Alaska Grizzly Bears

Alaska Grizzly Bear

I enjoy being a landscape photographer. Being a landscape photographer allows me opportunities to be out within Nature to photograph its beauty, many times in breathtaking conditions. Being out in Nature also allows me to enjoy encounters with the creatures that inhabit these beautiful sceneries.

Landscape photographers are typically unprepared to photograph an encounter with a deer, a squirrel or even an occasional bear, primarily since a landscape lens is a wide-angle focal length. A wide-angle lens will not do justice to any kind of wildlife photography. Most of the creatures will be small and obscure within the scene. A typical focal length for a landscape scene will be somewhere around 18mm/24mm. In the world of wildlife photography life begins at 600mm and so an investment in a long focal length zoom lens must be made. I use a 150mm – 600mm lens.

Photographing wildlife takes a different approach as well. A landscape photographer will set their camera up on a tripod and, basically, take their time constructing the shot. There is usually no rush at all and the shot is usually made with manual settings. But with wildlife the animals do not pose for you and are usually fleeting in their appearance. Your photos usually must be made in a blink of an eye and hand held. 

My method for photographing wildlife is to set my camera up on either Aperture Priority of even Shutter Priority. I then will set my ISO to Auto and make sure that the range will cover all lighting conditions. In Aperture Priority you will set the aperture and the camera will choose the best shutter speed and ISO, again making sure that the shutter speed is quick enough to get a shot without any kind of motion blur. Open the aperture all the way and push the ISO. Some photographers prefer to set the shutter speed and not the aperture to make sure that it is always fast enough. In that case you set the shutter speed and the camera adjusts the aperture and ISO. Either method works and depends on personal preference or conditions. But it is important to make sure that you have a fast-enough shutter speed. Either way these settings will be preferred over manual operation as it allows you to make a shot quickly without having to manually adjust as the animal is moving. Give it a try. 

I had the opportunity to photograph wildlife in Alaska recently. Black bears, grizzly bears, moose, harbor seals, sea lions, sea otters, eagles and other animals, but the grizzly bears were the most thrilling. This allowed me to use these techniques to nail the photos as the bears were going about their business feeding on fish in the river. Grizzly bears are very focused on fishing and are not aggressive toward humans in this situation unless they were to feel threatened. Using a 600mm focal length allowed plenty of room between us and the bears and allowed them to go about their business as we went about ours. We sat on the opposite side of the Kenai River and watched them as they pulled fish from the river.

Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority works well in other situations as well. Photographing people in quick moving situations, such as candid photos of wedding guests for example, will allow you to pay attention to your subjects and not have to deal with the camera settings. Also a longer focal length zoom lens works well for that too as you don’t have to get up close to your subject, allowing for more candid photos.

I recommend any photographer that wants to photograph wildlife to invest in a “long lens” and practice. Try the automatic settings Aperture and Shutter Priority. Use it in your yard on squirrels and birds and then go out to a wildlife refuge or a natural place frequented by animals and become a wildlife photographer. While you are out in the wild please be careful of your safety as well as being respectful of the animal’s space and safety. And as always when in Nature, leave it better than you found it.

Intimate Landscape Scenes

Intimate Landscapes

Landscape photography has a reputation for requiring travel to epic corners of the earth to bring back photos of places that are rarely seen by most people. Or places that we’ve seen in a National Geographic magazine or a TV documentary. But from my point of view landscape photography as an art should include the photographer’s personal creative touch. It should be separate from documentary photography or marketing photos that are seen in magazines. It shouldn’t always need to depend on a location to send a message. I think that a beautiful artistic landscape photo can be taken along most any roadway if we learn how to read the details of the landscape. 

A photographer can consider that landscape photography could be reduced to two basic types, grand landscapes and intimate landscapes. A grand landscape typically is a territorial view, or one where there’s a view off into the distance that includes a lot within its frame, whereas an intimate landscape is typically one that’s a smaller part of a larger scene. A grand landscape is more apt to include a recognizable location and is more likely to be location dependent and in a lot of cases weather dependent, such as if it’s raining and the clouds are obscuring the view. In many cases the composition of such a grand landscape is fairly basic and simple to find. I feel that a landscape photographer really spreads their wings when they embrace intimate landscapes. The photographer isn’t necessarily looking at an obvious photo. Many times it requires imagination and a little time analyzing the scene to be able to look past the obvious to recognize what is typically overlooked. Be creative in choosing your subjects and be creative in how you compose and photograph them. 

