How I got the photo: Owens Valley Radio Telescope Milky Way

Luck sometimes favors the prepared. I had put all my ducks in a row. I had contacted Cal Tech to obtain permission to photograph Owens Valley Radio Telescope near Bishop, CA. They had contacted security to let them know it was okay. But I couldn’t control the weather.

Fires and lightning storms

But it was about to be scuttled. To the south, the Sierras near Whitney Portal were on fire, creating tons of smoke and haze in the sky. To the east and the north, there was an enormous lightning storm over the White Mountains that were clouding the skies.
I set up my camera and tested it for exposure. I wanted my composition to look different from every other photo of these large dish telescopes. I wanted to create a fisheye photo of two telescopes, one in each corner. And I wanted the Milky Way to cut through the middle. Very specific, sure, but very possible. If the skies would cooperate.

Hungry gnats

And would I manage to survive? Hungry gnats buzzed aggressively at me. Although a hot summer day, I was already wearing boots, thick pants, a hoodie, and a cap to protect myself from the gnats, putting my hands under sleeves. But still they hungrily attacked.

Patience is a virtue

For long periods of time, nothing. Then I saw a clearing in the clouds ahead. It looked like it was coming my way. I triggered my intervalometer, setting it to take 20 photos in succession. I raced around and illuminated the two radio telescopes from an angle, being careful not to blow out the details and create some shadow for depth. Click! Click! Click! For between five and ten minutes, there was enough of an opening in the sky to make the Milky Way visible. And just as quickly, the skies closed

Details, details

To create this photo, I used a Nikon D750 with a Rokinon 12mm f/2.8 fisheye lens. I took 20 photos and “stacked” them later in Starry Landscape Stacker to reduce camera noise. Each of the 20 photos had an exposure of 15 seconds at f/2.8 with an ISO of 6400. July 2018.

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

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

 

 

Best apps for night (or day) photography

What are some of the best apps for night photography (or really, other types of photography)? Let’s have a quick look!

Clear Outside

This may possibly be my favorite one. It gives information for cloud cover (low, medium, and high, which is very useful!), darkness conditions, the rise of the sun and moon, moon phase, fog, rain, temperature, wind, humidity and more. And you can save your locations. Free on Android or iOS. They also have a website at clearoutside.com.

 

PhotoPills

This is an obvious pick, but with good reason. It does everything. Sometimes, I feel like I have to be a bit of a scientist to work this, but it rewards patience by doing…well, everything. Landscape, Milky Way, Moon, sunrise, sunset, architecture, star trails, drone, meteor showers, solar eclipse, lunar Eclipse, time lapse, wedding, portrait, travel, location planning, augmented reality, determining depth of field and more. And yes, it works offline. This does everything but brush your teeth. $9.99 on Android or iOS.

 

Sky Guide

Sky Guide is an astronomy app that would satisfy just about anyone with detailed, scalable (via the usual pinching method) and configurable map of the stars, showing all the celestial objects that you’ve come to know and love. You can read about detailed information by poking or searching for a celestial object. It even had Comet NEOWISE, and yes, it has the International Space Station too! You may turn on or off the constellations (I usually have it off).

This is available on Android and iOS. Google Pay and the Apple Store state that it is $2.99, but I could swear that I just downloaded it. My guess is that I must have paid for it when I first got a phone and forgot about it. It happens.

SkyView Lite on Android or iOS is also a good choice.

 

Soothing Sleep Sounds

You weren’t expecting this, were you? I need to keep you on your toes.

This app has a plethora of naturally recorded sounds that loop that continue throughout the night. Furthermore, you can mix and match rich sounds such as rainforests, gentle waves, South African crickets, campfires, or wind chimes. You can see what I’ve chosen above. Works great at creating a soothing environment and masking annoying sounds after a long night of night photography. I say yes! I believe this is only available for iOS, but there are apps such as Sleep Sounds on Android to help you sleep like a rock. We deserve it, right?

 

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

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

 

 

Road trip! How to find the best places for dark sky night photos!

Although stunning photos can be made near a full moon, most night photographers wish to photograph the Milky Way or photograph as many stars in the night sky as possible. And why not? It’s breath-taking. I never tire of seeing the Milky Way.
Road trips are exciting. The long drives, strange music, late night taco stands, the fascinating conversations. But if you do a little bit of homework, you can take a good road trip and make it epic.
You don’t need to plan everything to within an inch of its life either. Allow for fun, spontaneity, and exploration while still knowing that at a certain time at a certain place, you can create a photograph that will put a smile on your face.
Let’s start with dark skies first.
According to National Geographic, 80 percent of the planet’s land areas—and 99 percent of the population of the United States and Europe – live under light-polluted skies that blot out the Milky Way. Naturally, the first order of business is to get away from light pollution.
But how do we do this? I’ll use an example of a photo I took in 2014 of the Delicate Arch in Arches National Park in Utah, shown in the header and the last photograph, as an example of how I planned.

