Can you photograph at night with lousy eyesight?

I was recovering from surgery for a detached retina in my right eye. Here’s what I found.

Flashes and floaters

24 hours after the surgery I experienced floaters and flashes in my right eye, I was on the phone with an eye doctor. When I saw the first flash of light in my peripheral vision, I had thought, “That was strange. Was that the reflection from a car whizzing past?” The second time, I knew something was wrong.

The doctor said that I had lattice degeneration. This is a thinning of the peripheral retina, the tissue that lines the back wall of the eye. This also helps maintain sharp vision. Lattice degeneration is a cause for concern. Here, the retina is more susceptible to tearing, which can lead to retinal detachment. The doctor made an appointment for five more weeks.

Night photo of an enormous sculpture by Ricardo Breceda, located in Borrego Springs, CA.

Distracting

The next time I went out to the Arizona desert to photograph at night, my vision had grown increasingly worse. The flashes and floaters were more prominent than ever before. Worse than that, my vision in the right eye had grown a little hazier. 

The squeaky wheel

I called the doctor again. I wanted to see him now, not in several more weeks. However, the receptionist said that he was out of town. I kept the old appointment. However, thinking it over, I felt I really should see a doctor, so I called again. Same message. So I called again, saying the same thing again. This time, I got an appointment with a different doctor the following morning. Sometimes, the third time really is the charm.

Uh, oh!

Night photo of dinosaurs battling. Sculptures by Ricardo Breceda, Borrego Springs, CA.

It didn’t take long. The doctor said, “You have a detached retina.” He explained that since I was nearsighted, I was more susceptible to lattice degeneration and detached retinas. Swell. He made an appointment with another doctor specializing in retinal surgery. In particular, pneumatic retinopexy and a scleral buckle surgery, would be done during the same visit. 

Recovery

Recovery involved staying face down for eight days all day and all night. Yes, that means while sleeping. Or attempting to sleep. I am very active and kinetic. Therefore, I was convinced this was one of the Seven Layers of Hell. My face hurt. My back hurt. And of course, my eye hurt. And with that, I also had headaches for the next three weeks. I rarely looked at myself in the mirror for the first few days. I looked like I had gone 15 rounds with Mike Tyson.

The blob

No, this isn’t the blob from my eye. In fact, it was larger than this, and yes, right in the center of my vision. This is one of my macro experiments during the pandemic.

I had a weird bubble in my eye from one of the procedures. This air bubble slowly pushes the retina back into place. However, to me, it looked like an enormous blob. Slowly over two weeks, the blob diminished, then broke into several smaller blobs, then went away completely. I was overjoyed when it went away.

Blurry photo near sunset, Borrego Springs. While my vision in my right eye isn’t quite this blurry, it isn’t far off either.

Choosing the location to do night photography

A month after surgery, I was ready to get outside and enjoy some night photography in the desert. I chose Borrego Springs. One of the reasons was that the magnificent sculptures that I was going to photograph were only between five to 10 minutes from the motel. The other reason was that the ground near the sculptures was level and didn’t have many sharp pointy plants. 

And of course, I love Borrego Springs. Borrego Springs was where I had floated in the pool while looking up at the Milky Way, a magical experience I still remember vividly. 

Night photo of a sculpture by Ricardo Breceda in Borrego Springs, CA. April 2022.

Other strategies for doing night photography

While my right eye was healing quite well and I was told I could drive, swim, and exercise, my vision was still blurry. To compensate for this, I began using reading glasses. Rather than fumble around in the dark for them, I purchased eyeglass straps so they could hang around my neck when I wasn’t using them. 

I also used a Coast HX4 80-lumen Clip Light with the red light on to see my way around. Surprisingly, I didn’t need this too much because it was during a full moon, and I could see reasonably well. 

When reviewing my photos, I blew them up more than I usually would just to make sure I had focused properly. I used my reading glasses to make absolutely sure. I often used Live View. With Live View, I found I could also use my reading glasses effectively. If I needed to, I could also shine my light around to see what was going on more.

I also used the autofocus in my camera. I shined a light on the sculpture I was photographing, used the autofocus, and then switched back to manual focus so the camera wouldn’t keep attempting to acquire focus again.

