Category Archives: Night Photography

Racetrack Playa: Photo Guide and Tips from a Pro

Racetrack Playa is high on the bucket list for many landscape photographers…and with good reason.  Photos of the ‘sailing rocks’ with their long mysterious trails winding off behind them on the vast mud playa captures our imagination.  Your inner-child has to wonder how the heck those boulders move and the photographer in you recognizes the potential for dramatic photography.  Although Racetrack Playa is a photographic icon, I was surprised that there weren’t many ‘how-to’ photo tips available  on the internet.   So this article will address that shortcoming…consider it my effort at ‘paying it forward.’  So to help you make the best of your next visit, here is Racetrack Playa:  Photo Guide and Tips from a Pro.

Racetrack Playa: Photo Guide and Tips from a Pro

“The Long and Winding Road” (apologies to the Beatles)

Racetrack-damage[1]

Sad…very sad.

Before I begin, let me make a plea.  The Racetrack is fragile and easily damaged…its surface is nothing more than a thin crust of dried mud.  Fortunately a few simple precautions will allow you to avoid causing any harm:

  1. Don’t drive out onto the Playa with any vehicle (including bicycles). They are not allowed on the Playa because they can leave tracks which can remain for years.  There is no reason other than pure maliciousness to drive on the plaza.  Check out this blog to see the damage a jerk in a car can do.
  2. If the Playa is wet, do not enter it.  Not even on foot.  Your footprints will remain a permanent feature on the Playa until the next good rain…which could be years.  If it is wet during your visit, please be considerate to the visitors who will follow you over the years and don’t walk out onto the Playa.

 Racetrack Playa Description

Racetrack Playa is located in a remote high desert valley in California’s Death Valley National Park.  The Racetrack is a playa:  A huge dry flat lakebed surrounded by mountain ranges.

Racetrack Playa: Photo Guide and Tips from a Pro

The surface of the Playa is a mosaic of sun-baked mud

It’s larger than you might think:  2.8 mi (4.5 km) long (north-south) by 1.3 mi (2.1 km) wide (east-west).

It’s real claim to fame of course are the ‘sailing stones’ (also called the ‘rollling stones’, ‘moving rocks’ or ‘sailing rocks.’)   The floor of the valley is littered with rocks and boulders (some of them weighing hundreds of pounds and the size of large television sets ).   The fascinating thing is that the rocks have long, winding trails behind them.  Clearly they move across the valley and how that happens has fired imaginations for generations. Theories included everything from aliens from nearby Area 51 playing hockey to stuff that was really ridiculous.  Recent research  has shown that the rocks actually move on thin sheets of ice that slide across the valley during a rare combination of weather events.  Personally, I like the alien theory better, but either way, you can’t stand on the Playa without a sense of wonder enveloping you.

Getting There

Death Valley is only a couple of hours by car from Las Vegas (or 4 hours from Los Angeles).  Getting to Death Valley isn’t a problem, but getting to the Racetrack is another story.

2016 SW Death Valley 03 05 0406-Pano

Ubehebe Crater. It is difficult to capture this facinating subject well…at least I haven’t been able to do so yet.

Racetrack sign

Sign at the beginning of Racetrack Road

Once you are in the park, head north on Scotty’s Castle Road to Grapevine junction where you turn west onto Ubehebe Crater Road.  Take it to the end where you will see Ubehebe Crater.   At the crater, you will find a sign for Racetrack Road.  That’s where the pavement ends and the real adventure begins.

You’ve heard the expression “It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey.” Well, they weren’t talking about the Racetrack.

Racetrack Road is 28 miles of broken rocks, huge potholes and the worst washboarding you will probably ever experience.  Racetrack Road is graded once per year but you might not even notice:  the road is still hideous.

Note:  There actually are a couple of other roads/trails to the Playa but they are much worse than Racetrack Road.   I’ve never had a reason to try them.

  • Vehicle Suggestions

    1. You will need a high/clearance vehicle.  I’m not saying a regular sedan/van can’t make it but understand that there is a good chance you will damage or destroy your undercarriage.  I’m not exaggerating.  On my last trip down Racetrack road, I saw three vehicles broken down in the first few miles.
      • There is no cell service.  If you break down you get to wait until another vehicle comes by and hope they stop.  It isn’t a well travelled road, so you could be waiting for hours.
      • If you are in a rental, nearly all their contracts forbid off-road driving.  If you got the rental insurance, you will find it doesn’t cover you either if you go off-road. You will pay for the repairs out of your pocket
      • Getting a tow-truck here is insanely expensive…like well over $1,000.  I know people who have had to spend twice that amount.
    2. A 4 wheel drive vehicle isn’t necessarily mandatory if you are careful (and lucky).  But unless you are very experienced at driving off road, it would be a good thing to have.
    3. Bring a full-size spare tire (or two).  This isn’t a gravel road.  It is sharp, broken rocks.  They slice open tires (especially sidewalls).  I’ve NEVER driven this road without seeing at least two people changing flat tires. Racetrack Road is notorious for damaging light-duty passenger car tires
    4.  Also bring a can of fix-a-flat or tire plug kit, a 12-volt air-compressor, a lugwrench, and be sure all parts of your jack are on hand.

So, you don’t want to take a chance with your rental or personal car…and you don’t have a high-clearance vehicle and live close enough to actually drive to Death Valley…what can you do?  There are only two options:

  1.  Take a Tour.  There are a few companies who will take you out to the Racetrack.  I’ve never taken a tour, so I can’t review them.  However, the tours I’ve checked on usually only spend a couple of hours actually at the Playa…and  they take you there in the middle of the day when photography is far from ideal.
  2. Rent a jeep from Farabee’s.
    Racetrack Playa: Photo Guide and Tips from a Pro

    My Farabee’s Jeep Wrangler on the road to the Racetrack

    Farabee’s rents jeeps specifically for off-road use in Death Valley.  (see this link)  Their jeeps are well-maintained and modified with beefed up suspensions and heavy duty tires, plus they give you a GPS Spot unit (this sends a signal to a satellite in case of emergency).  They aren’t cheap.  A rental will cost you about $250 for a 2 passenger jeep and another $50 for a 4 seater.  Plus, the rental isn’t for a full day.  You pick up the jeep after 8 am and you have to return it that night…or you pay for a second day.   If you want to photograph the Playa at night or at sunrise, you need to plan on a two day rental.

Driving Tips

  1. Make sure your gas tank is full before you start your drive to the Racetrack.   Gas stations are few and far between.
  2. If the road is wet, or if rain is in the forecast (rare, but it happens), then don’t go.  Even 4WD vehicles can have problems if the roads are wet and unless you are an expert off-road driver, you will likely find it beyond your capabilities.

    Racetrack Playa: Photo Guide and Tips from a Pro

    A selfie with my son at Teakettle Junction

  3. Drive right down the center of the road.  Don’t try to ‘smooth out’ the ride by driving with one set of tires on the edge of the road and the other on the ‘hump’ in the middle of the road.  The sharpest rocks are found on the side of the road and you will greatly increase your chances of tearing out a sidewall.
  4. The road is narrow (not wide enough for two vehicles to pass in many locations) and there are a few blind corners.  However,  you can see dust clouds from approaching vehicles well in advance.  I’d suggest you slowly pull over and stop before approaching cars reach you and let them pass safely
  5. Keep you speed down.  I’ve seen folks take the road at 40+ mph…and although the ride seems to me to be smoother at higher speeds, your chances of hitting a pothole or nice big sharp rock is greatly increased.  It usually takes me about 2 hours to drive the 28 miles….yes, I know that is less than 15 mph….take your time, it is worth it.
  6. Stop at Tea Kettle Junction.  About 22 miles down Racetrack Road, you will run into a ‘road’ junction called TeaKettle Junction.  It is traditional to stop here for a photo (it’s a nice break anyway) and if you have one with you, tie a tea kettle to the sign. At this point you have about 6 miles to go.  Soon enough you will see the Playa.

When to Go

Time of Year

Not the summer.  Death Valley got it’s name for a good reason.  Summer temperatures hit 120 F/49C…in the shade.  Heck, Farabee’s closes for the months of June, July and August because no one is crazy enough to be out in that heat.

Racetrack Playa: Photo Guide and Tips from a Pro

Usually the sky doesn’t add much to your images at the Racetrack, but exceptions to that rule can be wonderful!

High °F Low °F High °C Low °C
67 40 January 19 4
73 46 February 23 8
82 55 March 28 13
91 62 April 33 17
101 73 May 38 23
110 81 June 43 27
117 88 July 47 31
115 86 August 46 30
107 76 September 41 24
93 62 October 34 16
77 48 November 25 9
65 38 December 18 4
91 63 Year 33 17

My favorite time of year to visit the Playa is February or March.  The only downside to spring is that it can get really windy.  If you want clouds in the sky to spice up your shots, then your best bet is to visit in winter or in April/Sept during the cusp season for summer monsoons.

Time of day

2016 SW Death Valley 03 05 0422

This shot was taken during the middle of the day. The lack of shadows makes it look flat.

Racetrack Playa: Photo Guide and Tips from a Pro

This shot was taken right after the morning sun cleared the mountains to the east. The low-angle light makes the image much more dramatic.

Although the novelty of the sailing stones makes the Playa photogenic anytime of the day, it really is at it’s best in the morning after the sun rises over the surrounding mountains or in late afternoon just before it dips below the horizon.  This is because sun is at a low angle during those times of the day and that dramatically increases the shadows in the mud mosaics Playa floor.  The shots to the left and right demonstrate that effect.

Also the color of the Playa is a non-descript, washed-out light tan.  However it can take on an attractive golden hue near sunrise/sunset.

Racetrack Playa: Photo Guide and Tips from a Pro

“Sun Racer”

Be aware that since the Playa is in a valley, the sun will set about a half hour before ‘official sunset’ time due to the mountains to the west.  By the same token, you won’t see the sunrise until 30+ minutes after the ‘official sunset’ as well.

You need to get to the Playa early enough to give yourself some time to scout around.  The Playa is pretty large and the sailing stones are somewhat dispersed, so you need to have time to locate some photogenic ones before the light is right.  I’d suggest planning at least two hours for scouting.

If you enjoy shooting at night, the Playa can reward you with incredible images of the Milky Way (see section below about shooting here at night).  The Playa is at an elevation of 3,700′ and is located well away from most light pollution,  Shots of the Playa lit up by moonlight are also amazing.

What to  Bring:

  1. There is no water, food, gas or phones (or cell service) on Racetrack Road or at the Playa.  In other words, you need to bring with you all the supplies you might need during your trip.  Especially the water…lots of it.
  2. There is a port-a-potty at the Playa’s campground a couple of miles south of the Playa (see map).  It may or may not have toilet paper.  Other than that, you are on your own.
  3. Obviously you are going to be in a lot of sun.  Don’t forget a hat, lightweight breathable clothing and sunscreen.
  4. It would be a good idea to bring some goggles (especially in the spring).  When the wind starts blowing, the sand can be hard on your eyes.
  5. Don’t forget a tea kettle so you can leave a memento at the Junction;)

If you are going stay over night at the Playa:

The campground I mentioned is about 15-20 minutes past the Playa and it has about a dozen sites which are first come first served.  They are nothing more than a small area cleared of stones, but they will do if you bring a tent.  If you happen to visit during the spring, be aware that the wind at night can be incredible.  During my last visit, the wind was so intense that my trusty MSR tent nearly collapsed and the noise and constant movement made sleep impossible.  Some folks just sleep in their vehicles at the parking lots by the Playa.

The Playa can get cold at night so bring some warm clothes if you are planning to shoot after sunset from November thru March.

Photo Gear:

Racetrack Playa: Photo Guide and Tips from a Pro

The Playa is big it takes some time to walk between the rocks. Spend some time scouting and have your ‘primo’ rocks picked out before the light is at it’s best.

  1. There is a lot of dust and grit at the playa.  Bring your lens cleaner and lots of microfiber cloths so you can keep your equipment clean.  Try to minimize lens changes.
  2. Bring your wide angle lenses.  I find that most of my shots here are taken between 16-35mm on a full frame camera (30-75mm on APS-C camera).  You probably won’t have much need for telephoto lenses at the Playa.
  3. Tripod.  A lot of your shots will involve getting real close to the rocks but trying to keep the background in focus as well so a tripod will come in handy…especially if you are shooting in low light near sunrise/sunset.
  4. A remote shutter release
  5. A polarizer will help make the blue skies really pop.  They will make a nice contrast for the pale-tan playa surface
  6. If you do any time-lapse photography, this is an incredible venue for it…bring your gear.

Okay, So you have your gear and made it to the Plaza, now what?

Racetrack Road enters the valley containing the Racetrack from the Northwest. Most of the sailing stones are located in the far southeastern corner of the Playa.  There really isn’t much of interest in the rest of the Playa except for the Grandstand.  The grandstand is a 73′ tall hunk of nearly black rock that rises out of the Playa’s flat surface.  If you have a lot of spare time on your visit, walk out and check it out.  Personally, I don’t find it particularly photogenic and would rather spend my time photographing the sailing stones.

Racetrack Playa: Photo Guide and Tips from a Pro

Close-up of the Grandstand

 

Racetrack Playa: Photo Guide and Tips from a Pro

This is the view from the edge of Racetrack Road about halfway down the Playa.  You can see the Cottonwood mountain ridge on the far side and the Grandstand is visible just left of the center of the shot if you look closely.

Drive down Racetrack Road (it runs along the western edge of the Racetrack) to the last (most southern) parking area near the end of the Playa.  Park here.  The sailing stones are located directly across the Playa.   If you have a compass, set your heading at about 70 ° (this is northeast), grab your gear and get going.  As you walk east across the Playa, it will at first look empty but you will start seeing the rocks after you get about halfway across.  Distances can be deceiving here…remember, the Playa is more than a mile wide…it is going to take you a while to get across.  The good news is that the number of rocks increases the closer you get to the opposite side.  The map below will help you familiarize yourself with the area:Racetrack Playa: Photo Guide and Tips from a Pro

Photo Techniques & Tips:

Scouting:

  • I know I already mentioned this, but you really need to scout around during the day and have some images preplanned so that you are prepared when the light gets good at the end of the day (or right after sunrise, if you spend the night at the Playa).  The best light doesn’t last long and it takes time to walk from one rock to another plus some of the rocks are just more photogenic than others.  Scouting ahead will allow you to take full advantage of your time on the Playa.