Finding dark sky areas

The first place I would direct someone to is the International Dark Sky Association, who encourage communities, parks and protected areas around the world to preserve and protect dark sites through responsible lighting policies and public education. They have a map that allows you to find many dark places around the globe.
Another useful site is Dark Site Finder. They also offer a useful tip, noting that it is difficult for many to get away completely from light pollution, but to consider photographing in areas where the sky is sufficiently dark in the desired direction. For example, if you wish to photograph the core of the Milky Way, you can look for places that are dark to the south.

Finding places of interest

Within these dark places, consider what makes a strong foreground. In my opinion, the most interesting night photos are usually ones that have strong subjects, providing context, a perfect marriage of earth and sky.
I would recommend doing a search in the dark sky areas, keeping notes about what seems appealing. This can be a lot of work, perhaps even more so if you want to photograph subjects that are original and relatively unknown. You can go down “rabbit holes” that consume hours of your time.

Google Maps

I often begin my searches by looking around the dark sky area chosen on Google Maps. Google Maps often points out the areas of interest. Sometimes, you may see a camera icon. Click on that and this often produces photos submitted by various Google users. This gives you an idea of what it looks like.
I will often change the map to satellite view. This gives me an idea of what the terrain looks like and provides further context and visual information.
I like to zoom in and look around. You can look at the orientation and figure how which way it is facing and get a strong idea of the surroundings. I wanted a photo of the otherworldly Delicate Arch, but I wanted to look up at it while facing more or less south. The screen shot above shows you the valuable visual information that one can gain from zooming in using its satellite view.

Social media sites

I often will check social media or photography sites such as Flickr, 500px, Instagram, and Facebook. I particularly find Flickr and Facebook useful because they encourage a lot of interaction through their groups. I can often contact the people who created the photographs. I’ve even met up with some of the photographers, making new friends and having a local “tour guides” of sorts. Fantastic!
Groups on Flickr or Facebook can be surprisingly specific, and sometimes, scrolling through that area can yield valuable and current information about accessibility and provide more photos. I often join these groups to participate in the discussion. Because I love photographing abandoned areas, all this information and interacting with others can really help here as well. I received some information about the trails leading up to Delicate Arch, including one area where the trail narrowed to about six feet, with a sheer drop on one side. Yikes!

Determining compositions in advance

Sometimes it’s possible to determine compositions in advance, particularly if you are photographing with specific celestial events in mind. For example, I wanted to photograph tDelicate Arch . But I wanted to do so with it framing the core of the Milky Way through a vantage point that I had never seen anyone else photograph before.
Through a combination of The Photographer’s Ephemeris and PhotoPills, i was able to determine that the Milky Way would drift further south and be in the position I wanted by approximately 11:00 pm. Both apps also informed me that there would be no moon in the sky to blot out the stars. From this, I had specific times and dates to make this happen! Both apps help you plan outdoor photography, showing you how light will fall on the subject for day or night in any location on earth. PhotoPills is an actual photographer’s planner which does the above but also helps you to calculate camera settings and much much more.

Winging it

There’s nothing like doing it “old school” and winging it. I love to explore during the day, hiking or driving around, serving sort of as a scouting mission. I’ve found many great places this way. And even more so, there’s nothing like going to a dark sky area and being in the moment, reacting to what makes you gasp with amazement. For locations like this, I love to choose generally inspiring areas. For me, since I am located in Southern California, those areas include the numerous National Parks in south Utah, Grand Canyon, Joshua Tree National Park, Salton Sea, White Mountains, and the Sierra Nevadas.

About the photo

This is the photo that I planned, which I’ve called “Door to Infinity”. As you can see, I achieve my vision, managing to create a photo looking up, the arch framing the magnificent Milky Way. I discovered why I had never seen a photo like this before. At night, it is terrifying to be perched on a ledge below this. You can slip and fall into a large rocky “bowl” or have your equipment slide down, ensuring certain ruin for either. I can safely say that although I am happy to have created the photo, I will never do that again.

I “light painted” the arch with a small Streamlight LED flashlight to keep it from appearing as a silhouette. I created this in June 2014, before the Park banned “light painting” at night. This was photographed with a Nikon D610 and a Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8G ED lens at 14mm. I used a 20 second exposure at f/2.8 with an ISO of 4000. It is a single exposure.

 

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

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

 

 

How to find the Milky Way

Short version

Northern Hemisphere: Wait until “Milky Way Season”, about April through October. Get away from light. Look south.
Southern Hemisphere: Wait until “Milky Way Season”, about April through October. Get away from light. Look high up.
Short and sweet. But should I end the article right here? Nahhhhh. Let’s keep moving!
“I see it! I see it!”

