Photographing Palouse Falls at night, a second-person essay

Your phone’s alarm clock jolts you awake. Your back aches, but you finally slept well for about an hour and a half, anyway.

You sit up, turn the alarm off, and put the phone in your right cargo pocket of your pants. It’s dark and finally quiet, save for the gusting winds gently rocking your car. Your mind clears, and your heart rate jumps. It’s time to shoot the stars.

You pick up your wallet and put it in your back pocket; your flashlight goes in your left cargo pocket; your keys go in your right-front zipper pocket; your headlamp goes around your neck. Everything’s organized, sequenced; you’ve done this routine dozens of time and can do it with your eyes half closed, in the dark. You open the car’s back door to put on your shoes and step out into the gravel parking lot. Cold air rushes in, defogging the windows. The dome light on your car doesn’t come on–you turned it off a couple of years ago to help save your night vision.

Upward, the sky’s filled end to end with gleaming stars. You take a brief second to admire them, and refocus. You put on your long-sleeve shirt. You pick up your trusty 15-year-old wool sweater that you were using as a pillow and put that on too. You throw on your jacket, which has your shutter release in the right pocket, gloves thin enough to work your camera’s controls in the left pocket. You put on your neck gaiter and stocking hat and slide your headlamp up from around your neck onto your head, over the stocking hat. The headlamp’s still off–you’re still trying to save your night vision, always trying to work in the dark as much as possible.

You grab your backpack and tripod, close the back door of the car, and beep it locked with a twinge of guilt at possibly disturbing campers who were keeping you awake just a few hours earlier.

You start hiking. Quickly the terrain goes from safe and well-traveled to right along the edge of a gaping canyon. Below you–maybe 100 feet–is a 200-foot waterfall flowing at its spring rate–a high volume. The waterfall’s roar blots out every other noise in the night. The white noise of waterfalls and wind occupies nearly all of your senses; your eyes see only basic shapes in the blue-black geography around you land and pinhole lights in the sky. Cold creeps into your body at your extremities.

You can feel a small rumble beneath your feet. You set your tripod down, and as you release your grip you can feel it humming. You inch closer to the edge of the cliff, thinking about the crumbling piles of basalt several hundred feet below. You wonder about how long ago they fell. Two thousand years? One hundred fifty years? Five years? News reports of recent earthquakes in southern California and Mt Hood flash into your brain. You wonder how long the rock below your feet would stay put if the earth started to shake.

You look through your eyepiece; because you’re shooting with a wide lens, the edge of the cliff is in the bottom of your frame. You need to move closer. You turn on your headlamp (there goes your night vision, but you’re not going to risk getting any closer in the darkness), double-check the edge of the cliff again, take a deep breath, and move your tripod as close to the edge as possible. Holding onto your tripod with your left hand so that it doesn’t fall off the cliff, you carefully check the bubble level to make sure its level.

You turn your head lamp off and vow to not take a single step–certainly not a step forward, but also not to the left or directly behind you, where the ground falls away to a large crack, and then, of course, a long tumble.

You aren’t prone to vertigo, but your head swims in the pitch darkness. You can’t escape the feeling that you’re floating in space. The ground is a flat, detail-less black. You renew your vow not to take a single step, to keep your feet planted exactly where they are. Don’t… move…

You line up the shot–your eyes have adjusted, thankfully, and you can just barely differentiate the deep black of the canyon from the not-quite-as-deep black of the horizon.

You trip the shutter, in the dark, alone, and start counting along with the timer…one…two…three…


Our dreams of shadow steeds with matte for blog Photographing Palouse Falls at night, a second person essay

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My Night at Delicate Arch…or The Magic of Random Events in Long Exposure Photography

I’ve been re-processing a number of my old photos lately. A while back I received an IPS monitor as an early Christmas present; as someone who had struggled to find the black point and a reasonable level of contrast in the night sky, this monitor was a great addition to my post-processing tool set. I can’t account for your web browser or your monitor’s color profile, but I’m much, much closer to printing exactly what I see on my monitor. For me, as always, it’s still all about the print.

