Photo Cascadia Blog
Archive for the ‘Night Photography’ Category
American Dreamscapes – Book Review
By David Cobb
I’ve been friends with Christian Heeb for a number of years. An immigrant from Switzerland, Heeb first got his photographic start in the U.S. photographing the Native American. His wonderment in the American myth of the Wild West led him to a variety of places including the desert southwest, the Rocky Mountains, the Sierra Nevada range, and Route 66 among others. During his career—which includes over 200 published books—his assignments have taken him to every corner of the states and also around the world. His newest venture isn’t for a U.S. or German publisher however, but a personal project titled American Dreamscapes.
American Dreamscapes is the American dream not as interpreted by Horatio Alger, but maybe one closer to the vision of film director Quentin Tarantino. Coming of age in Switzerland, Heeb’s photography has certainly been influenced by fellow countryman Robert Frank; but Heeb also has influences in the surreal imagery of Gregory Crewdson, and the more voyeuristic photos of David Drebin. His settings also remind me of the more banal locations of photographer Stephen Shore.
Many photographers of the lost America like Anthony Hernandez, Lewis Baltz, and Robert Adams show the blight of American expansion and decay, and those who have been left behind or forgotten. Heeb photographs the edge of American life in a Hopperesque way: from the wayward hotel to the diner, with guns, girls, cars, and sex being common themes. This is the dark side of “when America was great again,” and this is the America that would give Dorothea Lange nightmares.
These people are not only on the fringe of society, but also on the fringe of daybreak. These are the hours when the neon glows brightly, and the hours when folks are desperate enough to commit a crime as seen in his images “The Hold Up” or “Stolen Car.” His models pose with cold distant looks, disconnected from each other and reality. In the photo “The Fun Center,” they’re having anything but fun. These people inhabit a lurid world, and they’re all trying to hang on to make it through another day.
American Dreamscapes is a limited-edition book which may be purchased in both print and digital versions from the Christian Heeb website. The book is in the dual languages of English and German.
Here is a link to download your digital copy here at his web site.
Landscape photographers are increasingly turning toward more interpretive modes of presentation in order to express their own ideas about the scenes that they encounter. New techniques in field work and related digital processing have fueled this development, often enabling photographers to produce images that were nearly impossible to achieve in the film era. These techniques address a plethora of age-old problems in landscape photography, from displaying a vast depth-of-field to escaping the constraints of shutter speeds and fixed angles of view. Whether the goal is to overcome limitations of current photographic equipment or to infuse a photograph with creative subjectivity, digital solutions have opened up a new world of options and have generated a world of terminology to go with them. In response to frequent requests for explanations of certain terms, I offer the following lexicon.
These terms are those that pertain to recent developments, advancements in field work and related post-processing made possible by the digital era. I have intentionally omitted common terms that have direct counterparts in darkroom development, such as dodging, burning, and cropping. This list is hardly exhaustive and is intended to highlight those techniques that have been most significant in landscape photography of the last decade. In addition, I have included terms that describe some newer techniques that I am increasingly asked to explain.
Blends combine separate image files or else different treatments of a single file into a final image. Blending requires the use of layers and masking in editing software such as Adobe Photoshop. A ‘blend’ is generally distinct from a ‘composite’ in its use of source files created during a single photography outing at a particular location.
Possibly the most essential of all blending techniques for landscape photographers is the Exposure Blend, which allows for selective control over tones in an image. A typical use of an exposure blend would be to present sky and land areas of a scene such that they appear to be in balance tonally, as the human eye might see them. Unlike the use of graduated filters, exposure blends allow for targeted tonal changes in any location of the image and at any level of opacity. These blends might combine different exposures produced as separate files or else differently processed iterations of a single raw file. Exposure Blends are typically achieved with freehand masking or with luminosity masking.
Focal Length Blend:
This type of blend combines frames of a single scene that were shot at different focal lengths. The typical use of this kind of blend is to overcome the effects of “pancaking” or diminution of background features caused by the use of a wide-angle lens. By combining a longer focal length for a background with a wider one of a foreground, photographers can restore the prominence and presence of background features that might otherwise appear less impressive than they would in person. Focal Length Blends require manual blending using hard-edged masks.
One of the most versatile types of blending, the Perspective Blend allows the combination of frames shot using different nodal points. The most common type of Perspective Blend is the so-called “Vertorama”, which is essentially a vertically oriented panorama. Perspective Blends can also combine slightly different camera heights or angles that allow more descriptive or expressive views of certain foreground features without compromising the desired view of the background. Perspective Blends can be achieved with automated stitching software or with manual blending.
A Time Blend collapses together different moments of a natural event, allowing for a more extensive narrative or a more descriptive presentation, similar to what a video might accomplish. While an Exposure Blend might combine different moments that are only seconds apart (or less), a Time Blend could include instances that span across minutes or even an hour or more. A typical example would be a scene with fast-moving atmosphere and quickly changing light that showcases the most significant moments of the event. Another common variation on the technique is combining different shutter speeds in a single image, such as having a longer shutter speed to blur moving water and a shorter one to freeze foliage movement. Time Blends typically require freehand masking.
This technique was developed to overcome problems of extreme dynamic range during twilight or night. The basic approach is to photograph land portions of a scene with ample ambient light separately from the night sky, keeping the camera in position on a tripod as long as it takes to create good exposures of both the land and the sky (typically about an hour). Twilight Blends can be achieved with freehand masking or with luminosity masking and usually require a substantial shift in white balance for the land portions of the image.
These effects accentuate or augment a scene in ways that emphasize a mood and contribute to the style of a photo’s final presentation.