Intimate landscapes typically include a small part of or a detail within a grander scene such as a small segment of a creek instead of the whole forest or maybe a section of the scene that is affected by some atmospheric conditions, think fog and sunlight as it filters through the forest, or maybe sunlight illuminating a curtain of moss that is draped across the limbs of the trees. I also look for designs and patterns within the scene, such as patterns or colors on rocks. An intimate landscape can include a part of the scene that, when extracted from the larger view and seen separate from the context of the larger scene, stands alone and on its own merits. Put the wide-angle lens away and use your zoom lens. Get closer to the scene.

It’s said, in painting as well as photography, that it’s not what’s included within the frame but what’s excluded that strengthens a composition. And this is very true in simplifying complex or, at first glance, generally unappealing scenery. Analyzing a scene and trying to find an interesting composition for a photo allows us to look deeper into the scene and to recognize what more that it has to offer. The first glance at a scene is like looking at a book’s cover. Looking further into a scene is like reading the book.

I tell my students that as artists we shouldn’t take the scenery at its first impression. In most cases we will take all it has to offer all at once. Instead take some time to stop and analyze the components of the scene and separate these smaller scenes and abstracts. Be creative and I’m confident that you will be able to stop along most any side road and find a photograph within sight of your car. No longer will a destination be a requirement to make a beautiful photo. You will be able to make a beautiful photo in between your forays to far off lands. Mastering composition of intimate scenes will also help to strengthen the compositions of your grand landscapes. 

Repairing Severe Water Spots In a Waterfall in Photoshop

Repairing Water Spots

I was perusing my archives the other day and came across this gem. It's one that I took at Elowah Falls in the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon. I remember that it was a rainy day and I was having a hard time keeping the rain spots from my lens.

I'm sure that I decided not to process this shot because I didn't have the tooks or the skill to remove them in a way that wouldn't show. I looked at this photo and decided to try a more creative approach to repairing the damage the the raindrops had caused. I looked hard at the other areas inthe photo and was unable to find any more raindrops in the image. I think that I lucked out.

I decided that I would process the shot and the first thing that I did was to address the waterfall by creating a copy of the photo and applying a motion blur to iut and them ,asking that area into the photo again. It worked quite well.

This video will also help those who have wondered how layering and masking works.

Go check out the video and let me know if this was any help to you. Repairing Severe Water Spots In a Waterfall in Photoshop.

Why Do We Need Tripods?

Why do We Need Tripods

There’s no other piece of equipment that a photographer possesses that elevates the perception of skill and professionalism than a tripod. Walk down a pathway or a trail with just a camera and you’ll blend in, but put it on a tripod and walk down the trail and you’ll be noticed and recognized as someone who must obviously be taking more than snapshots.

A tripod is usually the first accessory that photographers will acquire after they buy their first fancy camera, but I have found that it’s also the most misunderstood. A tripod doesn’t elevate a photographer’s skill or professional ability. Sometimes it’s the photographer without a tripod that knows when and how to use one, but understanding your tripod (as with any other tool that you use) will certainly allow you to elevate the quality of certain photos.

The purpose of a tripod can be to steady the camera to prevent it from shaking during extended shutter speeds that are longer than is practical by hand, such as for smooth water photographs of creeks and waterfalls. It can also be used to simply allow for a brighter exposure or to give the photographer a platform to rest their camera on while they compose their photos. You can maintain the same position while you wait for conditions to change for instance. The most practical purpose is that it’s used when the shutter speed isn’t fast enough to hold the camera by hand for the photo that you are trying to make. 

The times where your tripod is indispensable is when light is dim and the shutter speed needs to be extended, but the average photographer isn’t taking photos during this time. Daytime lighting can typically allow photographers to have a shutter speed that’s fast enough to eliminate motion blur for a clear and focused photo while handheld. Making sure that you have a shutter speed that’s quick enough is usually nothing more than choosing the proper ISO or aperture setting, as both can allow increased exposure without extending the shutter speed.

