Seven reasons why you may love fisheye lens!

 A fisheye lens may be exactly what you need in your photography bag. Here’s seven reasons why.

1. Instant creativity

abandoned airplane night photo
The fisheye here, along with the light painting makes the scene look even more otherworldly. Instant creativity. Abandoned airplane underneath the Milky Way.

Instant creativity is my number one reason why I love fisheye lenses. There have been times in which I have been doing night photography and was stuck or distracted. I’ve gotten calls before that distracted my creative process. However, if I attach a fisheye lens, I feel like it turbo-charges my creativity. A fisheye lens seems to create a lot of ideas.

2. New perspectives

abandoned fisheye night photo mining camp
Abandoned mining camp with fisheye lens.

Even if I have been to a location numerous times before, I can always count on fisheye lens to give me a new glimpse into the world. After all, who looks at the world from a fisheye perspective regularly – besides, well, fish? Fisheye lens allows us to pull back and get a beautiful, distorted 180-degree view of the world. Or we can jam it in close to something to get an almost macro view, going for detail. Or add a surreal or psychedelic look to some portraits or album covers!

fisheye night portrait
A surreal night portrait photo of two musicians in the Mojave Desert.

3. See the whole sky

Milky Way fisheye photo
Made from 20 light frames (captured with a NIKON CORPORATION camera) by Starry Landscape Stacker 1.6.1. Algorithm: Median

That’s right. That 180-degree view (or so) works wonders for capturing the whole sky. Stick your lens straight up. There you go. A lot of times, what is on the ground will surround the periphery, cradling the photo. This is great for night photography, astrophotography, and so forth. And as a bonus, a lot of fisheye lens have wide apertures. They can let in a lot more light. This means that you can shoot faster and capture the stars as pinpoints, if that’s what you want to do.

4. Context

Get a lot of what is going on around you. And do so easily! Context is key for a lot of photos. I should add here that if you wish, you can use a fisheye lens and fix the distortion later if you choose not to have it. And you do have choices. Photoshop and other programs can address this. You may also use PTLens, which gives a lot of control over lens correction. Or you can photograph panoramas by combining several photos and fixing the distortion in post-processing.

5. Objects in your lens may appear larger than they are

abandoned bathtub fisheye night photo
Bathtub al fresco at night at an abandoned farmhouse, photographed by a fisheye lens up close.

I love this sort of distortion. The elements in the distance fall away and look small, while anything up close looks larger than life. How fun!

6. Don’t worry about straight lines

fisheye abandoned room
Don’t worry about straight lines. If you were a real estate photographer, this might not work. But for creative purposes? I say yes! As you may suspect, this is a night photo of an abandoned mining camp deep in the Mojave Desert.

A lot of times, we need to address keystoning, straight lines on buildings or other things, and maintain proper perspective. Not here! Let it fly! Have fun!

7. It’s weird

Weird is great. Embrace your inner weirdness.

landscape night photo fisheye
Landscapes can get in on the weird act too! Night photo in Utah with a fisheye lens.

What I use

I have been using a Rokinon 12mm 2.8 fisheye lens since 2017. It’s good and sharp. Although it’s manual focus, it’s rather easy and forgiving to focus. Of course, there are many different types of fisheye lens. Explore a little and see what each one offers.

abandoned waterpark night photo fisheye
An abandoned waterpark becomes a surreal display of light and shadow with a fisheye lens.

VISIT ME, VISIT ME!

BOOKS AND PRINTS:
Head on over to the Ken Lee Photography website to purchase books or look at night photography and long exposure prints and more.  My books are 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, thanks!

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 PRESENTATION:

How We Got the Shots: Five Photographers, Five Stories – Night Photo Summit 2022

VIDEO INTERVIEW:

Ken Lee’s Abandoned Trains Planes and Automobiles with Tim Little of Cape Nights Photography
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

 

The Nightaxians Video Podcast on YouTube is here to help you!

The Nightaxians have just launched a new Nightaxians Video Podcast on YouTube. We will discuss all things night photography, Pentax, gear, lenses, urban exploration, night travel adventures, and far more. I am proud to be one of the three people in the video podcast along with night photographers Timothy Little and Mike Cooper.

