Sunday, November 21, 2010

Chasing The Stars: A Night Photography Tutorial II

Part II – Trip Planning & The Night

Before you can begin shooting night images you first need to figure out what it is you'd like to capture, as well as when and how to capture it. Since night images use much longer shutter speeds than daytime images there are a few different factors that must be taken into consideration, like clouds, light pollution, and the position of the moon. In this section I will cover some of these factors and how to think about them before you head out.

What to shoot?
Address: Tipsoo Lake Viewpoint, Mt. Rainier N.P, WA, USA, Earth, Solar System, Milky Way Galaxy, UniverseThis is a pretty open question, and there an infinite number of possible answers. My personal favorite things to capture are startrails, clouds, and the milky way. Other possibilities include traffic, amusement park rides, or pretty much anything involving the movement of light.

Tip: One thing that is very important to keep in mind while shooting night images is that you are capturing light not darkness. For example, if it is really dark out and you shoot a 10 minute exposure and stand in front of the camera for say a minute of it, you probably won't be able to tell you were there. But, if you do the same thing and shine a light on yourself then you will show up bright as day (actually, you'll probably be over exposed).

This tutorial will focus primarily on shooting startrails, but many of the techniques and ideas apply for most night images.

Where to shoot?
Again, this is a question with limitless possibilities. However, there are certainly some areas that are better suited for shooting long exposures. These places include mountains, deserts, and beaches. These locations tend to have less light pollution so you are able to see more stars.

When considering locations you must also consider what type of weather you might encounter as well. For instance, beaches almost always have high relative humidity during the night time hours due to the decreasing temperatures and close source of moisture. This can lead to lenses fogging up quickly overnight. (my anti-fog gear will be discussed in another upcoming post). This problem is also common in the mountains where the temperatures drop rapidly overnight. Another common weather issue is incoming clouds when you are trying to shoot startrails. It is very handy to check out your area's satellite imagery and forecast (available from your local National Weather Service office) prior to heading out.

MoonlitWhen to shoot?
This is very important question that often is forgotten in the planning of a night photography trip. If you know your destination well you can probably find your shooting spot in the dark fairly easily, but if you are headed to a new location it is a good idea to arrive before sunset so you can get a feel for the area and find a good composition (since this is often more difficult to do at night).

Another consideration is the moon. I can't tell you how many times in my early days I arrived at a location and started shooting just to find that the moon was rising right through my image or was moving just out of frame but caused some terrible lens flare. It is important to know where the moon is (or will be) relative to what you would like to shoot and to use that light to your advantage. Since the moon is on a regular 4-week(ish) cycle you can plan this part out well in advance. A good resource for moon phase/rise/set times can he found here. You can also find sunrise/sunset times at that link as well. This is also handy since you'll want to know how long of a window you will have to shoot.

How long of a shot?
This question is strongly dependent on what you'd like to shoot. For traffic images, 30 second is generally plenty long to get nice fluid motion. Clouds tend to require somewhat longer exposures ranging from 30 seconds to 5 minutes depending on their height and speed (lower clouds usually appear to move faster when viewed from the ground and thus require a shorter exposure). Startrails (either single exposure or stacked exposures) require even longer shots. Although you can start seeing "trails" in a one minute exposure, I generally make it a rule that true startrails require a minimum of 30-45 minutes of exposure time. Most of my current startrail shots range from 1-2 hours, while my longest to date is 5 hours and 37 minutes. It is important to note that shots of 1 hour or longer on most cameras require a battery grip or external power supply.

32 min.5 hr. 37 min.

Finding a interesting and creative composition tends to be much more difficult at night than during the day. This is because it can be nearly impossible to see through your camera's viewfinder in the dark. I find it helpful to take a few short exposures (30 seconds to one minute) at a high ISO (3200 or higher) in order to dial in my composition. I generally combine this with the test shot procedure I will discuss later in this tutorial.