When light shines through atmosphere that diffuses it substantially, any shadow areas behind the light lose contrast. The effect is often a pleasing, “glowy” one that emphasizes the light source. This natural phenomenon can be accentuated dramatically or even imitated outright by overlaying pixels that add brightness and diffusion. These pixels might be layers of bright color or selected areas of a blurred and brightened copy of the image file. The opacity of the effect is generally highest closer to the light source, typically requiring freehand application for naturalistic results. Photographer Ryan Dyar is widely regarded as the greatest pioneer of this technique, and his portfolio contains many images that exemplify it.
Light Painting in processing is akin to dodging and burning in that it selectively brightens or darkens areas of an image, often with a change in hue involved as well. A typical application might add brightness and warmth to selected highlight areas and add cooler hues to darker ones in order to emphasize visual hierarchy, to direct eye movement, or to emphasize depth. Light Painting is usually best controlled with a combination of luminosity masks and freehand application, and it may involve the use of numerous layers that build up to a result like glazing techniques in oil painting. (Note that this is a processing technique that should not be confused with in-field “Light Painting”, which involves using artificial light sources and long exposures in low light situations.)
This effect does have a direct counterpart in darkroom development, but I decided to include it in this lexicon because it has been widely adopted and adapted in the digital era. Photographer Michael Orton originated the technique using slide film in the mid-1980’s as a means of emulating the “Pen and Ink and Watercolor” technique of painting that produced a dreamy effect through its combination of media with different qualities. To create a similar effect with photography, Orton sandwiched together two slides that he took of a single scene, one slide with high detail and little color, along with a second slide that was out of focus and very colorful. Digital applications of this idea are numerous, ranging from subtle treatments that simply offset the effects of web sharpening, to more emphatic treatments that lend a painterly, glowing quality to an image. Numerous software filters, plug-ins, and scripts exist for automated applications of the effect, and of course manual applications are possible using layers in Photoshop.
The following techniques are among those that have been foundational in the more progressive strands of landscape photography in the digital era. They have opened up new options for composition, subject matter, conditions, locations, and timing to the extent that they lie at the heart of a distinct zeitgeist that has become evident in the last decade.
Focus stacking combines files shot with different focus points in order achieve a greater depth of field than would be possible in a single file. With this technique it is possible to have sharp focus on features at the very closest focusing distance of a lens while also having the same level of sharpness for everything else in a scene, all the way out to infinity focus. There are numerous standalone software programs that can automate the process of focus stacking, and Photoshop has stock features for focus stacking as well. Focus stacking can also be achieved manually via blending with layers and masks, although a manual blend is easiest to achieve with images that do not require the combination of many focus points.
The acronym for “High Dynamic Range”, this term describes any process that combines different exposures for the purpose of increasing the range of tones in an image beyond what is achievable in a single exposure. Many photographers reserve this term to distinguish automated processes that effect image tonality globally in a photograph, as distinct from manual blending techniques that allow highly selective control over tones in an image (see Exposure Blending above).
A luminosity mask is a blending tool that allows precise targeting of tones in an image. The most common uses of a luminosity mask are exposure blending, dodging, and burning, but these masks are useful for a huge variety of editing tasks, including color work, light painting, adding light bleed, and creating custom Orton effects, among others. A luminosity mask is a type of “found mask”, which is any mask created from one of the eleven standard channels available in different image modes within Photoshop. The channel that all luminosity masks derive from is the Gray channel, which contains only the luminance values for a given image. Channels that contain color values, such as the Red or Blue channels, can also be very useful and work in the same way that luminosity masks do. Because found masks use gradations of tones or colors that exist as pixels in a photograph, they are much more precise for blending tasks than freehand masking is, and they are less likely to produce unwanted ‘halos’ and artifacts, as can happen easily with simple applications of hard-edged masks (that is, those created with selection tools such as the Lasso Tool). There are numerous Photoshop action sets available to create luminosity masks quickly and easily, the most popular being those available from Tony Kuyper.
Stitching refers to the process of seamlessly combining frames shot by panning a camera horizontally, vertically, or both. There are numerous standalone software programs for creating stitched images, and some are very sophisticated, allowing photographers to stitch together frames from very wide focal lengths and from different nodal points. Photoshop also has features that enable automated stitching, and of course manual solutions exist as well.
Warping is a selective distortion of an image that has countless uses. Common examples include altering the relative proportions of certain parts of a scene, pulling unwanted edge details out of the frame, shifting regions of an image within the frame, correcting leaning features, and adding curvature to straight elements. Warping can be accomplished with the very edge of an ultra-wide-angle lens or with software tools, but blending with another layer of image data that contains normal proportions for the rest of the scene is usually necessary in either case. Although numerous software programs have warping features, Photoshop includes the most variety of them and offers the greatest amount of control, especially given the option to use masking for more targeted effects.
WHEN, WHY, AND HOW MUCH?
My own preference is to use processing solutions creatively but conservatively, always striving for a high level of naturalism and subtlety and without creating images that have no basis in my own experiences. Nonetheless, those limitations are merely my preferences for my own output, and I enjoy seeing compelling photographs that push beyond the limits that I might set for myself. Perhaps the most important consideration for any type of processing is the rationale for choosing a particular technique. Like any decisions in art, those that work in the service of a creative goal are more likely to produce satisfying results. Anything done with intention tends to register with more viewers, allowing them to discover points where craft and ideas come together in powerful, meaningful displays of creative choice.
**Special thanks to the artists whose images are linked in this article and who collaborated with me on the selection of them!
Can you guess which of these techniques went into the photographs displayed in this article? Do you have any questions about any of these terms? Would you like to suggest terms for inclusion in future versions of this lexicon? If so, please feel free to chime in below.
Erin divides her time between Cascadia’s Californian southern boundary and Slovenia, traveling and photographing extensively from home bases in both locations. Make sure to bookmark Erin’s site at www.erinbabnik.com. You can also follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
By David Cobb
The first time I explored Croatia was when I crossed the eastern border through the countries of Montenegro and Albania. Six years later I explored the western portion of the country arriving through Slovenia. Both times I was greeted by friendly faces, wonderful food, and beautiful scenery to photograph. On my first visit I had time constraints so I only made it as far as Dubrovnik, but the second time I was able to explore more of the country along Plivitce National Park as well as some of the towns and villages along the Istrian coast and a bit further inland.
