Category Archives: Photography Tips

Shooting the Milky Way

Along with my photo club friend, Bryan, who has a keen interest and much more knowledge of astronomy than me, we decided to try shooting the Milky Way.

When and Where

Stellarium Milky Way

Stellarium screen shot of the Milky Way

In the northern hemisphere, the Milky Way aligns itself the best for photography during the summer months. Shooting on a cloudless, moonless night is one of our criteria for going out and our timing is aided by the wonderful program Stellarium. It is a free open source planetarium that shows a realistic sky in 3D, in real-time, or in the past or future, just like what you see with the naked eye, binoculars or a telescope. This screen shot shows how the Milky Way can be seen from my location in the future on July 1 this year, rising up on the horizon from the SSE and angling up to the upper left corner. Another great free resource for locating objects in the sky is Sky Maps, and they post a free downloadable map of the sky every month with astronomical events to watch for.

Blue Marble

Blue Marble screen shot

Since having a very dark sky is important for shooting anything in the night sky, the challenge is finding a good location because of light pollution. Bryan and I have spent many hours driving around at night to find such a spot. A resource we have used is Blue Marble to help us find places around here that might work. It is a map of the world showing light pollution and can be zoomed in to almost street level with Google maps.

 

 

 

How to Shoot

  • Shoot in Raw format.
  • For white balance, use daylight or auto white balance (AWB).
  • Use a tripod, level the camera, and shoot in manual mode, preferably with a remote shutter release.
  • Use a wide-angle lens to capture as much of the sky as possible and focus on infinity. This is easier to do during daylight hours, remembering where that is on your lens.
  • Use the widest aperture (the smallest f/number) so that it will gather as much light as possible.
  • Composition – including the foreground adds interest. Take a test shot at a very high ISO to check the composition.
  • Reduce the ISO to 3200.450 Rule
  • To eliminate star trails, follow the 450 or 600 rule for the length of the exposure. With my lens set at 16mm I start with a 30-second exposure.
  • If your camera has long exposure noise reduction, turn it on. The camera will take a second exposure of equal length without the aperture being open at all so the second exposure will capture only the noise and then subtract if from the original shot. If your camera does not have this feature, you can do it manually. Put the lens cover on and take a second exposure of equal length. You will then be able to layer the two shots in image-editing software with the “dark frame” above the image layer and applying the Difference blending mode to the dark frame layer.
  • Here, where there is a lot of light pollution the ISO often needs to be reduced by a full stop. Adjust the ISO and the length of the exposure until you get a good shot.

Processing

In Adobe Camera Raw or Lightroom, correct for lens distortion in the Lens Correction tab. In the Basic tab, increase both the contrast and the saturation to the highest (+100). The saturation boost will bring out the colors of the stars. I also add a bit of Clarity (+15) and Vibrance (+15). Make adjustments to the exposure and color temperature if you think it’s needed. In the detail tab, you can play a bit with the color noise reduction. Be sure to zoom in and out while making these choices to see their effect.  These are not hard and fast rules, but a place to start.

Location! Location! Location!

Milky Way with light pollution

Milky Way with light pollution

Milky Way at the Upper Peninsula

Milky Way at the Upper Peninsula

The first shot was taken at the best location that Bryan and I could find around here last year. With the nearest, relatively small towns at least seven or eight miles away, our cameras still picked up on the light pollution. The second one was taken close to the shore of Lake Superior on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Both were shot with a 16-35 mm lens at 16 mm, f/2.8, ISO 3200 at 30 seconds and 25 seconds respectively. With the angle of view of that lens, the part of the Milky Way at the very top of the image was directly overhead.  The camera “saw” much more of the Milky Way than what was visible with the naked eye on the first shot.  On the second, that may have been the case also, but walking outside and being able to see this with my eyes thrilled me, something I cannot see with all the light pollution back home.

There are a few more astrophotgraphy tips that I posted about shooting and processing star trails that are also applicable with the Milky Way.  That post is here.

This whole night photography assignment that I took on last year gave me the incentive to learn new skills and it will be a pursuit I will continue.  For sure, Bryan and I will be roaming the countryside together in the coming months and years capturing star trails, the Milky Way, comets and other night sky wonders. We’ve only just scratched the surface.

Also posted in Night & Astrophotography

Night Photography – the Blue Hour

A photgraph of Minneapolis city lights taken from the Broadway Street brige during the Blue HourHere is the part of night photography that is especially fun, since the results have a certain glitz about them. This shot was taken almost exactly 30 minutes after the sun set on a cloudless evening while standing on the Broadway Street Bridge in Minneapolis. I was with a group of about 20 others who took a class taught by Dave Johnson at National Camera Exchange. When I close my eyes, I can still see Dave running down the line of photographers shouting “ISO 200! f/8!” And that is how this shot was captured, with the help of a tripod and a remote shutter release. The camera chose to expose this for five seconds…Dave knows his stuff and this was just perfect!