Longer version

When people talk about finding the Milky Way, they actual mean the galactic core of the Milky Way. Really, the Milky Way is visible throughout the year, whether we are in the Northern or Southern Hemisphere. After all, it’s our galaxy. It’s everywhere. But like everything else, we often speak this sort of “shorthand”.

Okay, fine, how can I see the galactic core of the Milky Way?

First, we need to find dark skies. The darker, the better. We need to get away from light pollution and even the moon. Oh, and clear skies helps too.

Milky Way Season

Night photographers often refer to the best time to view the galactic core as “Milky Way Season”. Most people prefer to photograph the galactic core because it’s denser, more complex, and has that “wow” factor.
In the Northern Hemisphere, “Milky Way Season” from about March or April to October. In the Southern Hemisphere, it’s flip-flopped, so it’s from about September to March. This is due to the way the earth spins on its axis, changing its angle the months go by.

What do I look for?

I was giving a night photography workshop several years ago. We were in some very clear dark skies in the Mojave Desert. After half an hour, one participant walked up and said, “I still don’t see the Milky Way. When will it come out?”
I replied, “It’s already out.”
“Oh really? I guess I don’t see it.”
I pointed, moving my hand back and forth around the Milky Way arcing overhead. “That’s the Milky Way right there.”
“Oh. My. Gosh. I thought those were CLOUDS!! That’s amazing! This is so exciting! This is the first time I’ve ever seen this! This is fantastic!” The person gave me a hug.
Yes, they can look like clouds. And yes, it is fantastic! And yes, it can provoke unadulterated joy.
In dark skies, the Milky Way appears like a hazy and, well, milky band arching across the night sky, in many parts too dense to make out individual stars.
In many photos, however, the Milky Way looks considerably more vivid than what we see with our own eyes. Why? Modern cameras are much more sensitive to dim starlight. Also, our eyes grow increasingly monochrome as light grows dimmer. Not so a camera. It can still “see” all the colors.

The galactic core

What people really want to see is the galactic core. This is the center of our galaxy. It looks denser and more complex, with more varying colors, because there is a greater concentration of stars as we look toward the middle of our galaxy. This has the most drama, and is what most night photographers seek to photograph.
In the Northern Hemisphere, the core is visible by looking Southeast or South, depending on what time of night. The core begins to be visible in the Southeast in March and April, South in July and August, and Southwest in September and October. During the course of the evening, if you are facing more or less south, it keeps drifting to the right due to the rotation of the earth.
In the Southern Hemisphere, the core is visible by also looking generally South, depending on what time of night. The core also begins to be visible in the Southeast in March and April, South and high up in the sky in July and August, and begins Southwest in September and October. However, it’s considerably higher in the sky than in the Northern Hemisphere.
In my opinion, given equally dark skies, the galactic core of the Milky Way is denser and more vivid in the Southern Hemisphere than what we see in the Northern Hemisphere. And due to the tilt of the earth, people there can also see more of the galactic core. Also, in the Southern Hemisphere, it is winter, often giving less humid skies and crisper stars.

Using apps

Apps can make things quite a bit easier. Using free or inexpensive  mobile apps such as Sky Guide, SkyView Lite or PhotoPills can make locating the Milky Way much easier. These can even show parts of the Milky Way that are still lower than the horizon and can show you where the Milky Way is going to move over time in the night sky. This can be useful for stargazing or planning one’s photos while incorporating the galactic core of the Milky Way. They can also show you if the moon is going to be out, and if so, when and where.

 

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

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

 

 

How I got the photo: Comet NEOWISE

Although I do night photography, I usually don’t photograph specific celestial events. But I had never photographed a comet before, and I couldn’t stay away.

Above: Nikon D750 and 50mm f/1.4 lens. Eight seconds at f/2.5 at ISO 2500. I love that both tails of the comet are easily seen in these images.

Planning the location

Finding where the comet would be visible was simple since it would be located just under the Big Dipper. It would be visible from approximately 9:30 PM to 12:30 AM in California.

I guessed that certain places such as Alabama Hills, Joshua Tree National Park, or Mono Lake would be filled with people photographing Comet NEOWISE, so I decided to photograph at Owens Valley Radio Telescope. There was less chance of it being overrun since one needed to have permission to photograph there, which I had. Thank you, Caltech!

 

Planning the gear

I had never photographed a comet before. What should I bring?

I brought most of my lenses. Better safe than sorry. But I would need a strategy.

