Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Hand-held Blue Hour Photography

Morning "Blue Hour" in Varenna, Italy - taken from a rocking boat on Lake Como ~ © Royce Bair
Canon 5D Mark III, EF24-70mm f/2.8L @ 28mm, f/2.8, 1/60 second, ISO 3200 (click to enlarge)
The Blue Hour is a period when the sun is between 4º and 6º degrees below the horizon. This period rarely lasts more than about 20-40 minutes (not an hour), depending on where you are in the world and the time of the year. This special twilight period happens both in the morning, before the sun rises, and after the sun sets. There are several apps that can calculate this period for you. My favorite is the BlueHourSite, where you can get the info for free (they also have an app for your smartphone). The special quality of the BH allows you to get the look of a night photo, but still have enough ambient light to see some shadow detail, like in the above photo I took two weeks ago in Italy. If your exposure is done correctly, street and building lights glow warmly against the dark blue sky, without blowing out, like they do in a late night scene.

Regular Blue Hour Shooting Recipe: Most Blue Hour photograph is done using a tripod and a medium-length time exposure. A typical recipe is to set your ISO to 100, and your White Balance to "Daylight", or about 5000ºK to 5500ºK (this helps to accentuate the bluish color of the sky and give the artificial lights a warmer, contrasting color. Use the Aperture Priority shooting mode, and set your aperture to a medium f-stop, i.e. f/8. Use your exposure compensate wheel to underexpose your image at a -1/3 to -2/3 stop Exposure Value (remember, you're trying to achieve a "night-time" look, so you have to fool your in-camera exposure meter a little). Let your camera pick the shutter speed. A typical shutter speed will come in at 2 to 15 seconds, depending on whether you are at the beginning or at the end of the Blue Hour. This formula works well for most landscape type subjects like the one below, or this Eiffel Tower photo:

Notre Dame Cathedral during the evening Blue Hour (camera mounted to a tripod) ~ © Royce Bair
Canon 5D Mark III, EF24-70mm f/2.8L @ 35mm, f/8, 10 seconds, ISO 100
But, what happens when you cannot use a tripod, like in the top photo, or when your subject is moving, like in this street scene I shot in Paris last month?

Rainy Night in Paris Street Scene (hand-held) ~ © Royce Bair (click to enlarge)
Canon 5D Mark III, EF24-70mm f/2.8L @ 68mm, f/2.8, 1/160 second, ISO 3200
Here's my Hand Held Recipe for Blue Hour Photography:
  1. White Balance: If you're shooting landscapes or cityscapes, like the top photo, stick with Daylight White Balance. If you're shooting street scenes, like the one above, set to Auto White Balance. Various light sources can be pretty bizarre —auto will help to average things out.
  2. Use the Aperture Priority shooting mode (experienced shooters may want to use the Manual Mode listed below).
  3. Shoot at your fastest (widest) aperture, i.e. f/2.8.
  4. In street scenes, use a wide angle lens where possible, and move in close to your subjects. Although wide angle lenses can distort, they can also produce greater perspective drama when you move in close to your subjects, or to a secondary foreground subject that draws attention to your main subject. Wide angle lenses also have greater depth of focus than normal or telephoto lenses.
  5. Higher ISO's. Use an ISO that is high enough to give you a relatively fast shutter. Shutter speed is the key to sharpness.* Try to achieve a shutter speed that is at least twice the focal length of your lens. For instance, if you are using a 24mm lens, a shutter speed of two times 24 (48) is a minimum. The nearest shutter speed to 48 is 60, or 1/60 of a second. A shutter speed of 1/125 would be even better (I can easily hold my camera steady at 1/60 when I concentrate, but not when I'm excited). A shutter speed of 1/125 will also help to stop the action of your subjects. So, 2X the focal length of your lens is the minimum, 4X is the preference.
  6. Use a lens with image stabilization, where possible. IS will often allow you to get hand-held shots at speeds that are one to two shutter speeds below what you can shoot without IS. This is especially helpful with normal and medium telephoto lenses. Keep in mind that IS will minimize hand-held camera shake, but it will have no effect on your subject's movement. If you are shooting people in the Blue Hour, you'll often need a shutter speed of 1/125 second or above.
*High ISO's and wide-open apertures (the smallest f-stop numbers) allow you to produce the highest shutter speeds. You may have been told that high ISO's are too noisy (gritty), and that wide-open apertures are the poorest setting for optical sharpness and depth of focus. Both are partly true. However, a fast shutter speed will allow something in your photo to be sharp (wherever you have your focus set). If you stop down your aperture and use a slower shutter speed, more will be in focus, but it will probably be blurry due to camera shake or subject movement. Raise your ISO and use a wider aperture in order to get the faster shutter speeds. High ISO noise can be corrected with software. There is no software fix for blurred images due to camera or subject movement!

