Photo by Jamie Anderson
By Jamie Anderson
When people see an awesome photo of the night sky or the Milky Way, the first thing they typically ask is, “What camera settings did you use?” Well, that’s certainly part of the equation for doing this type of photography, but there are a few other considerations as well. Let’s take a quick look at seven tips for taking great night sky images.
First, you should know that you probably already own most or all of the photo equipment that you’ll need for these shots. Most images can be created with a single long exposure. All of the photos in this article are either single-shot exposures or panoramas of single shots stitched together.
Photo by Jamie Anderson
To begin with, you need to find a dark location, and the darker the better. Getting away from city lights is a necessity, because there is simply too much ambient light in urban areas to see the stars. In fact, a single streetlight in the area can spoil your attempt. All of the light generated by manmade sources (sometimes referred to as light pollution) will block your view of the stars and, in particular, the Milky Way. DarkSiteFinder.com is a helpful website that can help you find dark sites (see https://darksitefinder.com/maps/world.html#4/39.00/-98.00). On this map, you can see the problem with light pollution in the eastern United States. But take heart, it’s not impossible. On the east coast of Georgia for example, communities keep the lights dimmed so the sea turtles will come ashore and lay their eggs. Also, we’re often pointing our camera to the east, southeast or south to capture the Milky Way. This is away from the city lights and out toward the darker ocean.
The best time for star photography is during the new moon. During this phase, the moon is actually in front of or near the sun. So at night, the moon will be out of the way. A full moon, on the other hand, can ruin your shot if you’re attempting star photography, because its brightness will overwhelm the night sky. (However, a photo of the full moon itself can be pretty impressive in its own right). For Milky Way photography, you’ll need to know when the Milky Way is up at night. In particular, you’ll want to know when the “galactic core,” which is the brightest part of the Milky Way, will appear in the night sky. It rises and sets like the rest of the celestial objects in the sky. In the early spring, early-morning hours are best. At midsummer, midnight to early morning is best. In early fall, about 1.5 hours after sunset is prime time. In the winter, unfortunately, the galactic core is actually up during the day and sets before sunset. So spring through fall are the best times for photographing the Milky Way.
Obviously, you need clear sky conditions in order to see the stars. Even a partly cloudy night can ruin your view. However, if the weather report says “mostly clear,” it may be okay. Sometimes the clouds dissipate at night, and an incoming cool or cold front can clear away the clouds, creating great opportunities. You may just want to step outside the house and look up at night to see if the sky is clear. If you can see stars in the city, you’ll see a lot more when you get to your dark location.
Here’s a list of some of the equipment you’ll need:
- Camera body that works well with high ISO (in the 3200 range)
- Wide-angle lens with a wide (fast) aperture in the f2.8 range
- Sturdy tripod (think long-exposure photography)
- Shutter release (optional, for taking the photo with hands off the camera)
- Normal stuff for photography – spare batteries, cards, lens cloth, etc.
Photo by Jamie Anderson
To figure out the proper setting for your camera and lens, let’s start with the 500 Rule:
500 / Focal Length / Crop Factor = Maximum Exposure Time (in seconds)
The 500 Rule estimates the maximum amount of time that you can expose your camera for the stars at a certain focal distance before “noticeable” star trails begin to occur from the earth’s rotation. Yes, with this type of photography, you can get noticeable camera movement just from the rotation of the Earth! Of course, “noticeable” is often a matter of opinion and varying degrees (“barely noticeable” to “very noticeable”). As with all mathematical equations, an example can help. Let’s use the equation for a 24mm lens and a full-frame camera. So, 500/24mm = 20.833, or about 21 seconds maximum exposure time before “noticeable” star trails begin to occur. If I have a Canon crop-sensor camera, on the other hand, I would need to divide the 21 seconds by a crop factor of 1.6 (the Nikon Crop Factor is 1.5). So, 500/24mm/1.6 = 13.02, or a maximum exposure time of about 13 seconds.