Above is the premiere episode of The Nightaxians Video Podcast. This particular chat is about some of the lenses that we use for our night photography. We discuss not only Pentax lenses, but also Nikon, Canon, and more.

What is The Nightaxians Video Podcast?

Imagine if you are hanging out with three of your friends, listening to a fun, informal chat about all things photography. That’s sort of what The Nightaxians video podcast on YouTube is like. Sure, it’s about night photography. However, it can appeal to those who do different kinds of photography.

Many of the discussions and concepts might center around gear, composition, weather, finding locations, choice of lenses, our weirdest experiences, strange encounters with people and animals, how we pack our bags, software, how we created the photos, and more. And since all of us use Pentax gear, there’s always going to be discussion about that.

The Nightaxians Video Podcast.
The Nightaxians Video Podcast.
Night photo by Nightaxian Tim Little.
Night photo by Nightaxian Tim Little.

Where is The Nightaxians Video Podcast?

You can find it on this YouTube playlist. This is where all Nightaxians video podcasts will be posted. I would encourage you to subscribe so you don’t miss any episodes.

Nightaxian screenshot.
Screenshot of the first show of the Nightaxians. The red arrow is pointing to the Subscribe Button. You can also press the white bell icon to select “All” so you don’t miss any episodes.
Night photo by Nightaxian Mike Cooper.
Night photo by Nightaxian Mike Cooper.

When is the Nightaxians Video Podcast?

We hope to have a new episode for you at least once a week. As of right now, we are posting them on Tuesday. However, the best way to know when we post is of course to subscribe to the channel.

Night photo by Nightaxian Ken Lee.
Night photo by Nightaxian Ken Lee.

Who are the Nightaxians?

The Nightaxians are three night photographers, also known collectively as Notorious RGB (see what we did there?). Although we live in three different time zones, we are brought together by a love of photography and camaraderie. We would love you to join us. You can even help shape the flow of the show with your suggestions, especially about topics you would like to hear us discuss. Think of itlike this. We’re Pentaxians, but with a focus on night photography. And we’re hanging out and talking about all the topics that fascinate us.

I’ll share a brief description of the three of us.

Night photo by Tim Little.

Timothy Little

Timothy Little makes a living specializing in night photography and light painting. I sat down with him and talked with him about how he explores a world lit by moonlight, stars and street lamps, by his home in Cape Cod, MA and in the southwestern United States.

Tim is able to illuminate subjects with handheld lights to create riveting, often colorful images while remaining as organic, creating the image in-camera.

Night photo by Nightaxian Mike Cooper.
Night photo by Nightaxian Mike Cooper.

Mike Cooper

Southern-based night photographer Mike Cooper has covered broad expanses of the Midwest and Southern United States, offering fantastic glimpses of abandoned places lit by the moon, stars and handheld light. The amount of travel and diversity of sites are a testament to his dedication to his craft.

Mike illuminates these mysterious, forgotten locations with often colorful lighting, creating the image in-camera. The results are otherworldly. He has two books that will showcase these worlds.

Night photo by Nightaxian Ken Lee.

Ken Lee

Well, that’s me. I am a night photographer. As with many night photographers, I drive long hours in a dusty car listening to weird music, stay out all night creating photos, get dirty, hang out with other creative sleep-deprived weirdos, see the stars drift across the sky and always find the best taco stands while photographing forgotten abandoned locales and amazing nightscapes. I have two books published with two more on the way, and my images have appeared in National Geographic Books, Omni magazine, Los Angeles Times, Westways magazine and numerous other publications.

VISIT ME, VISIT ME!

BOOKS AND PRINTS:
Head on over to the Ken Lee Photography website to purchase books or look at night photography and long exposure prints and more.  My books are 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, thanks!

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 PRESENTATION:

How We Got the Shots: Five Photographers, Five Stories – Night Photo Summit 2022

VIDEO INTERVIEW:

Ken Lee’s Abandoned Trains Planes and Automobiles with Tim Little of Cape Nights Photography
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

 

An open letter to beginning photographers

Dear beginning photographer,

If you choose, you are at the beginning of a beautiful journey. There is no destination, just a journey.

If I may, I would love to say a few things to you.