Dubrovnik is a photogenic city along the Adriatic Sea. The old town consists of many ancient churches, and its polished streets make for great reflections during night photography. Climbing the wall of the old fortress you can shoot down into the city and pick out patterns amongst the rooftops.
Along the western end of the country lies Plivitce National Park and its many lakes and waterfalls. Fall here can be spectacular, and there are so many grand waterfalls it’s hard to know where to begin photographing so just start and explore. I recommend you plan on spending more than a day here.
Inland near the Istrian coastline are a number of hilltop villages surrounded by vineyards. The small towns surrounding the ancient castles are more photogenic when you walk the stone streets—and offer views down to the surrounding agricultural fields that make for great pattern photography.
The Istrian Coast is beautiful too, with its beaches and cliff-side views. As always in Croatia, the towns along the coast are most photogenic and are photographed best during sunrise, sunset, and night.
There is still so much for me to explore in Croatia, especially in some of the backcountry river canyons and mountain ranges. I plan on seeing and exploring more when fellow Photo Cascadia member Sean Bagshaw and I join Luka Esenko for a fall color workshop here in 2017. There are still a few spaces available in the workshop for those interested in experiencing this great area.
By Kevin McNeal
The 2015 Yosemite in Spring photo tour began with expectations of lush green landscapes, spring-fed waterfalls and endless bloom of dogwoods—and Yosemite did not disappoint. After meeting my group at the Fresno airport we made the journey north through Wawona and into Yosemite National Park. En route we took the opportunity to look at a few of the anticipated highlights of the park. Our accommodation for the week at Yosemite Lodge was nestled right in the heart of the valley, so we would have access to many locations that were a short distance away.
Our first photo session was special as it was a night with a full moon and the anticipation of moonbow photography. This event occurs as a full moon in spring or early summer shines directly on a rushing waterfall to create a nighttime lunar rainbow. Mist from the waterfall, a dark sky, bright moonlight and the right “rainbow geometry” must all come together. Following dinner, our group was at Lower Yosemite Falls to see the rainbow and get good images of this spectacular event.
The following morning we were at Ahwahnee Lodge for breakfast and enjoyed some time to photograph the classic lodge in its stunning setting among blooming dogwoods. Photographing the interior of the lodge gave us a chance to practice some creative photo techniques. Later, returning to Yosemite Falls, we found some unique compositions and practiced our skills using a neutral density filter to photograph long exposures on the waterfall to create a different mood. Following lunch, El Capitan Bridge provided many opportunities for shooting reflections in the Merced River. The river was running very nicely considering California’s drought conditions. The lush green vegetation was better than expected and provided some nice backgrounds. At sunset we continued our exploration of reflections by shooting images of Half Dome in the Merced River near Chapel Meadow.
Starting out very early the next morning we drove to Tahiti Beach, a special spot along the Merced. It was a good morning for reflections in the river and in spring-fed pools and we were treated to stunning light on the Three Brothers and iconic El Capitan.
After a well-deserved late breakfast, we took a park shuttle bus—exciting for everyone as it was reminiscent of summer camp—to Mirror Lake. Taking our time hiking the 2-mile trip to the lake and back, we stopped along the way to photograph waterfall cascades. The lake provided some of the best photographic opportunities we had, including numerous unique reflections.
After dinner that day we headed out to the stone arch of Pohono Bridge to photograph spring dogwoods and sun stars. This gave us some good practice using creative techniques. We focused on both the dogwoods and a sun star to really capture both in the same image. We were even able to shoot some stunning late light under the Pohono Bridge. In the last two days we had found some incredible photographic compositions along the Merced River.
Still excited from the night before and the images we shot, the following day we looked for more interesting compositions at the Swinging Bridge which spans both sides of the Merced River. Here, the sunrise light hits Upper Yosemite Falls and reflects nicely in the river, making everything around it look lusciously green. We took the morning to shoot at a spot we found where we could photograph in all directions—and had something different to shoot every time.
After spending the last few days in Yosemite Valley we got news that Tioga Pass and the Upper Yosemite Road had opened. This was a nice surprise as the pass does not usually open up until late May. We spent the rest of the day on the journey over Tioga Pass, traveling to Lee Vining for dinner. Along the way, we found many places to shoot, including an out-of-the-way lake that was perfect for reflections. A stop at Olmstead Point provided one of the most stunning vistas of Half Dome, where we focused on finding unique compositions and using some of the photogenic solo trees in the image. We returned to Yosemite Valley for a sunset shoot at Tunnel View where some dramatic clouds made the breathtaking scenics even better. After a great day of shooting we headed back to our lodge for some well-deserved rest.
The next morning we woke to some very atmospheric mist and fog in the valley, making for interesting images at El Capitan Meadow, including some early wildflowers. After hearing news of overnight snow in the upper elevations of the park we drove to Tuolumne Grove for some forest scenes with snow falling around the giant sequoias.
Our final full day of the tour began with photography along the low-lying mist-draped Merced River. Then, as the fog began to lift, rolling in and out of the valley, Yosemite’s dramatic rock formations covered with the fresh snow rose out of the mist. I think we photographed just about every spot in Yosemite Valley when we saw those amazing conditions! While we were shooting in Cook’s Meadow we even had the rare opportunity to see two coyotes playing with each other for almost an hour—all while the surrounding peaks were providing some unforgettable moments. That evening we celebrated our day of success at our final group dinner.
In one week, we had experienced enough drama in the Yosemite’s springtime weather conditions and created stunning images to last us a long time.
