Saturday, August 28, 2021
You make photographic lemonade.
Well, that is what I did anyway. I’ve indicated recently that I have been forced to endure what most will consider beautiful summer days with endless clear blue skies. While I get the draw for folks that like to be outside, these are terrible days for a photographer such as myself that thrives on the moody light of a cloudy day. It has become my style over the years and I fully embrace the want and desire for those wonderfully dismal days when it comes to my photography. It does make it difficult for me in the Summer when there are generally less clouds in the sky unless there is a storm happening. Here recently, it seems that we have had more than our fair share of clear skies and I’ve been doing a lot of work here in the office and doing more preparation for my venture into portrait photography which I’m happy to say that I have two clients booked at this point.
As I have been focusing on learning new things with photography, I have been put in a position where I have wanted to do a little more out of the box shooting for myself. I know what you are thinking here….In the past few months, I have done studio work, smoke photography, architectural photography, fine art subjects as well as some portraiture. What else could be left? Well, since photography is open to anything that you can see and several things that you actually can’t see, there is plenty of subject matter left on the plate for us to explore. However, having the interest to photograph it is another story entirely. With Toni off at work for the weekend, I was kind of left to my own devices as far as what I was going to get into. Of course, I wanted to get out with the camera, but the weather forecast for both Saturday and Sunday was pretty much a carbon copy. Clear skies morning to night with high temperatures at 91 degrees. That pretty much eliminated all that I was wanting to put in front of my camera and it left me with shooting infrared photography. The problem with doing infrared was that I was limited to black and white since my filter that allowed partial color in the images doesn’t play nicely with my camera.
Not wanting to get out in the heat of the day when the sun was at it brightest which was best for IR photography, I kind of ditched that plan. It wasn’t a huge deal because I really wasn’t in the mood for black and white photography. I wanted to shoot something with color and was actually in the mood for something like a sunrise or sunset with the colors that become present as the sun gets close to the horizon. Without clouds though, there really wasn’t much chance of color in the sky. It was the thinking about the edges of the day that started my wheels turning about astrophotography for the first time in a couple of years. This is a type of photography that I started with in the Summer of 2019, when I met a friend at a cabin in Lansing for the weekend. That was the first time that I had photographed the Milky Way and I had a good time with it actually which I didn’t expect. My friend Nick had really introduced me into the whole concept of doing this type of photography even though I had captured stars in photos before that weekend. They were more accidental and not really the subject of the image.
Once I had gotten introduced to the actual process of creating an image around stars and the Milky Way, I agreed to do a review and evaluation of a new filter from Singh-Ray which was the Astro Vision Filter. I remember it being a fantastic little filter which did exactly what they said that it would through my tests. Regrettably, I had not done any more night photography since that evaluation. I did get the filter though as I thought that it might help me out in the future because I did plan on doing more with this type of photography. That filter had been sitting unused for nearly two years and I needed to make that right. There was also another reason for thinking about doing some astrophotography which was my new 5DS R camera body. While I have been using that body for nearly a full year now, I had only had limited exposure to low light situations where ISO noise would be an issue. There was pretty much only a single scene that pushed my ISO higher than I would typically work at and that was during a trip to the Outer Banks earlier this year. I remember pushing the ISO up to 400 which was much higher than I normally go, but I needed to keep the shutter speed at a certain place. The image had noise, but I was able to deal with it in post processing easy enough, but it convinced me to shy away from higher ISO situations with this camera.
This is not to say that the 5DS R is a bad camera…Far from it as a matter of fact. It is better in pretty much every way over my 5D Mk3 with the exception of noise at higher ISO from my initial experiments. That is just how things go when you stuff more than twice the number of pixels on a sensor of the same size. I did spend some time doing some research on the high ISO capabilities of the camera compared to the 5D Mk3 as part of my learning process for portraiture. You see, when working with natural light photography, there are times when you have to boost the ISO to keep the shutter speed faster than 1/125 of a second to avoid camera shake and motion blur in your images. It is not uncommon to see ISO ranges in the four digit realm to accomplish this in certain conditions. That got me thinking whether or not my current camera body would be up to the task. The more I read, the more I found that up to about ISO 800 the 5DS R was actually a bit better with a finer grain than the Mk3. Beyond that, both cameras were very noisy and there wasn’t much direct testing available. I had decided to set the limit on my camera to ISO 800 for portraiture only to keep the shutter at a minimum of 1/125 of a second when I was shooting in Aperture Priority.