Other thoughts

I was rather pleased that I could photograph so easily in the dark, even with one eye having rather blurry vision. I was able to photograph again the following month as well. I again photographed during a full moon, photographing some unusual art installations in Wonder Valley. And this time, I had also gotten some specially made glasses from the optometrist, so driving at night was much better. I was very specific with what I wanted with the glasses, and they made them with this in mind.

eye on the end of the world
Night photography at the end of the world, or at least Wonder Valley in California. May 2022.

I found that one of the challenges was the extremes between bright lights and dark. If it were mostly dark, I didn’t have that many issues at all. But if there were large bright signs and storefronts in an otherwise very dark environment, that sometimes caused haziness. My new glasses corrected for this. I didn’t have them when I photographed in Borrego Springs, so that’s largely why I chose to photograph a location that was only minutes from the motel.

Technically, my eye has not recovered fully. That takes about six months after surgery. Shortly after that point, I will have cataract surgery. After that, my vision in my right eye should be considerably sharper, and not the blurry mess it is now.

Dragon head. Ricardo Breceda. eye.
Night photo of part of the enormous rattledragon sculpture by Ricardo Breceda. April 2022.

And yes, I did swim at night. While the Milky Way wasn’t arching over the sky, the full moon and the starry skies were. And that’s still magical. And I felt particularly joyous after spending such a long time staying face down in the house.

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!

NIGHTAXIANS VIDEO YOUTUBE PODCAST:

Night photographers Tim Little, Mike Cooper and I all use Pentax gear. We discuss this, gear, adventures, light painting, lenses, night photography, creativity, and more in this ongoing YouTube podcast. Subscribe and watch to the Nightaxians today!

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

 

How to create mysterious night portraits in the desert

I created otherworldly night portraits of a musical group during a winter evening in the California desert. I’ll describe how I went about photographing these surreal images.

Firing up the machine

I was contacted by electronic/psychedelic band Bloomfield Machine, a band masterminded by Brian Kassan, who has also created music with Chewy Marble and The Wondermints. He wanted some night photos that looked, well, like my photos. We chose Joshua Tree National Park for its strange landscape.

Cloudy with a chance of weirdness

After a delicious lunch at Pie for the People in Yucca Valley, we drove into Joshua Tree National Park, one of my favorite places for night photography.

Although the weather forecasts called for extremely cloudy skies, we were happy to find out that it was only partially cloudy. I love clouds at night. They add a lot of texture and interest to photos. I also love the way they “smear” during long exposure photographs.

Deciding on the camera settings

As those of you who read my articles know, I love to photograph near a full moon. It illuminates much of the surrounding area and is perfect for light painting. 

Because the band would need to stand still, I decided to photograph with a 30-second exposure instead of 2 or 3-minute exposures. To do this, I figured I would use an ISO of 800. ISO 800 still does not produce very much noise, certainly not with the Pentax K-1 or Nikon D750. But it would create enough light sensitivity so I could get a decent exposure, even at an aperture of f/8. 

The band said that they wanted a little bit of blur so it would look a bit strange. Otherwise, I could have done a quicker exposure, such as 10 or 15 seconds. But 30 seconds was perfect for me. This would allow me to be able to run around and illuminate the scene from several different areas while the camera shutter was open! Excellent!

Fisheye night portrait in Joshua Tree National Park, CA. Taken with the Rokinon 12mm f/2.8 fisheye lens.

The look I wanted through lighting

I really wanted the band to pop out of the photo and have a three-dimensional quality to them. I decided that I would illuminate them using a handheld Nikon SB-600 Speedlight from the side, popping the flash manually. This would create shadow and depth. Also, this way, I wouldn’t pop a flash right in their face. And it would “freeze” them so there would be less blur.

Beginning the exposure

I positioned the two musicians and focused on them. I did this with two setups. I had the Pentax K-1 with a Pentax 28-105mm f/3.5-5.6 lens. I chose this lens for its clarity and general flexibility with its wider focal range than my ultra wide-angle lens. For weirder fisheye angles, I used the Nikon D750 with a Rokinon 12mm f/2.8 fisheye lens.

I then triggered the camera with a Vello Shutterboss II wired intervalometer (Pentax users, you can use the Canon Sub Mini Connection / Nikon with DC2 connection).