Most of the time, I photograph at night using ultra wide angle lenses such as the Pentax 15-30mm f/2.8 or the Irix 15mm f/2.4. However, I was concerned that the comet might look really small with ultra wide angle lenses. I attached my 50mm f/1.4 prime lens, thinking that this might give me some reach. I did have a Nikon 28-300 f/3.5-5.6 lens, but I felt that I might need a faster lens. Also, I thought that a f/1.4 prime lens might be sharper.

This thankfully seemed to work well.

 

Determining how to photograph the comet

Sure enough, the comet was visible to the naked eye around 9:30 pm. It looked beautiful. I decided to set up most of my photos so that only part of the radio telescope would be visible in the frame. The viewer would be able to fill in the rest. This would also set my photos apart a little from most people’s photos, as most people tend to photograph the entire apparatus.

Although the 50mm f/1.4 has a hard stop at infinity, it doesn’t always mean that this is “true infinity”. I manually focused, adjusting the lens several times before photographing, and adjusting again between shots, as there seemed to be some variance with this lens for whatever reason. After it seemed to “settle down”, I applied gaffer’s tape to the focus ring so it would stay in place.

Above: Nikon D750 and 50mm f/1.4 lens. Eight seconds at f/2.5 at ISO 2500. This particular photo was created at 9:32 PM, just when Comet NEOWISE was becoming visible, still with a sliver of the moon in the sky. Later, the comet would become obscured by the light pollution from Bishop to the north. This was the first photo of the evening. I must admit that I let loose with an audible “Yessss!” when I saw the comet so clearly on the LED screen.

 

Camera settings

My settings with a Nikon D750 and 50mm lens was eight seconds at f/2.5 at ISO 2500.

Why?

I photographed at eight seconds because much longer than that and the stars would begin to to register as trails rather than pinpoints due to the rotation of the earth. With a 50mm, the lens is zoomed in noticeably more than with an ultra wide angle lens such as a 15mm. With 15mm lens, I often photograph at 15 or 20 seconds, not eight seconds.

I chose f/2.5 after experimenting with photographing at wider apertures such as f/1.8 or f/2.0. With those, I was experiencing lens aberration called coma at the wider apertures, making most of the stars appear as if they had sprouted wings! It’s a balancing act. We need a wider aperture to let in as much light from the stars as possible. But we also don’t want lots of distortion. Stopping down a little helped reduce the aberrations.

And finally, I decided on ISO 2500 because the Nikon has something called ISO invariance. This means that I could boost the exposure without penalty of noise in post-production rather than increasing the ISO in the field.

 

Going wide

I usually show up with two cameras. My other camera is a Pentax K-1 and 15-30mm f/2.8 lens. I decided to photograph at 30mm to still enlarge the comet somewhat and photograph a bit more of the radio telescopes.

Pentax K-1 and 15-30mm f/2.8 lens. 20 seconds at f/2.8 with an ISO of 3200 seemed to work quite well.

Light painting

I wanted to illuminate the radio telescopes. They would have almost been silhouettes otherwise. I used a handheld ProtoMachines LED2 light painting device while the camera shutter was open.

 

Until we meet again, Comet NEOWISE!

I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of being in a quiet desert environment and photographing these magnificent radio telescopes and a comet that won’t come around again for about 6800 years. Just think what fantastic camera equipment we’ll have next time around!

 

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

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

 

 

Best how-to night photography books

When I began exploring night photography, these following instructional books were inspirational and informative. That I still love reading them is a testament to how great they really are. The first two books, I purchased simultaneously. Although I knew quite a few night photography and light painting techniques already, these first two nonetheless had a profound impact on my philosophical and general approach to night photography.

Night Photography and Light Painting: Finding Your Way in the Dark (2nd edition) – Lance Keimig

Well-written and informative, this is a worthy second edition that seems largely re-written. The history of night photography is still there, and still absolutely fascinating. The book covers astro-landscape, long exposures in moonlight, star trails, light painting, light drawing, and post-processing for night photography with an emphasis on Lightroom, although the tips for post-processing can obviously be done in Photoshop, Lightroom, or other programs as well. Lance also includes other photographers and their images, their personalities and approaches adding to the book’s vibrancy overall. The book, even more than the first edition, offers a comprehensive look at the many facets of night photography, managing to cover it in one book. And yes, of course, the photos are mesmerizing, beautiful, fascinating, and gorgeously executed. It includes lots of scenarios and technical information about night photography. And that’s what we want, isn’t it?

Light Painted Night Photography: The “Lost America” Technique – Troy Paiva

This incredible e-book describes Troy Paiva’s pioneering, bold light painting techniques very clearly. Easy to follow and understand but very detailed. Although for the past several years, the author has used ProtoMachines, the book tells how the author created his eye-popping lighting effects with handheld flashlights and a speedlight. It discusses his general approach toward creating images and offers a lot of “real world” advice for beginners and veterans alike. The book has many photos with very readable captions describing the thought process and techniques behind the photos. It also discusses post-production techniques. Readable on any smartphone, tablet or computer, and at just $10, is a bargain. Unfortunately, it is more challenging for him to autograph it for you.

