An Introduction to Shooting the Night Sky: Part 1 – Milky Way, Stars & Northern Lights

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Night Sky Over Tuscany : Prints Available

The Milky Way makes an appearance over the hilltop in a field in Tuscany, Italy.

A good night’s sleep is an important part of a healthy lifestyle, right? Getting adequate sleep not only positively impacts your mind, heart and mood, but also helps you look better. However, Milky Way and Northern Lights pictures are really, really cool. So, like many other photographers, I sometimes ignore the advice of the health experts and skip a night or two or more of sleep in order to bring home some killer images. In fact, I’ll be doing that again next week.

Disclaimer

Let me start with a disclaimer. There are books, blogs, videos and long articles dedicated solely to night photography. This article is only an introduction to pique your interest and help get you started. By all means, do some more reading. Also, I’ll do a Part 2 article on “Processing” in next month as it is a topic in and of itself. Star trails also warrant a separate article, so that will be Part 3. With all that in mind, here is some advice on getting started with shooting the night skies.

Shoot in a Remote Location

At night, there is “dark” and there is “DAAAARK”. You want the latter. This means shooting in an area far away from the lights of towns and cities. Otherwise, the light pollution can wash out your sky and end up dominating your horizon. The site http://www.lightpollutionmap.info/ has a map that shows light pollution around the globe (i.e. places to avoid).

However, all is not lost if there is a town in the distance. In fact, in many cases, I think the light pollution looks good. In the cover photo of the trees in Tuscany, I think the light pollution adds to the image by providing a nice warm glow to complement the cool night sky. Distant, minimal light pollution behind you can also help light foreground elements during your exposure. Ideally, shoot in an area with dry, clear air. Deserts and places of higher elevation work well.

Timing Issues

There are a lot of timing issues to get right for night photography. You have to know what cycle the moon will be in, when the moon’s light no longer impacts the sky that night, and (possibly) whether the Milky Way will be visible. Of course, you have to worry about clouds, too, but those are less predictable.

Moon Cycles

Having the moon in front of you while shooting is similar to having someone shining a flashlight into your lens. It will create a bright spot in your image while also washing out the stars. Because of this, you need to be aware of moon cycles. Ideally, plan your shooting during the New Moon, which is the moon’s first cycle during which it is hidden from view. You’ll have nice, long periods of complete darkness during this time. You can also get by with up to 25% moon (about 5 days before or after a New Moon), so targeting that time period is workable.

Time of Night

If the moon is visible at all in the sky on your shooting nights, then you will want to aim for a period of the night called “astronomical dusk,” which is the point at which the moon has no impact on the brightness of the sky… the sky has reached maximum darkness. This is generally 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 hours after sunset and the same amount before sunrise. However, start shooting before complete darkness to get a bit of faint light on your foreground and a nice blue in the sky. The stars will not be as pronounced during this period, but it is good to have shots from both time periods, especially if you are blending a separate foreground shot in during processing.

The well-known program “The Photographer’s Ephemerus” (http://photoephemeris.com/) is a good resource for showing the window of timing you have to work with for your date and location so that you are not stuck staring at the moon wondering when it will get out of the way.

The Milky Way

Although shooting a sky full of stars is fun and can lead to a great image, the core of the Milky Way is the money shot. Capturing the Milky Way’s core takes some planning, however. You can do a Google search to find out where and when it will be visible. Or, PhotoPills is an iPhone application for identifying when and where in the world it is visible, as well as what angle it will be at during certain times of the night. There are also night sky maps available on Amazon. Whatever you do, plan your trip around Milky Way visibility and the moon cycle.

The Aurora Borealis

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Aurora Mountain : Prints Available

Iceland’s Kirkjufell with the faint glow of the Aurora Borealis behind it.

Photographing the Northern Lights is an absolute blast. As you know already, you have to be pretty far north to capture the Aurora at its best. You generally have to brave the Winter months in places like Iceland, Alaska and Scandinavia to get the best chances. However, all three Aurora shots in this article were shot in Iceland in mid-September.