Additionally, my thinking has slowly evolved when it comes to deep, detail-less shadows (or even not-so-deep shadows) in night photos. Years ago I relied on the heavy lifting of the shadow and/or blacks slider in Lightroom 4 or 5 to pull detail out of these darkened corners. But Lightroom (and Adobe Camera Raw) are strong medicine, and just because you can pull sliders all the way to the left or right doesn’t mean you should. Lifting shadows too much often gave me undesirable results (purple blotching and noise, for instance), which resulted in even more time spent post-processing.

Slowly I’ve worked away from the I-have-to-have-detail model, at least when it comes to night photography. I’ve come to accept that the night will have shadows–sometimes shadows so deep and dark that they’re completely impenetrable.

This photo of Delicate Arch (in Arches National Park) was originally put online in early July of 2013. It was EarthSky’s image of the day for July 10th.

For me, this was a throwaway or “sketch” shot. I was pretty sure that this was the composition that I wanted, since I loved the leading lines of the sandstone bowl that led to the arch itself. What I wasn’t sure about was the periphery–I couldn’t really see anything at the edges of my frame through the viewfinder, so I took a handful of shots to see what my camera saw.

A couple closer to the arch (who was already there when I arrived) was shooting, so I did my best to stay out of there way. This is, or at least should be, a common courtesy among night photographers, within reason of course. (If they had shot uninterrupted for another half hour, I would’ve politely tried to work my way into their space.)

There had been a lull in the action as the couple pored over their photos on the back of their camera, so I set up another sketch shot and tripped my shutter. Just then, I heard him giving her instructions which amounted to “walk up to the arch and then shine the flashlight at it from below.” So she turned on the flashlight and walked up to the arch, just as he said.

At first, as I watched her walk up to the arch in the middle of my photo, I was a little annoyed, since I hadn’t really gotten a clean shot yet and was hoping to get one without extraneous lighting. But, at the same time, it was just a sketch photo, and they were there first.

As soon as I reviewed the image, though, I saw that her path up to the arch was arch-like itself. I made a mental note that the photo hadn’t been completely ruined and kept shooting.

This is part of the reason that I seldom, if ever, delete photos off my memory card in the field. I can’t imagine how disappointed I would’ve been had I decided to get rid of this photo in the spur of the moment because “she ruined my photo.”

The next day, after reviewing those images, I saw that not only had the image not been ruined, but that the woman’s path made the photo much more interesting to me. With the flashlight’s arc, a level of metaphorical meaning had been achieved. Additionally, the photo seemed to illustrate the magic of a long exposure–that random events (usually, moving lights) don’t necessarily ruin long exposures at night. In fact, they often add to the image.

I shot several photos of Delicate Arch with the same composition, but without any lighting. I like the photos and will probably post one sometime soon. But, to me, the addition of the flashlight and the human figure changed the photo’s entire meaning. This was no longer just a photo of one of the most-photographed sandstone arches in the southwestern United States. First off, it documented the process of night photography–it was a photo of a photo. Further, to me, the photo commented on the difficulty of escaping the “maddening crowds” in our national parks system. Even after a mile plus of night hiking near steep drop-offs.

Arches one delicate and one ephemeral 1 of 1 1024x682 My Night at Delicate Arch...or The Magic of Random Events in Long Exposure Photography

A woman with a flashlight walks toward Delicate Arch, Arches National Park

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Star photography on Mt Hood, March of 2013 retro-blog

One of my 2014 resolutions is to do more blogging about my night photography, so I’m going to get an early jump and coin a new (to me, anyway) term: retro-blogging!

The night in question? March 3, 2013. Gary Weathers and I charged the camera batteries, layered up, and strapped on some snowshoes for a sunset-to-night hike in the Mt Hood National Forest. The purpose? Some night photography of Mt Hood.

I had night hiked to Mirror Lake before, but I had always wanted to keep charging up the ridge by Tom, Dick, and Harry Mountain (also known as TDH). This adds in about another 900 feet of elevation gain (making the total elevation gain 1,700 feet). But it also adds in nearly unequaled views of Mt Hood, with Mirror Lake below.