Relax, have fun and play

That thing you have now? It’s a sophisticated bit of equipment. Even if it’s your smartphone, well, that camera does a lot. You don’t have to know everything about the camera. Explore.

Relax. Have fun. Play.

A fun scene in the Mojave Desert at night. This is definitely a case of relaxing, having fun, and playing, all done with a handheld light during the exposure.
A fun scene in the Mojave Desert at night. This is definitely a case of relaxing, having fun, and playing, all done with a handheld light during the exposure.

The world will look more beautiful

I was unprepared for what would happen when I began taking photos. Photography made me experience the world differently. I paid attention to sunsets, starry skies, trees, flowers, people, sure. But I also began noticing how the light hits something beautifully, how it backlights my wife’s hair, how peeling paint can be gorgeous, how long shadows look amazing and how a chair in front of a window is mesmerizing. 

The world will look more beautiful to you. And more interesting. That is the gift of photography.

I can drive well; I just can't park. There's beauty even in the abandoned, the cast off, and the absurd.
I can drive well; I just can’t park. There’s beauty even in the abandoned, the cast off, and the absurd.

Don’t get hung up on gear

I know, I know, we sometimes talk about gear here. I’m not saying that cameras, lenses, software, and accessories aren’t important or don’t help. They do help. 

All I’m suggesting is that you don’t get hung up on it. 

See, here’s the thing. That camera, whatever you have, is considerably more sophisticated than cameras of yesteryear. They’re capable of taking some great photos. Yes, even that tiny smartphone in your pocket. 

Photographers used grainy film. They used lenses that weren’t as sharp. 

But look at the beautiful images they created. We’ve seen them. Life, National Geographic, Time. We’ve seen amazing, timeless images seared into our brain. Even on a much smaller scale, I’ve photographed with an old used 2013 camera and had my photos printed in National Geographic books, Westways Magazine and elsewhere.

Don’t let them grind you down

People are odd sometimes. They can make comments that sap your creative energy. 

A long time ago, I picked up a guitar while camping in Carpinteria Beach. I I knew a few chords, so I played. A girl who was camping with me said, “Oh my gosh, Ken, stick to piano.” 

I put the guitar down. After a week, then realized, “Maybe I sounded awful. But I’m a beginner. I like playing guitar. I think it’s fun.” I then played whenever I felt like it, which was often. I’m still not the greatest guitar player, but does that matter? I’ve had fun playing in bands. And not that it matters, but I’ve even gotten my music in movies and MTV. Good things came about because I was relaxing, having fun and playing.

Fish heads, fish heads, roly poly fish heads. This is a long exposure night photo showing the celestial movements over a long period of time.
Fish heads, fish heads, roly poly fish heads. This is a long exposure night photo showing the celestial movements over a long period of time.

You might post a photo on social media. Most people are encouraging. A few people, maybe not so much. Some people sometimes feel better because when they offer negative comments, they feel like they know something that you don’t. This elevates them. This makes them feel better, perhaps superior. “That camera’s no good.” “That picture is no good.” “Do something else! Why do you only photograph pictures of your cat?” 

But you know something that you don’t. You’re having fun. It’s your camera, not theirs. You know that you are relaxing, having fun and playing.

Embrace constructive criticism, sure. That can be immensely helpful and supportive.

But negative comments? You don’t need to let that bother you. 

Join supportive, positive communities

There’s plenty of supportive, positive communities. Look for people who will encourage you so you can flourish.

This can be your family. When I say “family,” I mean friends as well because, after all, friends are simply family that you choose.

watching this magical light show...that's a great way to pass the time while my camera clicks happily away, searching for streaks of light. This is one of the gifts of photography.
I laid on my back for a couple of hours looking up at the sky during the Perseid meteor shower. Laying in a mountain forest watching this magical light show…that’s a great way to pass the time while my camera clicks happily away, searching for streaks of light. This is one of the gifts of photography.

It can also be your local camera club, a friendly Facebook group, or others. And actually, there’s a friendly group called the Photofocus Community. There are people of all different levels who are friendly, helpful and want to see you succeed. And it’s a good place to share, comment, and yes, relax, have fun and play.

