My First Stab at Night Sky Photography

What I learned at a North Cascades Environmental Learning Center photography class.

I love the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center, which is not far from the Diablo Dam on Diablo Lake on the North Cascades Highway (Route 20). I got my first glimpse of it during a camping trip last summer and later that year returned to take a three-day course about mushrooms. This year, I returned for one night of Base Camp right before an overnight seminar titled “Wilderness Photography: Washington Pass at Night.” Here’s the course description, since I can assume the link to the course page will eventually break:

In the grandeur of the North Cascades, moonless nights with clear skies offer fantastic opportunities to capture vivid images of the galaxy.

Join photographer Andy Porter on this specially-scheduled evening expedition to capture images of the Milky Way on this moonless night. We’ll begin the adventure with a short evening workshop on night photography at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center. Then we’ll head to Washington Pass where, under the towering peaks of Liberty Bell and the Early Winter Spires, Andy will guide us in capturing our own images of the night sky.

I could go into a lot of detail about my stay at the NCELC and the other things I did while I was there, but I’ll try to stay focused for this post. But I do need to talk briefly about the weather, since it did play a major part in how the course went.

The weather was not very good. It was overcast all day and rained more than a few times. Although the clouds were relatively high, there wasn’t a single clear patch in the sky. It was like this all day, which really didn’t surprise me — it rains every single time I come to this area. I like the rain, mostly because I don’t get much of it at home, but I really wish it wouldn’t rain in the mountains when I’m there.

Diablo Dam to Washington Pass
Washington Pass is a 35-mile drive southeast from Diablo Dam on Route 20.

Of course, we weren’t supposed to take pictures in the Diablo Lake area. We were supposed to go to Washington Pass, about 35 miles east. I’d driven through the Pass the day before on my way to the NCELC and it had been partly cloudy, with smoke from a fire I later discovered was burning near Mazama. But the weather information we had showed that Washington Pass was likely just as bad as it was where we were. And there’s nothing worse than making a 70-mile round trip drive to take pictures and not being able to do so.

There was a short classroom session after dinner. Andy introduced himself and showed off a few slides of his work. Most featured an easily identifiable foreground object that was often lighted — like a tent with kids in it or the roots of a fallen log — and a magnificent night sky. He briefly explained how he accomplished the lighted part of the shot by illuminating it for only about a second during the long exposure required to get the night sky. He also admitted to doing a lot of post processing and even showed us before and after shots.

Then he gave us the details on how we needed to set up our cameras for nighttime shooting. Here’s a brief version of his instructions. I’m not giving away any secrets here — all this information is available in a wide variety of places online.

Required Equipment

Before I detail the settings, let me start with the basics. If you don’t have this equipment, you probably can’t do this kind of photography. Or at least I won’t be able to explain how.

  • Camera. At the very minimum, you need a camera capable of setting aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and focus manually. Most DSLRs can do this, although lower end models might have limitations. These days, I shoot with a Nikon D7000, but I’m pretty sure my old Nikon D80 could do the job. And yes, a film camera could work, but the ability to immediately see results and adjust settings make it really impractical.
  • Wide-angle lens. The wider the field of view, the better off you’ll be. In case you don’t know, the lower the focal length, the wider the field of view. I used a 10-24 mm lens for this shoot and set it to 10 mm. Because I don’t have a full-frame sensor in my Nikon camera, that’s equivalent to a 15 mm focal length. There were people shooting with everything from 10 mm to 28 mm in the class.
  • Tripod. You need a good, sturdy tripod. There’s no getting around it. I use a Manfrotto with a ball head and I love its flexibility. If you have options, use one that can be extended so it’s tall enough for you to look through the lens and check image results without having to bend over. Sturdy is especially important if there’s any wind — although this isn’t something you’d likely attempt with anything stronger than a light breeze.
  • Cable or remote shutter release. My camera won’t support a cable release, but it does support a remote shutter release, which I have. If you don’t have either, there is a workaround: use the camera’s self-timer to release the shutter. (This is what I wound up doing when my remote crapped out for some unknown reason during the shoot.) Under no circumstances should you be pressing the shutter release button by hand; it will definitely shake the camera, even on a tripod.

What’s interesting to me is that just about all of the people who took part in the class — and I think there were nearly 20 of us — had brought a bunch of camera equipment. I didn’t bring all of mine, but I did bring my camera body and three lenses. In reality, all we needed was what I listed above. So when it was time to get on the van to drive out to our shooting destination, I secured my camera on my tripod, rested the top of the tripod on my shoulder, and left the rest of my gear behind. I like traveling light.