The hike wasn’t too intense, although the elevation gain was enough to cause me to start peeling layers in an attempt to avoid sweating too much. A late start (as a result of having to park about a mile away from the trailhead) meant that we were about to miss sunset, so we paused halfway up the ridge for some photos. The skies were a little too “clean” (free of clouds) for our liking, but the soft contours of untracked snow made some interesting leading lines in the foreground.

Mt Hood winter 1 of 1 Star photography on Mt Hood, March of 2013 retro blog

A sunset shot on the way up. 14mm, 1/15 sec, ISO 100, aperture unrecorded

After our break, we re-packed our gear and continued up the hill. As soon as the sun set, the temperatures dropped noticeably, and the wind at the top of the ridge almost instantly froze the sweat on my skin. A thin veil of haze moved into the valley, softening the landscape. This haze was one of two endless sources of frustration for Gary and I–the second being the extraordinarily bright lights all over the mountain, which were even more obnoxious when reflected in the haze.

We spent about three and a half hours at the top of the ridge, freezing, trekking dangerously close to cornices, exploring different compositions, and waiting for the haze to clear. We had clearer moments, for sure, but it never did really lift. Lamenting our fates, we headed back down the mountain, pretty sure that we hadn’t gotten anything really usable that night.

Mt Hood and stars 1 of 1 Star photography on Mt Hood, March of 2013 retro blog

Exploring the ridge, near TDH. 14 mm, 30 sec, ISO 3200, aperture unrecorded

Self portrait 1 of 1 Star photography on Mt Hood, March of 2013 retro blog

Gary helped me light a selfie before we headed back down. Before you make fun of the look on my face, you should try posing for a photo for 30 seconds WHILE NOT MOVING. 14mm, 30 sec, ISO 1600, aperture unrecorded, lit by Gary Weathers with a flashlight

Mt Hood light painting 1 of 1 Star photography on Mt Hood, March of 2013 retro blog

What mountain is this again? Oh okay, now I remember. 14mm, 30 sec, ISO 1600, aperture unrecorded

On the way back down, we stopped mid-way, at the same point we had stopped on the way up. For some reason, the air seemed to have cleared slightly. We found a couple of small trees, half-buried in the snow (we had both photographed them on the way up), and we took several minutes to shoot photos. I liked the way the light pollution played on the frost in the trees, but I had a terrible time working with the ambient lighting. The lights from Government Camp lit the hillside almost to daylight, and nearly all of my photos from this spot were ruined by unfixable lens flare (one of the problems with shooting with an ultra-wide lens). In fact, only one was usable.

The city 1 of 1 Star photography on Mt Hood, March of 2013 retro blog

This is looking back at Portland. You can see our trail heading up the ridge. You also get a good idea of just how much light pollution the city puts off. 14mm, 30 sec, ISO 4000, aperture unrecorded

The light is all around you 1 of 1 Star photography on Mt Hood, March of 2013 retro blog

My only “clean” shot of the mountain from this spot. 14mm, 30 sec, ISO 3200, aperture unrecorded

This was my least favorite of the five images I submitted to The World at Night’s (TWAN’s) Earth and Sky Photo Contest, and it was the one that did the best. Go figure.

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Yaquina Head lighthouse

I’ll admit it: I’ve done a terrible job of photographing the Oregon coast’s rare but spectacular starry nights. I realized this oversight mid-summer but was unable to correct it until September, when I headed to Astoria and Cannon Beach for some of the best night photography I had ever experienced. (You can see some of those images in my “Oregon coast” gallery.) Since then, I’ve bided my time, waiting for clear skies.

A recent super-cold snap provided such a night, and my friend Savya Saachi accompanied me to Newport, specifically to Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area. The temperatures weren’t extreme–maybe around 20 degrees or so–but the wind at the head was often brutal, and we both battled numb fingers and toes. The humidity was somewhere around 50%, and this may be the first time I’ve ever been out shooting in which I was hoping for higher humidity, so that the rays of the lighthouse would be better defined. Oh well. Next time.

Other versions of this image can be seen at my 500px, my Flickr, and my twitter.