Manual Exposure Mode: All of the combinations below will give you the same exposure. Use them as a starting point. The exposures combinations given are for midway through the Blue Hour (adjust your shutter speed or ISO as the Blue Hour progresses):
  • 100 ISO - f/8 - 4 seconds
  • 100 ISO - f/5.6 - 2 seconds
  • 100 ISO - f/4 - 1 second
  • 100 ISO - f/2.8 - 1/2 second
  • 200 ISO - f/2.8 - 1/4 second
  • 400 ISO - f/2.8 - 1/8 second
  • 800 ISO - f/2.8 - 1/15 second
  • 1600 ISO - f/2.8 - 1/30 second
  • 3200 ISO - f/2.8 - 1/60 second
  • 6400 ISO - f/2.8 - 1/125 second
Don't be afraid to use the higher ISO's. ISO's of 1600 to 6400 can produce remarkably low noise images with today's modern, APS-C and full-frame digital sensors (used in almost all DSLR's), especially with the latest software, i.e. Adobe Camera Raw (the noise reduction engine within Lightroom and as a plug-in for Photoshop) combined with Google/NIK's Dfine 2 for additional noise reduction.

A wide aperture (f/2.2) and a high ISO (1600) allowed me to shoot this spontaneous street action
(without a tripod) during a "Two Nights in Paris" workshop with Drake Busath, where I was the
guest instructor. Although the Depth of Focus at f2.2 (even with a wide angle lens) is limited,
what is in focus is tack sharp due to the fast, 1/250 second shutter speed.
This Paris street scene was shot after the BH, but it shows the effective use of a fast wide angle lens
and a high ISO of 1600. Shooting at f/2.2 with this 24mm lens (Canon EF24mm f/1.4L II) gives me
much more Depth of Focus than I'd get with a normal or medium telephoto lens. © Royce Bair
ENLARGED from above image: Wide angle lenses have great DOF, and modern digital sensors,
coupled with good noise reduction software allow one to use much higher ISO's than
our old film cameras or earlier digital cameras (click to enlarge). © Royce Bair

Use promo code "nightcape" to save 20% off premium stock photography at

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Paris at Night

A "blue hour" time exposure of the Eiffel Tower behind the fountains at the Trocadero Gardens ~ © Royce Bair
I just returned from three weeks in Europe, where I worked with Drake Busath as his guest instructor. This section of Drake's Italy Workshops & Village Tours included a week in the Loire Valley and Two Nights in Paris. Although Paris is too light polluted to do a starry night sky photo, I was looking forward to doing some Blue Hour shots, especially since this term originated in France.

The Blue Hour comes from a French expression (l'heure bleue), which refers to twilight, the period each morning and evening where there is neither full daylight nor complete darkness. The time is considered special because of the quality of the light at this time period.

In the above shot, we were about 20 minutes away from the best Blue Hour period, when the fountains (the Fontaine de Varsovie) and the 20 big water cannons started up. They stay on for about ten minutes, so were still about 10 minutes away from the peak of the Blue Hour when I took this shot —and they would not go on again until after the Blue Hour. Before the BH, the scene is too flat, and after the BH, the blackness of the night is too contrasty to see foreground detail or any color in the sky.

