Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Finding the Milky Way with Sky Guide

Knowing when and where the Milky Way would appear over this alpine lake was easy with the Sky Guide app.
Sky Guide makes it easy for astro-landscape photographers to know in advance when and where the Milky Way will appear over any landscape feature in the world. Sky Guide is a star and constellation guide app designed for both iPhone and iPad (not available for Android).

Compared to Stellarium: For the last two years I have used and recommended the free, open-source, planetarium desktop program, Stellarium. Why? Because Stellarium can look into the future and tell you where the stars and the Milky Way will be positioned on any day, and at any location on the earth. There are dozens of star reference apps out there, but very few can do predictions.

Despite Stellarium's lofty position with many astronomers, It's a love-hate relationship for some. It's a program designed by geeks, for geeks. Although Stellarium is very accurate, it's anything but user friendly. Sky Guide is less exact, but it is elegant and fun to use.

A Stellarium screen capture where the latitude and longitude grids were applied to help better define positions.
Sky Guide only shows the eight major compass headings (i.e. N, NE, E), but images are very elegant and realistic.
Both Sky Guide and Stellarium use preference settings to display or remove mythology or folklore. 
Stellarium is plain vanilla compared to Sky Guide's more realistic displays —which were developed from over 37,000 actual photographs of the night sky! However, when you need super accurate predictions of the Milky Way's alignment with landscape objects, Stellarium will allow you to drop in a grid (placed every 10º); whereas, Sky Guide only displays eight compass headings —requiring you to interpolate within the 45 degrees between each heading.

Sky Guide Features: I was impressed that Sky Guide functioned with or without a Wi-Fi, data, or GPS signal, as I was able to use it in true wilderness conditions, and it worked flawlessly. I loved the visuals in this star app. With the high-resolution photographs in this app you’ll see millions of stars—not just a few thousand simulated points. You can also control the intensity of star light with HDR brightness gestures to dial in your local viewing conditions. Here is a list of features:
  • Rich content: Generous amounts of stunning graphics, original artwork, and detailed articles. 
  • Soundscape: Designed by Mat Jarvis, the most featured composer in the award-winning soundtrack for the game Osmos. Stars have sounds based on their temperature and size.
  • Useful anywhere: Works with or without a GPS or data signal. Built-in access to hundreds of articles no matter where you are.
  • Time controls: Know where objects will appear in the future with cinematic time-lapse effects.
  • New as of vesrion 3.2: Filter: X-ray the sky and explore invisible wonders. More languages! French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Japanese, Korean, Chinese (Traditional) and Chinese (Simplified).
  • HDR brightness gestures: Dynamically control how bright the sky is to match how many stars you can see under light-polluted skies.
  • Red night mode: Preserve your dark-adapted eyesight.
Most Important Features to the Astro-landscape Photographer: I think Sky Guide's best features are its Time Controls: giving you the ability to see where objects like the Milky Way will appear in the future —and with very cool cinematic time-lapse effects!

Time Controls Demo: The best way for you to appreciate this great feature is for me to demonstrate how Sky Guide helped me plan for the photo at the top of this post. Here is an iPhone panorama I took of the area the day before:

A 180º iPhone panorama of a small alpine lake in Utah's High Uintas.
Cropped version of the above image: My plan was to photograph the Milky Way in a near vertical
position, just slightly to the left of center. I knew from previous experience that the MW would
be in the southern part of the sky in the late evening, but I didn't know exactly when or where.
This is where Sky Guide comes in...
Top middle "Compass" button lets
Sky Guide use your current location
My iPhone compass indicated that the area where I would like to have the Milky Way appear in my photo was at a heading of 210º —only about 15º to the left of a SW heading (225º). The big question was what time of night would the Milky Way be in that position, and how would it appear in the sky? I was hoping for a more vertical MW for the ultra wide angle, vertical composition I had planned (using a 14mm lens, with a 114º angle of coverage).

It was currently about two hours before sunset. Using Sky Guide on my iPhone, I touched the "Compass" button at the top of the screen. This allows SG to use my current position and show me what the sky looks like right now, both above and below the horizon. By swiping up, with my finger, from the bottom edge, I am able to get SG to reveal the Time Center at the bottom of the screen.