Running around in the dark waving lights

Sometimes, when people ask what I do as a night photographer, I tell them, “I run around in the dark waving lights.” It’s actually reasonably accurate. I used two handheld lights, the Nikon SB-600 Speedlight and the ProtoMachines LED2 handheld light painting device. I also had a Viola Luxli LED panel packed and ready to go, but I never needed to use it. And run around I did!

Adding color and shadows

Night photo with the band, Joshua Tree National Park, CA. Taken with the Pentax 28-105mm f/3.5-5.6 lens.

After triggering the camera for its 30-second exposure, I would run to the side and pop the speedlight manually. By this, I literally mean that I would hold the flash off-camera and pop it by pressing the flash button. PZAWWWW!! This would illuminate the two people in the band.

For some of the photos, I wanted more color and interest. After popping the flash, I would jam it in my pocket and then run to the side and illuminate the rocks in back of the band with the ProtoMachines light.

Fisheye night portrait in Joshua Tree National Park, CA with some extra backlighting in red for good measure. Taken with the Rokinon 12mm f/2.8 fisheye lens.

During one of the fisheye photos, I did all of the above. Then after that, I ran over and stood in back of each of them for several seconds, shining a red light so that it would produce eerie shadows as well. Fun!

As a bonus, running kept me warm and gave me some exercise, even while photographing on a winter night! But of course, I also had to finish my lighting within 30 seconds as well. And I wanted to keep moving so I would minimize my chances of showing up in the photo.

Chimping

Of course, the band kept wanting to check out the photos. Part of this was that they wanted to make sure that their eyes weren’t closed. After all, I was popping a flash at them! Despite counting down, we did get a few photos where one person’s eyes were closed.

I pointed out how their face was sharp where the flash had illuminated them, but a little blurry on the other side. They loved that and wanted to keep it because they wanted the photos to look “extra weird.” Mission accomplished.

Processing the photos

The photos were relatively straightforward to process since they were all single exposures. Although there wasn’t that much noise, I wanted to make sure that the images were clean. The band, after all, might print some large posters. Therefore, I ran the photos through Topaz DeNoise AI before doing anything else. After that, I simply made a few adjustments using LuminarAI as a plugin in Adobe Photoshop, then using Lumenzia luminosity masks for some light dodging and burning.

“Are these composites?”

This is the question I am asked most often by other photographers. No. They are all single exposures. 

Windy night photoshoots in winter

We had arrived at our location in Joshua Tree around 4 p.m. By 7:30 p.m., we were already packing up. I was of course used to this sort of thing by now and had dressed for the cold weather. In fact, I had photographed until 10 p.m. the previous night, stopping because I didn’t want to “stay out too late” and be tired the next day.

But to be fair, the two musicians had been asked to stand still for long periods of time. And it was also windy, which added a real “bite” to the air. 

The band said, “We love what we’ve seen! Time to pack up!” One said that his toes felt numb. Not to worry, though. Before long, we were enjoying a nice hot meal in town.

Altogether, we had created 16 promotional photos for Bloomfield Machine, with six of them being long exposure night portraits. This was for sure a fun, creative, productive night.

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

 

Halloween night photography: a creepy bunny, an abandoned Chevy truck, and a blue moon

On Halloween day, I was rumbling toward an old airfield, littered with rusting abandoned vehicles, airplanes, and more. I had just called the previous day spontaneously, wondering if I could run up and photograph at night. It was a special day. Yes, Halloween, but a Halloween with a blue moon. What could be better? I was only too happy to make the three and a half hour drive to the airfield for some night photography.

In honor of Halloween, I had also brought a bag full of creepy looking dolls. They’d be difficult to explain if I got pulled over by California Highway Patrol. Thankfully, the only thing I stopped for was gas and tacos.

Just the right amount of cobwebs, dust and rust

After photographing some rusty airplanes and trucks, I found the perfect setting for my Halloween photo. I opened the creaky door of an abandoned Chevy flatbed. The cab was perfect. Just the right amount of cobwebs, dust and rust. 

I became rather choosy about posing the bunny. The bunny should slump a certain way. I wanted the eye to look warily elsewhere. And also, I wanted one ear up, the other down. This was not something I usually did.

