Just finished up planning details for my night photography workshop in the Kansas Flint Hills. I must say there is something about night photography that I really enjoy, the sense of mystery, the vastness and beauty of the night sky, all making one realize how insignificant we are in relation the universe.
Exploring subject matter and doing a little night photography in preparation for my workshop made for a cold and lonely night. That is one of the drawbacks. Late nights, especially in the summer months when it does not get dark until late, can really mess with your sleep pattern. But I must say the reward can make it all worthwhile. If you are out alone though, the darkness can be rather spooky. On this night there were horses out in a pasture at this location. I knew they were there but they mostly stayed a couple hundred yards away. After setting up one camera to take multiple continuous shots to potentially be used in a time lapse sequence, I retreated to my vehicle to relax. It was cold and a little windy so I thought I would warm up and check my email on my phone. After about 10 minutes relaxing in my car something banged on the side of my truck. Scared the bejeez out of me. Turns out the horses must have gotten curious and decided to pay a visit and bump my truck as if to say, BOO! Well, it worked. I jumped out of the truck to see what or who was there. I then noticed a group of four or five horses begin to wander off, probably engaging in a little horse’s laughter among themselves, having succeeded in spooking the visitor. Having someone else along has a number of benefits, if for no other reason than combatting loneliness and warding off those unsuspecting bumps in the night.
Notwithstanding the interesting experiences of the evening, I came away with a few images and was able to compile this brief star trail/Milky Way time lapse.
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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I am gearing up tonight to photograph the Perseids meteor shower. Will be trying over the next couple of night but the best prospect will be Saturday night the 13th based on my anticipated location in the Flint Hills of Kansas. The actual peak will be tonight and tomorrow early morning hours; however the weather/sky conditions are not predicted to cooperate. Saturday night in the Flint Hills it is forecasted to be clear in the late hours and as the moon sets after 2am, I am hoping for the best opportunities. Can’t expect much sleep that night but will hope for the best. I thought I would throw out a few tips if you are hoping to capture this event.
Recommended Equipment and Misc Items:
DSLR Camera (obviously)
Wide angle Lens
Large capacity memory card (16 gigs or higher)
Intervalometer or locking cable release
Dew heater. Many folks will use the air-activated hand warmer packets you can get in most sports stores. If you fasten these around the barrel of your lens it will help prevent dew from forming on your lens. You can use rubber bands, a strip of Velcro, or other means to fasten them to your lens. I use an item called the Lens Muff , made by Kevin Adams, Digital After Dark. Handy thing for you
bag if you do night photography at all.
Headlamp or small flashlight. It’s ideal to have a headlamp with the red light option so you don’t spoil yours and everyone else shot with a sudden blast of bright light.
Small cloth towel. This is drape over your camera to keep the dew off.
Lawn chair. You could be up for a few hours. May as well be comfortable.
Cooler for snacks and beverages
Background on Perseids: The meteors we hope to catch are really nothing more than tiny bits of dust or slightly larger particles burning up in our atmosphere. This particular shower, the Perseids, is a result of the Earth’s passage through the ice and debris associated with the comet Swift-Tuttle. The intersection of the Earth’s path with this debris occurs every summer and emanates from the constellation Perseus, from which the shower gets it’s name.
Where to Look: The meteors will emanate from the direction of Perseus in the northern sky. Perseus is south of the constellation Cassiopeia. I know, that probably does not help much. Actually though, after you see a few of these constellations in the night sky you will always be able to spot them. Cassiopeia looks like a big sideways W of bright stars. And once you recognize Perseus, you will always remember what it looks like and easily spot it. The are between Cassiopeia and Perseus should be roughly where to expect the meteors to appear but you may see them anywhere in the night sky. Probably the easiest way to find Perseus is with one of the numerous IPhone and Android apps which are available for free download. Google Sky Map is a good one, Stellarium is another, but there are several good ones out there.
Cable Release: Ideally you will want to have an intervalometer. it will make your life easier. The intervlometer will allow you to control the exposure time, length of delay between shots, and the number of shots through one group of settings. Some cameras allow this capability within the camera or by using a smart phone app through wi-fi. Alternatively you can purchase a generic one at a camera store. Since you exposure times should be 30 sec or less, you could likely get by with a normal cable release set in the locked position to shoot continuous. Some type of cable release will almost be a necessity.