For startrails is it very important to know where Polaris (the North Star) is relative to your camera, and how to place it as a creative element within (or outside of) your image. The stars rotate about an axis centered at (well... very close to) Polaris. If you include Polaris within your frame you will end up with stars that create a circular or elliptical pattern (depending on the distortion of your lens). On the other hand if your camera is facing away from Polaris the stars will be aligned in a more linear pattern.

Park AvenueDelicate Arch
Facing toward PolarisFacing away from Polaris

So how do you find Polaris? Well, there is a nice little webpage that goes over a couple of ways to find it. I find it easiest to find the big dipper and trace a line from the last two stars (in the "cup" part) towards the "handle" of the little dipper. The last star at the end of the handle of the little dipper is Polaris.

Heavenly RainAnother feature of the night sky to note is that right at the horizon there is usually and area that is brighter. This is due to the scattering of light from the stars, cities, etc. You also won't see stars right at the horizon because of this scattering, so the stars seem to appear from nowhere a couple of degrees above the horizon. This feature is sometimes easy to overexposure and generally doesn't give the best startrails so I wouldn't suggest making it a focal point in an image.

Lastly, it's easy to get wrapped up in capturing the night sky, but don't forget the other useful elements of composition (eg. get low, include a foreground, rule of thirds, etc.) just because it's hard to see.

Test Shots
The most useful technique I’ve found for shooting night shots is first finding the proper exposure by taking test shots. I’ve met quite a few photographers who will set up their camera for a long exposure and fire away only to find that they have either under- or overexposed their shot. Taking test shots should be the first thing you do after you find a composition that you like. In general your test shot will be with the aperture wide open (or around f/4) and at a high ISO. I have dedicated C3 on my mode dial as a general starting point for long exposures. The settings I have for this mode are:
  • Shutter Speed: 30 seconds
  • Aperture: f/4
  • ISO: 1600
  • Delay: 2 seconds
  • Long exposure noise reduction: OFF

After taking the first test shot I make adjustments to the ISO as necessary to find the proper exposure. The proper exposure is one that has the correct amount of light you'd like in the finished product but is probably shot at a much higher ISO and much lower shutter speed than you'd like. Make a note of these exposure settings, either in your head or on paper. When you've found the proper exposure, you should delete these test shots if you're worried about space on your memory card.

Yakima PeakFirst start with the test shot procedure outlined above. Once you have the proper exposure at a high ISO you are ready to translate this exposure into the actual shot settings. Change your mode dial to the proper mode (Manual or Bulb depending on the camera) and turn on long exposure noise reduction (Remember this will double the total shot time). If you are shooting startrails I would suggest only changing the ISO and keeping the aperture around f/4 in order to pick up the light from the stars while still being reasonably sharp. Otherwise change the aperture to get the desired depth of field and then adjust your ISO to the desired noise level. This leaves shutter speed, here’s where the math comes in and you have to recall the light doubling (or halving) rules.

Aperture & ISO: Each move to the right halves the amount of light reaching the sensor. So to keep the same exposure you’d have to double the shutter speed with each step.
  • f/1.4 - f/2 - f/2.8 - f/4 - f/5.6 - f/8 - f/11 - f/16 - f/22
  • 25600 – 12800 – 6400 – 3200 – 1600 – 800 – 400 – 200 – 100 – 50

Test shot settings:
  • Shutter speed: 30 seconds
  • Aperture: f/4
  • ISO: 3200

If I knew that I wanted to use f/8 and ISO 100 here’s the math:
  • Going from f/4 to f/8 is 2 halvings
  • Going from ISO 3200 to 100 is 5 halvings
  • I need to double the shutter speed 7 times, starting at 30 seconds I get:
  • 1min – 2min – 4min – 8min – 16min – 32min – 64min

So the proper exposure is:
  • Shutter speed: 64 minutes
  • Aperture: f/8
  • ISO: 100

Dial in the proper settings (if you have a timer cable release you can actually dial in the exact shutter speed, otherwise check your watch), and fire away!