There are Aurora sites on-line that predict Aurora activity, such as http://www.aurora-service.org/aurora-forecast/. Some of these Aurora forecast sites are location specific, so do a search to see if there is one for your location.

Weather Conditions

While a clear sky is usually a disappointment for landscape photography, it is great for night photography.

  • For Milky Way (or single point stars in the sky), you need the sky to be completely clear overhead. The header shot of the Milky Way over the trees in Tuscany includes some low clouds along the horizon, but nothing blocking the Milky Way. A few minutes after this shot, the clouds started covering the galaxy and I left.
  • For pictures of the Northern Lights, some scattered clouds are okay and can even add interest to the image.

On the subject of weather, remember that dropping temperatures can lead to foggy lenses, particularly if the area is damp. As you are shooting in the dark and sometimes cannot turn your flashlight on without upsetting other photographers, it is easy to overlook a lens that is fogging.

Foreground Subject

The night sky is not a subject, but a background. So, you still want something interesting as a foreground element. If you will be letting your subject go dark as a silhouette, then the subject’s shape is extra important. If you want your subject lit, then there are a few options:

1. Light pollution from distant cities behind you can help provide enough lighting to illuminate your foreground subject.
2. You can “light paint” your subject with a flashlight or other light source. However, if you haven’t done this before, it takes some practice to get subjects lit evenly.
3. As mentioned, you can also shoot your subject before things go completely dark and just leave your tripod in the same position for the shot of the sky. For this option, I recommend shooting several images as the sky darkens. Start at twilight and then try a few more as time goes on, adjusting your settings as necessary. Although you will get the best quality image at twilight (with a lower ISO), sometimes the subject at twilight does not look natural when blended.

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Aurora Dance : Prints Available

Amazing Northern Lights dancing over a meadow in Landmannalaugar

Equipment

At night, the higher end camera equipment really shines. Ideally, you’ll want:

  • A camera that can shoot at high ISO without much digital noise.
  • A fast wide-angle lens, such as f/2.8 or faster. An f/1.4 prime lens is ideal. I just bought the Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 for this purpose. The wide aperture allows you to shoot at much lower ISOs. To illustrate, if your lens is at f/1.4 and your targeted shutter speed requires an ISO of 800, shooting at f/4 would require an ISO of 6,400. In the world of ISO, that’s a world of difference.
  • A sturdy tripod that stays stable when the wind is blowing.
  • A remote trigger… get an intervalometer if you plan on also shooting star trails.
  • You’ll need two sources of light, such as a headlamp and flashlight.
  • Bring layers of clothes for changing temperatures.

Settings

For the Sky Shot

  • Manual Mode & manual focus
  • Long Exposure Noise Reduction off
  • Aperture – Shoot at the widest aperture of your lens. Or, if you have a very fast lens (like f/1.4), try also shooting at one stop above the widest setting (f/2) as it will be a sharper aperture. You’ll need a higher ISO, but you can compare quality when back at your computer.
  • Shutter Speed – Stars – The rotation of the earth will start to streak the stars at some point. To avoid this, use the “500 Rule” by dividing 500 by your focal length. If your focal length is 16mm, then 500/16=31 seconds. Round it down to 30 seconds, and for good measure, you should lower the shutter speed a bit more, down to 20- 25 seconds. Using the same method for 24mm, 500/24=21 seconds, but use 15 seconds.
  • Shutter Speed – Northern Lights – In my opinion, Aurora images look their best at between 6 and 25 seconds, depending upon the brightness of the Aurora and how fast it is moving. I like some detail in the lights, as opposed to a big blur.
  • ISO – The ISO is then set to get a proper exposure. ISO’s of 1600-3200 for the sky are common. When setting your exposure, you don’t need or want every single star in the sky to be visible.

