Saturday, August 8, 2020

Sony Alpha a7S III is THE Camera for Night Photography

High Sensitivity: "Bigger pixels are better" has long been the motto of the a7S series. The original Sony a7S, which was first introduced in April 2014, has always been Sony's "High Sensitivity" digital camera, with native ISO up to 102,400 and expanded ISO up to 409,600. This camera can literally see in the dark, which also makes live-view focusing much easier than any other camera!

The a7S has been highly regarded in professional video production work as the low-light leader, where it has been used in many famous movies and documentary films that required high quality (low noise) night scenes.
Bigger Pixels mean better nightscapes: Except for knowledgeable "nightscape" photographers, only a limited number of still photographers use the a7S series because its full-frame sensor has a modest resolution of only 12.2 megapixels (4240x2832). Those that use this camera for their astro-landscape images claimed that those large pixels are so clean and free of noise that their 12MP images often looked better than other cameras with twice the resolution, when both cameras were shot at the same high ISO's needed for starry night photography.

Most Anticipated Upgrade: The a7S Mark II followed less than 18 months later (Sept 2015) with only a few improvements, i.e. better autofocus and a larger LCD monitor, but the main upgrade was from 1080p to 4K video, which had just become the industry standard. Almost 5 years later, the Mark III is the Sony a7S series' most anticipated upgrade, and most experts feel it was well worth the wait.

Articulating Touchscreen
Optimized for Video — amazing still camera performance, too
: Although the new Sony Alpha a7S III is truly optimized for video, which is its primary application; the still photographer should consider its super fast autofocus performance, sharper viewfinder, articulating Touchscreen, improved noise reduction, wider dynamic range and better image stabilization — especially since the vast majority of still image uses today are for electronic media, not print.

Consider the new Mark III's fast 10 fps continuous shooting for up to 1000 consecutive raw frames and its 5-axis SteadyShot INSIDE sensor-shift image stabilization, which minimizes the appearance of camera shake by up to 5.5 stops. Combined with its increased low-noise sensitivity, and this new camera is capable of hand-held Milky Way photography! Imagine all the low-light night photography possibilities!

Watch this "Behind-The-Scenes" ~ Shot on a7S III

(Expected availability is Sept 24 at $3,498.00)

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Interview with Nightscape Photographer Marybeth Kiczenski

A tracked, pano-blend exposure in Zion National Park by Marybeth Kiczenski

I recently had a YouTube interview with nightscape photographer, Marybeth KiczenskiThis is my first installment in the "Your Photo Vision" series about how photographers discover their artistic strengths and hone their craft. Future YouTube videos will be behind-the-scenes introductions to some of our NightScaper Conference speakers, and will average about nine minutes in length. You can expect to see a new video at least once a month, so be sure to subscribe to my Royce Bair YouTube channel.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Lume Cube Panel MINI Review

Teasel Weed lit with a Lume Cube Panel MINI (@ 10% power) lighting the left side and a regular Lume Cube Panel (@ 5% power, but with cloth filters to reduce intensity) lighting the right side, with an out of focus Milky Way background.

Lume Cube sent me their new Lume Cube Panel MINI light a few weeks ago to review. It definitely is small! At 3.58 x 2.18 inches, it's only about the size of a credit card, and 0.45" thick. Weighing in at only 3 ounces, its less than half the weight of their original Lume Cube Panel and about one-half the size.

The Lume Cube Panel MINI's performance is what impressed me most. For such a small package, it puts out a lot of light. The specs say the 60 bi-color LEDs (30 @ 5600K and 30 @ 3200K) will put out 138 LUX @ 1 meter (although my light meter measurement came in slightly under that, at 120 LUX), which is a little more than one-third the output of its big brother, who comes in at 400 LUX (and my meter confirmed that), using 120 bi-color LEDs.

