When photographing stars and star trails in the night sky, you’ll first need to decide which type of composition you are aiming to create – pin points of light, or long streaks of star trails. Ideally you’ll also want to find a location away from populated areas to ensure as little artificial light as possible is illuminating the atmosphere.
Now is a great time to experiment with photographing stars as the week of the new moon in April has been designated “National Dark-Sky Week“, when all are encouraged to turn their down or out at night to decrease light pollution. I wouldn’t count on all your neighbors to participate in this little-known event and advocate getting far away from population centers to achieve the best possible results – but it’s definitely something to mention when you are posting your fantastic new star photos to social media to raise awareness!
For pin-point stars, 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 our own Milky Way galaxy. Set your lens to it’s widest aperture and the ISO to 1600 or higher and expose. With a high ISO some noise will be apparent, especially in the darker areas of the image. Editing software like Lightroom or Photoshop can help reduce noise quite a bit.
If your goal is to capture star trails – the elongated streaks of light that arc across the image, you will need a much longer exposure than 30 seconds – anywhere from 10 minutes to several hours. how long depends on the focal length of your lens and the effect you wish to achieve. Just as longer telephoto lenses will “magnify” movement such as camera shake while hand-holding it, a longer lens means less time before star trails become apparent in your image. Telephoto zooming will make the small details larger, so using a 400 mm lens will yield short but definite star trails. With a wide angle lens, a 16 mm for example, you will need at least 30 minutes of exposure before you begin to see decent star trails in your final image. For arcs of light to traverse the majority of the night sky you are generally looking at exposures of 2-5 hours.
In the days of film, you would simply leave your shutter one 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 digital age you cannot leave your shutter open for that long without the risk of damaging the sensor and creating an exponential build-up of noise in the image. Rather than exposing for 2 hours straight, for the purpose of this example, you can shoot 240 thirty-second exposures (to equal 2 hours) and then later “stack” the images using a variety of software packages like Adobe Photoshop.
So then the question becomes “How do I take 240 exposures over the course of a couple hours?”. Certainly you could sit there with your cable release and click the button every 30 seconds, and if you only ever plan on attempting this technique once, perhaps that sounds like a fun way to spend a few hours. If you’d like to truly explore photographing the stars in this way, you’ll want to invest in a cable release with an interval timer, or an “intervalometer”. This device can be configured to work with your camera to control it in a number of ways. In this case you could set it to trigger your exposures for 30 seconds over a course of several hours while you catch some rest before setting up for the next shot.
One of the more overlooked and crucial aspects of capturing quality images of stars is to pay just as much attention to what is on the ground as to what is in the sky. You’ll want to incorporate interesting elements from the landscape around you; mountain peaks protruding into the sky, whole trees or branches, rock formations, saguaro cactus – etc. You will 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.
Finally, to reiterate one of my first points – 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, and I hope to see your photos show up on my social media pages in the coming weeks, and don’t forget to mention National Dark-Sky Week!
Now that Spring is officially a week away and the weather is warming up a bit here in the Pacific Northwest, it’s a great time to get out and shoot. Winter rains can be cold and nasty, but throughout the spring and early fall rainy overcast days that aren’t also affected by extreme temperatures and winds are the best days to get out and photograph! I woke up this morning to some cloud cover, light showers, and a relatively balmy 60 degrees, and was inspired to get the word out about how great such conditions can be for capturing fantastic images.
People are often surprised that I don’t run outside with my camera on a beautiful blue sky day. The clouds on an overcast day act like a huge softbox to soften the light, reduce contrast, and open up the shadows to details that would be completely lost on a bright sunny day. Falling rain diffuses and evens out the light even more. Some of my favorite images have been captured on gray rainy days.
You’ll need to check your lens frequently for spots but with a little care you can use the rain to your advantage. Use a tripod, polarizer, small aperture and long shutter speed to keep from recording individual falling drops of rain and maximize atmospheric softening. Additionally, the polarizer removes the shine from foliage for the richest colors possible. It’s rare that I don’t have a polarizer on the front of my lens. With standing water in your frame the falling rain will ripple the surface. The long shutter speed will blur movement the same way a waterfall can be rendered as a soft ethereal white drape over rocks.