A bunny, truck, cobwebs, rust, and a blue moon: the perfect recipe for a Halloween night photo.
A bunny, truck, cobwebs, rust, and a blue moon: the perfect recipe for a Halloween night photo.

Setting up the camera

Satisfied, I set up the Pentax K-1, using a Lensbaby Edge 35 Optic. This creates these quasi-tilt-shift blurs, keeping a slice of the image in focus. During daylight, this lens is somewhat challenging to focus. At night, it was really difficult.

I managed to adjust the slice of focus so that it was on the eye and head of the bunny. The rest would fall into blur. I opened the shutter. Holding a ProtoMachines LED2 in my hand, I carefully shined it overhead, trying to get some texture and illuminate the bunny in an abnormal, creepy sort of way, keeping most of the cab in almost total darkness. I “grazed” some of the rusty springs, steering wheel and cobwebs with the light quickly, just for good measure. Satisfied that I completed the photo, I closed the shutter. 

A 75-second exposure, all done. Good, weird, creepy, and dark, just as it should be. 

I continued photographing among the creaky trucks and airplanes. Tonight was Halloween. Tonight was a good night.

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

Venturing to a remote part of Death Valley

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

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

Brrrrrrrr!

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

Bathed in Moonlight

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

Lighting for texture

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

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

 

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

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

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

After that, it operated beautifully.

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

“Wait for me!”

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

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

 

Oh, and about that sliding stone mystery …

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

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

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

Getting there

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

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

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

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

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

Keep it pristine for others

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

VISIT ME, VISIT ME!

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

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

PODCAST:
Behind the Shot video podcast – interview February 2020

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

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

 

 

 

 

The power of vignettes: directing the light

Directing the light

A good composition is about directing the viewer through the image. And one of the many ways that effective photographers do this is by directing the light. Vignettes are a powerful tool in doing this. And best of all, it’s easy to do!

 

What’s a vignette?

A vignette is simply a reduction of an image’s brightness or saturation around the edges when compared to the center of the image.  A vignette might occur “naturally” through the lens you use, particularly if you photograph with a very wide aperture. Or we can add it easily through post-processing. I’ll show you how to do the latter to direct the light toward what you want the viewer to see.

 

It is easy to create vignettes!

In this example, I will use Adobe Lightroom Classic. However, you can use just about any program and achieve the same vignettes. I will show you using an example of a night photo. However, you may apply vignettes to any kind of photo. It is up to you!

 

Above, there already appears to be a little bit of vignetting in the original photo. However, the main reason the subject is brighter is because I lit the car grille during the exposure. I let everything else become a little more underexposed. The lights in the distance are more or less in the center, and also aid in creating interest near the center. I have placed the brightest part of the sky directly over the highest part of the car grille for maximum effect.

 

Creating a vignette using Adobe Lightroom

Above, under the effects panel, there are controls for “post-crop vignetting”. You probably already know what to do! Mess around with the controls and get something you like. I find that for most applications, a small amount of vignetting is all that is needed. Most of the time, you might not want to draw attention to the fact that there is vignetting. Subtlety is key. Here, the amount is just a little.

I have also increased the feathering. This controls how gradually the vignette darkens.

See how easy that was?

 

An example of heavy-handed vignetting and hard feathering

Just for fun, I thought I would create an extreme example of vignetting. As you cay see, the Amount Slider has been moved to the left considerably. And so has the Feathering Slider. This is the opposite of a very gradual, subtle gradation from light to dark. For some photos, this might work. For most, probably not.

 

Vignette controls may already be on your phone!

You don’t need to have Lightroom, Photoshop, Luminar, Affinity, or other programs to create vignettes. There’s a great chance that you have controls for this on your phone already. Most phones already have simple photo editing features. See if you have one on your phone. The Photos app on iPhones, for instance, have the capability to create vignettes easily, similar to what I’ve shown here.

Directing the light to the subject

Subconsciously, the eyes of the viewers tend to go toward the brighter, more colorful parts of an image. Vignettes are one more tool in a photographer’s bag of tricks for doing so. It also has the subtle effect of almost cradling or framing the image.

What sort of photos do you think can benefit from vignettes? Portraits? Sports? Birds? Wedding?  Fine art?

