I am a big fan of Eric Clapton, especially of his later years where he returned to his blues roots. I recall his “From the Cradle” CD where he really went back to the blues in a strong way. Not
sure why I am attracted to the blues but always have been as long as I can remember. What has this got to do with this post? Well, many years ago as I got started in photography I, like many others, experimented with black and white. Over the years I progressed through several camera formats, including 4×5 large format, with a basement darkroom. I would study the works of Ansel Adams and John Sexton and others. Studying Ansel’s zone system and using a modified Pentax spot meter is how I really learned exposure. This is one reason, even today, my primary camera mode is “manual” with spot metering.
While over time I came to shoot both color and black and white, I eventually began to shoot only color. Lately however, I find myself struggling with a desire to return to my earlier days of the monochrome capture. Every time I see a well done monochrome image I become increasing conflicted internally on a path forward personally. Why not just do both you ask? Good question. I really love it when I capture a beautiful color image with magical light. But the images don’t seem to have the same lasting power. A well done black and white print is not only beautiful but seems timeless. I also find that, for me anyway, I have to place myself in a monochrome mindset. It is a whole different way of seeing. Hard to do both.
Anyway, I made a promise to myself that the coming year I would refocus, return to my roots so to speak, and shoot monochrome for any personal work. While I will of course shoot some color in support of several workshops I conduct, personal work will be monochrome. It will be interesting to see my work by year’s end.
Back during a September evening the forecast for the night sky was clear for the Kansas City area. So I thought I’d head out to the Flint Hills on the Kansas side to a place called Teter’s Rock for some night photography. The Flint Hills encompasses a region in eastern Kansas and north-central Oklahoma. It features a band of rolling hills and grasslands with wide open skies. A place where in the spring you might see storms developing 50 miles away. In this area you can easily escape the light pollution of the city in search of a dark sky for star photography. While the dark skies are great for night photography, you have to really search for something to effectively use as s an interesting foreground element. Enter Teter Rock.
Teters Rock is a group of stones standing as a tribute to a man, James Teter, who owned the land where a small community developed around some oil fields. Of course the community is long gone and all that remains are these standing rocks on some high ground that represented what was originally intended as a guidepost for homesteaders searching for the nearby Cottonwood River. The original stones are long gone but the current day monolith was erected as a tribute to James Teter, while most any other sign of the former community is long gone. Teter Rock now offers a great foreground object to include in a composition while photographing the night skies of Kansas.
Arriving on site, I began to evaluate the area for possible compositions. The sun was just about to set so I caught a few quick shots of the setting sun through the openings of the rocks comprising the Teter monument. I then explored positions facing north to determine where to best set up to place the rock in relation to the North Star, which would be the center of rotation of my star trails. My initial objective was to plan for a length of time to take multiple exposures to later stack together to show the resulting star trails over Teter Rock. There are always small things to consider on the horizon, such as a flashing strobe on a distant tower, glow from a small town in the distance, should I position my camera closer to the ground for a lower perspective, and other considerations. The camera I had available to me this night was my Canon 5DSR. This camera is a great choice for landscapes because of its high pixel count, allowing for very detailed images. However, because of the higher pixel count it does not perform as well at high ISO settings often associated with night photography. But it is the only camera I had available at the time so I chose to use it to actually test its performance in these conditions.
When taking star trail images you won’t necessarily need to higher ISO’s such as 3200 or 6400. In fact I will often start out around f/4, ISO 400, 4min on a dark night without a moon. I might take a couple of test shots to fine tune my exposure. With desired exposure and composition determined, I set the intervalometer for no more than 4 min exposures and fire it off , sit back in my rag chair and enjoy a beverage and snacks, and just let it go. I had allowed for only a 1 sec interval between exposures and used a total of about 60 exposures to create the star trail shot above.
