Finding infinity: seven ways to focus on the night stars

Getting sharp, pin-point stars for a starry sky or the Milky Way may be the hardest part of night photography. However, I’ll try and make it methodical and easy. I’ll discuss seven methods.

 

Focusing on a distant object during the day

The easiest way to do this is to go out some time when there’s some daylight and focus on something extremely far away. Choose the mountains or the clouds.  It may be right at the lens’ infinity marking.  Or slightly to the right.  Or slightly to the left.  Regardless, mark that setting if you can with a grease pen. Or better yet, tape the focus ring down with gaffer’s tape so it will not budge. Now you’re ready for the night.

 

Focusing on a distant object at night

Some people will have a friend stand at least fifty feet away and hold up a light. Then they will adjust their focus manually until the light looks like a pinpoint. If you don’t have a friend nearby, lean a flashlight against a tree or rock. This is far enough away that your lens should perceive this as infinity. This method also works well.

 

Focusing on the moon

Photographing while the moon is out? You’ll get less stars, but on the other hand, the moon may beautifully illuminate the foreground.  Aim your camera so the moon appears in the center. Use auto focus. The moon should be plenty bright enough for your auto-focus to work. If not, go ahead and switch to manual focus and then focus on the moon. You may do this via Live View or looking through the viewfinder.

 

Adjusting using your LED

Set it to where you believe infinity is based on the markings on your lens. Zoom in a star using your LED. Then adjust your lens accordingly. This may take a while.  This is easier with some cameras than others. Be patient.  You want the stars to be as sharp as possible. This method can be more accurate than the first two methods, but takes more patience.

 

Made from 20 light frames (captured with a NIKON CORPORATION camera) by Starry Landscape Stacker 1.6.1. Algorithm: Median

 

Adjusting using Live View

This is similar to the above method, but is generally easier to see than zooming in with an LED.  Zoom in to a star using Live View. Adjust the focus of your lens manually until it looks very sharp. This should go rather quickly, and is considerably faster and easier than using your LED. If this option is available to you, I would recommend doing this first. It is easy and arguably the most accurate of the ones listed.

 

Lens filters that help you focus

These are filters that use diffraction methods to nail focus. if you want to know more, search Bahtinov filters,  SharpStar2, or similar variations on this theme.

 

Using a lens with true infinity

Some manual lens have a hard stop for infinity. For many of these lens, this may actually represent their true infinity. You won’t know until you test. Other lenses, such as the Irix 15mm f/2.4, have a detent for true infinity. This make adjusting for infinity incredibly simple and easy.

 

VISIT ME, VISIT ME!

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

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

PODCAST:
Behind the Shot video podcast – interview February 2020

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

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

 

10-minute DIY: an easy-to-make snoot for light painting

This is admittedly a rather specific DIY project, but hopefully it fills a niche, however small that might be. And the twenty-three people who want to do this might be really happy.

I cannot take credit for this fine design. Night photographer Tyler Heibeck told me how to do this, showing this to me when we were traveling in Iceland. But it’s easy to do. It’s simply sanding and gluing. If I can do it, you can do it. And probably better.

The specific design I’ll describe is for a ProtoMachines LED2 handheld light painting device. It has threads so you can screw them on. And so do a lot of lights. But even if they don’t, as long as you have a piece that attaches to your light source and you can glue modifiers on to that, you can run with this idea.

 

What’s a snoot and how do you use one?

In photography, it’s a tube or something similar that allows you to direct light. You can fit one over a studio light or a portable flash or a flashlight. Here, it’s most similar to a flashlight. This allows you to control the direction and radius of the light beam. I’ve done that with the above photo of the bus.

I use this for various reasons. The most common for me is to light paint a headlight so it looks like it’s on. This is great fun.

Above: A finished snoot attached to a ProtoMachines LED2 light painting device.

 

What you need:

Aluminum Step Up Filter Ring. These are usually used for things like UV filters on camera lens. This one is a 58-77MM thread.

Bushing for connecting two pipes with different diameters I used a 2″ x 1-1/2″ bushing here. 

Coupling for connecting two pipes with the same diameter in a straight run. This is for connecting the long tube to the bushing. This particular one is a 2″ coupling on the exterior, but it fits a 1-1/2″ pipe.