Hello Trillium LakeThe procedure for stacked long exposures is very similar to single long exposures above. There are a few differences though first of which is to make sure that you have long exposure noise reduction turned off. If you leave this on then there will be gaps between each image and the star trails will look like dashed lines instead of solid lines. Next you will note from above that a lot of the noise from using a higher ISO will be averaged out during the stacking process so feel free to use a higher ISO (up to around ISO 1600 on a Canon 5D Mark II). Keep in mind, however, that doing this will reduce the sharpness and saturation of the overall image. Again I would recommend using an aperture close to f/4 to keep the stars bright and the image reasonably sharp.

If you have a cable release (as opposed to a timer shutter release) then you will be limited to stacking 30-second images. Make sure that you change your shooting mode from single shot to continuous, this way when the cable release is locked down it will fire one 30-second shot after another.

If you have a timer cable release then you have the freedom to choose the length of each exposure. This is nice for a couple of reasons; you can choose a lower ISO and regain some saturation and sharpness back, and it doesn’t take up as much memory or time during post processing since you will have fewer shots if each shot is longer. One note--I would advise against setting the exposure for too long as the fewer shots you have, the less averaging occurs, so more noise may creep into your image. I usually try to get at least 10 shots to average together.
Now you are ready to dial in the proper exposure and fire away!

During The Shot
So you're all set up and ready to fire. There are a couple other things you should think about before you start shooting.

Should I set a delay?
If you need to cross in front of your camera (especially with a flashlight) after starting, then you'll want to set a delay. You don't want to have this floating light through your shot because you didn't want to stand in the middle of a snow field for 3 hours when your car is only 1000 feet away.

Are there lights that could come on during the shot?
This is something to watch for if you're shooting with other people. You don't want someone to turn on a flashlight (or their car headlights) in or around your shot. Unless you'd like to spend several hours in Photoshop afterward to get rid of the light. Coordinate!

Will it fog up?
This is a tricky one. Keeping a lens from fogging up is difficult. I've found that keeping the lens warm helps delay the formation of lens fog. I found that the air activated hand warmers wrapped in a sleeve around my lens works pretty well for moderately cold temperature (above freezing). I still need to find a good solution for colder temperatures.

Will I get bored?
One reason people often give for not shooting startrails is the amount of patience it requires if you go out alone. I will confess that there have been times where I've been bored out of my mind while waiting for a shot to expose. Then I bought a smartphone, which changed everything. Now when I'm out shooting I can watch Photoshop tutorials on YouTube while I wait! If I'm out of cell range, I can watch movies or listen to music on the phone, and if the battery dies, a magazine is always a good backup. However, the best treatment for boredom is to BRING A FRIEND!

Leader of the PackComing up next in Part III - Post Processing

RAW Processing - ACR/Lightroom/Aperture/etc.
Startails - Stacking & Foreground Replacement
Viveza 2 - General Ideas for Night Photography
Dfine 2.0 - General Ideas for Night Photography

Mouse over to see the unedited image.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Chasing The Stars: A Night Photography Tutorial I

Part I – Introduction & Tools

Crowning JewelI believe that night photography is one of the best ways to learn about photography. There are many reasons for this. One of the most important is that it forces you to learn the mathematical relationships between exposure variables (shutter speed, aperture, and ISO). These relationships are become ingrained in your mind and are eventually transferred to other types of photography. Knowing how to manipulate these variables to create the perfect exposure for a situation is one of the keys to photography. Night photography also requires that you know how to operate your camera in the dark. You should be able to change modes, shutter speed, aperture, ISO, focus mode, etc. all by touch. Finally, since night photography with digital techniques is still in its relative infancy, it is still very exciting to see your results. You will rarely find people with the same images which encourages you to take more!

