Thursday, April 17, 2014

Moon over Delicate Arch by Steve Waterman

Moon over light-painted Delicate Arch, Arches National Park ~ © Steven T. Waterman
Steve Waterman took our Photo of the Day with a Nikon D800, using a Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8 lens (at 24mm) • f/2.8 • 8 sec • ISO 1600. Light painting was done by Chris Bair at a September 2013 NightScape Workshop.

"Storm clouds were a challenge that night," says Steve. "We were waiting for the moon to set, to permit images of the Milky Way.  The challenge was getting sufficient exposure of Delicate Arch without the moon blowing out the picture."

Steve Waterman shares photography for fun and relaxation with his wife, Denise.  To support the photography hobby, he practices law, doing commercial litigation and reorganization with an international law firm. (The above photo was used on the firm's annual Christmas card.)

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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Inexpensive Headlamp for Night Photography

On the right is my new inexpensive headlamp favorite: the Ozark Trail 150-Lumen Multi-Color Headlamp.
Center top is my expensive favorite: the Petzl Tikka XP 2 Core Headlamp, and below that is my favorite red
flashlight, the Smith & Wesson Galaxy 6 LED Flashlight. On the left is the charger for the Petzl Tikka XP 2.
The Ozark Trail 150-Lumen Multi-Color Headlamp is perfect for starry night photography and a great value at under $12. Ozark Trail is in-house brand marketed by Walmart. This headlamp has two white light settings and red. Many headlamps do not have a red LED to help preserve your night vision, and almost all the ones that do have a red light require you to cycle through all of the white light settings before you can get to the red (blinding you and anyone near you). This unit does not —just hold down the on-off button for two seconds and it goes straight to red! I highly recommend this headlamp over the Energizer 7 LED Headlight.

Although this Ozark Trail headlamp is not quite as well constructed as my $72 rechargeable lithium Petzl Tikka XP 2 Core or my heavy-duty $21 Smith & Wesson Galaxy 6 LED Flashlight, it does have impact-resistant construction, lifetime LED bulbs, adjustable aim and an adjustable head strap. It is powered by 3 AAA batteries (included). These will give you 6 hours of run time at 150 lumens (90 meter beam distance) or 66 hours at the low setting (15 lumens / 28 meter beam distance). The red setting has an output of 2 lumens, and 35 hours of run time.

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Monday, March 31, 2014

Replacing the Brinkmann Dual Xenon Spotlight

Mike Berenson demos the Dual Xenon
The Brinkmann MaxFire Dual Xenon Spotlight is no longer being made by Brinkmann and supplies are not available on Amazon. I had been using this Dual Xenon light for over a year, ever since my colleges recommend it. After its Ni-Cd battery would no longer is take a charge, I tried to order a replacement, but found that it was no longer being made. Although the Dual Xenon is labeled as a "spotlight", it's more of a narrow beam floodlight. This actually makes it much easier for light painting, as the beams of true spotlights are so narrow it makes it difficult to blend and overlap each pass of the light. The color balance of the warm Xenon light is about 3500º Kelvin, making it a preferred light source over the much cooler 8000º K output of most of the newer LED spotlights. A switch also allows one to use the intensity of both Xenon lights, or limit the power to just one light.

Harbor Freight's "One Million Candlepower Rechargeable Cordless Spotlight" is a great replacement for the Dual Xenon. I have two. The first one I bought is now about a year old, and has been recharged many times more the Dual Xenon, and it still takes a full charge. It's lithium-ion battery does not have the memory problem's of Ni-Cd battery used in the Dual Xenon. Because it uses a quartz halogen bulb, its light color balance is also close to 3500º Kelvin. And, at less than $11.00, this Harbor Freight spotlight is one-third the price I paid for the Dual Xenon!

