20 seconds
F/1.4
ISO 6400

How to offend a photographer

Gallery browser: “Did you take that picture?”

Photographer: “Yes.”

Gallery browser: “Wow, you must have a good camera.”

Few things irritate a photographer more than the implication that it’s the equipment that makes the image, not the photographer. We work very hard honing our craft, have spent years refining our vision, and endure extreme discomfort to get the shot. So while the observer usually means no offense, comments discounting a photographer’s skill and effort are seldom appreciated.

But…

As much as we’d like to believe that our great images are 100 percent photographic skill, artistic vision, and hard work, a good camera sure does allow us to squeeze the most out of our skill, vision, and effort.

As a one-click shooter (no HDR or image blending of any kind), I’m constantly longing for more dynamic range and high ISO capability. So, after hearing raves about Sony sensors for several years, late last year (October 2014) I switched to Sony. My plan was a gradual transition, shooting Sony for some uses and Canon for others, but given the dynamic range and overall image quality I saw from my Sony a7R starting day one, I haven’t touched my Canon bodies since picking up the Sony.

While I don’t think my Sony cameras have made me a better photographer, I do think ten months is long enough to appreciate that I’ve captured images that would have been impossible in my Canon days. I instantly fell in love with the resolution and  2- to 3-stop dynamic range improvement of my Sony a7R (and now the a7R II) over the Canon 5D III, the compactness and extra reach of my 1.5-crop a6000 (with little loss of image quality), and my a7S’s ability to pretty much see in the dark.

But what will Sony do for my night photography?

I need more light

I visit Grand Canyon two or three times each year, and it’s a rare trip that I don’t attempt to photograph its inky dark skies. But when the sun goes down and the stars come out, Grand Canyon’s breathtaking beauty disappears into a deep, black hole. Simply put, I needed more light.

Moonlight was my first Grand Canyon night solution—I’ve enjoyed many nice moonlight shoots here, and will surely enjoy many more. But photographing Grand Canyon by the light of a full moon is a compromise that sacrifices all but the brightest stars to achieve a night scene with enough light to reveal the canyon’s towering spires, receding ridges, and layered red walls.

What about the truly dark skies? For years (with my Canon bodies) the only way to satisfactorily reveal Grand Canyon’s dark depths with one click was to leave my shutter open for 30 minutes or longer. But the cost of a long exposure is the way Earth’s rotation stretches those sparkling pinpoints into parallel arcs.

As with moonlight, I’m sure I’ll continue to enjoy star trail photography. But my ultimate goal was to cut through the opaque stillness of a clear, moonless Grand Canyon night to reveal the contents of the black abyss at my feet, the multitude of stars overhead, and the glowing heart the Milky Way.

So, ever the optimist, on each moonless visit to Grand Canyon, I’d shiver in the dark on the canyon’s rim trying to extract detail from the obscure depths without excessive digital noise or streaking stars. And each time I’d come away disappointed, thinking, I need more light.

The dynamic duo

Early this year, with night photography in mind, I added a 12 megapixel Sony a7S to my bag. Twelve megapixels is downright pedestrian in this day of 50+ megapixel sensors, but despite popular belief to the contrary, image quality has very little to do with megapixel count (in fact, for any given technology, the lower the megapixel count, the better the image quality). By subtracting photosites, Sony was able to enlarge the remaining a7S photosites into light-capturing monsters, and to give each photosite enough space that it’s not warmed by the (noise-generating) heat of its neighbors.

With the a7S, I was suddenly able to shoot at ridiculously high ISOs, extracting light from the darkest shadows with very manageable noise. Stars popped, the Milky Way throbbed, and the landscape glowed with exquisite detail. I couldn’t wait to try it at Grand Canyon.

My first attempt was from river level during this year’s Grand Canyon raft trip in May. Using my a7S and Canon-mount Zeiss 28mm f2 (after switching to Sony, I was able to continue using my Zeiss lens with the help of a Metabones IV adapter), I was immediately blown away by what I saw on my LCD, and just as excited when I viewed my captures on my monitor at home.

