How did I choose my night photography ball head?

I do long exposure photography almost exclusively, so I look for specific qualities in ball heads. If I am adjusting the ball head in the dark for a series of photos for stacking for Milky Way photos or two-hour long star trails, I want something easy to use and rock solid. We’ll go through my decision-making process together.
I used an Acratech GP-s to take 17 photos in succession to “stack” them in an effort to reduce noise a little.

Deciding on a tripod head

There are numerous tripod heads. And much of this is a matter of preference and practicality.
A pan and tilt head separates horizontal, vertical and panning motions into three separate axes, often doing so precisely, and are popular for video. They often tend to be heavier. Some have handles. The few times I’ve used one with a handle for night photography, I’ve rammed my teeth on the handle. Maybe not.
A gimbal head moves fluidly and is great for tracking, making it popular for wildlife or sports photography. However, it seemed a little large and chunky and overdone for night photography.
I decided to look for a ball head. A ball head is relatively light and compact and would allow me to easily compose in either landscape or portrait modes, aiming the camera easily at various angles. Like tripods, I really wanted to purchase a quality ball head once and use it for many years to come. I purchased my ball heads over six years ago and am still happily using them, so I apparently didn’t choose too poorly!
I used an Acratech GP-s ball head for this star trails photo, showing the perceived celestial movements over 12 minutes of time.

Ball head features that are useful for night photographers

Stability

Above all, I wanted a ball head to be rock solid and not sag, vibrate or move and could accommodate a large amount of weight. After all, many of us night photographers use a heavy DSLR and ultra wide angle lens combination.

Ease of operation

I did not want to use a headlamp every time I positioned the ball head in the dark, so this was also a must. I wanted easy-to-turn knobs that were logically placed.

Ball tension

I also wanted to have a separate tension knob where I could precisely dial in the amount of tension that I wanted. This is particularly helpful when adjusting the main ball head , as it provides enough tension so that it isn’t too tight requiring extra force when positioning, but not too loose so that you risk the camera flopping or have difficulty precisely positioning the camera.

Arca-Swiss quick release plate

My two cameras already had a special kind of quick release plate called an L-bracket attached to them, all of which were Arca-Swiss compatible. I looked for a compatible mounting base that would easily let me open the clamp, slide the camera in, and secure it easily. I like using L-brackets because I can quickly adjust the camera to portrait or landscape mode. Sure, I could probably achieve portrait mode with a ball head by turning it on its side, but I felt this might introduce some instability, as I photograph frequently in high-wind areas in the desert. And the wind in the desert sometimes seems to gust out of nowhere!

Pan adjustment for panoramas

The pan adjustment is used to rotate the camera from left to right without adjusting the tilt at all. I was hoping to find a ball head that allowed me to easily pan in reasonably precise, smooth adjustments. I wanted to have this option. However, more than six years later, I still have not done a panorama. Someday, right?

What did I choose?

Because I had two cameras and was purchasing two tripods, I also purchased two ball heads.

Acratech GP-s ball head

My scuffed up six year old Acratech GP-s ball head, perched atop a Feisol CT-3342 carbon fiber tripod. It may be light, but it holds up to 25 pounds without breaking a sweat…not that I’ve ever seen a ball head sweat. No. That’d be weird.

I chose this because it was highly regarded, lightweight at less than a pound while still holding 25 pounds and relatively small, this seemed like a winner. As a bonus, the GP-s could convert into a panoramic tripod head easily. You may position it upside-down to function as a leveling base for panoramic photography, keeping everything parallel to the horizon. I also liked its smaller size, which could easily accommodate travel tripods without banging its pan knob against the tripod, and even allowing the tripod legs to fold over it. Sold!

Really Right Stuff BH-55

My scuffed up Really Right Stuff BH-55 ball head, ready to use with my Feisol CT-3372 tripod. The tripod has a load capacity of my tripod is 65 pounds while the BH-55 is 50 pounds, so short of using this for a car jack, this handles just about any situation, even in high wind. You can see the pan turntable underneath with 360 degrees of markers.
Although it might sound strange, the BH-55 is a beautiful looking ball head that inspires confidence. I chose this for extra stability in high wind conditions, as it supports up to 50 pounds, easily accommodating large cameras with heavy ultra wide lens. This does, however, weigh 1.9 pounds, almost twice as much as the Acratech. That said, I do love the large locking knob. I have large hands, so this really feels comfortable, although I should mention that the Acratech ball head has a scalloped lamping knob. Although smaller, its extremely easy to grip, so having a large locking knob doesn’t matter so much.

Choosing by time traveling

If I could go back in time and choose again, I would likely choose to purchase two Acratech GP-s ball heads. I love the BH-55, don’t get me wrong. But the GP-s ball head is so stable and easy to use that I don’t feel I need the extra weight and beefiness of the other. But really, I have no regrets! I love them both.