In this three part series I will cover some of the basic concepts and techniques of night photography. This will include everything from gathering the necessary tools for a shoot, to taking images at night, to post-processing the images. I will also discuss some frequently asked questions such as:
  • When do I use a single exposure versus stacked exposures?
  • How do I find the right exposure?
  • How do I create the circular star effect?

The question I receive most often is, "How do you decide when to use a single long exposure and when to use stacked long exposures?" First we need to know what the differences are. A single long exposure is exactly what it sounds like, just a standard exposure with a shutter speed measured in minutes (or hours). Whereas a stacked image is one where many long exposures (say, 30 seconds - 10 minutes each) are stacked together with software to create a single image. These two methods can give you very different results and both have associated pros and cons.

Single Exposures
Mukilteo MagicSingle long exposures have been the standard in night photography since the days of film. It simply requires a shutter (cable) release and some patience.

Advantages over stacked exposures:
  • You can get a properly exposed image with very little ambient light without using a high ISO value
  • Great for cloud motion images
  • Takes up little space on a memory card
  • Fast post-processing
  • Will overexpose quickly with too much ambient light (e.g. cities, full moon, dusk/dawn, etc.)
  • More long exposure noise to be subtracted from image (can severely detract from image for shutter speeds greater than 2 hours)
  • Total time for exposure is two times the shutter speed with long exposure noise reduction on (a must for shutter speeds over 30 seconds)
  • Eats battery life. You risk losing the image if the battery dies in the middle of processing

Stacked Exposures
Lone GiantStacked exposures are relatively new with the advent of digital photography. They require special software to stack several exposures together to create a composite image.

Advantages over single exposures:
  • Great for startrails when there is moderate to bright ambient light (e.g. cites, full moon, dusk/dawn, etc.)
  • No long exposure noise reduction is necessary
  • You can use a higher ISO value since ISO noise and long exposure noise will be averaged out in the resulting image
  • Easier on battery life. You can just shoot until the battery dies or until you're out of memory
  • Typically doesn't handle clouds well
  • Takes up a lot of memory card space
  • Takes much longer and is more work during post-processing since the images must be stacked (computers with a lot of memory are very helpful here)
  • Really only useful for startrails

This tutorial is written for dSLR users, but almost all cameras have the capacity to take night photographs in one form or another. Here we will discuss certain tools that will make life much easier.

Most dSLR's will work for night photography. Newer cameras though, generally have better noise properties and built-in noise reduction than older ones. It is important that you know how to access and change the settings in your camera by touch or memory. These settings include: shooting mode, shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and long exposure noise reduction. Furthermore, you should also learn where the cable (shutter) release port is and how to plug this in by feel (not a trivial matter on some cameras).

Choosing a lens for shooting night images is really a personal choice dependent on the composition you want. I generally like shooting wide angle (12mm - 24mm on a full frame camera) images to get more sky. You should know how to switch your lens from auto focus to manual focus and how to turn image stabilization on and off. Finally, since the goal of many night images it to capture what little light is available, having a wide maximum aperture (f/4 or wider) is very helpful as it reduces the need to use a higher ISO.

Other Gear
Other necessary pieces gear for night photography include:
  • Sturdy tripod
  • Cable (shutter) release (with timer, interval, delay settings if possible)
  • Battery grip
  • Extra (fully charged) batteries
  • Calculator (if you don't like doing math in your head)
  • Warm clothes (it gets cold at night)
  • Headlamp/flashlight
I use a timer release since it allows me to program the delay, number of shots, interval between shots, and any shutter speed I want. Without a timer you are forced to use either the longest built-in shutter speed (usually 30 seconds) or time the exposures manually (which means you have to babysit the camera).

There are a lot of software choices out there for processing digital images. The basic necessities include a RAW converter such as Adobe Camera RAW (ACR) and image editing software such as Adobe Photoshop (PS). Additionally, several vendors sell plug-ins for these programs which can enhance your editing capabilities. I really like Nik Software's Viveza 2 (global and selective editing) and Dfine 2.0 (noise reduction).