The polar bears of Churchill are world famous, of course; like many photographers I have made pilgrimages there since the early 1980s. This has given me the opportunity to photograph the bears in various ways. From a tundra buggy, you can see the bears engaging in harmless battles as they wait to hunt seals once the ice that’s formed on Hudson Bay. From the air I recorded the beautiful patterns on the frozen lake’s surface as well as the bear’s shadow cast across the ice. To emphasize the barren tundra terrain and diminish the bear’s presence, I selected a 17-35mm wide-angle lens.
For The Living Wild I went to Churchill to photograph cubs newly emerged from their winter dens. Not only did I find several sows with their cubs, but I found them in near-perfect late afternoon light.
Because light meters are calibrated to read any scene as neutral gray, I set my aperture to overexpose by two stops from the reading to make sure the snow stays white. Without this compensation, the bears would be underexposed. This gives the most accurate exposures for white animals in the snow.
I was walking along the Ganges River in Varanasi, India, at dawn one morning when I saw the color. The sun rose through a layer of smoke and haze, and I thought, “Wow, that is a beautiful red orb.” I had to get that shot.
I was at this location during the Kumbh Mela, a massive gathering of Hindus along the Ganges that happens every 12 years. This is a time of great spiritual and cultural significance when holy men gather to bless the millions of people who have made the pilgrimage to the location. Many pilgrims had traveled to Varanasi and upriver to Allahabad. Many were crossing the river to the encampment on the far side. I contacted one of these people the night before, offering a dollar to act as my model the next morning, one hour before sunrise.
The next morning, I positioned the boat with my new model in the dark mud along the shore. I used a polarizer to take the shine off the water in the foreground, creating the illusion that the boat was floating.
To get the deep depth of field that I wanted, I shot with a wide-angle lens and a small f-stop of f/22, getting an exposure of one or two seconds, during which my model had to remain still. The foreground point of the boat is every bit as sharp as the distant horizon. I had to work quickly because the color of the sun was so important, and it lasted only a short time. once the sun rose above that layer of haze, it lost it’s color.
I loved creating the image, stylizing something these pilgrims did every day during Kumbh Mela, making the image more memorable. you don’t know whether the person is a woman or a man, which helps the viewer see him- or herself in that place.
Art Wolfe: Spotlighting is an often unpredictable event that can create and unexpected picture. With this image of a tiger in the dense forest, it was essential that I spot-meter the tiger’s illuminated face to ensure it was exposed correctly, since all of the deep shadows could have easily fooled the camera’s meter.
Martha Hill: I find this image intriguing. Tigers are among the most elusive of the big cats, and this image, by showing it lurking in the shadows, perfectly captures the animal’s mystery. To me it is a more evocative rendering of the subject than the more commonplace, out-in-the-open view we often see.
Art Wolfe: In the hours prior to this shot (of Bridalveil Fall), the valley had been covered in flat light under solid cloud cover. Late in the afternoon, however, the clouds began to break, sending shafts of light onto the faces of El Capitan and Half Dome, and, in this case, the waterfalls that rush over the cliffs in early spring.
Getting the proper exposure in a shot like this can be challenging. using my camera’s spot meter, I took a reading off the brightest area and opened up to keep the whole image from getting too dark.
Martha Hill: This image has drama and mood. Bridalveil Fall is one of Yosemite’s most photographed icons, but the unusual lighting conditions captured here set this image apart. The momentary beam of light illuminates the distant waterfall, directing the eye immediately to it. Under different conditions, such as an even lighting, we might overlook the waterfall altogether in this already dramatic landscape. The success of this image depends on timing – waiting for the exact moment when the light will highlight an interesting visual element.
Never discount the ability to create effective photographs during a rainy overcast day!
On my last day in Yang Shao, China we were hit with some pretty bad weather. Instead of staying in the hotel, I traveled to a view point along the Li River to shoot some limited edition, fine art black and white images. I knew from experience that images taken on a day like this could yield dreamy photos with just a basic amount of dodging and burning once converted from a color capture.
My workflow for these images was fairly simple. I created a virtual copy in Lightroom, desaturated the image by dragging the Saturation Slider to 0 and then using the Brush Tool to selectively dodge and burn areas of the sky to make the clouds pop. Then, Jay Goodrich, my co-leader on this trip, opened the images in Photoshop and added an Auto Curves adjustment layer that, to my surprise, made the images just jump off of the page. When I have more time than I do on location, I will further refine the black & white image by using NIK Software’s Silver Efex Pro 2 software. This will allow me to really fine-tune the image.
