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.
I hope you are having a great summer (or winter for my friends down south). I’m not sure where the time has gone this summer. It seems like I’ve been busy, but have little to show for it. I know my time has not been taken up by photography. I sort my image in my Lightroom catalog by date, and the catalog for July only has two dates in it. Same with August – and those two were from consecutive days of a non-photography trip where the camera barely left the bag. The purpose of the trip earlier this month was a family reunion. Us Beckers gather every year the first weekend in August.
This year, the get-together was at my sister’s house in Lyle, Washington. For those of you that don’t know where Lyle is, it is a small town in the Columbia River Gorge, on the Washington side of the river, ten miles or so east of Hood River, Oregon. My sister actually lives north of town another 10 miles or so in a house with a fantastic view of Mount Adams. However, I didn’t take any shots of Mount Adams when I was there, the air was quite hazy.
Tanya and I stayed right in the town of Lyle in an Airbnb house with a view of the Columbia River. The only photograph I planned to take that weekend was the image above. I knew by checking the Photographer Ephemeris that the crescent moon would be setting directly down the gorge from Lyle. In fact, I didn’t have to travel far to get the shot. The image above was taken from the deck of our rental.
So why is this post called “Rookie Mistakes?” Because I made a mess of my photo shoot. For those of you that have been to the Columbia River Gorge, you probably know the wind blows there a lot, and the night I shot this image was no exception. So, one would think that I, being somewhat of a professional photographer, would take precautions against camera shake. Well, I thought I did. I used my sturdiest tripod, I bumped up the ISO to 800 and used wide apertures to make for shorter shutter speeds. I shot some 30 images. All of them had camera shake to a certain extent. The one above, the last image I shot that night, was the best of the lot. I used Photoshop’s shake reduction filter, and that helped, but I could have done more. I should have used a weight on the tripod. I should have left the stabilizer on my lens, which I normally turn off when shooting from a tripod, turned on. Bad mistakes. I’m lucky I had even one halfway decent shot.
Mistake number two – the moon (and the planet above it in this image, Jupiter, I think) moves fast. My shutter speeds were between 2.5 and 30 seconds. When shooting stars at night, a 30-second exposure is typically not long enough to have star trails show when using a very wide-angle lens. However, I was not using a very wide-angle lens; I was using a telephoto lens. In everything I shot with a shutter speed over 2.5 seconds, the moon was horribly blurred due to the earth’s rotation. The image above is actually a composite, the moon and Jupiter are a 2.5 second exposure, the rest is a 10 second exposure.
All I can say is that when I downloaded these images to my computer, I was very disappointed. I let the excitement of the photo shoot overwhelm good technique. That’s why it is important to get out and practice your craft as much as possible. Keep working on your technique until it becomes second nature. I guess I’m not there yet. Here I encountered two different, unrelated phenomenon that, had I been thinking properly, should have made me use a fast shutter speed. Neither did. I failed and am lucky to have anything to show. But, I learned a lesson and, hopefully, will not make these mistakes again.
If you are like me, it is often difficult to do serious photography when traveling with your family. I wish I had a simple method to address this problem, but I don’t. If you do, please let me know! Or perhaps you don’t think this is a problem. If that is that case, please tell me why.
When traveling with Tanya, she usually requires me classify the trip as a “photograph trip” or a “non-photography trip.” On non-photography trips, I can still take my equipment, but I am expected not to disrupt any trip plans with photography. On photography trips, the world’s my oyster and I dictate when and where.
When we take a big trip, like our trip to Europe last month, they are by default non-photography trips. This is especially true when we travel with others; in this particular case, traveling with my mother-in-law and my son. One word of advice – if you want to get a lot of photography in while traveling, don’t travel with your mother-in-law.
On a photography trip, I tend to take the whole bag. But for non-photography trips, I go more minimal. I usually take my camera backpack as a carry-on in the plane, but I don’t typically carry it around when out shooting except when I’m going out by myself (see below). Even then, I take some of the gear out instead of my normal kit. I typically take my Canon 6D body with battery grip, a 28-300 mm lens, a 17-40 mm lens, about 5 or 6 memory cards, a polarizing filter, a split-neutral density filter, a Canon speedlight flash, four batteries, a battery charger, a tripod, my laptop, a card reader, and a few various accessories (lens cloth, etc.). In addition to the backpack, I also bring a Think Tank Pro digital holster as a smaller bag.