Night Photography: From Snapshots to Great Shots – Gabriel Biderman with Tim Cooper

A great introduction on night photography, including basic compositional approaches, camera settings, gear, and “walk-throughs” on how he achieve some of the images, which serve as beautiful illustrations throughout the book. Gabriel’s enthusiasm and encouragement shines through in the book. And like the first two books, this also offers settings and post-processing tips and techniques.

More books worth mentioning

All but the last book are not tutorials, but they are worth mentioning because they offer exquisite photos, which in themselves can teach quite a lot.

In the case of “Boneyard: SoCal’s Aircraft Graveyards At night” by Troy Paiva, each photo caption also offers the camera settings. There’s also a couple of pages describing his technique. The book is crammed full of amazing photos of abandoned airplanes in boneyards.

Also worth mentioning is “The Last Stand: Night Photography and Light Painting in the Mojave Desert” by Ron Pinkerton. More of a fine art museum book or coffee table book, the images always impress. His insightful, poetic writing make me wish there were even more of that.

“Cape Cod Nights: A Photographic Exploration of Cape Cod and the Islands After Dark” by Tim Little is a beautifully executed book of fascinating good night images from the Cape Cod region. I felt like I was being shown the area with a friend. The images are top notch, and showcase many facets of Cape Cod! 

This will look like I am mistakenly recommending the same book again. And that’s sort of true. “Night Photography and Light Painting: Finding Your Way in the Dark (1st edition) by Lance Keimig is an amazing book. I would describe it very similarly  as above except to mention that it has a slightly longer first chapter on the history of night photography. The second edition is approximately 3/4 rewritten, making them extremely complementary. The history section in either book is enthralling. I found the descriptions and considerations to be fascinating, and was especially interested in Carlos and Miguel Vargas, two brothers who operated a commercial photography studio Arequipa, Peru from 1912 to 1927 and made exquisite long exposure moonlight exposures with sophisticated, theatrical lighting from moonlight, lanterns, bonfires, flash powder, and street lamps.

 

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

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

 

 

How I got the photo: abandoned airplane cockpit

“I know this is late notice, but I was wondering if I could please drive up tomorrow and photograph there?” I had texted the owner of a WWII decommissioned airfield, a place where I had photographed at night previously.

Ten minutes later, I had my answer. “Sure, Ken! Come on up!”

Preparing for the photograph

Near a full moon on a cold February evening, I arrived, my mind already churning, pre-visualizing some of the photographs I wanted to create. I wanted to take a photo inside the cockpit of a dismantled P2V-3W Neptune aircraft, staring out into the night sky.

To do that, I needed to jump up and swing my leg over to crawl inside the airplane. I keep some sparring kneepads in the car for occasions like these so I have less chance of scratching or bruising my knees.

The challenges of illuminating tiny interiors with sharp metal

I squatted down. It was small inside. Despite my kneepads, I still managed to scratch my leg while trying cramming myself inside because some of the metal was sharp. I wondered how the pilots could squeeze themselves in here when flying. I hope they weren’t 6′ 1″.

Due to the small quarters, I set My Nikon D750 for a one minute exposure. This would give me ample time to not only illuminate the cockpit but also crawl around to the back to aim my flashlight outside the windows to light them up a bit. I thought a red light would be striking against the deep blue night sky. I used my ProtoMachines LED2 light painting device while the camera shutter was open. However, I had to be mindful because red makes it easy to overdo red lights and blow out the details and highlights. I bounced the light off my hand and some of the metal surfaces in the back.

Camera settings

One minute exposure at f/8 ISO 200. I wanted everything to be in focus, so I set my aperture to f/8. ISO 200 would keep the image nice and clean. My regular ultra wide lens would not be able to capture the entire cockpit, so I chose a fisheye lens.

Equipment used

Nikon D750 using Rokinon 12mm f/2.8 fisheye lens. Feisol CT-3342 carbon fiber tripod with an Acratech GP-s ballhead.

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

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

 

 

 

How I got the photo: Ojo Oro Arch

I was instant messaging with a night photographer I had known mostly online for a few years when he extended the invitation: “It’s a secret area that only a few of us know. There’s no trails, and we have to hike out really far to some rocky arch formations and very dark skies. We are going to explore out there, take Milky Way photos of Ojo Oro Arch, and sleep overnight under the stars. Would you like to join my friend and I?”
What would you do? Right. Me too. No night photographer would say no.
We met in the middle of the Mojave Desert on a hot but gorgeous late afternoon, parked our cars, grabbed our gear, and began walking straight into the heart of nowhere. Bizarre otherworldly rock formations lay in front of us, drawing close as we walked approximately two miles to the hidden arch. We circled several times before finding it since they were trying to locate it by sight rather than GPS, coming across mysterious alcoves and still unnamed small arches. After a couple of minutes of this, I saw Ojo Oro Arch from the back, seeing the blue sky through the arch.