THE OTHER SETTINGS
Ideally, minimum settings at 24mm are f2.0, ISO 3200, and a 20-second exposure. These settings on a full-frame camera body will work really well. However, if you can’t meet just one of the settings, you’ll need to adjust something else. For example, what if your lens only goes down to f2.8? A movement from f2 to f2.8 is a full “stop” of exposure, which cuts your light in half. So, in order to compensate, you would need to double your exposure time to 40 seconds OR double your ISO to 6400. A good compromise might be to increase exposure to 30 seconds and adjust your ISO to 4000. If your lens aperture will go to f1.4, that would represent a full stop from f2.0 and provide twice as much light. You could then decrease the exposure time to 10 seconds OR adjust the ISO down to 1600. The good news is, once you find the correct settings for your lens and camera body, you can use the same settings every time you do this type of photography.
Other Settings to Consider:
- Obviously, use Manual Mode to control all the settings we’ve been talking about thus far so the camera doesn’t change them automatically.
- Turn off Auto Focus OR use Back-Button Focusing, and make sure you don’t press the Back Button accidentally (more on focusing in a minute).
- Set White Balance using the Kelvin setting. A setting around 5500 will give you the natural-looking black skies. I dial it down to 3500 because I like the cooler blue-looking night sky. In my opinion, it works better with the light pollution.
- Turn these settings OFF:
- High ISO Noise Reduction
- Long Exposure Noise Reduction
Photo by Jamie Anderson
NOTE: The light meter in your camera is useless for this type of photography. You are overexposing a completely dark scene, so just rely on your manual settings.
You’ll also need to learn how to focus in the dark. Your autofocus will have a hard time focusing, but it may not be entirely useless. If there is a bright light in the distance, autofocus may actually be able to focus on it. In the scene above, there is a bright light on the horizon. This might actually be enough light for autofocus to work. You can autofocus on any bright light as long as it’s a long distance away, and your stars will also be in focus.
What if you want to make sure the objects in your foreground are in focus? In this situation, create some distance between your camera and the foreground object so both your foreground and the stars in the background will be in focus. As a general rule, stand at a minimum of one foot per focal distance from the nearest foreground object that you want in focus. So, if you are shooting at 24mm, stand at least 24 feet away from the foreground object. If shooting at 14mm, stand at least 14 feet away. One method for focusing on the foreground object (with autofocus) is to have someone stand parallel to the object and shine a flashlight back to your camera. You can then focus on the flashlight, which is the same distance away from the foreground object.
The best method for focusing goes like this:
- Put your camera in live view, then zoom in 10x.
- Shine a bright flashlight on the foreground object.
- In live view (zoomed in 10x), use manual focus and focus on the area where you are pointing the flashlight.
- Take the camera out of live view and make sure your lens is on manual focus.
You may be surprised, but you can actually get the foreground tack-sharp using this method.
Like any photography skill, astrophotography takes some trial-and-error at first. Once you determine the proper settings for your camera and lens, then you can experiment with different locations and setups.
A word of caution: I do recommend having a buddy with you when you’re doing this type of photography, unless you are very familiar with the area and know that it’s safe.
I look forward to seeing your new astrophotography images! If you have any questions, I can be reached at: Jamie@CoastalGeorgiaPrints.com
Jamie Anderson is a native of Savannah, Georgia, and enjoys photographing the one hundred miles of barrier islands, inland waterways, and historic sites known as Coastal Georgia. He currently volunteers as the Coastal Chapter coordinator and is a member of both the Conservation and Communications committees.
Finding Inspiration for Your
Winter Landscape Photography
By Charlotte Gibb
With the last autumn leaves fading, it’s time for photographers to turn their attention toward winter landscapes. But unlike other seasons, freezing temperatures and snow can make winter photography particularly challenging. Not only do we need to suit up in cold-weather clothing to stay warm, but we also have to keep our gear dry. (Editor’s Note: Be sure to see Charles Glatzer’s article this month on cold-weather clothing here)
The effort, however, is well worth the trouble. Winter’s low angle of light creates more dramatic scenes than at other times of the year, and snow, ice, and frost can transform a landscape into pure magic. Best of all, shorter days means there’s more time to savor that first cup of coffee in the morning. So bundle up, grab your gear and get out there! Here are some ideas to get your started as you wander through the winter landscape.