When you next look at photos, see if the photographer has used vignettes to direct your light toward the subject.

 

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 Christmas Star: the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn on the shortest day of the year

The winter solstice brings many things. Celebrations, holidays, the longest night of the year, rebirth, and much more.

On December 21 of 2020, it also brought the “The Christmas Star”, what people called the great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. The two planets were separated by just six arc minutes, equal to about one-fifth the apparent width of the moon.

 

A rare celestial event

In our night sky, the two planets haven’t appeared this close and visible to most of the population since March 5, 1226. Sure, they came close in 1623, but just for a short while in northern South America, central Africa and Indonesia. If you missed the conjunction, you can live vicariously through my photos or polish up your camera in 2080.

I stood outside with several other groups of people in Vasquez Rocks, CA. Some were in folding chairs, admiring with silence and reverence.

About the photos

I showed up at Vasquez Rocks after a long drive over the mountains to avoid traffic, driving there with my wife, who wanted to see this historic event. I had my camera set up for only about twenty minutes, perched up about twenty feet above the desert floor. Although I did bring light painting equipment, I decided that I wanted to keep the iconic Vasquez Rocks in shadow to bring more attention to the Jupiter-Saturn pairing. I shot all photos between 5:43 and 5:54 PM.

 

The above photo was shot at a focal length of 95mm. With this, more than the others, you can see the two distinct planets quite easily.

 

Above, a couple is walking around the rocks where years ago, Captain Kirk made his stand against a lizard creature called the Gorn in “Star Trek”.

Let me know if you saw the conjunction in the comments below!

 

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: Spooky ghost on a swing set

My friend has six acres of property pressed up against Topanga State Park in California. I visited there in September, eager to create a spooky ghost photo for the holiday using a form of photography called “light writing”. It doesn’t take much equipment. You need some cheap lights and a camera with manual control. A tripod or stable surface is helpful too, of course.

Inexpensive lights

I used EL Wire, otherwise known as electroluminescent wire. This is a thin copper wire coated in a phosphor that produces light when an alternating current from a battery is put through it. It’s very portable and very inexpensive. 

I also grabbed a red LED head lamp out of my backpack.

 

Eerie swing set

I set up around an old rusty swing set. The setting, after all, had to be spooky.

 

Here’s how I did it

I set up my Nikon D610 on a tripod and focused on the swing set since that’s where the ghost was going to be. In manual mode, I held the shutter open. Then the fun began.

Holding a white EL wire by the swing, I activated it and waved it back and forth gently to create the head, arms, and body of the ghost that would register in the camera. I then took my LED head lamp and activated it briefly two times, one for each eye, where I had just “placed” the ghostly head.

After that, I illuminated the swing set and the trees and grass just a little bit, just to give it a little bit of texture. I did this with a ProtoMachines LED2 using a warm white light, but you can do this with any LED flashlight.

After that, I simply walked over and shut the camera off. The total exposure was 182 seconds.

Camera settings

Nikon D610, AF-S Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8G ED lens at 14mm. 182s f/8 ISO 200 White Balance of 4000K.

 

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

 

Stacking images for brilliant Milky Way photos

Stacking for night sky images

You might hear the term “stacking” in photography. One can stack for focusing or perspective or star trails. This, however, is stacking for starry night skies, including the Milky Way.

The idea here is to take several photos, one right after another, to reduce digital noise that generally occurs when pushing the camera’s sensitivity higher and higher. Then we throw the images into an app such as Starry Landscape Stacker (Mac) or Sequator (PC). The app will perform its mathematics magic to make life easy for you. It will identify the stars on each of your images, align them, and then stack them.

Above: Both images are zoomed in at 200% after they have been prepped for maximum ugliness in Lightroom (more on that later). The first image is a noisier single exposure image. The second image is the image that has been stacked in Starry Landscape Stacker. You can see that it is a noticeably cleaner image.

You may stack them in Photoshop, but these programs simplify the process and are either inexpensive or free. I’ll use Starry Landscape Stacker as the example since I have a Mac. However, the process is about the same for Sequator. Let’s check it out!

 

Out in the field

Yes, we will start with what you do with your camera first. After all, it’s photography, isn’t it? You will photograph the Milky Way with your tripod-mounted camera, taking photos one right after the other. Click! Click! Click! Click!