Camera Settings

The tricky part of shooting the night sky is setting up the camera properly. Andy, our instructor, had us do this in the classroom so we wouldn’t be fiddling with settings in the dark. If you set the camera up right in advance, there’s only one thing you might have to change out in the field.

  • Widest field of view. If you’re using a zoom lens, zoom out to the widest field of view (smallest focal length number). Again, I used 10 mm.
  • Widest aperture. Set your lens so it’s wide open (smallest f-stop number). This enables the camera to take in as much light as possible during the exposure. For my lens, that was f3.5.

  • Manual focus. This can be a setting on your lens or camera or both. (It’s both on mine.) You definitely do not want the camera trying to automatically focus, especially if your camera won’t make an exposure unless focus is locked in.
  • Lock it in!

    This is where I really wish I had some gaffer’s tape with me. This is special tape used in film production; it makes it possible to secure things like you would with any tape, but when you pull the tape off, no sticky residue is left behind. This would have been very helpful for me to lock that focus ring down, preventing me from accidentally moving it during the shoot.

    Focus to infinity. This is actually a lot trickier than it sounds and it took a while for us to all get it right. Simply dialing the focus ring as far as it goes on the infinity side isn’t necessarily correct. You need to play with it a little at a variety of settings out near the infinity symbol (∞). After each setting, snap a photo of something at least 50 feet away and then check it in the review window. Zoom in to see how crisp it is. Then try another setting to see if it’s crisper. Repeat this process until it’s dialed in perfectly. On my lens, the tick mark was lined up with the center of the infinity symbol but it might be different for yours. If you don’t have focus distance symbols on your lens, you might have to use autofocus to get the right focus setting before setting manual focus. I’m pretty sure that’s what Andy helped a few people do.

  • Manual exposure mode. You must set the camera for manual exposure so you’re in charge of how it takes the photo.
  • Calculating shutter speed with the 500 Rule

    If you want to do the math, it’s pretty simple: 500 ÷ Focal Length ÷ Crop Value

    So if you have a high-end camera with a full frame sensor and you’re using a 12 mm lens, the math is:
    500 ÷ 12 ÷ 1 = 41.66, which you can round down to 40.

    With my camera’s 1.5 crop sensor and 10 mm lens, the math is:
    500 ÷ 10 ÷ 1.5 = 33.33, which I rounded down to 30.

    Maximum shutter speed per the 500 Rule. Okay, this is where it gets a little complicated. Andy gave us a handout with a table of settings for the 500 rule, but never explained what the rule was or why it’s important. I did a little research this morning to learn more. We all know that the earth rotates, which means that the stars appear to move across the night sky. They move slowly so we don’t actually see them moving, but if your camera’s exposure is too long, you’ll get star trails — lines made by the stars as their light moves across the camera’s focal plane. To avoid star trails — which is what we wanted to do — you need to set your maximum shutter speed in accordance with the camera sensor size and lens focal length. You can learn more about this on Petapixel, which is also where you can find a table of values. Keep in mind that the shutter speed is in seconds, not fractions of a second. So when I set my camera’s shutter speed, it appeared as 30" in the settings screen. Exposures longer than that require the “bulb” setting on my camera, which means I’d have to manually open and close the shutter based on time I keep with a stopwatch or something.

  • ISO to 2000. This is a good starting point. Of all the settings, this is the one you might be fiddling with in the dark, so make sure you know how to change it. On my camera, it can be done with a combination of buttons and dials but it’s actually a lot easier to just go into the settings menu. I found that my best shots were done at 5000; more on that in a while.

Shooting

Once we had set up our cameras, we all climbed onto the NCELC’s shuttle bus, filling every seat. Andy took a few people in his car. Although it was difficult to see the sky through the tall trees around the campus, it was still pretty cloudy and none of us had very high hopes of getting good photos. They’d decided to try a closer viewpoint: the Diablo Dam Overlook. This offered views of the main lake and dam, as well as up the Thunder Creek arm of the lake and Colonial Peak. With few trees, we’d have a clear view of the sky.

As we drove over the dam, I was looking out the window and saw a single point of light. “I see a star!” I called out. Other people looked but I’m not sure if they saw anything.

Get away from the lights!

Incredibly — to me, anyway — one of the class attendees had to ask the instructor where the Milky Way was. He could see it, but he didn’t know that that the bright band of stars he was looking at was what’s referred to as the Milky Way — the galaxy our tiny planet is part of. This made me sad. I remember my grandfather pointing out the Milky Way when I was five or six years old, sitting with him on the front lawn of his house in suburban New Jersey, long before light pollution hid it from view. Yet this man, in his seventies (!), had spent so much time in the city that he couldn’t even identify the Milky Way when he saw it in the night sky.

