I recently returned from our quick trip to Utah. While there, I spent several hours in the middle of the night doing some Milky Way shots at Devils Garden in Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument (a fantastic place that I love and that my so-called President is trying to take away). I arrived at the Devils Garden parking lot at about 1:30 am on a weekday morning. I obviously wasn’t the only one with the idea of shooting there that night, as the parking lot had five other cars parked (by comparison, I took Tanya and our friends Jim and Kris back there later in the morning – around 10 am – and there were only two other cars there).
Devils Garden is a fairly small area filled with wonderful hoodoos and several arches. And I was a bit surprised by the number of photographers there there, but figured if everyone was polite with their lights, we could all get along. I headed toward one particular set of four hoodoos shaped like heads from Easter Island that I thought would look great with the Milky Way and some light painting. However, there was a group of people already working there. So instead, I went to Metate Arch and shot the image above. I did my light painting with a LED headlamp covered with an orange gel. I was pretty happy with the result, and hoped the other folks had moved on to another spot so I could capture the “Easter Island” hoodoos. But no, they were still there.
I talked briefly with another photographer, asking him if my light painting had hindered him, but he said no. He was not with the group by the Easter Island hoodoos also wished they would move. He had been photographing some hoodoos near Metate Arch, and we traded places. I had some trouble shooting this spot, the group down by the Easter Island hoodoos was in the corner of my composition and they rarely turned off their lights. Further the photographer now at Metate Arch was occasionally using his light, and that was partly in my shot as well. Between the two, I took five shots, none without some light from the other photographers – especially the group by the Easter Island hoodoos – whom it seemed when they finished with light painted, turned on red lights and keep them on until they started light painting again (for those who don’t know, when out doing night photography, using a red light helps keep your night vision). Rarely did they have both their normal and red lights off. The image shown here is the best of the lot I took – there is some red light from the photographer by Metate Arch (lower center) and the light on the Easter Island hoodoos (down in the lower left corner) isn’t too bad. I was able to use Photoshop to fix the image (see below), getting totally rid of the red light in the center, removing the light spot in the lower left, and dimming the rest of the light in the lower left (I thought it looked better with a little light there rather than making it totally dark). I am happy with the result, but by now I was starting to get a bit mad at the rudeness of the group down by the Easter Island hoodoos, who almost always had one light or another on.
I ended up photographing three other spots, two of which are shown below, in total spending about two hours at Devils Garden. I never did make it to the Easter Island hoodoos as the light-happy group of photographers there never left the spot. And frankly, even now, days later, I’m still a bit peeved at that selfish and rude group.
Aside: rant directed at that group of photographers: seriously people, would you sit in the front row of a movie theater and talk on your cell phone for the entire movie? Do you enjoy shining your flashlight in other people’s eyes at night? Do you never turn off you high beams when other cars approach on the highway? And it’s not just the lights. It’s hogging the spot. It’s one thing to arrive early and setup at a preferred spot for sunrise – sunrise only last 10 or 15 minutes. But honestly, 2 hours without moving at a place that has dozens of potential shots? Have you no creativity? Obviously not! How many shots of the same set of hoodoos do you need? I suppose you never learned to share your toys when you were a kid either.
With the capabilities of today’s digital cameras, night photography is continually growing in popularity, and you will often find other photographers out with you at the same time as many sites, such as Devils Garden. Such situations beg for politeness and etiquette. If you find yourself out with other photographers at night, please be respectful and use your light sparingly. In places such as Devils Garden, where there are multiple subjects, try not to hog one spot. Nighttime photography is much more difficult than daytime work, it is more difficult to control the camera, more difficult to focus the lens, more difficult to get a composition, and demands long shutter speeds. It is difficult enough that you shouldn’t have to also battle light pollution from other photographers.
Last week I made a 6-day backpacking trip along the beach in Olympic National Park. More on the trip later. For now I want to just present one image. This is a nightscape I made near my camp at the Norwegian Memorial last Thursday night.
My friend and fellow photographer, Mark Cole, who ventured with me recently to Palouse Falls, also made arrangements to go to the Olympic coast (without my knowledge of his trip, and him without knowledge of my trip) with the expressed intent of doing night photography. As it turned out, we camped about 1/4 mile apart on Tuesday night near the Ozette River, me on the north side and he on the south side. Tuesday night was cloudy. We met up on the wilderness beach on Wednesday morning, and hiked together for a while, and he confirmed he did not get any shots Tuesday night. After awhile, he headed back to his camp and I kept going.