Among my favorite subjects to photograph are forests and trees. In spring, trees are lush with new growth and colorful blossoms. Autumn, of course, brings a stunning transformation of leaf colors. But it’s winter that reveals the fascinating skeletal structure beneath those leaves, which makes trees a wonderful subject to study this time of year. Lines are a powerful compositional tool, and the bare branches of trees are rich with lines. Look for trees with interesting shapes and lines that can be used to lead the eye through the composition. Sunny days create an opportunity for dramatic, contrasty scenes, (Another Dry Winter) while cloudy or shady conditions soften the scene for a completely different mood (Sisters).
Another Dry Winter
Look for color contrast
Winter landscapes can tend toward the monochromatic, so look for colorful subjects in the bleak landscape to break up the monotony. Color is a wonderful design element to use as a focal point. Warm and cool colors, used together in the same composition, create depth and color harmony.
Convert to black and white
When the available color isn’t particularly interesting or fails to contribute to the composition in a meaningful way, try converting the photo from color to black and white instead. Black-and-white photographs depend on tone and contrast to direct the eye through the composition, rather than hue and saturation. With color eliminated from the picture, the photographer is challenged to create interest in the subject using only tone, line, texture, shapes and luminance values. When the subject is laid bare of color, the photograph must be strong enough both in subject and composition to hold up in monochrome.
Awhanee Meadow Cottonwoods in Snowstorm
Keep it on the cool side
Winter is associated with the cooler part of the color wheel, so experiment with color balance. You can either adjust your white balance in camera to a cooler tone, or adjust white balance later when you process your photos (if your images were captured in RAW). And, what better time to emphasize cool, wintery tones than photographing during the “blue hour” — that magical time of day just after sunset or before sunrise when the camera interprets the light as a beautiful shade of blue?
Ghosts in the Water
Don’t let a snowstorm stop you from getting out with your camera. Some of the best winter photography conditions occur when the snow is fresh and falling. Try a fast shutter speed to freeze the action of the falling snowflakes, or experiment with longer exposures. Don’t underexpose a snowy landscape. These types of scenes benefit from a slightly high-key effect, emphasizing the whiteness of the landscape. Just be sure the highlights are not clipped by checking your histogram or watching for “blinkies.”
Winter ice on the Merced
Abstract compositions are readily found in nature, but only in winter can one of my favorite subjects can be found — ice. Put on a macro lens or a long lens and zoom in for a unique perspective.
Winter in the Grove
Revisit familiar subjects
If you have a favorite composition that you created in another season, go back and photograph your subject again during the winter. Observe how the change of season affects your composition. Notice the subtle change in the color temperature and angle of light.
I hope these suggestions help you create some beautiful winter landscape photographs this season. It’s always such a pleasure to share my insights with my friends from GNPA. Stay well, everyone!
Editor’s Note: To read Tom Wilson’s article this month about shooting landscapes right now at Georgia’s Banks Lake NWR, click here.
Charlotte Gibb is a nature photographer with an eye oriented towards the subtle and sometimes overlooked elements of nature. Her images are frequently symbolic, using form, line, shape, color, and textures found in the natural world to tell a deeper story about the wilderness. As a speaker and educator, she draws upon her art education and many years as an art director and graphic designer to help other nature photographers create more meaningful and satisfying work.
Charlotte is a contributing writer for several photography publications and has been a keynote speaker for camera organizations across the country (including GNPA and Canon). Her work has won both national and international awards. A native of California, she can usually be found tromping around the wilderness areas of the Western United States.
Photo By Mike Moats
5 Reasons You Should Shoot Macro
By Mike Moats
If you haven’t explored macro photography yet, you may want to take a closer look.
Macro not only offers an expansive new world for photographers, but it allows you to take remarkable images without buying tons of equipment or traveling to exotic locales. In fact, you could probably photograph for years just in your own backyard.
Here are my five favorite reasons for shooting macro:
Shooting close to home
Macro subjects are everywhere. You can find them at local parks, in your own yard and even inside your home. I have four great parks within 20 minutes of my home, and probably 70 percent of my best images have been taken in those parks. A few of my best-selling images were shot in my own backyard. Most people have flower gardens in their yard, so they can simply walk outside and start shooting. This is not only incredibly convenient, but it saves you money on gas and the wear and tear on your vehicle. On top of that, you can do a shoot even if you have just an hour or two available.