On our final morning of the tour we were ready for an early start back to the Fresno airport, but rather than stopping for breakfast, we decided to take our last opportunity to look for the early morning fog which had made for some spectacular shooting conditions. Within minutes we knew we had made the right decision. Cook’s Meadow was lit up with beautiful morning light mixed with the low-lying fog—making it the best morning we had yet. We got some great shots and even made it to the airport in time!
We had captured Yosemite’s expected iconic landscapes, cascading waterfalls and creamy-blossomed dogwoods, but we also left with images of rare moonbows, unique “reflectionscapes,” unanticipated vistas, sequoias in a snowfall, playful coyotes, and dramatic low-lying tendrils of fog in Yosemite’s deep valley beneath towering rock peaks. Saying our good-byes we were already looking forward to reliving the week through our images.
On social media I get asked all sorts of questions but one of the questions a lot of people are curious about is what happens when a photographer takes a photo tour and what can they expect.
So for this blog I am sharing my trip report from my recent travels to Fairbanks Alaska and what we did and some of the places we visited as well as the activities the group did together.
The 2015 Fairbanks Photo Safaris Tour started off with an introduction dinner at Pike’s Restaurant. This gave everyone a chance to know a little about everyone in the group. After dinner with a promising Aurora Borealis forecast for that evening we decided to get an early start and head up to a great hilltop view called Mount Skiland. This 360 view of Fairbanks and the surrounding area gave an excellent place to photograph Northern Lights. We had been blessed earlier in the week with a lot of new fresh snow and this really made for some spectacular winter landscapes. When combined with the Northern Lights we could not have asked for a better setting. The group was given an orientation on where to best to photograph the lights and had a nice hot cup of hot chocolate. It wasn’t long after the orientation that the magic began and the dark sky had now become dancing beams of vivid greens and reds. Our first night had been a success and we all headed back to the hotel exhausted but too excited to sleep.
The next morning we awoke to sunny skies and snowy surroundings. Some of the group slept-in while others enjoyed a breakfast. After breakfast the group headed out to watch Dog Mushing at the Alaska Dog Mushers Association. The timing could not have been any better as we got to witness a timed trial race where competitors came from all over the world to race. The race would consist of teams of four and six team dog sled races that would race against the clock and their times would be cumulatively added over the two days. Teams of dog mushers would come rushing down the tracks every two minutes with excitement in the racers eyes and voices. They had a way of communicating with one another that was fascinating to hear. We decided to split the group in half as some wanted to photograph the starting line and others wanted to shoot within the snow capped forest. The event lasted most of the afternoon and everyone came away with some great action shots of the dogs and the dog mushers. With everyone hungry from all the action we headed to a close Italian restaurant named Geraldo’s that served some excellent food that really hit the spot. It was nice as the also had a buffet that people really could dig into and really try different types of food. Later that night after some rest at the hotel we got together for a nice dinner at the Cookie Jar Restaurant. This experience will soon not be forgotten as we had a very funny waitress who was very forthcoming with suggestions and places to eat while in Fairbanks. The group ate well as we had another night of photographing the Northern Lights ahead of us. With full stomachs and dressed warmly we headed back to the same area as the night before. Mount Skiland worked out well as it offered a warm chalet for participants to warm up and eat while waiting. Inside the chalet the TV on the wall were hooked up to the webcams so that everyone could see whether the lights were happening. This was a really nice bonus, as we could all stay warm while we waited anxiously. Within a short period the lights had appeared as promised and we were given another magic show where no of the group left disappointed. With several different areas to shoot everybody got a chance shoot from multiple perspectives in photograph the lights in all directions. Although the temperatures were cold this did not matter to anyone in the group. After hours of dazzling light and excitement the group headed back to the hotel.
With are success from the past day of dog mushing we decided to head out and photograph the dog mushers again but try different viewpoints. We also got a chance to see some of the dogs come out of the kennels and hear some background history on the sport. It was a nice chance to see a wide spectrum of dog mushing and all the events that go into a successful event. After dog mushing we headed to the iconic Daddy’s Barb-b-Que for some excellent ribs. At the restaurant we got a chance to take lots of group photos and relive some of your favorite moments thus far. After lunch the group famished from a good meal headed back to the hotel for some rest.
Later that afternoon we all attended the Ice Sculptures and Carving that presented some of the world’s best ice carvers. We decided to head there around sunset so we could photograph the ice sculptures against the backdrop of the sunset, which turned out very nicely. As the sun disappeared and the night set in we then got to shoot the ice sculptures at night when the lights spotlighted the ice carvings.
After a full evening of shooting the ice carvings we went for dinner at the Pikes Landing, which provided some warmth and time to relax. This was well needed as we headed out for another successful night of photographing the aurora borealis after dinner.
The next morning the group packed up as we had a late lunch and headed out of Fairbanks to the Chena Hot Springs Resort. The resort has always been one of the top destinations in the world to view Northern Lights and has several winter activities to keep everyone busy during the day. Later in the day we got settled into our new rooms and headed back to the restaurant for some tasty food. We got a chance to all eat in a private room and enjoy some of the five star food. We all well knowing we had a exciting night ahead of us photographing the lights. The group assembled together as dark settled in and we had arranged a snow coach to take the group up to the top of the mountain overlooking the resort. The view was second to none and provided and excellent vantage point for shooting the lights. While waiting for the show to start we all enjoyed some hot chocolate inside the warm lit yurt. The group got a chance to listen to a live band while waiting. Shortly there after the sky turned vivid colors of green and the group got another night of shooting under the magic skies of Alaska.
The next morning the group got out together to shoot around the resort as the winter snow had provided some idyllic scenes for photographing. We got to shoot some frozen ponds, hoar frost trees, and the sun rising through the snow capped trees. It wasn’t long after that that our hungry was calling out for lunch while others enjoyed some time in the hot springs which was a highlight for some of the group. With a short rest the group met up again for a private tour of the dog mushing and history of the events. This was a nice chance to get to pet the dogs as well as photograph them. All of the dogs were excited to have company and provided lots of excitement. We met for dinner later in the afternoon and were met with excellent food again.