For the foreground subject

  • Shoot the foreground separately (re-focusing if necessary) at a lower ISO and, therefore longer shutter speed. In Part 2 of this article, I’ll discuss blending the two images in Photoshop.
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Reflection : Prints Available

Northern lights over a small pond in Landmannalaugar

Composing

It is ideal to compose while it is still light out. If you are composing or re-composing in the pitch blackness, a time-saving strategy I use is to crank up the ISO to maximum just to get my composition right. This helps me avoid waiting through long shutter speeds. Then, I reset my ISO and shutter speed to the desired amounts for the actual shot.

Focusing

If your foreground elements are closer than your lens’ infinity focal point, you will want to focus on your subject and the sky separately and take two shots. Focusing in the dark can be difficult, but here are some ideas:

Focusing for the sky – Use Live View to zoom in (using the zoom buttons for the LED screen) on a distant light or star. If this cannot be done, then you can walk a flashlight past your lens’ infinity point. (Optical infinity is too big of a subject to go into detail on here.) If you don’t know the infinity point of your lens, some photographers simplify this by saying to convert your focal length to feet and use that distance. So, for a 24mm lens, walk out at least 24 feet, leave the light there, come back and focus on it for your infinity focus.

Focusing for a closer subject – If you are shooting a closer subject that is not in focus considering your aperture / infinity point, you will need a separate focal point for the subject. You can shine a bright flashlight on it and focus using Live View.

Processing

As mentioned earlier, watch for Part 2 next month on processing night sky images, as well as a separate article on star trails in a future blog.

Shooting Into the Sun

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I love shooting into the sun. It does sound a bit counterintuitive. Cameras don’t handle contrast as well as our eyes do, so skies can easily go white and shadows black in high contrast situations. But, with a little bit of technique in shooting and processing, you can get some cool images. So, embrace the contrast.

Here are some tips for shooting into the sun:

Tip #1: Shoot into low-angled sunlight. I shot the image below in Death Valley just as the sun was hitting the horizon. You’ll get better results with this very low-angled sunlight because it is warmer and less contrasty than mid-day sunlight. Twenty minutes earlier and this would have been a pretty lousy picture. The light would have been too contrasty resulting in white skies and washed out colors. The cool shadows on the dunes would be missing.

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Sunset Over Mesquite Dunes : Prints Available

Horizontal view of Death Valley’s Mesquite Dunes at the end of the day.

Tip #2: Create a sunstar. The images above and below each have a “sun star”. I posted an earlier blog on this, but basically you shoot with a very small aperture (such as f/22) using a wide-angle lens. This doesn’t work well with all lenses, but the Canon 16-35 f/2.8 works great. This doesn’t work well with mid-day or diffused sunlight.

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First Light Over Gordes : Prints Available

Beautiful sunrise over the hilltop city of Gordes, France

Tip #3: Partially obscure the sun. Partially obscuring the sun works well in increasing a focus area for the sun’s intensity and also reducing the contrast a bit. For the image below, the sea stack partially obscured the sun, creating a nice glow.

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End of Day at Rialto Beach : Prints Available

A beautiful sunset on the shores of Rialto Beach

Tip #4: Use clouds as a diffuser. As a photographer, clouds are my best friend or worst enemy depending on the situation. In some cases, clouds will act as a nice diffuser which allow you to shoot into the sun. Notice the sun was higher in the sky, but the image still has the effect of low-angled light due to the diffusion of the sun.

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Xingping Fisherman : Prints Available

A fisherman on the Li River at Xingping near Guilin taking a break.

Tip 5: Put the sun at the edge of the frame. This is a similar concept as partially obscuring the sun. The sun was half-in / half-out in the image below.

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Sunset over the Terrace : Prints Available

Sunset at viewpoint 3 in China’s rice terraces

Tip 6: Get the exposure right! Because of the high level of contrast, it is very important to get the exposure right. In most situations, you don’t want to blow the highlights, which is when some of the pixels go white and lose all detail. It may be okay to have part of the image blown out, such as the brightest part of the sun, but avoid blowing out parts of the sky. You also usually don’t want the image to have a lot of black shadows with no shadow detail, unless you are creating a silhouette. Tip 7 is one solution to this.