The desert as philosopher

We set down our gear, sleeping bags, and gallons of water and roamed about, exploring as the sun melted into the mountains. We ate, talked about night photography, gear, life, teaching, the coronavirus, sheltering in place, women, constellations, our place in the universe, philosophy, religion, and more. Night photography in the quiet evening desert has a way of drawing out discussions that are increasingly esoteric, after all.
We drank copious amounts of water. I had brought over a gallon and a half for this overnight outing, and I was going to make sure I didn’t carry very much of it on the long walk back to the car.

The mysterious hum of the magic desert

As we rested, the silence of the desert overwhelmed me. Two miles from the closest road, we heard nothing human-made. No cars, no airplanes, nothing. And often, there was no breeze, either. Silence. Or not quite. There’s a certain sort of hum that one can hear when there’s absolute silence, and at times, when there were no whispering of the breeze through the cactus, there was that hum. It was majestic. I found myself smiling.

Setting up the camera

We had already set up our cameras and taken “blue hour” photos of the arch in case we wished to blend them with the Milky Way photos later in post-processing. After 11 pm, we knew that the Milky Way would begin rising out of the Southeast. We knew this from experience, although we used apps such as PhotoPills or SkyView Lite to look anyway.
I often will do a low-ISO photo of the foreground so I have less noise. For this evening, I determined that I would be photographing with a 15 second exposure at f/2.5 using a relatively high ISO of 4000. Because of this, I could determine the settings that would give me the equivalent exposure but at a much lower, less noisy ISO. I chose ISO 400. This is ten times less sensitive than ISO 4000.  Therefore, I would need to increase the exposure by ten times to compensate. I like simple math. I would keep the aperture constant, so that didn’t need to be adjusted. So therefore, my low-noise foreground setting would be 150 second exposure at f/2.5 at ISO 400. Not only would this reduce the noise, but it would also give me 150 seconds to do the “light painting”!

Illuminating the arch for the photo

I began “light painting” the arch, walking around with a handheld ProtoMachines LED2 light painting device, illuminating the arch as I went. I prefer to use a handheld device instead of stationary light panels to illuminate foregrounds because I can “light paint” from many angles quickly, and if I wish, also change colors quickly.

Photographing the Milky Way

After creating the low-noise foreground photo, I adjusted my camera settings to 15 seconds at f/2.5 ISO 4000, and keeping my camera in the same place, began clicking off successive 15 second photos, one right after the other. Although I most certainly could use one of these, having numerous photos gives me options, including the ability to “stack” them together using Starry Landscape Stacker to reduce the noise and bring out more of the stars.

Wash, rinse, repeat

I mostly did several similar setups with my camera, photographing the same arch from different angles. First the low-noise foreground photo, then the higher-ISO photos for the sky. I did do some star trails photos as well.
I stopped photographing at 3:30 in the morning. I made one last check for scorpions by shining a bIack light around me, looking to see any glowing scorpions. Thankfully, none. I lay in my sleeping bag looking up at the sky. The Milky Way arched directly overhead. Again, that magical hum of complete desert silence. I found myself smiling.

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

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

 

 

How did I choose my night photography ball head?

I do long exposure photography almost exclusively, so I look for specific qualities in ball heads. If I am adjusting the ball head in the dark for a series of photos for stacking for Milky Way photos or two-hour long star trails, I want something easy to use and rock solid. We’ll go through my decision-making process together.
I used an Acratech GP-s to take 17 photos in succession to “stack” them in an effort to reduce noise a little.

Deciding on a tripod head

There are numerous tripod heads. And much of this is a matter of preference and practicality.
A pan and tilt head separates horizontal, vertical and panning motions into three separate axes, often doing so precisely, and are popular for video. They often tend to be heavier. Some have handles. The few times I’ve used one with a handle for night photography, I’ve rammed my teeth on the handle. Maybe not.
A gimbal head moves fluidly and is great for tracking, making it popular for wildlife or sports photography. However, it seemed a little large and chunky and overdone for night photography.
I decided to look for a ball head. A ball head is relatively light and compact and would allow me to easily compose in either landscape or portrait modes, aiming the camera easily at various angles. Like tripods, I really wanted to purchase a quality ball head once and use it for many years to come. I purchased my ball heads over six years ago and am still happily using them, so I apparently didn’t choose too poorly!
I used an Acratech GP-s ball head for this star trails photo, showing the perceived celestial movements over 12 minutes of time.