Less than ten minutes later, we were at the overlook, which was understandably deserted. It was well after 9 PM and quite dark. But once our eyes had adjusted after the lights from the bus we saw it above us: the Milky Way.

I beelined it to the corner of the overlook where I’d get a good shot up the Thunder Creek arm. My camera was already on my tripod; all I had to do was extend the legs and neck and get it in position. I might have been the first person to take a shot.

And this is where patience is important. Each of my shots was 30 seconds long. Once the shutter closed, the image did not immediately appear. The camera, which is nothing more than a computer with a camera attached to it, had to process all the information it had just collected. I think this took longer than the exposure time — perhaps as long as another 40 seconds. So from the time I started my shot to the time I was actually able to see it in the review screen at the back of the camera was more than a minute.

Thunder Arm at Night
A look up Thunder Arm at night. The cars driving by on the road often ruined shots by illuminating landscape features we wanted to be kept dark.

My first shot came out dark. Yes, I could see the stars, but no, I couldn’t see them well. I thought it might have something to do with my reading glasses, which seem to make things look darker than they are. But Andy took a look and recommended bumping up the ISO, which he’d originally advised me to start at 1600. So I tried 2000. It wasn’t much better.

Meanwhile, other photographers were snapping away, emitting occasional oohs and aahs and cursing at the cars that drove past the view point, illuminating foreground items we wanted to be kept dark. One woman near me had very good luck with her camera ISO set to 5000 so I gave it a try. (My camera goes up to over 24000.) That looked much better, so I stuck with if for the rest of the shoot.

Keep in mind that the higher the ISO setting, the more light is processed in the camera. There is a cost to this, however. High ISO settings lead to grainy images or “noise” (digital artifacts) in the images. Ideally, you want to keep the ISO as low as possible to get the shot you want. But since you can’t open the lens any wider (aperture setting) and can’t lengthen the exposure any longer (shutter speed setting), the ISO is the only thing you can change to vary the brightness of your shot.

I moved around to a variety of places. The Milky Way was mostly overhead, but it did dip down to the horizon in the south. A handful of light clouds drifted by, sometimes obscuring stars.

Diablo Dam at Night
I took a few shots of the dam. The lights reflected off the clouds, reddening them. I think this is the image where digital noise is most apparent, especially in the clouds. (A few people mistook the reddish clouds in their pictures for the aurora. Sorry, but no.)

We shot for well over an hour. I captured about 40 images. I haven’t looked at all of them on my big computer yet; these are pretty much decent random images I grabbed for this blog post. All of these are edited to make the stars “pop” more than they do in the original. If you have good image editing skills, you’ll definitely use them if you do night sky photography. I prefer to minimize editing.

Sky Through Trees
This was shot almost straight up. I think the trees and clouds offer a sense of three dimensionality.

For the most part, the photographers were good to work with. The only real problem we had was with light — too many of them wore headlamps. The trouble with headlamps is that they point wherever you look. So if you look up, your light flashes up, possibly illuminating trees or other foreground object people want dark. This got a bit frustrating and, more than a few times, I called out, “Lights down, please!” One photographer seemed to think that no lights should be on at all and rudely yelled at anyone who used a light, even if it was pointed down at the ground. Sorry, but when walking on uneven terrain in the dark I’m going to use a light — in my case, my phone’s flashlight. If the light doesn’t shine on the subject, it should not affect the photo.

The End of the Shoot… and Beyond

We went back to campus in two groups. I was in the first one. I’d had enough. My remote shutter control had died about halfway through the shoot and I had to rely on the camera’s self-timer to activate the shutter, adding another 20 seconds to each shot. I was burned out and, unlike most of my companions, I live in a dark sky area and can try this again anytime, right at home.

There was no follow-up lesson — although I really think there should have been the following morning. A chance to review and critique what we’d done. I did spend some time at breakfast with other students and got signed up for a Washington State Astrophotography group on Facebook. I’ve already swapped photos and comments with a few classmates there.

Could my images be brighter? I think so. Next time I try this, I’ll do more experimentation with ISO settings. I might need to pop it up some more.

And yes, there will be a next time. I’m thinking of giving it a go on my deck tonight. And I’m definitely looking for companions on overnight outings, possibly with the Turtleback. Washington Pass would make an excellent subject area, especially with the fresh snow I saw on the peaks on my way home. Anyone game for an overnight road trip this coming week?

A New Camera

Will it take my photography to the next level or have I gone as far as I can go?