An interesting ball head for today

Today, if I were looking for a ball head, I would have a close look at the Platyball Elite from Platypod. Why? This intriguing ball head has an “upside down” ball head design, placing the panning turntable on the top instead of the bottom, making it far easier for us to pan cameras in a straight line even if the tripod legs themselves are not perfectly level.
But there’s more. You may notice that I never mentioned bubble levels as one of the features I was looking for in a ball head. That’s because they’re almost impossible to see, not only because I shoot in the dark but also because they are frequently poorly positioned. The Platyball Elite uses a backlit electronic leveling system not terribly unlike what you might see in a digital camera. This uses an A23 alkaline battery for power and works in any orientation, also offering three brightness levels. Although I could do without one more item that requires a battery, this is such a useful feature that I might make an exception!

 

VISIT ME, VISIT ME!

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

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

PODCAST:
Behind the Shot video podcast – interview February 2020

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

 

 

How did I choose my night photography tripod?

I do long exposure photography almost exclusively, so I look for specific qualities in tripods. If I photograph  a series of photos for stacking for Milky Way photos or two-hour long star trails, I really need a tripod to do its job. So what qualities do I look for in a tripod?

Juggling cost, weight and stability

I agonized over my choice of tripod more than any other photography-related gear I’ve purchased, wrestling with these three qualities: cost, weight, and stability.
Want a cheap tripod that doesn’t weigh too much? Of course you do! But is it going to be stable?
Want a cheap tripod that is super sturdy and takes high exposures in high winds? Sure. But it might be really heavy.
Okay, How about something that is really sturdy and lightweight? That sounds great. But now it’s very expensive.
I’ll go over what features I considered. I’ve used my tripods for over six years. During this time, I’ve owned four DSLRs. However, I still own the same tripods and am happy with them, so I may have done something right.
Above: A rock solid tripod helps when taking 20 photos in succession so I could “stack” them to reduce noise. Eastern Sierras, California.

Carbon Fiber

I hike in to locations hauling a lot of gear, often having two cameras in my backpack as well as heavy ultra wide angle lenses and accessories. Because of this, I favor lightweight tripods, so all mine are carbon fiber. If I can even shave a pound off when I am hiking in for several miles, that’s money well spent. Also, they don’t get nearly as cold as their aluminum counterparts, quite a bonus in the winter months.

Quick and easy to set up

This is a matter of preference. In theory, I love flip locks. I know when they are locked down. However, I think maybe I am a little clumsy and have a tendency to pinch my fingers with these sometimes while using this at night. I’ve also had them catch on my clothing before when I am carrying or maneuvering the tripod.
Consequently, I’ve chosen twist locks. These deploy quickly and nicely. However, there are always sacrifices. It increases the chances that you forget to twist them all the way, so you do have to take extra care in making sure they are locked down. Some can also can attract sand and begin grinding, so you may need to occasionally take apart your tripod and give it a thorough cleaning once in a while.

Rock Solid Stability

This might be the most important of all for me. I have photographed in extremely gusty winds all over the Mojave Desert, including the insanely windy Owens Valley in California. And despite the wind, I have been able to take stack 20 consecutive 15-second or 20-second exposures for Milky Ways or do hour long star trails. Consequently, in the wrestling match of cost, weight, and stability, I’ve arguably compromised the most on weight. That said, my tripods still really are not that heavy.
Above: Mobius Arch in the winter. Although this looks serene, I was perched on another rock with strong gusty winds with my tripod clinging to steeply sloping rocks. Despite these hardships, my Feisol CT-3372 held fast, never shaking during the long exposure.

Durable

This should probably almost go without saying, but minimizing flimsy plastic parts such as locks and clamps really helps. My tripods get thrown into cars, banged around on airplanes, and even worse, gets sand ground in it in the desert and the beach.

Other features

Tripods also come with columns and hooks. I don’t use them. In my opinion, telescoping center columns introduce instability and invites additional vibrations, particularly when they are raised. They have their uses, but I really need rock solid stability. Also, I haven’t found much use for center hooks either. I’ve found that the packs sway when there is wind, which makes me rather concerned.