Tip 7: Shoot multiple exposures if necessary. In these high contrast situations, I’ll often “bracket”, which means shooting the same shot with different exposures. I’ll do an underexposed shot to make sure I get the details in the sky, a normal exposure for the mid-tones, and an overexposed shot for shadow details. I usually don’t use all the exposures, but sometimes use two and blend them in Photoshop. If your highlights are getting blown and your shadows are black, then you should bracket. Some photographers use graduated neutral density filters as a way of reducing the contrast in the image.

Processing. The processing of high contrast images is another topic for another day. But, generally speaking, you will want to get your skies darker and your shadows lighter, while still having a nice amount of contrast in your image. This can involve blending your bracketed images, multi-processing the image in RAW, using the various exposure adjustment sliders, making adjustments in Photoshop, etc.

Compelling Shapes in Silhouette Images

Silhouette images can be pretty cool. This is because the high level of contrast between lights and darks, often combined with saturated colors, makes an immediate impact on the viewer. However, this visual impact makes it easy to let a mediocre image slip into your portfolio.

For this reason, I hold my silhouette images to a higher standard when it comes to the shape of the subject. The subject must have an interesting graphic shape, such as in the picture below:

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Twins : Prints Available

Two women in silhouette on beach outside XiaPu, China

This image works well because the dancer (a.k.a. my wife) knows how to pose well.

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Dancer exercising at sunrise on Lake Michigan

Depending on your shutter speed, you will most likely need to use a tripod and also ensure your subject is completely still. None of the edges of the silhouette should be blurred, unless you are blurring for effect.

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The Fountain : Prints Available

Elegant woman watching a fountain during a brilliant sunset

Also, in many cases, you don’t want the silhouette to go completely dark. Including a little detail in the shadows often works better than having a completely black shape. In the image below, I brought out some of the details of the lighthouse in post-processing.

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All is Well : Prints Available

Silhouette of two men fishing off a lighthouse pier during sunset

Coastline Moving Water Images

I love coastline images that include moving water. Although there are many ways to incorporate water into an image, I especially like combining blurred streaks of water bubbles with an interesting distant subject. Here is an example:

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Waves on Rialto Beach : Prints Available

Retreating water in front of sea stacks on Washington’s Rialto Beach

The above image works well because the sea stack makes a great subject out in the water. This is not always easy to find, which is why so many landscape photographers flock to the Pacific Northwest. If you are lucky enough to have access to this type of scenery, here is how to take these pictures:

You’ll Need…

  • A sturdy tripod. This is especially important because the camera needs to stay still during a relatively long exposure while standing in moving water.
  • A remote shutter trigger. This will help you keep your eyes on the waves to get your timing right, as well as minimize camera shake.
  • Depending on the lighting, you will most likely need a solid neutral density filter, such as a 4-stop or even a 10-stop for bright conditions.
  • A wide to ultra-wide lens (probably in the 14-24 range).
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End of Day at Rialto Beach : Prints Available

A beautiful sunset on the shores of Rialto Beach

Composing the Image…

  • Where you stand and what focal length you use will be driven by getting the water streaks composed properly in the foreground and the subject as an important part of the image. The picture above is an example of a good balance between foreground and distant subject.
  • You want to position yourself in a spot where the water passes you as the waves go in and out but is relatively shallow or dry after the water moves out. Yes, this means your feet and probably legs will get wet.
  • One good compositional technique is to use the water streaks as leading lines to the subject, such as in the image below.
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Rocks on Ruby Beach : Prints Available

Water retreating between rocks on the shores of Ruby Beach

Your Settings…

  • Set your camera to manual or shutter priority
  • Set ISO to 100
  • For starters, set your shutter speed to between 1/4 and 2 seconds. You can then adjust later based on what looks good.
  • You then have to arrive at a desired aperture. I generally choose between f/18 or f/20 so that the distant subject as well as the water streaks are in focus. Even though the foreground water is blurred, you still want it to be in focus.
  • If you are still overexposing the image, you can then bring in the neutral density filter(s) and re-adjust to your final aperture to get a proper exposure.
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Oceanside Sea Stacks at Sunset : Prints Available

Beautiful sunset on the Pacific at Oceanside

Timing the waves…

  • You want to shoot as the water is retreating back into the ocean or lake. When the water retreats, there are often bubbles which help the water streaks look more pronounced. You will have to work with the timing of when to trip the shutter, but I generally wait until the water is retreating around the tripod.
  • Keep checking what your images look like and make adjustments to your settings and timing.