Taking photos without a tripod can be liberating, especially while hiking. A tripod can be cumbersome, heavy and usually unnecessary. Using a tripod can also limit creativity in composing a shot. You must fiddle around with the tripod to get it positioned properly to get the photo, when if you didn’t have it you can simply come up to the scene, focus and frame the shot and snap it. A photographer is typically more apt to wander around and find different compositions if not tethered to a planted tripod.

A tripod comes in handiest to landscape photographers as they tend to take their time composing, focusing, adjusting and reshooting the scene. In that case it’s handy to set up on the tripod and take the time to make sure that everything is perfect. It’s also used to maintain a composition while conditions change. It’s most indispensable to a landscape photographer than most other genres of photography. In the case where there’s a lot of moving from one shot to the next, such as candid photos during an event, being able to react quickly prohibits the use of one.

Tripods can come in varied levels of quality, sizes and types and made, basically, from two kinds of material – aluminum or carbon fiber. Weight is a very important consideration, especially while travelling, hiking or in cases where the tripod is carried throughout the day, but weight saving should never compromise stability. Make sure that it’s sturdy enough for the camera that you use and the conditions that you plan to use it in. Remember that we use tripods to steady our cameras, so having a steady tripod is a must.

When choosing a tripod, I’ve found that paying a bit more for one that is of a higher quality, like most things in life, will pay dividends in time. When I first started in photography I used cheap tripods, but after having a few break, typically with no way to repair them, usually at the most inopportune times, or being frustrated by unstable versions that would move in the slightest breeze, I decided to save my money and buy a sturdy carbon fiber tripod that will last a lifetime. If I had done so in the beginning it would have eventually paid for itself.

No tripod is complete without an accessory that attaches the camera called a head. The more inexpensive versions may have a head that is attached permanently, but most tripods will need a separate head. There are typically two types that are most commonly used – pan-tilt or ball head. My experience is that a ball head is the most versatile, reliable and most simple to use. A ball head has a spherical joint that can be easily positioned in many ways and then locked down with a single knob. A pan-tilt head has two levers that are used to adjust the tilt, elevation and direction separately. As with the tripod legs, buying a sturdy head will save you a lot of frustration and will last longer.

Carbon fiber or aluminum? Carbon fiber is always preferred, but carbon fiber tripods are usually more expensive.. Carbon fiber is lighter and will not oxidize or rust. There have been many times where I’ve been in creeks or lakes or even worse, in the surf at the ocean with my old aluminum tripods where I hadn’t gotten around to cleaning it before it started to seize up due to the corrosive nature of saltwater. Saltwater is terrible for aluminum. Carbon fiber and plastic parts will not corrode and will give you more time to get around to rinsing or cleaning your tripod. Keeping your tripod clean is an absolute must, so learn how to disassemble it and reassemble it.

I hope that this helps to better understand your tripod and how and why it’s used. My advice is to learn your camera and the basic principles of photography to allow you to know when a tripod is needed and when it’s not. As with any tool, using your tripod properly will enhance not only your photography but your experience of creating photos.

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DIY Senior Portraits

It’s Autumn once again, and for many parents and photographers it means senior portrait season. 

There are many photographers to choose from these days, when it comes to creating portraiture, but what if you would like to attempt it yourself? In this day and age you have the tools to do it, even if you use your smartphone camera. All you would need to provide would be your own artistic touch, but there are a few tricks to learn and remember that could help your success. 

The first thing to keep in mind is composition. As in all forms of visual art a strong and creative composition is imperative. A photo can be technically imperfect, but if the subject is interesting and the composition is strong then the photo will still be effective. Remembering the basics of composition, especially the Rule of Thirds will help to create that perfect composition. Avoid centering your subject or having them stand facing directly at the camera. Turn their body in one direction and have them turn their head toward the camera for instance. Take some time to research poses before your go out with your subject. 

Find an interesting location. The location should not be a part of the subject of the photo, but should enhance the experience of the moment that you’re capturing. Places such as a garden or a park with landscaping or features such as rock walls, interesting buildings or trees. Allow your subject to be a part of the scene. Have them lean against or stand in front of the feature. It’s Autumn so many times a location with some beautiful Falls leaves will be a great backdrop, especially if the leaves are illuminated by warm morning or afternoon light from behind. 