Photo By Mike Moats
You can shoot with just one lens
Unlike some types of photography, you don’t need a whole arsenal of lenses to shoot macro. I got by with just one lens for seven years before I added another to my camera bag. If you are starting out as a macro photographer and limited on funds, a mid-range focal length lens like the Tamron 90mm will work great as an all-purpose lens. If you plan to shoot live subjects such as butterflies, dragonflies and other small critters that will flee if you approach too closely, go with a longer focal length macro lens in the 180mm range. Plan on shooting most images with your camera mounted on a sturdy tripod and ballhead.
Photo By Mike Moats
Shoot any time of day
Landscape and wildlife photographers have limited control over lighting and usually need to shoot early morning and late evening to take advantage of the best light. Because of the small subjects that macro photographers work with, we can control our light by using diffusers and reflectors, allowing us to shoot any time of the day. I carry a simple 12-inch diffuser, which I use to control harsh light and prevent overhead sunlight from hitting my subjects
Photo By Mike Moats
Enjoy more creativity
One of the challenges faced by macro photographers is working with limited depth of field. Because we are shooting awfully close to our subjects, the depth of field is very shallow, causing lots of out-of-focus areas in our photos. The closer we get to the subject, the less of that subject will be in focus. But we can use this shallow depth of field to our advantage in creating artistic compositions. If you like soft-focus, dream-like images, try shooting in the lower f/stop range (with a wider aperture) and use this shallow depth of field to produce some beautiful artwork. If you have a subject that may have some interesting lines or textures that you want to accentuate, you can set your f/stop in the higher numbers (narrower aperture) and bring more of the images
Create your own personal art
This is one of my favorite benefits. Every image that you view on my website is an original. Each one is a subject that was present for only a moment in time, until nature or the environment erased them forever. Almost none of those images can be reproduced, because the subjects are gone or have changed.
There are plenty of great reasons to give macro photography a try. Once you start exploring this world, you’ll begin finding your own.
Mike Moats is an international award-winning, full-time professional macro photographer from Michigan. He’s a Tamron Image Master, and his articles and images have been published in numerous photo magazines. He hosts a Macro Photo Club online with over 2,000 members from 18 countries, and teaches workshops and speaks at photo conferences throughout the United States. His website can be found at www.tinylandscapes.com.
Photo by Mark Buckler
Photographing Birds In Flight
By Mark Buckler
Because they are ubiquitous, attractive and approachable, birds are a popular subject for nature photographers. However, these fast-moving (and often small) subjects can pose a great challenge to even the most accomplished photographer. Birds can move quickly and unexpectedly through three dimensions, and you must be able to first locate them in the narrow field of view associated with telephoto lenses, and then continue to track them as they fly. Not an easy assignment.
Mark Buckler Photography
But there are techniques that can help. Here are some tips to help you improve your images of birds in flight.
Use the Proper Camera Settings
Although some camera settings may be a matter of personal preference, there are certain settings that you should definitely be utilizing for flying birds:
- Autofocus Mode: Use Continuous AF (Canon refers to this as AI Servo. In Nikon, it’s the AF-C autofocus mode.) It will help your camera maintain its focus on moving objects.
- Burst Rate: Use a high number of frames per second to increase your odds of getting the best action shot. This is often combined with your autofocus mode and designated as CF-H or Ch (Continuous Focus – High)
- Autofocus Limiter: I like to set the Autofocus Limiter Switch (on the lens) to the distant/far range in order to improve the autofocus performance in most situations. Your lens will focus faster if it’s not searching through the entire range of focus. After all, it’s not very often that you photograph flying birds that are within the near-focus range of your lens.
- Shooting/Exposure Mode: You can use any shooting mode that you prefer, but photographing birds (and all wildlife) in manual mode has significant advantages. In manual, the proper exposure will be maintained (as long as the overall light doesn’t change) regardless of the tonal composition of any particular frame, or whether the bird flies between light and dark backgrounds.
- Aperture: Use large apertures so that depth of field is minimized. These bigger apertures draw attention to your subject by presenting a sharp image against a softer-focus background. Larger apertures also allow more light to reach your camera’s sensor, which lets you shoot at higher shutter speeds to help freeze action.
