Night adventure among the mysterious sliding stones in remote Death Valley National Park

 

Scattered about Racetrack Playa in Death Valley National Park are mysterious sliding or sailing stones, leaving snakelike trails behind them on the cracked dry lake bed, often for longer than 250 meters.

How these stones — some weighing hundreds of kilograms — slid was a mystery for many decades. Was it from hurricane-like winds? Magnetic forces? Pranks? UFOs? Geologists had been studying the sailing stones since the 1940s, with the first theory suggesting that they were moved by “dust devils.” And one of the many reasons the mystery endured was that the stones often did not move for decades until a specific set of natural circumstances occurrent this remote region.

This was the remote area that I had wanted to photograph for years.

 

Venturing to a remote part of Death Valley

Death Valley National Park is an enormous, sprawling park with deserts, playas, mountains, ghost towns, sand dunes and more. It can take hours to drive to its main attractions. The Racetrack Playa is about two hours from the centrally-located Stovepipe Wells. However, the last hour or so is on a bumpy, rough road with sharp rocks. Many motorists have had flat tires as a result of these rocks.

I had joined up with a group of photographers, one of whom teaches for National Parks at Night. We decided to take two cars and also tell the rangers where we were heading. We arrived after dark, with the winter temperatures approaching freezing.

Brrrrrrrr!

One member in our party of five people forgot his pants and only had long underwear. Wearing a winter coat and gloves but short pants and long underwear … this was a comical look. Although very cold, he persevered, photographing much of the time until he got too cold to continue. He retreated to the warmth of his rental car.

Bathed in Moonlight

The way the full moon illuminated the parched white dry flat lake bed was magical, with the dark mountains looming in the distance, the dark blue night sky hanging overhead, and the ground below almost glowing. We walked out onto the dry lake bed for about fifteen or twenty minutes, and then spread apart to begin photographing.

Lighting for texture

I wanted to accentuate the surface cracks and the tracks that the sailing stones had left. To do that, I used a handheld ProtoMachines LED2 light painting device, which is designed for light painting, holding it very low to the ground to pick up the texture off the ground and create shadows and depth.

The ProtoMachines flashlight also can produce vivid colors. You can control the saturation, brightness and color quickly, and it is designed to provide hours of illumination on a single battery charge. It is very expensive, but it replaces a bag full of batteries and gels. This is important when hiking in the dark for long periods of time. It also enables you to create the light you want much more efficiently.

 

There’s always technical difficulties, aren’t there?

I had two technical difficulties, but nothing serious. For some reason, my full-frame sensor camera, the Nikon D610, reverted to crop sensor format. Consequently, my first several photos had the edges cropped off. At first, I thought I was doing a lousy job framing the photos.

Later, the Vello Shutterboss II wired intervalometer would not shut off despite repeated attempts. The camera kept firing automatically every time I turned it back on. I finally had to remove the battery to make it stop.

After that, it operated beautifully.

After that, I concentrated on my light painting. I wanted to pick up as much texture as possible, and look as magical as possible. I used a Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8 ultra wide-angle lens to capture the magic.

“Wait for me!”

After a while, the other photographers signaled that they going back to the car to leave soon. So many times, I will keep photographing and photographing and photographing. Time stands still, and it’s just me and the stars moving and my camera clicking.

With lots of water and snacks and warm clothes, I could keep going. But it was time to go. I will forever remember this magical evening at Racetrack Playa, and hope to return someday.

 

Oh, and about that sliding stone mystery …

In 2011, cousins Richard Norris, a paleontologist, and James Norris, a research engineer, began attempting to solve the mystery, placing GPS devices on some of the stones. Later, they finally were rewarded, witnessing the stones moving.

The cousins determined that to create the sailing stones, first, it must rain create a shallow water layer on the parched dry lake bed. This needed to be followed quickly by the temperature falling low enough to freeze the water overnight before it evaporates.

Then the sun has to come out and thaw the ice so that it breaks into thin sheets. And finally, the wind has to blow strongly enough to break the ice into floes, the wind pushing the floating ice against the bloopers so that the ice acts as a sail and making the rocks slowly slide across the wet, muddy earth.