ABS pipe or something similar. The particular one I purchased before is not sold any more, but any ABS or PVC pipe should work. 

J-B Weld 8265S Original Cold-Weld Steel Reinforced Epoxy – 2 oz. This is a two-part epoxy system that is designed as an alternative to torch welding. It’s bizarrely strong. One bottle has a sort of liquid steel, and the other bottle has a fluid that chemically hardens the steel so that it creates a bond that is stronger than steel. I can attest to it lasting through for years of abuse.

3M Garnet Sandpaper, Very Fine Grit, 9-Inch by 11-Inch, 5-Sheet

 

Sanding and gluing

Step 1 – Sanding. First, sand all the surfaces that you will be gluing. Roughen them up and then wipe off the dust.

You really only need to glue the aluminum step-up ring to the bushing (shown above after it was sanded). That’s what I did for my first snoot, and that lasted without incident for four years before I left it in an airplane hangar. However, if you wish to glue everything else as I’ve done this time, sand all the surfaces first.

Step 2: Gluing: Take the J-B Weld and add the steel to one side and the hardener to the other side. Apply this with Q-tips or something similar. You can also mix them together on one surface, but I found it was easier and less messy to apply them separately. Above is the step-up ring and the bushing just before I glued them together.

Step 3 – More gluing (optional): Remember, you don’t have to glue the other pieces if you don’t want to. Here, from the bottom up, you can see the step-up ring glued to the bushing, and then the coupling has been inserted into the bushing. I really didn’t need to glue the coupling into the bushing. It is a tight fit and doesn’t come apart. But when you have extra glue, why not?

Above: I’ve now glued the ABS (similar to PVC) pipe into the coupling. This will make for a good, solid fit. Again, you do not need to glue this. In fact, if you wish to swap up different lengths of ABS pipe, it’s a good idea not to glue it! Your choice.

 

Does it have to be black?

No, absolutely not. But people who light paint frequently walk through the frame. We like to use dark things to minimize the chance of it showing in the photo or reflecting something. We wear dark clothes and use dark things. So it is with this snoot. But if you wanted, you could get most of these parts in white. That would certainly make getting the pipe easier, as you could use PVC pipe, which is generally found in white. ABS pipe is black. It also tends to be a little more solid and can withstand more shock, which probably isn’t that crucial unless you slam the car door on it or something. Well, okay, that sounds like something I might do, so maybe that is more crucial!

 

An even easier, cheaper snoot

Although this takes only about ten minutes to do, you can certainly use a cruder, simpler snoot. For instance, you can use a heavy-duty cardboard packing tube, available just about anywhere. The advantage is that it is cheap.

Two disadvantages of a heavy-duty cardboard packing tube

One disadvantage is that it “leaks” light slightly between the tube and the flashlight and can show up if you walk across the frame or otherwise need to get close to the headlight. This was the case in the photo of the bus above.

The other disadvantage is that you have to use both hands. In reality, this second point isn’t really that big of a deal, but it bears mentioning.

 

Conclusion

I hope this helps! Again, I want to emphasize that if you can find one piece that attaches to your light, you can simply, uh, modify this light modifier to suit your needs! I hope this helps! If you can, please leave a link to any similar DIY light modifier project that you’ve done in the comments!

 

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

 

Photographing the Perseid meteor shower

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

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

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

How to photograph the meteor shower

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

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

Camera settings

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

Focusing

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

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

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

Keep your camera clicking away

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

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

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

We will discuss two ways your camera continually taking photos.

Wired remote shutter release

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

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

Use an intervalometer

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

Wow, I have a lot of photos!

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

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

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

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

Quick checklist

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

-Remote shutter release or intervalometer

-tripod

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

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

-lawn chair

-favorite beverage

-snacks

-friends

 

VISIT ME, VISIT ME!

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

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

PODCAST:
Behind the Shot video podcast – interview February 2020

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

 

 

Road trip! How to find the best places for dark sky night photos!