It's currently 6:48 PM —about two hours before sunset. With the iPhone (an older 4s model) facing
between the East and SE, I can see that the Central Bulge of the Milky Way is still below the
horizon, and lying in a horizontal position to the horizon. By swiping up from the bottom
edge of the screen I have activated the Time Center and I'm ready to do
some serious time travel. Let the fun begin!
Although Sky Guide's mythology or folklore is helpful in locating the star constellations, I decide to turn this and the "Labels" feature off, in order to see an uncluttered view of the night sky. This is quickly accomplished via the Menu > Preferences.

Now the magic begins. With the Time Center activated at the bottom of the screen, I touch the fast forward button (double arrows on the right). Your first tap give you real time, "1x" forward speed. A second tap gives you "10x" forward speed. A third tap equals "100x". A fourth tap = 1000x, and so on. Now, the sky is really moving in a time-lapse, cinematic fashion! At about 11:15 PM I tap the pause button to review the sky...

(I've rotated my iPhone to the horizontal positions for a wider view of the horizon, and turned off
the mythology and label.) With the Time Center fast forwarding @ 1000x, it only takes about
14 seconds to time-lapse from 6:48 PM to 11:15 PM! The Milky Way has rotated during
this time from a near horizontal position to about a more diagonal position, with the
Central Bulge high in the sky, and in a near South heading.
I again use the Time Center's fast forward button to go forward @ 1000x until the Milky Way is in a near vertical position. To my joy, it is also positioned just before the SW compass heading, or about 210º! The Time Center tells me the time in the future will be about 2:44 AM for this shoot.

Fast forwarding (@ 1000x) until the Milky Way reaches a near vertical position, I tap the pause button
and check the MW's position and date in the future: Just left of the SW (225º) heading and
2:44 AM in the future (early tomorrow morning).
I then rotate my iPhone back to a vertical position and move it around until I get the composition I like. With this snapshot into the future, I have a good idea as to when and where I will take my real NightScape early the next morning.

Compare this Sky Guide "into-the-future" composition with the final NightScape I shot (at the top of the
page) —taken at 2:42 AM. The differences: My atmospheric conditions were somewhat different, with
airglow and a little light pollution on the right side (coming from Salt Lake City, about 60 miles away,
"as the crow flies"). My final shot is with a wider angle lens (a 14mm with 114º angle of view). The
other differences are the reflection in the lake and the tree line above the horizon that obscures
part of the Milky Way and the large star, Antares.
Planning for other Locations: Like Stellarium, Sky Guide can also help you see into the future at locations that are not your "Current Location". Go to Menu > Location and choose the "Manual Location" option. You will be presented with a list of countries in the world. Touch the country you want, and you'll get a list of major cities in that country. Choose the city closest to the location you want to plan around, and the coordinates will appear right under the "Manual Location" heading.

Limitations: I only wish Sky Guide would also allow you to put in your own coordinates, rather than choosing a city closest to your destination. In the example to the right, I had to choose "Salt Lake City, UT", which was about 60 miles from my alpine lake location —other smaller cities and town that were much closer, were not on SG's list. (Keep in mind that being 60 miles off from the actual location will only affect your positioning of the Milky Way by about two or three degrees and less than five or six minutes off in timing.)

Other Time Control Adjustments: If your next NightScape photo shoot is months into the future, you can also use the Menu > Time & Date and choose the "Select Time" feature. This will get you closer to your date, and then you can use the Time Center fast forward controls. I've also used this feature to go back in time to help me identify a star or constellation in one of my photos.

Conclusion: Pros: For only $1.99, Sky Guide is a steal! It is truly elegant, and easy to use. The "Time Controls" place this app's usefulness way beyond other products for the astro-landscape photographer (and for photographers, no other product, with their "simulated" stars will do once you've used SG)! Cons: Although the ability to manually set your location via a country and city list is a great option, having the ability to manually set your own coordinates would have been even better. And, having the ability to drop in a grid of longitude and latitude would increase location accuracy, but I understand the limitations of a small screen, so I'll not complain too loudly on this one.