Getting there

Racetrack Playa is remote. It takes over an hour on a very rough dirt road to get from Ubehebe Crater (we always called it Heebie Jeebies Crater) to Racetrack Playa. The road generally doesn’t require a high-clearance vehicle, although I sure wouldn’t try this in a Prius. Most standard crossover vehicles and SUVs have enough clearance. After all, we did it in a Toyota Rav 4 — hardly an off-road beast.

The larger issue is sharp rocks. I know one person who got two flat tires on the way back. Therefore, ideally, you should have a Jeep or truck or other vehicle with large all-terrain tires. These tires are less likely to be punctured.

And you should be equipped for emergencies. I would recommend having at least one spare tire, tons of water, a radio to contact the outside world, a can of fix-a-flat or tire plug kit, a 12-volt air-compressor, a lug wrench and obviously a car jack. You can probably think of more essential items, depending on the weather.

If you decide to go, you should know that if you require a tow truck, it will cost you. The rangers said that tow trucks have to come from far away. They will charge you $1000 or more.

You may also rent a 4×4 vehicle. It’s expensive, but it may be well worth saving yourself some grief.

Keep it pristine for others

Stay on the road. Off-roading is prohibited. And whatever you do, do not drive on the playa. Ever. Enjoy the magic and the mystery and keep it beautiful for others. Do not move or remove any of the rocks. When the playa is wet, avoid walking in muddy areas and leaving ugly footprints.

VISIT ME, VISIT ME!

MY WEBSITE:
Head on over to the Ken Lee Photography website to purchase books or look at night photography and long exposure photos.  My latest book, “Abandoned Southern California: The Slowing of Time” is available there and Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Target, Booktopia, Books A Million, IBS, and Aladin. If you enjoy the book, please leave a nice review.

SOCIAL MEDIA:
Ken Lee Photography Facebook Page (poke your head in, say hi, and “like” the page if you would, uh, like)
Instagram

PODCAST:
Behind the Shot video podcast – interview February 2020

VIDEO INTERVIEW:
Conversation about night photography and my book with Lance Keimig of National Park At Night

ARTICLES:
A Photographer Captures Haunting Nighttime Images of Abandoned Buildings, Planes, and Cars in the American Southwest – Business Insider by Erin McDowell
A Photographer Explores Southern California’s Desert Ruins – Los Angeles Magazine article by Chris Nichols

 

 

 

 

Light Painting 101: Three steps to illuminating an eerie abandoned piano

Up in the mountains of Nevada is a ghost town. It was a former old Western mining town, and its fortunes rose and fell with the demand for precious metals.

We arrived at the town, ready for some night photography. One of the largest buildings has two stories, both with high ceilings. When I carefully went up the long stairs to the second story. I found this piano there. I am a musician and play keyboards and guitar. Therefore, whenever I encounter an abandoned piano, I wonder what songs were played, who sung or danced to it, and what symphonies were unfinished. And of course, I always photograph the piano.

 

Haunting melodies

My two friends were still downstairs. For fun, I began playing a few random high keys. These eerie out-of-tune notes echoed downstairs, drawing an immediate reaction: “Whooooaaaaaaaa!” It was eerie enough that we even created a short video of how the notes sounded downstairs a little later!

 

Determining how to light the piano

I walked around the piano for a while, shining my flashlight at various angles. Looking around, I noticed the plaster from the wall had given way, exposing the old studs. The handwriting on the old plaster was interesting as well. Since much of the wall was gone, I could walk to the room in back and illuminate from behind.

However, that room had a couple of rows of connected wooden chairs. This posed a bit of an issue since I would have to work around it. I would need to crawl around underneath them to get similar angles. It would be challenging. But I decided it was worth it.

Three steps to illuminating the piano

1. Backlighting the piano

I crawled underneath the connected wooden chairs, extending my handheld ProtoMachines LED2 light painting device to approximate the angle. It was challenging because the chairs were blocking much of the angle. Nevertheless, I managed to get it close. 

I then backed up and swept the light from left to right, so that this would create more shadows that would emanate forth on the floor from both the piano and the studs. As a bonus, I briefly illuminated the flowers on the top of the piano.

2. Illuminating the piano from the left side

I walked back into the room and walked to the left of the piano. Making sure I would not inadvertently shine the light into the camera, I grazed the front of the piano to create detail.