So when on a non-photography trips and heading out with the family, I go with a minimal set of equipment. I will put the 28-300mm lens on the camera, take the battery grip off, and put the camera in the holster (the camera will not fit in the holster with the battery grip on). In the pockets of the holster, which are rather small, I’ll carry a spare battery, a spare memory card, a cleaning cloth, and the polarizing filter. Sometimes, if I know I will want it, I’ll carry the 17-40mm lens in my coat pocket (no room in the camera holster). Rarely I’ll carry the tripod as well with this minimal setup. This minimal set of equipment allows me to get quality photographs without impacting the family, though I will often have to shoot at a higher ISO than I’d like due to not having the tripod (see my last post).
But my main strategy to get quality photography time is to go out without the family. This usually means going out at night after the family has retired to our lodgings for the evening or getting up extra early and going out prior to everyone else being ready for the day. This is one reason I like to stay near major attractions that might look good at night. On your recent trip, we stayed within easy walking distance of the Louvre when in Paris and near the Block of Discord in Barcelona. When going out on my own, I carry my full kit in the photo backpack and always take the tripod (even with high ISOs, it is hard to shoot at night without a tripod). The added advantage is that often there are not very many people around wandering into my frame when shooting, and even if they do, the exposures are long enough that they typically don’t show up if they keep moving.
Shooting at night also has the added advantage of making the sky easier to deal with. When doing travel photography, you typically don’t have a lot of time at any one destination. So you can’t necessarily wait for those “good” sky days. Often the sky is a mass of clouds without any redeeming detail, and if you place it in your composition, it sits there like a huge blown-out white blob. Not to mention the contrast problem it creates with the foreground and your image’s subject. Not a problem at night. At worst, clouds pick up scattered lights from the city and take on an orange glow, which is easy to fix in processing.
The images accompanying this post are from two nights I went out by myself, once in Paris and the second in Barcelona. Unlike my previous post, these images were all taken with an ISO of 100 or 200 while using a tripod. The featured image at the top of the post is of the courtyard of the Louvre.
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.
The Palouse region of Washington State is famous for its verdant spring hills and red barns. Steptoe Butte is a must-visit destination for many travel and nature photographers. I have shot in the Palouse several times, and blogged about it several years ago (see here and here). But one of the highlights of the region I missed until earlier this week – Palouse Falls.
Palouse Falls perhaps gets a bit less traffic than Steptoe Butte and the rest of the Palouse because it is a bit out-of-the-way, more of an outlier to the Palouse region than being in it. It is an hour and 45 minute drive from the falls to Steptoe Butte, and just a bit less to the town of Colfax, where many photographers stay during their trips to the region. If you are staying in Colfax, do you really want to get up at 3:30 a.m. to drive to Palouse Falls for sunrise when you could sleep an hour later and still get sunrise shots at Steptoe Butte?
But Palouse Falls is worth a visit. Perhaps the best way to visit, at least for prime photography times, is to camp there. Palouse Falls State Park has 11 tent camping spots (no trailer hookups; trailers and RVs are sometimes allowed to park overnight in the parking lot during non-peak periods) that are within 100 meters of prime viewpoints for photography.
The Palouse River falls about 185 feet over the edge of a canyon of basalt. Unlike the verdant hills of the Palouse further east of the falls, the falls are in desert. But there is plenty of green in the canyon below the falls, making a wonderful contrast with the black basalt and brown hills (or in spring, brown and green hills). The canyon below the falls is scenic on its own accord and would be worth a visit even without the falls. The canyon curves to the south just downstream from the falls. The campground is perched on the western canyon rim, and it is easy to walk to viewpoints that either look eastward directly toward the falls, or southward down the canyon. These southerly looking viewpoints are north of the parking lot and provide the best view – encompassing the falls and the downstream canyon. Be warned though, they are right on the edge of vertical drop of at least 250 feet straight down to the canyon floor, beyond the fence on the canyon rim near the campground and parking lot, and are not for those who are faint of heart or afraid of heights. To get the falls and downstream canyon both in single composition will require a wide-angle lens of about 18 mm or less on a camera with a full-frame sensor. My 17-40mm zoom worked well, but if you want more sky in the frame, you may want an even wider angle (or stitch together more than one shot).
The falls face west-southwest and receive direct sunlight in late morning through most of the afternoon during the spring (reportedly in summer they may be in partial shadow into the early afternoon). In the evening, the shadow of the canyon wall climbs up the falls, and before sunset, they are completely in shade. Similarly, the falls are completed shaded at sunrise. And, once the sun is up, it shines through and lights up the mist created by the falling water, making early morning shots of the falls more difficult.
However, if the clouds to the south light up during either sunset or sunrise, excellent photo opportunities await. You may want to use a split-neutral density filter to help control the contrast between the sky and the dark canyon below. Similarly, you may consider using HDR.
