Wednesday, May 22, 2013

How to Level Your Camera in the Dark

You're hoping to capture a Milky Way landscape (left), but you'll be lucky to see even this much (right) in the viewfinder!
If you've taken the proper steps to adjust your eyes to the darkness and preserve your night vision, you might be able to see as clearly as the image on the right. Even then, the image through your camera's viewfinder is usually much dimmer.

Staying Level-headed at Night. There are so many simple things that we do in the light of the day that become much more difficult in the darkness of night. The first time I went to photograph a Milky Way landscape, I realized I could not see the horizon in my viewfinder. In fact, there were hardly any reference points I could see through the lens! I had to photograph the scene several times, review it on the LCD monitor, and make small adjustments to the tripod head just to get a general composition that I liked. After all this, I still wasn't sure if the horizon line was really level. When I check the final composition later on my computer monitor, I discovered that I needed to make a 5-degree leveling adjustment that cropped away some of the important areas of the image.

Nikon's "Virtual Horizon"
Electronic Leveling in the Camera: As early as 2008 Nikon began to offer Virtual Horizon on select DSLR models. VH is a feature used to verify that the camera is horizontally or vertically level. It appears that the Nikon D800 has a version of VH that now displays both tilt and roll. (I was unable to determine from Nikon's website which camera models have the Virtual Horizon feature and the newer version which displays two axis leveling.)

Canon was the first camera company to provide internal Dual Axis Electronic Level with the introduction of the Canon EOS 7D in October 2009. Dual Axis provides roll and pitch information within an accuracy of 1-degree. This information can be displayed on the rear LCD monitor or within the viewfinder. Dual Axis is now available on the Canon 5D Mark III and the Canon 1D X. Canon provides Single Axis Electronic Level with the EOS 6D and the EOS 60D.

Vello 2-Axis Bubble Level
External Bubble Levels: Even though both of my Canon cameras have internal electronic leveling, I often find myself using an old-fashioned bubble level attached to my camera's hot shoe when I am doing night photography. Maybe it's my construction background, but I can center a bubble faster than I can switch on the electronic leveling feature and align it in the viewfinder or on the LCD monitor! And for those of you with cameras not having an electronic leveling feature, a hot shoe bubble level is a must when working in the dark. I use the Vello Two-Axis Hot-Shoe Bubble Level. I also have the Manfrotto 337 2-Axis Flash Hot Shoe Double Bubble Level, which I bought at a local camera store when I temporarily misplaced my Vello. I paid more than twice as much for the Manfrotto as the Vello (about $37 vs. $18), and I can't see any difference in quality or accuracy. (Read my final paragraph, "Tripod Head Workflow", for suggestions on how to use this level.)

When shooting a horizontal subject, you attach the bubble level to your hot shoe in the manner.
When shooting in the vertical position, you attach the bubble level in this manner  ~ © Royce Bair
Manfrotto 410 Junior Geared Head
Making Adjustments for Composition with a Geared Head: If you are an occasional nightscape photographer, a standard tripod head will work just fine for you. As I have already mentioned in the beginning, there will be some frustrations in trying to compose your image in the dark because the viewfinder offers almost no feedback. This is why some astro-landscape shooters, like myself, have gone to using geared heads. A geared head not only gives your reference markings, but allows smooth and exact movements to those points.

Pan, Pitch, and Roll: Like an airplane, almost all tripod heads allow you to pan (yaw) left or right, tilt (pitch) up or down, and roll (lean) to the left or right (taking a vertical photograph requires a 90ยบ roll to the left or right). A geared head will allow you to do the same things, but with precision and repeatability. When you make an adjustment with a regular tripod, you are just "shooting in the dark". As soon as you loosen the adjustments for any of your three axes, you have no reference for your movements. With a geared head, you can make an exact adjustment in any of the three axes. If you overshoot or undershoot your mark, you can go back or forward a few degrees.

The head I use is the Manfrotto 410 Junior Geared Head (one of my fellow nightscape photographers, Lincoln Harrison, uses the heftier Manfrotto 405 Pro Digital Geared Head). I also use a ball head (Manfrotto 496RC2 Compact Ball Head) between the camera and the geared head to extend the range of movement when I'm doing vertical shots. My tripod is the Manfrotto 190CXPRO3 3-Section Carbon Fiber Tripod.

Tripod Head Workflow: Whether you're using a regular tripod head or a geared one like mine, 1.) I always strive to null out the head (return any settings to zero, if it has markings) and level it if it has a bubble level. When the camera is attached to the head, its hot shoe bubble level should now read level as well. 2.) I then pan the head and re-check the hot shoe level throughout the pan, making any necessary fine-tune adjustments to the tripod to maintain a level pan (if you are taking a panoramic series of photographs to stitch together, this step is critical for best results). 3.) I then aim the camera in the general direction of nightscape subject and take a photograph (you can speed up these composition test exposures by using a higher ISO). 4.) After reviewing the image on the LCD monitor, I make further head adjustments until I am satisfied with the composition. 5.) I re-check my hot shoe bubble level one last time and make any "roll" level adjustments (if necessary) before making my final exposure.


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