This is a 5-image pano. (In other words, I should be able to print this thing HUGE.) I took a few exposures that I had intended to use to composite in a non-blown-out lighted area, but I decided against altering the photo after seeing the results. No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t get the end result to look natural. If the end result had either a) better represented reality or b) looked aesthetically pleasing, I would’ve been all over it. But, for me, it didn’t work. When I looked directly at the lighthouse while it was lit I didn’t see the finer details in the lens area, mostly because the thing was burning out my retinas.

Something out of nothing 1 of 1 Yaquina Head lighthouse

A clear night at Yaquina Head, the Oregon coast. Andromeda makes its appearance at the top-middle of the photo.

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Before dawn’s first light at Crater Lake

Before dawn 1 of 11 1024x682 Before dawns first light at Crater Lake

Getting There

This photo, like all of my images that I took this night, was from the Crater Lake’s west rim. I and my friends Jack (of Jack Crocker photography–check him out) and Robyn Clipfell (of Clipfell Photography–check her out as well) hefted heavy packs and snowshoed a little over 3 miles from the Rim Village to a site just a bit south of The Watchman, the giant peak on Crater Lake’s west side.

Getting the Shot

This photo was taken at 4:56 am, just 12 minutes after I had taken the final photograph for my panorama, and it’s a fantastic example of how important dark skies are in capturing the Milky Way. Cameras and lenses? Both very important. But the MOST important aspect of lotsa-stars-Milky-Way-photography is a super-dark sky.

I knew from checking the Internet that the sun was going to rise at about 6:30, and I knew from experience that the sky begins to lighten in the east about 2 hours before the sun is visible. So when I started shooting my panorama of Crater Lake at about 4:17, I wanted to make sure that I got my east-facing shots first, since that area of the sky would begin to lighten first, thus drowning out the Milky Way. Luckily, I just barely got my panorama photos taken in time. (Yes, it actually took me a long, freezing half hour to take those photos.)

Twelve minutes later I took this photo, the last of my “night” photos. The stars disappeared pretty rapidly after that.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that I’d also captured the comet PANSTARRS in my photo. An eagle-eyed reader on my facebook page alerted me to this fact. In the images below, the arrow points to a very, very small PANSTARRS, complete with tail.Before dawn with arrow to comet1 1024x682 Before dawns first light at Crater LakeComet PANSTARRS with arrow 1 of 11 1024x684 Before dawns first light at Crater Lake

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Star trails over Yosemite Falls

Star trails over Yosemite Falls 1 of 12 Star trails over Yosemite Falls

Getting There

There’s no secret to this location–this is upper Yosemite Falls, right in the Yosemite Valley of Yosemite National Park. If for some reason “see Yosemite before I die” isn’t written on a piece of paper in your possession, you should probably change that. The park was incredible.

Getting the Shot

This is 35 exposures (25 seconds at f/6.3, ISO 1250, 22mm, shot on my Canon 17-40) stacked in Starstax (gap-filling mode). I highly recommend this free software, available online. Stacking shorter images (rather than taking one longer image) has several advantages, including less noise in the final image and the ability to remove a frame or two if something bad unexpected occurs (such as airplanes, car headlights, etc) during your exposures.

Basically, I pulled up next to this meadow at about 11 pm, set up my camera, took a few test shots to check my composition and my settings, double-checked my focus, and then I set my intervalometer to take 50 exposures. Then I walked back to my car, kicked back the driver’s seat, and tried to enjoy a short nap. About 10 minutes in, someone pulled up behind my car and sprayed the entire meadow with their headlights, disturbing my nap. I ended up tossing that exposure in the trash. After about 30 shots, a blanket of high clouds moved in, eventually covering the sky (and shifting my white balance, which was set to auto). I threw away many of those frames as well.

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Yikes! I totally forgot to mention this thing that’s totally worth mentioning: Last month, my photo “Sentries of the white city” was selected by Oregon photography business Pro Photo Supply as the winner of their monthly photography contest. The theme was “snow.”

A brief interview and the image can be found here. In the interview, I mention a little about the process of taking the photo.