Desert Still LifeLast spring, I shot one of what I consider one of my best photographs. I’d been “photojeeping” out in the desert when the hedgehog cacti were blooming. I stopped the Jeep on the two-track I’d been following, grabbed my tripod, camera, and cable release, and set off on foot across a relatively flat area peppered with pink blossoms. When I saw this cactus, my eye began a search for an interesting composition. I had to get down on the ground, with my tripod’s legs as short as they could go, to frame this shot. Although I let the camera handle the exposure (as I usually do), I fine-tuned the focus and depth of field using aperture settings. Said simply: I put a lot of effort into this shot — a lot more than I usually do.

And I was very pleased with the results.

Until I looked more closely at the photo in Photoshop, using 100% magnification. That’s when I could clearly see that the image lacked the kind of sharpness I wanted in my photos. It was as if nothing in the photo was in clear focus. Given the depth of field, that just didn’t seem possible.

I had done just about everything in my power to get the best shot I could and I’d fallen short of desired results. It was like being slapped in the face.

Nikkor 16-85mm LensI started doing research. I knew it wasn’t the lenses I was using — this particular image was shot with my Nikon 16-85mm f/3.5-5.6G AF-S DX ED VR Nikkor lens, which was still relatively new at the time. Although this is not a top-of-the-line Nikon lens, it is not a junk lens. The low ISO settings on the camera should have prevented the graininess I observed. That left the camera or me.

I didn’t think it was the camera. After all, I’d come into photography the old fashioned way: using film. When dealing with film, the camera is just a mechanical device to get the exposure — at least at the level of camera I could afford. The lens handles the clarity of the image, so we normally put our money into good optics. Processing and printing (in the case of prints) are also important for the final result.

So it must be me, I reasoned. I resolved to try harder.

Time passed. I took a lot of photos. I started getting accustomed to disappointment. It was taking a lot of the joy out of photography. I’d do a shoot at an amazing place and get ho-hum images.

Nikon D80Then I started thinking more about the camera. I knew that my Nikon D80, which I’d had since 2007, had a 10.2 megapixel Nikon DX format CCD imaging sensor. Newer cameras offered higher resolutions (more megapixels or “piglets,” as my family calls them). They also offered different sensors. My husband’s D90, for example, has a 12.3-megapixel DX-format CMOS imaging sensor. And I knew that there were also cameras that had film-frame size sensors. Why the differences? Did it really matter? I began to get an education about how cameras differ in the world of digital photography.

By the autumn of 2010, I was convinced I needed a different camera. I was limited, however, because I already had a huge investment in Nikkor DX-compatible lenses. That meant that I couldn’t go with a film-frame size sensor in a new camera without buying new lenses. That also meant that any thoughts of jumping the good ship Nikon and boarding the S.S. Canon were not entertained. (Don’t get me wrong: Canon makes excellent equipment, too. But I know Nikon and have an investment in Nikon equipment; it makes no sense for me to switch.)

In November, I went to Tempe Camera to learn more. I was about 75% ready to plunk down up to $1500 for a new camera. But the sales guy educated me some more. Although I’d always seen my husband’s D90 as a minor upgrade to my D80, the sales guy told me that the software was far superior in the D90. I’d get better, clearer images from a D90.

Of course, my husband already had a D90, so it didn’t make sense to buy another one. I’d give it a go with his camera.

That didn’t work. When we went shooting together, he wanted to use his camera. Can you blame him? So I’d be stuck with mine and wouldn’t get the opportunity I needed to experiment with a different camera.

Nikon D7000I heard about the Nikon D7000 in, of all places, Wilson Camera on Camelback Road in Phoenix. We’d gone in there to get passport photos taken and the guy at the counter had been almost drooling over the D7000. I started doing some research. I liked what I read. Not only was it another [big] step above Mike’s D90, but Ken Rockwell, a highly respected camera reviewer, said:

The D7000 is Nikon’s most advanced camera at any price. The fact that it sells for $1,200 make [sic] it a no-brainer, which is why it’s sold out. The D7000 is Nikon’s best DSLR ever.

Holy cow. That was quite a statement.

I did more research on Nikon’s Web site. (That site, by the way, is an excellent and well-designed source of information about Nikon products and photography in general.) I liked the feature list. Better sensor, higher resolution images, programmable custom settings, more scene modes, true 1080p video capabilities — hell, it could even do time-lapse photography without an add-on intervalometer. There are a lot more features; if you’re interested I highly recommend reading up on Nikon’s Web site.

