Dear Art Wolfe – I have long admired your images of stars and star trails and have tried in vane to take some images like this myself but just can’t seem to figure it out. Can you share some of your secrets?
Chris – I’d be happy to and it’s really not a big secret. When you are photographing stars and star trails at night, first figure out which type of composition you are looking to create – pin points of star light or the long streaks of star trails.
For pin points, set your shutter speed to 30 seconds, any longer and the points of light start to become ovals and the image takes on a blurry look-especially if you are including the Milky Way. Set your lens to it’s widest aperture, ISO 1600 or higher and expose. Noise in an image is most prevalent in the darkest areas, in photographing stars you will have a lot of deep dark areas between the stars so turn on your long exposure noise reduction to help minimize what gets transmitted to the image.
If you are shooting star trails, the elongated streaks of light that arc across the image, you will need much longer exposures than 30 seconds, namely 10 minutes on up to several hours, just exactly how long depends on the focal length of your lens and the effect you wish to create. Just as longer telephoto lenses will “magnify” movement, such as camera shake when you are trying to hand hold your camera, the longer the lens the less exposure time needed before you start to see effective star trails. Essentially the telephoto lens is zooming in making small things larger, so in as little as 5 minutes of exposure a 400 mm lens will yield short but definite star trails. With a wide angle lens, say 16 mm, you will need at least 30 minutes of exposure before you will begin to see decent star trails in your final image. For arcs of light that traverse the majority of the night sky you are generally looking at exposures of 2-5 hours.
In the days of slide film you would simply leave your shutter open for the entire exposure using the bulb setting to manually open and close the shutter and your wristwatch to time the event. However in the age of digital you can not leave the shutter open for that long without risk of damaging the sensor and an ever increasing build up of noise in the image. Rather than exposing for 2 hours straight, you shoot 240 thirty second exposures (to equal 2 hours) and then later “stack” them using any variety of software tools such as Adobe Photoshop or Imagestacker.
So how do you take 240 pictures over the course of a couple of hours? You could sit there with your cable release and click the button every 30 seconds, and if you only ever plan on trying this once perhaps that’s what you would do. However if this is something you would truly like to explore (and you won’t “get it” just trying it once) you should invest in a cable release called an Intervolemeter. This is essentially a computer that allows you to program the camera to shoot those 240, thirty-second exposures through the night while you get a little bit of sleep before setting up for the next shot.
The most important part of shooting stars is to pay just as much attention to what is on the ground as to what is in the sky. You will want to incorporate some interesting elements from the landscape around you, mountain peaks protruding into the sky, whole trees or tree branches, rock formations, saguaro cactus, etc… you need to tell the complete story so the viewer can appreciate not only the stars but where you were when you created such a striking image.
When including the foreground elements you have several choices as to how to handle them. First you can allow them to be silhouettes by simply photographing the scene after the sun has set using their forms as artistic elements in the image – this is perhaps the easiest and most common approach. The second approach is to begin creating your photograph prior to the setting of the sun, at dusk. Capture your lower foreground elements in an image at sunset and then leave the camera undisturbed on the tripod. Once the sun has completely gone and you are ready to shoot the star trails as before. Later in post processing when you are stacking your images together you will have the dimly lit view of the landscape to include in your overall composition. Now is this cheating? No. This is simply the same technique I have used for years with slide film when I would create a dual exposure on the same slide, one at sunset followed by a several hour exposure later in the night without moving the camera. Stacking is simply how you achieve the same result in the digital age due to the delicate sensor.
The last technique I have used involves artificially lighting the foreground elements in your landscape. Using a light source such as a flashlight, powerful search light or even a flash unit you can manually paint light over the foreground images during your 30 second exposures. It takes practice to go over the foreground elements just right, if you pass over an area too many times you will create a hot spot, miss an area and it will be dark, but when all you have is a flashlight to “paint with” there is nothing to tell you where you’ve been and where you have yet to go. So practice with this and over time you will be pleased with what you are able to paint in the dark. Here in the northwest snow camping is a popular winter time activity and lights inside of your tent or igloo make for wonderful glowing foreground elements in these compositions.
When shooting star trails you have two basic choices for where to point the camera. You can either create concentric circles of light around a single point in the sky by aiming at the the North Star (Polaris) for those photographing in the Northern Hemisphere, or arcs of light by pointing your camera in any other direction. Be aware of which you are choosing to compose and include your foreground elements for framing and balance accordingly. Unfortunately there is no convenient star in the southern hemisphere to point your camera directly towards so you’ll need to find that magic spot some other way.
Lastly there are some atmospheric conditions to be concerned with when photographing all night – namely condensation on the lens. I have shot start trails in many areas of the world such as the dry deserts of Utah and Namibia where condensation is not a concern but if you were to shoot them with say the sea stacks of the pacific coast you’ll be battling fogging on your lens throughout the night. One approach is to use a small battery operated fan to blow a steady wind across your lens to keep it dry. A second, perhaps easier approach, is to tape hand warmers around your lens, the kind hikers and skiers use. You’ll need several and they are only good for one night worth of shooting but they will help keep your lens warm and dry.
Lastly it goes without saying you need really dark skies. Pick a time when there is no moon or just barely a sliver and choose a location as far away and sheltered from the lights of near by cities as possible. For the pacific northwest where I live this means heading into the mountains, which make for great foreground subjects to include in the composition.
Enjoy your adventure – Art Wolfe
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Recently, I had the pleasure of attending Art Wolfe’s The Art of Composition seminar in New York. Mr. Wolfe is currently presenting in a number of cities across the US and Canada. Those living in the New York City area are fortunate, in that many photographers come through on the lecture circuit. Whenever I can make the time, I try to attend these seminars, as one always learns something from each speaker. I have been a fan of Mr. Wolfe’s work for years, and made sure I kept the day free for his seminar.