What I use

Six years ago, I made an attempt to purchase tripods that I would use for years. And I attempted to do so without spending tons of money, particularly since I frequently photograph with two cameras simultaneously and would need to purchase two tripods. So what did I choose?
Feisol CT-3342: This is the smaller of my two tripods. This folds up to 23.2 inches, weighs 2.5 pounds, yet has a load capacity of a whopping 55 pounds. This holds any of my camera setups, including a rather hefty Pentax K-1 DSLR with a 15-30mm f/2.8 ultra wide angle lens mounted on it. That’s a heavy setup. I strongly prefer to have the stated load capacity be considerably higher than what I actually put on the tripod. A while back, I attempted to get a really small travel tripod that folded up to 20 inches. It looked and felt flimsy. I guess I’m too spoiled with the stability I have. I sent it back. Sure, it might be a little large for a travel tripod, but then again, I’ve traveled to Iceland, India, and all over the Southwestern United States with it. I bought mine for $375, but I think they may sell for around $400 now.
Above: My six year old Feisol CT-3342 with a Acratech GP-s ballhead. The tripod legs have red and white reflective tape and glow-in-the-dark tape in the event that I cannot find my setup in the dark, something that thankfully hasn’t happened.
Feisol CT-3372: This is a larger tripod than most normal people use. Because I photograph in places that can get sudden strong gusts of wind and I use very heavy cameras, I have this as well. It folds down to 24.8 inches, is 3.9 pounds, and has a load capacity of 66 pounds, although I feel like it could hold even more than that. I’ve used this for gale force winds for photographing the Mobius Arch in the very windy Owens Valley in California.  This is usually about $575, which is a lot of money, but for this quality, it feels like a bargain.

Above: My six year old Feisol CT-3372 with a Really Right Stuff BH-55 ballhead. 
Both of these hit the sweet spot for cost, offering high quality without being crazy expensive. But who knows, you may find that something else suits you. There are so many new designs since I purchased this, including Peak Design and such, that might offer up something that satisfies cost, weight, and stability.

 

VISIT ME, VISIT ME!

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

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

PODCAST:
Behind the Shot video podcast – interview February 2020

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

 

 

Intervalometers Made Easy for Night Photography

Inexpensive Indispensable Intervalometers

Intervalometers are inexpensive and invaluable, so why not throw one or two of these in your bag?
But what is it? Basically a remote shutter release that offers more controls, an intervalometer allows you to tell the camera shutter when to shoot, how long the shutter should stay open, and how long the the shutter should remain closed until it opens again. Night photographers use these to create star trails, time-lapse, a succession of images to “stack” to reduce noise in high-ISO photos, and more while avoiding vibrations.
Intervalometers come in different forms, including wired and wireless, with some allowing you to control your camera using an app on your smartphone. I use a wired intervalometer because they inexpensive and  very reliable.
Above: this is my trusty Vello Shutterboss II for my Pentax K-1, hence the punny “Kentax” name. Never run away from a great pun.

Understanding the Settings of an Intervalometer

Let’s go over some of the settings so we can better understand what they are and why we use them. I use a wired Vello Shutterboss II, and many wired intervalometers currently available have similar or identical controls. Look for the black horizontal line, which tells us which setting we are viewing or adjusting.

Self (Self-Timer Delayed Release)

The first setting is the self-timer. This allows you to set the amount of time it takes for the camera to initiate the sequence you have programmed into the intervalometer. This helps us from anything from doing selfies to getting into position to light paint a tree or an abandoned building. This intervalometer allows you to set the time anywhere from one second to 99 hours, 59 minutes and 59 seconds. Wow!  Below, it is set to 0 seconds, so the camera will start clicking right away.

Long (Timed Exposure Length)

How long do you want each exposure to be? Right here is where you set it! This one is set for 2 minutes. This is especially handy because most cameras have a maximum exposure length of 30 seconds and offer a limited amount of long exposure times. Intervalometers allow you to specify a shot between 1 second and 99 hours, 59 minutes and 59 seconds. And yes, that means that you cannot photograph anything shorter than 1 second.

Interval

The interval setting allows you to control the time period between two or more shots. If you want to do time-lapses, perhaps you might want some time to pass between shots. On the other hand, if you want to do star trails for “stacking” later, you want the shortest possible time between shots. The interval shown below is set to one second, the shortest time between shots possible on most intervalometers.

No. (Number)

The number simply stands for how many photos you wish to take in your sequence of shots. Below, I have this set for 10 consecutive shots. You may set it anywhere from 1 shot to 999 shots. After running the sequence, the camera will stop unless set it to infinity. This is typically signified by two dashes ( — ). On this setting, your camera will shoot and shoot and shoot….

How Night Photographers Use an Intervalometer

Now that we know what the four basic settings are (I’m not going to go over whether you want a beep or not), let’s apply this to some real-life night photography scenarios.

Star Trails

Many night photographers love to show the perceived movement of the stars caused by the earth’s rotation of long periods of time. Taking a succession of shots and “stacking” them together for post-processing is a great way of achieving this while minimizing noise. In the photo above, I set my intervalometer at 4 minutes and photographed the starry night sky for 2 hours in total.
The settings would have looked like this:
Self (Self-Timer Delayed Release): 0 seconds
Long (Timed Exposure Length): 4 minutes
Interval: 1 second (the shortest length of time possible between shots so that the gap between shots is kept to a minimum since I want smooth, uninterrupted star trails)
No. (Number): 30
The shorter period of time also help retain the true colors of the stars instead of making them all look white, which is, believe it or not, caused by overexposure. Yes, it is technically possible to overexpose something as faint as stars.