Sky Guide is available through the iTunes Store for $1.99. It has a 5 out of 5 star rating on both the current (3.2) version (1200+ ratings) and all previous versions (8600+ ratings).

Android Version? Sky Guide is not currently available as an Android app. The closest thing I can suggest is SkySafari ($2.99).

Royce's 2014 Workshop, Lecture & Video Conference Schedule: NightScapeEvents.com

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Edge Of Perception by Michael Shainblum

"The Edge of Perception" - an illustrative Milky Way photograph by Michael Shainblum (click to enlarge)
Michael Shainblum recently took our Photo of the Week at one of his favorite spots in California —along the Armour Ranch Road in Santa Ynez. Michael loves the rolling hills with the giant oak trees, as they make for awesome foregrounds with the Milky Way. The bright spots on the horizon are not the sun setting, but actually light pollution from Los Angeles county —proving that the distant glow from city lights can be a wonderfully illustrative tool in the right hands!

Technical Stuff: Michael used a Canon EOS 6D. The Milky Way was tracked for 60 seconds using a Vixen Polarie, and then brought into another 60 seconds land exposure, with the tracking off. This helps to produce and cleaner (lower noise) and sharper look. The post processing was made to retain all the true color spectrum of the Milky Way "without being too jarring or too contrasty".

Challenges: "It was annoying because [jet] contrails kept appearing in the sky and they were too big to be photoshopped out so I sat out there for an hour just to wait for the contrails to dissipate," says Michael.

Michael Shainblum
Satisfaction: "My main goal was to show a surreal, yet realistic scene. The name 'The Edge Of Perception' came from starring at the image on me screen blankly for an hour. I finally started thinking some of these images really do capture the unknown and the almost intangible. These Milky Way images really do fall on the edge of our perception and of our reality," reports Michael.

Michael Shainblum is from San Diego, California. He graduated from Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, and now lives in San Francisco. More of Michael's work can be seen on his website. He also teaches workshops for photography and timelapse via Skype.

Royce's 2014 Workshop, Lecture & Video Conference Schedule: NightScapeEvents.com

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 Review

The Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 compared to the Canon EF24mm f/1.4 on the right ($550 vs. $1750)
The Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 ED AS UMC Wide-Angle Lens is hybrid aspherical that is particularly suitable for astro-landscape photography because of its excellent correction for coma aberration, even when used wide open.

Although I have long recommended this and two other lenses made by the Samyang Optics, I have recently received several email messages from prospective buyers, worried about negative reviews they have seen about this lens. This lens is not for general use. It is a totally manual lens —no electronic linkage to the camera, whatsoever. Despite this, it is well suited for astro photography.

Advantages of a f/1.4 Aperture: I have several lenses that I use for astro-landscapes. All but the Rokinon 24mm lens have f/2.8 as their widest aperture. The Rokinon 24mm's f/1.4 provides several nice options.

  • Using f/1.4 allows you to lower your ISO, or...
  • Shorten your exposure time (to reduce star trailing), or...
  • Do both: reduce ISO and shorten your exposure time, or you can...
  • Stop down to f/2.0 to increase sharpness and reduce lens vignetting

A typical exposure with the an ultra wide angle lens is f/2.8 for 25 to 30 seconds @ ISO 6400. With the 24mm f/1.4 you could go f/1.4 @ for 25 to 30 seconds @ ISO 1600. However, because of it's longer focal length, you'll get less star movement by going 13 to 15 seconds @ ISO 3200. And if you've got a good low-noise camera sensor, you won't mind going to ISO 6400 and closing down to f/2.0 for the increase in depth of field (for close foreground objects) and significantly reducing the lens' vignetting (see "My Personal Preferences", below).

Comparison: Let me share a comparison I did with my $1,750 Canon EF24mm f/1.4L II USM and the $550 Rokinon 24mm f/1.4. (The Rokinon is also branded as a Samyang or Bower. They are all the same lens, made by Samyang Optics.) The following test photos were taken about 15 miles away from Salt Lake City, at the Brighton Ski Resort. Being this close to SLC, the skies are still polluted with light from the valley below, but for a 30-minute drive, it still allows one to record the medium to bright stars.

