There once was a time when I would stay up for several nights in a row and had no stories worth telling. These days I stay up for one night and have a wonderful story that I could tell.
I could tell about enjoying this warm, calm dark Summer night with a sky full of stars and a snow capped mountain so close it seems as if you can reach out to touch it, with the Milky way above it like a feathery plume from a hat, and then coming home with a photograph that needs no description.
I have so many wonderful stories that I could tell, and so many photos that need no words.
Each year come August I start to look forward to the Perseid Meteor Shower. The Perseids are an annual event that comes each year as the Earth passes through the orbital path of the Comet Swift-Tuttle. The debris from the comet’s path causes little pieces of the comet to fall through the Earth’s atmosphere at over 100,000 miles per hour causing an amazing amount of falling stars, sometimes from 100-200 per hour. The Perseid Meteor Shower of 2018 was helped by its occurrence during the dark skies of a New Moon.
Another occasion that’s becoming an annual August event is my Dead Ox Ranch Photographer’s Campout. Last year we dedicated the event to capturing photos of the Solar Eclipse. This year we were there to capture photos of the Perseid Meteor Shower.
The Dead Ox Ranch isn’t as morbid of a place as it sounds. The name was given to the ranch by the chance occurrence of there being a dead cow on the property when it changed hands in a sale in its past. The ranch is over 100 years old and is located east of Baker City near Virtue Flats and ruts from the old Oregon Trail. It’s just an hour drive from Hell’s Canyon and the Wallowa Mountains. It’s also the location for some of the darkest skies in the state.
Disregarding all of the above, the ranch itself is like going back in time to an era of outdoor group socials, picnics and sitting around in the yard in the summertime heat visiting and talking to friends and family with an ice-cold beverage. Once everyone arrives and we are all set up in our camps we mix and mingle and discuss our common purpose for being there, photography.
The only chance that we take is being there in the Summer during the peak wildfire season, and this years has been a bad one. The state was covered with smoke from fires originating not only in Oregon but from fires in both California and British Columbia. It’s been terrible indeed, but we somehow lucked out with clear skies with only traces of smoke that came and went for the whole three-day event. If we would have had smoky skies we would have somehow made the best of it anyway but that wasn’t the case.
Our mission for the workshop was to create what is called a composite image. One that is made from several photos to create one single image. Our goal was to make an image that included a group of meteors gathered over a three hour period of time. To do that we wanted to create the photo using a base layer taken at twilight so we can have focus and definition and yet still have dim and cool light like night time. Then a photo of the sky later at night when the Milky Way was filling the sky. After that we set up our cameras to take 30 second exposures one after the other for three hours to gather photos of as many meteors as possible. Once we gathered all of these photos we then went into our digital darkroom to blend them all together.
To composite the photos we made our basic adjustments in Adobe Lightroom and then opened all of the files into Adobe Photoshop as layers. Once we had them in Photoshop it was a matter of creating masks and selecting a blend mode to allow each layer to show through in its place and order. After some final adjustments the whole stack of layers was merged together into a single image. Although this is a general description I felt compelled to explain the process to those who aren’t aware of how these images are made. In today’s world of digital photography certain lines can be blurred between art and photography.
The whole group of photographers had a great time. I’m convinced that when we were out playing at sunset and into the dark we reverted back to kids again. And when we gathered to process our photos, we were all amazed at the results. I included the image that I created as an example of the composite image that the class came to create for themselves.
Even if you don’t create a complex composite image in Photoshop, a beautiful single image of a meteor is reward enough for a night under the stars. Keep this in mind next August when the stars start falling during the Perseid Meteor Shower. Perhaps you can join us at the Dead Ox Ranch for a workshop.
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.
The aurora borealis over Mount Hood at Trillium Lake August 2015. This was an incredible night. The skies were great and the lodge only had one invasive light that I was able to brush out of the photo easily.
I’ve been asked a lot about seeing the aurora here in Oregon after seeing one of these photos. I explain that although you can see them with the naked eye, the camera absorbs more light than you eyes are able to. Therefore, these photos don’t represent accurately how you’re able to see the lights. So don’t be disappointed if you go in search of the aurora and you can’t see it. If it’s forecasted to be displayed that night take a test shot or two just in case.