You might think that 138 LUX is not a lot for serious photography lighting, but in my specialty of Low Level Landscape Lighting, that's plenty of power for most of my work. For many years, I've used the F&V Z96 panel lights at 10% power (about 50 LUX) for landscape foreground features that average about 100 to 150 feet away. The Panel MINI can easily do the same at about 40% power, and with its ability to go down to as low as 1% power for close-distance accent lighting, this makes it a very versatile light for what I do. And, at only $59.95, the Lume Cube Panel MINI is almost one-third the price of the larger Lume Cube Panel ($149.95).

Out of the box, the Panel MINI has everything you need to get started: a slip-on silicon light softening diffuser, a USB-A to USB-C charging cable, a 1/4"/20 DSLR camera mount, and the MINI with a built-in rechargeable 1200mA Li-Polymer battery, housed in a strong aluminum body.

Using the Panel MINI in the field makes you appreciate its built-in intelligent LCD display features. Unlike most of the other panel lights I've used in the past, both the Panel MINI and the original Panel show you its available battery power and run time at any power setting.

Holding down the top power button on the side for 3-seconds turns on the light. Depressing the power button momentarily toggles between power/light intensity and the color temperature. A side wheel-lever (located between the "+" and "-") allows you to change the light intensity between 100% and 1%, in 5% increments. When the light brightness is set to 100%, the run time on a fully charged battery is 1.2 hours, 50% brightness run time is 2.2 hours, 20% brightness is 5.0 hours (shown), and 1% brightness (great for reading in your tent) is 18 hours!  Full recharge time is 1.8 hours. Color Temperature is adjustable by the same side wheel-lever from 5600K to 3200K in 100K unit increments. Depressing the top power button for 3-seconds turns off the panel light.

Mounted or hand-held: I found a lot light painting uses for the Panel MINI, just using the unit in my hand (more examples later this week...). However, most will want to mount the panel in the horizontal or vertical position, using one of the two 1/4" 20 tripod threaded mounting holes. Mounting the panel to the top of your DSLR is easy with the included 1/4"/20 camera mount. This simple setup allows for quick, on-the-move portrait fill lighting, whether you're doing stills or video. For more serious portrait or product lighting, you can use those same threaded mounting holes to secure the panel to a tripod or light stand (that has a male 1/4"/20 threaded screw). For additional light adjustability, you may wish to consider Lume Cube's ball head camera and light stand adapter.

Video Conferencing Light: Many are also using the Panel Mini as a video conferencing light when working remotely. You can purchase the suction cup mount separately to attach to your computer laptop or monitor, or as a package with the Panel MINI.


The top image in this foot bridge scene is an evening twilight exposure of 30 seconds, f/8, ISO 320. In the bottom image, just a few minutes later, there's a campfire at the end of the path, and I've walked through the bridge, holding my Panel MINI. I did this about a dozen times, until I got the perfect image. As the twilight began to darken and change color temperature, I had to increase my ISO and change my color temperature. The beauty of the Panel MINI is that I was able to quickly make adjustments to my light in order to naturally match my camera settings.

"Pixie Dust Trail" ~ Both of the images above are 50-second exposures. The top image was taken during the Blue Hour twilight. The bottom image is a blend of that image and this 50-second light painted image, taken about 20 minutes later. During this exposure, I walked the trail holding a Panel MINI that was in a homemade "lamp shade." My lamp shade was made using a styrofoam faucet protector, but you could also use an empty steel soup can. Raising and lowering the lamp shade will change the size of the light coverage. The following photos illustrate how my shade was made and used.

Bokeh Magic: My final photo comparison was to do some street photography, "portrait" style. I employed a technique many cinematographers use: a very "fast," large aperture, medium telephoto lens for an amazing bokeh effect. I used my inexpensive 85mm Rokinon f/1.4 lens (which also has great coma correction for star photography). It's inexpensive because it has no auto focus (true cinematographers often use the cine version of this lens, because it has geared focus). Canon and Nikon versions of this lens have auto focus, but you'll pay about five times the price. Either way, the out of focus highlights you get in the background are truly magical! You can get nice bokeh by shooting wide open with an f/2.8 lens, but the out of focus highlights at f/1.4 are about twice as large and dreamy.