As the light faded and the night began the group decided to shoot the Northern lights around the resort to shoot different subjects with the lights. There was plenty to shoot as we had igloos, barns, abandoned cabins, rivers, birch trees, and even an airplane to shoot under the stunning sky. We shoot until the early hours of the morning before retiring for the night.
The next morning some of the group got together to explore the outer regions of the resort and find new possibilities for the upcoming evening of Northern Lights. With a stunning rustic atmosphere the settings could not have been better for shooting. The group throughout the day got some time to relax and take another dip in the Hot Springs. With some of the new possibilities the group headed out for another night of lights where the group leader had brought out his yellow tent and made some different options for subjects. The group huddled around the tent as the Alaskan sky had not let us down. The night had lit up and the night could be heard with cheers all night from its audience.
Night after night we had been fortunate enough to see the Aurora Borealis and capture it in some of the most stunning winter conditions. The group had a chance to photograph in a variety of settings and even had a chance to experiment with different settings
The next morning we all conversed about how lucky we had been to see the magic of nature and headed back to Fairbanks for one last goodbye dinner at the famous Pump House Restaurant. Here we relived the experiences and talked about our favorite things we had seen. We even got the opportunity to try some of the local food that was pretty impressive.
On a full stomach we headed back to the hotel for a well deserved rest. The photo tour had come to a rest but we knew the memories would last a lifetime.
One of my favorite subjects to photograph is lighthouses. There’re so many possibilities in terms of composition when shooting lighthouses. And when it comes to deciding what image or images to display its really hard to decide a favorite. I recently came back from a trip to the San Jan Islands to shoot the Lime Kiln Lighthouse. Ever since I began photography I have seen images of this lighthouse in magazines, books, and the Internet. It has always been a goal of mine to capture this mesmerizing subject in amazing conditions. I have visited this place half a dozen times but have always met with cloudy conditions. This past week I finally got some great weather and was able to shoot the lighthouse for three straight days.
Lime Kiln Lighthouse is found on Friday Harbor, which is one of the many islands that make up the San Juan Islands in the Pacific Northwest. To get here you need to take a ferry from Anacortes, which runs only a few times a day. Once on the island it is a short twenty-minute drive across the island to Lime Kiln State Park. Accessing the lighthouse is easy with a short hike and can be photographed from both sides.
Like most people I try to check the internet for up to the minute weather reports and time adventures with favorable conditions but for some reason the Lime Kiln Lighthouse has always alluded me and never worked out so when I made the decision to go the weather forecast was calling for partly cloudy conditions all week so I figured this was my chance. I made the drive to Anacortes from Olympia but was dealt a bad blow in traffic and it took me double the time to get there.
As I pulled up to the ticket booth the lady explained I just missed the 4:45 pm and would now have to wait till 8:45 pm. This meant I would miss another opportunity to photograph this lighthouse that had been getting the better of me ever since I began photography. With sadness I began to tell me story to the lady hoping she could come up with a solution to my problem. With a little change in her voice she explained that I might just make a ferry ride to Lopez Island and then do some island hoping to catch a last minute ferry that would get me to Friday Harbor by 9pm and the lighthouse by 9:30pm. Sunset was at 9:20pm. Would that be too late and would I have to forgo this trip again and try again another day?
I decided to give it a try and when it was all done and said I got to the lighthouse a little earlier than expected and was treated to an amazing sunset. In the end I was able to capture three full days of different conditions and now setting on a composition would be the toughest part. When I edit my images one or two might strike me as standouts and make the choice easy for me but other times not so easy.
This was one of those times. I had so many choices to go with that I decided to write this blog on my frustration and hopefully receive some feedback from my readers. So I would love to know if you have any favorites out of this image since I am not sure where to begin..
One of my dreams has always been to photograph the Northern lights under a fresh blanket of white snow. A few years ago I got a chance to photograph the northern lights in the Canadian Rockies. I happened to be on a workshop at Abraham Lake shooting winter landscapes when we received an unexpected stunning display of lights. At this point I had no experience and was not sure even how to do it; all I knew was the photography mantra, “expose to the right always”. So I made the mistake of shooting the northern lights for thirty seconds or more to get the scene exposure on the right side of my histogram. During my moments of excitement and panic I did not even think to look at the images, just the histogram. I learned a hard lesson that night as the final result was a series of images that had all been overexposed. This overexposure caused all the Northern lights to blend together with no detail or patterns. A lot has happened since then in terms of camera equipment technology and photographer progress. With the year 2014 being a great year for Northern Lights I thought I would write a brief article on my experience and what I have learned.
When it comes to locations and where to find the right places to shoot the Northern Lights there are a few places that always win the hearts of photographers for their visual beauty. As most know the Northern Lights are called that for a reason, because they are seen in the higher areas of the Northern Hemisphere. The areas that I find the truly most scenic are Iceland, Norway/Scandinavia, Alaska, and Canada/Yukon. Each has its pluses and minuses which are beyond the scope of the article.
This year has been predicted to be a fantastic year for Northern Lights so I decided to plan several trips based around photographing them. For my first trip I visited the countries of Sweden, Finland, Norway, and more specifically the Lofoten Islands. I had never been there and had seen all the images with fresh snow and snow capped mountain peaks. It was exactly what I had been looking for. From research I knew driving would be extremely difficult in the Lofoten Islands so I decided to take a photo tour where I would not have to worry about that. If you have ever photographed with me you know that was a smart decision. It was nice to be able to just be taken to places without worrying if I would end up lost and frozen somewhere in the night. Some nights it was -28 and a few seconds in this temperature and you felt the numbness already. The other advantage of taking a photo tour is the instructors will know the best places to go when the Northern Lights do happen. The last thing you want to be doing is trying to find a place when the lights occur. Not only was this advantageous to have instructors take you to the right places but they also have the knowledge of where the lights are most likely to happen and when. This was really helpful so that you did not have to stay up all night looking out the window when you have already been shooting all day.