It was this night when I met two young women that were there enjoying the stars with one of the women asking me questions about photographing at night. I had yet to start to take any photos and gave her a quick two minute night photography tutorial. We got her all setup with her camera and tripod, took the first shot and looked at the preview screen. The image showed the northern lights as they were just starting to flare up. The woman practically freaked out when she saw the photo. I had to explain to her what was going on. She was amazed.
Once I was done with the two ladies there I went to get a few photos of my own, this being one.
This is a photo of the aurora borealis over the Knik River and the Chugach Mountains near Butte Alaska.
This photo was taken August 25th, 2013 at 3:09 am. I had just arrived at the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport around midnight that night on my first trip to Alaska and I was already photographing the northern lights. My purpose was to get to know Darlene first, and to photograph this amazing state second. Darlene and I had been on a couple dinner dates on a few of her trips to Oregon but we had never really spent a lot of time together doing what we both enjoy, hiking and taking photos.
From the airport we drove to her cabin on the Knik River. We were sitting at her table when she was describing where she lived, the layout of the land, mountains, proximity to the Knik River etc when I suggested that we grab our cameras and tripods and go to the river. Darlene agreed so off we went. We spent the next week travelling around from the Kenai to the Mat-Su Valley to Denali NP taking photos of the amazing landscapes there. We would eat, sleep and start over the next day with a mission.
As we left the light of her cabin and into the forest behind we followed a path, me in front with Darlene right behind explaining where to go, under a bright half moon when as my eyes adjusted I saw a green glow in the sky through the trees. I yelled “aurora!” amd started running down the trail toward the river oblivious of the chances of a bear or even worse a bull moose crossing my path.
This particular night was an amazing night for me. I fell in love that night. Within three hours I was standing on the edge of a glacial river in Alaska with a beautiful woman and a sky dancing with bands of green aurora.This is how Alaska greeted me that night and Alaska has blessed me with such amazing experiences ever since.
As we got to the river’s edge, this was the view. Can you fault me for falling in love? 🙂
Fort Rock Night Photography – After a drive from my home here on the south side of Mount Hood to Central Oregon for some Fort Rock Night Photography. I and my friend Rob arrived at the Fort Rock Museum, what’s left of the history of this little town, and the geologic feature it’s named for. It was a little after midnight when we arrived. The old buildings at the museum were our goal for the evening, although it was our third stop on the two day trip, and we were excited at our chances at photographing the Milky Way in the sky above.
As a photographer I understand that, no matter how much I try to prepare it seems that there’s always some sort of unforeseen situation that pops up. In this case the complication came in the form of a huge invasive orange street light illuminating the scene. This actually created two complications. The street light created a huge range of light from the buildings to the dark sky which wouldn’t allow a longer exposure which is required to allow the sky to be exposed properly. When the sky was exposed properly the buildings were overexposed and vice versa. The second complication being the hot orange white balance of the light. Sodium lights produce a very narrow spectrum of light, meaning that it’s basically a monochrome image, kind of like a black and white but orange. No other color is represented and so it’s near impossible to correct for this type of light. To say the least I was a bit disappointed. Never one to just give up I decided to shoot the area nonetheless.
After we were done at Fort Rock we wrapped up the trip with a sunrise at the Christmas Valley Sand Dunes. It was a long trip with no sleep but an excellent adventure. We returned with photos from Smith Rock, Sparks Lake, Fort Rock and Christmas Valley all in a matter of about 24 hours.
Once home and after downloading my photos the realization that all of my photos from Fort Rock were affected by the aforementioned sodium street light started to sink in.
I’ve had to photograph under sodium lighting in the past but I just rolled with it, either that or I converted them to black and white. Many of the photos that I made in France were under this same orange light. In this case I didn’t want to roll with it. I wanted to take some time and process the photos into the images that I drove so far to create. I had to decide what approach that I would take.
While I was at the location I decided to take two photos for each final photo that I would make. One would be exposed for the sky while another was exposed for the buildings. After some thought I decided on a workflow that included the following:
Import into Lightroom for basic adjustments and then import both photos into Photoshop as layers
Convert the building layer that was bathed in the orange glow to black and white and do finished contrast adjustments
Adjust the sky layer with the Milky way
Create a mask to bring the sky into the black and white building layer
Create a 50% grey layer with Soft Light blend mode and select a brown color and paint the buildings and adjust opacity until it looks right
Create a 50% grey layer with Soft Light blend mode and select a drab green color and paint the sagebrush and adjust opacity until it looks right
Make final separate adjustments of separate layers
Merge layers and create final adjustments
Size and sharpen
It’s always my goal to get my photos in a single exposure and I try my best to make my processing as simple as possible to get the best effect but there are times when one must push the envelope and salvage a long drive to the middle of nowhere. In this case my creativity and knowledge of Photoshop was tested. Although it wasn’t exactly what I went for I think that the final images were salvaged, at the very least.