Second only to composition in importance is lighting. Portraiture can be created outdoors in natural light without external lighting in certain situations. Try to find filtered light or a shady spot for even tones. I try to avoid direct sunlight on my subjects. This can be done by standing in a shaded area or by blocking the light with a piece of cardboard or matboard. If the subject is too dark in the area that you choose then either a soft flash or a reflector to direct ambient light onto the subject can illuminate them. You can use a simple piece of white matboard, or something similar, to reflect indirect sunlight onto your subject. This method also works well when the subject is backlit.  

Choosing a camera is less important these days, especially considering the resolution that modern smartphones possess. It’s completely practical to use a smartphone for your photos. Todays phones are capable of taking excellent images and there are apps that will allow you to artfully edit the photos. The only limitation may be the size of which that you’re capable of printing the photos, but in most all cases it’s not an issue. Most smartphones are able to allow you to set certain settings manually and to save the image as a raw file which enables the photo to be edited more extensively, including creating a shallow depth of field to blur the background. The phone app will also give you editing options for your photos. Take out your phone and give it a whirl. 

If you own a digital single lens reflex camera, or a similar solid body camera, with interchangeable lenses, make sure that your shutter speed is fast enough so as not to have any kind of motion blur from movement of your hand or the subject. An open aperture, smaller f/stop number will help by allowing more light into the camera while also creating a shallow depth of field, blurring the background while keeping the subject sharp. This will also help to separate your subject from the background.

Post processing, or developing, your photos can be fairly easy with some of the apps for smartphones or programs for desktop computers that are available. Many are similar to Instagram filters where you have a list of effects that you can click on to preview to see what your photo would look like. Just click until you find one that works or is close, you can do find tuning in most cases, and then save the high resolution file. 

But of course in most cases there’s no substitute for a professional with experience in working with composition and light who uses professional level equipment. But if you’re wanting to try it yourself first, go for it. What do you have to lose but a little time? It’s fun to photograph your children or your grandchildren and will give you some quality time with them, and you’ll gain some valuable photography experience and, perhaps, some beautiful senior portraits. 

Your The Camera’s Aperture Affects your Focus

Single Exposure using my focus technique

We’re focusing on focusing this month. How do I focus my photos is one of the most asked questions of me by other photographers. It’s a great question, and one that one would think would be pretty basic and simple. It’s usually the last skill that a beginning photographer considers when starting out but seems to be the toughest to master. I mean it seems that it would be pretty basic, what with the sophistication of the Auto Focus features in modern digital cameras, but once one takes a few photos and is let down by the Auto Focus Mode it’s easy to see why in many cases, especially landscape and portraiture, you will want to manually focus your photo.

There are several things that will affect the focus or clarity of our photos including a completely out of focus image, one where the focus is so far off that nothing is clear or in focus. That issue is obvious, of course, so we won’t discuss this in depth. We will assume that we are focusing but want to refine the clarity and focus of the shot. I’m going to try to proceed without citing mathematics or terms and theories such as Hyperfocal Distance, Circle of Confusion etc. The purpose of this article is to just understand the basics enough to understand how to overcome a common problem with focusing. Trust that this could become so lengthy that it would require another ten pages of the Mountain Times to cover it. Sometimes when someone is learning something new more information beyond what it takes to understand the concept causes confusion and discouragement. Once the basics are learned the understanding can be broadened in the future. I always tell people that if it requires mathematics to take photos I’d be a C-Minus photographer.

First let’s consider blurring caused by the camera moving or objects in the scene moving. This is not a focus issue but it can affect the clarity and areas of focus in the photo as you affect it. If movement is causing problems then your shutter speed is too slow. You’ll need to make sure that your shutter speed is sufficiently fast to freeze the movement. There are times where a slow shutter blur effect is desirable such as in creeks or waterfalls. This typically requires one to make an aperture adjustment to vary the shutter speed. Opened more to make it quicker and closed more to make it slower, but the depth of field will change with each aperture change.