3. Illuminating the piano from the right side

I walked to the right side of the piano. Here too, I used an angle relatively close to 90 degrees from the camera. This enabled me to graze the piano to create detail and shadow as well. 

Why illuminate from the sides?

Have you ever used the built-in flash of your camera or phone camera to illuminate people or things? What did it look like to you? Probably not very flattering.

Light coming straight on to the subject is often harsh and not very flattering. Many photographers choose to use off-camera flash or bounce the light off a wall or ceiling. 

Light painting is no different. You are still using light. However, you simply are applying it more slowly and cumulatively during a long exposure image. This is one of the advantages of light painting. You may illuminate something from multiple angles in one photo, and with different colors and levels or brightness if you wish. But you can do this without having to set up multiple lights on stands or other complex setups and triggering.

 

VISIT ME, VISIT ME!

MY WEBSITE:
Head on over to the Ken Lee Photography website to purchase books or look at night photography and long exposure photos.  My latest book, “Abandoned Southern California: The Slowing of Time” is available there and Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Target, Booktopia, Books A Million, IBS, and Aladin. If you enjoy the book, please leave a nice review.

SOCIAL MEDIA:
Ken Lee Photography Facebook Page (poke your head in, say hi, and “like” the page if you would, uh, like)
Instagram

PODCAST:
Behind the Shot video podcast – interview February 2020

VIDEO INTERVIEW:
Conversation about night photography and my book with Lance Keimig of National Park At Night

ARTICLES:
A Photographer Captures Haunting Nighttime Images of Abandoned Buildings, Planes, and Cars in the American Southwest – Business Insider by Erin McDowell
A Photographer Explores Southern California’s Desert Ruins – Los Angeles Magazine article by Chris Nichols

 

 

Seven reasons Irix may be the greatest budget ultra wide lens for Milky Way photos

What is a good lens for Milky Way photos that won’t break the bank?

This is a common question that frequently pops up in social media discussions everywhere. People ask about recommendations for ultra wide angle lenses for night photography, astrophotography, or photographing the starry night. And with “Milky Way season” upon us, I thought I would mention a high quality option that I use.

My “workhorse” night photography lens is currently the Pentax 15-30mm 2/8 lens. This is the same lens as the Tamron 15-30mm f/2.8 (Tamron makes it for Pentax). It’s a high quality lens. However, it is also almost $1300 in price. Not everyone can pay that much for lens. 

However, there’s another lens that I use right without hesitation that works extremely well!

Irix 15mm f/2.4

My often-used Irix 15mm f/2.4 ultra wide lens, still going strong after quite a bit of use.

I was one of the first people in the United States to purchase an Irix 15mm f/2.4. In fact, I purchased it in 2016, so early that Irix didn’t have distribution in this country! I had to purchase it through eBay. But I was glad I did.

I have the Blackstone version of this lens (more on this later), which is a sturdy manual focus lens that almost seems made for night photographers, although I believe it would  be a good lens for long exposure photography, landscape, architecture, or real estate as well.

Seven reasons why I love this lens

1. Sharpness even at wide apertures

Even at its widest aperture at f/2.4, it’s surprisingly sharp. Wide open, of course, there is some vignetting in the corners, which is easily addressed. There is slight softness in the corners, less than most ultra wide angle wide-aperture lens.. And the time you stop down to f/2.8, everything seems tack sharp.

Ojo Oro Arch, a remote arch deep within the Mojave Desert, a Milky Way photo taken with the Irix 15mm f/2.4 lens.

2. Detent at true infinity

Move the focal ring and you will feel a detent at true infinity. For photographing the Milky Way or the starry sky, this is invaluable. Just fix the focal ring at detent, and you are ready to go. 

But there’s more. If a foreground is not quite in focus at infinity, you can simply re-focus the lens for the foreground object and then “focus stack” the two photos later in post-processing so that everything is in focus. And this brings me to the next point….

3. Scarcely any focus breathing

There is very little “focus breathing” when re-focusing as described above, having elements grow larger if one is refocusing. The entire time I have been focus stacking with this lens, I have never encountered an issue. It blends beautifully.