But I wasn’t done. Though I’d been quite pleased with my go-to dark night Zeiss lens, I wanted more. So, in my never-ending quest for more light, just before departing for the August Grand Canyon monsoon workshop, I purchased a Rokinon 24mm f1.4 to suck one more stop’s worth of photons from the opaque sky. The new lens debuted last Friday night, and I share the results here.

About this image

Don Smith and I were at Grand Canyon for our annual back-to-back monsoon workshops. On the night between workshops, Don and I photographed sunset at Cape Royal, then walked over to Angel’s Window where we ate sandwiches and waited for the Milky Way to emerge. The sky was about 80 percent clouds when the sun went down and we debated packing it in, but knowing these monsoon clouds often wane when the sun drops, we decided to stick it out.

Trying to familiarize myself with the capabilities of my new dark night lens, I photographed a handful of compositions at varying settings. To maximize the amount of Milky Way in my frame, everything oriented vertically. As with all my images, the image I share here is a single click.

Despite the moonless darkness, exposing the a7S at ISO 6400 for 20 seconds at f1.4 enabled me to fill my entire histogram from left to right (shadows through highlights) without clipping. Bringing the shadows up a little more in Lightroom revealed lots of detail with just a moderate amount of very manageable noise.

This is an exciting time indeed for photographers, as technology advances continue to push the boundaries of possibilities. Just a few years ago an image like this would have been unthinkable in a single click—I can’t wait to see what Sony comes up with yet.

Some comments on processing night images

Processing these dark sky images underscores the quandary of photography beyond the threshold of human vision—no one is really sure how it’s supposed to look. We’re starting to see lots of night sky images from other photographers, including many featuring the Milky Way, and the color is all over the map. Our eyes simply can’t see color with such little light, but a long exposure and/or fast lens and high ISO shows that it’s still there—it’s up to the photographer to infer a hue.

So what color should a night scene be? It’s important to understand that an object’s color is more than just a fixed function of an inherent characteristic of that object, it varies with the light illuminating it. I can’t speak for other photographers, but I try to imagine how the scene would look if my eyes could capture as much light as my camera does.

To me a scene with blue cast is more night-like than the warmer tones I see in many night images (they look like daylight with stars), so I start by cooling the color temperature below 4,000 degrees in Lightroom. The purplish canyon and blue sky in this image is simply the result of the amount of light I captured, Grand Canyon’s naturally red walls, and me cooling the image’s overall color temperature in Lightroom. For credibility, I actually decided to desaturate the result slightly. (The yellow glow on the horizon is the lights of Flagstaff and Williams, burned and desaturated in Photoshop.)

Learn more about starlight photography

A dark night gallery

Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show. Refresh the screen to reorder the display.

A small dose of mind-bending perspective

Gary Hart Photography, The Milky Above Kilauea Volcano

Earth and Sky, Kilauea Caldera, Hawaii
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
16 mm
20 seconds
F/2.8
ISO 3200

So what’s happening here? The orange glow at the bottom of this frame is light from 1,800° F lava bubbling in Halemaʻumaʻu Crater inside Hawaii’s Kilauea Caldera, reflecting off a low-hanging bank of clouds. The white band above the crater is light cast by billions of stars at the center our Milky Way galaxy. So dense and distant are the stars here, their individual points are lost to the surrounding glow. Partially obscuring the Milky Way’s glow are large swaths of interstellar dust, the leftovers of stellar explosions and the stuff of future stars. Completing the scene are stars in our own neighborhood of the Milky Way, stars close enough that we see them as discrete points of light that we 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 more we can’t see—that’s nearly 50 stars for every man, woman, and child on Earth. Our Sun, the central cog in the solar system that includes Earth and the other planets wandering our night sky, is a minor player in a spiral arm near the outskirts of the Milky Way. But before you get too impressed with the size of the Milky Way, consider that it’s just one of 500 billion or so galaxies in the known Universe—that’s right, there are more galaxies in the Universe than stars in our galaxy.