You’ve been given this incredible box that collects light. Let it do that instead of collecting dust.

Warmest Regards,

Ken

VISIT ME, VISIT ME!

BOOKS AND PRINTS:
Head on over to the Ken Lee Photography website to purchase books or look at night photography and long exposure prints and more.  My books are 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, thanks!

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

 

Cold weather essentials: gear that keeps you warm in the winter

Winter offers beautiful opportunities for photography like snow-covered landscapes, and even the Northern Lights. But of course, it’s also cold. Here’s some cold weather gear that will keep you warm.

Frosty the Snowman doesn't require warm clothes. But you do.
Frosty the Snowman doesn’t require warm clothes. But you do.

Feet

Merino wool socks
Merino wool socks

I feel like if I can keep my feet warm, I’ve won half the battle. I love merino wool socks. They are a naturally great insulator. Sheep know this, and we should too. 

When cotton gets wet, it loses its insulative properties. Not so with merino wool. It can absorb far more moisture without even feeling amp too. Oh, and as a bonus, it is naturally antimicrobial, more resistant to smelling and dries much quicker than cotton.

Pair merino wool socks with some great waterproof hiking boots, and your feet will thank you profusely.

If you’re planning on stepping around in cold water, consider getting NRS Neoprene Boundary Socks. Sure, it says it’s rated for water 65 degrees and up. But that rating is still higher than your other socks, isn’t it? NRS also makes knee-high water boots as well if you’re really serious about getting that winter waterfall photo.

Legs

I like wearing fleece or fleece-lined long underwear. They are soft and warm, and hold up while photographing during cold winter nights. 

A great alternative to this is a midweight or heavyweight merino wool base layer. It’s still very soft. And remember all those benefits? Warm? Odor-resistant? Stays dry longer? These qualities make for a great base layer.

Most of the time, I wear cheap work pants because I need the pockets. I usually wear old pants that I’ve used to paint the house since I’m going to probably beat them up anyway. Remember, I do night photography, so I figure no one’s going to see me anyway.

If it’s really cold or windy, a good way to go is to wear fleece-lined windproof waterproof hiking pants. These can be found on Amazon for under $40. And they look much better than scruffy work pants in case you need to be seen in daylight.

Even those of us in warm weather climates can get in on the fun of photographing a winter scene. This is an old scan of a film print from long ago that I still find charming.
Even those of us in warm weather climates can get in on the fun of photographing a winter scene. This is an old scan of a film print from long ago that I still find charming.

Torso

My approach to what I wear for the torso is similar to how I approach the legs. First, fleece or fleece-lined long underwear. Once again, they are soft and warm and make a great base layer. 

Again, a great alternative might be a merino wool base layer. 

I often wear a hoodie on top of that. Sometimes, I wear a long-sleeve merino wool sweater or heavier weight shirt. Then on top of that, a warm windproof jacket. I prefer having a jacket with a decent amount of pockets so I can keep photography stuff nearby. Or if it’s really cold, I can stuff my hands inside some warm pockets.

Speaking of pockets, I keep my camera batteries here for added warmth. If I really need to keep them warm, I’ll put them in a small bag with an activated chemical hand warmer like Hot Hands.

If you want to be even warmer, another “trick” is to wear compression sleeves. These feel great anyway, so you might want to do this even if you are not really that cold.

Hands

Speaking of hands, I like to wear gloves with the fingers free. But first, a story.

I found compression gloves for injuries, arthritis and more can work surprisingly well in the cold. And they are inexpensive.
I found compression gloves for injuries, arthritis and more can work surprisingly well in the cold. And they are inexpensive.

A couple of years ago, I injured some fingers on my hand when I mistakenly rammed them into the kitchen sink. The doctor said that I should tape my fingers together and wear compression gloves. This helped immensely.

What I also found was that they kept my hands surprisingly warm, even when the temperatures were barely above freezing. 

Now, I’m not going to tell you that they are as warm as winter gloves. Far from it. But I found that even for temperatures as low as 35-40°F (1.6-4.44°C), I didn’t really need to wear other gloves very much if I dressed warmly and it wasn’t windy. 