So what’s this depth of field of which you speak you ask? The depth of field is how deep the area that will be in focus is from front to back. The wider your aperture the shallower or narrower your depth of field will be and then when you stop down, or close the aperture down, the depth of field becomes deeper. Remember that the larger the aperture opening the smaller the f/stop number and the smaller the aperture opening is the larger the f/stop number. Something to consider when you’re trying to maximize your focus is that the closer you are to the subject or foreground narrower your depth of field will be as well. If you’re having trouble getting everything in the scene within acceptable focus stand back a little. The same with portraiture. If you’re shooting with a wide aperture to blur the background intentionally you may have trouble getting the person’s whole face in focus. There’s not a lot worse in portrait photography than having the eyes in focus but the nose out of focus or vice-versa. Either stop down (close down the aperture) or stand back a little further or both. This works best with a zoom lens so you can recompose as you move away.

Hyperfocal Distance - I know. I said that I was going to try not to mention this but I think that curiosity will eventually lead a photographer to wonder. Simply and basically, the hyperfocal distance is the point where you will focus to allow everything from the foreground to the background to be in “acceptable focus”.

There’s a mystical mathematical formula to determine what that the hyperfocal distance is, but if you remember this advice you will get by like I have been for a long time without taking a calculator into the field with me. Here goes - I remember that I want to be in my lens’s sweet spot, which is the upper and lower limit of the aperture’s clearest settings. Each lens is different but the average lens is approximately f/8 to f/14. Compose your shot but try not to get too close to the foreground unless you don’t mind the background to be soft - Remember the closer to your foreground the less likely the object in the background will be in focus - And then focus to infinity on your lens focus ring and then focus back until the foreground just comes into focus. Then you will usually have the depth of field maximised and pushed out as far as possible while still maintaining a focused foreground. It’s easy to understand once you try it.

That may have been a long road to a short conclusion but just a basic understanding of how your aperture and depth of field affects focus allows you to take control of exactly how you will focus your photo. I hope that I made that as clear as possible.

Shallow Depth of Field Photo
Shallow Depth of Field Photo

Focus Stacked Photo
Focus Stacked Photo

Finding Fantastic Focus – Learning Hyperfocal Distance

Purple Mountain Lavender

Finding Fantastic Focus - Learning Hyperfocal Distance. It’s a beautiful morning as you gather your camera and gear to head out to take some beautiful landscape photos. You understand the settings that you’ll need to get the proper exposure, in this case with a fast enough shutter to overcome the blur caused by the breeze that’s tosses the flowers around in front of you. In the background is a view of Mount Hood on the horizon. You allow the camera to set the focus by using one of the automatic settings. Perhaps you focus on either the foreground or the background. Or, if you are using manual focus, you use the age old method learned from another photographer who learned it from his uncle who was a photographer who learned it from some guy named Ansel, you focus a third of the way into the scene and hope for the best.

Once you get home and download your photos you notice that in some of the photos the foreground is out of focus and the background is in perfect focus, while in others the foreground is sharp but the background is out of focus. Some may be fine from front to back but you don’t know why or how it happened.

In time, as you hone your photography skills, you will want to understand how to focus properly and consistently. It’s something that is hard to guess your way through or to accidentally discover. And once you figure out that there’s a method, understanding it seems daunting but it’s rather simple to understand if explained properly, so I’ll give it a try.

What you need to understand is something called hyperfocal distance. By focusing your camera at the hyperfocal distance your photo will be in acceptable focus from half that distance all the way to infinity. In other words if your hyperfocal distance is 20 feet everything will be in focus from 10 feet to infinity. In landscape photography especially it allows you to maximize your depth of field. Knowing this, in this example, we can then push our depth of field out by focusing to 30 feet, ten feet past your subject, maximizing the depth of field.

Determining the hyperfocal distance for a particular focal length and aperture combination can be tricky, but there are charts that you can put in your billfold or camera case. There are also apps for your smartphone that will help you calculate what it is for your particular camera, focal length and aperture setting. Because of this I won’t go into the complications of the mathematics involved in determining your hyperfocal distance. With one of the variables being “The Circle of Confusion”, it would be easier to explain a method that I use that you can start using right away to maximize your depth of field resulting in a more accurate and consistent focus in your photos.

Start by switching your lens to Manual. Turn off any kind of vibration reduction if you’re using a tripod, leave it active if you’re hand holding. Make sure to stop down, aiming for the lens “sweet spot”, an aperture setting of roughly f/8 - f/11. The sweet spot is the range of sharpest aperture settings of your lens. It’s typically two full stops from your widest aperture depending on the lens. Just make sure to stop down to increase your depth of field.