The falls are also a great location for Milky Way nightscape shots like I’ve discuss recently, and in fact that was the prime reason for my recent visit. In spring, the best viewpoint is again north of the parking lot, on the canyon rim (just be extra careful in the dark, it’s a long fall down). The falls will be completely dark, so light painting is recommended. When I was there, for the image above, I worked with a photo partner. One of us tripped the shutters on the cameras while the other used a spotlight to light paint the falls and canyon from the fenced viewpoint area near the parking lot.
It is possible to hike to the top of or bottom of the falls, though the trails are not maintained by the park. These unofficial trails are steep, so if you do take them, be extra careful. The one in from the south steeply drops off the canyon rim and circles midway along the canyon wall to the the top of the falls. At one point, almost directly below the main viewpoint by the parking lot, it is possible to get down to the river in the bottom of the canyon by dropping down a steep scree slope. The trail from the north, drops into the upper canyon from the railroad tracks that run west of the park. This is reportedly the easier way in, though you must hop a fence along the tracks to reach the trail and the descent is still steep. You should also be careful along the tracks because it is an active rail line. If you do take the northern route into the canyon, you will pass by a nice stretch of white water above the falls. There is certainly no need to take these trails into the canyon to get good photographs, the views from the top are spectacular (and indeed, during my recent trip, we did not hike into the canyon). Reportedly the trail continues several miles up canyon to Upper Palouse Falls, a fall of less than 20 feet, and during the spring, when the flow in the river is greatest and the area has plenty of blooming wildflowers, this may be a good day hike option.
Marmots are active around the main falls viewpoints, and with a bit of patience, you can get rather close to take portraits of these groundhog relatives. The park is also home to many types of birds. When there recently, I saw several varieties I had not seen before.
Overall, Palouse Falls is a great place for photography. It is worth a quick stop on your way to or from the Palouse; or better yet, spend the night there to experience the falls at sunrise and sunset. You won’t be disappointed.
Want to learn how to take photos similar to my shot of Balance Rock shown here? Recently I blogged about a lecture by Royce Bair about shooting Milky Way nightscapes. I hope some of you were able to attend. The lecture was in advance of his new ebook on the subject. The ebook is now ready.
Though I took the Balanced Rock shot prior to reading Royce’s book, I wish I had the book first; it would have solved several problems I had with the shoot. I am currently planning a trip next week to Eastern Washington to do some night photography (weather permitting) and Royce’s book will certainly be making the trip with me. It has helped me plan the trip and plan particular shots I hope to take. Prior to going, I will be purchasing a new spotlight (for light painting) based on book recommendations. In particular, I like his “recipes” for taking these type of shots. They make the process much easier.
Royce recently contacted me and is offering a special limited-time 25% discount on his ebook. His book “Milky Way NightScapes” is 140 pages about starry night landscape photography including planning, scouting, forecasting star/landscape alignment, light painting, shooting techniques and post processing. I have a copy and it is very informative. It sells for $19.99, but he is offering a $5 discount to readers of my blog.
The eBook can be previewed or ordered here.
To receive the discount:
1. Scroll to the bottom of the web page
2. Click on the ADD TO CART button
3. In the shopping cart, enter TWAN in the Discount Code box
4. Click the “Update Cart” button to get your $5.00 discount and have it reduce the total to $14.99
5. Click the yellow PayPal checkout button and make your payment
6. You can now download the eBook PDF
Your net price will be $14.99. This discount code is for a limited time only.
I should probably note that I did not receive anything for this recommendation. It’s just a great little ebook that give concise, usable information and advice on how to shoot Milky Way landscapes.
On my recent trip to Baltimore, I spent an afternoon at the National Mall in Washington, DC. It seemed to me, with cold weather and snow, as well as being on a Tuesday, there were very many people there. It may have been because the snow closed down the government, so a lot of people had the day off, and that it was sunny and not really that cold. Or it could be there is just always a lot of people there. It is a popular tourist attraction after all. Regardless, with all the people, it made it a challenge to photograph the monuments without a lot of people in my shots.
A great method to remove people from your shots is to use a really long exposure (typically several seconds to minutes). With a long exposure, people moving through the frame are not recorded. To get really long exposures, use a neutral density filter. As I was carrying my tripod and a neutral density filter, I was tempted to use this method to get a shot of the Lincoln Memorial during the afternoon, as it seemed to be the place with the most people gathered. However, even an exposure of several minutes (which I don’t think I could have gotten due to bright light) was probably not good enough in this case because a lot of people were standing in place for minutes at a time. A ten-minute exposure might have work, but I didn’t have the equipment with me for that.