In order to stack images some special software is required. If you already own Adobe Photoshop there is action that you can download (here) that will allow you to simple stack all the images in a folder. Otherwise, if you are a Windows user there is the Startrails program which can be used. I have never found another option for Mac users.

Finally, there are hundreds of other small tools out there to enhance your photographic experience, including applications for your smartphones. I've written an Android application that allows you to calculate equivalent exposures, which as we will see in Part II, is an essential part of finding the proper night exposure. To check it out search for "Exposure Calculator" (by RAWapps) in the Android Market.

Coming up next in Part II - Trip Planning & The Night
Trip Planning - What, Where, When, & How Long?
Composition - Polaris, Stars, & Foreground
Test Shots - Default Settings (custom settings)
ISO & Aperture Considerations
The Shot - What to do?

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Coming Soon!

Chasing The Stars: A Night Photography Tutorial

Part I - Introduction & Tools
Introduction - My Philosphy
Single Exposures vs. Stacked - When, Why?
Tools - Cameras, Lenses, Gear, & Applications

Part II - Trip Planning & The Night
Trip Planning - What, Where, When, & How Long?
Composition - Polaris, Stars, & Foreground
Test Shots - Default Settings (custom settings)
ISO & Aperture Considerations
The Shot - What to do?

Part III - Post Processing
RAW Processing - ACR/Lightroom/Aperture/etc.
Startails - Stacking & Foreground Replacement
Viveza 2 - General Ideas for Night Photography
Dfine 2.0 - General Ideas for Night Photography

Please let me know if there are any specific aspects of night photography that you'd like to hear about that I may have missed here!


Wednesday, July 28, 2010


I haven't forgotten! I'm just busy right now...

I would like to get some feedback from some photographers on what they'd like to see here. Here are some ideas on possible posts in the near future:

  • How night photography (noctography as I like to call it) helps you learn faster
  • Multi-part tutorial series on night photography (noctography). From gear, to shooting, to general post-processing
  • Tutorial on using Viveza 2
  • A "What's in my bag?" post discussing my gear and the reasoning (or lack thereof) behind having it
  • Review of the Sigma 12-24mm f/4.5-5.6 EX DG IF HSM
  • Multi-part series on how to use weather tools to catch the right scene

Of course there are many other possibilities and at some point I'll probably hit all of these topics, but for now I'd like to know what YOU want to read about!

Cheers for now!

Crowning Jewel - from my most recent photography outing

Friday, July 23, 2010

Back by popular demand!

It's been forever since I've blogged and I've had a lot of great learning experiences in the past few months that I'd like to share. In the coming weeks/months I hope to post several new reviews, tutorials, and trip logs.

In the meantime, if you live in the Pacific Northwest and are on Facebook I would encourage you to stop by our new photography group PNW Photography. We are constantly planning photography outings and trips, and the more the merrier!

Stay tuned!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Making a Photograph using Adobe Camera Raw and Viveza 2

Photography is much more than taking the shot these day with the advancement of digital camera and post processing software. I want to show you how you can transform a seemingly useless shot into something great using Adobe Photoshop CS4's Camera Raw (ACR) and Nik Software's Viveza 2 plug-in.

First we'll start with our photograph straight out of the camera.

_MG_8300 copy_SOOC.jpg

As you can tell this is a very high contrast scene with potentially a lot of detail in the highlights. When I took this shot I was very careful not to overexpose the highlights because that is where much of the interest in the image lies. You can view this on most dSLR's by enabling the histogram view when you're in playback mode. The shadow regions are indicated on the left while the highlights are on the right. You can see the histogram for this photograph as shot in the first panel below.