Everything we see is the product of light—light created by the object itself (like the stars), or created elsewhere and reflected (like the planets). 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 it 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 for a beam of light to travel between two objects—one light-year is the distance light travels in one year.

The ramifications of cosmic distance are mind-bending. Imagine an Earth-like planet revolving the star closest to our solar system, about four light-years away. If we had a telescope with enough resolving power to see all the way down to the planet’s surface, we’d be watching that planet’s activity from four years ago. Likewise, if someone on that planet today (in 2014) were watching us, they’d see Lindsey Vonn claiming the gold in the Women’s Downhill at the Vancouver Winter Olympics, and maybe learn about the unfolding WikiLeaks scandal.

In this image, the caldera’s proximity makes it about as “right now” as anything in our Universe can be—the caldera and I 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. Not only that, every point of starlight here is a version of that star created in a different instant in time. It’s possible for the actual distance separating two stars to be so great, that we see light from the younger star that’s older than the light from the older star.

So what’s the point of all this mind bending? Perspective. It’s easy (essential?) for humans to overlook our place in this larger Universe as we negotiate the family, friends, work, play, eat, and sleep that defines our very own personal universes. I doubt we could cope otherwise. But when I start taking my life too seriously, it helps to appreciate my place in the larger Universe. Nothing does that better for me than quality time with the night sky.

About this image

My 2014 Hawaii Big Island photo workshop group made three trips to photograph the Kilauea Caldera beneath the Milky Way. On the first night we got a lot of clouds, with a handful of stars above, and just a little bit of Milky Way. Nice, but not the full Milky Way everyone hoped for. So I brought everyone back a couple nights later—this time we got about ten minutes of quality Milky Way photography before the clouds closed in. The following night we gave the caldera one more shot and were completely shut out by clouds. Such is the nature of night photography in general, and on Hawaii in particular. This image is from our second visit.

My concern that night was making sure everyone was successful, ASAP. I started with a test exposure to determine the exposure settings that would work best for that night (not only does each night’s ambient light vary with the volcanic haze, cloud cover, and airborne moisture, the caldera’s brightness varies daily too). Once I got the exposure down and called it out to the group, most of my time was spent helping people find and check their focus, and refine their compositions (“More sky! More sky!”). Bouncing around in the dark, I’d occasionally stop at my camera long enough to fire a frame, never staying long enough to see the image pop up on the LCD. I ended up with a half dozen or so frames, including this one from early in the shoot.

Join me on the Big Island next year

Learn more about starlight photography

A starlight gallery

Click an image for a larger view, and to enjoy the slide show

One eye on the ocean, the other on the volcano

Gary Hart Photography: Heavenly Fire, Kilauea Caldera, Hawaii

Heavenly Fire, Kilauea Caldera, Hawaii
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
16mm
10 seconds
F/16
ISO 3200

September 16, 2014

It’s easy to envy residents of Hawaii’s Big Island—they enjoy some of the cleanest air and darkest skies on Earth, their soothing ocean breezes ensure that the always warm daytime highs remain quite comfortable, and the bathtub-warm Pacific keeps overnight lows from straying far from the 70-degree mark. Scenery here  is a postcard-perfect mix of symmetrical volcanoes, lush rain forests, swaying palms, and lapping surf. I mean, with all this perfection, what could possibly go wrong?

Well, let me tell you….

Last month Tropical Storm Iselle, just a few hours removed from hurricane status, slammed Hawaii’s Puna Coast with tree-snapping winds and frog-drowning rain that cut electricity, flooded roads, and disrupted many lives for weeks. Touring the area in and around Hilo, it’s easy to appreciate Hawaiian resilience—thanks to quick action, hard work, and continuous smiles, most visitors would find it difficult to believe what happened here just a month ago. But on the drive south of Hilo along the Puna Coast, I witnessed firsthand Iselle’s power in its aftermath. There beaches have been rearranged beyond recognition and entire forests have been leveled.