Night Ski above Brighton Ski Resort ~ Taken with the Canon EF24mm f/1.4 @ f/2.8
(This lens must be stopped down to at least f/2.8 in order to correct its coma aberration.)
At f/2.8, the Canon performed slightly better than the Rokinon, but at f/1.4 and f/2.0,
the Rokinon out-performed the Canon in sharpness and coma correction.
The following images are directly from the camera JPEGs with no post-processing correction for white balance, noise, or lens vignetting:

Full-Frame comparisons: The color rendition of the Rokinon is slightly different from the Canon,
but the most significant difference is lens vignetting. For the extra $1,200 you pay for the
Canon lens, you get about one-stop less lens vignetting in the corners. However, this
can easily be corrected in the Adobe Raw Converter software. (Click to enlarge)
Center enlargements @ 100%: Neither lens exhibits coma in the center, but the Canon is slightly
less sharp and has a touch more color fringing (click to enlarge).
Edge enlargements @ 100%: The Rokinon exhibits about 1/2-stop fall-off on the edges, and about
1-stop fall-off in the corners compared to the Canon. Sharpness is about the same.  However,
the big difference is coma. Canon's coma in the edges and corners is so bad, it's off the chart;
whereas the Rokinon exhibits only minor coma aberration, albeit some color fringing.
(Click to enlarge. Note: the "stick" in the sky is a snow marker for snow plows.)
Manual Focus: the Rokinon is manual everything, including focus —which is not a problem, since auto
focus doesn't work in the dark, anyway! As with any lens used for starry night photography, I find it
a good idea to focus on an "infinity" object (i.e. a tree on the horizon, about 200+ feet away) during
the daytime. I use the camera's "live view" function and magnify my image 10X on the LCD
screen. I've marked that position with a green dot on the lens focusing ring (green turns
black under red headlamp light). The red dot is this lens' 50 feet mark.
Angle of view: About half of my NightScapes are taken with a 14mm (114º angle of view), and the other
half with the 24mm's 84º angle of view. You can capture more of the sky with the 14mm, but when
I want to emphasis the beauty and drama of the Milky Way's Central Bulge, the 24mm is a
perfect fit!  ~ Alabama Hills with the 24mm Rokinon, @ f/2.0, 13", ISO 6400.
My personal Preferences: About 80% of my Rokinon 24mm shooting is done at f/2.0. I prefer to stop down for a little extra sharpness, better depth of field for foreground objects, and a significant reduction in lens vignetting (even though this can be corrected in software, you do run the risk of color cross-overs in your corners, which can also be corrected, but it is an extra post-processing hassle that I'll discuss in another blog post, someday). My typical exposure with my Canon 5D Mark III is f2.0, for 13 seconds @ ISO 6400. This short exposure produces extremely sharp and almost perfectly round stars. Even a two second increase to 15 seconds can sometime produce elliptical-shaped stars, and a 20-seconds exposure is almost sure to have some significant star movement. Mind you, this movement is only noticeable in large prints of 20x30 inches or larger —but that's the kind of quality I'm shooting for.

Conclusion: I find the Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 lens offers great performance, especially when one considers the price. The advantage of having an f/1.4 aperture in your arsenal of lenses provides many options that other lenses don't offer.

Pro: Low price. Good sharpness. Excellent coma corrections. Fast, f/1.4 aperture. Good construction. Cons: Significant lens vignetting, but this can be mostly corrected with software. Many non-critical (low-tolerance) components are made of plastic to reduce cost. This does not affect performance, but can affect long-term durability in rough environments and handling. Manual everything: Manual focus, manual aperture, and no electronic coupling to your camera body (no EXIF info can be transmitted to the image file).

The Rokinon 24mm is available through B&H in the Canon mount, Nikon mount, and Sony mount. Note: The Nikon mount includes an electronic focus confirmation and auto aperture chip that adds about $50 to the price.