For shooting astrophotography, ISO 800 wasn’t really going to work well enough. I could do it, but the exposure would be way too long causing the stars to streak across the sky, but not enough to make it a purposeful attempt. It would also keep me from getting the Milky Way crisp in the sky. You see, since the Earth is rotating, the stars will change position in the sky, and anything more than about 20 seconds with a wide angle lens will show that movement as small streaks. If I was going to do astrophotography, I was going to need to see how the camera performed at ISO 6400 as a maximum which was a full three stops higher than I had decided was too high in my earlier tests and research. It was going to be a learning experience in handling the noise in the image if I were going to shoot at that level, but the only way to really learn is to get out there and get it done.
I formulated my plans which included Doughton Park on the Blue Ridge Parkway. That seemed like the most logical choice since I had read years ago that this park was great for astrophotography because it was so far away from the city lights. I can remember seeing the stars bright out there when I have gone for sunrise photos (undoubtedly cussing the fact that the sky was clear with no clouds). It seemed like a great idea and it would give me a chance to get out and do some photography which I have been itching to do. Even if the images turned out to be unusable, I would have the answers that I needed in regards to my gear’s limitations. I set things in motion to head out around 7pm to get there well before sunset when I could start picking out my compositions based on where my star tracker said that the Milky Way would be. I only knew it to be visible to the South which gave me a general direction. Knowing that, I knew there to be two places that I could work with at Doughton depending on just how froggish I wanted to be with the compositions.
When I got there, I made a quick drive to both ends of the picnic area to see how things were looking. The entrance housed one of my intended compositions which was the knife edged rocks with the trees growing from between them. I thought that this would make a good foreground, but would need to be painted with light to really stand out. I saw that they had just mowed which was nice as it would hopefully keep some of the bugs down and keep me from thinking something was crawling on my bare legs. There was nothing surprising about this scene, but nothing really awe inspiring about it either. The sky was blank behind the trees and there just was nothing worth seeing here. That would change in about an hour or so when the stars came out because based on my star finding app, I could see that at 9pm the Milky Way would be in a good position in the sky behind the trees. I kind of liked how this was looking, but wanted to go to the other end to check out my meadow and the tree there which I am always photographing.
When I got down to the end of the drive, I could see that there was a breeze which could very well cause problems with the tree limbs. I could also remember that there had been a kite stuck in the branches a few months ago and if it were still there, that would possibly be a problem to the composition. Thinking about how all of the elements were placed on the top of the meadow I was wondering just how effective of a composition I would come up with in the dark sky. The more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea of working the entry gate location which I have been gravitating to more and more these days. I got turned around and went back out to the gate to get set up.
Once I got parked, I came out and started to look at the scene through the camera view on my phone with the stars overlaid on the screen. I could see where I needed to get set up to get the composition that I had in mind. I grabbed my gear and started over to the location. With sunset still about 20 minutes away, and dark still over an hour away I had plenty of time to look for any other compositions that might work out with the setting sun. There were no clouds in the sky, so color was going to be at a premium, but I did see a composition that I loved to work when I am here. It is one that I discovered last year completely by accident and the resulting image turned into one of my 12 most significant photos of the year. When I had last shot it, the sky was full of low texture clouds which was fine because the photo was all about the shape of the tree and the textures of the rocks and grass. The background was immaterial and just needed to not be a distraction. I was seeing a similar setup here with a pale blue sky behind the tree. I was thinking that this would be a good black and white image with it being a study of shapes in nature. Yeah, I know that I didn’t want to capture black and white images today, but I was just killing time before the real show started.
I knew how this image best worked so I got my camera out and loaded up my 70-200mm lens and added a Color Combo Polarizer which I tested out and saw that it reduced the contrast between the tree and sky due to a slight darkening of the blue in the background. I got the camera set up in roughly the same position that I had used before as I knew it to be the simplest composition for the scene. I started to make exposures as the sun went down. I found out quickly that my exposure times were getting too long with the breeze which would register around 1 second. I was fully into 4-5 seconds at this point with the polarizer attached. I went ahead and boosted the ISO to 200 from my normal 100. Hey, I figured I was here to push the ISO limits anyway so might as well make it work for me. I managed to eek out an exposure of 1.3 seconds with this which was good enough. The pictures were looking good, but there was really no color to speak of with the exception of the grass so I was pretty sure that this was going to be a monochrome image for sure.