Sentries of the white city 1 of 1

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Landscape Astrophotography 101: A few notes on lighting your foreground

The Pithy Preamble

As I’ve been writing this blog post, I’ve realized that I can’t possibly tell you how to light your foreground any better than I can tell you exactly what settings to use to get the perfect Milky Way photo every time. Every situation is unique and will have its own obstacles and solutions. This is one of the great things about night photography—so many variables exist that when you nail your shot it’s an unmistakable triumph. You’ve anticipated the factors that you can control, you’ve done a little trial-and-error experimentation to get you most of the way there, but the odds are that you’ve also gotten lucky, and the resulting photo is exciting. It’s magic.

What I can do is make you aware of why I like to light my foreground (which will come in the next section, The Rambling Preamble), and I can share a few things I’ve learned along the way. I can also let you know in advance about things to consider when lighting your foreground. This blog post is in no way a substitute, however, for good old fashioned experimentation, trial and error, and a little bit of luck.

The Rambling Preamble

If you’ve photographed the Milky Way at all, and you’ve driven far from the nearest city and you’ve waited for the new moon, you’ve probably noticed that it’s really dark outside. I mean, REALLY, dark, like “turn off your flashlight and walk straight into a ditch” dark—not that I would ever, ever know from personal experience.

If the stars of the Milky Way are the brightest part of your image (and not a streetlight, or a car’s headlights, or the light pollution of a distant city on the horizon), then you’re probably going to be left with a detail-less silhouette in the foreground.

I could write a whole blog post on adding foreground interest to astrolandscapes. It is, after all, the foreGROUND that makes an astrolandscape photo an astroLANDscape photo (notice my not-so-subtle selective capitalization). If you’re simply taking a picture of the stars, it’s astrophotography. Incorporate the land (or the ground) somehow, and you have an astrolandscape.

The Good (or Maybe Just Okay) Stuff

So let’s say you’re on board with the idea that a photograph of the night sky without something to ground it and give it context is just a snapshot of the stars—a completely flat, two-dimensional representation of something we already see in only two dimensions.

To add detail to your foreground, you have two options: First, you can take two exposures, one for the stars (a relatively short exposure of about 20-40 seconds) and one for the foreground. The problem with this method is that it involves making a composite image at a later date using photoshop, which can be difficult (although this method is the best way to deal with certain situations—that’s for another blog post, though). Also, if you’re shooting with very little or no ambient light, properly exposing for the foreground can take FOREVER if you’re using lower, less-noisy ISOs (especially if you have long-exposure noise reduction turned on in-camera, which will double your exposure time).

My preferred method is the second option, which I’ll be covering today: Getting your shot with a single exposure by lighting whatever foreground element you want with a flashlight or a flash.

If you’re shooting photos in the dark, you probably already have a flashlight. (If you don’t have a flashlight, you can probably see in the dark, which means you’re probably a cat, which means you’re going to have a really hard time setting up your tripod.)

Before we begin, here are a few things to consider as you survey your composition: First, is it desirable to light the foreground evenly? Is it even possible? Second, is it desirable to selectively light the foreground? And again, is it even possible based on your tools and your setting?

So let’s say I want to evenly light the foreground of an astrolandscape, lowering the overall contrast of my composition and filling in some details that would’ve previously been black shadow. One of the best ways to do this is with a relatively low-powered flashlight being swept quickly through the scene. Like I’ve mentioned before, I shoot a lot of astrolandscapes at around 3200 ISO with my aperture wide open, which means that I’ve rendered the sensor on my camera to be very, very sensitive to light. If I set my flashlight on high and blast my scene with it for anything more than two seconds (or maybe even less), I’m going to completely blow out the highlights, leaving the photo a big, white, weird mess (my high-school nickname!).

A lower amount of light (for a relatively short amount of time) gives you a better chance at even lighting and a lot more room for error before you start losing detail in your foreground.
When it comes to this kind of lighting, subtlety is the best policy. These are, after all, night photos, and people expect them to be sort of dark. Blasting away every shadow isn’t really necessary—in fact, it can be undesirable.

Between two worlds 1 of 12 Landscape Astrophotography 101: A few notes on lighting your foreground

In this case, I used a flashlight with an incandescent bulb while standing next to the camera for 1-2 seconds on the wagon, then walked about 20 feet to the right to illuminate the house for 3-4 seconds.