Perspectives:

  • Try setting up your tripod a few inches off the ground near a rock and use it anchor your image in one corner while showing the vast playa and distant mountains in the background.Racetrack Playa: Photo Guide and Tips from a Pro.
Racetrack Playa: Photo Guide and Tips from a Pro

“One Rock, Two Trails”

Racetrack Playa: Photo Guide and Tips from a Pro

“From the Source”

However, one fascinating aspect of the Playa are the trails the rocks make, not just the rocks themselves.  They twist, cross each other and make all types of eye-appealing designs.  Don’t miss the chance to set your tripod to its full height and capture that perspective as well.

F/22 or Focus Stacking:

You will likely want to try to keep everything in focus throughout your image.  That can be difficult if you have a rock a foot from your lens but also have distant mountains in the background.

If you are comfortable with focus-stacking, it can be quite helpful at the Playa.

Otherwise, set your aperature to f/22, switch to Manual Focus and use your Live-View.  Adjust the focus point until you can get the image sharp from front to back.

Night photography:

The Playa at night is a nearly mystical place to be…as quiet as anyplace I’ve ever been.  The photo potential is incredible.

First of all, you need to know where the rocks are.  It can be surprisingly difficult to find the rocks on the Playa at night…even if you spent hours there the same afternoon.  Give yourself plenty of time to find them or mark their locations with a personal GPS device during the daylight.  A flashlight will obviously come in handy.

Racetrack Playa: Photo Guide and Tips from a Pro

“Midnight Run” This is a combination of two photos taken a couple of minutes apart. The rock in the foreground was illuminated for a couple of seconds with a small flashlight during a 400+ second exposure. The Milky Way shot was taken a few moments later…it is a 22 second exposure.

Personally, I like to do a bit of light painting on a rock, while taking a long exposure with a low ISO.  Then, I switch to a higher ISO (like 3500 or so) and take a 20-35 second exposure to capture the Milky Way.  After I get home, I merge the two shots together.  Click here for more details on how to take good Milky Way shots and the equipment you will need.

If anyone else is out photographing the Playa at night while you are, it might be a good idea to team up with them so you both aren’t ruining each others shots with your lightpainting.

Recap:

So, that should give you enough info to help you avoid the ‘rookie’ mistakes I made during my first trips to the Racetrack.  By the way, if you would like to read a blog with details about my last trip there, hit this link.  It isn’t a ‘how-to’ article but you might find it interesting and pick up a few more tidbits of info.

Take care and enjoy your trip to one of the coolest places on the planet.  Feel free to email questions and if you have suggestions for other tips, just let me know and I’ll revise this article.  Plus, if you want to share some of your Racetrack photos with me,  I never get tired of them!

Jeff

 

 

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Racetrack Playa: A Photographer’s Nirvana

In a recent blog, I mentioned a couple of hikers who made the tough 10 mile hike to reach the Subway at Zion National Park.  They spent five minutes looking at it, then turned around and hiked back.  That got me to thinking (which is a dangerous thing)…would I have hiked to the Subway if I WASN’T a photographer?  It is an amazing place… but honestly… a full day of tough hiking for just a glance.  I don’t know…

Racetrack Playa: A Photographer's Nirvana

You’ve probably seen photos of this place…maybe you were as fascinated by it as I was!

So I wondered:  I’ve photographed a number of sites that were pretty challenging to reach…how many of them would I go back to, even if I didn’t  have a camera with me?   To be honest, that list is mighty short, but at the top of it would be Racetrack Playa.

I’ll bet you’ve seen photos of the Racetrack …even if you aren’t familiar with the name (see the image to the left).  The ‘sailing rocks’, some of them hundreds of pounds rest on a vast, flat mosaic of sun-cracked mud with trails stretched out behind them.   Folks have wondered for years how the heck boulders ‘sail’ across the high desert valley floor in a remote part of Death Valley.  Theories covered the spectrum from aliens (probably visiting from their nearby home at Area 51) to some other stuff that was really ridiculous.

Something about the Playa simply fascinated me.  The images of those sailing stones just fired my imagination.  And the Playa itself looks like an image taken from a Mars space probe.

Racetrack Play instantly went on my ‘bucket list’ and I finally I got my chance to photograph it this spring.

Death Valley is the largest National Park in the lower 48 states, covering 5,262 square miles.  My son, Ryan, and I spent our first day doing our best to hit the park’s photographic high points, including:

2016-sw-death-valley-03-04-0044-b-crop

Artist’s Palette

 

2016-sw-death-valley-03-05-0290-pano-bw-brop

Zabriski’s Point

 

2016-sw-death-valley-03-05-0386-skew

Mesquite Dunes

But I was really there for the Playa and it was the only thing on our schedule for the next day and a half…but first we had to get there.   Now, Death Valley isn’t exactly difficult to visit, over a million folks do so every year.  Getting to the Playa, however,is ‘a whole nother matter.’  I doubt that more than 20 folks per day make it to the Playa and now I know why.  It’s isolated in the far western edge of the park and the only way to reach it is via a ROUGH 28 mile unpaved road. When I say rough, I mean this was by far the worst road I’ve ever been on in my life.  It’s not a simple dirt or gravel road, its a mixture of sand and sharp broken rocks.  The washboarding is incredible and much of the ‘road’ is wide enough for only a single vehicle. Put it this way, the road is only 28 miles long but it took us about 2 hours to reach the Playa…yup, I averaged about 15 mph (and I thought that was fast!)

Teakettle Junction Racetrack Playa: A Photographer's Nirvana

I remember when that kid was the size of a tea kettle!

We had read about the road beforehand and knew we shouldn’t try to get there in a regular rental sedan, so we rented a modified 4×4 Jeep.  It wasn’t cheap, but it had heavy duty tires, beefed up suspension and included an emergency GPS tracker you could activate if you got stuck (no cell service on that road…or most places in the park for that matter).

I thought maybe I was being over-cautious renting the jeep.  I mean how bad could it be?  Well, in the first couple miles we passed two regular sedans that had blown tires and another that had the bottom torn out of it (no wonder the Park Service recommends you take TWO full sized spares).  Apparently towing costs are outrageous …like $1500-$4000… so I started thinking the cost might not have been ridiculous after all!

After an hour and a half of being thrown around like ping pong balls in a lottery cage, we reached Teakettle Junction.  I don’t know how it originally got its name, but over the years folks have decorated the sign with, you got it…tea kettles!  It was worth a photo and the good news was that it meant we were only 6 miles from the Racetrack.

We finally made the last turn and saw the Playa…  As I soaked in the view it became apparent why they call it the racetrack..it really is a huge flat oval surrounded by mountains that look like bleachers…throw up some NASCAR banners and I would have thought I was at the Daytona 500.

Racetrack Playa: A Photographer's Nirvana

The Playa is about two miles long, a mile wide and ringed by black mountains.

We parked when I first spotted some rocks out on the Playa.  They didn’t look that far out there so I grabbed my camera nearly ran out into the flats.   After about five minutes, the rocks didn’t look any closer…so I slowed to a trot…then a jog…and then I just plain walked.  It slowly dawned on me that the Playa is big…really BIG.   Plus the rocks were out a lot further out there than they appeared and of course they were all on the FAR side of the Playa.

But I didn’t care!  I was at the Playa and I had my camera.  I spent the next few hours gleefully snapping away running from one rock to another.  The weather was wonderful.  Temperatures were in the 70s…nice partly cloudy skies and a gentle breeze.  I’d hate to visit in the summer when temperatures top 100° but in March, it was ideal.

Racetrack Playa: A Photographer's Nirvana

“The Long and Winding Road”…apologies to the Beatles!

The shadows lengthened as the afternoon passed and the photography just got better and better.

Racetrack Playa: A Photographer's Nirvana

“One Rock, Two Trails”

Finally the sun slipped below the mountains (the aptly named ‘Last Chance Range’) .  That seemed to spark an exodus as nearly all the other folks at the Playa got back in their vehicles and started back…probably hoping to make it before darkness made a difficult drive into a dangerous one.  But Ryan and stuck around.

Racetrack Playa: A Photographer's Nirvana

The entire Playa is covered by a polygons of hard, baked mud. When the sun hits it at a low angle, the dark cracks really pop.

We were going to spend the night:  I had my heart set on photographing the Playa at night…hopefully getting shots of the ‘sailing rocks’ with the Milky Way hanging above them.  Since the Playa looked like a scene from a different world, I figured that including the Milky Way would be just be icing on the cake!

The campsite was close…less than a mile away.  It was small, rugged and primitive. No water, no electricity, no bathrooms….no problem.  I had done my research, so we knew what to expect and we were prepared…well, we THOUGHT we were.   What we didn’t plan on was the wind. The mild breezes we enjoyed during the day intensified as it got dark…and then got worse.  We live in Florida so we know a thing or two about wind…heck, Hurricane Matthew just hit a couple weeks ago…but we had never camped in winds like these.  40-60 mph gusts blasted our tent with sand and rocks:  it sounded like we were inside a blender full of gravel.  Needless to say we didn’t sleep much…  After a few hours we gave up, jammed the tent in the back of the jeep and drove back to the Playa.

Clouds had accompanied the wind and the Milky Way wasn’t visible.  At least the jeep was quieter than the tent and Ryan managed to drift off to sleep.  I just stared out the window hoping to see stars.  Around 3am the gale died down and the skies started to clear.  I left my sleepy son in the jeep and headed out onto the flats with my tripod and camera.

There was no moon and it was truly pitch black.  The silence was absolute and profound.  The Playa seemed eerie, empty and endless.  It really should have been one of those moments when I stopped, took a deep breath and appreciated the moment…  But all I could think was: ‘Where the heck are those freakin’ rocks?!’  Spotting them during the day had been pretty easy but in the darkness it proved frustratingly difficult.

The Milky Way was beautiful and clearly visible but sunrise was coming and the skies would soon start to lighten.  I kept walking and the minutes kept rolling by.  My chances of getting a Milky Way shot with the ‘sailing rocks’  were slipping away.

And then I nearly tripped right over one!

Racetrack Playa: A Photographer's Nirvana

Alpha Centauri IV?    Vulcan?   Mars?       Nope…California!

I knew I had less than 30 minutes before the stars faded with the dawn.  That sounds like a lot of time to take a picture of a single rock..right?  Well, not really.  To get a high resolution shot of the rock in the darkness, some of my exposures had to be nearly 8 minutes long…so I didn’t have time to a lot of photos.  Plus I had to focus in the darkness (which isn’t fun)…then figure out the best way to light up the ‘sailing rock’…plus I had to take separate 30 second exposures of the faint Milky Way (later I’d merge the photos together in Photoshop).

Sometimes you imagine a shot in your head and wait years to get it but it doesn’t equal your expectations.  But the shot above didn’t disappoint me a bit.

Racetrack Playa: A Photographer's Nirvana

Blue Planet

I would have loved to photograph more than one silly rock, but the sky had already started to lighten and the Playa slowly unveiled itself.  As details became visible, I started to faintly make out dozens lots of those silly rocks that had been so elusive in the dark.

The world shifted to shades of blue for twenty minutes or so, then the sunlight reached the clouds and briefly burned them red.

Racetrack Playa: A Photographer's Nirvana

“Sun Run”

Once the sun broached the ridgeline, the floor of the Playa lit up;2016 SW Death Valley 03 06 0761_2

Racetrack Playa: A Photographer's Nirvana

Direct from the Source

By now Ryan had joined me and we darted around the Playa yelling to each other when we found a particularly photogenic rock.  Some of the trails were truly weird, sharply cutting and darting around like a running back caught behind the line of scrimmage.  Others were straight as an arrow or gently curving…the variety was puzzling and fascinating at the same time.  I caught my self a couple times just staring at the magical and bewitching scene before me…

Racetrack Playa: A Photographer's Nirvana

“Take me to your Leader Earthling”

Racetrack Playa: A Photographer's Nirvana

Drag Racer!

We had about an hour before the light got harsh which brought an end to our visit.   Ryan and I looked at each other and grinned that smile that guys do when they are really happy but way too old-

“Time for you to leave”

school to actually hug each other.  We ambled back to the parking lot, ate a power bar, fired up the jeep and headed back to civilization.

I’m sure some will look at these photos and think  “OK…a bunch of rocks in the desert:  Big Deal”  But if you are like me, it will spark a sense of wonder and enchantment.  I found it totally surreal and bizarre….and starkly mesmerizing.  Despite the time, hardship and treasure it costs to get to the Racetrack, I’d go back in a minute…even without a camera.  There just isn’t another place like it…at least here on earth!

Jeff

 

PS:  If you are thinking about visiting Racetrack Playa, I’ve written another blog with maps and specific tips.  Use this link for a full report of all you need to know to photograph Racetrack Playa!

 

 

PSS:  The mystery of the ‘Sailing Rocks’ has been scientifically solved (see this link for the full report).  A group of researchers actually put small GPS trackers on some of the rocks and set up cameras to take time-lapse photos of them.  Basically, when a thin layer of ice forms on the Playa, the rocks will move if there is a high, sustained wind (yup…I know about THAT!)   It happens rarely, but they caught it on tape.  I guess someone was bound to have enough time and money on their hands to solve this mystery…but honestly, I kinda liked not knowing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Racetrack Playa:  A Photographer’s Nirvana

 

 

 

Also posted in Landscape Photography, Milky Way Photography, Southwest U.S.A. Tagged , |

Old San Juan Top 10 Photo Locations & Tips

Old San Juan Top 10 Photo Locations & Tips

The colors of the restored buildings are simply amazing.

Old San Juan Top 10 Photo Locations & Tips  

I don’t do a lot of street photography.  As a rule, I prefer to spend my time outdoors and do my best to avoid cities.  There are some exceptions, towns like Savannah, Charlestown and St. Augustine have a charm I certainly wouldn’t deny and I have spent many an enjoyable day photographing them.  Today, I’m adding another location to that list:  Old San Juan.