Mr. Wolfe’s six-hour seminar was very different from others that I have attended. Rather than spending time on the nuts and bolts of photography, Art focused on the artistry of the craft. Trained as a painter, and an educator, Mr. Wolfe tackled subjects that are very hard to teach, namely, inspiration, passion, vision, and ultimately, composition. The first lecture of the day was more art theory class than photography lecture. It made you really THINK about the images presented. What Mr. Wolfe spent the day doing, was giving his students a new set of tools to help SEE a photograph.
Mr. Wolfe is an engaging speaker, and with his background in television with “Travels to the Edge”, knows how to hold an audience and work with it. It made for a well paced day. Art drew on almost four decades of images, shot in literally every corner of the globe. The breadth of geography and subject matter was truly impressive. Although Mr. Wolfe made his name in wildlife and nature photography, his cultural photography, still lifes, and abstract compositions show his true breadth as an artist. Drawing on the sheer scale of this body of work allowed the seminar participant to see a concept illustrated across a number of photographic disciplines, allowing one to see how lessons were relevant to their own photography.
If you live near one of the cities where Art will be speaking next, I highly recommend taking the time to attend this seminar. Photographers of all skill levels can learn something from a true master of the craft.
Trevor Peterson is a passionate photographer, whose work focuses primarily on cultural photography. Unfortunately, his photography frequently has to take a back seat to his primary career as a private equity professional.
Today we have a guest post by Younes Bounhar a talented photographer and writer from Canada. For more information on Younes visit his website and blog.
A quick glance on any photography forum and you will soon realize that while there are a few photographers who have a clear identifiable style, most photographs are very similar as if cooked in the same pot. As in every discipline, most enthusiasts start out by trying to emulate the work of the great masters. That often translates into copying the style, the compositions even the locations (ever heard the expression “tripod holes”?) that these masters have, well, mastered. However, as you delve deeper into your art, you start wondering where you should go with your photography after you have photographed your favourite icons and followed the footsteps of the Muenchs, Wolfes or Rowells of this world. Even from a professional standpoint, given the intense competition in the field, how do you set yourself apart from the next photographer? So how do you develop your own, unique style? While there is no magic solution or standard answer, here is a little food for thought to help point you in the right direction.
1- Study the work of other artists
You are probably, wondering what on earth I am talking about since I have just said that you have to try and develop your own style. First, when I talk about artists, I mean it in a general sense, not just photographers, but painters, architects and designers. Painters can teach you how they handle light, what makes a good composition. Architects will show you the power of curves, lines and patterns. In the work of designers you can learn how to combine colours to convey your message. By getting acquainted with the work of other artists, you will seamlessly incorporate some of the elements that they use into your own photographs and have a more deliberate and controlled approach to your art.
2- Get off the beaten path
As a landscape photographer, I often find myself drawn to the so-called “photographic icon”. Who hasn’t dreamt of shooting Mesa Arch, Antelope Canyon or Horseshoe bend? While these icons for obvious reasons, our planet has no shortage of stunning, photogenic locations. While most photographers are content with “roadside” photo opportunities, the most rewarding locations are those that are seldom visited or secluded. In addition to coming out with some unique shots, you also get to experience nature at its best. There is nothing more rewarding than waking up in the middle of nowhere, knowing that there is just you and Mother Nature around.
3- Try something different
When I first dabbled into photography all I cared about was landscape, all I shot was landscape. Since I don’t live in photo icon hotzone, I quickly spent the photogenic potential of my area and found myself out of new things to photograph. My next decision proved to be instrumental in developing my skills. As I have better access to urban zones, I thought that I could shoot buildings and urban areas in a self-imposed assignment to improve my eye for lines and patterns. Not only have I discovered an exciting area of photography, but the skills I learned photographing buildings have been central to my landscape/nature photography as well. As I become more apt at capturing patterns in buildings, it became easier to see and frame photo opportunities in nature. That said, you don’t have to change disciplines to “try something different”. All you need to do is get slightly out of your comfort zone, and learn to see the world differently. If you shoot wide-angle scenics exclusively, trade your wide-angle lens for your telephoto or macro lenses and aim for more intimate nature photography. Inversely, if you are more at ease with a telephoto, trade it for a wide-angle.
4- Break the rules
One of the main drivers of uniformity in photographs is our tendency to want to follow rules. Obviously, these rules exist for a reason and do come in handy at times. That said, you have to learn to think outside of the box if you want to take your photography to another level. Your gut tells you to use the rule of thirds? Don’t listen and put your horizon right in the middle. The magic hour only happens at dawn and dusk, right? Does that mean you can’t take amazing shots during the remaining 23 hours of the day? Certainly not! I have seen amazing pictures taken right at noon, others, in the middle of the night. Basically, just keep your mind open for possibilities and don’t restrict yourself simply because it is a “rule”.
5- Take photography workshops
I have been very fortunate to attend an Art Wolfe workshop a few months ago and I have to admit that it has had a tremendous impact on my approach to photography. Again, the idea here is not to go out there and replicate everything your instructor does or tells you. Instead, you should watch and listen carefully to the way he or she approaches their art. It can be really an eye-opening experience when you are looking at a scene that inspires you nothing, and have someone come in and show you five or six different ways to look at it! You may not like everything you are told; in fact, you could even dismiss some of it. However, back on the field, once on your own, you can surprise yourself identifying photo opportunities that you wouldn’t have noticed before.
While I hope these pointers may have been of some help, there is one last element I would like to stress: just remember why you are into this in the first place and make sure you enjoy what you do. Keep the passion alive, and you are sure to succeed in whatever you set your mind to!