So how are you supposed to photograph Northern Lights? With experience the following is what I have found works best.
The first thing I want to talk about is shutter speed and how long you should expose the image. This depends on the light available at each scene and the elements of the scene. The most important aspect I found to be essential to shooting aurora is to make sure you don’t overexpose. What I found works best to capture detail in the Northern Lights is anywhere from five to twelve seconds. Any more than this and the lights just blur into one another and you lose the stunning movements of the lights. I adjust the shutter speed based on how fast the lights are moving. When you get high action movement in the lights adjust your settings to have a shutter speed of five seconds. This short shutter speed will allow you to capture all the stunning patterns and movement of the Northern Lights. When the lights are barely visible I was up around twelve seconds. I adjust my ISO so that I would be able to get the proper shutter speed. I photograph with a Nikon D800 with a 14-24/2.8 lens, a good camera and lens combination for night photography. I found that most of my images were taken at ISO 1600 and a few at ISO 3200 for the short bursts of light. In hindsight most of the images that I took at ISO 3200 are too noisy for large printing. It goes without saying that newer cameras will do better with noise and low light situations. I also recommend using a lens that has an aperture of 2.8 or less. Shooting an f/4 lens I was not able to shoot the lights with minimal noise and fast enough shutter speed. If possible an aperture of 1.4 or 1.8 would be even better. For focal length I always use as wide angle a lens as possible. Using a 14mm lens I was able to capture most of the patterns in one image. I have seen plenty of fantastic images with a fish-eye lens as well.
So, what happens to the rest of the elements in the image when shooting specifically for the Northern Lights?
When shooting just for the lights, the rest of the elements went completely dark and had no detail. This meant I had to do another exposure just for the rest of the scene and manually blend the two images together in post processing. It is vital that you use a strong tripod with a sturdy ballhead to prevent any kind of movement during the shot especially when shooting on the ice. The first night of shooting Northern Lights we visited a frozen lake surrounded by mountain peaks. The creativity of shooting Northern Lights has been improving and the best images today almost always include the foreground. So being that I was on a frozen lake I looked for ice cracks that would provide great leading lines to connect the foreground to the background. To properly expose the complete scene you need to take at least two images. One image should expose for the Northern Lights and a second image that exposes for the foreground and the other elements in the image. A critical consideration for exposure in the foreground is the elements present. If there is plenty of snow, especially in the foreground, your exposure will be much less. After the images are taken I usually shoot another image with my hand in front of the lens to signify the end of the series of images. Later in Adobe Lightroom or Adobe Bridge I can stack those images as the same set or series. This is very helpful later on when trying to sort what image goes with what. So I shot the Northern lights at ISO 1600 for nine second and then exposed for the foreground ice, which was anywhere from thirty to sixty seconds. I then manually blended the two in Photoshop.
The next component to photographing Northern Lights successfully is Aperture and focusing. Aperture is a constant from my experience. I need to be at an aperture f/2.8 (lower if I had a faster lens) always to get a fast enough shutter speed to capture the patterns in the Northern Lights. Combining an aperture of f/2.8 and ISO 1600 allowed me to achieve a shutter speed of less then ten seconds. The trickiest part for me was the focusing. I started by focusing on the background first to make sure I got the Northern Lights in focus. I set this up by looking at my LCD live view and focusing on a star in the distant sky. I go in at 100% preview until I find a bright star and then rotate the focus until it is sharp. Once that has occurred you can shoot the background Northern Lights with the assurance you have those sharp. Double check after by checking the LCD review of the image at 100% to see if all the stars are sharp. You know you are in the right area if you are focusing on infinity and then pulling back a smidge from that. If that all seems like too much work you can practice test shots during the day and marking on your lens where the background is in focus and use that mark on the lens later when shooting Northern lights. There are other ways that people use to focus on background stars but I found these methods worked best for me. Once you are confident the background Northern Lights are sharp, refocus for the foreground without moving the tripod or the camera position. If you are going to later blend the two images together in post processing there can be no movement in the camera. In my experience this was the hardest part in the process. I tried a couple of images where I shot one image focusing only on the background but all my foreground elements would be soft. So I would say it is imperative to refocus for a second shot. Once I got the hang of that process I took it one step further and took several images focus bracketing at several different increments blending all the images in post processing.
How do you focus in the foreground when everything is in complete darkness? The answer is bringing some sort of light like a LED light or your headlamp. Find an object in the immediate foreground you will want to include in the image, shine the your light on it and then focus on that. Use the LCD preview at 100% to make sure everything is sharp. There are many techniques that people suggest when it comes to focusing on subjects in the foreground, but for me I chose the most important element of the foreground I wanted and used that. This works well except if you are in a group or a workshop where everyone is photographing in the same area. Shooting with several other participants in the workshop in a wide open space with head lamps buzzing everywhere lead to contamination of light in most of my images. Even though people are spread out, any kind of light that people use can show up in your images. No matter how far away I seemed to get away from the group I could see other photographers flashlights in my images. So be wary if in a group situation. For this reason I tried to avoid using any light and use my best estimate for focus. This proved to be a big mistake and I lost several images to the foreground being soft.
To overcome this obstacle I decided I needed to wait till the next day. I would practice during the daylight and mark my lens where the optimal sharpness point should be; choosing to focus on something one-third into the foreground scene. When testing I looked for a similar situation that I would find myself in while shooting the Northern Lights. I was looking for something where the foreground element would be similar such as a rock, ice crack, etc. This foreground subject would be right in front of me with the mountain peaks in the far background. Once I found the spot of optimal sharpness I marked this on my lens. I could then go straight to that focus point the next time I was in the dark and shooting in a group situation. I want to note this was not the ideal situation and the focus was not always a 100% but it was the best I could do under the circumstances.