Stacking To Reduce Noise for Milky Ways

Many night photographers are turning to their intervalometers to take 15-20 photos in succession to reduce noise for their high-ISO Milky Way photos. For the above photo of a lake in the Eastern Sierras, I set my intervalometer to take photos for 20 seconds each. I took 31 photos in total.
For this photo, the settings are:
Self (Self-Timer Delayed Release): 0 seconds (this actually doesn’t matter as far as the outcome of the photo is concerned)
Long (Timed Exposure Length): 20 seconds
Interval: 1 second (the shortest length of time possible between shots because I want these to be as close as possible in succession so that Starry Landscape Stacker can interpolate the data effectively and reduce noise)
No. (Number): 31 (the slightly strange number tells me that I most likely set the device to click away on “infinity” while I grabbed a snack!)

Never Dangle Your Intervalometer

I’ll leave you with this important bit of advice: never let your intervalometer dangle from your camera. Several things happen, none of them good.

The intervalometer jack may get pulled out of the camera

This may stop the entire shooting process you’ve set into motion. You don’t want that to happen, do you? No. No, you don’t.

The intervalometer may swing

This isn’t so great either. It doesn’t take much wind to get your intervalometer to star tapping against the tripod and cause shakes and vibrations.

The intervalometer cable will weaken

This occurs over time when the cable gets increasingly stressed. As it is, this is a common point of failure for intervalometers, so why hasten its death?

 

Pro Tip: Velcro to the Rescue!

I would never leave you hanging (apologies for the pun). There’s a easy solution, and it’s called Velcro. Yes, that’s right, add a strip of Velcro to the back of your device and to your tripod leg. No more swinging.

I hope this helps. If you have questions, please leave them 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

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

 

 

Five Tips All Night Photographers Would Love To Know

Night photography has its own quirks and needs. After all, you’re photographing in the dark, maybe not the most normal thing to do. I decided I would avoid the more obvious sort of tips, such as “know how to operate your camera in the dark” or “understand how to shoot in manual” and get to physical sorts of tips that can help immensely. Let’s dive in.
1.) Gaffer’s Tape
Let’s start off with one that every night photographer could use. Gaffer’s tape. Yeah. This all-purpose tape is used by gaffers in film and TV production. The gaffer is the chief lighting technician, and is typically the head electrician. They need to use tape that is strong but doesn’t leave a residue. This is where we come in. We can use this for all sorts of purposes, so it’s always great to have gaffer’s tape in your bag. Break something? Tape it together. If you break part of your tripod, such as the ballhead, you can tape your camera to the tripod. Need to keep something in place, such as a prop or piece of equipment? Gaffer’s tape to the rescue. With some old cameras that don’t have a self-timer and you are missing your external intervalometer, you can even tape a pebble to the shutter button to hold it down. Need to tape down your focus ring on your lens so you can keep the same focus while moving around? Yes, gaffer’s tape. Too much light coming in to your room when you need to sleep late? Tape a blanket over the window. Want to use some tape to find things easier? I use orange gaffer’s tape (among other things…see below). All this and more, gaffer’s tape is indispensable.
2.) Velcro Your Intervalometer
Do you have an external intervalometer? If so, use hook and loop fasteners to “Velcro” your intervalometer to the leg of your tripod. This allows you to keep it up high without either dangling and swaying from your camera or dragging in the dirt when you are operating down low.
Above: My ProtoMachines LED2 light painting device is not something I want to go missing. There’s gaffer’s tape and glow-in-the-dark tape to help me locate it easier, and that’s a beautiful thing.
3.) Working In Pitch-Black Indoors
I photograph a lot of abandoned places. Many of these places are indoors, so even if there’s a full moon overhead, it’s likely very dark. I’ve photographed abandoned mining houses, penitentiaries, tunnels, factories, and more indoors. They’re completely pitch black, quite often. A great tip is to take dim electric tea lights or even a headlamp, or really, anything that creates a dim light that illuminates the room. Place this anywhere, and then get to work. You can see what you are doing and see the room, but the light is dim enough that it doesn’t adversely affect your light painting of the room. This is also nice because I don’t blow out my eyes, but it’s just bright enough that I can see what I am doing. I also use a red LED headlamp so I don’t blow out my vision as well.
Above: The room here isn’t completely pitch dark, but it was dark enough that I couldn’t really see things very well, and tripped over some huge floorboards upon arrival. I busted out a dim light so I could see the floor, and that really helped prevent further tripping.
4.) Find Your Belongings
I use both reflective tape and glow-in-the-dark tape for finding my equipment. I have both kinds of tape wrapped around my tripod legs and my ProtoMachines LED2 flashlight. Why do I use both? Glow-in-the-dark tape works almost all the time, and 99% of the time, this is enough to find the equipment. But in those cases where it is too dim or it didn’t get enough light to activate it, I also have reflective tape that alternates red and white so if I need to, I can shine a flashlight around and have this reflect back. I prefer not to do this because I like to work in the dark, but also because I might ruin my exposure if I inadvertently shine my flashlight into the camera lens. For other things that are dark, I sometimes use orange gaffer’s tape so that it is a little more visible.
5.) Kneepads
I kneel on a lot of surfaces that are sort of rough, whether it is rocks, sand with sharp little rocks, or abandoned locations. I also climb around sometimes. In those instances, it’s really nice to have kneepads to go a little easier on the knees.  I have knee braces that have pads in the front so they provide a little bit of support for going down hills or bending a lot. This is really nice when I am photographing for 6-8 hours, especially during a cold evening.