4. Rectilinear distortion

For a wide angle lens, the Irix exhibits very little barrel or pincushion distortion. It’s a rectilinear lens, so images with straight features, such as walls of buildings, continue to appear with straight lines instead of being curved. 

5. Accepts filters easily

Most ultra wide angle lenses have bulbous front elements. Not so the Irix. This allows it to accept screw-on filters in the front. Furthermore, it also accepts gel filters in the back. This would make it useful for long exposure photography without the need to use externally-mounted and more expensive filter systems such as Nisi, Lee or Cokin.

6. Inexpensive

TheIrix Blackstone, which a sturdy all-metal model which I have, sells for about $549. The Firefly, which is basically the plastic version of the Blackstone, sells for under $400. You can purchase three Firefly lenses for the price of one Tamron 15-30mm f/2.8 and still have enough money left over to purchase a speedlight….or dinner for four at your favorite Mexican restaurant. Mmmmmm……tacos…..

7. Focus lock

How many times have you, as a night photographer, mistakenly knocked the lens out of focus? Raise your hands. We’ve all done it, haven’t we? I often affix gaffer’s tape to the focus ring of my other lenses. I don’t need to with the Irix. The focus ring is appropriately stiff, and it also has a focus lock. I don’t bother using this if I am focusing on infinity since it has a detent there and is unlikely to be knocked out of focus.

More

The Irix 15mm f/2.4 Blackstone ultra wide lens also comes with a nice case, a soft case which is still firm enough to offer ample protection.

There are few ultra-wide lenses, if any, that can approach the optical quality of the Irix for this price, or even several hundred dollars more, for that matter. The one lens I can think of off the top of my head that one could also consider in the same price range would be the Rokinon ultra wide angle lenses. 

The Irix also has UV Fluorescent Engraved Markings. I was excited about this upon purchase. In practice, however, they don’t seem to be all that visible at night. And I probably wouldn’t use it that much anyway, preferring to manually focus on sight. Still, the fact that the engineers even thought to incorporate this indicates how much they seemed to be designing this lens for night photography.

As I mentioned, this lens would be outstanding in many applications, including landscape, architecture, real estate, and long exposure photography. But isn’t it good that a night photographer is looking out for your needs all the same?

Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, California. Irix 15mm f/2.4 lens.

Final words

While I haven’t done a specific side-by-side comparison with the 15-30mm f/2.8 lens that I have, I have alongside or instead of that lens without hesitation for years. And I’ve never felt like I’ve ever perceived a drop-off in image equality or sharpness at any point. It keeps up with that or the venerable 14-24mm f/2.8 F-mount without breaking a sweat. And given that the Firefly version is under $400, less than a third of the price of those other lenses, that’s stunning.

The Battle of AI: Adobe Sky Replacement vs. Luminar 4 AI Sky Replacement

Recently, in conjunction with the October 2020 Adobe MAX Creativity Conference, Adobe released the eagerly awaited version of Photoshop version 22.0, which comes with quite a few new features, many of which are powered by AI. 

Sky Replacement

One of the most anticipated features in Photoshop is their AI-powered Sky Replacement. While I don’t generally replace skies, I do take low-ISO night or “blue hour” twilight photos of the foreground, then take successive “stacked” photos of the night sky, and then blend them together. This can be time-consuming, so I am always interested in ways to quicken the process. 

Luminar 4 AI Sky Replacement vs. Adobe Sky Replacement

I’ve used Luminar 4’s AI Sky Replacement to do “drop in” my own sky before. I was curious as to how it would compare with Photoshop Sky Replacement.

Luminar 4 can only use JPG or TIFF files. There is no such limitation with Adobe. When used in Photoshop, Luminar 4 will create another layer. Photoshop offers the choice of creating another layer or a duplicate layer, including all the masks and the layer of the sky that come with it.

Another difference is that Photoshop version 22 has so far been absurdly slow for almost every function on my 2017 iMac with 40 GB of RAM. Photoshop 2020 was also very slow. Luminar 4, and for that matter, Photoshop 2019, run very quickly. Not everyone experiences this, but it’s worth mentioning.

First example – night photo

I began with a photo that I took of an unprocessed 3 minute low-ISO photo of a radio telescope taken at night. Luminar 4 struggled with identifying the night sky. How would Adobe fare?

