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

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

How I got the photo: Comet NEOWISE

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

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

Planning the location

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

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

 

Planning the gear

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

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

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

This thankfully seemed to work well.

 

Determining how to photograph the comet

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

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

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

 

Camera settings

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

Why?

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

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

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

 

Going wide

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

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

Light painting

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

 

Until we meet again, Comet NEOWISE!

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

 

VISIT ME, VISIT ME!

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

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

PODCAST:
Behind the Shot video podcast – interview February 2020

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

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

 

 

How I got the photo: abandoned airplane cockpit

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

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

Preparing for the photograph

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

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

The challenges of illuminating tiny interiors with sharp metal

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

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

Camera settings

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

Equipment used

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

 

VISIT ME, VISIT ME!

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

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

PODCAST:
Behind the Shot video podcast – interview February 2020

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

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