Although the timing on the above scene was not perfect, I was able to use a steep Photoshop "S" curve (in a"Curves" adjustment layer) to help simulate a more perfect Blue Hour. This curve also included clipping of the highlights on the right side of the histogram.

The original scene on the left was too flat because we were still about 10 minutes away from the best
Blue Hour period. By adding a steep "S" curve adjustment (that included some highlight clipping on the right
side of the histogram), I was able to obtain a more perfect Blue Hour image. ~ © Royce Bair (click to enlarge)
Use promo code "nightcape" to save 20% off premium stock photography at

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Light Pollution in Arches N.P.

A mid-September Milky Way slices through a light-painted Delicate Arch, Arches N.P. ~ © Royce Bair
Last week, I was in Arches National Park teaching a "NightScape" workshop. We had a great time, and the conditions couldn't have been more perfect. This wonderful national park has been luring me here for over thirty years. I just can't get enough of the unique sandstone sculptures —and its obvious with the increased automobile traffic and the growth of the nearby town of Moab, that many others feel the same way. It not surprising that the calm and secluded experiences I had three decades ago can no longer be enjoyed —we must learn to share theses geological wonders with many others, both day and night.

Lights from passing automobiles now makes it quite difficult to photography Balanced Rock at night, because it is so close to the main park road. Although Delicate Arch is about a mile and a half from the nearest road, light pollution from the nearby town of Moab, less than 12 miles away, now makes a considerable impact on the night sky behind the arch (compare the photo below, with the one above).

The night sky BEFORE darkening (in Photoshop) the area under arch. The town of Moab is 12 miles
away, just behind the center of the arch. ~ © Royce Bair

The first time I came to photographed Delicate Arch, thirty years ago, there were only a half-dozen people surrounding the arch at sunset. Last week (and each time I've gone in the past few years) there have been over 100 people! Night photographers should still not be too concerned though, as the crowds quickly disperse after sunset. Other than myself and my workshop participants, no more than two or three stay longer than two hours after sunset, and none more than three or four hours.

The "sunset" crowd behind me at Delicate Arch last week... ~ © Royce Bair
...and the crowd in front of me at Delicate Arch. Usually, less than two or three people hang around
for the stars to appear, so night photographers are left with few distractions other than increasing
light pollution from distant cars, air traffic in the sky, and the town of Moab, Utah. ~ © Royce Bair
Use promo code "nightcape" to save 20% off premium stock photography at

Friday, September 12, 2014

Gateway to Wall Street by Wayne Pinkston

"Gateway" to Wall Street, on the Navajo Loop Trail, in Bryce Canyon N.P. ~ © John Wayne Pinkston
Canon 6D, 15mm Sigma fisheye f/2.8, 30 sec. @ f/2.8, ISO 6400 — with light painting
"Seeking the Light", descending into Wall Street, Navajo Loop Trail, in Bryce Canyon N.P. ~ © John Wayne Pinkston
Canon 6D, 15mm Sigma fisheye f/2.8, 30 sec. @ f/2.8, ISO 6400 — with light painting (click to enlarge)
John Wayne Pinkston, or "Wayne", as he is known by his friends, recently made these photos in the early morning hours (about 2:00 AM) on August 30th, during a solo hike down Bryce Canyon's narrow "Wall Street", on the Navajo Loop Trail. Wayne had just finished one of my NightScape workshops in Bryce, and was anxious to put some of his knowledge to work.

Tools and Equipment: Wayne had already come prepared with several of the lights I recommend, along with some of his own improvisations. The "Gateway" arch was lighted from behind with an F&V Z96 LED Panel Light (with warming filter), and the canyon walls were lit with reflected light from a hand held Harbor Freight, Luminar Work, quartz halogen spotlight. To control stray light from his spotlight, Wayne used a rolled up plastic dinner placemat as a snoot! Even with the dimmer control at the Z96's lowest setting, the LED light was too bright coming through the arched tunnel, and Wayne again had to improvise.