As the light started dropping quickly, I found the polarizer to be a liability forcing my shutter speed much slower than it should have been. With the sun out of the sky at this point I pulled the polarizer off and checked to see if it was still making any difference. It really wasn’t making enough difference at this point to justify the loss of light. I left it off and adjusted my shutter speed. It was still slow, but the breeze had calmed down enough that the branches weren’t registering movement as they had been. I noticed that as the twilight wedge was working its way into the sky there was a hint of it behind the tree. Could that be my color? Shooting at around 142mm kept the shot tight enough to keep that color at the horizon in the frame so I tweaked the exposure to take advantage of that color and kept shooting. I was actually getting excited about this composition and was thinking that I might be able to make a dramatic color image here instead of the originally anticipated black and white image.
It was actually my last exposure which was the one that I decided to keep. It had just the right mix of colors in the sky just before the light failed completely. The light was soft enough by this time that I was able to get detail on the tree even though there was no direct light on it at all. The colors in the background were soft and muted with a transition point right where the tree started to get more smaller branches. I ended up doing a good bit of color grading on this one to accentuate the colors that were there and to also move them around in hue slightly to fit a triadic color balance for a better harmony of colors. The greens, purples, and oranges worked so well together here and just made the perfect color palette for this scene. I think that the added detail from any clouds would have ruined this image and I was really happy that I had set this one up to kill time. I actually like it as much as I do the first attempt that I made here last year, but they both say two completely different things.
With the first shot in the bag, or at least that was what I had hoped, I was ready to get set up for the main event of the night. I knew that there was a better than average chance that everything that I was going to shoot from here on out was going to be wasted effort when it came to images created. I wanted to give it a try to really see what the camera was capable of as well as my own post processing skills. On the topic of post processing, there is an endless road that you can go on when it comes to this type of photograph. The most successful images are those that are composites of multiple frames which have the sky exposed one way, the foreground exposed another, and potentially multiple images of both blended together for a single image. Not only is that a little above my pay grade at this stage, it is more effort than I want to put forth in post processing. I really enjoy the actual process of the capture more than I do the editing afterwards so I made the decision that these were going to be single image captures and I was going to roll with what I got.
I went for the easiest setup first which was using the widest lens that I had, being the 14mm Rokinon which I love working with. It is a fast f/2.8 lens as all mine are, but the key here is that with the wide angle, the stars will show less movement over the course of the exposure because it physically takes longer to move across the size of the frame than if I were shooting with a telephoto lens. The only con that I have with this lens is that I can’t use a filter on it because of the spherical design of the front element. That usually doesn’t matter in astrophotography because you will rarely use filters anyway, or at least that was how it used to be. The setup was simple for the composition because I was very familiar with this location and knew how things fit together. Once I got it all situated in the camera, I set up my basic settings of f/2.8 on the manual aperture ring, 13 seconds to avoid star streaks, and….gasp….ISO 6400. This would be nothing for any of the newer camera bodies out there today, even with 50+mp sensors, but my aging technology is not designed for this environment which I knew getting into the new camera. What it is designed for, it does very well with. I was going to see just how this worked out, but just in case, I did turn on my high ISO noise reduction and set it to standard because I had read that the results were pretty good with that setting for this camera.
I waited until I could see the core with my naked eyes and I started making exposures. Of course, these exposures were way overexposed so I dialed back the ISO and shot some images that way. They were decent, but the sky was still quite faint and not what I was after. I had to wait about another 30 minutes before the sky got dark enough to really show off the stars. By this point though, I was back up to ISO6400 for a proper exposure. Something that I couldn’t help but notice was the amount of light on the horizon. I could see the city lights in the distance, and the light pollution was pretty bad all along the horizon. I hadn’t expected that after being told for a very long time that this was the area that was best for astrophotography. Maybe earlier in the Summer when the core is on the other side of the park it would be better, but for this time of year I was seeing a problem.
As the sky had gotten darker, I had realized one of the concerns that I had about the composition. The tree was very much silhouetted and there wasn’t enough separation between the limbs and the sky to really have it make sense. I was prepared for that eventuality and knew that I was probably going to have to add a little light to the scene to keep it interesting. I had my small flashlight which is always on my bag so I pulled that out and tripped the shutter. During the course of the 13 seconds, I painted the tree and other foreground with light. When the LCD popped up the image review I was all set to be impressed with how the foreground looked. Nope…that didn’t happen. with the ISO jacked up to 6400 my flashlight was just too powerful and everything was blown out. I did another exposure and moved over the scene quickly and only once. The painting lasted maybe two seconds. Nope….the LCD showed me that I was still putting too much light on the scene. I backed the power off of the light and started another exposure. That did the trick, but the speed at which I was having to go with the light was forcing some very uneven coverage in the scene. I was having to light the scene over the course of about 2-3 seconds so there was no detail work that I prefer doing with this technique. I fine tuned my approach to the application of light until I had several that seemed to work reasonably well.