Turn on your Live View screen and increase its magnification and scroll the view to the closest spot that you want to be in focus in the scene. Observe that area as you turn your lens focus ring to infinity, which will slightly blur your foreground, and then focus back from infinity slowly until your foreground object just comes into sharp focus then stop. Once you do this you’ve moved your depth of field out as far as it can go while maintaining focus at your foreground object. Using this method you don’t need to know distances to set your focus.

I should mention that there are times when hyperfocal distance is not desired or necessary. Many forms of photography rely on a shallow depth of field such as portraiture or macro photography. In that case, none of this is necessary as having areas that lack focus is desired to direct the viewer's attention to the subject which is in focus.

Also modern digital photography and computerized post processing allows a photographer to take multiple shots of a scene, focusing from front to back, and then combine them to create a focus that is sharp throughout the image. This method is called Focus Stacking, but in most cases it’s unnecessary if you use the methods described in this article.

As in most cases when an instructor explains something, they will always seem to take the long way. I know that I gave you the shortcut at the end of a lengthy description, but in any skill it’s more than doing, it’s also about understanding. The more that we understand what we are doing, the more we’re able to perfect how we do it. I hope that this rudimentary explanation of hyperfocal distance helps you to take your photos one step closer to perfection.

Photography in The Winter

Snowy Forest Scene

Photography in The Winter

As the Mama’s and The Papa’s once sang, “All the leaves are brown, and the sky is grey”. But that shouldn’t stop you from taking a walk on a Winter’s day. And while you’re at it, don’t think that photography season has passed. I can think of at least six reason why Winter is a great time for photography.

The first reason that comes to mind concerns the weather. The common thought about photography in the weather would be that it’s a terrible time to go due to the grey skies, rain or snow. It is commonly believed, especially among non-photographers, that the Summertime is the best time for photos. Although the Summer weather is a great time to be in the outdoors it may not be the best time to make beautiful photos - Especially photos of dramatic light and skies. A clear blue sky is beautiful in a photo, but there can be a lot of negative space to try to fill, whereas a grey, dramatic cloudy sky can add texture and drama to the scene.

Rain can help a scene as well, especially a forested creek or a waterfall. The rain wets the foliage that may still be in the forest, including moss and evergreen trees. When the foliage is wet I like to apply a circular polarizer to my lens and turn it until the shine and glare that’s on the leaves and rocks, which is a reflection of the sky and ambient light, disappear, which will in turn bring out the color of the forest. Don’t hesitate to go out and photograph in the snow. The snow can make some great photos, especially fresh snow. A bluebird day and fresh snow will bring clear views of the horizon and any geographic features such as a mountain into view.

Wintertime is the best time for beautiful sunrises. Winter skies and rainstorms can, at times, clear or partially clear at night and during daybreak only to succumb to a completely overcast or stormy sky soon after sunrise. I always try to go to bed early, set my alarm and head out to a view to try to witness a sunrise.

Winter forest scenes can be dramatic as well as artistic. The lack of foliage leaves the forest with a clear view through tree trucks and bushes. Many times a view of a scene such as a creek, waterfall or view into the distance is exposed in the Winter when it’s obscured by foliage in the Summer. Also, with the tree trunks exposed, creative abstract landscape scenes can be found.

Summertime weather, sun and no rain, leaves the streams and waterfalls dry or with a limited flow but the rains of Winter fill these streams with water. With rain comes renewed growth of the moss around these streams and waterfalls as well.Winter can be a great time to photograph them. And don’t hesitate to arrive after a fresh snow to photograph them in the Winter white forest. I enjoy photographing streams and waterfalls in the Winter.

Winter weather will also filter out a lot of fair weather photographers too. Not all will dare to go out to get those unique Winter photos. This leaves you with more room to work at a location. Less people in a photograph will allow you to concentrate your subject better, no matter if you’re photographing a landscape or a portrait shoot in a park.

Then there are the holidays. The Winter season brings holidays that will traditionally bring families together for family events and get togethers. Don’t let these times with family pass without documenting them with a photograph. A lot of times, in this busy day and age, we are so distracted by our personal day to day routine that these holidays are the only times throughout the year when family can be gathered together in one place. Take advantage of that time to gather images for posterity.