Lastly, take a lot of pictures… each one will be different, so it is best to have more options to choose from.

Seeking Out Great Subjects

One of the best lessons I learned early on from photographer Jim Zuckerman is that great subjects form the foundation for great pictures. A great subject can make the difference between a snapshot and a work of art. Yes, there are some excellent photos out there of very ordinary things. But, quite often, the strength of your photo depends on the strength of your subject.

Don’t avoid taking pictures of ordinary things. But, take the extra step to seek out great subjects. Below are some examples of images where a great subject made all the difference in the final result.

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Close-up of colorful Red-Eyed Tree Frog

The picture above of the Red-Eyed-Tree-Frog is a compelling image because the frog is super cool. Put an ordinary frog on the same Heliconia flower and the picture is probably a tosser.

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One Eye Closed : Prints Available

Chinese man from the Longji area takes a break outside his house.

I’ve seen great pictures of ordinary people. However, there are people out there that are especially unique and compelling looking. I like to take pictures of older people that have been around the block a few times because they often make for amazing subjects. The older Chinese man in the picture above is no exception.

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Leaves Swirl at the Subway : Prints Available

Gold colors from the sand-filled pools at the Subway

The above picture is of a place known as “The Subway”. It is located in Zion National Park and involves a long hike, scrambling over and between rocks and across rivers. But, the place is otherworldly and resulted in a great picture that I’m glad is part of my portfolio.

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End of Day at Deadvlei : Prints Available

Evening light striking the orange dunes at Deadvlei

Of course, it is not always easy (or cheap) to get to far away places. But getting to places that most people haven’t been to adds to the impact of your photos. Deadvlei, pictured above, is such a place that leaves those that haven’t been there asking questions about what it is and where it is.

Big Impact with Small Subjects

If you regularly read photography articles, you’ve probably gotten the message by now that it is important to make sure the viewer knows what your subject is and looks at it. In many cases, this means a simple composition with the subject being a pretty prominent part of the image. However, you can also create effective pictures when the subject is very small in the image by guiding your viewer to the subject. Here are four ways to do that.

1. Even though the distant hikers are small in the picture, you can still identify them quickly as the subject of the photograph. This is primarily because the sidewalk forms a leading line. As discussed in a prior blog post, you can use leading lines to direct the viewer’s eyes.

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Three Hikers : Prints Available

Path forms a leading line to hikers in the distance

2. A second way to make a small subject stand out is by framing it within the image, such as I’ve done below with the small tree in Namibia’s dead tree forest. Even though the tree is a small part of the overall image, your eye goes right to it due to the larger foreground tree framing it.

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Clouds over Deadvlei, Namibia’s dead tree forest

3. You can also draw attention to a small subject by lighting. I had no control over the actual lighting when taking the picture below, so I used dodging and burning in post-processing to brighten the subject and darken the rest. Also, the raised hands of the group help put a frame around him, so this image uses a couple of techniques.

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Bali’s Kecak & Fire Dance getting underway after sunset.

4. A fourth way to make a small subject stand out in a big space is through color and/or contrast. Your eyes are easily drawn to the hiker below because of the red coat and because he is darker than the landscape he is walking in.

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Hiker at the Georthermals : Prints Available

A lone hiker walks through one of Iceland’s geothermal fields

Eliminating Distracting Elements

You can improve a photo by removing elements that distract from the subject. Giving the viewer less to look at helps to focus more attention on the subject. Although you should compose with this in mind from the start, you can also re-evaluate your image during post-processing and simplify (again) then. This blog contains a few examples of where I eliminated some distractions during post-production to improve the picture.