"Subway napkins work really well. I had a pocket full of them. I wrapped two or three napkins around the light because it was too bright, and that worked well," quipped Wayne.

For "Seeking the Light", Wayne used two F&V Z96 LED's and a Chromo Inc. LED CI-160 (another dimmable panel light) spaced along the trail. All had their warming filters and diffusion attached, but he had to use an additional theatrical gel sheet on the CI-160 to make it match the two Z96's. (Editor's Note: a larger version of the CI-160, with 216 LED lights is also available: Chromo Inc. LED CI-216.)

The Process: In both photos, Wayne used camera White Balance settings of 3500º - 3600º K, respectively. This allowed him to more closely match his light painted earthly subjects, and give him a cooler night sky. He also used the WB Shift function in the Menu settings —selecting Blue +2 and Magenta +2, in an attempt to get the sky bluer rather than cyan.

The images were processed in Adobe Photoshop CS6. The adjustments were limited. In Adobe Camera RAW, Wayne increased contrast and performed noise reduction.  In Photoshop,
he selected the sky and canyon walls separately in the Adjustment Layers, and adjusted the contrast for each. He also slightly decreased the saturation of the walls, and slightly increased the saturation of the sky.

Challenges: In "Seeking the Light", Wayne's main challenge was getting uniform lighting on the walls. "I placed the three lights on the ground pointing straight upwards at approximately 20 yard intervals. I found that I had to do a lot of experimenting and adjusting to get them just right. Some lights had to be angled due to outcroppings of rocks. After about a half hour of playing with the lights, I felt they were adequate, and took a number of photos at different angles."

Satisfaction: "My motivation and inspiration for this type of photo came from viewing other photos online, [i.e. Cyclop Arch].  I was attracted to the perspective of looking straight up and viewing the Milky Way, because these give me the most sense of space and depth as well as your relationship to the towering walls. The viewpoint makes me feel small, and somehow makes the stars feel closer. It was my feeling that the fisheye lens was essential for the perspective."

"I was excited when I got under the camera (the screen was pointed down), and saw the images, realizing the set-up would succeed to some degree. Since I had not tried this before at night, I felt like a kid in elementary school that just got promoted!"

By profession, Wayne Pinkston is a Radiologist. Photography and radiology share many of the same principles as far as image capture, processing, and display.

"I look at images all day at work and then go on vacation and take more images. I became interested in photography in college, and that likely influenced me becoming interested in radiolgy. I had a long break from photography while my kids were growing up and rekindled the interest in the 1990's when we were able to travel to national parks as a family."

More of Wayne's photography can be seen at his website, Lightcrafter.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Ocean Lightning by Andre Kleynhans

Lightning strike over the ocean near Key West, Florida ~ © Andre Kleynhans
Nikon D800 • Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8 lens @ 24mm, f/3.2, 5 seconds, ISO 160
Andre Kleynhans of Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, captured these two spectacular lightning images at night from the 12th deck of a cruise ship, sailing out of Key West, Florida.

Lightning strike over the ocean near Key West, Florida ~ © Andre Kleynhans (click to enlarge)
Nikon D800 • Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 lens @ 70mm, f/2.8, 5 seconds, ISO 200
Both images were cropped slightly to Andre's taste. In the top image, he was trying to get the reflection across the water; and in the bottom image his goal was to dramatically fill the frame as much as possible.

Technique: Andre used a five-second exposure time in order to capture as many single lightning strikes as possible. The camera was set to fire continuously, until he had obtained the captures he desired. By keeping the shutter speed to only 5-seconds, Andre hoped to eliminate second lightning strikes within the same frame.

"I am aiming to catch only one lighting strike per exposure. If you leave it open for longer and you do get another lightning strike in the same exposure your 2nd strike will throw off your image due to the fact that the ship is constantly moving, so it will look like you have two images on top of each other, but not aligned —and you could not fix that in post," cautions Andre.