The last thing I did was take some time to just enjoy the Northern Lights without doing any shooting. Just enjoy the amazing show that so few people ever get to see!
If you have any tips that you have found helpful when photographing the aurora consider sharing them in the comments as I’m sure others would love to read them.
By Adrian Klein
I remember when I got my first iPhone a couple years back I did not believe I would use it much. Someone told me you will use it more like a computer and a lot less like a phone. Looking back they sure hit the nail on the head. Between texting, apps and Internet access calling people seems to have taken a backseat. The sea of apps and other options we use our smartphones for is endless and I bet each of us could write an article that would enlighten the person next to us on something new. I also believe there are folks out there using their phone more than I since I still believe in trying to do some small trips on a whim without checking every detail and seeing what comes of it, which is part of the fun. Not to mention the sea of apps now days is large and always changing. I am sure there will be a part 2 in the future!
I would say one of the biggest uses for me is simply to get an idea of what the composition will look like without the process of taking out my DSLR when it’s tucked away in my backpack which is often the case when I am hiking and backpacking. Before this I was always trying to use my hands out in front of me to isolate the scene when composing (Still do this some out of habit). Sure it’s not perfect yet many times I have said “oh wow this has potential” after taking an iPhone photo and ended up with a keeper image with my DSLR.
Sure there are many apps yet sometimes just a bookmark to the right page is all that is needed. I have tried a number of options but my current top choice is www.noaa.gov using their mobile site. Although we all know weather forecasts are not 100% accurate NOAA seems to have the most reliable forecasts. On the page you can save many places you frequent to quickly access up to the minute forecasts.
The one app I do use occasionally for weather is from NOAA. This app gives more insight and better detail on predicted intensity and direction of precipitation than the mobile site.
Despite the many photography apps most of us will still need a separate tide app. Don’t leave tides to guessing as that can lead to a bigger adventure than you ever expected! There are many apps for a few dollars that can give fancy charts and graphs. I simply want to see the tide table and that will do me just fine. I use Tides which allows me to see multiple locations and adjust number of days visible from a few to a month. Good for those inside the United States as it only applies to the US and Caribbean Islands.
Comprehensive Photo Planning
Whether it’s our computer or smartphone technology is giving us many tools to plan specific photos in a way that could only be done in the past with extensive scouting and knowledge of an area over time. One of many is the ability to know moon rise, moon set, sunrise and sunset points in correlation to the horizon for the moon and sun.
Recently I have been using the app Photo Pills which is proving to be quite useful in the field and ahead of time. It has features that a variety of apps have separately as well as additional useful features. There are too many features to go into detail without dedicating an entire post to it. That said here are two very hand features that I have been using.
Augmented Reality – This is a game changer from how surgeries are being performed to planning photos. Getting an overlay of where the moon will rise, sun will set, the direction the stars move is very cool. We all have shown up at locations for sunrise for the first time and don’t know the exact location the sun is coming up. This app takes that guessing away.
Scouting – We all come to locations where the light is not right, wrong time of day and too many more to list. Being able to log the location for future reference is great. In this app I can log the location as a Point of Interest (POI) including notes, mapping and multiple photos of each location. If your list gets long enter in search word to shorten the list. I am a list person and until this app came along I would try to (not always successfully) log in my own folder for places to visit in the future.
App: Photo Pills
This is a complex app and although some pieces are intuitive there is a learning curve to fully understanding many features. The website has many short tutorials to help understand the different features.
The Photographers Ephemeris (TPE) is an app which many of us already know is similar in features and price although does not have quite as many features as Photo Pills. The advantage is availability for both Android and Apple.
Full disclosure: I was provided a copy of the app by Photo Pills to demo. No expectation of review or feedback was requested.
If you are horizonally challenged (photographer speak) like me you have two options 1) always correct the horizon later or 2) use a bubble level. In some cases where I forgot my bubble level and I cannot get the horizon close enough by site I have used a level on my phone to help.
App: iHandy Level
OS: Apple and Android
Although there are apps that have sunrise and sunset info (Photo Pills, TPE and others) I find sometimes I want one click to get this info without digging through an app of other features when I am on location. As a landscape photographer this information is crucial where many other pieces of planning can be more nice-to-haves. This simple app gives sunrise, sunset as well civil twilight and dawn.
App: Sunrise Sunset Lite or Pro
Cost: Free to $1.99
OS: iPhone and Android
As we are starting to see the smartphone will be an extension of our cameras where more and more we will have the ability to control our camera from the phone, preview images, store backups in the cloud and more. It will be interesting to see how this evolves. One last thing to say…I do actually take snapshots with my iPhone as well. Imagine that! I recently started an Instagram account (akphotonw) to post some snaps for fun that are much different than my DSLR work.
What app(s) do you find most useful for photography? Feel free to add them with your comments.
Fireworks are not what most of us here at PhotoCascadia normally spend our time photographing. However, a technique I recently learned is so much fun and creates such magical and whimsical images that I just have to share it. I first found out about the technique, called fireworks focus blur, from the blog of Portland photographer, Gregg Kerber. In the last year or two this technique has really taken off in popularity. To see what I mean just do a search for “fireworks focus blur” on Google Images or Flickr. As you can see from my images and those of others, the results are beautiful, impressionistic and captivating.
To try out this technique you will need a few things including a tripod, a camera with manual shutter speed and aperture controls and a lens with a manual focus ring. Any of the current digital SLR cameras will meet these criteria. Most importantly you need fireworks. If you live at Disney World you could photograph fireworks every night of the year if you wanted, but most of us will need to wait until the 4th of July, New Year’s Eve or a glam rock band reunion concert.