At less than $11.00, Harbor Freight's "One Million Candlepower Rechargeable Cordless Spotlight"
is a great replacement for the Brinkmann MaxFire Dual Xenon Spotlight.
Other comparisons: The Harbor Freight spotlight is about the same size and weight as the Brinkmann Dual Xenon, albeit it is not quite as flat in its design. It also has about the same light intensity as the Dual Xenon has at full power (but the Harbor Freight spot does not have a dual intensity switch). The other difference is that like most true spotlights, the Harbor Freight's beam is more crisp and narrow than was the Dual Xenon.
1-gallon empty
milk jug

Softening the Beam: To produce a slight floodlight effect, I've taken an empty one-gallon plastic milk jug and cut out a circular piece to fit over the front of the spotlight. I've taped this into position with some gaffer tape (I like the 1-inch wide fluorescent rolls that B&H carries, and use them for a variety of photographic and labeling purposes). The "milky" plastic from the milk jug adds just the right amount of diffusion to soften the beam and make it similar in quality to the old Dual Xenon spotlight. You may wish to add two layers of "milky" plastic if you want even more softening. Because the Harbor Freight spotlights are so inexpensive, I have two —one with and without diffusion:

Harbor Freight spotlights: regular beam (L) and with milk jug plastic taped over spot.
(My fluorescent gaffer's tape adds no noticeable tint to the white balance :)
This photo of the Three Sisters in Goblin Valley State Park, Utah was light painted (from a distance
of about 250 feet to the left) with the Harbor Freight spotlight, using the homemade plastic diffuser
taped to the front. Without the diffuser, I would not have been able to blend my "painting" this
evenly. There is little light spill onto the side and foreground because I also employed the use of
a homemade snoot attached to the front of the spotlight (more on this technique in a future blog).
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Saturday, March 22, 2014

Fire Tree by Prajit Ravindran

"Fire Tree" - Star Trails around North Star, and a tree lighted by a campfire ~ © Prajit Ravindran
Prajit Ravindran shot our Photo of the Day in the Little Sahara Recreation Area, Juab County, Utah. Prajit used something we don't often see here at this blog: film. He used an old Mamiya RB67 Film camera, with a Mamiya Sekor 37mm fisheye lens, and exposed onto an ISO 100 film, using an exposure of f/8 for 35 minutes. The Star Walker iPhone app was used to figure out the location of the North Star.

Prefers film and mechanical cameras for star trails: Prajit prefer his Mamiya film camera over digital for shots of star trails for a couple of reasons. First, there is very little noise when using film vs. digital. Secondly, he doesn't have to worry about running out of battery power since the Mamiya RB67 is completely mechanical. In fact, Prajit purchased his used Mamiya mainly to take multi-hour shots of star trails, even though this photographed was exposed for less than an hour.

Prajit's biggest concern was that the details in the tree would be blown out due to excess light from his nearby campfire. He ended up taking a 35 minute exposure rather than the 1-hour exposure he would have preferred, to prevent over exposure of the tree.

Prajit Ravindran is a software engineer, who lives in Salt Lake City, Utah. Photography is his passion, with emphasis on landscapes, urban and long exposure photography. He loves the diverse landscapes of Utah. Prajit recently traveled around the state, logging 8300 miles in 8 months. He shoots mainly with a Nikon D7000. In addition to his recent purchase of the Mamiya RB-67 film camera, he has also converted his old Nikon D80 into an IR camera. More of Prajit's work can be seen at his website, and at his 500px page.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Correcting NightScape Lens Vignetting

Unless you correct lens vignetting, your NightScape images will look like the left image.
Although the left image has more "drama", it is technically incorrect, & lacking in detail.
Milky Way over "Three Sisters" formation in Monument Valley ~ © Royce Bair
Lens Vignetting: All camera lenses suffer from some light fall-off near the edges and corners of the images they project. This is known as lens vignetting. Vignetting is usually more pronounced when the lens is used "wide-open" or at it's widest aperture. Most of the vignetting goes away when the lens is stopped down by two or three aperture stops.

NightScape photography brings out the worst in lens vignetting because one is often forced to shoot wide open. This maximum light is needed to reduce shutter times (keeping star trailing to a minimum), and to lower ISO settings (keep down digital noise), which are already unusually high.

Adobe Camera Raw to the rescue. ACR's "Lens Corrections" feature can virtually eliminate lens vignetting problems. If you are using a major brand lens with electronic coupling to your camera body ACR will automatically pull up your lens' profile (using the image file's EXIF info) and make the needed vignetting corrections (and distortion corrections) when you check the "Enable Lens Profile Corrections" box! You can control the amount of these corrections using sliders. I typically allow the profile to make a full, 100% correction.