During hurricane season, one can find a lot of thunderstorms in the Caribbean. "The strong winds are usually more prominent along the railing of ship, [but] if you just move a couple of feet back you can escape the most of it," advises Andre.

Challenges: Standing on the open deck of a cruise ship leaves one at the mercy of the elements.

"You have heavy winds, lots of movement and rain that can come out of no where, as it is very dark out in the middle of the ocean. As long as you have a sturdy tripod, and you are set up in such a way that if the rain catches you by surprise, you can pick up your gear and make a run for cover. Make sure you are focused to infinity and try to shoot a little wider than the active part of the cloud; this way you can catch all the action. You can always crop a little bit in post," says Andre.

Tools: A steady tripod was essential. "When I took this image I was standing on deck 12 of the ship (in the front). It is entirely exposed to the wind, so I had to make sure I place my tripod in [a way] to try to avoid as much of the wind as possible. Taking these types of shots at 5 seconds does give you a bit of room to play. A soon as the lightning hits, your image is exposed and you just pretty much wait for the shutter to close again. Its so dark out there in the ocean it actually makes it an easy environment to shoot lightning," says Andre.

Andre used Adobe Lightroom to do the minimal adjustments that he did to the images.

Satisfaction: This was the first lighting storm Andre was able to shoot since upgrading to the Nikon D800, and his expectations were very high. "When I saw that first exposure on the LCD I did a little dance, because I knew that I captured a winner. The satisfaction came when I zoomed in and checked that it was tack sharp. This made standing out there in the 85-degree heat of the Caribbean worth the effort."

Andre Kleynhans was born in Pretoria, South Africa. Andre lived in South Africa until he was 25. After that, he started working on cruise ships, and has been on them now for over six years (he is currently a PADI Instructor). Having the opportunity to see the world ignited his interest in photography.

Andre had always loved taking his dad’s camera from him and being the one taking the family pictures. His career on cruise ships gave him the opportunity to invest in his first camera. Andre learn pretty much everything he knows about photography through self-studying, and is a big supporter of a website called CreativeLive.

Today, Andre shoots with a Nikon D800. He loves landscape photography —anything from sunsets/sunrises, seascapes, the moon or stars —if he has a nice dark evening. He also enjoys doing panoramas, and finds it very interesting to cut up a scene with the camera and recreate it in post production. More of Andre's photography can be found on his website.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Into the Night with Ben Coffman

"Dust Lanes" - taken in the Alvord Desert of Oregon ~ © Ben Coffman
Ben Coffman moved to Portland, Oregon with his family about four years ago. Even though he bought his first DSLR in 2003, it wasn't until he relocated to Oregon that he "quit goofing around", got serious about his digital photography, and started shooting the night sky.

"Phone Booth Selfie" - The
pay phone booth is the last
of a dying breed. When cell
phones don't have service,
the booth is there to lend a
helping hand, no matter
the hour — "as long as I
had correct change, that is.
...Farewell old friend!"
Ben's biggest challenge in photographing Dust Lanes was the pure remoteness of the Oregon "outback" location, which is of particular concern when one is bringing his entire family, including young children, on a road trip with him. "New tires on the car, a filled 5-gallon jug of water, and plenty of gasoline helped to reassure me that I wasn't endangering us all," says Ben.

"I was also a little nervous about camping in the middle of the desert. The weather forecast suggested a chance of rain, and I've heard horror stories about campers getting stuck out in the middle of the playa when the hard-packed dirt turns to sticky mud."

On this particular night, the skies clouded over during the blue hour, so Ben put away his camera and set his alarm for 2:00 AM, just so he could wake up and check to see if the skies had cleared. At the planned hour, he was thrilled to see a fairly clear sky. The playa, which is mostly white, glowed in the starlight. "What I couldn't see with my naked eye was a thin layer of atmospheric moisture that produced a gauzy, dreamy look to the stars.  ...Rather than fighting it in post-processing, ... I thought the softness fit well with the surreal feel of the landscape," says Coffman.