I like to take at least 15 photos, usually doing between 20-25. The more photos you take, the greater the noise reduction. To a point, anyway. 25 is good. Three, not so much. In this example, I did 20.

 

Prepping the sky images

At home, prep your sky photos. Unfortunately, you sort of need to make them look like rubbish. You may prep them in Lightroom or some other photo editor.  Starry Landscape Stacker has an easy-to-follow tutorial, which you should watch before using.  The basics are below.

Do the following:

-Use Custom WB to keep the photos consistent
-Increase Brightness
-Decrease Contrast
-Increase Blacks (look at left side of histogram)
-Remove Lens Vignetting and Chromatic Aberration
-Mild Color Noise Reduction

Avoid the following:

-Auto White Balance for each photo
-Adding Contrast, Clarity, and DeHaze.
-Adding color through Vibrance, Saturation, and HSL
-Brightening through Highlights and Whites
-Applying lens distortion corrections

You can perform all these later.

After prepping all identically, export these hideous looking images as 16-bit TIFF files. They will then be ready for stacking!

 

Stacking the sky images

In Starry Landscape Stacker, select your ugly looking TIFF files.

An image will appear. The stars will trail and it will be covered in red dots. How fun!

 

Fun with red dots

Your sky should be covered with red dots, each one allegedly representing a star.

You’re going to add more stars. Add some more quickly around the edges of the sky and along the foreground and anywhere else there are stars. Above, I’ve also added some more in the arch of the rock formation. When you are finished, click “Find Sky”.

 

Blue sky mask

Clicking “Find Sky” will result in a blue mask in what Starry Landscape Stacker thinks is the night sky. If the mask is wrong, paint in more of the sky or erase it from the foreground.  You can zoom in to see the actual pixels and control the size of the brush, similar to other photo editing programs.

When satisfied, click “Align and Save”. You will see the program aligning the images with one particular image, which will show in a task bar. This typically does not take very long.

 

The stacked image

After processing, your app will align all the stars and produce an image that should look like your single Milky Way photos, only with a little less noise. That wasn’t so hard, was it?

Go ahead and save your final output image as a 16-bit TIFF file. Starry Landscape Stacker will give you several different options depending on which algorithm you prefer. Toggle back and forth between several of the different options to see what is most appealing.

Looking for distortion and anomalies

I don’t always save the image using the same algorithms. Sometimes, I prefer a different one from what I’ve used before. Look very closely, especially along the horizon line, to see what appeals to you. If the program or your mask creates anomalies or distortions, it will typically be just above the horizon line. If you’re not sure, you can always save several of the choices and closely examine them later.

If it’s an issue with your mask, the program allows you to go back and work on the mask some more, saving what you had previously.

 

Saving the stacked image

When satisfied, go ahead and click “Align and Composite”. This will also save the image with and without a mask. I don’t usually don’t end up using the mask because I create my own masks for blending in low-ISO foregrounds (and this will probably be another article in the not-so-distant future).

 

 

Further post-processing

Above is the completely processed photo.

In post-processing, you can bring out quite a bit of the stars through careful use of contrast, color correction, de-hazing, clarity, and detail. Remember, the other photo had all this turned down to help Starry Landscape Tracker do its magic. Now it’s time to turn them back up to make the image look better. Don’t overdo it.

I also sharpened the image. And I altered the color of the sky from its bland color to more of a blue because it looked more aesthetically pleasing against the rock formation than a warmer night sky for this particular photo. This is admittedly not accurate. The sky was not blue that evening. But for this photo, it felt right. And since I had taken several photos of the arch this evening, it also helped to differentiate it somewhat.

I ended up cropping it to a square for personal aesthetics, so this isn’t perhaps the best example since the stars are not quite as sharp as other photos I took during the same evening. But nonetheless, it gives you an idea of what you can do with stacking software. As mentioned above, this is blended with a low-ISO foreground.  I also light painted this for additional drama.

This is another photo with more of a black sky that was taken just before the photo we were discussing. The same process was used all the way through as well.

I hope this helped describe the process of stacking and encourages you to go out and try one of these programs for yourself.

 

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: 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

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