Mark planned to stay Wednesday night at his camp near the Ozette River. I have yet to talk with him, and I don’t know if he made any decent night shots – but it was again cloudy were I was camped.
Then came Thursday. Mark stated he was only out for two nights, so it is probable he missed this. The Milky Way in all its splendor on Thursday night. So this one’s for Mark. Better luck next time!
Technical details – 30-second exposure, ISO 6400, f4, 17mm on a 17-40mm zoom. Light painting done with a headlamp with a Roscoe diffuser and an orange gel.
I wish I could say the images accompanying this post are mine, but they are not. They are the work of Royce Bair. Royce is a photographer from Utah who specializes in shooting night-time landscapes that incorporate the Milky Way. He calls these images Nightscapes. He is currently touring the United States give lectures on how to capture such images. I was lucky enough to convince him to come to Tacoma and give his talk to the Tacoma Mountaineers. This will be a great event and a good opportunity to learn how to capture these wonderful shots. As you know if you are a regular reader of my blog, I’ve tried to get shots like these, with limited success. Hopefully, Royce will be able to teach me a thing or two.
The talk will be held Friday, February 13th from 7 to 9 pm at the Tacoma Mountaineers building at 2302 N 30th Street, Tacoma, Washington. It is free to attend and no reservation is needed (though it is first come-first served on seats). If you do decide to come by, be sure to introduce yourself to me as a reader of my blog.
Royce says that many of his shots are captured in a single exposure and have little post-processing. He will be giving a step-by-step recipe for capturing this images. His accompanying slide show will offer a lot of technical, how-to information including planning when and where to shoot the Milky Way, finding dark skies, calculating star alignments, choosing the right equipment, how to calculate the correct exposures, light painting, noise-reduction techniques, and exposure blending.
Royce is a semi-retired magazine photographer who has been capturing nightscapes for three decades. His photographs have appeared in National Geographic, Smithsonian, Reader’s Digest and American Photo, among others. His lecture tour is in advance of his upcoming ebook “Milky Way Nightscapes, A Guide to Photographing the Starry Night Sky.” Can’t make the lecture? You can order an advance copy of his ebook this month at a discounted price by sending him an email. Details are at the ebook link.
Hope to see you Friday!
I enjoy night photography, though I’ll be the first to admit that I have a lot to learn. I have previously written on the topic. However, in that case, my post focused on night photography in the city. In today’s post, I’ll focus on night photography in the wilderness (or at least far from city lights).
During my recent backpacking trip in the Olympic Mountains, I played with night photography on two nights. My main focus on those nights was to capture some shots of the Milky Way. When shooting star filled skies, and not trying for star trails, here are a few hints:
- plan your shot by seeing where the Milky Way will be – download the free program Stellarium, a planetarium for computers which can show you how the night sky will look anywhere in the world at anytime now or in the future.
- pick a spot outside of cities – light pollution blocks many visible stars; my trip to the Olympic Mountains was perfect
- for the best star shots, avoid times when the moon is up – like light pollution, moonlight will drown out many stars; it was just after new moon when I was in the Olympics, moonlight was not a problem
- use as “fast” a lens as you can – I used my f4 17-40mm zoom because I wanted the wide-angle view. However, my f2.8 24-70mm lens would have been a better choice for its better light gathering ability
- don’t be afraid of high ISOs, you will need it – I used ISO settings of 3,200, 6,400, and 8,000 coupled with noise reduction in Lightroom.
- avoid shutter speeds more than 30 seconds, otherwise you will start getting star trails – up to 30 seconds typically works okay for wide-angle shots (perhaps up to 24 mm), but if you use a less wide-angle lens, you will need a faster shutter speed. The shots here had shutter speeds of 20 to 30 seconds
- use a wide open aperture – I had my lens wide open at f4 (again, an f2.8 lens would have been better)
- use a tripod – goes without saying
- if you want some color to the sky, don’t wait until it is too dark – the length of time after sunset the sky will retain color depends on which direction you point the camera and your latitude (it gets darker quicker at lower latitudes); my shots here were taken between 1.5 and 2.5 hours after sunset
- auto-focus will not work, so turn it off – auto-focus does not work in low light; to focus you can choose to take some test shots and check a magnified view on your LCD panel of some of the stars; alternatively, manually set the focus to the hyperfocal distance or biased to the infinite side of the hyperfocal distance (that’s what I did)
- consider using less vignetting correction in post-processing – the profiled vignetting correction for my lens in Lightroom adds a lot of noise to the edges of the images (not a problem in full light conditions, bad news in low light)