Above: I had to climb into this airplane cockpit and squat and kneel around some rather hard and sharp metal. Kneepads would have helped immensely here. I used a blanket, but still managed to scratch up my leg.

VISIT ME, VISIT ME!

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

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

PODCAST:
Behind the Shot video podcast – interview February 2020

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

 

 

Ideas For Night Photographers While Staying At Home

Night photographers, just because we are staying at home doesn’t mean that we can’t continue creating photos. Here’s a few ideas we can do while not leaving the house while during the coronavirus.
This first photo of R2D2 above was done in my backyard. I used electroluminescent wire and a little penlight laser to create the lighting as well as a regular LED flashlight. While I did this outside, there’s no reason why you can’t create images like this indoors as well.
“There is no try, only do!”

Sports fans can get in on the action as well.

These sorts of images do not need to cost a lot of money or require a lot of setup to do. YOu may have a lot of the materials in your home already, or at least be able to purchase them inexpensively. Electroluminescent wire, for instance, can be purchased easily on Amazon or elsewhere, and often only costs around US$13, not including the battery. Although I use a ProtoMachines LED2 for a lot of “light painting”, a light painting device that is fantastic but rather expensive, many of these were photographed before I purchased that. These were done with a relatively inexpensive LED flashlight. 

Now I am rather lucky in that I have a lot of trees on the periphery of my backyard. Still, I live in the city, and there are a lot of stray lights from the neighbor’s houses that occasionally manage to sneak their way through the trees and into the camera lens. I try to photograph from a lower perspective so it eliminates most of these lights. Still, though, despite my best efforts, some lights still get through. To eliminate these, I sometimes take some dark blankets or paper and hang them from the trees or with some extra stands I have lying around. I do usually have to go into Photoshop later and darken this a little bit more just to make the background even, but it typically does not take very much effort since I am pulling these back farther from the subject and not shining the light on the blankets. I also prefer to underexpose the background and keep it black as well, which helps immensely.

And finally, you can “light write” important messages indoors!

This photo was created in New Year’s Eve with Lisa helping out, not knowing that this was going to be a marriage proposal. I set up the camera, had her help out by lighting me with a flash, and used “light drawing” to write this message while the camera’s shutter was open for this long exposure photo. I did this only once.

Then I had her look at the LED screen on the back of the camera. She was very surprised! She said yes. I joked and said she had to “light draw” her answer.

I had intended to propose in Joshua Tree National Park at night, with the stars in the sky and next to a Joshua Tree, but when we were there, it was 40 degrees and windy, so New Year’s Eve it was, inside the warmth of our house!

I liked that I was able to propose while doing so in a way that was fundamentally me. After all, I am a night photographer, so it’s fun to imbue this with my personality and what I love to do. Being able to create a photo that actually captured the very moment that I proposed as well as creating a fun surprise really illustrates the way that we can create lasting memories – and images – even while inside the home. In fact, it may be that very familiarity that works in your favor. Here, we have an image that makes for a great story and will last a lifetime.

#stayathome #coronavirus  #coronapocalypse  #covid19 #nightphotography

VISIT ME, VISIT ME!

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

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

PODCAST:
Behind the Shot video podcast – interview February 2020

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

 

 

Learn in the Time of COVID-19: Photographers, What Will You Do With This Time?

Hello everyone. I hope that you are doing well, and that you are staying safe and healthy.

It is a strange time. Most of us have probably been asked to “shelter in place”, not going out except for essential things.

If you are passionate about photography like I am, what will you do with this time? Will you continue processing your backlog of photos? Try to create new content (blogs, etc.)? Learn new post-processing techniques? Take on new challenges to photograph the things around you that you usually don’t do?

Related to that last question is an awesome exercise where you try to photograph as many cool things around your apartment, back yard, house, or whatever and make it really compelling, practicing new compositions, new techniques, different genres of photography, utilizing new lenses that are ordinarily not used for that purpose, and approaching everything with a fresh perspective. I would heartily encourage you to do this if you don’t already.

If you never do portrait photography, perhaps this would be a good time to experiment with this. Or if you’ve never tried your hand at “light painting”, give it a go. Macro? Why not? Panos, sure, even if it’s in a tiny apartment!