Royce's 2014 
Workshop, Lecture & Video Conference Schedule: NightScapeEvents.com

Monday, June 16, 2014

Z96 LED Light Panel for Night Photography

The Z96 LED Video Light can be used as both a main (key) light and a fill light by adjusting
the dimmer switch. The key light is on a stationary light stand 100 feet to the left, and the fill
light is on a light stand 40 feet to the right.
(Single exposure of Zion's "Little Tree" - Zion N.P. ~ © Royce Bair)
The versatile Z96 LED Light Panel was designed as both a video light for camcorders and as a light for DSLR photography, where it is placed above the camera on the hot shoe. However, I have found it to be an excellent light for stationary light painting in my astro-landscape night photography. I've used it at distances up to 500 feet to light many landscape features.

Stationary Light Painting. Flashlights and spotlights are often used in light painting, but their narrow beams require considerable "painting" skill to overlap each stroke of the light "brush", in order to make the light even. The Z96 has nine rows of 16 LED lights (96 total), producing more of a flood light pattern (about 65º beam angle). This broader light source allows me to place the light on a light stand, tripod, or more often than not, just on the ground, leaning against a rock —pointing towards a landscape feature, and leaving it unattended.

The Z96's broad angle of coverage makes a great unattended fill light, to soften or lighten the harsh shadows created by a stronger main light. Often, that main light will be a handheld, moving spotlight. Sometimes, I'll use two Z96's —one set on full power, and the other dimmed as the fill light, similar the the top photo in Zion National Park. In other cases, I'll use it as the only artificial light source, like I did in the Temple of the Moon photo, below.

The top photo has no light painting. The bottom photo is lit with one Z96, placed 500 feet
to the left of the 270 feet high monument. (Single exposure of the Temple of the Moon,
Cathedral Valley, Capital Reef N.P., Utah ~ © Royce Bair)
The advantage of unattended lighting (or "stationary light sculpting", as I like to call it), is that you can concentrate on making other adjustments to your image, such as composition. Stationary lighting also allows one to do time lapse photography, where every frame must have the same lighting, or the video will flickr. It is also useful in panoramic night scenes where all the images must have the same foreground lighting, if they are to match when stitched together.

The Z96 LED Video Light Panel is very compact. It come with a screw-on adjustable
mounting head/bracket and two magnetic snap-on filters (dollar bill not included)
Compact and Adjustable: The Z96 is extremely compact (5 x 1.8 x 3") and adaptable. It comes with an adjustable mounting head or bracket that allows slide-on mounting to a DSLR hot shot or to any 1/4" treaded device, i.e. a tripod or a light stand. It also comes with two magnetic snap-on filters —one is for diffusion and the other is an orange filler that converts the 5600º Kelvin LED lights to 3200º K. I usually leave both the diffusion and the orange filter on the Z96 for my NightScape photos. That's because I typically shoot my images with a 4000º K White Balance. This gives my skies a slightly bluish hue and the 3200º K light sources gives my foreground subjects and slightly warmer hue that contrasts nicely with the night sky.

Back and front view of the Z96 (pocket tripod no included)
Variable Light Intensity: The Z96 has a maximum light output of 800 Lux (at 1 meter). The dimmer switch on the back of the Z96 allows 0-100% light intensity. This is probably my most used feature. Except for long-distance landscape features, I rarely us this light panel at full power. For features that are less than 100 feet away, the light intensity is usually dimmed to less that one-half or one-quarter strength. That's because it doesn't take much light when you are using high ISO's in the range of 3200 to 6400 to photograph stars as points of light.

Power and light duration: Because LEDs are low consumers of electrical power, the manufacturer claims the Z96 can run for about 70 minutes at full power, using five AA batteries as a power source.  

Low Power Warning: If you have the Z96 dimmer switch set to full power and the batteries do not have enough strength to power the lights at that intensity, the lights will begin to flicker (go on and off), giving you notice that you must dim to a lower intensity. This annoying feature is actually a benefit to maintaining consistent exposure control . It lets you know that you don't have enough power to maintain that light intensity and camera exposure (very important in video recording and time lapse photography). If you are doing a time lapse, you'll want to read below and make sure you have the proper power source in order to maintain a consistent light intensity and avoid the flicker warning.

Alkaline vs. NiMH: In my tests, fresh AA alkalines typically last about 30 minutes, at full power, before the Z96 started to flicker. If one sets dimmer at 1/2 power, the lights will run for about 1-hour before the unit starts to flickr. Set the dimmer at 1/4 power and it will run for about 2-hours before you get a flicker.