The top image below has an extra barn. The barn itself isn’t bad and doesn’t ruin the picture. However, in this case I felt it distracted from the big barn, which is the main subject. So, I cropped the picture to focus attention on the subject.

Before
Red-Barn-and-WIndmill-Distracting

After

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A classic old red barn and windmill in early evening light

Ugly white skies are almost always a distraction. They draw attention because they are the brightest thing in the picture. So, the viewer looks at the ugly sky first instead of the subject. Had I had a more powerful lens, I would have eliminated the ugly white sky while shooting. However, I planned to crop the image later. Notice how much more focused the image is with the sky and the “1/2 child” cropped out.

Before
Tukad-Unda-Kids-Distracting

After

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Children playing with water in a dam on Tukad Unda River

Animals generally do not listen to anything I say. That includes the cows below who were not positioning themselves as I wanted. In the picture below, I had to do a little facial surgery using Photoshop to eliminate a distracting horn on the right side. I also eliminated the back of a cow behind the main subject. Getting rid of these distractions improved the picture.

Before
China-Water-Buffalo-Distracting

After

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The Water Buffalo : Prints Available

Small herd of curious water buffalo

Including Hands in Portraits

When I am shooting portraits, I like to include the subject’s hands in the composition. If you follow my blog, you know that I shoot my portraits with a (somewhat) wide angle lens. This means that including the hands in the foreground will make the person’s hands look a little larger than normal and draw attention to them. Not everyone likes this, but I think it adds interest in certain types of portraits.

The picture below is of a super-cool Malawian guy. Here, I’ve used the hands and arms in the foreground to frame the picture.

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Cool Malawian : Prints Available

Super cool Malawian guy in an alley in Lilongwe.

In some cases, it works really well if the person is doing something with their hands. I am not suggesting that holding a machete works in every situation. For example, if you are a wedding photographer, I wouldn’t suggest this one. But the farmer below had a machete and it works great in this picture.

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Stand Tall and Hold a Machete : Prints Available

Indonesian man holding a machete with the rising sun behind him.

One last example from another Malawian… this time a woman. Here she is simple grabbing her arm with her hand. Notice her hand looks bigger than normal, due to the wide angle lens I used.

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Portrait of a Malawian Woman : Prints Available

A young Malawian woman poses for the camera in early evening sunlight.

Perfect Camera Placement

Most of the time, you have a variety of options on camera placement while taking a picture. However, there are certain circumstances where “perfect camera placement” is essential. Even if you don’t consider yourself a perfectionist, it is a good idea to “practice perfectionism” in these cases. Below are a few examples where getting camera placement exactly right made a big difference.

First, if you are going for symmetry in an interior cathedral shot, the camera has to be perfectly centered. Look in the lower right and lower left corner as well as the top of the image and you’ll notice it is perfectly symmetrical. Cathedral shots (or any shot with symmetrical detail like this) have to be taken dead-center. Spend the extra time to get your camera positioned perfectly. One inch to the right or left can ruin the shot.

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Saint Nicholas Cathedral : Prints Available

Interior shot of Chicago’s own Saint Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral.

Second, wide-angle lenses with foreground subjects in the composition often require perfect camera placement. Sometimes, the perfect place for your camera and tripod isn’t always the most comfortable location, such as with the shot below. However, in order to get the splash of the wave to be a prominent part of the composition, there was one option for camera placement. Because of the wide-angle lens, moving my camera back a little would have resulted in the wave being a much smaller, and less significant, part of the composition.

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Wave Crash at Oceanside : Prints Available

A wave crashing on the rocky shore of Oceanside, Oregon is frozen in time

It is Carnival in Venice this week, so I’m using an image from my trip there a few years back as another example. For this picture, there was really only one good spot to shoot from… laying on the floor underneath the piano and shooting up at the model. This made the dress closer to the camera and caused it to distort into a triangle shape. An eye-level shot would not have worked as well in this case. So, it is worth taking your time and trying a number of different perspectives in order to arrive at what you consider to be the best possible camera placement.