Note that if you’re shooting at night and you’re stopped down and at a lower ISO (say, for an exposure of several minutes or more, or if the moon is full and also significantly lighting your composition), you may need to do quite a bit of painting with your flashlight in order for the lighting to be noticeable.

But let’s get back to landscape astrophotography, which is primarily done with high ISOs and wide-open apertures in very dark conditions. Problems arise when you can’t adjust or dim your flashlight. In this case, a flashlight diffusor might be warranted. There are several resources in the Internet on how to make one, on the cheap, at home. You can even buy diffusors for some brands of flashlight models (these are usually also fairly cheap—under $10).

Peter Iredale flashlight diffusor 1 of 11 Landscape Astrophotography 101: A few notes on lighting your foreground

The foreground of this shot was lit with an LED flashlight with a diffusor for several seconds, creating a nice, even lighting of the shipwreck’s hull.

A third option is to use a reflector to bounce light from your flashlight onto your scene. This is something I’ve been experimenting with more often, with mostly good results, as it provides very soft light (although, obviously, you’re limited as to the distance you can throw light). Reflectors are fairly cheap and light, and they fold up relatively small for easy transportation.

So let’s say you only want to illuminate a part of your foreground. (Or you want to illuminate the mid-ground, but not the foreground.) Things get a little trickier here. First off, you might want to think about getting a focusing flashlight, in which you can focus the beam so that it becomes a more direct point of light. Second, you may need to think about entering your scene so that you can get closer to the mid-ground object that you want to illuminate. At this point preparation is essential—you should be wearing dark clothing with nothing on it that will reflect light. If your complexion is like mine, you’ll want to cover as much of your skin as possible. You might also need a snoot for your flashlight that will further help to guide the light forward. It’s easy to make a snoot out of black electrical tape, although a jacket sleeve can also work.

Once you’re moving through your composition, you’ll need to move quickly and not hang out for too long in one place. And finally, you’ll need to consider whether or not you’ll want to shield the source of the light from the camera. (If you don’t, some weirdness can ensue—but weirdness is sometimes good, no?) In most cases, the easiest way to shield the source of light is with your body. Simply move through the frame with your back to the camera, keep the light in front of you, and paint with the flashlight in sweeping motions. Keep in mind that if the object you’re lighting is reflective, some part of you may show up in the exposure.

A note on the use of flashes

Hand-held strobes are a great way to illuminate elements of your foreground. On-board flashes (pop-up flashes) are almost always a great way to get your photo to suck, either in daylight or night photography. You can also add gels to your flash (or your flashlight, for that matter) that will provide a colored light, which can produce a dramatic effect. Being able to adjust the intensity of the flash or using a diffusor on your flash is also extremely helpful.

Keep in mind that flashes are difficult to focus, so to speak. They fill an area, and if they’re fired from only one direction they can produce dramatic shadows, which can be either good or bad, depending on the effect you’re seeking.

Green gel 1 of 11 Landscape Astrophotography 101: A few notes on lighting your foreground

The green coloring was provided by a single pop with a green-gelled flash. The orange background is created by sodium-vapor lights diffused by fog.

A note on the types of flashlights available

I use one of two types of flashlights: one with an LED bulb, which renders the lit area a cool blue color, and one with an incandescent bulb, which renders the lit area a warmer, yellow-orange color. In my case, the LED-bulb flashlight is the more powerful of the two, and regardless of the tint of the light, I reach for the LED bulb when I need to illuminate something far off—say, more than 50 feet away.

There are, however, rather expensive spotlights with an incandescent beam much farther than my smaller, hand-held light. One problem I’ve encountered while using a spotlight (with either type of bulb) is overcooking the ground leading up to the object that I want to illuminate. For instance, if I’m trying to light up a windmill 100 feet away in the dark, the beam of light may fade enough after 100 feet that I need to hit the windmill for 4 seconds. However, the beam might be wide enough that the grass 40 feet in front of me gets hit with light and overexposes after about 2 seconds. Some of this can be corrected to an extent with burning in post-processing, but managing this problem in-camera with a more focused spotlight beam can make your life a lot easier.