But despite its impact, Iselle is already old news. This month residents of Hawaii’s Puna region have done a 180, turning their always vigilant eyes away from the ocean and toward the volcano. In late June Kilauea’s Pu`u `O`o Crater dispatched a river of lava down the volcano’s southeast flank. Since Pu`u `O`o has been erupting continuously since 1983, this latest incursion didn’t initially raise many eyebrows. But the flow has persisted, advancing now at about 250 yards per day. While this isn’t “Run-for-your life!” speed, it’s more like high stakes water torture because there’s very little that can be done to stop, slow, or even deflect the lava’s inexorable march. Residents of the communities of Kaohe and Pahoa can do nothing but watch, pray, and prepare—if the volcano persists, they’re wiped out. Not only that, the lava flow also threatens the Pahoa Highway, currently the only route in and out for the thousands of residents of the Puna region.

Recent reports of increased activity on Muana Loa have also notched up the anxiety. Lava from its last eruption, in 1984, threatened Hawaii’s capital, Hilo, before petering out with just a few miles to spare. Because Muana Loa eruptions tend to be larger and more explosive than Kilauea eruptions, any increased activity there is taken very seriously.

Had enough? Well, there’s more thing: With its funnel-shaped bay and bullseye placement in the Pacific Ring of Fire, Hilo is generally considered the most tsunami vulnerable city in the world. Fatal tsunamis have struck the Big Island in 1837, 1868, 1877, 1923, 1946, 1960, and 1975. Yesterday my photo workshop group photographed sunrise at Laupahoehoe Point, where damage from the most deadly tsunami to strike American soil is still visible. That tsunami, in 1946 (before Hawaii became a state), traveled 2,500 miles from the Aleutian Islands to kill 159 Hawaiians, including 20 schoolchildren and 4 teachers in Laupahoehoe.

Despite this shopping list of threats and hardship, I don’t get the sense the Hawaiians want sympathy. Despite the unknown but potentially devastating consequences facing them, both imminent and potential, no one here is feeling sorry for themselves. There’s much talk about the current lava flow that will directly or indirectly impact every resident of the Big Island’s Hilo side, but no hand-wringing—life goes on and smiles abound. Indeed, everyone here seems to have sprung into action in one way or another, shoring up old long abandoned roads (the jungle claims anything left unattended with frightening speed), helping people move possessions to safe ground, offering temporary shelter, and whatever else might help.

The Aloha spirit is alive and well, and I have no doubt that it will persevere in the face of whatever adversity Nature throws at them.

About this image

My Hawaii photo workshop began Monday afternoon, but my brother and I arrived on the Big Island on Friday because I hate doing any workshop without first running all my locations to make sure there are no surprises. And this time it turned out to be a wise move—not only did I get a couple of extra days in paradise, I did indeed encounter surprises, courtesy of Iselle, when I discovered two of my go-to locations rendered inaccessible by storm damage. I spent Saturday searching for alternatives and by Saturday’s end had a couple of great substitute spots. That night we celebrated with a night shoot on Kilauea. (I was going to visit Kilauea anyway, but if I’d still been stressing about my locations, I probably wouldn’t have been in the right mindset to photograph.)

We arrived to find the Milky Way glowing brightly above the caldera and immediately started shooting. Because I don’t have as many horizontal compositions of the caldera as vertical, I started horizontal. By the time I’d captured a half dozen or so frames, a heavy mist dropped into the caldera to quickly obscure the entire view (one more example of our utter helplessness to the whims of Nature).

In this frame I went quite wide, not only to capture as much of the Milky Way as possible, but also to include all of the thin cloud layer painted orange by the light of the caldera’s fire. This is a single click (no blending of multiple images), though I did clone just a little bit of color back into the hopelessly blown center of the volcano’s flame.

A Kilauea Gallery

Click and image for a larger view, and to enjoy the slide slow

 

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