Adobe recognized the night sky as being a sky, but struggled to determine what was sky and what was not. And as previously mentioned, I had the choice of creating a duplicate layer, which would allow me to tweak the layer further in a non-destructive manner. In this example, I chose one of Adobe’s skies, as numerous skies come with the program.

Above, you can see that Luminar’s Sky Replacement feature is ghosted. It could not recognize the night sky at all.

Second example – blue hour photo

I chose a “blue hour” photo of a lake in the Eastern Sierras, taken not long after the sun had set. I decided that this time, I would “drop in” one of my skies, a “stacked” Milky Way photo taken with the same setup later that evening.

Adobe performed quite admirably here, dropping in the sky, although I did have to adjust the size slightly to get it to match. This was easily done.

Next was Luminar 4. Luminar recognized the sky but struggled with both the blending of the sky itself as well as the horizon. Luminar struggles with darker skies. If I had increased the brightness of the Eastern Sierras photos by a stop or two, it would have been fine.

Third example – day photo with lots of trees

All examples of both programs use day photos for sky replacement. And for good reason. Both their AI recognize it very well. But how would they recognize something complicated such as trees with lots of fine leaves? 

I used a bright day photo of the forest in Mount Pinos in the mountains north of Los Angeles as the base photo. I decided to use the same Milky Way photo as the previous attempt. This would look incredibly fake. However, I felt the darkness would create greater contrast. We could then  examine the blend by zooming in close to see what was happening with the leaves of the trees.

Adobe’s Sky Replacement didn’t struggle to determine where the sky was here. First appearances looked good.

Next was Luminar 4. This also performed admirably. Although a little darker than the Adobe version, this could have been easily adjusted by using a slider. First appearances also looked good!

I’m ready for my close-up!

For Instagram or Facebook, either sky replacement would look good. But what if we zoomed in? What if we printed this at 100%? For this, I zoomed in to 200% so you could see the masking in detail. 

Looking closely at the details of the leaves and branches in the Photoshop version above, we can see that it’s generally quite good, but that some of the branches and leaves are missing.

Examining Luminar 4’s version above, we can see that the leaves and branches are noticeably more intact. The mask, even zoomed in at 200%, is quite good.

Which one is better?

 I don’t know that there is a clear, definitive winner here. We all love “bottom line” answers, and I would give you one if I had one.

For day photos, Luminar 4 created a better mask. It requires JPGs, although in practice, I doubt this will matter with almost anyone.

However, for night photos, Luminar 4 struggled immensely. Photoshop was able to create a mask even with the very dark night photo of the radio telescope, no easy feat. And with the ability to duplicate layers, one could work on the mask some more to get it to blend better.

I for one am happy to have both. And with LuminarAI and subsequent versions of Photoshop looming on the horizon, I’d say that things are looking good. Whatever your position on sky replacement, we all can agree that if AI can make our repetitive or time-consuming tasks faster, then we all win.

I thought I would share this just for fun. I finished this after I created the examples above, experimenting with both Photoshop and Luminar 4. This is a photo of the radio telescope facing north. This is a version of the first photo combined with “stacked’ photos of the starry night sky to reduce noise reduction. I masked this using a combination of Starry Landscape Stacker and Photoshop CC 2019.

 

VISIT ME, VISIT ME!

MY WEBSITE:
Head on over to the Ken Lee Photography website to purchase books or look at night photography and long exposure photos.  My latest book, “Abandoned Southern California: The Slowing of Time” is available there and Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Target, Booktopia, Books A Million, IBS, and Aladin. If you enjoy the book, please leave a nice review.

SOCIAL MEDIA:
Ken Lee Photography Facebook Page (poke your head in, say hi, and “like” the page if you would, uh, like)
Instagram

PODCAST:
Behind the Shot video podcast – interview February 2020

VIDEO INTERVIEW:
Conversation about night photography and my book with Lance Keimig of National Park At Night

ARTICLES:
A Photographer Captures Haunting Nighttime Images of Abandoned Buildings, Planes, and Cars in the American Southwest – Business Insider by Erin McDowell
A Photographer Explores Southern California’s Desert Ruins – Los Angeles Magazine article by Chris Nichols