Here we have screen shots from the sidebar in ACR. The panel on the left shows where the sliders are by default under the first tab (which is where 90% of your adjustments will happen). The right panel shows the same sliders with the adjustments I made. Some of these changes are made to even out the image, for instance increasing the Recovery brings out some detail in the highlights, increasing Fill Light increases the detail and brightness in shadowed regions. I also warmed up the image by moving the Temperature slider to the right (this image was taken shortly before sunset). Finally I increased the Clarity and Vibrance to give the image a little more pop.


Next we have the sliders from the second tab. Again before is shown in the left panel. Here I have increased the contrast between the highlights and the lights enhancing the appearance of the clouds. I've also increase the brightness of the darks to bring out a bit more detail in the shadows.


Saturation Tab - giving the sky and grass a little boost.

Luminance Tab - reducing the luminance of the blues really helps to bring out a nice rich blue sky that can sometimes make the image look as if a polarizing filter was used.

Here is the result of these edits in ACR.
Mouse over the image to see the unedited image.

_MG_8300 copy_ACR.jpg

Now we'll open this image in Viveza 2. Here I applied a slight structure and warmth enhancement to the entire image. I then added a control point in the sky and further enhanced the structure in the sky. I added a second control point near the door and enhanced the brightness. A third control point was placed in the grass where I also increased the brightness. A final control point was placed in the lower right region of bright cloud where I reduced the brightness slightly so it did not over power the image.

These type of selective edits are very quick and easy in Viveza 2. The same could be done with layer masks in Photoshop but much more time, effort and patience would have been required. I highly recommend trying the free 14-day trial version of Viveza 2 if you are using Photoshop, Lightroom or Aperture.

Here is the result of these edits in Viveza 2.
Mouse over the image to see the imported image.

School of Music

Just for final comparison here is final result compared with the initial image.
Mouse over the image to see the unedited image.

School of Music

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Mukilteo Lighthouse

I really had an itch to get out last night and shoot a startrails image because it had been quite some time. I decided that the Mukilteo Lighthouse was a good candidate. I was very pleased with the results. The image is made up of 20 exposures with the following characteristics:
Canon 5D
Sigma 12-24 @ 12mm
3.5 min., f/4.5, ISO 50

Mouse over image to see a single unedited photo

Mukilteo Lighthouse Startrails
Mukilteo Lighthouse Startrails

New Flashes

A couple weeks ago I picked up to used Vivitar 285hv flashes and have had a great time experimenting with them. Many of my latest photos have employed the use of them including one of my new favorite photos. Melissa got her hair trimmed and dyed a few days ago and wanted some photos taken, I took that as an opportunity to also use the flashes in a creative way. This photo uses just one 285hv pointed at the wall behind a white sheet to get a nice silhouette.

Move you mouse over the image to see the unedited image.

Rockstar I

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Aimless Driving

It was rainy/misty, cloudy and chilly last night but I decided to go out anyway and try to capture SOMETHING. I drove around for a bit until I ended up at the Space Needle where the lights on the Needle illuminated the passing clouds very nicely. I only had one shot to get this before my lens was speckled with mist.

Light in the Clouds
Light in the Clouds

I left the Space Needle and drove around downtown more until I came across the Seattle Public Library. It's a gem of a building, and at night it actually looks like a gem.

Seattle Public Library
Seattle Public Library

SPL Structure
SPL Structure

I finished the night off by heading to Pike Place Market, which is really quite cool looking at night.

Pike Place, After Hours
Pike Place, After Hours

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Happy New Year

Yesterday I received my Sigma 12-24mm lens to pair with my 5D. So last night I met up with Kelly, Ed and Tommy at Gasworks Park for some night photography. This lens is SO WIDE!



Afterward I went over to Log Boom Park and took a couple shots.

Steely Night
Steely Night


Today I went over to Kubota Garden south of Seattle, I had never been there. It was very nice, but it'll be great during the spring and summer.

Moon Bridge

Kubota Garden