Went to the Country Club Plaza in Kansas City several nights back. Thought I would try to capture something with the Christmas lights for a card. Spent some time with a fellow photographer checking out a few possible locations for a nice sunset over the Plaza. Unfortunately, the previously predicted 24% sky cover did not materialize. Such conditions could have provided the elements for a really nice sunset. But a cloudless sky is all we ultimately had to work with. After chalking it up to little more than a scouting mission, we grabbed a few shots and my fellow photographer friend decided he should call it a night. I too figured I would capture a few more and head home. As I walked a few blocks I noticed another photographer at a corner deeply involved in his work. As I approached I saw he was photographing through a clear crystal ball. I introduced myself and listened as he explained what he was doing and he then graciously offered me the opportunity the try a few shots through what was like a giant raindrop. Of course the image appeared upside down but that would easily be corrected in post processing. It was different and certainly produced a unique image for this year’s Christmas card.
Merry Christmas to all my photography fans and friends
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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How often do we hear the mantra “It’s all about the Golden Hour” or another explaining how the “Blue Hour” is where the most beauty hides. Others may insist that landscape photographers should best use the middle hours for scouting and taking combat naps to ready for the next golden hour. While all these statement have some validity, I would posit that one can often lose out on some fabulous opportunities if you adhere to this guidance too literally.
Take for example the image above photographed at the iconic Oxbow Bend in the Grand Tetons National Park. Every morning hordes of photographers, some of which have traveled from around the world, gather to photograph this location at first light. And to be sure, this is an ideal time to catch some beautiful light slowly begin to paint Mount Moran and the fall colors along the Snake River. After the morning show, many go on about their way to grab a shot at some other site on the way back to breakfast or their favorite Starbucks beverage in Jackson. Maybe that is why when I arrived at this spot around 10 am there was hardly anyone around. Seeing this I immediately pulled in my workshop group to take advantage of these near perfect conditions. The clouds, the stillness of the air, and the beautiful light on the fall colors worked together to serve a perfect image well beyond the golden hour. Certainly a little serendipity played a role, as within about 15 minutes of our arrival a breeze came up which created ripples on the river, completely eliminating the reflections. The image opportunity was gone.
Another example is the Tetons and Golden Willows Image. This again was taken during a period many photographers might be having lunch, photographed around 11:30 am. Now to be fair, the overcast light does act as a diffuser and enables soft even light without harsh shadows you might otherwise have during this time of day. Which brings up another point I make of exploiting these conditions to expand your shooting day. No, you may not get that beautiful sunrise or sunset but I guarantee you will find many compositions that otherwise may have simply not worked in other lighting conditions.
The Jenny Lake image was a long exposure taken a little later in the afternoon around 4pm. Surely not the golden hour but it was late enough to be getting some depth creating shadows in the mountains. I wanted something more than just an afternoon shot of the lake and mountains so I grabbed my trusty Lee Big Stopper 10 stop ND to create this 239 second exposure. This created the motion in the clouds and also really smoothed out the lake to provide somewhat a semi-reflection of the mountain. It also produced a sense of sereneness to the overall scene.
Again using the Lee Big Stopper, I went for a similar effect at String Lake. This time the effect was slightly more subtle but still effective. The image was taken at 1:30 pm and did necessitate some consideration of shadows for foreground elements.
Even with the bright afternoon light you can still get some interesting, story-telling images while otherwise on your midday scouting mission. The image, “Boots and Bones” offers an example. Taken at 12:40pm It could be argued that this images best works during this period, as it adds to a feeling of a desolate place and the harsh life of early ranchers of the area.
So, don’t sell yourself short by ignoring times other than the often mentioned “Golden or Blue” hour. There are great opportunities throughout the day, not just the edge of day.
SIGN UP NOW FOR THE 2017 FALL COLORS WORKSHOP IN THE GRAND TETIONS, SEPTEMBER 21-25, 2017. DETAILS HERE: TETON WOKSHOP
This year’s Perseids Meteor show was said to peak on August 12th. In these parts the sky conditions on evening of the 11th and early morning of the 12th not ideal for sky watching, to say the least. I was to lead a workshop the evening of the 13th (early morning of 14th) in hopes of catching some of these elusive and brief glimpses of a few Perseids rocks lighting up our sky. The good news was the forecast was for clear skies for two nights running.
The night before our officially scheduled meteor workshop, and friend and I ventured out into some uncharted, or at least unfamiliar to us, areas of the Flint Hills. After much driving in search of a good location, we finally opted for a spot offering at least the potential for some dark skies. The coyotes were already beginning to howl so we figure we may as well stake out a spot. Soon after dark we actually spotted the Space Station lighted up and traveling across the night sky. Very interesting to watch as it moves and flickers across the sky. Then it quickly fades and disappears.
We settled on a location that was simply a gravel road, typical of this area of Kansas, which was oriented North/South. I set up in the center of the road facing north, thinking I would compose a somewhat symmetrical composition with the north star directly above the road trailing off into the distance. My thought was that even if I did not capture any meteors, I could stack enough images to create star trails above the road as it vanishes into the distance.
Any thought of Milky Way shots were quickly dashed as we had a bright 75% waxing gibbous moon and the Milky Way completely washed out as it followed the moon slowly across the night sky. So we set up facing North, realizing that Perseids meteors would likely come from the North East. While I did make several adjustments for exposure and composition, I finally settled on about an ISO of 1200 at 2.8 with my Rokinon 24mm f/1.4. The Rokinon is a great lens for night photography but it is strictly a manual lens. I had previously focused on the moon to ensure a lock on infinity and taped my focus ring down with gaffers tape to avoid accidentally moving it in the dark. I set my intervalometer for 2 sec intervals to minimize any gaps in star trails, and in order to keep my stars as points of light for a single image, I kept my exposures to no longer than 20 seconds, based on the 500 rule (500/focal length = max exposure for stars as points of light).