I’ve visited Old San Juan a half dozen or so times over the years, usually at the start or end of a cruise (over a million tourists cruise out of San Juan harbor yearly).  I had taken a couple quick tours and hit the highlights but that was about it.  However, earlier this month, a lovely young woman we’ve known for years had her wedding there and I found myself with nearly three days to explore and photograph the city.

 

Old San Juan Top 10 Photo Locations & Tips

The projecting Garitas (Sentry Boxes) are an image that has become synonymous with Old San Juan

First of all, an overview.  Old San Juan is known as La Ciudad Amurallada “the walled city”…understandable for a town surrounded by a 3.4 mile long wall that is up to 20 foot thick.  It was founded in 1521, by Spanish colonists who called it Ciudad de Puerto Rico (“Rich Port City”) and is considered the second oldest town in the New World. The city occupies the western side of a small island at the entrance of San Juan Harbor.  Thanks to decades of good zoning laws, you will rarely see a modern structure, in fact, as you walk the narrow streets and look up at the 400 exuberantly painted and carefully restored San Juan Map16th and 17th-century Spanish colonial buildings, it would be easy to think you had slipped thru a time rift and had been carried back a couple centuries. The city is pretty small (about 7 square blocks).  You can walk to nearly any spot in the city in 30 minutes.

As soon as I booked my flight, I started searching on-line for ‘photo tips’ and ‘photo locations.’   However, I was surprised by the lack of info available, so I’m writing this blog to help out future photographers who visit this exceptional city.

Top 10 Photo Locations in Old San Juan:

Sure, this Top 10 list is just my humble opinion and some might quibble over a couple of the selections but it will give you a great starting point for your exploration.  So, here’s my top 10 list (in no particular order):

Old San Juan Top 10 Photo Locations & Tips

Old San Juan Top 10 Photo Locations

  1. Paseo Del Morro (see location #1 on my map)
    Old San Juan Top 10 Photo Locations & Tips

    Take a early morning stroll along the Paseo. There isn’t another like it in the world!

    • This is an incredible walkway that snakes along the water’s edge between el Morro (see #2) and the southern part of the island.  It is wide, paved and nicely landscaped.  Photo ops abound and include the Raices Fountain (see #6 below) the old red city gate and wonderful views of the city wall with its projecting Garitas (sentry boxes).  The trail ends at el Morro.  Great sunset views.
  2. Castillo San Felipe Del Morro (#2 on map)
    Old San Juan Top 10 Photo Locations & Tips

    HDR is mandatory for this type of shot

    • Commonly known as El Morro, this is an impressive, 6 storied, 16th-century citadel with walls that soar 140 above the amazing turquoise Caribbean.  Old San Juan Top 10 Photo Locations & TipsAlthough smaller than Castillo de san Cristobal (#9), it is much more photogenic because of its location at the tip of the island…the views of San Juan Bay from El Morro are spectacular.  The fortresses and the walls, together with La Fortaleza, are recognized by the United Nations as a World Heritage Site, one of only 23 such locations in the United States.

Old San Juan Top 10 Photo Locations & TipsEl Morro is part of the National Park system and entry is only $5.

Old San Juan Top 10 Photo Locations & Tips

El Morro’s lighthouse

That fee will also get you into Castillo de san Cristobal and your pass is good for a full week.

There is a lot to photograph here.  Cannons, flags, tunnels, a Victorian lighthouse…plenty to easily keep you busy for a couple hours.

 

3. Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery (#3 on map)

Old San Juan Top 10 Photo Locations & Tips

This would be the kind of view that couldn’t get old even if you had an eternity…

  • Frankly, I’m usually not very enthusiastic about photographing cemeteries, but this is an exception.  Santa Maria Magdalena must be one of the most picturesque burial sites in the world.  It is only a short walk from El Morro.  Early morning photos here are enchanting.

4. City View of La Fortaleza (#4 on map)

La Foraleza

Great spot during the blue hour after sunset

  • This spot provides a dramatic view of the city wall and La Foraleza (the Governor’s mansion).  From the La Rogativa statue (#5), just walk a short distance along the city wall northwest (toward el Morro) until you reach the Casa Rosa (Rosada), also known as the Pink House.  Part of the wall in front of this building curves out toward the bay, giving you a wonderful view of the illuminated city wall, the red city gate and the Governor’s house (La Fortaleza)…at night, this is a beautiful, world class vista.
  • Note:  Be careful entering the sentry boxes (Garitas) at night…unfortunately, they seem to be used as bathrooms by some folks.
Old San Juan Top 10 Photo Locations & Tips

La Rogativa

5. La Rogativa Plaza (Plaza of Religious Procession…#5 on map)

  • Statues of generals and assorted statesmen can be found across the city.  Most of them look like those you can see anywhere.  Not this one.  It is different, modern and depicts a cherished moment in San Juan’s history:
  • In 1797 an English blockade threatened to starve the city into submission.  Outnumbered and desperate, a large group of women and children lit torches at night and walked toward the city as part of a rogativa, or divine entreaty, to ask the saints to save them.  The English, mistakenly thinking the long column was Spanish reinforcements, abandoned their blockade and fled.
  • The best natural light is in mid morning.  Also, the sculpture very photogenic at night (see photo above).

6. Raices Fountain (#6 on map)Raices Fountain

  • Located where Paseo del Morro meets Paseo de la Princesa, this large and uplifting statue is front lit in mid morning.  Also makes a killer sunset shot.

7. Cathedral of San Juan Bautista (#7 on map)

Old San Juan Top 10 Photo Locations & Tips

One of the many fascinating nooks at the cathedral

Second oldest cathedral in the New World and also the resting place the island’s first governor: Juan Ponce de León.  It may not be the largest or most impressive cathedral you’ll ever see, but there are some beautiful niches and stained glass.  Visitors can explore the cathedral from 8:30am to 4pm daily.

8. Street Art with Puerto Rican Flag (#8 on map)Old San Juan Top 10 Photo Locations & Tips

  • This is simply the side of a decrepit building that has been imaginatively painted with the Puerto Rican flag on the front door and images of famous residents on its walls.  Judging by the number of photos of this spot on the internet, it seemed to be to one of city’s iconic locations but I couldn’t find directions.  On my last day I happened to turn a corner and there it was!
  • You can find it about 300 feet south of Calle san Sebastian on Calle de San Jose.
  • It is best to photograph this spot early in the day.  There can be some harsh light and shadows here in late afternoon.

9. Castillo de San Cristobal (#9 on map)Old San Juan Top 10 Photo Locations & Tips

  • This fort is located on the eastern edge of the old town and is only a bit more of a mile walk from el Morro (which is on the western end of Old San Juan).  A stroll between the forts will take you only about 20 minutes (or you can just use the free trolley that runs between them).
  • Castillo de San Cristobal is actually larger than el Morro and covers 27 acres of ground (110,000 square meters).  In fact, it was the largest fortification built by the Spanish in the New World.
  • Personally, I didn’t find San Cristobal to be as photogenic as el Morro.  Perhaps I was just so enamored by el Morro that I didn’t give it a fair chance.  Good location for sunrise shots with the sun rising behind the fort.

10. Esplanade in front of el Morro (#10 on map)2016 Old San Juan-217-Pano_1

This is a huge field on the landward side of el Morro.  Originally left open so defenders could have clear fields of fire against attackers this expansive space is unique in Old San Juan.  On weekends, the skies over the field are filled with kites as the locals enjoy picnic lunches.  You can buy kites from vendors there and try it yourself!

Old San Juan Top 10 Photo Locations & Tips

This view of the walkway to el Morro gives you a sense of the size of the Esplanada

 

11. And even more…

Okay, okay, I know I promised just 10 locations, but there are many more wonderful photography subjects in Old San Juan…my advice is to just start walking and looking.  For example, a life-sized statue of famed Salsa composer Tite Curet Alonso makes a memorable shot (you can find him in the Plaza de Armas…it was actually his favorite bench!)

My granddaughter and son-in-law share a moment with Tite Curet Alonso

My granddaughter and son-in-law share a moment with Tite Curet Alonso

Even the streets themselves are interesting and subtlely beautiful.   They are paved with cobbles of adoquine, a blue stone cast from furnace slag.

Old San Juan Top 10 Photo Locations & Tips

Yup….the bricks are blue…

As you wander around photographing the  colored buildings you will also find iguanas, street performers, dozens of feral cats and a cornucopia of other subjects for your camera!

 

Tips for Photographers:

Old San Juan Top 10 Photo Locations & Tips

Which way to the palace?

1. Stay in the old city  If you will be there more than one night, find a room in the old city…NOT the modern part of San Juan.  Although the distance between the two is not significant, traffic can make it a long commute. Besides, you really get a chance to soak up the atmosphere if you stay in the old city.  My wife rented an apartment on a quiet street with a killer view on Airbnb for less than the cost of a ‘traditional’ hotel.  Seriously, find a place in the old city…you won’t regret it.

2. Don’t rent a car.  The city is full of narrow, one way streets and finding a parking spot can be impossible.  Besides, since the city is small, a reasonably fit person can cover it easily on foot…plus you just see so much more detail when you walk, if you were driving you would miss a lot of photo ops.

  • Taxis are also available, but can be hard to find.
  • There is a great hop-on, hop-off  free trolley service which you can use to cover ground quickly. It runs every day Monday through Friday from 7am until 6 pm, and Saturday and Sunday from 9am until 7pm every 15 minutes.  Click on this link for a map of the routes.

3. Hat, Sunscreen, Water, Walking Shoes  This is the tropics and the summers can be very hot.  Plus, the sun can be merciless.  My wife, for example, never gets sunburned, well, at least she never had until this visit to Old San Juan;)

Old San Juan Top 10 Photo Locations & Tips

4. Camera Gear

  • A wide angle lens is a must.  I had a 28mm on my full frame camera (about 18mm on a crop sensor APS-C camera) and it worked out well, but I wish I had brought my 14mm for some shots.
  • A regular lens in the 50-70mm range will come in handy for most of the other shots you will need.  I really didn’t find much need for a telephoto lens.
  • Travel tripod.  I used mine quite a bit, even during the day.  The buildings are tall and shots often have both shadows and brightly sunlit areas.  I often had to take bracketing shots so I could later process them in HDR to capture the full dynamic range.
  • Polarizer.  The skies over San Juan can make for a wonderful backdrop for your shots.  A polarizer will really make the blue ‘pop’ in your shots.

4. Time of Day to shoot

Old San Juan Top 10 Photo Locations & Tips

Little scenes like this abound in Old San Juan

This is one location that you truly can photograph 24 hours a day.  Seriously.

  • Early mornings have wonderful, soft light and is the least crowded time of the day.  Sunrise shots at the San Cristobal castle can be wonderful.  Then walk down to the Magdalena Cemetery (#3) for shots of El Morro castle with the sun at your back.
  • Mid-Day  This is the time to walk the streets and photograph the colorful buildings and the even more colorful people!  When you are photographing the quaint old buildings, I think they look best when the sun is high enough to get some light on them, so late morning thru early afternoon is prime-time.  Keep in mind that one side of a street might get great late morning light while the other side will be best with afternoon light…so you might need to cover the same street during different parts of the day in order to get shots of the buildings on both side of the road.
  • Sunset  The Raices Fountain (#6) is a wonderful spot for sunset shots.  Then you can easily head down the El Morro Trail (#1) for a series of great photo ops as the sun drops into the Atlantic.2016 Old San Juan-508 crop
  • Night  San Juan doesn’t ever sleep.  You will find folks on the streets all night. My favorite night locations were:
    • The La Rogativa statue (#5 on map) and
    • The city wall at Casa Rosada (#4 on map).  Position yourself at the city wall and shoot back toward the governor’s mansion (La Fortaleza).
    • Although there is a significant amount of crime in new San Juan, most of the old town is heavily patrolled by police.  I never felt uncomfortable at night but then again, I avoided dark, deserted areas.  Just use common sense like you would in any city.
      • One area to definitely avoid at night is the La Perla neighborhood. This is on the northern side of the city between el Morro and Castillo de San Cristobal (see this map).

2016 Old San Juan-294

I hope you and your camera get a chance to explore Old San Juan soon.  Even if you are like me and your first love is landscape or wildlife photography, you won’t be disappointed!
Jeff

Old San Juan Top 10 Photo Locations & Tips

I never miss the chance for an Iganua shot.

 

Old San Juan Top 10 Photo Locations & Tips

Also posted in Buildings/Ruins, Caribbean/Central & South America, Historical Tagged , , |

My Twelve Best of 2015

Writing my annual Top 12 blog is always interesting.  Yeah…interesting.  It’s a good word.  It covers everything from fun to frustrating…and that’s very appropriate.  Trying to filter 12,000 images down to 12 is a challenge.  Don’t get me wrong, it is fun to remember the trips I took to capture these shots…those are some wonderful memories.  But just 12 images…wow…it’s really frustrating trying to narrow it down that much.  On, the other hand, I guess it’s a good problem to have, it meant that 2015 resulted in a lot of work I was proud of.   Well anyway, you didn’t click on this blog to hear me ramble…you want to see photos, so here we go…my best work of the year 2015 (in no particular order):2015 Smokies_04_30_03285 3260 blendI know I said the photos aren’t ranked, but this might be my favorite shot of the year.  Heck, this might be my favorite shot ever.  I have huge metal print of this image hanging right over my desk and every time I see it, I seem to stop and drink it in for a moment or two.  Not only does it inspire me, but I always think of the improbable chain of events that resulted in me capturing this image.  It’s a shot that I shouldn’t have gotten, but I did…and I’m grateful.

2015 Smokies_04_30_02492 cropJust adorable.  I came upon this cub and his sister playing on the edge of a field in the Smokies and they couldn’t have been more cute if they had tried.  I spent a few hours  photographing them while hand-holding the ‘beast’ (my 200-400 lens…which weighs as much as the cub’s mom)…but it was worth every aspirin I had to swallow!