Although stunning photos can be made near a full moon, most night photographers wish to photograph the Milky Way or photograph as many stars in the night sky as possible. And why not? It’s breath-taking. I never tire of seeing the Milky Way.
Road trips are exciting. The long drives, strange music, late night taco stands, the fascinating conversations. But if you do a little bit of homework, you can take a good road trip and make it epic.
You don’t need to plan everything to within an inch of its life either. Allow for fun, spontaneity, and exploration while still knowing that at a certain time at a certain place, you can create a photograph that will put a smile on your face.
Let’s start with dark skies first.
According to National Geographic, 80 percent of the planet’s land areas—and 99 percent of the population of the United States and Europe – live under light-polluted skies that blot out the Milky Way. Naturally, the first order of business is to get away from light pollution.
But how do we do this? I’ll use an example of a photo I took in 2014 of the Delicate Arch in Arches National Park in Utah, shown in the header and the last photograph, as an example of how I planned.

Finding dark sky areas

The first place I would direct someone to is the International Dark Sky Association, who encourage communities, parks and protected areas around the world to preserve and protect dark sites through responsible lighting policies and public education. They have a map that allows you to find many dark places around the globe.
Another useful site is Dark Site Finder. They also offer a useful tip, noting that it is difficult for many to get away completely from light pollution, but to consider photographing in areas where the sky is sufficiently dark in the desired direction. For example, if you wish to photograph the core of the Milky Way, you can look for places that are dark to the south.

Finding places of interest

Within these dark places, consider what makes a strong foreground. In my opinion, the most interesting night photos are usually ones that have strong subjects, providing context, a perfect marriage of earth and sky.
I would recommend doing a search in the dark sky areas, keeping notes about what seems appealing. This can be a lot of work, perhaps even more so if you want to photograph subjects that are original and relatively unknown. You can go down “rabbit holes” that consume hours of your time.

Google Maps

I often begin my searches by looking around the dark sky area chosen on Google Maps. Google Maps often points out the areas of interest. Sometimes, you may see a camera icon. Click on that and this often produces photos submitted by various Google users. This gives you an idea of what it looks like.
I will often change the map to satellite view. This gives me an idea of what the terrain looks like and provides further context and visual information.
I like to zoom in and look around. You can look at the orientation and figure how which way it is facing and get a strong idea of the surroundings. I wanted a photo of the otherworldly Delicate Arch, but I wanted to look up at it while facing more or less south. The screen shot above shows you the valuable visual information that one can gain from zooming in using its satellite view.

Social media sites

I often will check social media or photography sites such as Flickr, 500px, Instagram, and Facebook. I particularly find Flickr and Facebook useful because they encourage a lot of interaction through their groups. I can often contact the people who created the photographs. I’ve even met up with some of the photographers, making new friends and having a local “tour guides” of sorts. Fantastic!
Groups on Flickr or Facebook can be surprisingly specific, and sometimes, scrolling through that area can yield valuable and current information about accessibility and provide more photos. I often join these groups to participate in the discussion. Because I love photographing abandoned areas, all this information and interacting with others can really help here as well. I received some information about the trails leading up to Delicate Arch, including one area where the trail narrowed to about six feet, with a sheer drop on one side. Yikes!

Determining compositions in advance

Sometimes it’s possible to determine compositions in advance, particularly if you are photographing with specific celestial events in mind. For example, I wanted to photograph tDelicate Arch . But I wanted to do so with it framing the core of the Milky Way through a vantage point that I had never seen anyone else photograph before.
Through a combination of The Photographer’s Ephemeris and PhotoPills, i was able to determine that the Milky Way would drift further south and be in the position I wanted by approximately 11:00 pm. Both apps also informed me that there would be no moon in the sky to blot out the stars. From this, I had specific times and dates to make this happen! Both apps help you plan outdoor photography, showing you how light will fall on the subject for day or night in any location on earth. PhotoPills is an actual photographer’s planner which does the above but also helps you to calculate camera settings and much much more.

Winging it

There’s nothing like doing it “old school” and winging it. I love to explore during the day, hiking or driving around, serving sort of as a scouting mission. I’ve found many great places this way. And even more so, there’s nothing like going to a dark sky area and being in the moment, reacting to what makes you gasp with amazement. For locations like this, I love to choose generally inspiring areas. For me, since I am located in Southern California, those areas include the numerous National Parks in south Utah, Grand Canyon, Joshua Tree National Park, Salton Sea, White Mountains, and the Sierra Nevadas.