As you can see the Winter season is no time to set your camera aside. There are plenty of reasons to look at Winter as another time of the year to get beautiful photos.

Night Sky Photography

Mt Hood Milky Way

Night Sky Photography  - Summer is here. For a landscape photographer this time of the year means good weather, green forests, flowers, warmer nights and starry night skies. I enjoy heading out for a sunset and staying until the stars come out, and in many cases, staying out until sunrise. Sunsets and sunrises are always a wonderful time to get dramatic landscape photos, while landscape photos with an amazing Milky Way in the sky above can be unique and dramatic.

Night sky photography is a form of photography that seems mystical and magical. To many people night photography appears to be complicated and left only for those with the most acute photography skill, when in fact once you understand just the basics of the exposure triangle - Shutter speed, aperture and Iso - you will realize that all that’s being done to get these dark night sky photos, in most cases, is to get as much light into your camera as possible.

Set your camera on Manual, set up your tripod and let’s get started.

As most photographers know when you use a long exposure you will need a tripod. Your tripod will keep your camera still during the exposure. You will want to insure that no movement takes place at all during the exposure. Another device that helps with this is a shutter release. The shutter release will keep you from moving the camera when you press the button. If you have no shutter release you can usually set your camera timer to take the photo a few seconds after you click the shutter button.

Your exposure setting will need to be extended, in most cases, up to 20 or sometimes 30 seconds. This will depend on how dark the sky is. Remember that the darker the sky, the brighter the stars, therefore a night without a moon will give the best starry sky. The only negative consequence will be less light on your subject or foreground. Many times just a slight sliver of a moon will allow a more defined foreground while still allowing the stars to shine.

Concerning shutter speed, the only consideration that you must have is that the longer the shutter is open the more movement you will detect in the scene. Even in the stars as at some longer focal lengths the stars will streak slightly when you extend the exposure to 30 seconds. These star streaks turn into star trails if allowed to streak long enough, sometimes up to 30 minutes. This method will create amazing surreal images of steaks and circles of light above your subject. To do this requires another method, not explained here, to pull off.

The next thing that one must consider is how the aperture will block or allow light to pass through the lens and into the camera. When light is dim or it’s dark outside you will want to allow as much light through as possible, and to do this you must use a wider more open aperture - A smaller number. Without getting into the math involved just remember that when you open your aperture you will be allowed a quicker shutter and a lower Iso. Both are desirable, which I’ll explain later. A good quality lens will allow an f/2.8 aperture setting.

Next is your Iso setting. What is Iso? You know that the longer that you keep your shutter open the more light will pass through the lens and into the camera. We also know that an aperture that’s open wider allows more light in. In digital photography we have no film but we do have electronic film in the form of the image sensor. The image sensor’s sensitivity to light can be adjusted. The higher the Iso number the more sensitive to light your camera becomes. Iso 1000 will be more sensitive to light than Iso 100, for instance. Therefor you will need to raise your Iso to get your starry night photos. It’s easy to think that all one needs to do is raise their Iso, but there are negative effects in the form of noise in the image. In film it’s called grain. To get a cleaner image you want to keep your Iso as low as possible. Extending your shutter speed and opening your Iso allows you to do this.

One thing that one must remember when setting up is that in the dark it’s more difficult, or in many cases impossible to use your light meter to determine your settings. Therefore one must take a couple test shots before they get the exposure right.

Another important and in many cases the most difficult part of getting setup for the shot is focus. Unfortunately on a zoom lens when you set the focus to infinity the stars will not be in focus. And at night when it’s dark it’s difficult to manual focus. I recommend taking your camera out in the daylight and setting the focus to an object far away and then marking the lens. I have used tape where when I line up the edges of the tape it’s in focus. There are other methods, but this is the simplest until you gain more experience.

And so once we understand this we can let more light into the camera using these three settings, we can start taking photos in low light. Tripod, long exposure, open aperture and a higher Iso. The next thing to do is to go out and practice. Once you do this a few times your photos will get better and your understanding of what settings to start with will become more second nature.

For more in depth instruction I'm alway available for private one-on-one in field workshops or post processing in person or via Skype.

Crystal Crane Hot Springs Milky Way
Crystal Crane Hot Springs Milky Way

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