Instead, I came by later, after sunset, when there were many fewer people about. Then using an 8-second exposure, I was able to capture the monument without people (actually, there is the “ghost” of two people in the shot, but I can remove them later with cloning if I want).
Actually, waiting for evening is a great method for controlling crowds. Typically there are many fewer people about and the light is often better than in the middle of the day. In the shot of the Washington Monument from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, I planned the shot during the afternoon when many people where in front of the war memorial wall, but came back after sunset to make the shot. I shot from this location for about 15 minutes, during which time, only one group of people passed.
Another method is to frame the people out of the picture, as worked for the image here of the Jefferson Memorial. Look for pleasing compositions above the heads of your fellow visitors. A corollary to this method is to shoot details, rather than the big picture, thereby cutting people out of your compositions.
Of course, that doesn’t always work. Sometimes you want the entire building or you want foregrounds that shooting high above people’s heads cannot give. In that case you can try to go with a wide-angle shot. With a wide-angle perspective, you can make the people visible in the shot look much smaller and less of an obstruction, at least if they are not close to the camera. This method worked well for the shot of the Washington Monument with the flags.
Or you can just go to areas that are not as popular. By visiting less popular sites, you don’t only get the advantage of fewer people in the frame, you can capture shots that are more unique (rather than the same shot of the popular attraction that has been shot a million times). Very few people were visiting the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial, which is where I took the shot below of the Jefferson Memorial with the snowy tree in the foreground.
Travel photography presents many opportunities, including shooting interesting people and cultures. But sometimes, you views without the people in them. Using some of the methods described above can often allow you to capture shots people-free.
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!
One of my favorite places to shoot in Tacoma is the Museum of Glass. With its unique architecture, reflecting ponds, and setting on the Thea Foss Waterway next to the historic Albers Mills building, it provides plenty of fun compositions. Though it can be photographed any time of day, I especially like photographing there at night. I really like the varying metal textures of the hot-room cone and “wing” over the elevators on the upper plaza, and how they reflect light at night. I also quite like the contrast between the brick of Albers Mill and the metal of the Glass Museum’s hot-room cone. There is something magic about shooting there in the dark with long exposures; you are never quite sure what you will end up with in your shot. What the camera sees is always different from what the naked eye sees. With practice, I’ve learned to anticipate what my long-exposure images of the Glass Museum will look like, but I always get a couple of surprises as well.
Last Tuesday, about five of us from the Tacoma Mountaineers went down there to shoot. We stayed about two hours and had a good time playing around in the dark. There were very few other people round to potentially mess up compositions; but doing night photography, other people don’t matter too much. With long exposures, they can walk right through your composition and never be seen. It’s the magic of night.
There are quite a few light sources around the area, both from the museum itself and from neighboring properties, so the exposures don’t have to be too long. Most my exposures were one to three minutes using ISO 100 with f-stops of f/8 – f/16. What makes things interesting from a photographic perspective is that the lights have many different color temperatures. There is a general orange glow to the area from sodium-vapor lights that are common in the city, but there is also green, yellow, red, blue and even purple light in the area. There seems to be no “correct” white balance due to all these various light sources, so it is fun processing in Lightroom and playing with the white balance sliders to find pleasing sets of colors. Typically I like one color setting for the buildings, typically something warm, and a different one for the sky. On the photos shown here, I used the Lightroom paintbrush to tone down and darken the orange tone of the sky that results from the city street lights.
Enjoy these images of night at the Glass Museum, and as always, feel free to leave a comment.
Moab was the first stop on our recent Southwest trip. Moab is an amazing photography town. Two national parks are right next door – Arches National Park is only a few miles outside of town; Canyonlands National Park is a short drive further. But there is much to see and photograph outside the parks as well. I’ve been to Moab perhaps five times and have not come close to seeing it all. This trip, we camped in Arches and I concentrated on photographing places I hadn’t photographed before (including a couple of spots outside the park, like Bowtie Arch).
Because of our schedule, even though we spent three days there, I only had one afternoon golden hour opportunity for photography. Though the weather was good, there was a lot of haze in the air. With those conditions, I decided to pick between making the pilgrimage to Delicate Arch with dozens of other photographic acolytes (which I have photographed before, but only many years ago and in the middle of the day) or hiking in the Klondike Bluffs area – a remote part of the park that I had never been. With the less the haze making less than ideal conditions, I decided on Klondike Bluffs and I was not disappointed. I hiked to Tower Arch, and though part of Tower Arch was in shadow, the photography was good. And besides that, I was the only person on the trail. It was an amazing experience.