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Lady in Red : Prints Available

Gorgeous Carnival model in red inside a Venetian palace

Combining Light Painting with the Night Sky

Sometimes the pictures that require the most effort to take end up paying off the most. This was certainly the case for me during a recent trip to Door County, Wisconsin. A friend and I drove through the night, arriving at Cave Point at about 3 am. We then waited for the moon to go down and took some night pictures in the pitch blackness on the frozen beach. The image below was well worth being a little tired and cold for a couple hours.

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Starry Sky Over Cave Point : Prints Available

Stars in the night sky over Door County’s Cave Point in Winter

I’ve had a few people ask me how I took this picture, so I thought I’d put together a quick summary in a blog. I’ll approach this by covering the four concerns I had in mind when shooting, namely 1) composition, 2) focus, 3) exposure for the background, and 4) lighting for the foreground.

Before we start, there are a few conditions that need to be present for night sky images like this. Obviously, you need to be able to see a lot of stars, so no cloud cover is important. Equally important, you need a very dark location away from light pollution. Your backyard will not work. Deserts are ideal, but this remote area along Lake Michigan met “minimum standards” for lack of light pollution. You also want an area with some interesting foreground elements.

Another consideration is the moon. You definitely do not want the moon in front of you as it will be the equivalent of shining a flashlight into your camera. In some cases, having the moon to your back serves to light your foreground as you shoot, which might be a good thing. In our case, we waited for the moon to go down and had a couple hours to shoot before sunrise.

Now, for my four main concerns while taking this shot:

Composition – It is easy to get sloppy in composing night pictures. This is because: a) it is tough to set up your composition in the dark; and b) it is easy to just focus on how great the stars look. However, a compelling composition, including an interesting foreground, makes all the difference. If possible, you can set up your composition on your tripod while it is still light. In my case, we didn’t arrive until the middle of the night, so I used “live view” in my Canon camera and then shined a flashlight around the foreground to determine my composition.

Focus – You will generally be using a wide angle lens for night pictures that include a foreground element and the sky. So, there is a good chance that focusing on your subject will mean focusing on infinity. To focus, I used a flashlight on the subject and used auto focus, zooming in using live view for the most accurate focus (message me if you want advice on how to do this). Then, I switched off auto focus.

Exposure for the Background – After getting my composition and focus set, I next made sure that I got a good exposure for the background, namely the stars and the horizon. Although the horizon looks a bit like a sunrise here, it is actually light pollution from across the lake.

I first set my camera to Manual, opened up the aperture as wide as possible (in my case to 2.8) and set the shutter speed for 30 seconds. If you are using a wide angle lens, you don’t want to go above 20-30 seconds or you start to get star trails (even shorter shutter speeds are necessary when shooting telephoto). Then, I adjusted the ISO up high enough so that the stars became visible and the highlights on the horizon did not get blown out. So, my settings here were ISO 2500, f2.8 and 30 seconds. I used in-camera noise reduction because of the high ISO.

Exposure for the Foreground – I was literally in pitch blackness as I was shooting. The foreground subjects had no light on them. Although foreground silhouettes look good in some cases, I thought a lighted foreground would look much better. Had I gotten there much earlier, I could have set up my tripod and taken a picture before it got dark… then blended the foreground with the night sky in Photoshop. However, in this case I lit the foreground with a flashlight during the 30-second exposure.

Basically, you just need to experiment. Because the ISO was high, it only took a little light before the foreground would get too bright. I took 6 or 7 pictures until I got the foreground lighting how I liked it. I found that using the “edge” of the flashlight’s beam (not the center) and moving the flashlight around very quickly and only for a second or two worked the best. You want to avoid hot spots in the image. You are better off with a less powerful flashlight in this case. Practice makes perfect here.

Processing – Post-processing was critical in this image. In a few weeks, I’ll be traveling to Death Valley (I can’t wait!) and plan on shooting some additional pictures of the night sky. After that trip, I’ll post an additional blog on processing night pictures like the above image and show you the results from that trip. Stay tuned!

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