Opinion: is processing cheating?

“The camera cannot lie.”

Near the beginning of photography, this often said in magazines and elsewhere. But is is true? And what role does processing take in this?

What is purity?

There is this almost purist sort of bent among some photographers, where the general belief is that film is somehow more truthful, and that processing a digital image is somehow more deceitful. Several years ago, in fact, some photographers described images they posted as “SOOC” (straight out of camera”), almost as a badge of honor.

But I believe we often forget that many photographers sent their film to a lab, where a technician made decisions about exposure, color, and artistry for them.

And I believe we also forget that photographing “SOOC” simply means that the camera makes processing decisions for them and bakes them into a JPG.

I believe we forget that film photographers often manipulated a negative quite a bit.

 

“The negative is the equivalent of the composer’s score, and the print the performance.” – Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams would spend as long as eight hours in the darkroom on a single image. Dodging, burning…what he did was rather complicated, and often involved very specific notes and intent.

 

HDR

Then there’s HDR. High Dynamic Range. Most people associate this with a program like Photoshop. And many first attempts were garish, often overdone for a grungy effect. But when was the first HDR?

1857. That is the first known attempt that I know of, long before Photoshop, Windows 10, or USB cables. This was a photograph by pioneering French photographer Gustave Le Gray. He combined two negatives, one exposed for the sky, the other for the sea.

 

Processing

Is eight hours of processing negatives  “bad”?

Is HDR “bad”?

In night photography, processing surely has become more complicated. A lot of the processing is done in an effort to minimize noise and bring out stars. Is this sort of processing bad?

Purity and realism are moving targets. If spending eight hours in a darkroom, using HDR techniques, or reducing noise makes things look or feel more like the actual experience, does this make processing “bad”?

 

What is realism in photography?

Is spending eight hours in a darkroom to dodge and burn an image any more unrealistic than using a fisheye lens to warp a scene unnaturally?

Is HDR any more unrealistic than “freezing” a waterfall at 1/1000 of a second so we can see the individual droplets of water, something that does not look or feel like the actual experience?

Is reducing noise in a dark photograph any more unrealistic than photographing a street scene for a split second in a grainy black-and-white image?

Genres like photojournalism or sports photography aside, should the goal of photography even be to make an image look or feel like the actual experience?

What do you think? I’ll leave you with this quote to give you some food for thought.

“A photograph is not necessarily a lie, but it isn’t the truth either. It’s more like a fleeting, subjective impression.” ― John Berger

Lens choices for night photography

What lens is good for night photography?  It turns out there’s quite a few. And not all of them are crazy expensive.
Please not that I am not discussing astrophotography, deep-space photography of celestial objects, or photos involving an equatorial mount or tracker. Those would have different considerations. I will give examples based on a full frame sensor. Focal lengths for APS-C sensors would be correspondingly smaller. However, the general approach would be the same.

Wide aperture

The speed of a lens refers to how large its maximum diameter is. A lens with a larger maximum aperture is called a “fast lens” because it can achieve the same exposure with a faster shutter speed. Generally speaking, most night photographers also prefer a lens with a larger aperture such as f/2.8, f/2.4 or even wider. This lets in more light. This lets in more light. This is especially crucial if you are interested in photographing stars, which are quite faint.
However, for night photography during a full moon, such as when one is photographing abandoned areas over the course of several minutes or more, a wide aperture lens is not necessary. Many people photograph at f/8 ISO 200 during this time. In one of my examples, I use a long zoom lens of 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6 at f/8 for a night photo. And in other examples, I also f/8 for night photos.

Ultra wide angle lens

The most common choice is an ultra wide angle lens. This allows you to include much of the night sky. Also, if you wish to photograph the stars as pinpoints, such as the case with the Milky Way, an ultra wide angle lens allows you to use longer exposure lengths without overt trailing of the stars.
Above: this image was created with a Pentax 15-30 f/2.8 ultra wide angle lens at 15mm. This is the launch area of an abandoned missile base overlooking Los Angeles. This was a three minute exposure at f/8 ISO 200. Although this is considered a “fast” lens at f/2.8, I wanted to show that night photos can be created at much smaller apertures such as f/8. This has the added bonus of having a broader depth of field, keeping more of the scene sharp and in focus. During full moon photography, you can use the auto-focus feature quite often. You may also use a bright flashlight to illuminate a foreground object and use auto-focus.
Above: this Milky Way photo in the Mojave Desert was photographed with an Irix 15mm f/2.4 prime ultra wide angle manual focus lens.  This lens has an added feature of having a detent at infinity, allowing the photographer to instantly lock the focus to infinity, which are of course ideal for photographing stars. For the night sky part of the photo, I used an exposure of 20 seconds at f/2.5 at ISO 4000 (although I did stack this numerous times to lessen the amount of noise, but those were the settings for the night sky). If photographing Milky Ways is your thing but you don’t have the budget for one of the other more expensive zoom lens, this is a great choice. Rokinon and Laowa also make ultra wide angle lenses that are worthy of consideration and are not crazy expensive. The Blackstone sells for under $700, while the Firefly is typically under $450. Also, it’s considerably lighter than its ultra wide zoom lens counterparts and does not have a bulbous front element, which means that it accepts screw-on filters.
Above: this photo in Joshua Tree National Park was taken with a Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 ultra wide lens. This is also quite a sharp lens, and like the aforementioned 15-30mm f/2.8 lens, has auto-focus. The settings for this photo were five photos stacked for a total of 15 minutes. Each of the five photos was a three-minute exposure at f/8 ISO 400.