Ball head features that are useful for night photographers

Stability

Above all, I wanted a ball head to be rock solid and not sag, vibrate or move and could accommodate a large amount of weight. After all, many of us night photographers use a heavy DSLR and ultra wide angle lens combination.

Ease of operation

I did not want to use a headlamp every time I positioned the ball head in the dark, so this was also a must. I wanted easy-to-turn knobs that were logically placed.

Ball tension

I also wanted to have a separate tension knob where I could precisely dial in the amount of tension that I wanted. This is particularly helpful when adjusting the main ball head , as it provides enough tension so that it isn’t too tight requiring extra force when positioning, but not too loose so that you risk the camera flopping or have difficulty precisely positioning the camera.

Arca-Swiss quick release plate

My two cameras already had a special kind of quick release plate called an L-bracket attached to them, all of which were Arca-Swiss compatible. I looked for a compatible mounting base that would easily let me open the clamp, slide the camera in, and secure it easily. I like using L-brackets because I can quickly adjust the camera to portrait or landscape mode. Sure, I could probably achieve portrait mode with a ball head by turning it on its side, but I felt this might introduce some instability, as I photograph frequently in high-wind areas in the desert. And the wind in the desert sometimes seems to gust out of nowhere!

Pan adjustment for panoramas

The pan adjustment is used to rotate the camera from left to right without adjusting the tilt at all. I was hoping to find a ball head that allowed me to easily pan in reasonably precise, smooth adjustments. I wanted to have this option. However, more than six years later, I still have not done a panorama. Someday, right?

What did I choose?

Because I had two cameras and was purchasing two tripods, I also purchased two ball heads.

Acratech GP-s ball head

My scuffed up six year old Acratech GP-s ball head, perched atop a Feisol CT-3342 carbon fiber tripod. It may be light, but it holds up to 25 pounds without breaking a sweat…not that I’ve ever seen a ball head sweat. No. That’d be weird.

I chose this because it was highly regarded, lightweight at less than a pound while still holding 25 pounds and relatively small, this seemed like a winner. As a bonus, the GP-s could convert into a panoramic tripod head easily. You may position it upside-down to function as a leveling base for panoramic photography, keeping everything parallel to the horizon. I also liked its smaller size, which could easily accommodate travel tripods without banging its pan knob against the tripod, and even allowing the tripod legs to fold over it. Sold!

Really Right Stuff BH-55

My scuffed up Really Right Stuff BH-55 ball head, ready to use with my Feisol CT-3372 tripod. The tripod has a load capacity of my tripod is 65 pounds while the BH-55 is 50 pounds, so short of using this for a car jack, this handles just about any situation, even in high wind. You can see the pan turntable underneath with 360 degrees of markers.
Although it might sound strange, the BH-55 is a beautiful looking ball head that inspires confidence. I chose this for extra stability in high wind conditions, as it supports up to 50 pounds, easily accommodating large cameras with heavy ultra wide lens. This does, however, weigh 1.9 pounds, almost twice as much as the Acratech. That said, I do love the large locking knob. I have large hands, so this really feels comfortable, although I should mention that the Acratech ball head has a scalloped lamping knob. Although smaller, its extremely easy to grip, so having a large locking knob doesn’t matter so much.

Choosing by time traveling

If I could go back in time and choose again, I would likely choose to purchase two Acratech GP-s ball heads. I love the BH-55, don’t get me wrong. But the GP-s ball head is so stable and easy to use that I don’t feel I need the extra weight and beefiness of the other. But really, I have no regrets! I love them both.

An interesting ball head for today

Today, if I were looking for a ball head, I would have a close look at the Platyball Elite from Platypod. Why? This intriguing ball head has an “upside down” ball head design, placing the panning turntable on the top instead of the bottom, making it far easier for us to pan cameras in a straight line even if the tripod legs themselves are not perfectly level.
But there’s more. You may notice that I never mentioned bubble levels as one of the features I was looking for in a ball head. That’s because they’re almost impossible to see, not only because I shoot in the dark but also because they are frequently poorly positioned. The Platyball Elite uses a backlit electronic leveling system not terribly unlike what you might see in a digital camera. This uses an A23 alkaline battery for power and works in any orientation, also offering three brightness levels. Although I could do without one more item that requires a battery, this is such a useful feature that I might make an exception!

 

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

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

 

 

How did I choose my night photography tripod?

I do long exposure photography almost exclusively, so I look for specific qualities in tripods. If I photograph  a series of photos for stacking for Milky Way photos or two-hour long star trails, I really need a tripod to do its job. So what qualities do I look for in a tripod?