2015 Smokies_04_28_00219 blendGeorge Jetson was here!  Well, that’s the type of graffiti I was expecting to see on top of Clingman’s Dome when I was setting up this shot.  I love how the spiral observation tower mimics the grace of the Milky Way.

 

2015 Scuba 17 March 11879 crop2_1My wife and I were diving on a wreck in the Caribbean when this big kahuna joined us and made my day.  I’d never had much luck photographing sea turtles but that all changed on this trip!  I’d be the first to admit that I still have volumes to learn about underwater photography, but even so, my family considers this shot to be one of their favorites!

 

2015 PAC NW 08 12 2628My son and I had an epic hiking trip to the Pac NW last summer and came home with some lasting memories and killer waterfall photos…this shot of Ryan in front of Wachlella Falls is my pick from that litter….

 

2015 PAC NW 08 11 2353

On second thought, I kinda like this long exposure perspective of Ponytail Falls too…

 

2015 PAC NW 08 09 1205cropwm24x36

When I get to visit a location on my “Photographic Bucket List” I rarely come back with a photo I would consider ‘world class.’  After all, when you only have a day or two, what chance do you have to really learn how to best capture the scene PLUS be blessed with weather that makes the image truly something special?  This shot of ‘Thor’s Well’ was a welcome exception to that rule.

2015 Northwest 06 30 451 (1)

This Alaskan harbor seal appears due to the lobbying efforts of my wife.  I would have put it in my top 25 but not top 12…she disagreed.  Over the years I’ve learned to carefully listen when she speaks…

2015-northwest-06-24-656-blendskewsky

 

I have a love-hate thingy going with the Oregon/Washington coast.  I love that the coast line has some of the most breathtaking incredible vistas anywhere but I hate that the weather is often, usually, always crappy.  Okay…not always, but it sure seems that way to me.  So it takes some perseverance and luck to get a memorable image.  On the other hand, since you have to go back to the same spot multiple times hoping for good weather, when it finally does clear up, you have scouted the spot to death and know how you want to shoot it!

 

2015 Northwest 06 20 904

Washington’s Palouse Falls is an incredible sight and I’ve long believed that it would be even more impressive at night with the Milky Way rising over it.  Well, over the years I’ve tried many times to get that shot but the falls are in a deep, dark gorge and it is real challenge to light it up well. I tried long exposures…I tried light painting…  Nothing I did looked ‘right.’  One frustrating and unproductive night when I was breaking down my equipment a guy walked up and asked if I minded if he tried some light painting.  I chuckled to myself and told him to have at it since I’d thought I had already tried everything.  He pulled out the most powerful flashlight I’d ever seen and proceeded to do a masterful job of illuminating the gorge.  I snapped away and ended up with the shot I had always dreamed of.  My thanks to Ariel Rodilla for showing me that I still have a lot more to learn about light painting!

 

Best Photos of the Year

Perfect Palouse

Every photographer should have the chance to shoot the Palouse region of eastern Washington State at least once before they die.  It truly is a land that time forgot (in a good way) and the 360° views of the sensuous, smooth, and seemingly liquid landscape from Steptoe Butte are stunning.

 

Best Photos of the Year

Manatee Sunrise

I’ll finish with the most popular photograph I’ve ever published.  When I posted this one on my Facebook page, it seemed to really strike a chord with folks and it went viral.  Oddly enough, this photo bothers me.  When I look at it, all I seem to notice is that the front of this manatee’s nose is out of focus.  Sometimes being a perfectionist means you get hung up on small details and I’m certainly guilty of that.  It was an incredible moment though, when this manatee surfaced right in front of me while I was taking a shot of the sunrise.  If only he had given me the time to make sure the shot was in focus…

It was an incredible year for me professionally and personally.  I explored more of this incredible planet, met lots of wonderful folks, sold some prints, won a contest or two and got a few images published.  Plus, even after all these years, I found that photography continued to challenge and inspire me.   Even better, my wife and I got my first Grandchild (little London Grace)…which helps keep my photography obsession in perspective.

Life is Good.

Jeff

Also posted in Best Photos of the Year, Landscape Photography, Milky Way Photography, Pacific Northwest USA, Underwater Photography, Waterfalls, Wildlife

Lost in Space: Photographing the Perseid Meteor Shower at Lost Lake Oregon

Lost in Space:  Photographing the Perseid Meteor Shower at Lost Lake Oregon

Yes, I am a child of the 60s!

Have you ever seen the excitement in a child’s face when she experiences something for the first time?  Seeing that joy and hearing those squeals of delight are one of the things I most love most about children.

As we get older, we tend to get jaded and take much of life for granted.  Those moments of childlike happiness become a rare thing.  Which is one of the reasons that I adore photography….it continually challenges me to seek out new locations and experiences and helps keep the child alive in me.

For, example, earlier this year my son Ryan and I were planning a trip to Oregon.  While talking with one of my friends in Portland, he mentioned that the Perseid meteor shower would be peaking when I was visiting.  Now honestly, I had vaguely heard of the Perseid’s before, but neither Ryan or I had ever even seen a meteor, much less photographed one.

But a quick search on Google educated me:  The annual Perseid meteor shower is probably the most popular one of the year.  When the Earth crosses the path of Comet Swift-Tuttle in late August, debris from the comet cuts thru our atmosphere at 130,000 miles per hour sometimes resulting in dozens of meteors per hour.

Well that certainly sounded like something I wanted to see!

But where in Oregon would be best to photograph this spectacle?  I wanted a spot with great views (of course) and little light pollution.  After some research on the internet, I decided to split my time between two locations in northern Oregon’s Cascade Mountain range: Trillium Lake and Lost Lake.

Well, we got to Trillium Lake on Aug 10th right after sunset.  And the sky was overcast.  Couldn’t see a single star.    Killed a couple hours eating dinner (and drinking great local beer) then went outside to check again.  Clouds.  Went to bed and got up two more times to check.  Clouds.  The sky did start to clear up just before sunrise so Ryan and I went down to Trillium and captured some shots, but by then it was too bright to see meteors.  Just the same, it was a quiet, peaceful sunrise.  Trillium Lake is an idyllic spot and it is easy to visualize how incredible photos can be taken here..

Lake Trillium Oregon Sunrise

Other than the kayaker and one very persistent duck, Ryan seemed to have the view to himself.

After a day exploring some incredible waterfalls in the Columbia River Gorge (another post about this adventure later) we pulled into Lost Lake late in the afternoon and set up camp in our Yurt.  What’s a yurt you ask?  Well, when you make reservations at a popular campground only a month in advance during peak season, a yurt is likely to be the only thing left available. Like I said, photography helps me have new experiences…

I had pre-scouted the area on Google Earth and knew I wanted to photograph the meteors from the north-western shore (Lost Lake is shaped like a triangle, and the northwestern shore faces Mt. Hood).  What I couldn’t see on my computer was that trees grow right up to the shore blocking your view of the sky, not exactly ideal for sky photography.  But there was one strip of shore, maybe 100′ long that was perfect: overhead it had a clear stretch of sky and below in the shallows of the lake were wonderful boulders and fallen trees that made great foreground subjects.

Except for one little problem…a group of folks were already there enjoying a bonfire.  So Ryan and I hiked up the shoreline vainly looking for a decent alternative location but we had no luck.  We returned to a spot near the original location and made the best of it, but the light from their fire played havoc on my shots.  Their party finally wrapped up by 11 pm and as their fire faded out, the views of the stars and meteors reflected on the calm lake became more visible.

Lost in Space:  Photographing the Perseid Meteor Shower at Lost Lake Oregon

But my heart had been set on taking shots of Mt. Hood with the Milky Way behind it.  Unfortunately, by this late hour the rotation of the earth had moved the Milky Way so far to the west that I couldn’t fit it into the frame with Mt. Hood.  Plus I had hauled my not-so-young body around for miles that day and I was exhausted, so headed back to camp with hopes of better luck the following night.

The next morning, we went back to watch the dawn.  No wind, no clouds, (no bonfire!)…it was one of the most perfect scenes I could imagine.

Sunrise at Lost Lake Oregon Mt. Hood

After a few shots, we hit the road early to go hike more waterfalls but drove back to Lost Lake well before sunset to get ‘first dibs’ on our spot.   As the clearing came into view we were happy to see that we were the only ones there, so we set up our equipment, set back and relaxed while we waited for the show to start.

It turned out Ryan and weren’t the only photographers that knew about “our” perfect spot.  Over the next couple hours, four more shutterbugs (who had also previously scouted the area) set up next to us.  They knew that the peak of the meteor shower was going to be that night (Aug 12) and had all traveled to Lost Lake to capture images of it.

Actually, this is one of the things that Ryan and I like most about photography…meeting and getting to know other photographers.  Most of them love to talk about their hobby and share their knowledge and swap stories.  One of the guys, Dan Duerden, was a High School teacher from British Columbia who was spending his 3 month summer holiday on a photographic journey through the PAC NW.  Dan is an incredibly talented photographer and you can see more of his work on his Instagram page: https://instagram.com/dduerds/ .  Ryan had recently started posting his own photos on Instagram (https://instagram.com/ryanstamer/)  and the two of them had an animated conversation about that topic…it was all way over my head.

There was a retired guy obsessed with photography (not that I’m throwing stones!).  Along with him was his long suffering wife who described herself as his “Sherpa” because she got to lug around all of his gear.  When Ryan heard that, he playfully elbowed me in the ribs…. because he is my designated tripod-carrier on our hikes.

Anyway, we spent the next few hours taking our photos and quietly talking on the edge of the shore.  We watched the sky…and listened to the “Ewwws!” and “Ahhhs!” from the campers on the other side of the lake as meteors streaked across the heavens.

Lost in Space:  Photographing the Perseid Meteor Shower at Lost Lake Oregon

“Ryan’s World”

 

I had two camera set up to automatically take continuous photos.    This ensured that I would capture nearly every meteor that flew over our heads.  It also gave me the chance to try my hand at making a time-lapse video.  The resulting ‘film’ condenses about 600 photographs down to less than 100 seconds, take a look:

In addition to the meteors, you can also see a number of aircraft and satellites in this video, but basically, anything that you see for less than a half of a second is likely to have been a meteor…and there were a bunch!    This is my first ‘real’ time-lapse and I’m still learning…but it was a lot of fun and I’m pretty happy with the result.

There weren’t a lot of meteors early in the evening, but they appeared with increasing frequency as the hours went by.  Just the same, of the 700+ frames I took over two days, there was only a single image that captured two at the same time:

Lost in Space:  Photographing the Perseid Meteor Shower at Lost Lake Oregon

Twice as nice

Note how the meteors are multi-hued, plus they tend to be wider toward the center.  I learned that these attributes help you distinguish them from satellites or aircraft.

I really loved the way the Milky Way arched over the entire lake.  It was too wide a view to capture in a single shot so I stitched five frames to make a panorama:Lost in Space:  Photographing the Perseid Meteor Shower at Lost Lake Oregon

Here is one last shot I’d like to share.  Basically, I took most of the decent sized meteors I photographed on Aug 12 and placed them on a single image.  I had to reorient some of them to take into account the rotation of the earth (since we saw the meteors over a 3 hour span of time).  It certainly makes for an interesting image:

Milky Way and Perseid Photography at Lost Lake Oregon

“Fusillade

By 1 am Ryan and I were yawning and since we planned to be hiking again in a few hours we thought it might be nice to get a bit of sleep first.  We said goodnight to our new friends and headed for our sleeping bags.

Over the next week or so, Ryan I spent time at a number of amazing places in the PAC NW, but our time at Lost Lake has become one of our favorite memories from the trip.   It kind of reminded us of one of those old-time fishing camps nestled way back in the woods. The area is truly beautiful, peaceful and seems to do wonders for your soul.

Plus, I got to have some NEW experiences.  Yeah, maybe I didn’t exactly squeal like a child, but it made me feel young just the same.

 

Jeff

PS:  If you go to Lost Lake, here is a map showing the spot we “found”:

Map for Photographing the Milky Way at Lost Lake Oregon

 

 

 Photographing the Perseid Meteor Shower at Lost Lake Oregon

Photographing the Perseid Meteor Shower at Lost Lake Oregon

 

 

 

 

Also posted in Milky Way Photography, Pacific Northwest USA, Time Lapse Photography Tagged , , , |

Milky Way Photography in the Smokies: Clingman’s Dome

In late April  I found myself alone atop the third highest mountain east of the Mississippi.  It was 4am, and I had just gotten out of my car in the freezing parking lot at  Clingman’s Dome.  It had been about an hour and a half since my iPhone alarm had roused me from my toasty room in Cherokee, NC and I was having second thoughts.

So, why would I want to be there…and at THAT hour?  Well, I had my heart set on photographing the Milky Way from the top of the mountain, but according to my Sky Safari app, it wouldn’t rise high enough above the horizon for a decent photo until 3:30am.   I had just driven up from Florida the evening before and my 50+ year old body was cranky and sleep-deprived as I hiked up the path to the Observation Tower.  About halfway up the trail, I stopped and looked up.  My fatigue was instantly forgotten as I glimpsed the Milky Way with my bare eyes for the first time in nearly six months:

Milky Way Photography in the Smokies:  Clingman's Dome

No matter how many times I see it, sight of the Milky Way always leaves me in awe. ____Nikon D800E/Nikkor 14-24 lens/f/2.8/ISO 3200/30 sec.

At the end of the short but steep trail, I reached the observation tower.   The Milky Way was pretty high in the sky and I set up my tripod almost directly below the tower.  From this perspective, the ramp seemed to lead all the way to the band of starts:

Milky Way Photography in the Smokies:  Clingman's Dome

“Tower of Terror” ________Nikon D800E/Nikkor 14-24 lens/f/2.8/ISO 3200/30 sec.

I used my headlamp to briefly illuminate the tower for a few seconds during the 30 second exposures.  It took quite a bit of trial and error to avoid having one section overexposed and the other dark, but eventually I got the hang of it.