Now, I should mention that I typically move around quite a bit at night and am often quite warm anyway. If your hands get cold easily, these may not work for you. But what I loved about these gloves were that since they didn’t cover my fingers, it was easy to use the camera. And they cost much less than photographer’s gloves.

Photographer’s gloves with open fingers

Photographer’s gloves are basically a better, warmer version of the compression gloves. You could consider the Heat Company Heat Tube Fingerless Gloves/Liners. These also leave your fingers free.

However, they also have thicker fabric but are still elastic and have longer wrist sleeves to keep out the cold. Not only that, you can also stuff chemical hand warmers inside. Now that will keep your hands seriously warm! These also have a D-ring so you can keep gloves (shells) attached. 

Photographer’s gloves with closed fingers

I have never used Vallerret Power Stretch Pro Liner Photography Gloves. I found these while looking for the link to the Heat Company gloves above. However, they appear like you might be able to have enough sensitivity to operate the camera and tripod.

Winter wonderland in Southern California
Winter wonderland in Southern California

Ski gloves

I have a pair of $10 ski gloves. They work great and are absurdly warm, but they are inconvenient since you usually have to take them off to operate the camera. Unless you cut one of the fingers off the glove. They’re only $10, right? 

Like ski gloves with the fingers chopped off … only better!

The last glove I’ll add here, I must confess, I’ve never used either. I suppose I’m OK with destroying $10 gloves. And I don’t use them much anyway.

Vallerret also makes Markhof Pro Photography Gloves. These have fingers that zip and flip. Not bad, eh? But there’s more. They use a nonslip grip fabric. And they have an inner liner of merino wool, so they’re nice and warm.

As a bonus, they have a little pocket on the back of the thumb for SD card or hand warmer and microfiber lens wipe. Great. And I’ve mentioned already how much I love pockets. While I’ve never used these, some of our Photofocus team swears by them. They sound like a winner.

Head

We’ve heard for years that we lose 30% of our heat from the top of our head. While it’s not nearly that high, we still want to keep our head — and ears — warm.

I don’t have anything fancy here. I wear a beanie that is very special to me, something my friend’s dad once wore. It’s super warm, and I’ve worn it the mountains of Chile, where it kept me quite warm. Never forget, though, the magic of merino wool. Consider a wool beanie. And, well, there’s always the hood of your jacket too. But I strongly prefer beanies for warmth and comfort.

George modeling my friend's dad's beanie. I take this beanie everywhere. Well, when it's cold.
George modeling my friend’s dad’s beanie. I take this beanie everywhere. Well, when it’s cold.

If it’s windy or really cold, I’ll also wear a wool scarf to keep my neck nice and warm. This has the added bonus of preventing your nose from sticking to the camera if it’s absurdly cold out. No, I’m not kidding.

In the car

I have a small old suitcase. I dropped it off at the airport on the East Coast with four wheels. When I picked it up on the West Coast, it only had three wheels. I now use this for storing extra pants, shirts, socks and a towel in my car. This has come in handy several times, enabling me to get damp clothes off or dry things off.

I also keep several plastic bags and a large trash bag here as well. When I’m finished for the evening, I can wrap my camera in a large ziplock bag or sealed plastic bag or, perhaps easier, wrap my entire camera backpack in a trash bag, before taking it indoors. This helps prevent damaging condensation.

VISIT ME, VISIT ME!

BOOKS AND PRINTS:
Head on over to the Ken Lee Photography website to purchase books or look at night photography and long exposure prints and more.  My books are 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, thanks!

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.

Finding infinity: seven ways to focus on the night stars

Getting sharp, pin-point stars for a starry sky or the Milky Way may be the hardest part of night photography. However, I’ll try and make it methodical and easy. I’ll discuss seven methods.

 

Focusing on a distant object during the day

The easiest way to do this is to go out some time when there’s some daylight and focus on something extremely far away. Choose the mountains or the clouds.  It may be right at the lens’ infinity marking.  Or slightly to the right.  Or slightly to the left.  Regardless, mark that setting if you can with a grease pen. Or better yet, tape the focus ring down with gaffer’s tape so it will not budge. Now you’re ready for the night.