What post-processing can make your images better? Perhaps it might be time to figure out how to dodge and burn. This is a technique going back many decades, one. utilized, as the name “dodge and burn” implies, in the darkroom. Luminosity masks is a great thing to learn, and can help target specific areas. For instance, I use luminosity masks to target the night sky specifically so that I may apply some noise reduction to the sky but not to the foreground or the stars. Layer masks is a beautiful thing. We could learn how to do a better job organizing our photos in Lightroom or whatever program we use that has some sort of file management system.

We can go to lynda.com, YouTube, Phlearn, National Parks At Night, or other places to learn new techniques.

Although we may not be able to run out and photograph, this is a time when we can still step up our creativity, knowledge, and techniques.

Let me know how you are doing in the comments, and what part of your photography or art you might work on during this strange time.

LET’S CONNECT!

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

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

PODCAST:
Behind the Shot video podcast – interview February 2020

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

 

 

 

 

 

Why Should You Do Night Photography When It’s Cloudy?

It’s the weekend. You’re finally have some time away from your job. You’re ready to hop in the car with your camera gear, ready to drive a few hours at night listening to weird music and get good and dusty. You’re ready for night photography.
But it’s cloudy.
Should you pack it in and fire up Netflix?
Maybe not.
Clouds can add immense drama and interest to your photo, and can sometimes make a night photo better. They can frame your subject or add interest to the night sky or glow from the moon or even light pollution. They can add a beautiful mysterious glow to the stars. Moon or no, clouds can look magnificent. Just as with day photography, they can add interest, so it is with night photography as well.
For long exposures, it’s usually best when they are moving a bit and not completely covering the sky, although even then, it’s possible to get some good photos.
Let’s look at a few photos.
The photo above has quite a few clouds. I checked my app, Clear Outside, and it stated that that the sky could be as much as 100% total cloud cover. The app does describe whether the clouds are high clouds, medium clouds, or low clouds as well as giving total cloud cover, so you can tell the character of the clouds, which is rather useful. Additionally, the app gives other information, such as when the International Space Station is visible, visibility, fog, rain, and wind. On this particular night, I saw that there was some wind and that there was between 80-100% high clouds. This sounded grim. And it was a long drive to this location. But we had received permission, so we perservered. We were rewarded with beautiful dramatic skies that glowed profusely from light pollution, streaked wispily across the sky, yet revealed the glorious Milky Way over head. In this photo, I quietly observed which way the wind was blowing so I could pre-visualize how the clouds would look. I knew that they were sort of coming toward the camera and would dramatically bracket the airplane in the foreground. And here, because these clouds are higher, wispier clouds and because they are moving from wind, they don’t completely occlude the stars, but add a gorgeous, diffuse glow.
The next photo, shown above, is absurdly cloudy. It was initially somewhat clear, but as the sun melted into the horizon, more and more clouds appeared until finally, almost the entire sky was covered. Initially disappointed, I began to realize that the clouds might add a certain eeriness to some of the photos of houses buried in sand. Here’s a photo in which I actually desaturated the photo slightly to go with the cloudy feel and exaggerate the already eerie feel.
Partially cloudy skies work as well, even when the clouds are low, as with this photo above, taken in Joshua Tree National Park in the Mojave Desert. The blurring of the moving clouds adds drama and movement to the composition, and bracket the rocky foreground, adding to the already surreal landscape. Although this would be more romantic if we knew the glow were from a setting sun, the reality is that this is light pollution from Coachella Valley.
The above photo, also taken in Joshua Tree National Park, shows quickly moving low clouds, and again, the long exposure adds a sense of drama and movement. Here, an almost full moon backlights the Joshua Tree and adds a beautiful glow to the clouds.
This last example of night photography with clouds is admittedly more obvious since it’s accompanied by the additional drama of a lightning storm. This is of course the Grand Canyon in Arizona. I was doubly lucky because to the back of me was a full moon that was beautifully illuminating the canyon below, with the Colorado snaking through the rocky terrain. Here, the clouds are also in movement, coming almost right toward the camera and adding, once again, drama and movement to the photo.
When you see clouds before going out to photograph, remember that this doesn’t mean you are automatically hosed. Sure, maybe it may block your Milky Way. But maybe it won’t. And maybe, it will add drama to the night sky that you never even imagined possible. I hope this was helpful or inspiring. Please share if you like it, and please leave a comment 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

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 Caoifornia’s Desert Ruins – Los Angeles Magazine article by Chris Nichols

 

 

My “Abandoned Southern CA” book featured in Business Insider!

Hello, I was recently interviewed by Business Insider journalist Erin McDowell for my new book, “Abandoned Southern California: The Slowing Of Time” (America Through Time). Click here to see the article and 25 night photography photos!

Here’s some photos from the book, available on Amazon and kenleephotography.com. Thanks so much for looking.