While in Arches, I also decided to work on some night photography. Again, the conditions weren’t perfect. As I mentioned, the sky was hazy, and since there was some moonlight (it was a couple of days before first quarter), the skies were not completely dark. But the moonlight did allow me to get some moonlit landscape shots. And since the moon was not close to full, I was still able to get a lot of stars in the shots. Overall, I’m happy with the results.
Enjoy these shots from Arches National Park.
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)
I have trouble photographing the moon. Okay, it’s not so hard before for the sun sets (which is why the best full moon pictures are typically taken the day before the full moon and, consequently, before the sun sets), but after dark, I have lots of problems. There is just too much contrast. The moon is bright, basically as bright as anything lit by sunlight on a cloudless sunny mid-day. Everything else is dark. The dynamic range of any scene with the moon is too much for a camera to handle.
Perfect time to try some HDR photography, right? Maybe, but I’ve never gotten it to work well. I’ve always get funny looking light artifacts around the moon; all my attempts at using HDR for scenes with the moon have looked awful. How about shooting one exposure for the moon, one for the rest of the scene, and combining them in Photoshop. Again, maybe you can do that, but every time I’ve tried it, it doesn’t work – there’s too much glare around the moon and I can’t get the sky to look right.
Last month when I wanted to photograph the full moon rising behind the Glass Museum in Tacoma, I was disappointed when there were clouds on the eastern horizon and the moon wasn’t visible. Less than an hour later, the moon rose above the clouds, and though it was no longer aligned with the Glass Museum, it lined up nicely with the cable bridge over the Thea Foss Waterway. Nice shot, I thought, except now it was way too dark to capture both the moon and the with a single exposure. I set up the tripod anyway and took a series of shots, hoping that perhaps the contrast would not be too extreme.
Later, when I downloaded the shots, I was disappointed to find out contrast was too great – moon troubles were visiting me again. I tried HDR (once again) and was disappointed with the results (once again). I was frustrated. At that point, I figured someone else must have an answer to this problem, so I spent some time researching moon photography on Google. Most advice centered around photographing during twilight before it was too dark. Not helpful in my case. After a bit of searching, I found a YouTube video (which I can’t find again to credit here), where the photographer used HDR for only the moon and the area of sky immediately around it, a single image for the rest of the shot, then combined the two images in Photoshop. He then re-imported the resultant image into Photomatix for additional tone mapping, which I thought wasn’t necessary. But the first part sounded interesting.
I had a series of seven images, shot one f-stop apart. I imported all into Photomatix and worked it for the moon only. I re-imported the HDR moon image into Lightroom. Then I took a single image from the original seven and worked it in Lightroom for the foreground only. I also worked the HDR moon image in Lightroom to approximately match the sky to the sky (away from the moon) in the foreground image. I exported both images to Photoshop into a single document, with the foreground image as the background layer and the HDR moon image laying on top. I used a layer mask on the HDR moon layer to mask out everything but the area around the moon, feathering the mask match the sky in the underlying layer. The two skies didnt quite match, so I used a curves layer with a clipping mask on the HDR moon layer to get the tone of the two skies to be more similar. Once I was satisfied with the result, I continued with my normal Photoshop workflow to finish the image.
Perfect? No. But in the end, after a lot of work, the result is the best moon image I’ve ever captured after dark. What do you think, is it any good? And please, if anyone has some better way to handle my moon troubles, be kind and let me know.
I’ve heard photography described as the art of capturing light, and perhaps I’ve been guilty of describing it that way as well. Photographic tips often talk about looking for dynamic light, chasing the good light, etc. Yet photography is more than light, it is also time. Consider your camera. Leaving ISO aside, there are two ways to control exposure: changing the aperture and changing the shutter speed.
Time is an essential part of photography. Too little time, and your image will be black; too much time, and it will be white. Every photograph captures a slice of time. Sometimes a very small slice, a small fraction of a second; sometimes a long slice of minutes or even hours.
The human eye is better at capturing light than a camera. The human eye can see detail through a very large dynamic range compared to the best DSLRs out there. This is why HDR is popular, why there camera accessories like split-neutral density filters. But, at least in my opinion, the camera is better than the human eye at capturing time. My camera can capture the action of a running gazelle much better than my eye can. Similarly, it is much better at capturing the movement of the stars across the night sky.