Very soon after getting set up Murphy dropped by. That is Murphy as in Murphy’s Law. My intervalometer quite working. Great! As it turned out the battery was dead. Should have checked it ahead of time. Good news…I had another intervalometer. You should always consider the possibility of our old nemesis Murphy arriving on scene. Preparation and equipment redundancy is always a good thing.
As the night wore on, we did see some meteors and were lucky enough to catch a few in our images. The image posted here is a composite showing a number of small meteors over a period of time. In order to complete this image I had to stack individual frames as layers in Photoshop. Then using Free Transform, slowly rotate each layer around Polaris as a reference and get the stars aligned because of the movement of the stars in the sky over time. After alignment, I would paint in only the meteor on the background image. This placed the meteor in a relatively accurate position in the sky. The whole process is not really that difficult but likely a subject of a future blog.
Now as the early morning hours approached and the moon began to set, it was possible to take advantage of the darkening sky to catch a Milky Way image. Usually this time of year in our area the brightest portion of the Milky Way rises above the horizon to the South. As the hours progress the view of the Milky Way moves toward the west. This day as the moon set the Milky Way became most visible toward the West. Using what I had to work with for foreground and some slight lighting assist I was able to catch a last image of the night, or morning, depending on how you viewed it.
On the second night, we had an excellent foreground element, the Lower Fox Creek School House at the Tall Grass Prairie National Preserve in the Flint Hills. Impacting our exposures, however, was a 82% waxing moon that would not set until after 3 am. It did nonetheless provide some natural light for the landscape and school house in our compositions. An occasional vehicle traveling along Hwy 177 would also throw a little light (sometimes a lot) into our compositions. We would also at times paint a little extra light on the schoolhouse, or shine lights through the windows on the opposite side to give the appearance the schoolhouse had interior illumination.
Below is a star trail animated time lapse of the school house. Hope you enjoy. Please tell me what you think in your comments below.
All-in-all I believe everyone came away with some nice images, albeit without much success in our quest for a Holy Grail, sky illuminating meteor. I speculate combined with the moonlight, and that we were probably 48hrs beyond the official peak, we had the odds stacked against us.
The Need for Preparation: Exploring an unfamiliar area an hour or so before sunset on night one is an example of what not to do. This was not a workshop night but it serves as an example of why it is important to do some pre-planning or scouting before you venture out, especially when you may not have a chance for a do-over. We ended up having to settle on a spot, not choose a location based on factor which might have increased the chances of some great images. Now it is true I was able to composite an okay image showing several meteors, but still not the best of circumstances. Aside from good old fashion pre-scouting, there are many apps available to assist in planning. The Photographer’s Ephemeris is one, but there are others to help in predicting moon/sun placement, tides if you are on the coast, moon phases, sky maps and more.
Use of Filters: For most night photography I would say not to use any filters. I often see photographers using UV filters over their lenses. When asked why, the best answer they can give is the camera store salesman suggested it for lens protection. I would often respond, “So, I guess that advice increased his/her sale, right?. Bottom line I am not a proponent of UV filters, or any filters, without a specific intended affect on the image being created, with only one exception. That is to protect from environmental issues such as rain, mist, blowing sand, etc. That shouldn’t be too much an issue during night photography, unless you are photographing a thunderstorm. I have used a Hoya cross star filter get a slight cross star effect on a couple of the brightest stars. Occasionally I might use a enhancing filter if I am photographing the Milky Way to bring out a bit of additional color in the Milky Way cluster. But most times it just naked glass.
Combating Dew: Everyone seemed to adhere to the advice of bringing along some hand warmer packets to wrap lenses to mitigate the inevitable dew formation. Some think that if there is a slight breeze you won’t have a problem with dew forming on your front lens element. This is not true. Unless maybe you are in the high desert with no humidity you are likely going to have to deal with this issue. Small towels also proved quite useful in protecting the camera itself from becoming wet with dew by simply draping it of the body while it clicked away exposures of the night sky. Regardless of precautions it is always good practice to check you lens occasionally. Last thing you want is half your shots, especially the one with the huge meteor, to be fuzzy because of a wet lens element, so have some microfiber cloth on the ready.
Equipment Familiarity: I always see this issue come up in workshops. Make sure you are familiar with the functions and menu’s of your camera and other devices. I guarantee you that good old Murphy will tap you on the shoulder just at the most unexpected time. It is very difficult to try to resolve problems in the dark when you cannot find the right menu, or otherwise try to troubleshoot a problem. And there will be problems.
Headlamps: Aside from what you might use as a light painting tool, a head lamp or some small flashlight is a must, if for no other reason than safety. However, your headlamp should have the red light option and you should wear it around your neck as opposed to on your head. The will prevent the inadvertent light activation from ruining someone’s shot or their night vision. The red light on low illumination preserves your night vision and can still provide sufficient illumination for safe movement. Another option is if you have a smart phone, you can use it’s screen as a low light illumination to allow you to see some camera settings and even for movement without disturbing other photographers around you.
A Place to Lay Your Head: The down side to doing night photography is you don’t get much sleep. If you camping in the back country, not a problem. If however you have traveled two hours to escape the city lights it’s nice to have someway to lay your head back and catch a snooze while your intervalometer is clicking away. I have finally located what I think may be a solution I intend to use on my next venture out. It’s a Kamp-Rite Tent Cot. It can also be used as a lounge chair simply to relax as you watch the night sky.
Will be posting upcoming workshop for star trails to include a post processing seminar for both night images and time lapse techniques. Contact me if Interested.
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