A note on atmospheric conditions

As an Oregonian, I constantly run into problems with high humidity or mist (either from really high humidity in the air, for instance, at the coast, or from a waterfall nearby). Of course, humidity in the air will absorb and reflect light to an extent. The more powerful your beam, the more reflection you’ll get from humidity in the air. (Imagine driving your car in the fog with its high beams on.) This is yet another scenario in which a lower-power flashlight can be beneficial.

Blue light and humidity 1 of 12 Landscape Astrophotography 101: A few notes on lighting your foreground

I inserted this shot to illustrate a) the uncorrected color of an LED flashlight and b) what happens when you shine a high-powered flashlight into really humid air.

The not-so-rambling ending

As you should in every type of photography, pay very close attention to the light. Know where you’re directing the light and how it affects the foreground of your compositions. Experiment with angles—see how lighting an object at a shallow angle can bring out surface textures. Look at how you can create lines of shadow in your composition that will lead the viewer’s eye.

Thanks again for checking out my blog and maybe even reading to the bitter end. I’m sure I’ve forgotten something important here. If you have any questions, feel free to ask.

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The wizard dreams in black and white

The wizard dreams in black and white 1 of 1 The wizard dreams in black and white

The wizard dreams in black and white: Crater Lake’s Wizard Island under the Milky Way

Getting There

This photo was taken at Crater Lake National Park in southern Oregon in early February. Crater Lake receives over 40 feet of snow a year, so, if you’re planning on visiting, keep in mind that showshoes or cross-country skis are pretty much required, unless, of course, you love sinking up to your mid-thigh in snow with every step. Also, all-wheel-drive or 4-wheel-drive transportation is needed for the snow-covered and ice-covered roads on the way there.

The great thing about visiting Crater Lake in the winter is that there’s no park entrance fee. Of course, there’s only one entrance to the park that’s plowed, and that’s on the southeast side. The other cool thing is that backcountry permits are also free, and you basically have the entire awesome park all to yourself, since 99.9% of the sane people hop in their cars after the sun goes down and the weather turns cold.

Getting the Shot

This shot was taken at about 6 am after a long night of snowshoeing and photographing the night sky. I fell asleep in my tent sometime around 2 am, shortly after the moon had risen. My plan was to awaken around 5:30 am, when the Milky Way had rotated around to the northeast side of the lake and the moon would be illuminating Wizard Island. This would still be 2 hours prior to the sunrise (which, of course, would occur in the east, near where the Milky Way would be), and I was hoping the sky would still be dark. Unfortunately, my phone battery died earlier that night, and I couldn’t figure out how to correctly set the alarm on my watch (seriously). Exhausted, I gave up mashing buttons in the dark and went to bed, hoping that my “you’re missing an awesome shot” alarm would wake me at 5:30 am.

Instead, it woke me at 6:00 am, just a little late. I unzipped my tent, and the view was breathtaking (and it wasn’t just the altitude). The moonlight caused the lake to absolutely glow. I hopped out of my tent, threw on my unlaced boots, and post-holed 25 feet away from my tent to get the image. I didn’t bother putting on snowshoes, and snow was stuffed inside my unlaced boots and up my pants.

The image was pretty much exactly what I had anticipated, except for the fact that, an hour and a half prior to the sun hitting the horizon, you could see the very beginnings of the sun beginning to blot out the stars near the horizon in the middle and right side of the photo near the horizon. In a way, I felt like the sun’s first light creeping into the photo added to the picture. I’d recently seen a series of composite photos by a photographer who was combining images of various places taken during the day with an image taken at night. I felt like I had done that in one shot—here was the Milky Way in all its glory, and you could actually see the very first rays of the sun to reach the sky that morning.

My settings for the photo were 14mm, f/4, 30 seconds, at 4000 ISO.

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Landscape Astrophotography 101: Let’s talk about settings, baby (and dark skies)

Okay, so if you’ve been following along you now know how to focus your camera in the dark. You also know WHERE to focus your camera in the dark in order to get maximum depth of field. Now, you’re asking, what are my settings so that I can capture those awesome images of the Milky Way, thus making me an overnight Internet hero?