 

How I Pack For Night Photography

How you pack and organize your belongings directly impacts your experience. This is true of all forms of photography, but perhaps especially night photography. After all, you will need to access your belongings repeatedly in the dark. I am going to describe how I am currently packing for my night photography trips. And probably like you, this will change over time. Even if you don’t do night photography, you might find much of this useful as general organizing and packing tips.

 

The camera backpack I use for hiking and traveling when photographing at night

 

There’s no such thing as a perfect camera bag, of course. But so far, I’m loving this Tenba Solstice 20L bag. It’s comfortable even despite the weight, has sufficient padding to protect the gear well, and is logically laid out. It also stands up easily on its own, as the bag, like many Tenba bags, holds its own shape due to the padding. It’s also water-resistant and even has a waterproof bag inside the top compartment, should you need to use it. As a bonus, it doesn’t scream “I am a camera bag” to others, although it does look like an extra nice backpack, something the average person might not use for muddy socks and underwear.

It also has deep side pockets for drinks or other gear. Most of the places that I photograph are in the desert, so it’s good to have lots of drinks. I can easily fit two 32-ounce drink bottles on my backpack, one in each side pocket. I usually keep drinks in the side pouches because if there’s a leak, it won’t leak into my gear. If I only need one bottle, I will sometimes keep a roll of orange gaffer’s tape in one of the side pockets.

 

Back access to the camera bag

 

I prefer to have a camera backpack that opens from the rear. This is so if it is muddy, I can access all my gear without taking off the backpack. If my waist strap is on, I simply take off the shoulder straps and turn the backpack around so it is facing me and then access everything from the back without having to take the backpack off and put it on muddy ground.

 

With the back open, you can see that I have two cameras. On the left is the rather large and heavy Pentax K-1 with an attached Pentax 15-30mm f/2.8 lens. On the right is a Nikon D750 with a Rokinon 12mm f/2.8 lens. Above the cameras is a large microfiber cloth, and to the right of that, two Vello Shutterboss II intervalometers. One of them is for the Pentax since its connector differs from Nikon connectors. To differentiate, I have this labeled with orange tape that says “Kentax” (see what I did there?). Above the cloth and intervalometers is a thin yellow bag. That is a small emergency first aid kit. And above that is a Think Tank pouch with chargers and random things.

 

What goes on the top compartment?

 

This is a view of the bag looking down. I have removed the gray Think Tank bag for this photo. The idea of the Think Tank bag is that I keep all my belongings that I ordinarily don’t need out in the field, such as battery chargers, USB cables and various other accessories. I leave these in the car or in the motel room.

After I remove the gray Think Tank bag from the camera backpack, I have lots of room. Right now, I have the yellow first aid kit, a Nikon body cap, and an extra LensPen. This hardly takes up any space. What I usually place in here when I am about to photograph are things like snacks and an extra shirt or jacket and a beanie.

Sometimes I put a roll of orange gaffer’s tape inside as well. Gaffer’s tape makes everything right. You can tape down the focus ring of your lens, tape cables to keep them out of the way, keep a broken battery door from flapping open, or a thousand other uses. It’s the secret weapon in your night photography bag, the tool that makes everything alright.
Inside the zipped pouch you can see a yellow Allen wrench, a spare remote shutter cable release, and a small microfiber cloth. You can never have too many microfiber cloths. I keep these here because I may need to access this in the field, but it’s not something I really need unless something on the tripod loosens or some other emergency.

Exterior pouch to keep things easily accessible

I like to keep my light painting equipment easily accessible. This is a pouch that I purchased at an Army/Navy surplus store. Inside I store the ProtoMachines LED2 light painting device that I use for almost every night photography outing. The ProtoMachines is a high-end handheld light painting device that is capable of producing all colors of the RGB spectrum, also giving you full control over saturation and brightness. It also allows you to store eight presets and has a timer. I use the timer sometimes, although I do still count to myself when doing light painting. But most importantly, it has the most beautiful light for light painting I have ever seen.

I also have pepper spray inside this pouch, which I keep for protection. I’ve never had to use the pepper spray, and hope I never will. I sometimes remove the holster from the backpack and wear it on my belt if I am not going to have the entire backpack with me for evening easier access.

 

What is all the tape for?

The white tape is glow-in-the-dark tape, while the orange tape is just some horrible looking gaffer’s tape that I should remove but have not. This is the light painting device of a working night photographer. It ain’t pretty, but it’s functional and harder to lose in the dark.

 

Storing small things conveniently in the front compartments

Finally, a view of the front compartment of the Tenba bag. Here, I keep a plastic cover for the camera if it begins sprinkling or if I am doing photos near a waterfall or the ocean. Salt water and electronics do not mix. You can see the white string of this bag peaking out on top.