After a while, I moved further away from the tower which allowed the Milky Way to wind over the serpentine tower:

Milky Way Photography in the Smokies:  Clingman's Dome

♫Meet George Jetson, his boy Elroy…♪__Nikon D800E/Nikkor 14-24 lens/f/2.8/ISO 2200/30 sec.

After about an hour and a half, I noticed that the Milky Way was starting to fade as dawn approached.  That gave me just enough time to try something new.  I had been reading about time-lapse photography and thought this would be a great venue to give it a first shot.  So I set my Nikon up to automatically take a series of 30 second exposures…one after another.  I started it up and sat back as the camera started snapping away.  Well, I only had about ten minutes to spare before I had to hit the trail and since it takes 30 frames to make one second of a time-lapse, that means that I ended up with less than one second of  actual ‘film.’  See the clip below if you have a free moment (literally) to spare:).

Did you miss it?  Yup…that is what you call a short video!  Not a terrible first effort…but it was clear that next time I would need to shoot for a few hours.  Plus I would bring warmer gloves, a folding stool and a book so I could stick it out long enough to make a real video.

I hiked back to the Subaru and then joined the other photographers setting up for the sunrise on the edge of the parking lot.  The lack of clouds eliminated any chance of a ‘National Geographic’ shot, but even an average dawn at Clingman’s is wonderful.  There is nothing like the view of the dancing orange sky behind those blue mountain ridges receding off into infinity:

Milky Way Photography in the Smokies:  Clingman's Dome

Smokies Icon

Well, as it turns out, there wasn’t another clear night the whole week I was there, so I didn’t get another shot at my time-lapse.    But I’m not whining…I learned a lot and besides, now I have something to look forward to on my next trip to the Smokies!

Milky Way Tips for Photographers:

Check out my Milky Way how-to Blog to learn about the basics for this type of photography

Specific Tips for Milky Way Photography at Clingman’s Dome:

  • Locations:

    Milky Way Photography in the Smokies:  Clingman's Dome

    “The Emergence” __D800E/Sigma 15mm Fisheye/f2.8/ISO 3200/ 30 sec

  1. Most photographers set up right on the edge of the parking lot at the top of Clingman’s.  It is a good location facing south with unobstructed views stretching from east to west.  But, there is quite a bit of light pollution on the horizon with nothing to block it out. Sometimes that can work to your advantage like it did for me in the shot shown to the right:
  2. The trail to the Observation Tower can work out well.  Keep looking over your shoulder as you walk up the trail and look for views in which the Milky Way is framed by the trees (like the first shot shown in this blog).
  3. Shots that include the Observation Tower are my personal favorite.  The design is so “Jetsons”  and futuristic that it just cries out to be silhouetted against the cosmos in a Milky Way shot.
    1. The paved trail from the parking lot is only a half mile but it isn’t lighted and it is steep…plus you will be carrying a tripod and the rest of your equipment.  Give yourself at least a half hour.
    2. Also, if you aren’t used to the lack of oxygen at 6643′, you might find yourself out of breath.  I’m from Florida and our highest point is only 345′, and trust me, there is a difference!
  • Equipment
  1. Dress warm.  It is often 20 degrees cooler at Clingman’s than it is in Gatlinburg or Cherokee.
  2. Dress dry.  I swear that I get wet at least half the time I’m on Clingman’s even if the rest of the park is dry.  That might be a slight exaggeration, but pack your rain gear for you and your equipment.
  • Safety
  1. Like any isolated spot, you should consider your safety at Clingman’s, especially  if you are there for a night shoot.  I’ve never personally had a bit of trouble but leaving valuables in plain sight in your car would be tempting fate.
  2. Yes, there are bears in the Smokies, lots of them, but unless you try to kidnap a cub from it’s mother or have a pork chop hanging around your neck, you should be fine.
  • Time of year
  1. Spring thru Fall is the best time of the year to observe the Milky Way in the Smokies.  However, it is most visible during the summer. Also, it isn’t visible early in the evening during the spring but by late fall you can see it right after sunset. Use the internet or a smartphone app so you know exactly when it will rise…that way you can plan when you should be at Clingman’s.
  2. The Milky Way also shifts where it appears in the sky during the course of the year.  During the spring it appears more in the southeastern sky but by the fall it will shift to the southwest.  Again, apps like Sky Safari will let you know where to expect it.

Enjoy your Milky Way Photography at Clingman’s and best of luck!
Jeff

 

Also posted in Milky Way Photography, Southeast U.S.A. Tagged , , |

Secrets and Tips for Great Aurora Borealis Photography

The Earth is blessed with many beautiful and emotionally provocative sights, but I seriously doubt that any of them can top the Aurora Borealis for sheer sensuous and awe-inspiring beauty. The Northern Lights have amazed mankind long before the ancient Romans named ‘Aurora’ the Goddess of Dawn and the Greeks called the wind ‘Boreas’.   Unfortunately for most photographers, the ‘Dawn Wind’ is not something we get a chance to capture often.  When we do, it is often after travelling long distances and spending some serious dollars.  So, if you do get the chance to photograph the Northern (or Southern) Lights, you probably want to make the most of the opportunity  That became very clear to me after I published my last blog, which was a recap of a recent Aurora photography trip.  I was deluged with emails asking for specifics on how to take Aurora photos.    So, in this blog, I will share with you the Secrets and Tips for Great Aurora Borealis Photography.

Secrets and Tips for Great Aurora Borealis Photography

Scout locations that include water for some great reflective shots of the Aurora. D800E / 14-24 Nikkor f2.8 / 15 seconds @ f2.8 / ISO 400

Where can you find the Aurora?

  1. The Northern Lights are sometimes visible far below the Arctic Circle…but if you are going to plan a trip to see them, you really need to go north…way north!  The northern areas of Alaska, Canada, Norway, Iceland, Greenland, Finland and Russia are all prime locations.  For most of us, the best choice will depend on how close/affordable each option is.
  2. Most of the towns in these areas are pretty small, so city lights are not much of a problem.  Fairbanks Alaska, for example, has only 32,000 residents and I didn’t find light pollution to be much of an issue.
  3. Personally, I thought Fairbanks was an excellent Aurora location.  It had a fine international airport with lots of daily flights, rental car agencies and plenty of hotels.  Plus, if I got tired of town,  it had good roads heading out into the back country that I could explore and photograph.  It also didn’t hurt that I spoke the language and felt very comfortable there.
    • Keep in mind that if you live in the southern hemisphere, the Aurora Australis might be your best bet.  This counterpart of the Aurora Borealis is visible in Antarctica, of course, but sometimes can be seen from the South Island of New Zealand , southern Australia (especially Tasmania), and southern Chile/Argentina.

When is the best time?

  1. Aurora Borealis season in northern polar latitudes (Alaska, northern Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Siberia) runs from August to April.  During the summer months of May thru July, the sun rarely sets and it is just too bright to see the Aurora.
    • Statistically, the equinox months of September and March are best for aurora activity. The winter months of October to February should be your second choice.
  2. You will still be at the mercy of the clouds.  A few clouds can be a nice accompaniment, but if your trip is only for a few days and it is totally overcast every night, you are out of luck.
    • Schedule as long a trip of you can to increase your chances of having at least one or two clear nights.  When you consider a location also take into account if it has any daytime photo ops that would keep you busy if the Aurora is elusive/
    • Check out the long-range weather forecasts and historical weather patterns for the locations you are considering.  See how many clear nights they usually experience.
      • Iceland, for example, is overcast nearly 90% of the time.  Plus, the clouds are constant…one time of the year is about as cloudy as the next.
      •  Alaska, on the other hand, does have fewer clouds in the spring…about half the nights are clear or partially cloudy.  In the fall, however, it is cloudy nearly 80-90% of the time.   On my last 10 day tip to Alaska in September, for example, I had only 3 clear nights.
  3. The Aurora can be pretty bright, which means you don’t have to schedule your trip during the part of a month with moonless nights.  In fact, I prefer full moons, since they light up the landscape with out you having to try to do so with your own lighting.
  4. There actually is a daily forecasts for the Aurora.  If you are going to Alaska, check out the University of Alaska, Fairbanks’ Geophysical InstituteIceland and the other places you might travel to also have their own forecasts, just Google it.
    • However, if you’ve travelled a great distance to photograph the Aurora, you shouldn’t write off a night of photography because of a bad forecast.  Like weather forecasts, these aren’t always accurate.
    • Forecasts range between 0 and 9 with the higher numbers indicating more intense Aurora activity.

Scout Locations during the Day

Any photo of a nice Aurora is wonderful, even if the surrounding landscape is flat and boring.  BUT…the same photo can be magnificent with a killer foreground.  Spend your day driving around looking for locations that will add interest to your shots.

  • Calm rivers and lakes can make wonderful mirrors for the Aurora.
  • Mountains and hills will break up the horizon and give your shot some pizzazz.
  • Putting a cabin or tent in the foreground (with a light on inside it) is a great touch.

The Aurora usually appears to the northwest/northeast.  If there are any cities around, look for potential locations that would allow you to photograph the Aurora to the north but place the towns behind you (to your south).

Consider hiring a local guide

I rarely hire guides.  I like doing things on my own.  I’m tight with a dollar. One of the few times I did hire a guide, was the last time I went on an Aurora Photography tour…and I’m glad I did.

The fact is that the Arctic is much different from the world most of us know.  Here is one example: Many of the best locations for Aurora photography in Alaska are north of Fairbanks off of the dangerous Dalton highway.  However, it isn’t legal to drive most rental cars on the Dalton.  Which means either you hire a puddle jumper, take a heck of a chance and illegally drive your rental car anyway or pay an insane amount of money to the few rental agencies that will let you take their vehicles on the Dalton.  My guide had his own custom-made van, has driven the Dalton for years and knew the best spots for Aurora photography.

I worked with Hugh Rose.  He lives in Fairbanks, has been a photographer and tour leader there for decades and he seriously knows his stuff.

Have the right equipment

I’m personally a bit sick of hearing “It’s not the camera…It’s the photographer!”  The statement is true…to a point, but even the best photographer would be up a (frozen) creek without a paddle if he/she didn’t have the right equipment when photographing the Northern Lights

  1. The Camera.
    1. The new, full frame DSLRs truly excel at low-light photography.  The Nikon 600/700/810s, etc, as well as the Canon 1D/5D/6Ds are all excellent choices for this type of work.
    2. ASPC cameras (“cropped-frame”) are certainly more affordable but they can’t quite deliver the same quality.  Nevertheless, I’ve seen them produce great Aurora shots.
  2. Tripod.   Since you are taking long exposures, a tripod is mandatory.  Use a tall tripod so you won’t spend all night bending down into uncomfortable positions as you try to review your camera’s LCD screen.
  3. A cable or wireless shutter release.
  4. Lens:  Fast!
    • The Aurora is much brighter than most subjects you would normally photograph at night so you might think you wouldn’t need a particularly ‘fast’ lens.  However, unlike the slow-moving Milky Way, Auroras can move across the sky at a pretty good clip.  As a result, you need to take much shorter exposures in order to capture the  quick-changing aspects of Auroras.  Some details, like the ‘curtain-effect’ (see the reddish area of the Aurora on the left side of the photo below) will be blurred and  lost with exposures over 10-15 seconds.  Therefore, I’d suggest a 2.8f lens or faster.
    • Let’s put this in perspective:  A 2.8f lens is twice as fast as a 3.5f.  In other words, if you took an 8 second exposure with a f2.8 lens and then switched to a f3.5 lens, you would have to take a 16 second exposure to get the same amount of light.   By the same token, a f2.0 lens is twice as fast as a 2.8f and so on.

      Secrets and Tips for Great Aurora Borealis Photography

      I love how the red Aurora reflected off the river in the bottom right of this shot, while the green Aurora on the left reflected off the Dalton Highway. D800E / 14-24 Nikkor f2.8 / 15 seconds @ f2.8 / ISO 3200

  5. Lens:  Wide
    • Aurorascan be WIDE…they can stretch from horizon to horizon.
      Secrets and Tips for Great Aurora Borealis Photography

      Moonlight backlit this Aurora and turned it into something truly special. D800E / Nikkor 14-24 f2.8 / 30 seconds @ f2.8 / ISO 2200

      • If you have a full frame camera, then 14mm would do the trick.  I use my 14-24mm Nikon 2.8f zoom and have found it to be an excellent choice for Aurora photography.  For Auroras that span from horizon to horizon, you might want to try a 16mm fisheye lens
      • If your camera is ASP-C format, then a regular 10-12 mm would work ( or a 8 or 10 mm fisheye),
    • Panoramas?
      • With the Milky Way, you can take multiple shots with lenses that aren’t particularly wide and then stitch them together in Photoshop (or a similar program).   However, since Auroras move quickly, panoramas are usually not an option….so you really need that wide lens.
  6. Photoshop.  Right out of the camera, Aurora shots can be amazing.  But often you are going to need to process the photo in Photoshop, Elements or a similar photo processing program to get the most out of the image.
  7. L-Bracket.  This isn’t a Must-Have…more of a ‘really Nice-to-Have.”  L-Brackets attach to your camera and allow you to connect it to your tripod in a portrait orientation without having to swivel your camera sideways on your ballhead.  This means that you don’t have to lean over so much and it gives your tripod better balance. L Brackets are available from a number of companies (Kirk, Really Right Stuff, etc).  Basically no more than a well-machined piece of painted aluminium, the pricing can be surprising high.  I have found that  Hejner products to be high quality and reasonably priced.
  8. Headlamp.
  9. Extra Batteries.  The cold will drain your batteries quicker than normal.  Keep a couple spares in a warm pocket.
  10. Warm clothes.  This topic could be the source of a whole article.  Obviously if the temperature will be low and you will be standing outside for hours, you won’t be able to concentrate on the Aurora if you can no longer feel your extremities!  Pay particular to your feet…the cold will seep into them from the ground.