7.4 volt NP-F770 Lithium-ion battery
To avoid the flicker or constant re-adjustment of the light intensity via the dimmer switch, I use rechargeable NiMH batteries. I have found that NiMH batteries give me a more consistent power source than alkaline batteries (I use the 2300 mAh Energizer rechargeable). Alkaline batteries start out strong, but slowly weaken over a two hour period. The NiMH AA's start strong and remain at peak output for about 90 minutes (three times longer than alkaline), then quickly weaken near the end of their power. If you set the dimmer stitch at 1/2 power, you can get about 3-hours of consistent (flicker-less) light using NiMH batteries.

Lithium-ion Batteries: A Sony style 7.4 volt NP-F770 lithium-ion battery can be snapped on to the outside of battery compartment door and give you full (non-flicker) power for about 4-hours. At 1/2 power, the light will remain consistent for almost eight hours. This is a great option for long time lapse sequences.

Various LED Light Panel Brands: Litepanels was the original company that started making LED panel lights back in 2001. Their original 96 LED design sold for $400. Today's 96 LED Litepanels Micropro design sells for $350.

F&V Lighting is another quality manufacturer of panel lights. F&V makes the Z96 LED Video Light. Over the last 10 years, F&V has invested heavily in applying the advancements of LED technology to photographic and video applications, i.e. LUX/mAh efficiency and color rendering (CRI). I bought my first F&V Z96 Video Light through Calumet (labeled as their model CF9020) for $199. It has been a very reliable unit. Until recently, F&V has continued to sell the original Z96 ($169). This unit is currently being replaced by the Z96 UltraColor ($199), which has a higher color consistency (a CRI of 95).

BUYER BEWARE! These two units look exactly the same, except for the Calumet branding label
on the left unit. The Calumet was made by F&V, but the unit on the right is a Chinese counterfeit!
Both have the same "HDV-Z96" model number in the top left and the "Made by F&V"
molded into the bottom right of the units.
Chinese Knock-offs: There are many Chinese panel light knock-offs at much lower prices, some even at the $20-$40 price range, and you might be tempted to buy one of these units. I even found a knock-off for $84 that looks exactly like the F&V Z96. It even says that it is made by F&V, but the unit does NOT have the low power warning circuitry (light flickering), nor is its light color temperature the same as the authentic product. I contacted F&V and found out that their Z96 is one of the most counterfeited lighting products on the market because of its popularity and length of time that it has been in the photo marketplace!

NOTE: You might think that not having the power warning circuitry (light flickering) may be a plus, because the annoying flicker (on and off) would ruin a time lapse sequence, and you'd be right. But, having your foreground feature become darker (as the light intensity diminishes) would be just as annoying in your final time lapse video. However, if you never plan to do time lapse (or star trails), nor do you need exact color rendering, then this $84 counterfeit might still be a good fit for you.

Royce's 2014 
Workshop, Lecture & Video Conference Schedule: NightScapeEvents.com

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Milky Way Landscapes by Denise Waterman

Milky Way with Bristlecone Pine in Bryce Canyon ~ © Denise Waterman
Nikon D600 with Nikkor 14-24mm @ 24mm • f/2.8 • 30 seconds • ISO 6400
Denise Waterman is being featured today because her Meetup.com peers voted her Moulton Barn and Bristlecone Pine photos into second and third place, respectively.

Milky Way over John Moulton Barn, Mormon Row, GTNP ~ © Denise Waterman
Nikon D600, Rokinon 24mm • f/1.4 • 15 seconds • ISO 6400 (click to enlarge)
Denise Waterman is a retired mechanical engineer and a mother of two grown daughters. She has had a lifetime love of both photography and astronomy and is excited to be learning a new way to combine the two hobbies with night photography.  The best part is being able to share the hobby with her husband Steve.

Denise and Steve also enjoy doing wildlife photography together. Owls are her favorite wildlife subject.