I am always amazed at how many ways there are to process an image to get the results that I am looking for in my pursuit of creativity.
Every successful image is comprised of several key elements that define its character: exposure, the balance and movement of the composition, the interplay of tone and color. Focal point and depth of field are critical components as well.
Picking a focal point and highlighting it with shallow depth of field makes the subject “pop“,but one risks over-revealing. Sometime the eye has nothing to do except dwell on the primary subject. Watch people in a gallery. They pass by an over-simple image in moments while an interesting composition engages them for a while.
I usually prefer to draw the eye across the frame, placing the focal point deeper in the composition. The focal point could be a strong design element, but nothing attracts the eye like brightness or a splash of vivid color.
When I construct a composition, something in the scene catches my attention. I immediately try to distill the image to its essentials, looking for anything that gets in the way of the design elements that attracted me in the first place. I feel my way toward the final composition. I don’t actually photograph each step of the journey, but I did here to illustrate the process.
I shot this series in the ruins of a temple near Angkor Wat in Cambodia. In the first image (above) we see some strong vertical lines, but nothing grabs the eye. The bits of white sky are distracting; it is almost monochromatic, which is not a virtue with this composition.
In the second image we see a Buddhist monk in orange robes in the distance. We now have our point of interest, but it’s overwhelmed by the temple, and the bright sky continues to move the eye away from the real subjects.
When in doubt, get closer. I moved in a little closer and zoomed to crop out sky above the doorway into the right. At the same time the sun on the floor is almost removed. Our monk is now a little larger, but there are still too many distractions from the main composition in the form of the remaining sky and foreground.
This time I got a lot tighter, driving extraneous elements out of the frame. (Cambodia4). The sky and bright triangle of light on the floor have been removed and there’s no question that the monk is the center of interest. However, the composition has become too symmetrical, too static for my taste. This is an acceptable image that I want to push a little farther.
This photograph is well-balanced, and all those bothersome highlights are gone. The eye jumps to the monk but then there is more to see in the forms of the pillars. The monk is looking out of the frame, which is a minor issue that I could tolerate.
These final two images last two images work the best for me. They have strong graphic elements and can be read a number of ways. Although the monk still draws the eye, the bias relief of the dancing apsara (supernatural women, the wives of Indra’s court servants) is the first thing to draw the eye. Then, the bright orange forces your attention across the frame. Ordinarily, the bright vertical strip of sun lit sandstone would bother me, but in this case it seems like a border between the past and present and accentuates the verticals of the temple’s pillars. The monk seems a little crowded in the first photograph so I gave him a little more room in the final image.
The Eagle Hunters of western Mongolia are a proud and hearty people that have an immense sense of culture. They also practice a particular form of falconry in which they hunt with eagles. My goals for photographing them within the context of their environment were three-fold: convey the expansive landscape of the region, feature the power of the eagle, and highlight the traditional dress that is ever fading in the historical cultures of the world today.
1.) This first photo establishes where are, and our starting point. A pair of eagle hunters traverse the open landscape bordering western Mongolia and Kazakhstan with their avian assistant with horse in tow. While it does show the landscape, there is little drama and the other goals are not present.
2.) Here you can see I move in close to my subjects; I’m using a 16-35 wide angle lens which allows me to keep the three subjects in prominence while also capturing a dramatic background. The lighting looks a bit flat in this shot, but up close I am able to find better results. We keep the horse out of the shot – we don’t want competition for our focus – the men and their eagle.
3.) In my third image, which is at a right angle to the direction of the sun, I have attached a polarizer to my wide angle. You can see how much more dramatic the light appears. This image also highlights the problems of working with dramatic light – very harsh shadows were cast every time the eagle moved its wings.
4.) The wing of the eagle is now down, but the man that’s controlling the eagle is casting a shadow on his assistant. As my goal is to bring this culture into the light and share it, it’s not an ideal result to have half of my subjects in shadow.
5.) I decided to get lower and shoot upwards to bring in some of the openness of the sky in hopes of creating more of a story than in the previous shots. Always keep experimenting within your photographic goals!
6.) The result is that I don’t have nearly the problems of the previous images with the shadows. This is a very satisfying image to me and meets the goals I set for myself in terms of capturing the men, animal, and landscape. This is where some may stop, thinking they’ve captured the shot they are looking for. In an effort to see what else is achievable, I begin working the scene a bit more.