The Blue Hour

One of the reasons this worked so well is because it was taken during the “Blue Hour”. The Blue Hour is a magical time that begins right after the sun sets.  The sky will have a deep blue color for about an hour before complete darkness sets in. This is somewhat of a misnomer since weather can have an impact and your location on this planet can make a difference, too. Because we are at the 45th parallel around here it can last about an hour. The closer you live to the equator, the shorter the time. There is another Blue Hour that occurs in the morning that lasts for about an hour and ends at sunrise.

During this time especially, when the sun is still close to the horizon, there is enough light so that it is easier to get a proper exposure in a single shot. These are some of my favorite Blue Hour images. I made a post with details of the capture and processing of the Lowry Avenue Bridge here. The shot of the Minnesota State Capital and the one of the hospital entrance were both taken during the morning Blue Hour, before sunrise.

Eiffel TowerHudson Hospital - Blue Hour before SunriseLowry Avenue BridgeRobert Street BridgeSt Paul Cathedral - Blue Hour before SunriseSt Paul from the MN State Capitol

After the Blue Hour

City Lights Bokeh

City Lights Bokeh

Once the sky gets really dark, it’s much more difficult to get the scene in one exposure. This is because the darkness of the sky, and the even darker shadows, compared to the bright city lights, there is a greater range of luminance levels, a range that goes beyond what our cameras can capture in one shot. In some cases, I have found it necessary to under-expose by four or five stops in order to get detail in the highlights. In this case, it’s important to have the highlight warning on the LCD turned on so you have everything covered. Some people say that looking at your LCD is “chimping”, but it’s a valuable tool that should be used under these circumstances. This image was taken at the same location on the Broadway Street Bridge as the one at the beginning of this post, but one half hour later.  When the Blue Hour has passed, it’s almost time to close up shop or to make bokeh.

One problem that can come up with photographing city lights at night is the white balance.  Because there can be a mix of light sources in a scene, such as incandescent, fluorescent and tungsten, the only way to get it right in camera is to do a custom white balance by filling the frame with something white, taking a shot and letting the camera figure it out, or using a gray card and fixing it in post production.  Since these were all captured with auto white balance (AWB) I had to deal with that in post production.  That is the reason that Mickey’s diner was first turned to black and white and then given a yellow duo tone.  Another was turned into a plain black and white.  All but one of these is the result of taking bracketed exposures and then processing them in Photomatix Pro. Even so, the darks remained very dark, losing quite a bit of detail.

Cafesjians Carousel at Como ParkDowntown Minneapolis LightsParis CafeDowntown St Paul - a single exposureMickeys DinerOn the Stone Arch BridgeStone Arch Bridge

Nearly everyone around here who owns a camera has taken a photo of the Stone Arch Bridge.  My apologies for joining the crowd.

Also posted in Night & Astrophotography

Night Photography – the Moon

One of the best things that happened in my photography club in 2013 was the urging of our president at the beginning of the year to choose a photography project and commit to it in writing. When the sun is no longer lighting our world, something magical happens, so my project was to have a night portfolio by the end of the year. This commitment helped me to stay on task. Over the next couple of posts, I’ll show what I accomplished this year and how it was done.

The Moon as a Light Source

1. Timing is an important thing to consider. The preference is to shoot on a full moon night, but it could be done a day or two before and after. There is a dramatic difference in the amount of light the moon reflects from the sun in just a day or two, though. You also want to wait until a couple of hours after moonrise, since there will be less atmosphere for the moon’s light to get through then. Waiting for the moon to be directly overhead is too late. If I’d taken a photo then, the sides of the building I wanted to shoot would not have been illuminated enough.

2. Bring a strong flashlight to aid in getting the focus. I hadn’t thought to do that and the distance from my camera to the church was a good 30 or 40 yards. I learned the hard way that my camera could not auto focus in the dark, looking through the viewfinder did not help at all, and Live View at 10 X was only a slight improvement. There were many cycles of shooting, then zooming in on the LCD, changing the manual focus by a hair and shooting again and repeat.

3. Dress for the weather. Just when I reached the limit of the cold that my fingers could handle, I took one last shot and prayed all the way home in a 45 minute drive that it would be good.

450 Rule4. The 450 Rule and the 600 Rule. Consider star movement if the sky is included. Depending on the focal length, you will start to get star movement depending on the length of time the shutter is open. This table gives a couple of rules to follow for eliminating star movement if that is not desired.