Time makes every photograph unique. Each image captures a different piece of time, and each piece of time is different. I use to tell my kids when they were young, that if they wanted to see something no one in the world had ever seen before, pop open a peanut shell. No one in the world ever saw that particular peanut before (and no one would see it again after they ate it). The same is true for photography, want to capture something no one has every photographed before, take a picture, any picture – you’ve just captured a bit of time that will never be captured again. Okay, I hear you. If you take two photographs one second apart, you have two nearly identical photographs (the extreme example, I guess, being two studio-lit shots of a still life taken seconds apart). I didn’t say your capture would be exciting, only different (and perhaps not even on a visible scale). Making that capture of a small slice of time exciting, making the image worthy to look at, is where the art comes in.
The act of capturing time with a camera is not art. Instead making that capture an experience (both for the photographer and the viewer) is the art of photography. Just like composition makes a big difference in photography, selecting the correct small portion of time to record also makes all the difference. Look at the four examples below of the Colorado River taken from Dead Horse Point State Park in Utah, taken minutes apart and all processed the approximately the same way in Lightroom and Photoshop. I took the first two before sunrise, four minutes apart. The third was taken seven minutes later and the fourth seven minutes after that. Depending on your tastes, the second or the third ones are clearly superior than the first or the fourth (my favorite is the second one). A few minutes made all the difference here.
Selecting the correct time to press the shutter button is not limited to the quality of the light at the time, it also is dependent upon the subject. The best people shots come with when the subjects are showing their emotions to the camera, something that is difficult to capture because it is often so fleeting. And this timing aspect is not limited to people. When shooting scenes with flags flapping in the breeze, for example, I will usually take many shots, just to capture one where the flag looks good. Here’s a couple more examples. The first image, taken on Caye Caulker in Belize, is a little girl fishing with her father. I snapped of a dozen shots, but this is clearly the best, with the girl lightly touching her father. As you might imagine, a girl of this age didn’t hold that pose long, but was quickly looking this way and that, and interacting with a brother just out of the frame. The second shot is of the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco, I wanted an image with the swans in the pond, and was lucky enough to capture them in a good , with one looking directly at the camera. The birds were only in this position for a quick moment, and all the other shots I took don’t come close to the quality of this one.
The length of time captured in your image also makes a difference and, as I mentioned above, can reveal things not readily apparent to the naked eye. This is true both for short exposures and for long ones. For example, in the following image of snow geese in the Skagit River delta area of Washington State, the very short shutter speed was able to capture some unique looking wing angles and positions. In the second example, of the ferry dock at Steilacoom, Washington, a long shutter speed created beautiful patterns in the water. If you are a regular viewer of my photography, you likely know that I love using long shutter speeds for the effects of it creates – the effect of compressing many seconds of time into a single image.
Sometimes two different sets of time can both be important to an image. In this example, taken from my trip up to Harts Pass several weekends ago, a long exposure was necessary to capture the stars. For images such as this, too short a shutter speed will not show many stars; too long a shutter speed will result in star trails instead of points of light. The shutter speed for this image was 20 seconds. (Generally, for star shots without trails, you will need to shoot at 30 seconds or less). However, in this image, I wanted to add some foreground interest, and I chose to do light painting on the tree. I painted the tree for just a couple of seconds, running the light from the flashlight briefly up and down the tree. More than a few seconds would have made the tree too bright; less, too dark.
Here’s one last example of the importance of time to photography. The image below is of a tree with colorful leaves taken while moving the camera vertically downward. I used a shutter speed of 1/8 second. A longer shutter speeds would have resulted in too much blurring; a shorter shutter speed, too little. The proper shutter speed for this type of shot will vary greatly depending on the subject and the amount of camera movement.
These are just a few examples of the importance of time to photography. I’m sure you can think of more. Photography is nothing without light, but it is also nothing without time.
“Workin’ on mysteries without any clues, Workin’ on our night moves” -Bob Seger, Night Moves
Last Tuesday, I spent a few hours working on some night photography down on the Ruston Way waterfront with a small group from the Mountaineers. We got quite a few questions about what we were doing down there with cameras and tripods at night. I guess we should have told them we were working on our night moves. But unlike the Bob Seger song, we were working in winter instead of summer. Winter is a great time for night photography because the night comes early, and you can still get home at a decent hour. Of course, it has disadvantages too, like the weather. Though not extremely cold, only about 40° F (about 4° C), it does get chilly standing around waiting on those long exposures.
I’m really starting to enjoy doing night photography. The camera picks up lots of color and detail that the eye cannot see. I recently read Night Photography, Finding Your Way in the Dark by Lance Keimig, and I have a long way to go before ever approaching his abilities. But I have fun. I highly recommend Keimig’s book to anyone wanting to learn more about night photography, it has lots of good information.