Focusing wide open, with an f/1.4 aperture can be a little tricky at first, even with auto focus. Your depth of focus at portrait distances is often only about a 1/4 inch! Focus on the eyes and the end of the eyelashes are starting to go out of focus. If the head is turned too much, one eye will be considerably out of focus. Despite these challenges, the flattering effect it has on the face is extraordinary, and worth the effort.

Panel MINI portrait lighting: Combine bokeh magic with portrait-style lighting from the Panel MINI, and you have an amazing combination! The only difference between the two photos below is that the bottom image has lighting from the Lume Cube Panel MINI. I've placed the MINI only about 3 feet to my left (to the right of the model), and I've used the silicon diffuser that comes with the unit to soften the light. I was able to dial down the power to 20% and adjust the color temperature to balance with the existing street lighting in this downtown shopping center. EXIF for both images: f/1.4, 1/160 second, ISO 1600 • Rokinon 85mm f/1.4 lens on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III • hand held, manual focus.

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

MSM 2-in-1 Star Tracker Review

"Head on Collision with the Milky Way" ~ a tracked and blended exposure, taken on a lonely road near Buhl, Idaho. The sky portion is a two-minute exposure, tracked with the MOVE-SHOOT-MOVE 2-in-1 Star Tracker. The highway was a separate, blended exposure taken during the morning twilight. The car headlights were one of three lucky occurrences that happened near 4:00 that morning!

MOVE-SHOOT-MOVE is a compact star tracker that also doubles as a time-lapse rotator. I have friends who have bought star trackers and have never used them to take a photo, because they were too complicated to set up! And these are intelligent people. The Move-Shoot-Move is the most compact and easy to set up star tracker I have ever used. From the time I placed it on my tripod to finished alignment was only about two minutes, and within a couple more minutes I was shooting tracked images of the stars. Now I discover it can do time-lapse movements as well! That will be my next outing—however this review will be mainly about its star tracking features.

The MSM Tracker/Rotator is only 3.875 x 3.125 x 1.375 inches (9.84 x 7.94 x 3.49 cm). Weight is only 1.01 pounds (450 g). It's simple 2-button design controls Northern and Southern Hemisphere rotations, full and 1/2 tracking speeds, and four choices of time-lapse movement speeds. Power is supplied by an internal lithium-ion battery that is non-interchangeable, but is rechargeable via a supplied USB cable. Although they claim over 5 hours of runtime, I was only able to get a little over of 2 hours of use during the colder winter months (before a blinking red light indicated the battery was getting low), which is quite typical of li-ion batteries under cold conditions.

Limitations: The MSM has a maximum load capacity of 6.6 pounds (3 kg), which compares to the popular iOptron SkyTracker Pro and my first tracker, the Vixen Polarie Star Tracker. If you need a tracker that can carry heavier loads and has more available counter balance accessories, I'd recommend the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer, with its 11 pound payload capacity—however, be prepared for a more intimidating set up (my first experience took me over half an hour).

Here's my personal set-up, using the MSM 2-in1 Tracker/Rotator. I used my own MeFoto ballhead, but MSM's basic "Starter Kit" comes with a similar ballhead (actually better quality than my MeFoto Q1) and a laser Star Pointer for $310.00 (current sale price is $239.98). Although you may already have a ballhead lying around like I did, I strongly recommend going with the "Starter Kit" option because these orders are shipped from a U.S. warehouse, and only take about 4 days to get to most continental U.S. locations. Other kit options ship directly from the factory in China and my first order took over two weeks to arrive to my Utah address.

My same set-up viewed from a different angle. The green laser Star Pointer (included with the "Starter Kit") attaches to the MSM unit via a nylon thumb screw and the laser slides into the laser holder, which is secured by another nylon thumb screw. The tripod ballhead is released and the MSM, with the attached laser, are then pointed at Polaris (the North Star), which properly aligns the system (often in less than 30 seconds)! The camera is then attached to the MSM's ballhead via its quick release and pointed towards the Milky Way or a star constellation. The whole process only takes a few minutes.