Using ACR is one of many reasons to shoot in camera RAW. ARC is available with both Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Lightroom.

Editor's Note: So many photographers ignore lens vignetting in astro-landscape photography, that the "darkened corner look" in starry night sky photos has become the norm. Besides, many would argue, "it adds a certain amount of drama and mystique" to the image (similar the the artificial vignetting photographers often add to a portrait, in order to draw more viewer attention to the person, and less to the background). Unfortunately, lens vignetting gives the viewer an unnatural look of the night sky, and eliminates a lot of valuable detail (stars and shadow detail in the landscape foreground). With proper lens vignetting correction, these details can be restored —then, if the photographer chooses, he/she can darken ("burn down") the areas he/she wants to add drama (or use to guide our attention), and still retain detail.

No lens vignetting correction on left image - ACR's "Lens Corrections" to right image
"Milky Way Paint Brush" - Kodachrome Basin State Park ~ © Royce Bair
By checking the "Enable Lens Profile Corrections", ARC's "Lens Corrections"
feature automatically applies vignetting and distortion corrections to your
Canon, Nikon and other major brand lenses. Note the change to the histogram.
Correction with Non-Standard Lenses: When using a Nikkor lens (via an adapter) on a Canon body (or vice-versa), you will not have electronic coupling to feed EXIF info to your image file. If you are using a manual lens, i.e. a Rokinon lens, you will also not have this information. In these cases, you'll have to manually look up your lens information. In the case of the Rokinon, there is no profile currently listed (as of ACR 7.0). In this situation, you will need to click on the Manual tab, and make your own vignetting adjustments (see below).

1. The Camera Raw file, using a Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 lens (wide open), shows some vignetting.
2. Vignetting becomes more pronounced when post processing contrast is added to image.
3. Most of the vignetting disappears when manual "Vignetting Correction" is applied (below).
ACR's "Lens Corrections" in manual mode when using a manual lens, i.e. the Rokinon 24mm f/1.4
In most cases, I use a vignetting amount of about +50, then move the Midpoint to about "20". Each
lens is a little different —just move the sliders until your image corners match the density of the
rest of your image. The histogram (not shown) will also provide feedback. Note that the lens
info (focal length and f/stop) is not shown at the top because there is no electronic coupling.
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Thursday, March 6, 2014

Increasing Star Glow

Stars over "The Fortress" - Bryce Canyon NP ~ © Royce Bair (click to enlarge images)
Stars over "The Fortress" - Bryce Canyon NP - with a Tiffen Double Fog 3 filter
The three brightest stars and planet appearing here are (L-R): Arcturus, Mars and Spica.
Canon 5D Mk3 • Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 • f/2.0 • 13 sec • ISO 3200 ~ © Royce Bair
Same as above, but with light painting add to enhance recognition. Note: although this was done
in a single exposure, the slight blurring and loss of contrast to The Fortress (from the fog filter),
persuaded me to use a second exposure of The Fortress, without the fog filter, and combine
it with the sky (see text below) ~ © Royce Bair
There are three ways to increase star glow in your NightScape photos: 1. Atmospheric conditions, such as thin cloud cover will give this effect, but this is unpredictable and impossible to control. 2. Post processing with software, i.e. StarSpikes Pro 3 plug-in filter for Photoshop. Their Soft Flare Intensity control sets the soft glow intensity around each star that you select. This process is somewhat laborious and can be a little unnatural, depending on your skill level. 3. Filtering over the lens when you shoot. The Tiffen Double Fog 3 filter gives the most natural glow of any filter I've ever used. The filter causes only the brightest stars to flare and glow, and has little effect on the dimmer stars. (It actually has a somewhat reverse effect on the dimmer stars, causing them to diminish slightly —which is exactly what thin cloud cover will do in real life.)

