Solving night photography problems: Three ways to keep dew off a lens

Dew on your lens can ruin an evening of night photography. No one wants to get home to find that their photos are completely fogged up.

I photograph in mostly arid regions, so condensation on lens is typically not a consideration. Because of this, I can be caught off guard if I photograph near the coast or on the East Coast, as you can see below. Dew can set in quickly — these photos were only taken 10 minutes apart. Below, I’ll discuss three ways to keep dew off your lens.

When does lens fog occur?

Your lens can build up condensation if the glass is colder than the air around it and there’s some humidity in the air. There’s more to it than that, of course. These factors are tied to dew point and air movement, all of which also affect condensation. 

Three ways to avoid dew on your lens

Keeping the lens hood on your lens is the easiest way to keep dew off your lens. Covering the front element helps protect it from the outside colder air for just a little longer. However, this only works up to a point, so we’re not going to count this as one of the three ways. I’ll begin with the cheaper, lower-tech methods and work my way forward.

1. Hand warmers

HotHands hand warmers. They’re not just for warming your hands.

Hand warmers work well at, well, keeping the lens warm. Wrap a couple of hand warmers around the lens or lens hood. A lot of people use some cloth to try and insulate them.

A West Virginia Mountaineers beer cozy around a lens to hold hand warmers in place. For many lens, you might need to cut this and either apply Velcro strips to close it back up, tape it with gaffer's tape, or tie rubber bands around it.
A West Virginia Mountaineers beer cozy wrapped around a lens to hold hand warmers in place. For many lens, you might need to enlarge the cozy by slicing it and applying Velcro strips to close it back up, taping it with gaffer’s tape, or tying rubber bands around it.

An alternative to only using rubber bands is to use a beer cozy. Now, this won’t fit all lenses, so you may have to modify the cozy or even cut it open. But this, coupled with a couple of hand warmers, works rather well due to the cozy’s insulation properties. Plus, as a bonus, it looks really fun.

LensMuff on a 28-105mm Pentax lens. Perhaps a more elegant if less beer-friendly solution to keeping dew off a lens compared to a beer cozy.

Even better is a LensMuff. This is specifically designed to wrap hand warmers around the lens and can accommodate very large lenses and is easy to put on quickly in the dark. It has pockets for up to three hand warmers, so there’s less likelihood of them slipping around. And you can use more than one Lensmuff and attach them together for larger lenses or telescopes.

The upside: This is cheap, lightweight, requires no power and is easy to do.

The downside: They are not always quite so reliable in very cold conditions. They also create waste.

Because I rarely photograph in environments where there will be dew on my lens, this is the method I use. However, I’ll discuss a couple of other methods I’ve seen people use.

2. Dew heating strips

These look somewhat like the LensMuff. However, the difference is that instead of stuffing hand warmers into the wrap, the wrap creates heat via a power source, typically USB. 

These used to be rather expensive. However, as of late, they have dropped to a very reasonable price. This example here, a USB lens warmer, is rather inexpensive. If dew heating strips such as this were this inexpensive years ago, I may have opted for this route instead of the LensMuff.

If I were to use a dew heating strip, I would most likely power it with a reasonably powerful USB power bank. I believe most USB lens warmers, certainly the one I linked to, are 5V, and so are most USB power banks. Velcro the power bank to the leg of your tripod, and you should be good for the evening. 

The upside: You may regulate the heat, and they are a continuous source of reliable heat. You may also use it to warm up other things such as baby bottles, making it multi-functional.

The downside: There’s more to set up, it’s more expensive and it requires power to work.

3. Fans

I suppose you could continually wave a fan in your hand. That would show serious dedication. But here, I’m going to propose using an electric fan. 

I’ve never actually seen anyone use a fan. However, if you look around on photography and telescope forums, you can always find an enterprising DIYer who uses something such as a small computer fan, clamping it to an arm so it blows air on the front element of the lens. 

This, however, would likely require a heavier-duty power source and require effective positioning during every setup. You might also need to be careful of vibration. However, if you connect the arm to one of the tripod legs, I doubt there would be any issue.

Of course, the issue I would probably have is banging into the arm or the fan in the dark. Because of this, perhaps attaching it to the camera’s hot shoe might work.

Perhaps if you didn’t mind carrying extra equipment, you could purchase a rechargeable portable fan, such as this 8-inch clip-on USB fan. I say “extra equipment” because a fan this large would almost necessitate mounting it on another stand due to vibrations, it seems. 

How do I check for the likelihood of dew?

If the night-time ambient temperature starts creeping close to the dew point, you are more likely to get moisture on the lens. Check a meteorological site for dew point. Or if you have been reading some of my articles, you might remember that one of my favorite apps and websites, Clear Outside, provides the low temperature and dew point for specific locations along with other very useful information.

This information is good to know in advance. After all, using heat (or the fan) would be considerably more effective when begun before dew sets in. You want to stop the lens from dropping to that evening’s dew point, after all.

What I dew (pardon the pun)

I’ve used hand warmers in all combinations. I found that the LensMuff and hand warmer combination has worked remarkably well so far during summer and fall evenings. 

If I photographed in colder environments, I would look into one of the dew heaters and have a couple of USB power banks ready to go.

VISIT ME, VISIT ME!

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

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

PODCAST:
Behind the Shot video podcast – interview February 2020

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

Irix 15mm f/2.4

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

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

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

Seven reasons why I love this lens

1. Sharpness even at wide apertures

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

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

2. Detent at true infinity

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

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

3. Scarcely any focus breathing

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

4. Rectilinear distortion

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

5. Accepts filters easily

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

6. Inexpensive

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

7. Focus lock

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

More

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

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

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

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

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

Final words

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

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

 

Featured Photo: My Eyes Have Seen You, Let Them Photograph Your Soul

"Jim Morrison" with Break On Through, 17 December 2011

“Jim Morrison” with Break On Through, an amazing Doors tribute band, 17 December 2011. Nikon D90 with a 50mm Nikkor f1.8 lens, 1/100, f/2, 1250 ISO.

Break On Through to the Faster Side
There’s nothing like a nice fast lens.  I like shooting concert photos with natural light most of the time, and a fast lens always helps.  I’m using the Nikkor 50mm f/1.4, which at $300, is a pretty good bargain.  There’s another 50mm lens, the f/1.8, for scarcely more than $100, which is a steal.  Dark light?  With a big aperture, I can still shoot at 1/100 and “freeze” the action without getting too much noise (grain).

I like to wander.  I took the above photo of “Jim Morrison”, singer of the Doors tribute band Break On Through”, while standing next to the drummer on stage.  I really like the look of someone who is backlit.

The Legendary Pharoah Sanders

Who is the Pharoah Of Them All? The legendary Pharoah Sanders at the Catalina, this one taken with the same Nikon D90, but with a much slower lens, an 18-200mm VR, shot with a rather “low tech” method of minimizing camera shake! 😀

Take It As It Comes
Sometimes, you don’t always have what you need.  Here at this gig with the legendary Pharoah Sanders at the Catalina, I didn’t own the faster lens, and had considerably slower 18-200mm VR Nikkor zoom lens.  I got away with less movement by using the VR (Vibration Reduction) technology AND by squeezing the camera tight against one of the posts to minimize camera shake while shooting.  I still picked up a bunch of noise from having to bump my ISO quite high, so I had to spend a little time in Photoshop cleaning that up.  But my philosophy is that I’d rather get the shot with a little noise than not get the shot at all.  And this photo has been one of my most popular concert photos, and something I personally treasure.

Equipment:  Nikon D90,  50mm f1/4 (first photo); 18-200mm VR Nikkor lens (2nd photo)