Technique

  1. Focus. 
    •  The best idea is simply to focus on an object in the far distance before the sun sets.  Then turn off the auto-focus and put a couple pieces of tape on the focus ring to hold it in place.  This way, your camera will already be pre-focused before it gets dark and you can be assured your shots will be perfectly focused.  Otherwise, you have to try to focus in the dark, which is more difficult.  Plus, without the tape, you will likely bump your lens at some point…and that will throw all future shots out of focus.  Unless you review EVERY shot at full magnification…which you should do of course (but that is a habit difficult to learn…at least for me!)
    • If you don’t get a chance to focus before it gets dark you need to keep in mind that your autofocus won’t work well at night.  So you will need to switch to manual focus.
      • Simply setting your lens to ‘infinity’ usually won’t work…many lenses don’t have a hard stop on their focus ring at infinity…if you go a bit too far the stars will be unfocused.
      • Focus manually on the moon,  a distant streetlight…or particularly bright star.  Take a shot, then review it at full magnification to see if your focus is crisp  (use a loupe if you have one available).  Then lock your focus (if your camera has that ability) or use tape.
  2. Camera Orientation (portrait or landscape)  simply depends on what the Aurora looks like the night you are photographing. Most of my shots are taken in portrait orientation, but within a few minutes, the Borealis can shift and you might find that a landscape perspective would be the better choice. Be prepared to shift your camera between both orientations (another benefit of an L-Bracket).

    Secrets and Tips for Great Aurora Borealis Photography

    The full moon really illuminated the fall foliage on the other side of the Chena River in this image. D800E / Nikkor 14-24 f2.8 / 15 seconds @ f2.8 / ISO 400

  3. Lighting.  If you are shooting under a bright moon, ambient lighting might be all you need.   However, if there isn’t much moonlight or if you want to draw attention to a particular feature in the foreground you will need to illuminate it yourself.  Sometimes a headlamp will do the trick but for larger subjects you might need a portable spotlight.  Bring both so you are ready for any eventuality.
  4. Composition Test.  Once you have selected what you want to include in your composition, take a trial shot.  If it is too difficult to really see the results on your LCD screen, increase your ISO to 10,000 and run your shutter speed up to a full minute.  This will result in an overexposed shot, but you will be able to clearly see if your composition is perfect (you can also use this technique to check that your focus is perfect).
  5. Aperture.  Now that your composition is determined, set your camera to Manual Priority and dial in the widest aperture your lens is capable of.
  6. Shutter Speed.  First set a  shutter speed of 8 seconds (or put the camera in “Bulb Mode” and count the seconds yourself).  Take the shot and look at your histogram.   If  the histogram is bunched completely to the left (too dark), reset your camera to a slightly longer exposure and try again.  Keep adding seconds to the exposure until you get proper exposure (the  histogram should be bunched somewhere near the center).
    • Ideally, you want an exposure in the 8-15 second range.
      1. Anything over 15 seconds will ‘blur’ detail in the Aurora.  Some Aurora’s don’t have much detail, so that might not be an issue
      2. Anything over 30 seconds will likely result in ‘streaked’ stars.
  7. Adjust your exposure.  I find it helpful to dial in a +2/3 to +1 Exposure compensation
  8. Shoot in RAW.  If you are a pro, you are already using RAW exclusively.  If you’ve never shot anything other than the default JPEG format, then give RAW a try.  Unlike JPEG, which condenses and throws away a lot of the data your camera’s sensor captures, RAW files keep all the data.  As a result, the files are larger, but they also give you the potential to do much more with your shot.
  9. ISO. This really depends on your camera and just how bright the Aurora is on the night you are shooting.
    • The newer full frame cameras can take good quality shots well over ISO 1600, while older cameras and those with smaller sensor might create so much noise that you might not be able to go over 800.
    • The brightness of the Aurora, however, will be the primary factor that determines your ISO.  I’ve seen some nights that the Aurora was so bright you could read a newspaper by its light.  In that case I was able to shoot with an ISO as low as 400 with no problem (see the shot to the right).  Other nights, the Aurora was be much dimmer (but still beautiful) and I’ve had to dial the ISO all the way up to 2200 with my Nikon D800E.
    • The way to figure out the right ISO is simply to take practice shots after you first set up and adjust from there.  Find out how high you really need to set your ISO for your camera and the brightness of the Aurora.  Remember that the lower your ISO, the less noise in the resulting image.  Also keep in mind that the Aurora’s brightness will change during the night, so you might have to adjust your ISO setting accordingly.
  10. Turn off your IS/VR.  This is the ‘anti-shake’ function built into your lens.  Since you are shooting from a tripod, it won’t be necessary.
  11. Remove any filters from your lens.  Many photographers, myself included, attach high quality UV filters to the end of every lens and leave them there.  They provide some protection to the lens and don’t affect the quality of the image.  However, some reputable photographers have reported issues with these filters when photographing the Aurora, especially during severe cold.  My advice would be to remove any filters…no reason to take a chance on ruining a once in a lifetime shot.
  12. Blend the Foreground. If there isn’t much moonlight, the foreground will likely be little more than a silhouette.  That can be a really nice effect, but also try some shots that  include some detail in the foreground.  The best way to do this is take your 8 second (or so) shot of the Aurora and then, without moving the camera, take a much longer exposure (try 30 seconds to start) which will better expose the foreground.  Later, you can blend the two images together in Photoshop which will give you a shot perfected exposed for the Aurora and the foreground.
  13. Test, Test and Test Again!   It can be a real temptation to just start ripping off shots of the Aurora because you are afraid it isn’t going to last.  I’ve fallen for that temptation myself.  But trust me, the right thing to do is to slow down and try different settings and then methodically review them.  Experiment!   Since each shot takes less than 10 seconds, you can afford to take a number of test shots to get everything perfect.

Post-Production Processing

This is where the pure technique ends and you get to be creative!  I will give you specific Photoshop pointers but other photo processing software can give you the same results.

Secrets and Tips for Great Aurora Borealis Photography

If you want a real processing challenge, try a shot with both the Milky Way AND the Aurora!
D800E / Nikkor 14-24 f2.8 / 30 seconds @ f2.8 / ISO 3200

  1. Temperature   I adjust the slider between 3000 and 4800 until I find a spot that has a nice balance between the cold blues and warm oranges.
  2. Exposure   Try increasing your exposure to see if it make a lot more stars visible without washing out the entire frame.
  3. Tone Curve  Darkening the shadows and brightening the highlights often makes things ‘pop.’
  4. Clarity.  A small shift to the right on the clarity slider can really help the stars appear nice and crisp.
  5. Hue/Saturation/Luminance.  Here is where the real fun starts.  Your challenge is to coax your camera’s digital image to accurately reflect what you actually saw.  Be careful not to oversaturate the colors or shift hues to extremes.
  6. The targeted adjustment tool is a great way to focus your efforts just on the main part of the Aurora.   For example, I often find that enhancing the ‘clarity’ of the Aurora can help define details.  This tool also helps you isolate hue/saturation adjustments to specific parts of the image.
  7. Noise adjustment.  You are going to have noise in your raw image.  The amount will depend onyoursettingsandthe quality of the sensor in your camera.
    1. You are going to need to reduce the noise to create a high quality image. There are a number of noise reduction programs you can use (I use Nik’s Dfine 2)
    2. No matter what software you use, remember that noise is usually a lot more noticeable in the foreground elements (darker areas) than in the bright areas of the Aurora, so don’t use a ‘blanket’ or overall adjustment.  If nothing else, just put the foreground on a different layer and apply a different level of noise control.

With these directions and a bit of practice, you should be set to go out and take your own impressive Aurora photographs.  However, I’ve provided only the basics.  If you want to learn more, I strongly recommend the iPhone app How to Photograph the Northern Lights  (or you can get it in an e-book/PDF ).  Written by Alaskan resident Patrick J. Endres,  this is an exhaustive 280 page review on how to photograph the Aurora.  It costs about $25, but if you are spending serious bucks to photograph the Northern Lights, then it would be  a pretty small part of that investment.

The Aurora is truly one of natures greatest wonders, I hope you get a chance to watch a performance soon!
Jeff

 

 

For night’s swift dragons cut the clouds full fast,
And yonder shines Aurora’s harbinger

William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (c. 1595-96), Act III, scene 2, line 379.

Also posted in Alaska, Photo Tips and Guides Tagged , , , |

A Childhood Dream Come True; Seeing and Photographing the Aurora

Once, when I was a kid, my family was on vacation in Canada.  We were out on our boat fishing in Lake Huron and the wind came up.  It was blowing so hard we couldn’t make it back to camp and we had to spent the night on the rocky shore.   That night, after my brother and I went to sleep, the Northern Lights came out.  Although we had never seen the Aurora  before, my Mom and Dad didn’t wake us up, thinking we really needed our sleep.   The next morning, the wind had calmed and we were able to get our boat back to camp.  But when I found that I had missed a chance to see the Aurora, I was terribly disappointed .   I carried that regret for the next forty years.

Last month, I got a chance to finally fulfill that childhood wish.   I took a ten day trip to Alaska on a Hugh Rose Photography Tour.  My primary goal was to  see (and photograph) the Aurora Borealis.  In this blog, I’ll share with you some photos and highlights of that experience.

The tour group met for dinner the first night in Fairbanks and our guides (Hugh Rose and Ron Niebrugge) gave us some pointers about shooting the Aurora.  They suggested we get some practice that night, so  I set my alarm for 11pm.  When it woke me up in my nice, warm bed a few hours later, I peeked out my window and saw a bit of green in the sky.  It wasn’t much, but it was an Aurora, my first!  I quickly gathered my gear and walked down to the Chena River, which was no more than two minutes behind my room at  the River’s Edge Resort  .  I quickly set up and here was my first effort:

A Childhood Dream Come True;  Seeing and Photographing the Aurora Borealis

I didn’t particularly like the lighted highway bridge, so I hiked upstream until it was out of sight and found  a spot where the river turned north (toward the Aurora).  This bend made the river look a lot wider, which allowed me to capture more of the Aurora reflected in the water.  As time passed, I noticed that the Borealis gradually increased in size and intensified in color as well.

A Childhood Dream Come True;  Seeing and Photographing the Aurora Borealis           A Childhood Dream Come True;  Seeing and Photographing the Aurora Borealis

By now it was midnight and for the next three hours I was totally enthralled by the spectacle in the heavens above me. It was glorious.  What really surprised and delighted me was that the Aurora MOVES.  I had seen time lapse videos which showed the Lights moving, but I thought it did so slowly…I didn’t think you could watch it move  with your  bare eyes.  I was wrong.  I stood there in awe as it slowly and sensuously danced across the sky.

There was a full moon, which did a wonderful job of illuminating the trees across the river.  Fall had come to Fairbanks early, so those trees were blessed with a riot of autumn colors as well. The river was flowing slowly and with long exposures, I was able to capture great reflections!

A Childhood Dream Come True;  Seeing and Photographing the Aurora Borealis             A Childhood Dream Come True;  Seeing and Photographing the Aurora Borealis

The next morning at breakfast, the tour group was excitedly bubbling about what a wonderful exhibition we had seen the night before.  It turned out that there had been a massive solar flare a few days earlier and it had just hit the Earth’s atmosphere.  And since the Aurora is caused by the collision of solar wind and magnetospheric charged particles, the result was the killer display we had witnessed.

The forecast for the upcoming night promised an even better and more intense Aurora.   Plus, the Northern Lights tend to be better the further north you go and the higher in elevation you are.   Since our plan was to spend the night in Wiseman, which was 270 miles north and at an elevation twice that of Fairbanks, our expectations were thru the roof.    But wouldn’t you know it…as it turned out, the night was pretty much a bust.  The Aurora was pretty wimpy compared to the previous night and to make matters worse, it clouded over as well.

A Childhood Dream Come True;  Seeing and Photographing the Aurora Borealis

That little spot of light by the river is the headlamp of a disappointed photographer (me). Photo by Cesar Aristeiguieta

We never did figure out why the Aurora didn’t live up to the forecast.  But the really frustrating thing was that those clouds that had rolled in didn’t leave.  In fact, we didn’t have clear skies for another week.   Fortunately, we had plenty of wildlife to photograph (see my upcoming blog about Polar Bears on Barter Island).

Over the next week, I got up every night a couple of times to see if the weather had broken, but I had no luck.  With the trip nearly over, we were driving back to Wiseman at midnight in the middle of the Brooks Range when I looked back over my shoulder and saw that the sky was clearing…even better, I could see color in the heavens.  Our vans pulled over at a great spot a few miles ahead that Hugh had previously scouted and we piled out to set up our tripods.

A Childhood Dream Come True;  Seeing and Photographing the Aurora Borealis

This was a wild view. The nearly full moon backlit this scene and really boosted the Aurora’s brightness…it looked like a rainbow on steroids. This effect was visible for less than a minute and this was the only shot I was able to get before it faded.,

I was really excited to see red in the Aurora.  Red is considered rare compared to the more common green shades I had seen the week before.  I rushed around to find foreground elements and leading lines I could use.

A Childhood Dream Come True;  Seeing and Photographing the Aurora Borealis

Possibly my favorite shot of the trip. The reds had faded to burgundy but the ‘curtain effect’ was strikingly visible on the left side of the Aurora. I loved how the red color of the Aurora was reflected in the river to the left while the road on the right reflected shades of green!

While the other folks pointed their cameras north, where the Aurora was most visible, my attention was drawn the opposite direction toward the Milky Way.  I love Milky Way photography and I  thought : “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool to get the Aurora and Milky way in the same shot?”  I laughed to myself…what would the chances of that be?…

A few minutes later, the gods answered my prayer and a wide band of the Lights swung far to the south.  I excitedly fit it all in my viewfinder and got off a few shots before the Aurora shifted out of the frame.

A Serendipitous "Twofer"

A Serendipitous “Twofer”

By now, the Aurora was starting to fade…as were the photographers.  We got back in the vans and headed for Wiseman.  As it turned out, these would be my last shots of the Northern Lights,  those darn clouds showed up again obscuring the skies for my last couple days in Alaska.

As I flew home, I reflected on a wonderful trip.  I had got to see the Aurora Borealis…and it was far more beautiful and impressive than I had imagined.  I had also captured dozens of photos that would help keep the memory alive over the years ahead!

Next week, I’ll post a separate blog with detailed How-To Tips for Aurora Photography.