7.) I’m standing at eye level again with the hunters, but the problem with this shot is that the man closet to me is staring straight at me. I like to maintain anonymity when I am taking pictures, and would prefer that the subject is not staring straight into my camera.
8.) I ask him to look straight ahead, but now with movement of doing so, it’s the eagle mugging for the camera. This isn’t necessarily a bad composition, but I would prefer the eagle in a different position.
9.) I move a little bit further around and discover I love the way the light is falling across the main eagle hunter and his beautiful fox fur hat. However, as you can see, I have moved in too close to get all three subjects in the frame.
10.) I decide to back off a little bit, and now I am getting what I am looking for. I love the fact that the man in the middle is kind of looking my way without staring straight into the camera, the assistant is looking off to his left, and the eagle is conversely looking off in the opposite direction. There is a nice balance to this image, with no shadows on their faces. In addition, the eagle has nice light on his eye. This to me is a winner.
11.) I also like this last photo because it has a nice sense to it; the eagle is looking further opposite now, and is even more absorbed in what is going on in the landscape, rather than in what the photographer is busy trying to achieve. Both of these final two images are very strong photos for me, and I am very happy with the results.
A good balance of compositon, dramatic light, openness of the land, traditional wardrobes – it all comes together in a very nice way in these last two images!
Icebergs and ice are an increasingly important topic in recent years, as climate change is becoming more of a resounding, everyday issue. On a recent trip to Antarctica I developed a personal project of capturing the ice in as artistic of a way as possible. During the day, cruise ship passengers disembarked in Zodiacs to go ashore and view penguins. I have photographed a lot of penguins, so my mission became the ice that was floating in the vicinity. On this particular trip I asked a Zodiac driver to take me over to a distant iceberg that I could see towering over all of the other icebergs. It looked almost like a cathedral, standing out there over a 150 feet above its surrounding neighbors.
This first image shows the dramatic angle of the pinnacle of ice as it’s surrounded by smaller icebergs. As usual I circled my subject and look at it from all angles before settling on an image.
As we travel around the iceberg it takes on a slightly different shape. This new vantage point allows me to incorporate more of the surrounding icebergs in the foreground.
Here I am able to incorporate a foreground “bergie bit” (little piece of iceberg) that is found floating around its larger cousins. I am using a 16-35mm wide angle zoom lens and a polarizer to compose this image. My main objective is to balance the foreground ice with the iceberg in the distance.
I put on my 70-200mm zoom and circled back around to the location where I captured my initial composition in image 1. I chose to shoot a vertical to emphasize the vertical sweep of this dramatic iceberg.
I noticed a distant iceberg with an arch and directed the Zodiac to it. As we headed over to it I put my wide angle zoom back on. I circled this iceberg looking for a point of view in which to include with my initial perspective.
This composition reveals the first iceberg in a very beautiful way. I also love the way the green arch surrounds the distant blue icebergs, and how the wide angle gives the image a nice perspective by incorporating some of the blue green ice just below the surface.
I decided to go back to my 70-200 to try to pull in that distant iceberg. This lens allowed me to compress the scene while still keeping the strong foreground element of the arched iceberg in my composition. However, because I am further away now, you can see the blue sky above the arched iceberg. I have lost the drama that I had with the last image.
I zoomed in to try and eliminate the sky from the previous shot,but in doing so I have lost the top of the distant iceberg.
This is my favorite image in the series. It conveys the drama of the arch, it frames the iceberg in the distance perfectly, and it has a nice sense of color with the blues and greens.
The result is 3 or 4 distinctly different compositions of the same iceberg, which demonstrates how perseverance and a change of perspective can yield a stronger set of images.
These unique perspectives are the kinds of things I’m always looking for in any location I visit. To learn more, check out my workshops page and explore them yourself! We have a couple exciting events coming up – join me next week in my home state of Washington and photograph the lush Olympic forest at the Lake Quinault Photography Retreat, and in November I will be leading a photography workshop to explore Hawaii from new and exciting perspectives. See you there!
When you visit some of the world’s great landscapes, it can be easy to miss the beautiful details beneath your feet. Using a tripod and a small aperture, capture the details that will make your photographs unique and personal while giving context to the location you’re shooting.
For more tips and techniques, my Photography As Art seminar may be coming to a city near you soon!