About the photo

This is the photo that I planned, which I’ve called “Door to Infinity”. As you can see, I achieve my vision, managing to create a photo looking up, the arch framing the magnificent Milky Way. I discovered why I had never seen a photo like this before. At night, it is terrifying to be perched on a ledge below this. You can slip and fall into a large rocky “bowl” or have your equipment slide down, ensuring certain ruin for either. I can safely say that although I am happy to have created the photo, I will never do that again.

I “light painted” the arch with a small Streamlight LED flashlight to keep it from appearing as a silhouette. I created this in June 2014, before the Park banned “light painting” at night. This was photographed with a Nikon D610 and a Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8G ED lens at 14mm. I used a 20 second exposure at f/2.8 with an ISO of 4000. It is a single exposure.

 

VISIT ME, VISIT ME!

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

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

PODCAST:
Behind the Shot video podcast – interview February 2020

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 to find the Milky Way

Short version

Northern Hemisphere: Wait until “Milky Way Season”, about April through October. Get away from light. Look south.
Southern Hemisphere: Wait until “Milky Way Season”, about April through October. Get away from light. Look high up.
Short and sweet. But should I end the article right here? Nahhhhh. Let’s keep moving!
“I see it! I see it!”

Longer version

When people talk about finding the Milky Way, they actual mean the galactic core of the Milky Way. Really, the Milky Way is visible throughout the year, whether we are in the Northern or Southern Hemisphere. After all, it’s our galaxy. It’s everywhere. But like everything else, we often speak this sort of “shorthand”.

Okay, fine, how can I see the galactic core of the Milky Way?

First, we need to find dark skies. The darker, the better. We need to get away from light pollution and even the moon. Oh, and clear skies helps too.

Milky Way Season

Night photographers often refer to the best time to view the galactic core as “Milky Way Season”. Most people prefer to photograph the galactic core because it’s denser, more complex, and has that “wow” factor.
In the Northern Hemisphere, “Milky Way Season” from about March or April to October. In the Southern Hemisphere, it’s flip-flopped, so it’s from about September to March. This is due to the way the earth spins on its axis, changing its angle the months go by.

What do I look for?

I was giving a night photography workshop several years ago. We were in some very clear dark skies in the Mojave Desert. After half an hour, one participant walked up and said, “I still don’t see the Milky Way. When will it come out?”
I replied, “It’s already out.”
“Oh really? I guess I don’t see it.”
I pointed, moving my hand back and forth around the Milky Way arcing overhead. “That’s the Milky Way right there.”
“Oh. My. Gosh. I thought those were CLOUDS!! That’s amazing! This is so exciting! This is the first time I’ve ever seen this! This is fantastic!” The person gave me a hug.
Yes, they can look like clouds. And yes, it is fantastic! And yes, it can provoke unadulterated joy.
In dark skies, the Milky Way appears like a hazy and, well, milky band arching across the night sky, in many parts too dense to make out individual stars.
In many photos, however, the Milky Way looks considerably more vivid than what we see with our own eyes. Why? Modern cameras are much more sensitive to dim starlight. Also, our eyes grow increasingly monochrome as light grows dimmer. Not so a camera. It can still “see” all the colors.

The galactic core

What people really want to see is the galactic core. This is the center of our galaxy. It looks denser and more complex, with more varying colors, because there is a greater concentration of stars as we look toward the middle of our galaxy. This has the most drama, and is what most night photographers seek to photograph.
In the Northern Hemisphere, the core is visible by looking Southeast or South, depending on what time of night. The core begins to be visible in the Southeast in March and April, South in July and August, and Southwest in September and October. During the course of the evening, if you are facing more or less south, it keeps drifting to the right due to the rotation of the earth.
In the Southern Hemisphere, the core is visible by also looking generally South, depending on what time of night. The core also begins to be visible in the Southeast in March and April, South and high up in the sky in July and August, and begins Southwest in September and October. However, it’s considerably higher in the sky than in the Northern Hemisphere.
In my opinion, given equally dark skies, the galactic core of the Milky Way is denser and more vivid in the Southern Hemisphere than what we see in the Northern Hemisphere. And due to the tilt of the earth, people there can also see more of the galactic core. Also, in the Southern Hemisphere, it is winter, often giving less humid skies and crisper stars.