A country church lit by the moon

A country church lit by the moon

This was a 3.2 second shot with an ISO of 1600 , but some scenes can take up to three minutes to get the right exposure. When I got home, I was surprised to see stars in the sky since none were visible to me in the field. I loved the eerie-looking shadows that the moon creates since they are much darker than sunlight shadows.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Moon as the Subject

1. When to Shoot. You want the moon to reach enough altitude to clear the heavy atmosphere of earth. A full moon can be dramatic but appears flat. At different phases, the illumination from the side shows more texture. A good place to check the phases and moon rise and moon set times for your location is timeanddate.com.

Nearly Full Moon

Nearly Full Moon

Waning Moon

Waning Moon

2. How to Shoot. To fill the frame with the moon, use the longest focal length that you have. Depending on the focal length, shutter speeds slower than approximately 1/15th of a second will show movement. Use a tripod and in aperture priority, use f/8 and ISO 400. Less than full moons will take longer to expose. Take test shots and adjust ISO and aperture until you get the shot.

The hospital parking lot photo was a composite of the scene with the addition of a moon shot and a night sky shot for the stars.

Hudson Hospital parking lot

Hudson Hospital parking lot

 

Also posted in Night & Astrophotography

Night Photography Workshop

Minneapolis City LightsLast night I took a night photography workshop that started out at a camera store.  The hour-long presentation was excellent and packed with information and inspiration.  Then everyone headed out to a location shoot on the Broadway Street bridge in Minneapolis.  We arrived about 25 minutes after the sun had set and I got this one shot off just before the magic hour ended.

The “magic hour” starts one half hour before sunset and lasts one hour until a half hour after sunset.  Any later than that the sky loses its blue color, and there is a huge loss of detail since the range of lights and darks go beyond what the camera can capture in one shot.  Since I was there I decided to do an experiment with bokeh.  I took a shot in focus, then threw the camera as far out of focus as possible.  I took several shots after that of the same scene, altering only the aperture.  The larger the size of the aperture (the smaller the f/number) the larger the spots of light.  I really liked the abstract and colorful shots taken with the larger apertures.

Shot in focusAperture set at f/16Aperture set at f/8Aperture set at f/5.6Aperture set at f/4.0

Here is one last shot with a better composition with more reflections in the water.F4 Higher

Also posted in Night & Astrophotography

Night Photography – Star Trails

My First Star Trail

Star Trails

This year for my local camera club, I committed to the goal of having a night/low light portfolio by the end of the year and thought it would not be complete until I did some star trails. It was going to be one more notch on my photography belt, but I quickly became addicted to shooting objects in the night sky. Before making this photograph, I did some research and found an eBook, “Shooting Stars” by Phil Hart. I can’t recommend it highly enough, and it was my guide.

I can remember lying on the grass at night when I was a teenager and looking up at the stars in awe and wonder. I knew in theory that the stars were moving, but it wasn’t something I could see. A star trail photo will show that movement with everything seemingly revolving around the north star, Polaris. There are a couple of ways of capturing a shot like this. One way would be to take a single long exposure. The other way would be to take many exposures continuously and then “stack” them.  That’s what I did since I also thought it would be fun to take all those exposures and create a video.  There were some surprises in quite a few of the exposures that first night and in the final stacked image.

Intl Space StationPerseid MeteorRussian Satellite

Starting out at about 11:45 pm on August first I shot 480 exposures continuously at 30-seconds each until the battery ran out around 4:00 a.m. This was during the buildup of the Perseid meteor showers and over 20 of the frames of the 480 show them. Four of the continuous frames include the international space station, which took more than 2 minutes to cross the sky.  Some of these got “lost” in the compilation, though.  In the final image I was amazed by how colorful the stars were.  There was yellow and blue, along with the white that we see, with the blue ones being the hottest.

A couple of weeks later, I captured another sequence and made this video.  Please turn your sound on and watch full screen.  You also may want to give it a little time to load, depending on your connection.

Capture

1. Conditions.  Obviously, you want to do these on a clear night at least two hours after sunset and be finished two hours before sunrise. You want to avoid a bright moon, too. There are many places on-line where you can get information for when the sun and moon rises and sets for your location and the amount of illumination of the moon. I use time and date.com.

Focus2. Focus – Find Infinity. That is where you want your focus, but you cannot trust the manufacturer’s markings on the lens. I find infinity on my lens by going out during daylight hours and focusing on something in the distance. It is easier than trying to do that when it’s dark out, but can be done with a strong flashlight illuminating something far away.

3. The tripod. I set up the tripod so the camera is sitting as close to the ground as possible, and make sure everything is firmly in place. I do this for two reasons. I can include more of the sky this way, but more importantly, when the deer and bears come dashing and ambling through my yard every night, the camera has a shorter distance to fall if they mess with it.