 

Focusing on a distant object at night

Some people will have a friend stand at least fifty feet away and hold up a light. Then they will adjust their focus manually until the light looks like a pinpoint. If you don’t have a friend nearby, lean a flashlight against a tree or rock. This is far enough away that your lens should perceive this as infinity. This method also works well.

 

Focusing on the moon

Photographing while the moon is out? You’ll get less stars, but on the other hand, the moon may beautifully illuminate the foreground.  Aim your camera so the moon appears in the center. Use auto focus. The moon should be plenty bright enough for your auto-focus to work. If not, go ahead and switch to manual focus and then focus on the moon. You may do this via Live View or looking through the viewfinder.

 

Adjusting using your LED

Set it to where you believe infinity is based on the markings on your lens. Zoom in a star using your LED. Then adjust your lens accordingly. This may take a while.  This is easier with some cameras than others. Be patient.  You want the stars to be as sharp as possible. This method can be more accurate than the first two methods, but takes more patience.

 

Made from 20 light frames (captured with a NIKON CORPORATION camera) by Starry Landscape Stacker 1.6.1. Algorithm: Median

 

Adjusting using Live View

This is similar to the above method, but is generally easier to see than zooming in with an LED.  Zoom in to a star using Live View. Adjust the focus of your lens manually until it looks very sharp. This should go rather quickly, and is considerably faster and easier than using your LED. If this option is available to you, I would recommend doing this first. It is easy and arguably the most accurate of the ones listed.

 

Lens filters that help you focus

These are filters that use diffraction methods to nail focus. if you want to know more, search Bahtinov filters,  SharpStar2, or similar variations on this theme.

 

Using a lens with true infinity

Some manual lens have a hard stop for infinity. For many of these lens, this may actually represent their true infinity. You won’t know until you test. Other lenses, such as the Irix 15mm f/2.4, have a detent for true infinity. This make adjusting for infinity incredibly simple and easy.

 

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

 

The amazing app for clouds and weather, day or night

I get asked about what mobile apps I use for night photography regularly. When I mention that one of my favorites is Clear Outside, most people have never heard of it.
However, I app-solutely (um, sorry) love this app and find it extremely accurate. In fact, several of my non-night photography friends use it to gauge accurate weather. Oh, and it’s free. Yes, free. Let’s find out what it does.

Is it, well, clear outside?

Yes, you guessed it, it determines cloud cover. What I love about this app is that it describes not only total amount of clouds, but also low, medium, and high clouds. This is valuable because each has very different qualities for photographing at night. Or day. Want a beautiful fiery sunset? A partially cloudy forecast might grant your wish. Want epic streaking clouds moving past? Maybe fast moving clouds is the answer. Want clear skies for Milky Way? This will tell you if tonight’s the night.

As you can see above, the morning is rather clear, but it gets rather cloudy, especially by noon.

What about other locations?

Press “Locations” and the “+” sign and type in a location. Yes, you may type in longitude and latitude as well. This is especially fantastic if you want an extremely precise location. Above are some of my commonly used locations. You may delete these at any time.

What else does Clear Outside tell us?

The above screenshot shows the conditions for Mammoth Lakes, California. It’s quite clear. It gives the number on the 9-point numeric Bortle Scale (1 is almost no light pollution, and 9 is a brightly lit inner urban area). The color indicates civil, nautical, astronomical darkness. It even shows us when the International Space Station (I.S.S.) is flying past. But that’s not all.

Above, this app also tells us about moon phase, when the sun and moon rise, fog, chance of rain, wind, temperature, dew point, and humidity. These are all relevant to night photography or astronomy, of course, but are helpful day or night. If it’s particularly humid but cold, one might want to bring along items to prevent condensation on the lens.

Clear Outside also has a website

You may also access Clear Outside through a browser at clearoutside.com. Like its Android and iOS app counterparts, it defaults to Exeter, Devon UK. I have not found a way to make either default to another location. However, that’s easily rectified by the push of a button.

I would love it if the apps were able to sync with the website, but there are no provisions to log in. On a desktop, what I’ve done is keyed in specific locations and saved them as bookmark links. Obviously on the app, you can store specific locations.

The price for iOS or android apps? Free. The benefit? Priceless. Bravo, First Light Optics. Take a bow.

 

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

 

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

 

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

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