Juggling cost, weight and stability

I agonized over my choice of tripod more than any other photography-related gear I’ve purchased, wrestling with these three qualities: cost, weight, and stability.
Want a cheap tripod that doesn’t weigh too much? Of course you do! But is it going to be stable?
Want a cheap tripod that is super sturdy and takes high exposures in high winds? Sure. But it might be really heavy.
Okay, How about something that is really sturdy and lightweight? That sounds great. But now it’s very expensive.
I’ll go over what features I considered. I’ve used my tripods for over six years. During this time, I’ve owned four DSLRs. However, I still own the same tripods and am happy with them, so I may have done something right.
Above: A rock solid tripod helps when taking 20 photos in succession so I could “stack” them to reduce noise. Eastern Sierras, California.

Carbon Fiber

I hike in to locations hauling a lot of gear, often having two cameras in my backpack as well as heavy ultra wide angle lenses and accessories. Because of this, I favor lightweight tripods, so all mine are carbon fiber. If I can even shave a pound off when I am hiking in for several miles, that’s money well spent. Also, they don’t get nearly as cold as their aluminum counterparts, quite a bonus in the winter months.

Quick and easy to set up

This is a matter of preference. In theory, I love flip locks. I know when they are locked down. However, I think maybe I am a little clumsy and have a tendency to pinch my fingers with these sometimes while using this at night. I’ve also had them catch on my clothing before when I am carrying or maneuvering the tripod.
Consequently, I’ve chosen twist locks. These deploy quickly and nicely. However, there are always sacrifices. It increases the chances that you forget to twist them all the way, so you do have to take extra care in making sure they are locked down. Some can also can attract sand and begin grinding, so you may need to occasionally take apart your tripod and give it a thorough cleaning once in a while.

Rock Solid Stability

This might be the most important of all for me. I have photographed in extremely gusty winds all over the Mojave Desert, including the insanely windy Owens Valley in California. And despite the wind, I have been able to take stack 20 consecutive 15-second or 20-second exposures for Milky Ways or do hour long star trails. Consequently, in the wrestling match of cost, weight, and stability, I’ve arguably compromised the most on weight. That said, my tripods still really are not that heavy.
Above: Mobius Arch in the winter. Although this looks serene, I was perched on another rock with strong gusty winds with my tripod clinging to steeply sloping rocks. Despite these hardships, my Feisol CT-3372 held fast, never shaking during the long exposure.

Durable

This should probably almost go without saying, but minimizing flimsy plastic parts such as locks and clamps really helps. My tripods get thrown into cars, banged around on airplanes, and even worse, gets sand ground in it in the desert and the beach.

Other features

Tripods also come with columns and hooks. I don’t use them. In my opinion, telescoping center columns introduce instability and invites additional vibrations, particularly when they are raised. They have their uses, but I really need rock solid stability. Also, I haven’t found much use for center hooks either. I’ve found that the packs sway when there is wind, which makes me rather concerned.

What I use

Six years ago, I made an attempt to purchase tripods that I would use for years. And I attempted to do so without spending tons of money, particularly since I frequently photograph with two cameras simultaneously and would need to purchase two tripods. So what did I choose?
Feisol CT-3342: This is the smaller of my two tripods. This folds up to 23.2 inches, weighs 2.5 pounds, yet has a load capacity of a whopping 55 pounds. This holds any of my camera setups, including a rather hefty Pentax K-1 DSLR with a 15-30mm f/2.8 ultra wide angle lens mounted on it. That’s a heavy setup. I strongly prefer to have the stated load capacity be considerably higher than what I actually put on the tripod. A while back, I attempted to get a really small travel tripod that folded up to 20 inches. It looked and felt flimsy. I guess I’m too spoiled with the stability I have. I sent it back. Sure, it might be a little large for a travel tripod, but then again, I’ve traveled to Iceland, India, and all over the Southwestern United States with it. I bought mine for $375, but I think they may sell for around $400 now.
Above: My six year old Feisol CT-3342 with a Acratech GP-s ballhead. The tripod legs have red and white reflective tape and glow-in-the-dark tape in the event that I cannot find my setup in the dark, something that thankfully hasn’t happened.
Feisol CT-3372: This is a larger tripod than most normal people use. Because I photograph in places that can get sudden strong gusts of wind and I use very heavy cameras, I have this as well. It folds down to 24.8 inches, is 3.9 pounds, and has a load capacity of 66 pounds, although I feel like it could hold even more than that. I’ve used this for gale force winds for photographing the Mobius Arch in the very windy Owens Valley in California.  This is usually about $575, which is a lot of money, but for this quality, it feels like a bargain.

Above: My six year old Feisol CT-3372 with a Really Right Stuff BH-55 ballhead. 
Both of these hit the sweet spot for cost, offering high quality without being crazy expensive. But who knows, you may find that something else suits you. There are so many new designs since I purchased this, including Peak Design and such, that might offer up something that satisfies cost, weight, and stability.

 

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

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