Royce's 2014 
Workshop, Lecture & Video Conference Schedule: NightScapeEvents.com

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Watchman under the Milky Way by Christopher Wray

"Watchman under the Milky Way" - Zion Canyon, Zion N.P. ~ © Christopher Wray (click to enlarge)
Christopher Wray, of Southern Colorado, created our Photo of the Day using a Canon 5D Mark III and a Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 Ultra Wide Angle lens. Chris combined two exposures, one of the sky for 30 seconds and another of the sandstone cliffs for 60 seconds. Both exposures were at ISO 4000, using an f/2.8 aperture. He did post processing in Photoshop to blend the two exposures.

"Our spiral galaxy’s bulge, of tightly packed central stars, is prominently visible [at certain times of the year] above The Watchman," says Chris. "Zion National Park is home to astonishing natural beauty by day. By night, the faint city lights of Springdale delicately illuminate the massive sandstone cliffs, while the Milky Way and surrounding heavens shimmer like exquisite jewels."

Challenges: "Unwanted stray light was the biggest challenge I faced while capturing this photo," reports Chris. "Despite the fact I was in a remote location, the occasional headlight of a passing car, headlamp from a fellow photographer or even blinking lights from a fixed wing aircraft was erroneously added to my exposure. It took a couple of takes to get a clean night sky, once I locked down the camera settings and composition."

Technique and tools: Chris is continually amazed at the ability of today’s DSLR camera sensor to capture latent hue, form and detail that reside in the dark sky. "By using basic Photoshop Curves controls and commonly available plug-in Nik Software, I was able to pull out the structure and color in the Milky Way without the need to introduce artificial color or saturation," say Chris. "I intentionally chose 3200º K as my white balance to create a cool midnight blue appearance."

Christopher Wray is a marketing communication consultant and avid digital photographer. He loves travel, landscape, portrait photography and most recently astrophotography. He is influenced by Ansel Adam’s guiding principle, “You don't take a photograph, you make it.” More of Chris’ work is viewable at his website and on 500px.

Royce's 2014 Workshop, Lecture & Video Conference Schedule: NightScapeEvents.com

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Photographing Meteor Showers by Thomas O'Brien

Double Arch in Arches National Park during the Perseid Meteor Shower ~ © Thomas O'Brien

2014 Meteor Reel from Thomas O'Brien. A collection of time-lapse shots from the past seven years of meteor showers. Please watch in HD —you can see more meteors. The footage was shot during the Perseid, Geminid and Leonid Meteor showers. (All footage shot and edited by Thomas O'Brien and is available in 4K resolution. Check here for additional credits, contacts, equipment, and software used in this production.)

Written by guest pro, Thomas O'Brien: Photographing a meteor shower is more like photographing a time-lapse than traditional still photos. You can never anticipate where or when a meteor is going to streak across the sky. In order to catch them you have to set up and take as many photos as you can throughout the night with a wide angle lens on the camera. If you leave the camera in the same position you can use the resulting images for a short time-lapse clip in addition to the still images you can capture.

On May 24, 2014 and through Memorial Day weekend, we are about to pass through a brand new comet tail.  Not much is known about this meteor shower, but we do know the debris was created by a comet passing through this area of space in the 1800s. The best viewing will be in the Northern Hemisphere (Southern Canada and the continental US). As with all meteor showers it could be a dud or it could be great. The meteors will be radiating from the north in the constellation Camelopardalis and should be visible all night in the northern hemisphere.