The are two disadvantages I find with the Tiffen Double Fog 3 filter: 1. Some ultra-wide angle lenses, Rokinon 14mm and the Nikkor 14-24mm do not accept filters; and 2. there is a slight loss in sharpness when using the filter. This loss of sharpness is most noticeable in foreground objects. In the top two photos there is a line of snow cover on the formation. This snow line has lost some definition and contrast in the image using the filter. In the two cropped enlargements below, you can see some edge blurring in the filtered image. In an image that I took that had light painting of the formation, this blurring and loss of contrast was more pronounced. This problem is eliminated by taking two shots (with and without filtration), and combining the filtered sky with the unfiltered landscape in post, albeit with some extra work.

Cropped and enlarged view of fog filtered image ~ © Royce Bair
Cropped and enlarged view of non-filtered image ~ © Royce Bair

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Monday, March 3, 2014

MoonScapes - Photographing a Full Moon with Landscape Detail

Moonrise with last sun light on Wasatch Range, Salt Lake City, UT ~ © Royce Bair
Little Known Trick to Photographing the Full Moon: Here is how you can get detail on both the landscape and the moon. The above photo of the full moon was taken just as the sun was setting, the day before the full moon, and the next two photos were taken just before sunrise, the day of the full moon.

Big yellow moon as it passes through a cloud, surrounded by a cold, blue winter sky ~ © Royce Bair
Canon EOS 7D with an EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM lens @ 400mm
(35mm equivalent is 12X) f/8 • 1/4 sec • ISO 100
5 minutes later the same moon begins to set behind the Oquirrh Mountains, near SLC, UT ~ © Royce Bair
Canon EOS 7D with an EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM lens @ 400mm
(35mm equivalent is 12X) f/8 • 1/4 sec • ISO 100
Here is my "NightScape" Moon Photography Tip: If you want to record good detail in the clouds and landscape near the moon, you need to know two important re-occurring facts: 1. The night before the full moon, the moon rises just a few minutes before the sun sets; and 2. the morning of the full moon, the moon sets just before the sun is starting to rise. During these two periods, there is just enough ambient light from the setting and rising sun to give detail to the surrounding landscape -- otherwise, it is too dark, and the contrast range is too great to record anything but blackness around the moon -- like you see in these two photos:

Middle of the night: Left image exposed for cloud detail. Right image exposed for moon detail.
You can't have it both ways: either you get a washed out (overexposed moon) in order to see the clouds and surrounding landscape detail -- or you get a correctly exposed moon, and lose all the surrounding detail -- that is, unless you follow my little known trick and these "Nightscape" tips.

Moon Charts: I use the Old Farmer's Almanac moon phase calendar and the USNO moorise/moonset charts to plan my shoots. (All times are based on sea level, so they must be adjusted slightly for mountainous terrain -- the moon will set sooner because of mountains, and the sunrise will be delayed because of mountains, and etc.) Using these charts, I can often get at least one moon rise and one moon set per month (weather permitting) that allow for good, full moon photography.

An example of how I did it: Based on my Zip Code, the full moon was to take place on January 9, 2012 at 12:32 AM. The sun was suppose to rise on this day at 7:51 AM, and the moon was scheduled to set at 7:54 AM. Because the eastern mountains around Salt Lake City are about 6,000 feet higher than the valley floor, I figured (by experience) the sunrise would be delayed about 30 minutes. And because the western mountains are about 3,000 feet higher than the valley floor, I estimated the moon would set about 15 minutes early. I figured right on both accounts. The middle two photos were taken at 7:30 and 7:35 AM, with just enough predawn twilight behind me to add detail to the western sky and western mountains ("blue hour" light).

Mirror Lock-up. One other important thing: Even with a sturdy tripod and a remote release, the vibration from your mirror going up just before your shutter release can blur or degrade your shot. That's because the magnifications are so great (12X in this shot) and the shutter speeds are so slow (about 1/4 second in this case). Read your manual on how to do this for your camera. Once it is set through your menu, the first press of the shutter release will lock up the mirror, and the second press will release the shutter, and return the mirror. Even with a remote release, you should wait about three seconds for the vibrations to dampen before pressing the release the second time. So many things to remember! I also find I have to manually focus, and set all my exposures manually for best results. (For super accurate focus, I switch to Live View through my LCD screen, and magnify it to 10X. Once set, I switch back to regular view to conserve battery power.)

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