Take care!
Jeff

 

 

 A Childhood Dream Come True;  Seeing and Photographing the Aurora

Also posted in Alaska, Landscape Photography, Photo Tips and Guides Tagged , , , |

Photo Tips for Yosemite Moonbows: A Photographic How-To Guide

One of the things I love most about photography is that it entices me to venture out into the world and see wonders I would never otherwise experience.  For example…have you every heard of a ‘moonbow’?  Well, I hadn’t either until a few weeks ago.   I was doing some research for a trip to Yosemite when I saw a mention about moonbows and it caught my attention.  It turns out that a moonbow (also known as a lunar rainbow,  white rainbow or space rainbow) is a rainbow created by full moon at night (instead of direct sunlight during the day).  Although recorded by observers from Aristotle to Benjamin Franklin, they are still not well known due to their rarity.   Not every waterfall can host a moonbow, in fact, the list of well-known locations is pretty small: Yosemite, Victoria Falls in Africa, Hawaii’s Waimea  Falls and Cumberland Falls in Kentucky.   The five required conditions are:

  1. Correct “rainbow geometry” when the moon lines up correctly with a waterfall’s mist
  2. A clear sky (few, if any clouds),
  3. Abundant mist at the base of the fall,
  4. An absence of artificial light,
  5. Bright, direct moonlight (full or nearly full moon)

So how do you know if there is “correct rainbow geometry?” Well, that was a problem for years.  Although back in the 1870s, famed naturalist John Muir was singing the wonders of Yosemite’s “elusive, ethereal moonbow”, no one could predict when you would be able to see one.  It wasn’t until 2007 that astrometers in Texas figured it out and published a schedule of future moonbow dates.  So there is no guessing anymore, a quick click onto the Texas State University website and you are good to go. Note:  don’t confuse the Texas State University with the University of Texas (which is a mistake I made when I first wrote this blog)…my thanks to William Cardwell for pointing out my error…Go Bobcats!)

Well, by the time I finished reading all this, I was very interested.  When I checked the Texas website and saw that one of the predicted moonbows would occur while I was at Yosemite, I was EXCITED!  All I needed now was a bit more luck… a clear night.  Did my luck hold?   Check out the shot below:

Yosemite Moonbows: A Photographic How-To Guide

Looks just like a regular rainbow…right?  Whoops, not quite…check out those stars!   To be honest, it doesn’t quite look like this to the naked eye (this is a 30 second exposure).  In person, a moonbow has very subdued colors .   It really depends on the cone color receptors in your eyes, if yours are sensitive, you will see colors, if not, you will see more of a greyish-white ‘bow.’  Either way, it was everything John Muir promised.  In fact, even though it was wet and freezing, each time the moon hit the mist just right, the moonbow would shiver into sight and you could hear the assembled photographers gasp and call out to one another in amazement.  And that’s saying a lot, because my experience is that landscape photographers have a tendency to be quiet and reserved…but you would have never known it that night.

Personally, I was so enthralled that I stayed at the falls for nearly three hours the first night, and nearly as long the next.  I’ll tell you, it is really nice to be able to feel that same sense of wonder that you experienced as a child.  Perhaps it doesn’t happen as often, but I think the emotion is deeper felt than when I was younger.

Tips for my fellow Photographers:

  1. Where to Photograph From

    • There are usually at least two locations that the moonbow is visible from:
      1. Lower Yosemite Falls:  The bridge and terrace at the base of the falls (see map below)Moonbow map for Lower Yosemite Falls-
        • There is parking available on Northside Drive, just east of Yosemite Falls Lodge.
        • Plan on a short 10-15 minute stroll on the paved trail.  Just follow the signs to ‘Lower Yosemite Falls.’  When you come to a 50 foot bridge at the base of the fall, you have found the spot.
        • The concrete terrace just to the west of the footbridge is the favorite location of most photographers because the bridge can shake a bit when folks walk on it and the terrace tends to get hit with less mist
        • At the terrace, move as close to the north end as you can (closest to the falls).  There is a large fallen log that borders the edge of the terrace, if you can get right up to it, I think you will have the best seat in the house. This location is ‘up close and personal.’  The view, sound and mist are incredible.
      2. Upper Yosemite Falls
        • You can see a different perspective of the moonbow from the parking lot at Sentinel Bridge or just south from Cook’s Meadow
        • It won’t be as crowded but frankly, this view just doesn’t excite me nearly as much as the terrace at the lower falls.
  2. When to Go

    • Check the Texas Website and see when moonbows are predicted.
    • The water flow is usually best in the spring which should generate more mist, which should result in a better moonbow.  That isn’t a sure thing, but if you had a choice of when to go, choose the predicted dates earliest in the year.
    • The best tripod locations fill up early, so I’d get there about an hour before the start of the predicted moonbow
    • When the moonbow first appears, it will be high on the falls.  As the night progresses, the bow will move lower and lower toward the base of the falls.  Many viewers think earlier views are the best
  3. What to Wear

    • You will likely get wet photographing from the terrace/bridge at the Lower Falls.  Bring good Gore-Tex raingear (preferably something with a hood)
      • If your camera isn’t weather sealed, you will want to have something to cover it with.  You can find everything from cheap plastic covers to high-end Think Tank Hydrophobias easily on Amazon.
      • If you get wet, you will likely get cold unless you have a good jacket under your raingear.  I was dry but freezing my first night because I had thought a forecast of 60 degrees Fahrenheit didn’t require anything warm under my raingear….I was wrong.
      • Thin fleece gloves will make the experience more comfortable as well
  4. Bring a Headlamp

    • A headlamp will keep light on your subject while keeping your hands free
    • If your headlamp has a ‘red light’ feature, it will help preserve your night vision
    • Please be careful not to shine your light into the eyes and cameras of your fellow photographers.
  5. Tripod/Remote Shutter Release/Extra Batteries

    • You will be taking long exposures and will need a tripod.  And, if you have a tripod with an extending center column, then bring it.  I had my full sized tripod with me and by raising the center column to its full height, I was able to photograph OVER the heads of photographers who had got there before me and staked out the best locations.
    • A remote shutter release will ensure that no vibration will ruin your shot.
    • You will be taking a lot of shots over a couple hours and if it is cold, your batteries will drain quicker than normal.
  6. Lens suggestions

    • Bring the widest, fastest lens you have.
    • On a full frame camera  you will need about 28mm to get the entire falls in the frame (about 42mm on a cropped APS-C sensor camera).
    • A 2.8f or faster lens is ideal but you can still get good shots with slower lenses…you will just need longer exposures.

      Photo Tips for Yosemite Moonbows: A Photographic How-To Guide

      Check out the double moonbow! This spot closest to the fallen log on the northern edge of the terrace has a great perspective. To see this shot in full res, click anywhere on the photo

  7. Lens Cleaning/Drying Cloths

    • Bring LOTS of these.  I found that I had to dry my lens after EVERY shot.
  8. Focus on Infinity

    • Getting good focus at night can be a challenge.  Autofocus will not be your friend, so use Manual Focus.
    • If your camera has a Live-View feature, use it
    • Check your LCD after every shot to make sure you have the focus tack-sharp
    • Be careful that you don’t mess up your focus when you are cleaning the lens.  I made this mistake a couple times before I could figure out why my focus kept changing!
  9. ISO/Shutter Speed

    • There is a trade-off decision you will have to make between these two settings.
    • If your shutter speed is over 30 seconds, the stars will no longer show as pinpoints…they will start to streak
    • Higher ISO settings will let you use shorter shutter speeds, but will result in higher noise levels
    • With a Nikon 800E and a f/2.8 lens, I was able to shoot at ISOs between 140-200 at 30 seconds with fine results.  Experiment with your camera/lens combination and see what works.  Fortunately, the moonbows often last for a couple hours, so you have time for some trial and error.
    • Use your histogram to confirm that you got a good exposure.
    • Even with a histogram, I’d suggest that you bracket your shots to ensure that you do get shots with perfect exposure.
  10. Okay, I’m all set…but where is that darned Moonbow?

    • Remember, the skies need to be pretty clear for a good moonbow, even if you are there on the right night.  If it is a bit cloudy, stick it out and with a bit of luck, the moon will peek thru the clouds before your ‘window’ is over,
    • After you spot the moonbow once, you will know what to look for.  Remember, the colors won’t be vivid to your eye, but the ‘rainbow’ shape will still be there…look for it.
    • See if you can find your head’s shadow and then draw a line between it and the base of the falls…the moonbow should form a 42 degree arc above that line.
    • Even if you still can’t see it, I’ll bet that when the moonbow appears, the folks around you will start pointing at it…that should help!

So, there you have it.  A new potential adventure for you to try and certainly one that will be long remembered.  In fact, often my ‘non-photographic’ friends only pay ‘polite’ attention to me when I drone on about my photo shoots, but when I started talking about moonbows, I think they were truly interested;)

Remember, photography is about a lot more than just pretty pictures!
Jeff

Photo Tips for Yosemite Moonbows: A Photographic How-To Guide

This image was taken later in the evening. Note that the moonbow is much lower than in the previous shots taken earlier.

 Photo Tips for Yosemite Moonbows:  A Photographic How-To Guide

Also posted in Landscape Photography, Photo Tips and Guides, Waterfalls, Yosemite Tagged , , , |

Milky Way Photography Tips with an Hawaiian Twist!

Photography isn’t exactly a new art form.  One of the downsides of shutterbugs working their craft for a hundred years or so is that it is now challenging to come up with something new.  You are constantly reminded of this fact when you read articles and blogs (mine included) that contain repeated references like: “Don’t take the standard tourist shot,”  “Find a unique perspective,” “Put your own spin on the image.”

Well, space photography is  something new.  Sure, astronomers have photographed the stars since cameras were invented but it wasn’t until after the amazing photos from the  Hubble Space Telescope  were released in the early 1990s that the public was fully aware of the mind-blowing beauty contained in the heavens.  More recently, we’ve seen incredible shots of the Milky Way on the internet taken by amateurs (not astronomers).  Like many folks, I found these photographs to be absolutely enthralling,  I also found it difficult to believe that these photos were taken by regular people instead of professionals with expensive equipment.

This wasn’t possible until recent technological improvements in camera sensor ISO capability (the ability to capture faint light).  Now, anyone with a newer, good quality DSLR, a decent wide angle lens and a tripod can take shots like this:

2016-sw-death-valley-03-06-0594-combo-4-glow2

“Midnight Run” Alpha Centauri? Vulcan?      Nope: One of the ‘sailing stones’ at Death Valley’s famous ‘Racetrack’

 

But there IS a catch (isn’t that always the way?)

Blue Sky

Screen shot of the Blue Sky website showing light pollution in the Hawaiian Islands.  You can zoom in as much as you want to find ideal night photoraphy locations

Most of us live near urban areas that have so many lights that the Milky Way is ‘washed out’ at night.  Therefore,  You first have to find a location that isn’t smothered by light pollution.  One quick way to do that is Blue Sky.  This is a free access website (see screenshot to the right) that allows you to zoom in easily on any location in the world and see where light pollution isn’t a problem. Once you know where to go, all you need is a moonless night with clear skies and you are good to go! Okay, okay, there are a few other things you need to know but seriously, it really isn’t all that difficult and I’m going to let you know what you need to learn.

 

Tips for Milky Way Photography:

Equipment

  1. The camera.
    1. Full frame DSLRs truly excel at low-light photography.  Their large sensors are ideal for Milky Way photography
    2. ASPC cameras (“cropped-frame”) are certainly more affordable but they can’t quite deliver the same quality.  Nevertheless, I’ve seen them produce great Milky Way shots.
  2. You will need a tripod.  A solid one (especially if it is breezy where you will photograph).  If your tripod is tall, you won’t spend all night bending down into uncomfortable positions as you try to review your camera’s LCD screen.

    2015 PAC NW 08 07 0176

    Crater Lake Oregon during the 2015 Perseid Meteor Shower.

  3. A cable or wireless shutter release will come in handy.
  4. Lens:  Fast and wide!
    2015 Northwest 06 20 903

    Palouse Falls, Washington. It took a serious flashlight to light up the falls in this image!

    • The Milky Way isn’t bright, so the faster your lens, the better.  Personally, I think f/2.8 lenses (or faster) are ideal. Anything slower than f/3.5 will make it difficult to get a good image.
    • The Milky Way is WIDE…it can stretch from horizon to horizon.  So, ideally, you need a wide angle lens.
      • If you have a full frame camera, then I’d suggest a minimum of a 16mm lens.  My preferred lens is the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8.  However, there are a number of expensive options…for example, I’ve also used a Sigma 16mm fisheye f/2.8f lens with good results.
      • If your camera is ASP-C format, then a 8 or 10mm fisheye might be your best bet.  A regular 10-12mm would work as well, but it will be difficult to get the full Milky Way in the shot.
    • A second option is to take a series of smaller, overlapping images and just stitch them as a panorama  using the ‘photomerge‘ function in Photoshop.
  5. PhotoPills.  There are Apps for your smart phone that allow you to see exactly where the Milky Way will be visible in the sky.  They will also let you select different dates/times and locations (so you can preplan a shot). These tools are critical to preplanning Milky Way shots. IMO the best of the bunch is one called PhotoPills.   For $9.99 you will buy a tool that will dramatically improve your Milky Way photography (no, I don’t get a kickback…unfortunately).  In the past I also used the Star Walk and Sky Safari apps but PhotoPills is superior.
  6. Photoshop.  If you really want to capture a great shot of the Milky Way, you are going to need to process the photo in Photoshop, Elements or a similar photo processing program.  Your shot right out of the camera can be impressive, especially if you’ve never photographed the galaxy before, but just a little bit of work in Photoshop can make your shot a knockout!
  7. A Headlamp AND a Flashlight.
    • You will need both hands to manipulate your camera and a headlamp is the perfect solution.  Get one that has a red light.  Red light won’t ruin your night vision and that of any nearby photographers.
    • If you are blessed to have a good foreground, a good flashlight will allow you to illuminate it.