The crescent moon, which provided a small amount of ambient light, began to get low on the horizon as the night wore on. The brightest portion of the Milky Way, easily identified by its proximity to the constellation Sagittarius, was still about 15-20 degrees above the horizon. I could now reposition and try a few Milky Way shots above Teter Rock. Now this is when I really expected to run into problems with noise in my images because of having to increase my ISO. Using a Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 lens my strategy was to stay as low as possible on the ISO to mitigate the
noise and rely on the speed of the lens to capture the needed light. I knew that by using my 24mm and applying the 500 rule ( 500 / focal length of lens = max exposure time)I should keep my exposure time to no longer than about 20 seconds to render the stars as points of light in the image. Nonetheless, I decided to push the exposure to 30 seconds considering I kept my ISO at 1600 in lieu of the 3200 or 6400 I might have otherwise chosen using my Canon 5D Mark III.
All things considered, the images I came away with were quite acceptable after post processing, and to my surprise the noise was very manageable. You can see, however in the 100% magnification of the Milky Way image of why you should be mindful of your exposure time when your objective is to capture stars as points of light. While the image viewed at normal magnification looks acceptable, when magnified it clearly shows the elongated rice-shaped stars resulting from the earth’s movement over that 30 seconds. Where this would really become obvious is if you decided to make a large print. The lesson here is that you should always consider the 500 rule in these cases and even do a test shot and then magnify the result in your LCD to be sure your stars are both in focus and your exposure is within limits to produce stars as points of light.
The prime season in the Northern Hemisphere to view the Galactic Core of the Milky Way is from March to October, with best viewing between April and July. While the Milky Way is still visible throughout the year, the brightest portion of the core will be below the horizon from November to February.
I CONDUCT SEVERAL NIGHT PHOTOGRAPHY WORKSHOPS DURING THE SUMMER MONTHS IN THE KANSAS FLINT HILLS AND HOPE YOU WILL SUBscribe TO MY BLOG TO GET PLANNED DATES OR REVIEW LATEST POSTS AND TECHNIQUES. YOU CAN ALSO VISIT MY WEBSITE FOR ALL SCHEDULED WORKSHOPS AT WWW.CRAIGMCCORDPHOTOGRAPHY.COM
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Each Spring and Fall I conduct photography workshops in the Missouri Ozarks. The focus is on the Ozark National Scenic Riverway and the mills, springs and rivers in the vicinity of Shannon, County Missouri. During my fall pre-workshop scouting, I came across a small cemetery at Akers, MO. Noticing it was established in 1861, I had to stop and explore a little further. I believe many photographers are drawn to old cemeteries, much like they are to old barn structures and abandoned buildings. There is something about the mystery of the history associated with these things that we find intriguing as photographers. As we click our camera shutters we contemplate what stories these places could tell us. Years ago, when I was a young officer in the military, my commander would tell me how he always explored the history of a new place he visited. He wanted to have a feeling for why streets or small towns had certain names. Sometimes what was discovered was quite interesting. Made for some nice trivia, if nothing else.
I explored the Akers Cemetery in part because it was established the year the American Civil War broke out. Or as some southern boys would call it, “the war of Northern aggression”. As expected I found one
gravestone of the era, that of 2nd Lt John Calvin Welch of the 9th Mo Infantry, CSA (Confederate States of America). There were small fresh confederate battle flags placed at each side of the gravestone and some rather fresh looking, albeit artificial, flowers at its base. It was clear current day family still visits his grave site and honors his service and sacrifice for what some post war writers would call “the lost cause”.
With a small bit of research I found that John Calvin (“Jack”) Welch was the father of 7 children. He enlisted in 1861 with Freeman’s Company, Missouri state militia for six months, after which the union forces captured and took him to Alton Illinois, where he was held prisoner until September 1862. Later he enlisted as a First Sargent in Co. FM, 9th Mo. Infantry. After fighting in the Battle at Pleasant Hill, LA, in 1864, he was promoted to 2nd Lt. He served under the command of Gen J. Shelby who surrendered to union forces at Shreveport, LA in June of 1865. After the war he returned to Missouri and farmed and was later elected County Collector. He died at the age of 74.
The image here of Klepzig Mill in Shannon County, MO also has an interesting history, which I will highlight in later blog. Having photographed this area for a number of years now, I have come to meet some very interesting and friendly locals. Several Klepzig ancestors have contacted me over the months and have talked of the mill and earlier times when the Klepzigs lived in the area and worked the mill. More to come on that in the future.
Next time you venture out into new areas, do a little research. What you find might not only be interesting but might offer some good leads on subject matter.