Fisheye

A fisheye can be a great choice. Many fisheye lens have a 180-degree view and therefore, if pointed straight up, can photograph the entire night sky. Or they can create very distorted, creative images.
Above: this image was created with a Rokinon 12mm f/2.8 fisheye lens. Instant weirdness. A fisheye can help an image stand out from a crowd by offering a different perspective. Also, a lens like this Rokinon is relatively inexpensive compared to the other lenses I am discussing here. This sells for approximately $400.

Longer focal lengths

It’s perfectly okay to use longer focal lengths as well. The stars will trail much faster because you are zoomed in on them and everything else more, but this is perfectly normal. Longer lens can be great for “compressing” the scene, making the background elements look larger and creating drama. And if some of these background elements are stars, fantastic.
Above: this is a night photo using a longer focal length. This is a Nikon 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6 zoom lens. I wanted to “compress” the background cliff so it would seem even larger. This is a 20 minute exposure in total, “stacking” five photos together. Each individual stacked photo was a four-minute exposure at f/8 ISO 800. Like some of the other examples, I was able to use the auto-focus feature of this lens by illuminating the house with a flashlight first.

Choices, choices

Like anything else, you would choose a lens for its overall usefulness as well as your personal aesthetics. Not everyone, for instance, might want to photograph with a fisheye or a long lens. Or perhaps not everyone might want to have really wide angles all the time. How do you want to present the world?

 

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: the Car Forest night photo

I wanted a vivid, bold composition of a subject that had been photographed a fair amount by other night photographers. This was photographed at a desert art installation known as the International Car Forest of the Last Church outside Goldfield, NV, a field of old cars that are wildly painted and jammed into the ground at unlikely angles. This was created by Michael “Mark” Rippie and painted by Chad Sorg. Chad had encouraged me to create night photos here.

Bang! Bang!

Out in the Mojave Desert, strange things happen. The still, quiet evening was suddenly shattered by a sudden loud slamming sound, followed by some sort of braying. I whirled around to find several burros circling each other in a cloud of dust, slamming into each other periodically.

Batman tilt

To set the composition apart, I thought a Dutch Angle was in order. When I employ this technique, I want it to be really crooked so there can be no doubt. Full-on 1960s Batman crooked. And I want it to add drama. Lots of drama. I placed the camera so that the bus would block the nearly full moon, using it to backlight the bus and illuminate the clouds that would serve to frame the bus.

Color choice

I decided that a deep blue, which would match really well with the rich blue sky, would match beautifully. I used an Nikon SB-600 speedlight, firing it manually quite a few times. To get the blue color, I used a blue colored theatrical gel secured over the light.

I decided to “light paint” the exterior a lighter blue, which would make it appear to glow a bit rather than accentuating how old and weathered it was. I did this with an LED flashlight covered by a light blue plastic bag to soften the light.

How meeting a night photographer cost me $500

During this photo shoot, I ran into another night photographer named Ron Pinkerton. He showed me a ProtoMachines LED2, a device specifically designed to for light painting and night photography. I was intrigued, and watched as he demonstrated it and methodically went about light painting.

I told Ron, “Thanks! You just cost me $500!” I purchased one six months later and have never stopped using it since. However, I do still keep the LED flashlights and speedlight in the back of the car. You never know what may happen.

What did I use?

Info: Nikon D610 DSLR camera and  a AF-S Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8G ED lens at 14mm. The exposure was 146 seconds, the aperture was f/8, and the ISO was 400.