The green laser Star Pointer makes alignment a quick and uncomplicated process. I found the alignment accuracy to be very good when using any wide angle lens, and even accurate for a normal 50mm lens. My 85mm started to show slight star movement on exposures over 3 minutes, so I'd recommend MSM's optional Polar Scope ($79.98) when using telephoto lenses.

Dim laser beam problem: The Star Pointer comes with a rechargeable li-ion battery and USB charger. I found the brightness of the green laser beam diminished significantly on cold nights. However, by removing the li-ion battery and warming it in my hand or pocket for just a few minutes brought the brightness back to normal strength.

If you live in Australia, I'd suggest you order with the Polar Scope option (Basic Kit A), because laser pointers are not allowed in your country. In fact, anyone living in the Southern Hemisphere might want to use this option. If you travel a lot, you may wish to get both the Star Pointer and the Polar Scope (Basic Kit C).

Comparing Quality: Here's an enlargement from the top image, showing the Rho Ophiuchi cloud complex area. I'm comparing the same area exposed with the tracker off, using a 30-second exposure (click to enlarge for detail). Note how the longer, tracked exposure allows for lower ISO settings, reducing noise and improving detail. Even longer tracked exposures will allow one to stop down the aperture to also reduce lens aberrations. (This 24mm f/1.4 lens gets about a 65% reduction in chromatic and coma aberration when stopped down to f/2.8. At f/4.0, it would lose about 85% of its coma and chromatic problems.)

In this 200% enlargement comparison, you can see that even at 15 seconds, there is some star movement, although it probably wouldn't be too noticeable until one made a print larger than 16x20 inches. What is very noticeable, even in smaller prints, is the huge increase in the number of stars that tracking picks up, and the increase in tonal range (bit-depth) due to the lower ISO's and the light gathering power that a tracker allows your sensor to capture.

How does tracking compare with stacking? I often refer to stacking as the "poor man's answer to tracking." Quickly shooting about 7 to 15 exposures to stack later (with Starry Landscape Stacker or Sequator) will significantly reduce your digital noise, but it won't increase the detail (including the number of smaller stars you'll pick up) and tonal range nearly as much as tracking will.

Orion's Belt and the Orion Nebula ~ a 2 minute exposure without and with tracking (using an 85mm lens).

Pros & Cons: I love the MSM's simple, modular design and its ability to add accessories when needed. I use the laser Star Pointer for most of my tracked shots, and I rarely need the accuracy of the Polar Scope—but it's nice to have it when needed. Ever since I got this tracker, I've been shooting a lot more tracked shot, because it's much easier to set up than any tracker I've ever used. I can't wait wait to start using the time-lapse movement features! My only con is its 6.6 pounds limitation on load capacity, which has never been a limitation for the equipment I use, but might be for some who would want to use a big telephoto lens.

In Conclusion: I think Chris Cook, a MSM owner from Sydney, Australia summed it up best: "The biggest difference I’ve found is the colours which are brought out with longer exposures. A stack of 10 or more photos at 3200 or 6400 [ISO] at 10-15 secs [each] looks great; but, when compared to a single shot at 640 [ISO] for 150 secs, there is no comparison. The star colours are amazing and the nebula are much more noticeable."

Time-lapse Movement Feature: The MSM is a 2-in-1 product that also has four movement speeds to its rotator. This allows for several time-lapse options. MSM offers several tutorials on this, including YouTube videos.

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Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Learn Milky Way NightScape photography

Milky Way 'nightscape' photography over
Palouse Falls ~ single exposure by Royce Bair.

Most of these starry nightscape photos,
by Royce Bair, are single exposures

Here are Four Ways to Learn Milky Way NightScape Photography...

“Two Rivers” ~ The Dark River (a.k.a.
The Great Rift in the Milky Way) rising
over Colorado River in Grand Canyon. 

1. Free: Follow this blog - Royce Bair's Into The Night Photography. There are hundreds of How-To articles here. Popular articles include: How to Shoot the Milky Way • Post Processing NightScapes • NightScapes in the Grand Canyon • Creating Natural NightScapes Podcast interview with Royce • Overcoming Lens Coma • Video Hangout with my Friends.