Find a good location with a clear view of the fireworks. It is best to be close enough to them that they will appear in the sky above you. If you are far enough away, or on a hill above them, they might overlap with buildings and street lights.
The basic concept is actually very simple, but getting the timing right can be a challenge. The short version of the instructions is to simply twist the focus ring during a one to two second exposure. For some folks, that will be all the information needed to get you started.
For those who would like a little more guidance, here is a quick list of equipment, settings and instructions.
- Set up your camera on a sturdy tripod.
- Set the ISO to 100 for the cleanest images. Fireworks are plenty bright so you will not need to use a high ISO.
- With the camera in Manual mode start with an exposure time of one second but be ready to experiment with longer and shorter shutter speeds (1/2 second to three seconds).
- Start with an aperture of f/8 or so. Depth of field isn’t an important consideration with this technique so shutter speed and overall exposure is more important than aperture.
- When the fireworks begin, try taking a few standard in focus images to make sure that you have them in the frame and to determine where the sharp focus point is on your lens (it will be somewhere close to the infinity mark depending on the lens and how far away the fireworks are). Remember where that focused position of the focus ring is.
- Once you have this all sorted out you are ready to try a focus blur. Start by rotating the focus ring on the lens out of focus, all the way to the closest focal point. This will completely de-focus or blur the scene.
- Try to time your shutter release to as close to the moment of the explosion as possible. You can listen for the launch boom and also watch for the tracers of the fireworks rocketing upward. To make releasing the shutter easier and more precise it can be very helpful to use a cable release.
- Just after you press the shutter release begin smoothly rotating the focus ring back to your predetermined focus point. If you go past it that’s OK, you just won’t have perfectly sharp endpoints on your fireworks.
- If the fireworks are underexposed or overexposed you can compensate the exposure by opening the aperture ( f/5.6) or closing down the aperture (f/11).
- You can experiment with different combinations of shutter speed and focus speed. It’s important to time your move from out of focus to in focus to occur during the period of time that the shutter is open. The focusing motion with a one second exposure will need to be twice as fast as with a two second exposure.
- Expect to have a lot of throw away images. You won’t time the shutter release and focus pull just right every time and unless you are shooting pretty wide there is a good chance that some of the fireworks will also be outside of your frame.
- Once you have these basics figured out you can try some other experiments. Try reversing the focus pull, beginning in focus and then going out of focus. Instead of thick bursts that narrow to a point you will create thin bursts that get fatter towards their ends. You can also try rotating your focus ring back and forth multiple times to create all kinds of effects.
- It is also fun to experiment with different lenses if you have enough time. Going wider or more telephoto will change how much of the frame is filled and how compressed the blur is. Different lenses also have different focal ranges and blade patterns which will have an affect on how the images will look.
If you don’t have a chance to photograph fireworks for a while you can bookmark this article and return to it later. You also might want to try this technique with carnival rides at the summer fair or sparks coming out of a campfire. Have fun and let us know how it goes!
You can see more of Sean’s work and find out about his classes, tours and Photoshop tutorials at www.OutdoorExposurePhoto.com.
I often think that the night is more alive and more richly colored than the day.
Vincent Van Gogh
While night photography presents certain challenges, photography is all about capturing light. Even the darkest night is not completely dark. I find that the light at night often allows me to create fresher, more mysterious and more captivating images than daylight. Night lighting that I find particularly exciting are the twilight hours, moon light and even artificial urban light. Photographing at night presents certain challenges and requires specific knowledge, equipment and techniques. The current generation of digital cameras and digital image developing software have made it possible to “see” the night through photographs in ways that weren’t possible before.
Recently I have enjoyed books by two fellow night photographers that proved to be very well written and extremely content rich: Seeing The Unseen by Alister Benn and Photographing The 4th Dimension-TIME by Jim Goldstein.
Seeing The Unseen is a complete handbook for the most up to date techniques in night photography using a digital SLR camera. If you are a creature of the night, or at least captivated by images of silky surf, sweeping stars capes and otherworldly lighting and want to learn how to take such images then this book is a great companion. Alister takes you through his entire process including understanding the different types and phases of night light, preparation, equipment needed, evaluating the scene, focusing, camera settings, use of ISO, field techniques, dynamic range considerations, composition and much more.
In addition to being very complete and easy to understand, the book is worth owning simply for the writing and images. Alister’s writing is far more poetic, contemplative and inspiring than one would expect from a how-to guide and his beautiful, imagination capturing images illustrate every page. Seeing The Unseen can be purchased at HarvestingLight.net and until October 1, 2012 you can get 25% off the price (which was already an extreme value) by using the code ALINEW1.
Photographing The 4th Dimension-TIME by Jim Goldstein isn’t specifically about night photography, but rather the techniques and equipment used for manipulating time in photography. It is one of the most extensive, user friendly and elegant guides to the subject. A big part of understanding night photography is related to manipulating the time variable in low light exposures. Jim leaves no stone unturned, carefully explaining how cameras perceive time differently than we do. He spends a good portion of the book on long exposure night photography including techniques, equipment, technical considerations, light painting techniques and photographing star trails. In addition to the night photography specific content he also covers other time related topics such as time sequences, time lapse video, stopping and accentuation action with strobes, and even video techniques. Everything is well cross referenced and supported with clean illustrations and charts. It even includes links to online content and videos as well as printable field checklists and reference charts. The price of this book is also an extreme value.
Jim also now offers a Mastering Star Trail Photography video course with six hours of video instruction on the current techniques of star trail photography. People who purchase the video receive a free copy of the book Photographing The 4th Dimension-TIME.
Finding good learning and reference material can be a challenge these days with so much low quality content to sift through on the web. I have a lot of respect for the talents of both of these gentlemen as photographers, writers and teachers. For those looking for solid and well presented information on night photography I can recommend both of these books.