This photo is two exposures: One for the sky and one for the ground. RAW processing for both exposures took place in Lightroom 5, with blending and other adjustments (local contrast, saturation, sharpening) occurring in Photoshop CS6.

Getting it Right: When I asked Ben about the satisfaction he finds in completing a shot like Dust Lanes, he whipped, "Any satisfaction I would have gained from completing this photo was overshadowed by the amount of frustration involved in finally getting it right! This was actually my fourth full attempt at post-processing it — I have three other "finished" versions of this photo that will never see the light of day because I wasn't quite happy with the final result."

Dust Lanes is part of a larger series Coffman is working on this year, in which he is trying to capture more detailed versions of the night sky than what he had previously captured in his landscape astrophotography. He is trying to illustrate via his techniques that there's more beauty to the night sky than meets the naked eye. He is also trying to raise awareness for the conservation of our night skies (e.g., reducing light pollution via responsible lighting methods).

Ben Coffman shoots with a Canon camera and an assortment of manual lenses. When he is not shooting or "looking at the photos of one of the many, many talented photographers that live in this area", he enjoys coffee, training Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and hanging out with his family, but not necessarily in that order. More of Ben's photography can be found at his website.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Using HDR with NightScape Exposures

A "false" HDR exposure of the Milky Way stars reflecting in Oxbox Bend, Grand Teton N.P. ~ © Royce Bair
(Canon 5D Mark III, Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 @ f/2.0, 13 seconds, ISO 6400)
Exposure for sky
When doing my "NightScape" style of starry night landscape photography, I will often do a much longer second exposure (often at 4X longer) and blend the foreground portion with the original "sky" exposure. This enables me to give more detail to mountains, trees, and water features —otherwise, they are are usually just a silhouette against the night sky (like the image to the right).

Second Exposure Problems: Making a longer exposure second exposure is very time consuming because I usually turn on the camera's "Long Exposure Noise Reduction" feature which also takes a "black" exposure for the same amount of time, compares the two images, and cancels out the hot/noisy pixels in your final image. I gladly take this additional time for the increase in quality; however, images with water will also reflect cloud changes (between the exposures) and star movement in the longer, second exposure. Water automatically magnifies the brightest stars and diminishes the lesser stars. It also has a tendency to make each bright star produce a "long" reflection —similar to the way a rising moon reflects on the water. My longer (4X) second exposure greatly exaggerated those lengthy star reflections, causing them to look weird and out of character. To avoid this, and still get better foreground detail I turned to False HDR: False High Dynamic Range Imaging (sometimes called Fake HDR).

Standard HDR vs. False HDR: In regular HDR imaging, one takes at least three exposures: one at the normal exposure value, one at a +1.0 EV (or higher), and one at a -1.0 EV (or lower). These three images are blended, "fused", or tone-mapped together using HDR software, i.e. Photomatix —with the final image extending the dynamic range of the scene.

In False HDR, one manipulates the original exposure to obtain the other two exposure values. This is best accomplished using the Adobe Camera Raw Converter.

In the Adobe Camera Raw Converter, use the "Exposure" slider to obtain your 3 Exposure Values
Save one image at the neutral or "0.00" EV. Save the second image at the "+1.00" EV, and the
third image at the "-1.00" EV (16-bit RAW images can be converted to EV's up to +/- 2.00 stops).
Here are my three converted images: Normal exposure, +1.00 EV, and -1.00 EV.
These are saved as 16-bit TIF files.
HDR Processing: The above three exposure values were save as 16-bit TIF files and imported into Photomatix for HDR processing. I typically output a "Natural Fusion" image that just blends the three images and extends the dynamic range of the scene. I then output a tone-mapped version that gives additional local contrast, texture, and shadow detail. The Natural Fusion and tone-mapped versions are then blended using Photoshop's Adjustment Layers, varying the opacity of each layer to taste. Additional contrast is then applied to the final image via an S-curve to bring out the latent colors in the sky.