One of the great mysteries of night photography is getting the correct exposure without excessive noise. Digital noise is the bane of many a night photographer. Noise increases with long exposures, high ISOs, and underexposed shots. That’s why, with night photography, you should still use low ISOs and exposure for the right side of the histogram (while not allowing any important highlight to be blown out). Shooting this way, will help minimize noise, but will lead to long (or very long) exposure times, very often over 30 seconds (the longest programmed shutter speed on most cameras). Therefore, to get the correct exposure, you will often be shooting in manual mode with the shutter speed set to bulb. Knowing how long to leave the shutter open is a difficult question. It’s a real pain to wait through a 2-minute exposure only to discover when looking at the results that it should have been a 4- or 8-minute exposure.
Here’s one tip I found very useful from Keimig’s book. Set the camera to a very high ISO and take a test shot first. This can be used to check both composition (it’s sometimes hard to compose through the viewfinder in the dark) and exposure. To make the exposure math easy, Keimig presents a chart in his book and on his Nightskye website. Basically, for cameras with a native ISO of 100 (Canon cameras for example), set the ISO to 6,400 and take one or more test shots to find the correct exposure. The number of seconds in the correct exposure at ISO 6,400, is the number of minutes for the correct exposure at ISO 100. For cameras with a native ISO of 200 (like most Nikons), the test shot ISO should be set to 12,800 and the normal shot ISO at 200. (If your camera doesn’t have such high settings, his chart shows how to compensate). For example, I use a Canon camera. So for the featured photo above, I took a test shot at ISO 6,400 and found the correct exposure was 4 seconds. I switched the camera to ISO 100 and re-shot with an exposure of 4 minutes (in both cases, of course, using the same aperture, f/8 in this case). Much easier than guessing on the correct exposure.
Thanks to Lance Keimig, I’ve solved one the mysteries of my night moves!
Breaking from my blog series on the American Southwest, I’m posting something completely different. As I have mentioned in earlier blogs, I am the chairman of the Photo Committee of the Tacoma branch of the Mountaineers. We occasionally have field trips to photograph instead of our regular meetings. Earlier this month, I led our group to downtown Tacoma to try some night photography. Unlike a similar trip earlier this year (described in this post), I did little light painting, mostly relying on existing light (with one exception, in the image of the Pantages Theater below, I used a flash to light up the sculpture in the foreground).
Photography at night is a special experience. Things always look different, and it isn’t always obvious how the camera will see the available light, especially if long exposures are used. Skies that are black to the human eye can pick up a tint, typically orange in urban areas (from sodium vapor street lights). Other lights may give off a more yellowish -orange (tungsten lamps) or greenish (fluorescent bulbs) tones. Then there are neon lights of all colors. Changing the color balance when processing the images can add new twists to the color.
Besides showing colors the human eye can’t normally see, I love long-exposure shots for another reason – they compress time into a single instant. Car lights become red and white trails, people can become ghostly shadows, objects that move into a frame during an exposure can seem half there. These are more results that are not totally predictable.
Here are some shots from one November Tacoma night (even though taken on a single night, I thought the title “Tacoma Nights” sounded better than “Tacoma Night”; a little literary license); I hope you like them.
In my last blog entry, I talked about enhancing digital photos, about RAW versus JPEG digital images.The blog was about people asking, “Is this photo enhanced?” Other similar questions I hear include “Does this photo show what was really there?” or “Has this photo been ‘photoshopped’?” or simply “Is this photo real?”
This subject warrants more discussion than just one blog, especially since the last one was largely a rant. When any camera takes a photograph, the lens opens up and allows light into the camera. For digital cameras, the light falls upon a photosensitive digital sensor (for film cameras, it falls on a photosensitive chemical coating on film). The digital sensor is made up of thousands of tiny small sensors, each sensor making up a “pixel” in the image. The light falling on each sensor is recorded as a different value. At this point, the camera can save the recording as a RAW file, or can process the raw electrical data and save it as some other file format, the most common being JPEG.
A RAW file is not really an image. It is simply a data file in which actual values from the digital sensor are recorded. While some special computer programs can view the information stored in these files and show them as images, most cannot. For example, Photoshop cannot directly show a RAW file as an image. It must first be processed and converted to an image file (such as a PSD, TIFF, or JPEG file) for Photoshop to show it. These special programs are RAW converters, and they have to process the information to show a RAW file as an image. Adobe Lightroom, which I use, is RAW convertor program (with many other features as well). A JPEG file is an image file, it presents information that can be viewed by many computer programs without future processing. It has already been processed. When a digital camera takes an image as a JPEG, it processes the sensor data into an image file. This means that the camera is doing some interpretation of what the image data is supposed to look like. Essentially, a RAW converter program, like Lightroom, does the job of the camera – it processes the sensor data to make an image file. However, it allows the photographer to control the process (rather than letting the camera control it).