Using apps

Apps can make things quite a bit easier. Using free or inexpensive  mobile apps such as Sky Guide, SkyView Lite or PhotoPills can make locating the Milky Way much easier. These can even show parts of the Milky Way that are still lower than the horizon and can show you where the Milky Way is going to move over time in the night sky. This can be useful for stargazing or planning one’s photos while incorporating the galactic core of the Milky Way. They can also show you if the moon is going to be out, and if so, when and where.

 

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 how-to night photography books

When I began exploring night photography, these following instructional books were inspirational and informative. That I still love reading them is a testament to how great they really are. The first two books, I purchased simultaneously. Although I knew quite a few night photography and light painting techniques already, these first two nonetheless had a profound impact on my philosophical and general approach to night photography.

Night Photography and Light Painting: Finding Your Way in the Dark (2nd edition) – Lance Keimig

Well-written and informative, this is a worthy second edition that seems largely re-written. The history of night photography is still there, and still absolutely fascinating. The book covers astro-landscape, long exposures in moonlight, star trails, light painting, light drawing, and post-processing for night photography with an emphasis on Lightroom, although the tips for post-processing can obviously be done in Photoshop, Lightroom, or other programs as well. Lance also includes other photographers and their images, their personalities and approaches adding to the book’s vibrancy overall. The book, even more than the first edition, offers a comprehensive look at the many facets of night photography, managing to cover it in one book. And yes, of course, the photos are mesmerizing, beautiful, fascinating, and gorgeously executed. It includes lots of scenarios and technical information about night photography. And that’s what we want, isn’t it?

Light Painted Night Photography: The “Lost America” Technique – Troy Paiva

This incredible e-book describes Troy Paiva’s pioneering, bold light painting techniques very clearly. Easy to follow and understand but very detailed. Although for the past several years, the author has used ProtoMachines, the book tells how the author created his eye-popping lighting effects with handheld flashlights and a speedlight. It discusses his general approach toward creating images and offers a lot of “real world” advice for beginners and veterans alike. The book has many photos with very readable captions describing the thought process and techniques behind the photos. It also discusses post-production techniques. Readable on any smartphone, tablet or computer, and at just $10, is a bargain. Unfortunately, it is more challenging for him to autograph it for you.

Night Photography: From Snapshots to Great Shots – Gabriel Biderman with Tim Cooper

A great introduction on night photography, including basic compositional approaches, camera settings, gear, and “walk-throughs” on how he achieve some of the images, which serve as beautiful illustrations throughout the book. Gabriel’s enthusiasm and encouragement shines through in the book. And like the first two books, this also offers settings and post-processing tips and techniques.

More books worth mentioning

All but the last book are not tutorials, but they are worth mentioning because they offer exquisite photos, which in themselves can teach quite a lot.

In the case of “Boneyard: SoCal’s Aircraft Graveyards At night” by Troy Paiva, each photo caption also offers the camera settings. There’s also a couple of pages describing his technique. The book is crammed full of amazing photos of abandoned airplanes in boneyards.

Also worth mentioning is “The Last Stand: Night Photography and Light Painting in the Mojave Desert” by Ron Pinkerton. More of a fine art museum book or coffee table book, the images always impress. His insightful, poetic writing make me wish there were even more of that.

“Cape Cod Nights: A Photographic Exploration of Cape Cod and the Islands After Dark” by Tim Little is a beautifully executed book of fascinating good night images from the Cape Cod region. I felt like I was being shown the area with a friend. The images are top notch, and showcase many facets of Cape Cod! 

This will look like I am mistakenly recommending the same book again. And that’s sort of true. “Night Photography and Light Painting: Finding Your Way in the Dark (1st edition) by Lance Keimig is an amazing book. I would describe it very similarly  as above except to mention that it has a slightly longer first chapter on the history of night photography. The second edition is approximately 3/4 rewritten, making them extremely complementary. The history section in either book is enthralling. I found the descriptions and considerations to be fascinating, and was especially interested in Carlos and Miguel Vargas, two brothers who operated a commercial photography studio Arequipa, Peru from 1912 to 1927 and made exquisite long exposure moonlight exposures with sophisticated, theatrical lighting from moonlight, lanterns, bonfires, flash powder, and street lamps.

 

VISIT ME, VISIT ME!

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

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

PODCAST:
Behind the Shot video podcast – interview February 2020

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