Lens Choice: Remember this is a lot about the sky. You need a good deal of sky in your composition to increase chances of capturing meteors. Wide angle is the order of the day, and it should be fast, f/2.8 or faster. I would say a focal length of 24mm or wider, based on a full-frame sensor. Some say if you are too wide, e.g., 11 -1 4, the meteors are less impressive. This makes some sense because of the stretched perspective. However, you are getting more sky so I guess it is a balancing act and a personal choice. I will be using my Rokinon 24mm f/1/4. My decision is based on its speed. My 14mm or 16mm f/2.8 would do fine but I am opting for the little extra speed of f/1.4 and sacrificing a little field of view. Why is the speed so important? There will likely be many faint meteors that you might not even notice with you naked eye but with the faster speed lens your sensor might pick them up. It’s all about increasing your chances.
ISO and Exposure Times: If we were in a New Moon phase, I would say your ISO would be anywhere between 1600 and 6400 with an exposure time between 15 and 25 seconds, much as if you were taking pictures of the Milky Way. However, because we will have a 78% waxing gibbous moon, the ambient light will be a factor. Expect to do a few test exposures to find the best combination of aperture/time/ISO to fit the conditions. That being said, you want to keep your exposure times to 30 seconds or less. Not only because you want the stars to register as points of light, but faint meteors will be lost in the sky-glow at higher exposure times. Once I have my exposure I will set my intervalometer to fire continuously with only about 2 seconds between exposures.
The moon will provide a little ambient light for the landscape and any foreground elements you may have. After around 2am the moon will have set and the sky will be darker and this period of the night we might expect to see more meteors. This might also require adjusting your exposure as you approach this time as well since you will be losing the moonlight.
A Foreground Element: Speaking of foreground, I feel it advantageous to have some type of foreground element, e.g., old barn, rock formations, interesting grouping of trees, etc. Simply a picture of the night sky with a meteor, while it might be neat, will not likely have strong compositional value. A good foreground provides that compositional element and context. Doing this, however, is not without some important considerations. Keeping both the stars and the school in sharp focus could be difficult at a wide aperture setting.
Focus: There are two approaches to dealing with focus. It is very important that we have our stars in sharp focus and to do this we must focus on infinity. There are a couple of ways to do this at night, some easier than others. The good news is that there will be a moon to focus on and then set your lens to manual focus. Now, if you are using an ultra wide angle lens like 14mm you may be good to go, depending on how close you are to the foreground. What I expect to do if I am close is actually be sure I refocus and get one good sharp image of the foreground which I can later blend in with the sky images. Simply use of you hyper focal distance may work okay, depending on your focal length and how close you are to you foreground.
White Balance: I would manually set your white balance. You might select Auto White Balance as we begin shooting and there is still some light, this is fine. However, after it really gets dark, I prefer shooting around 3800 Kelvin. This tilts the balance to a more blue sky rather than the muddy brown or orange tint you sometimes get with AWB at night. You can also set your white balance to Tungsten to accomplish a similar temp. You can always fine tune later in post if you are shooting RAW. This brings up another issue.
RAW vs JPEG: I strongly recommend you shoot RAW. Shooting RAW will give you the most flexibility in post processing. Shooting JPEG results in an image that has been already compressed and much of the data information as been discarded through the compression. If you must shoot JPEG I would recommend you set your camera to shoot both RAW + JPEG, if your camera gives you this option.
Batteries: Make sure you have plenty of batteries all FULLY CHARGED. We will be shooting a lot of frames and the last thing you want is to run out of battery power.
Final Thoughts: If you are lucky and capture a bright fireball in one of our images, you have an image that could truly stand on its own. If on the other hand you capture single small meteors you can load your photos in photo-editing software and create a composite showing the multiple captures. You may also be able to create a little time-lapse sequence based on your total image sequence. This would show the stars rotating, clouds moving, and possibly a few meteor flashes. Some good options to consider for post processing and stacking might include: Star Stax and Deep Sky Stacker.
I look forward to following up this post with some great images. Hope to see some of yours as well.
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