We’ll get to that. First, let’s talk equipment: You have a DSLR camera, hopefully with live view. You have a wide or ultra-wide lens that is in focus for your shot. You will probably also need some sort of remote trigger for your shutter. You have a tripod.

Even more important than your equipment is your setting (not your camera settings, mind you, but your physical setting): You should have travelled far, far away from the nearest city lights. At least a hundred miles. Trust me on this. You can spend thousands of dollars on equipment, but if you’re not willing to find the darkest places around, your photos of the Milky Way will fail to thrive. Feed your Milky Way photos with total, pitch darkness. This also happens to mean you also need to wait for there to be no moon in the sky.

Wha? No moon? But, you ask, doesn’t that reduce the number of days that I could possibly take these types of photos to just a handful per month? Yep, pretty much. This is just one of those sad facts of life for landscape astrophotographers. It goes hand in hand with the fact that you can spend more on your camera than you did on your car and the camera will still produce noise at high ISOs. It also goes hand in hand with the fact that there are cougars in them thar woods. And they eat at night.

Cougars aside, the moon thing certainly complicates things, doesn’t it? What all good landscape astrophotographers do is study moon phases (no kidding). Look at when the moon rises and sets; do the same with the sun. Keep in mind that both bodies will affect the amount of light in the sky hours before and after they rise or set. Understand the orientation of the Milky Way and how it moves through the sky (more on this later). Understand that if you’re shooting part of the Milky Way that’s oriented west, and west happens to be the same direction as the nearest city, even if it’s 100 miles away, you very well may lose some detail in the Milky Way because of the city’s light pollution dome. Understand that if you wait several hours for the Milky Way to rotate north-northeastish, then you might have to contend with the predawn light of the sun (in the east). There are very few “happy accidents” in landscape astrophotography. The photos you see online are usually the result of a whole lot of research and planning.

Anyway, now that I’ve said my piece about dark skies, let’s review the three settings that we, as photographers, can use to control light: Shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. If we use the rule of 600, we know what our shutter speed is. For those of you who don’t know the rule of 600, it is the result of 600 divided by your focal length, in seconds. (Keep in mind that if you’re shooting on a crop sensor camera that you should be multiplying your focal length by the crop factor—for instance, on a Canon t4i that’s a 1.6x multiplier).

In order to gather as much light as possible, we’re also going to open our aperture up all the way. Later, in another blog, I’ll discuss when it’s appropriate to stop down a bit to sharpen up the image, but for now, let’s just assume we need to go wide open.

So our shutter speed has already been determined. Even our aperture has already been determined. The only other variable left is our ISO. This is really the only factor that you, as the beginner landscape astrophotographer, can control. Everything else is fixed.

So I’ll tell you the ISO setting I use most often: It’s 3200. I find that to be a very usable ISO for my particular camera. It’s a little noisy, but not so noisy that I can’t deal with the noise in post processing. And it’s sensitive enough to do a really good job exposing the Milky Way, allowing it to really light up and for us to see some of its different, subtle hues.

Your own experimentation should guide you to your own “correct” ISO. If you can handle the noise, by all means, go with 6400 or even higher. If you like a cleaner look, lower your ISO.

So there are my settings. But all technical talk aside, the absolute
most important aspect of Milky Way photography is getting to a dark place. If you live in the city (or even near a city) and you try those settings at night, you’ll quickly find out that what you’re really photographing is a whole bunch of yellowish-orangish light emanating from the city itself. It’s depressing, really, but it’s the truth.

In the photo of Crater Lake below, the orangish glow near the horizon is light pollution from Klamath Falls, Oregon, a city of 20,000 residents about 70 miles away from Crater Lake. If you were in doubt about the insidiousness of light pollution, there’s your evidence. Now just imagine how much orange glow a city 10 or 100 times that size emits. Now imagine the city being 35 miles away instead of 75 miles.

The bottom line: You now know the settings, but you have to escape the city lights to make your Milky Way star photography shine. Until next time, photo-friends!

Crater Lake Milky Way July 2012 1 of 11 Landscape Astrophotography 101: Let’s talk about settings, baby (and dark skies)

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