Technique on Site

  1. LOCATION:  As I mentioned before, you need to find a spot that isn’t saturated with light pollution.  That doesn’t mean that you have to find a location that doesn’t have a town in sight…a glow or two on the horizon can be a nice touch
  2. WHEN:
    • Ideally you want a moonless or near moonless night.  A full moon is so bright it overwhelms the Milky Way and makes it difficult/impossible to photograph well.
    • Keep in mind that even if there is a full moon, you can shoot the Milky Way if there is a ‘window’ at night before the moon rises (or after it sets).  The apps I mentioned earlier will let you figure out if that is a possibility.
    • If the moon isn’t full and it is located away from the Milky Way, then you can still get a solid shot.  In fact, a bit of moonlight can help illuminate your foreground.

      A partial moon lit up the foreground here on the island of Bonaire but it wasnt' so bright it washed out the Milky Way.

      A partial moon lit up the foreground here on the island of Bonaire but it wasn’t bright enough to wash out the Milky Way.

    • Obviously you also want clear night…no one wants to see half the galaxy hidden by clouds.
    • Although the Milky Way is visible through-out the year, the most prominent features (the galactic plane or core), are best viewed in the Northern hemisphere during the summer months (May through September).
  3. FOREGROUND:
    • A shot of just the Milky Way is cool but your shot can be supercharged if you include a foreground element.
      Hawaii Milky Way Photography Tips

      The red traffic light at the entrance to Launiupoku Beach Park on Maui provided the dramatic foreground lighting!

      Trees, mountains, buildings…scout out possible locations during the daylight.  The elements that make for a splendid sunrise or sunset shot work every bit as well for Milky Way shots.

    • If you are going to show anything in the foreground, it will need a bit of light to make it visible in your shot.  Ambient lighting might be enough (see shot to the right) but a bit of ‘light painting’ with your flashlight can often result in dramatic images.
  4. CHECK YOUR COMPOSITION:
    •   Once you have selected what you want to include in your composition, take a trial shot.  If it is too difficult to really see the results on your LCD screen, increase your ISO to 10,000 and run your shutter speed up to a full minute.  This will result in an overexposed shot, but you will be able to clearly see if your composition is perfect.

Camera Settings

  1. Shutter Speed.
    • Now that your composition is determined, set your camera to Manual Priority and dial in 25 seconds (or put the camera in “Bulb Mode” and count the seconds yourself).  You want to have as long an exposure as possible (to capture more stars and detail) without resulting in ‘star trails’ (when stars no longer appear as round spots, but instead become a streak…because of the earth’s movement).  The rule of thumb is about 25 seconds but try some test exposures to see just how long you can expose your sensor.  With my D810 and the 14-24mm lens, I start seeing star trails after about 25 seconds, but remember,  every camera/lens combo will be different.
    • The shot below shows an extreme example of star trails…nice in its own way but not ideal for Milky Way shots:

      Hawaii Milky Way Photography Tips

      Star Trails over Monument Valley Tribal Park, Arizona. This is about a 2 hour exposure…far more than you want to try for a Milky Way shot.

  2. Shoot in RAW.   If you’ve never shot anything other than the default JPEG format, then give RAW a try.  Unlike JPEG, which condenses and throws away a lot of the data your camera’s sensor captures, RAW files keep all the data.  As a result, the files are larger, but they also give you the potential to do much more with your shot.

    One of my favorite shots. The Milky Way AND the Aurora Borealis photographed together in the Brooks Range, Alaska

    One of my favorite shots. The Milky Way AND the Aurora Borealis photographed together in the Brooks Range, Alaska

  3. Focus.  Your autofocus won’t work well at night, so you will need to switch to manual.  Simply setting your lens to ‘infinity’ usually won’t work…many lenses don’t have a hard stop on their focus ring at infinity…if you go a bit too far the stars will be unfocused.
    •  The best idea is simply to focus on an object in the far distance before the sun sets.  Then turn off the auto-focus and put a piece of tape on the focus ring to hold it in place.  This way, your camera will already be pre-focused before it gets dark and you start your Milky Way shots.  Otherwise, you could bump the lens during your shoot throwing all future shots out of focus (of course, you should also review EVERY shot at full magnification to be sure…but I have a hard time remembering to do this myself).
    • If you don’t get a chance to do this before it gets dark, focus manually on a distant streetlight…or particularly bright star.  Take a shot, then review it at full magnification to see if your focus is crisp.  Then lock your focus (if your camera has that ability) or use tape to hold it in place.
  4. ISO. You will have to boost your ISO far higher than you do during daylight shooting.  With my Nikon D810, the ISO sweet spot for night photography is between 2200 to 3500, with my best results at the upper edge of that range.  Although the higher ISO does result in more noise, it also captures more of the color that makes the Milky Way so beautiful.  If your camera isn’t as light sensitive as the D810, you will likely have to shoot at a higher ISO.
  5.  Aperture.  Use the widest aperture you’re lens has since you want to capture every bit of light you can during those 30 seconds. I consider f 2.8 to the minimum.
  6. Try a Panorama!  Capturing the entire arc of the Milky Way makes for a powerful image.  Take a number of overlapping shots from one horizon to the other and then stitch them together in Photoshop.

    This shot of Mt Hood and Lost Lake was created by stitching together 5 individual frames in Photoshop.

    This shot of Mt Hood and Lost Lake was created by stitching together 5 individual frames in Photoshop.  The streak you see in the image was a meteor that zipped by during my exposure.

Now, once you have everything mentioned above set up, take some test shots.  Experiment!   Since each shot takes only 30 seconds, you can afford to take a number of test shots to get everything perfect.

Post-Production Processing (Photoshop Wizardry)

Sometimes, a bit of color left from the sunset can be a wonderful contrast.

Sometimes, a bit of color left from the sunset can be a wonderful contrast.

This is where the pure technique ends and the ‘art’ begins.  I will give you specific Photoshop pointers but this really isn’t science.  Sometimes I’ll work on two frames taken a minute apart with the exact same camera settings but end up with totally different results depending on what I end up doing in Photoshop!  Here are the basics:

  1. Temperature   I adjust the slider between 2800 and 3800 until I find a spot that has a nice balance between the cold blues and warm oranges.
  2. Exposure   Try tweaking up your exposure and see if it allows you to see a lot more stars.
  3. Tone Curve  Darkening the shadows and brightening the highlights often makes things ‘pop.’
  4. Hue//Saturation/Luminance.  Here is where the real creativity comes in and you can easily spend more time tweaking these adjustments than all the others combined.  Your goal here is to find the colors inherent in the Milky Way and coax them to be a bit more visible.  Sometimes I’m shocked how easy it can be to create a stunning image with these adjustments.  And then other times I spend a half hour and get nothing but mediocre results…  If so I just take a break and then come back a bit later and try again!
  5. The targeted adjustment tool is a great way to focus your efforts just on the main part of the Milky Way so that your adjustments don’t give you unintended and undesirable results in your foreground elements.
  6. Noise adjustment.  You are going to have noise in your shot…there is no way around it with current levels of technology.  I usually find that I can adjust the luminance slider in Photoshop’s noise control panel up to 50-80 or so (with the detail slider also around 70) without significantly degrading detail.  Noise is usually a lot more noticeable in the foreground elements than in the star field, so often I put the foreground on a different layer and apply a different level of noise control.

Again…this part of the process is the most creative but it can be time consuming.  Don’t get frustrated if your  results aren’t immediately what you had visualized.  Take your time.  Experiment. Have fun!

Tips if you find yourself in Hawaii and you want to try some Milky Way (Hoku-noho-aupuni) photography20130906_Hawaii_2004

  1. Oahu is your worst bet for Milky Way photography in Hawaii.  This where most of the folks in the state live and a quick look on the Blue Sky website will show you that it also has the nastiest light pollution of any of the islands.  However, there are some pockets in the mountains and on the west coast around Kaena Point that are pretty good.
    • If can’t visit the other islands, well the good news is that Oahu isn’t ideal, it still probably has less light pollution than you see at home, so get a bit away from Honolulu give it a try!
  2. All of the other islands are great…heck, they are fantastic!  There will be some light near the larger cities (Kona on the Big Island, Lahaina on Maui, etc) but a short twenty minute drive along the coast will usually get you clear of the light.
  3. Higher is better!  There is a reason that observatories are built atop mountains…when you are at 10,000 feet above sea level, 95%+ of the earth’s atmosphere is BELOW you…which results in a better view of the stars.  In Hawaii, there are three possibilities:  Mt.Haleakalea (on Maui), Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa (both on the Big Island).
    •  Mauna Kea
      • The Onizuka Visitor Center.
        • This is your best bet for Milky Way photography on Mauna Kea.
        •  The road all the way to the Visitor’s Center is paved and your rental sedan will have no problems getting there.
        • Get away from the main building and scout for a location that gives you a view of Mauna Loa and the Milky Way
      • The Summit
        • At 13,000′ and 360° unobstructed views, this would be the ideal spot for Milky Way photography. Unfortunately, you are only allowed on the summit of Mauna Kea between dawn and dusk.  Rangers drive around and ask you to leave 30 minutes after sunset (this ensures that tourists don’t inadvertantly shine flashlights at the multi-million dollar telescopes at the summit).
        • Be aware that sections of the road from the Visitor’s Center aren’t paved and it is very steep.  4WD and high clearance vehicles are recommended.  If you drive to the summit, be aware that you are violating your car rental agreement and you will be on the hook if you have any problems.
    • Mauna Loa
      • You can’t drive to the 13,600′ summit of Mauna Loa.  The road is gated closed at the weather observation station (at 11,000′) and from there it is a tough 6 mile hike to the summit.
        • There is a cabin near the summit (reservation required), so you could spend the night and get a Milky Way shot.
      • The road to the summit is on the northern flank of the mountain, which means that the bulk of Mauna Loa effectively blocks your view of the Milky Way to the south.
      • Frankly, I’ve never seen an outstanding photo of the Milky Way taken from Mauna Loa.  I’m not saying it can’t be done, but there are much better locations on the Big Island that require a lot less work.
      • FYI…if you plan to research a visit to Mauna Loa keep in mind that a lot of tourists (and photographers writing blogs) get Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea confused.
    • Haleakala
      • I think Haleakala is your best best for high altitude Milky Way shots in Hawaii.
      • You can easily drive right up to the summit on paved roads in a rental car.
      • Haleakala National Park, is open 24/7   365 days/year, so you can photograph at night with no restrictions.
      • Some hints and suggestions for photographing at Haleakala:
        • It will be COLD.  Seriously.  It was 88 degrees when I left my hotel in Kaanapali and it was below freezing at the summit (I actually got ice on my camera).  Gloves, hat, jacket and a thermos of hot chocolate are good ideas (it was kinda funny packing my parka and ski pants for a trip to tropical Hawaii!)
        • The summit is occasionally surrounded by clouds.  Be patient.  On my last visit, the last mile to the summit was completely socked-in by fog/clouds…I could probably have walked faster than I drove.  But it did clear up about 30 minutes after I got to the summit.
        • I think the best spot to photograph the Milky Way here is from the Pu’u’ula’ula Summit.  You can include the observatories in your shot from this location (the observatories themselves are not open to the public).
        • Plan on a full night.  It takes a while to get to the summit from most of the island’s hotels.  Plus the road to the summit is full of switchbacks and it isn’t lighted.  It took me over two hours each way…so you won’t be getting much sleep after you get back.  You might want to drive up to the summit in the daylight, photograph the sunset (although the sunrise is a better shot) and read a book for a couple of hours while it gets good and dark.
        • It is often be WINDY here.  Try moving around to find a spot where the wind is blocked.  You will need a sturdy, heavy duty tripod.  If you only have a small travel-tripod with you, hang some serious weight on your tripod to avoid the ‘shakes.’

          2013 Hawaii 09 04 0745

          A shot of the observatories on top of Haleakala. Lord it was COLD!

  4. Photograph from the shore
    • Although photographing the Milky Way from 10,000 feet is technically ideal, don’t ignore potential shots from sea level too.  Hey, you are in paradise…photograph the Milky Way rising from the surf with some palm trees swaying in the breeze…I mean, you can’t do this back home in Cleveland, so go for it!
    • All of the islands have beachfront parks loaded with coconut palms that are great night photo locations.   Beaches on the southern side of the islands have a clear view of the Milky Way (which is located to the south) but even locations on the eastern or western coasts can work IF they have a view to the south.
    •  A lot of the beachfront hotels have lavishly landscaped grounds that are illuminated at night…and they also provide public access to the ocean.  So even if you aren’t staying beachfront, you can photograph from these locations.  Their night lighting will illuminate foreground subjects without the need for you to do so.
    • Scout around during the day for southern facing locations with interesting foregrounds.  The islands of Hawaii have some of the world’s most beautiful landscapes and there are untold numbers of potential locations for Milky Way photography.

      2013 Hawaii 09 06 1305

      The walkway at the Sheraton Kauai Poipu on the south side of the island

  5. How about a photo of the Milky Way and lava!
    • I have seen amazing photos of the Milky Way taken on the Big island that feature the lava glowing in the Kileaea crater in the foreground.
      • You can get this shot in Volcano’s national Park in the southern part of the island
        • The park is open 24/7 365
        • Two great locations are the Jagger Museum or the nearby (and less crowded) Kilauea Overlook
        • The volcano has been active since 1983 but the lava isn’t always visible in the Kileaea crater.   Don’t plan a trip just to get this shot without first going on-line to confirm that the lava is visible.  Check this link to get the latest updates.
      • If you really want an adventure, hike out to the lava field during the day and photograph the Milky Way after sunset with hot, red lava as your foreground
        • Unfortunately, often the lava flow isn’t visible…it runs in ‘lava tubes’ all the way to the ocean.  Check this link to see if you will be able to see lava before hiking 4 miles out there.

There you have it.  A quick primer on Milky Way photography.  Wow, I originally thought I’d sit down and rip off a quick blog between coffee and breakfast…now it’s 3pm and my daughter just got home from High School!  Time to do some chores and earn my keep.

I’m sure you will love photographing the Milky Way…the results will astound your friends and family!

Take care,

Jeff

 

 

 

 Hawaii Milky Way Photography Tips

 

 

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