  1. Find a location that is far away from the light pollution of major cities and towns. You can use this handy website to see at a glance where the dark skies are.  Use this site as a general guide, and keep in mind that there are things like oil rigs and mining operations that don't show up on these maps.
  2. Get set up as fast as you can, the more time your shutter is open and taking photos the more chances you have of capturing a meteor.
  3. Use a good sturdy tripod in order to get a sharp photo of a meteors.
  4. Focus to infinity. This can be somewhat tricky in the dark, so a good way is to pre-focus the lens when the sun is up and tape the focus ring with gaffer's or duct tape so it won't move while you are moving around and setting up shots. You can also focus on the moon (if present) or a bright star, or use your camera's live-view function. Obtaining accurate infinity focus is critical.
  5. You will need a wired cable release (just a simple cord with a locking shutter release button). Set your camera to the widest aperture the lens will allow, and the highest ISO that you are comfortable shooting with and an exposure that gives the best results for the location, light, and phase of the moon.  A good starting point is f/2.8, ISO 2000 and 15-25 seconds. If you have an f/1.4 lens, that's even better as it will allow you to shoot with a lower ISO and have a less noisy photo. As soon as you have a good exposure you can put your camera on continuous drive mode (where you press the button down and it takes photos until you release) then lock the button down on the cable release.
  6. Use your fastest f-stop (the lower the f-stop number the better) and widest angle lens you have.  You are looking for a lens that is at least f/2.8 and preferably an f/1.4 lens. The lower the aperture the more light will get let into the camera.  You will capture about double the meteors with a lens that opens to f/1.4 when compared a f2.8 lens.
  7. Have an adequate power supply (a battery grip on your camera with dual batteries) or direct DC power connector to an external battery pack. You are aiming for shooting all night long with very few or no breaks in shooting (remember the goal here is to keep the shutter open and taking pictures as much as possible while you are out there). The best meteors are generally just before sunrise so try to make sure your camera is taking images all night. In a pinch, it's fine to use a single battery with a replacement that you can quickly swap.
  8. Position the camera facing anywhere from the Northwest to the Northeast will give you the best results. I have found that positioning the camera slightly away from the radiant point of the meteor shower results in longer meteors since they are not coming straight at the camera. The position of this radiant will make for some incredible time-lapse footage spinning around the north star.
  9. A large capacity and relatively fast memory card for your camera. You want to try to get a card that will hold an entire night's shooting and also has a fast enough write speed so your camera can empty the cache and continue to take images without having to pause. If you have to stop to change cards you may miss a giant fireball meteor. I usually shoot with 64 Gb compact flash cards and have found that you can generally get through most of a night even in the winter with one of these cards.
  10. Composition - after all the techy stuff, you still want to make a compelling image. Choose a foreground element, such as as stand of trees, a rock formation, or mountains. Something to anchor the photo and give it a great look rather than just a shot of the stars and meteors alone in sky. At the same time, you want to include as much sky as possible, and this why we recommend the widest possible lens.
Now, get out there and capture some meteor showers!

An O'Brien "selfie"
Thomas O’Brien grew up in Stowe Vermont. He started exploring the woods and mountains at an early age he picked up a camera and began to document his adventures around the age of 15.  After focusing on the arts in high school he moved out to Utah and attended the University of Utah where he earned a Bachelors of Arts in Photography.  While attending school in Utah he also was a member of the first US Snowboard Team and raced on the World Cup from 1993 – 1999 with a number of podium finishes and was ranked 13th in the world for combined racing disciplines.  While attending school in Utah, Thomas was a co-founder of Volume Video magazine, it was the first video magazine that documented the changes in the ski industry from 1990-2006. He helped produce 14 issues of the video magazine working on motion graphics, video editing, website and print ads.  

After graduating from the University of Utah, Thomas immediately dove into the photography industry working at The Stock Solution in Salt Lake City where he sold stock photography then branched out into archiving, scanning, retouching and then fine art printing and art reproduction at Bair Art Editions.  In 2001 he moved to Aspen Colorado to continue with a focus on fine art printing to become the Director of Digital Arts Aspen, a high end digital studio, classroom and fine art printing studio.   While Working at Digital Arts he met Lynn Goldsmith and began working as her Studiomanager shortly after, where he did scanning, celebrity retouching, archiving, book layout, fine art printing, studio portraits and event photography.  

Thomas has called Aspen Colorado his home for the past ten years.  He currently works as a  freelance photographer, consultant and photo instructor (both private and group workshops).  For the past year he has been focusing on a series of fine art landscapes and exploring new techniques to capture extremely high resolution panoramic images and photos of the night sky.  Near the end of 2013 and early 2014 Thomas re-focused on capturing video and time-lapse photography, after having taken four years off from shooting video and motion.

More of O'Brien's photography and stock footage are available at his tmophoto.com website

Royce's 2014 Workshop, Lecture & Video Conference Schedule: NightScapeEvents.com