Night photography is a lot of fun but can be a challenge, even on a bright moonlit night, but the results can be dramatic. The breeze made this shot a challenge, while the moon light threatened to shine too bright and cast too many shadows. I still had fun playing in the dark that night.
With about 50% moonlight I set up this shot at Loowit Viewpoint near the Johnston Ridge Observatory at the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. The clouds above the mountain created a great fan like effect.
I used a short tripod to include the flowers in the foreground. Because I couldn’t stop down to get my depth of focus I used two photos; One for the foreground and another for the background. Once blended I finished with brightness and contrast adjustments.
A front row seat to the light show at Upper Trail Lake at Moose Pass on the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska.
The story behind this shot… Darlene and I had scouted this location out earlier in the day and then drove in the Seward to get a room for the night and some food in our bellies. We returned about dusk to wait for the show. When we arrived there were two guys there with their tent set up.
We parked and I approached them and said hello. They were from Germany and were touring British Columbia and Alaska by car. They flew in to Vancouver, bought a cheap used car and hit the road.
We had a great time visiting and shooting the aurora. Darlene wasn’t feeling so well that night and so as she was sitting above and behind she decided to take a photo of us down by the shore. When she showed me the shot I had to do it too, of course. 🙂 This is my version of the scene with our new German friends and Darlene standing at the shoreline getting their shots of the aurora.
The other detail that might complete this scene was that there was a beaver who would swim past every now and then and slap his tail on the water to try to chase us away.
Props to Darlene for standing back and capturing the scene and not just the scenery. 🙂
This is a composite that took 360 images taken as 30 second exposures over a three hours period of time layered over a single 30 minute exposure.
The secret to this shot was to be patient for three hours as the camera snapped away its 30 second exposures first, and then in post processing the additional patience to sort through the 350+ images to separate the frames that held a meteor, and then to mask out all but the meteor in the shots prior to layering them onto the base image. But that wasn’t the end of the process. Once the meteors were layered over the base image I had to rotate them to align with their point of origin. Over the course of three hours the Earth rotates and so the point of origin changes. To correct for this I had to use Polaris as a pivot point and then to compute the time in relationship to the position and then rotate the meteor to correspond with that position. In all there is over 8 hours of time spent to create this image.
The point of origin is close to the position of the galaxy Cassiopeia and Perseus, thus the name of the meteor shower. When you go out to get your meteor shot make sure that you have a clear view to the northeastern sky that’s not affected by the lights from a city. The meteor shower will be the most intense during their peak August 11-12 after midnight. It is estimated that we could expect up to 200 or more meteors per hour this year, but one never knows until it happens.
To get your photo set up your tripod and mount your camera. Use a programmable shutter release and set it to take 30 second exposures one after another. This will allow you to be able to capture every meteor that will fall within the frame of your camera in that three hour period of time. Don’t move it while you’re getting your shots. You want all of your frames to be the same. I chose to shoot for three hours but you can shoot as long as the sky is dark and your battery and memory lasts.
Remember when you are shooting 30 second exposures that you will need to open your aperture and raise your ISO to allow you to expose the night sky. When shooting the 30 minute exposure you will be lowering your ISO and stopping down to about 5.6 or so. It all varies on how much ambient light in the sky.
Once you return home you will need to use Photoshop to allow you to import the photos with the meteors in as layers, and mask out all but the meteor. Sometimes changing the blend mode will help to blend them more naturally over the base image. For the base image choose one of your best ones for static stars or create a single star trail photo for a different effect, like I did with this one. Once they are all masked and layered over, locate the pivot to the center of the rotation of the Earth which is Polaris. Rotate the layer until it is moving away from the northeast sky and the Perseus galaxy. I used a formula that allowed me to determine how many degrees that it had moved in the time that it was taken and move it roughly that many degrees. If that’s all just a little too much, just layer them and call it good. It will give you a chaotic display as if they are coming from all points of the sky, but it’s still very cool.
I hope that this helps. Even if you don’t get a photo it’s such an amazing experience to be able to go out into the night and stare at the sky and count falling stars.
Thank you for your support and thoughtful comments.