Top 12 night photos featured last year on
Royce Bair's NightScaper Instagram account

2. Free: Follow Royce Bair's NightScaper Instagram account and his NightScaper Facebook group. Both of these galleries showcase some of the best Milky Way and night sky astro-landscape photographers in the world. Many of the images featured also give behind-the-scenes information on how the images were taken, including technique and EXIF. Royce's Instagram account has over 300,000 followers, and the NightScaper Facebook group has over 25,000 members.

3. Read Royce Bair's Milky Way NightScapes eBook. This book is considered the "Bible" for astro-landscape photography by thousands of photographers, world-wide! Get 25% off when you use discount code TWAN at checkout!

4. Attend the NightScaper Conference. Over 32 top speakers from four countries will instruct you on dozens of nightscape photography techniques and skills (here's a sample presentation by one our 2020 speakers and a presentation from one of our 2019 conference speakers). You'll be able to network with 300 like-minded photographers for 3 days, and go out and shoot at night in one of the least light-polluted areas in the world, that is close to 3 national parks and 3 national monuments.

NOTE: THIS CONFERENCE HAS BEEN POSTPONED until May 10-12, 2021 due to COVID-19 restrictions. New information coming in June 2020.

DISCOUNTS - Get $100 to $200 off your conference registration: Use discount coupon code ROYCE100 at checkout for $100 off your conference registration. You can also use discount coupon code 4SURE200 at checkout for $200 off your conference registration (there are no refunds using this discount code).

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Youth Scholarship Program - 2020 NightScaper Conference

2020 NightScaper Conference Youth Scholarship Program: Up to three* youth will be selected by our conference scholarship board (made up of selected conference speakers) to review Youth Scholarship applications. Scholarship awards will be announced on or before March 21, 2020.

Scholarship Award: Those chosen to receive these scholarships will receive up to $2,000.00 (but no less than $1,000.00) to cover travel expenses to the conference (for the youth and their legal guardian). Monies for this scholarship program come from our "Youth Scholarship Sponsors" and the "Pledge $20 or more" personal pledges listed in our 2020 NightScaper Conference Kickstarter project. Tuition/registration to the conference is donated by the conference and is included with the scholarship (any legal guardian who has purchased a Youth Mentoring Conference Ticket will have that fee or pledge refunded to them, should their youth be awarded a scholarship).

Youth scholarship applicants who are awarded a scholarship, will be given free registration to the 2020 NightScaper Conference for themselves and a legal guardian, who will be required to attend the conference with the youth. One-half of the travel expenses award will be given to the scholarship recipient prior to the conference, and the other half of the travel expenses award will be given to the recipient upon completion of the conference.

Youth Scholarship Application: Please download, complete and submit this application to on or before March 7, 2020. Youth applicants must be less than 18 years of age on November 1, 2019 to be eligible for this scholarship. (We prefer that you scan your completed application and email it as a PDF; however, taking a cell phone photo of your completed application is also acceptable. NOTE: To protect the youth applicant's privacy, we suggest that all email correspondence be done through the minor's legal guardian.)

The 2020 NightScaper Conference is directed by Royce Bair, president of Stock Solution, Inc., a Utah corporation, located in West Jordan, Utah. Programs taken at the conference do not provide credit at any college or university, and are only for the enjoyment of learning.

*If more than $6,000.00 in scholarship funding is received by March 3, 2020, we may increase the number of scholarships awarded, or carry the remainder of the funds over to the next conference year. If less than $6,000.00 is received by the above date, we will divide the funds according to need; however, each scholarship recipient will receive at least $1,000.00 for travel expense to the conference.

Monday, January 13, 2020

A Podcast Conversation with Royce Bair on F-Stop Collaborate and Listen

A Conversation with Royce Bair on the F-Stop Collaborate and Listen PODCAST - January 15, 2020.

Just a few of the topics discussed are:

  • How to make your nightscapes more creative
  • Learning how to say "no"—means saying "yes" to what you really want!
  • Nightscape ethics and artificial lighting

A Milky Way nightscape of Rainbow Bridge mixed with moonlight ~ © Royce Bair