Of course, further processing is possible. Either the converted RAW image or the JPEG from the camera can be further processed in Photoshop (or other photo editing programs, such as Picassa). Who is to say what looks the most like reality, the RAW file, a JPEG processed by the camera, the RAW file processed by a RAW converter, or that same image further processed in Photoshop? I can’t answer that question; I don’t think anyone can.
But how about this question, which one makes the best looking image? Or which one best represents the art of the photographer? The answer to those questions can be answered, but the answers depend on the individual and the particular photographer. For me, a RAW image processed by the photographer and then optimized in Photoshop best represents the art of the photographer. And that is my typical workflow. I shoot RAW images. I import those into Lightroom. I do not accept the default RAW processing, but customize it for each image myself. Then, if I’m serious about an image, I further process it in Photoshop. It’s a lengthy process, but it gives the best representation of what I am trying to achieve with my photography – my art.
I’ve illustrated this blog with a series of five images. All were recorded at the same time, from a single click of my shutter. This image of two ships along the Tacoma waterfront was taken with a shutter speed of 25 seconds and an aperture of f/18. One image (first below the featured image) is the closest representation of the RAW image visible – it is the RAW image processed by Lightroom with all the controls set to zero. The next image in the series is the RAW image processed with the Lightroom default settings. The next image is the same scene processed by the camera as a JPEG (my camera allows images to be recorded in both RAW and JPEG formats – a feature common to many DSLRs and some higher end point-and-shoots). The fourth image represents how I processed the RAW file. And the final image (the featured image at the beginning of the blog) is my RAW processed file than further optimized in Photoshop.
Which one do you thinks looks the most “real”? Which one looks the best?
“Photographers do it in a darkroom,” or so says an old bumper sticker. But now in the days of digital photography, fewer and fewer photographers use a darkroom. So what do photographers now do in the dark – they do light painting of course!
Wait, you say, what is light painting? Light painting is a photographic technique where your make exposures by moving a light source to light select objects, or select portions of the photographic frame (you don’t have to paint an object). It is typically done in the dark. You can use any light source: flashlights, camera flash units, even cell phones – anything that makes light.
Last week, at our regular, monthly Mountaineers photography meeting, we walked down from the Tacoma clubhouse to Ruston Way. For those unfamiliar with Tacoma, Ruston Way is along the Commencement Bay waterfront and is lined with many waterfront parks. This was my first attempt at light painting with a digital camera (I tried it about 15 years ago with slide film and did not like the results). Light painting works great with digital cameras, you can easily see the results of your efforts and make changes as necessary.
In the featured image above, I used a book light, which had two LED bulbs, to draw the “person” sitting on the park bench then used a regular flashlight to light up the drinking fountain. The exposure lasted for 63 seconds at f/8 and ISO 100.
Sometimes it is fun to use a model in light painting. You can move the same person to multiple positions in the same photo. The second image shows my friend Gary Peniston resting on the park bench and drinking from the drinking fountain at the same time! I had Gary first sit on the bench, then lit him with a single flash from an off-camera strobe. Then he moved to the drinking fountain, and I used the flash again. The whole exposure was for 36 seconds at f/8 and ISO 100.
The third image is Gary again (Gary earned the honor of being everyone’s model by having the battery run out on his camera and not having a spare with him). In this image, which could appropriately be called “Afraid of his own Shadow,” I first had Gary stand with outstretched arms while I lit him from behind with a small LED flashlight, circling the flashlight around his perimeter. Then I had him move and sit down and act scared, while I lit him with the off-camera flash. The whole exposure was 75 seconds, again at f/8 and ISO 100.
The final three images show more traditional “painting.” In these three, I used a flashlight to light selected objects in the frame – in one case a tree, in other a cement wall and pilings, and in the last one a fish painted on a building wall. In the tree photo, I exposed the image for 77 seconds at f/8; in the cement wall and pilings (with Browns Point in the background)image, I used an exposure of 66 seconds at f/10; and the building with fish image was exposed for 29 seconds at f/10. All used ISO 100. On the fish building photo, the lit window showing the inside of the building was totally blown out by that exposure, so I took a second 5 second exposure and superimposed the window from the second shot onto the first.
Of course, a tripod is important for doing these kind of images. Also, digital noise is a problem, which is why I selected ISO 100, which is less noisy than higher ISOs. Plus, using a low ISO allows for longer exposures, which are needed as you move in and out of the picture with your light sources.
Our little light painting outing was great fun. I’ll definitely be doing this again in the future, not waiting 15 years this time.