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

 

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

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

 

 

Photographing the Perseid meteor shower

The Perseids are often the most spectacular meteor shower in the Northern Hemisphere due to frequency as well as its appearance in August. There are typically about 100 visible meteors per hour on average, although this obviously depends on your weather and light conditions. Generally speaking, you want to head out late at night but still before sunrise, and obviously, away from light pollution as much as possible. If possible, also go out when the waning moon is not in the sky. You may still see meteors even with the moon, but of course, you are trying to maximize your chances of seeing meteors.

The radiant, where the meteors originate, will be more or less north, drifting northeast. However, you do not necessarily need to face north or northeast. In fact, other parts of the sky may feature longer meteor streaks.

Above: Manzanar, Owens Valley, CA. Nikon D750/Irix 15mm f/2.4 lens. 20 second exposure at f/2.4 ISO 4000.

How to photograph the meteor shower

I would suggest approaching your meteor shower photography as you would photographing the starry sky while keeping the stars as pinpoints. If you have an ultra wide angle lens, such as around 14mm or 15mm, I would suggest using that, as you will increase your chances of photographing a meteor. And I don’t have to mention that you should use a tripod, right?

Above: this is one of my oldest night photos, this one taken in Vasquez Rocks in Agua Dulce CA, where Captain Kirk battled the Gorn. This was taken with a Nikon D7000 and Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 lens. 30 second exposure f/2.8 ISO 1600.

Camera settings

Try for something like a 20 to 30 second exposure. Use the widest aperture that looks good. Something like f/2.8 works great. And use an ISO of 16o0 to 6400, depending on how dark the sky is and how much ambient light there. Take several photos and make certain your settings are to your liking!

Focusing

Focusing is the same as if you were photographing stars or the Milky Way. Infinity, right? Turn off your auto-focus. You won’t need that. Now turn on Live View and find a star. Zoom in on that using Live Focus. Manually twist your focus ring on the lens until that star looks sharp and like a pinpoint and not an amorphous blob.

If this doesn’t work, get a friend to stand about 50 feet away with a headlamp and hold it still. Then focus on the headlamp, doing the same thing. Take a few test shots and zoom in to make sure that the stars are in focus. Good? Then tape down the focus ring if you wish with some gaffer’s tape to make sure that your focus doesn’t change through an accidental bump.

Above: A June meteor streaking across the night sky in the South Sierras in CA. Pentax K-1 with a 15-30mm f/2.8 lens. 15 second exposure f/2.8 ISO 3200. 

Keep your camera clicking away

You can’t wait for a meteor to streak across the sky and then try to trigger your camera. It would already be too late!

The secret is to keep your camera continuously clicking, then lean back and enjoy the meteor shower.

The other secret? Turn off Long Exposure Noise Reduction (LENR) on your camera. Why? Because it will pause for the length of the exposure to apply noise reduction, and we don’t really want that here. We want the camera to continuously photograph.

We will discuss two ways your camera continually taking photos.

Wired remote shutter release

Use a cheap remote shutter release. These cost only about $12. You can get one that attaches to your camera via a cable. Set your camera to Continuous Burst mode. This is the same mode that allows you to shoot rapid-fire sequences like what sports photographers do. We night photographers can use these too, but in slow motion.

Simply set your camera to your ideal settings, such as a 20-30 second exposure, f/2.8 and ISO of 1600-6400, depending on how bright the scene is (or how wide your aperture is). Lock down your remote shutter release. This should keep your camera clicking merrily away, taking one photo after another. Many cameras have a limit of 100 consecutive photos, so be aware of that, and set a timer if you wish. Then simply start it up again.

Use an intervalometer

Your camera may have an intervalometer built in. Or you can purchase an external intervalometer and attach it to your camera. There are myriad options including bluetooth camera controllers as well. You can set the time of exposure, time between each photo (which should be as short as possible, typically one second), and how many individual photos you wish to photograph.

Wow, I have a lot of photos!

You may have hundreds of photos. That’s alright. It’s digital. Just make sure you have a good sized memory card.

Scroll through and find the ones that have meteors. Meteors don’t blink and they usually are tapered, looking like streaks.

Above: This is a 31-minute star trails photo with one of the Lyrid meteors, captured in 2014 at Vasquez Rocks in CA. Each individual photo was 30 seconds in length at f/3.2 with an ISO of 1600.

Don’t delete any of those photos either. If for some reason the meteors have been shy and didn’t show up in your photos, turn them into a time-lapse! Or star trails! Or both!

Quick checklist

-Camera with manual settings and your widest lens with a large aperture

-Remote shutter release or intervalometer

-tripod

-gaffer’s tape (I like orange colored tape so I can see it at night)

-headlamp (try to use this as little as possible to preserve your night vision; use a red headlamp if possible)

-lawn chair

-favorite beverage

-snacks

-friends

 

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: 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

 

 

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: 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