Night sky with clouds and stars

Shooting Debrief: Night Photography at Shenvalee

Specs

ISO: 12800 Aperture: 3.5 Shutter Speed: 20 seconds Focal Length: 18mm Lens: EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS (Yep, the kit lens.)

Background

Just outside of Luray, Virginia is the small town of New Market. With a number of friends in the area, we were visiting for a community event that put us at the Shenvalee Golf Resort for the weekend. I don't golf, but I thought the wide open spaces would be good for another pass at some night photography. Since it was winter, I didn't figure I'd need to worry about dodging any golfballs. If we look back at my previous Debrief on night photography, we know there were several things I didn't get right:
  • I was too cold.
  • I didn't take into account the Rule of 600.
  • Generally, my ISO/shutter/aperture were not right for night photography.
  • I had no idea how to focus at night.
The first was easily solved with some long underwear and extra layers. The one thing I didn't have was gloves; I'll be rectifying that before my next night photography attempt later this month. Still, I was way more comfortable than I was on the earlier attempt, and better prepared, so I figured I had to at least be more successful than I was previously.

The Image

Hey! It's a pretty cool image. Actually, the first thing my wife said when I showed it to her was, "When did you take that?" It took her a minute to believe it was a night photograph; it's really amazing what those sensors will do. In any case, I got a nice angle on the tree that I'd decided to place in the foreground and got a bit lucky with the one break in the clouds occurring just above it. The clouds have a bit of motion blur to them, and the lightness of the image with the handful of stars showing through gives it quite a surreal, almost apocalyptic feeling. In post, I punched up the vibrance and combined a lot of noise reduction with a lot of clarity (and some contrast) gave an oil-painting look to it, especially in the foreground. And, oh, the clouds. There was real potential here for some awesome star shots, but sometimes it all comes down to karma. Or weather patterns.

The Process

Plan, plan, plan. Preparation, preparation, preparation. Before I left, I downloaded Google Earth and did some virtual touring. Although not always 100% accurate, Google Earth has a couple huge features for a photographer. First, you can "walk" around a location and get a feel for elevation, angles and perspectives. Second, there is a layer that turns on the Milky Way, so you can identify a few very high potential to shoot from. I recorded these to an XML file, but once I got out there and found a couple of the spots, I changed the plan slightly to include the tree. Still, that virtual tour was a thousand times better than going in blind. Ok, so...my tortured relationship with the Rule of 600. The Rule of 600 says divide 600 by your focal length to get the maximum number of seconds the shutter can remain open before the movement of starts becomes unacceptable. So, I see three problems here:
  1. It only accounts for two variables, when we all know there's a whole lot of settings to worry about on the back of a camera.
  2. This is an estimate, and, oh, damn, if we only we had a pocket-sized device that could crunch exact numbers with exact certitude.
  3. Math.
In other words, the Rule of 600 is like Eli Manning, woefully inadequate, inexplicably successful and outdated without realizing it. You know what is not like Eli Manning, and is dependable and easy to use? The Milky Way Exposure Calculator over at LonelySpeck.com! LonelySpeck is a great place to get tons of easy-to-implement advice on night photography, and is where I went to get my baseline estimates for settings. I punched in the specs for each of the three lenses I was bringing to give myself a starting point, and would experiment from there. Here's what those baselines were:
  • 50mm
    • Shutter Speed: 7 seconds
    • f/number: f/1.8
    • ISO: 12800
  • 85mm
    • Shutter Speed: 8 seconds
    • f/number: f/1.8
    • ISO: 12800
  • 14-55mm
    • Shutter Speed: 24 seconds
    • f/number: f/3.5
    • ISO: 12800
Yeah, that's an 85mm/1.8 there. I had just gotten the lens and was thinking I would take it for a spin. It never made it out of the bag for this part of the trip; the effective ~130mm length was just not going to work in any way. Even my 50mm was too tight. In any case, I simply moved those specs over to an Evernote note that also had some instructions for helping me to remember what to set up and how to focus:
  • Enable long exposure noise reduction
    • Take a shot before taking the lens cap off
    • Turn on histogram
  • Focusing
    • Laser
      • Greater than 100 feet away
    • Live view
      • Zoom into a star
      • Manually focus until sharp
      • Gaffer’s tape to hold
  • Hook up intravalometer
Despite having written this out, how many things did I forget on that list? Nearly 30%. No shot before taking the lens cap off, no histogram and no gaffer's tape. Upside: there's room for improvement! With the basics in an Evernote, some potential shooting locations in mind and a solid set of cold weather gear, I was ready to go shooting! The only other part of the process to write about here is focusing. There was really nothing close enough to use the laser, so I used the live view method, which was really super effective. It'll take a couple tries, so don't get discouraged if your first half dozen shots or so are not what you expect. Keep working at it, using a very high ISO. You won't need to use these shots for anything other than setting up, a high ISO will speed the process significantly and you can dial it back down for your "real" shots. Now, shoot away. This is the part that doesn't need much explanation--if your first reaction after shooting a well-set-up and properly spec'd high-ISO shot at night is like mine ("Hey, whoa!"), you'll know what to do from there on. I spent 90 minutes shooting various angles and parts of the night sky and landscape, never really expecting a crowning achievement but wanting to see what I could make happen when pushing the camera to its limits. My results were basically what I expected--impressive, but still with significant potential.

Lessons Learned

  • Planning was key. Thinking through what I was going to need to do and where I was going to do it from saved a lot of angst. Answer all your known questions (what specs should I use for each lens at night?) and write the answers down in a place you can easily access once set up.
  • Preparation was key. Think through the entire process and anticipate any hiccups (...what if I can't use the laser to focus?). Write down methods you're not comfortable with in a place you can access easily while shooting.
  • Have a plan for shooting. In retrospect, I should have had a plan for each lens--a series of settings I wanted to shoot at for each one. I played this kind of by ear, and while I came away with a decent shot, I do not believe I have found my camera's most effective night photography setup, nor do I think I pushed my gear as far as it can go.
  • Related, I need to find something that works at lower ISOs. Most of the images I ended up with were 12800 or higher, and I really hate the amount of noise present.
  • Know that you'll get the most out of your widest angle lenses. This is probably a given, since this is essentially extra-complicated landscape photography, but I was suckered a bit by the lure of my faster, longer lenses.
  • Weather. Nothing really to do but look at a map and see if you can find a clear spot if it's cloudy and you're on a big enough property. If you have clouds, shoot for the breaks in them. Know that you'll probably get some motion in the clouds, with a slow enough shutter speed, that will be hard to see on your LCD.
  • Gloves.

Wrap

If you saw a theme here, it was preparation and planning. Ok, to be fair, I tend to be a process-oriented kind of guy. In an IM to my (thankfully understanding, forgiving) wife, I once referred her to an Excel document I had just finished building, saying, "That section at the top, just below the week numbers? That counts automatically...based on CELL COLOR. Come at me, bro." I like orderly things, especially when they're automatically orderly. I am in no way obsessive about this. My final pronouncement on this image is that it is as successful as I could probably expect given my inexperience with this kind of photography and the weather on that night. I am not going to sell the image in my Etsy store; it's too noisy and over processed, but a goal of my next night shoot is going to be come away with one I can confidently put up for sale. I'm happy with this result, because now I know what I need to improve on the next round. And, this was fun. I got a couple cool images and learned a lot, and I'm really looking forward to my next effort. Here are the best.

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