To be honest, this composition didn’t turn out as nice as I had previsualized. It was on the right track, but there were situations that I ran into that I really didn’t expect. The first was the light pollution at the horizon. It was much worse than anything I had dealt with in the past, and I had been led to believe that I wouldn’t run into this problem at Doughton Park. The second issue was the light painting at such a high ISO. I might have done better to use the light from my photo screen as sensitive as the camera was to extra light. I made adjustments for both aspects as well as I could at the scene and came away with several image that I thought would work out.
This is one of the last images that I had shot after I figured out the proper application of light on the foreground. It picks up the details that I wanted well enough, but the processing of the image was the part that got to me here. In order to deal with the digital noise in the image, I had to add a significant amount of noise reduction to the scene which I didn’t really want to do, but there was no way around it with this camera body. The side effect of that is a general softening of the image. Fortunately, the resolution of the camera gives me the ability to soften it quite a bit which I did. There is still a great loss of detail in the foreground despite it being properly lit with a flashlight. It is just that high ISO which I was having to work with. This is where the compositing images works out much better. I could have shot the foreground and tree at a much lower ISO and blended them into the scene with the higher ISO sky. That was not what I wanted to do here so I’m not regretting my choice at all. This is an honest to goodness single image capture with light painting introduced and I’m proud of the results I achieved with those constraints.
I did recognize something in the field that I knew I could adjust easy enough and that was the light pollution. I had brought along my Astro Vision Filter just in case I ran into this problem, even though I didn’t expect to see any light pollution at all. Remember though, I can’t use filters on my Rokinon lens so I was going to have to switch over to a different lens to get the filter into play. Not wanting to mess with the tree and rocks anymore, I moved over to a simpler composition from the side of the fence and I swapped out lenses for my 16-35mm. I would have pretty much the same benefit from the wide angle setting of this lens that I had with the 14mm, and both lenses were f/2.8 so the exposures would be the same. The difference was that I was using that filter for the light pollution. Of course, I really couldn’t see much at all in the viewfinder or on the live view so I didn’t know if there was going to be a difference until I made the shot.
The first image that came into view on the image review showed that I had made a good choice in getting this filter because it really did tame the color cast from the pollution. It didn’t take the luminosity away from it, but I could see that there was a cooling and cancellation of the yellow tones which I thought would make for a much easier time in post. Remember, I don’t like to spend hours editing images despite the fact that sometimes I find I have to. I liked this composition better for the simplicity of it, and I really liked the fact that I didn’t have to paint anything with extra lights. It was just a basic capture of the Milky Way Core and I could see it clearly with both my naked eyes and the camera was doing a tremendous job of pulling in the cloud. It was just going to come down to the noise that the sensor was introducing.
When I got this image home, everything was nice on it with the exception of that noise. As with the other image, I had to boost the noise reduction to levels that I normally would never consider. I carefully added back details until I had an image that I felt was as clean as it could be. I’m sure I lost the same amount of details that I did in the other image, but honestly it doesn’t affect this one since there is no foreground to speak of. This is a much more minimal image and I think it works better overall for the point of the capture. I learned a lot from this image as it is one that works much better as a single capture, and I confirmed that the Astro Vision Filter is as good as I had found when I evaluated it. It definitely gives me a good excuse to use my 16-35mm lens doing this type of photography, especially when I want to minimize the color cast from the light pollution.
I do hope that you enjoyed this trek as it was a little different than my normal ones. Let me know which image is your favorite, and as always, if you would like a print just let me know. I think for me, the decision on favorite is very simple. I absolutely love the first image of the evening with the single tree and soft pastel colors. It speaks to me and makes me smile. I’m also thrilled that I have been able to put to use some color science that I have been reading about recently with such satisfying results. My second favorite image is the last one of the evening which is the simplest of the compositions. Again, the monochromatic color palette works well here with the celestial purple hues throughout the image. I don’t dislike the second image, but it didn’t quite rise to level that I anticipated. I missed some planning points on this image, and I was faced with issues that I hadn’t anticipated. I am happy with how I dealt with those problems that popped up and I’m satisfied with the outcome.
I know that I learned a lot about my camera as well as my abilities in post production here which was a main reason for going out in the first place. With that in mind, this has been a very successful trek, and even though it was primarily about pushing my own envelope, I was very excited to see such a good image come about as the result of just killing time. You just never know what you are going to be faced with as a photographer, and the only guarantee that you have is that if you don’t go out and try, you will be left with no possibility of succeeding.
Until next time….