Mark Buckler Photography
Use Fast Shutter Speeds
Too often, photographers try to find the minimum shutter speed that will stop the movement of the bird. Although this makes sense because it often allows you to photograph at lower ISO settings (thus minimizing noise in your images), I prefer not to worry about my ISO and the resulting noise. I don’t hesitate to photograph at ISO 6400 if that’s what is necessary to achieve shutter speeds of 1/4000 or greater. Not only will these high shutter speeds reduce the blur associated with the motion of the bird, they will also result in sharper images overall.
Mark Buckler Photography
Use Behavioral Cues
Knowledge of bird behavior is as important as photographic skill when it comes to creating compelling images. Remember that birds will typically take off and land into the wind. Knowing this will allow you to anticipate action and better position yourself to get the best possible composition. Trying to capture a bird taking flight is challenging, but birds will often provide cues about what they might do next. For instance, sandhill cranes tend to lean forward before taking flight, and many raptors will defecate (poop) shortly before leaving their perch. Learning as much as you can about your subject will help you capture more interesting photographs.
Locating and tracking a bird through a telephoto lens is a skill that must be practiced, much like you would prepare for a musical performance or an athletic contest. Practice as often as you can, even if it’s just a few minutes a day. Also, you don’t need to go to a bird sanctuary or birding destination to practice; you can find plenty of opportunities in your own backyard or neighborhood. And it doesn’t matter what species of bird you use for practice. Even squirrels and other small, moving critters will work. What matters is improving your skill at quickly framing, focusing and following a moving subject.
By David Akoubian
I have always found solace in rivers and waterfalls. When I need to relax, listening to the sounds of water can be very calming. I grew up fishing and photographing the streams and rivers of North Georgia, and have continued to do so all my life. These days I photograph more than I fish, but the enjoyment is still as great.
When I set out to photograph rivers and waterfalls, I try to choose an overcast day to lessen the contrast in the scenes, and to expand my shooting hours. Because I don’t always know what my subjects will be, such as a large waterfall or detailed cascades, I pack both wide-angle and short telephoto lenses. My preferred lens for waterfalls is somewhere in the 17mm to 24mm range. For more detailed images, 50mm to 210mm usually gets the job done.
Photo by David Akoubian
I always bring a sturdy tripod, since many of my exposures are one second or longer. My tripod is also waterproof, so I can set up in the water. Other essentials for me are circular polarizers and neutral density filters. Circular polarizers reduce the glare and increase the saturation of any foliage in the frame. Neutral density filters simply reduce the amount of light hitting the sensor, thereby allowing me to use longer exposures. I like slow exposures for rivers and waterfalls, as they provide a silkier, softer look to moving water, and better capture the mood I feel when I visit a river. To avoid camera movement during long exposures, I recommend using a cable release, or at the very least, utilize the self-timer or shutter-delay capability of your camera.
For many of the rivers that I have visited previously, I tend to repeat compositions, which is a theme I have followed for many years. To achieve a different look to a familiar scene, I like to revisit places in every season. I live in a wide-angle world when I compose landscape images. By this, I mean I find a foreground object and then use the river as a leading line to either carry the viewer’s eye up the river or to a waterfall. That foreground subject can be almost anything — a log, a rock, or even a small plant. It doesn’t need to be strong enough to carry the image by itself, but sufficient to grab the viewer’s attention and let the leading lines of the river do the rest.
Photo by David Akoubian
My goal is to control the viewer’s attention from the second they see the image until they have arrived at the primary subject. That’s another reason for slow exposures; the air bubbles in the water become lines at about 1/15th of a second or slower, and grow even more pronounced with longer exposures. One second is my ideal shutter speed for most situations, but when necessary, I will throw on the neutral density filter to drag it out to 8, 15, 30 seconds or longer if I need to connect lines. I always use the circular polarizer turned to its maximum effect unless there is light reflecting on the water; then I simply turn it until it captures the beautiful reflections of light.
No matter why you visit rivers and waterfalls, photographing them can help share a part of yourself with your audience, and that’s a connection worth making. In this time of social distancing, connecting with others who share or appreciate your vision is more important than ever. Stay safe, stay healthy, and keep creating images.