 

Lots of batteries

Below that, you can just barely see some orange battery holders. I use these for storing extra batteries for the ProtoMachines and the intervalometers. Easy access. And in the innermost pocket at the bottom of the photo, you can see several battery organizers, one for the Pentax K-1, the other for the Nikon D750. I like having lots of extra batteries because you never know how many batteries you are going to plow through on a cold night. Better safe than sorry. I prefer these battery organizers because it keeps everything neat and accessible, but also because the contacts of the batteries never meet. Also inside is an SD card holder, which you can barely see…you can see the thin yellow stripe.

 

Where does the tripod go?

When I am doing night photography, I usually carry a 26″ Feisol carbon fiber tripod. If I wanted to, I could attach this tripod to the side pocket and strap it in or use straps and strap it to the front of the backpack. However, in practice, I don’t do this unless I am hiking relatively far. If there is one weakness of the Tenba Solstice 20L, it’s that it is not the best backpack I’ve had for attaching large tripods. Then again, many people don’t have a tripod larger than 26″. Regardless, I can carry all the equipment you see here and still be able to slide it underneath the seat of an airplane. I’ll live with the trade-off.

 

Finding your way in the dark

I keep everything in a specific place, and can find everything even when it is completely dark outside. If I don’t want to blow out my vision because it is dark and I am trying to photograph Milky Ways, I can still access my belongings without turning on my headlamp.

I hope this gives you some ideas. How do you pack for night photography? What would you do? Feel free to start a conversation below in the comments section. Thanks for reading.

-Ken

 

VISIT ME, VISIT ME!

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

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

PODCAST:
Behind the Shot video podcast – interview February 2020

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

BOOK AUTHOR EVENT MARCH 22 2020:
And hopefully I will see you March 22nd 2020 at 5 pm Valley Relics Museum for a brief slide show and presentation for my new book “Abandoned Southern California: The Slowing of Time”.  Get there early to check out the museum.
Address: 7900 Balboa Blvd. C3 & C4 Entrance on, Stagg St, Van Nuys, CA 91406

 

 

How I find interesting foregrounds and locations for night photography

Composition is key

My philosophy is that regardless of whether it you are photographing the night sky or not, it’s all about the composition, where the subject matter still counts. And rarely for me is the night sky the subject matter. I’m particularly fascinated by the marriage of sky and earth. Astrophotography and deep sky photography hold less interest for me personally.

What I use to find new locations

I devote quite a bit of time to finding interesting areas. When researching new locations and determining how to approach photographing them, I use a combination of Google Maps, the history of a region, looking at old photographs, driving around the area, other photographer friends, blogs, old maps, and Facebook groups about a particular subject matter. If I think there are some ghost towns or abandoned houses in a particular region, I’ll also try to see if I can find abandoned places on Google Earth.
I try not to copy other people’s photographs. Also, I don’t actively seek to photograph some locations there despite it having great subjects if 1.) I feel like I can’t say anything that hasn’t been said before, and 2.) they are too crowded, which isn’t the sort of photographic experience I’m after. Locations like this would include Mesa Arch at sunrise, Kanarra Creek Canyon, the sun shining on Horsetail Fall in Yosemite in February, Horseshoe Bend, and Antelope Canyon. This is not a condemnation of anyone photographing these locations. They are stunning locations for photography. Because of #1 and #2, they simply hold less interest for me.

Scouting the location

Ideally, I hike around the area during the day and return at night, although that doesn’t always happen due to time constraints or life throwing one challenges. When I’m in the area during the day, I usually try to make notes about where the moon might come out, how the foreground subject will be illuminated, or where the Milky Way might be, things like that. I use apps such as PhotoPills to help determine things such as this. And of course, I am always thinking about how I might “light paint” the foreground so that I can create visually strong and creative images. “Light painting” is illuminating the foreground while the camera shutter is open, acting almost like the director of a movie, determining what to illuminate, and what to keep in shadow. This helps the image to tell a story about the place.

On the lookout for anything weird or interesting

I photograph a lot of abandoned items that I found interesting, but really, anything that’s interesting is something that I love to photograph, including fantastic natural landscapes or unique features. Often, the weirder, the better. Sometimes, I’ll look for something of historical interest. I also love locations that have captured my imagination as a kid, such as anything with dinosaurs or the house from “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”

Safety

I also look to see whether there might be streetlights in the area or there might be some danger in walking. I look for sharp cactus, floorboards that are about to give way, the potential for for animals or people, homeless encampments, or anything else that makes me wary.

Inspired by themes

Finally, I am working on two more night photography books on abandoned sites, both of which have themes. Themes are fantastic because they drive me to seek out these things more, and make it a lot of fun! I also record music this way by having this sort of theme, and it serves as a guidepost for what one seeks out or does. I often find myself thinking about the approach in novel ways, and that can create additional creativity.
What foregrounds interest you? What methods do you use to find fascinating foregrounds and cool abandoned sites? Let us know in the comments section!

VISIT ME, VISIT ME!

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

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

PODCAST:
Behind the Shot video podcast – interview February 2020

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