4. Camera settings. I have a fairly fast wide-angle lens that I have wide open at f/2.8. I’ve been doing 30-second exposures at ISO 1250. An  ISO of 3200 for a 2.8 lens is recommended, but this needs to be reduced because of the light pollution we have here at the 45th parallel. A larger numbered aperture (a smaller opening) will require a higher ISO.  For white balance, I use daylight. Using auto white balance is very good most of the time, but over a long period, how the camera sets the white balance can change. My camera has a long exposure noise reduction feature which I turn off. If you don’t, there will be large gaps while the camera is taking a second shot, which lasts as long as the original exposure, so it can subtract the noise in camera. I don’t use high ISO noise reduction either. I like to capture in Raw format, and luckily I can change the size of the raw images the camera will capture. I reduce this to the smallest sized raw format.  JPGs will work, too.

Stellarium's view of the Little Dipper

Stellarium’s view of the Little Dipper

5. Composition. Level the camera and take a few test shots at a really high ISO to check the composition. I like to include some foreground and the north star, Polaris.  Polaris is at the end of the handle of the Little Dipper.  Once you are satisfied with the composition, return to the ISO setting you’ve decided on for the stars.

 

 

 

 

Hi-Tech lens heater 6. Preventing Dew. As the temperatures drop at night, in our high humidity summer climate, dew will form on everything including your lens. To prevent that, keep the lens warmer than the air temperature. You can buy a telescope warmer for around $250.00 that runs off a 12-volt battery, or go to the “Men’s Mall” (Fleet Farm) and pick up a few chemical hand warmers from their sporting goods department. They cost about a dollar each. Even the large ones are not very big, but I lay one across the top of the lens and then wrap a wool sock around all and fasten with a clip. I don’t know if the wool sock matters, but it makes me feel good.

7. Shooting. I shoot in manual with the exposure settings spelled out above, and set the camera for continuous shooting. I engage the shutter with my remote and go to bed, since I feel that in my back yard it’s safe, and I’ve taken the precaution of protecting my camera and lens with a rain jacket. I set my alarm, toss and turn a little thinking about the deer and bears, and then get up and go out with a fresh battery and check the camera four hours later. After being careful not to move the camera, replace the battery, if needed, put the lens cover on and take another 30-second exposure. The purpose of this “dark frame” is for later removing noise during processing. Another exposure can be made with the settings necessary to bring out the detail in the foreground. I’ve had disappointing results with the foreground shot because all the foliage and trees in my yard refuse to stay perfectly still for four hours while shooting the stars.  Because of that, my foreground image usually doesn’t match up as well as I’d like.

Head Lamp8. A Useful Accessory    It’s nice to carry some light when working outside in the dark. My friend, Bryan, clued me in on using a red light since it won’t interfere with your night vision once you are acclimated to the dark. I got this at the “Men’s Mall”, too, and it can be worn as a head band or around the neck, about $20.00

 

 

Processing

In Adobe Camera Raw or Lightroom, correct for lens distortion in the Lens Correction tab. In the Basic tab, increase both the contrast and the saturation to the highest (+100). The saturation boost will bring out the colors of the stars. I also add a bit of Clarity (+15) and Vibrance (+15). Make adjustments to the exposure and color temperature if you think it’s needed. In the detail tab, you can play a bit with the color noise reduction. Be sure to zoom in and out while making these choices to see their effect. When you are happy, apply all the settings to the rest of the images. Because of shooting in Raw format and applying develop settings, you need to export them all as JPGs or TIFFs for the next step.

Stacking the Images – The program I use for stacking the images is StarStax by Marcus Enzweiler , which was created solely for that purpose. It’s free, very easy to use, and the site includes tutorials. This is where the exposure made with the lens cap on is used to reduce noise. You load all the star exposures and then this dark frame in a separate step. Then choose a blending mode, either lighten or gap-filling, and process. Depending on how many images it has to stack, it only takes a minute or two and spits out a single stacked image.

Another Night and the Movie

We had another clear night two weeks later, and even though the moon was pretty bright before it set a couple of hours later, I set up another sequence. This time, when I stacked the shots, I decided to try one of the options in StarStax. Ordinarily, StarStax will start with the beginning shot, add the next shot and blend them using a lighten blending mode, save it and then go on to the next image, add it, blend and save, and go on to the next, etc., until done. This time I chose the Cumulative Image Saving option, which saved a JPG showing the progress of the trails at each step along the way. I then used those saved images to create the video you see above.

I’ve done a few videos using Windows Live Movie Maker and it does a good job. I set the time for each frame to be 0.08 seconds, which is about 12 frames per second. For the one above I used ProShow Producer since I’m more familiar with that program and its captions, audio and output options.  I set the timing, except for the intro and exit, at .04 seconds, since I really wanted to speed it up.  More than half of the time of the video is taken up by the introduction and the credits at the end, and only 18 seconds for the star trails to develop.

I continue to watch for clear skies at night and follow the moon phases, ready to go out for another try, hoping to come across a better location than what I’ve been able to find so far in my yard.

Also posted in Night & Astrophotography