But Mr. Rockwell wasn’t kidding when he said the camera was sold out. Once I decided I wanted one, I spent two hours trying to track one down. Amazon.com was selling one for $100 above retail price. (I don’t pay more than retail for anything; heck, I seldom pay retail for anything.) Tempe Camera only had a kit, which came with the Nikkor 18-105mm lens. I don’t have that lens but I don’t need it either — and was not interested in spending $300 more for the camera with lens. A dozen calls all reported out of stock, although many dealers were willing to let me place an order anyway. But like the true American I am, I wanted immediate gratification — or as close to it as I could get. I was going to San Francisco in a few days and planned to use my new camera there.

I wound up on J&R’s Web site. I used to shop in the J&R store on Park Row when I worked in downtown Manhattan years ago. This was back in the mid 1980s, before digital cameras, when personal computers were in their infancy. J&R then was what chains like Best Buy and Fry’s Electronics are now. (Would love to walk through J&R again; maybe the next time I’m in New York I’ll make the trip down there.) I’d bought other camera and computer equipment from them in the past. Their Web site said they were out of stock on a D7000 body only, but I called anyway. The guy who answered in Maspeth, NY (in the borough of Queens, in case you’re wondering) said a shipment had just come in and the Web site evidently hadn’t been updated yet. They were selling at retail. Brand new, in an unopened box, packaged for U.S. sales. (I asked, of course; I know what goes on among some NYC camera dealers.) Free shipping would get it to me by Friday or Monday. I asked how much overnight shipping would cost. $27.27. Sold!

I expect it to arrive this afternoon.

Nikon GP-1 GPSIn a fit of crazy shopping mania, I also ordered the Nikon GP-1 GPS from Amazon.com. This device, which can attach to the camera’s hot shoe, will automatically geotag my images. This will seriously reduce my geotagging workflow and ensure that all of my photos are properly tagged. I even coughed up the $4 for overnight shipping to get that today.

Once I get the camera and learn to use it, the ball will be in my court. No more excuses; I’ll have good camera equipment and should be able to take better photos. If I can’t — well, I’ll only have myself to blame.

It’ll be interesting to see whether this camera takes me to the next level as a photographer. I’ve got my fingers crossed.

A Trip to Tempe Camera

Or why I will not be buying a new camera this week.

Yesterday, while in the Phoenix area, I finally brought my camera in to Tempe Camera to get its sensor and related electronics inside the lens hole cleaned. I’ve owned my Nikon D80 since May 2007 and it had never been professionally cleaned.

(A side note here: New York City photographers may remember Nikon House in Rockefeller Center. One of the services offered there was a free camera cleaning to Nikon owners. You’d walk in with your camera, hand it over, and while you browsed the gallery, they’d professionally clean it for you. I didn’t have a Nikon in those days and those day are long gone.)

The D80 was my first digital SLR. It had been on the market about a year when I bought it and had gotten lots of good reviews. At the time, it was probably considered Nikon’s top of the line consumer model DSLR. The reviews and the fact that it would work with my Nikon 6006 AF lenses is what sold me on it.

AtlasSince buying the camera, I’ve put a lot of money into lenses. I buy Nikkor lenses and I learned early on to avoid the low-end models. My favorite lens is a super multi-purpose 16-85mm DX lens. Sure, there’s some distortion at the widest focal length, but I like the effect for some of my shots. I also have a 10-24mm, 18-85mm (from my film camera days), 10.5mm fisheye (what a bunch of funky photos that makes; see example here, coincidentally shot less than a block from where Nikon House was), 70-200mm (also from film days), and 105-300mm (I think). And an f1.2 50mm lens (also from film days; came with one of my 6006s. (I have two if anyone is interested in buying one.)

The point is, I have a lot invested in what can now be considered a mid (or possibly low) end, dated camera.

I’m not very happy with the quality of the camera’s photos lately. They seem to lack the clarity I’m looking for in photos. I bring them into Photoshop, zoom to 100% magnification, and check the details. No crispness. The situation seems to be getting worse, but in reality, when I compare them to photos to the first trip I took with the camera — Alaska in 2007 — I don’t see much of a quality difference.

Of course, it could be my eyesight, which is definitely worsening as I age.

Or it could be that I simply wasn’t as picky several years ago.

I’ve been trying hard lately to eliminate the possible causes of the problems. A photography seminar at the Desert Botanical Gardens last year with Arizona Highways editor Jeff Kida gave me a place to start. His advice was to always use a tripod. I’d always pooh-poohed photographers who used tripods in the bright Arizona sun — mostly at the Grand Canyon, where they gather like lint in a dryer screen along the walkways at certain viewpoints at sunrise and sunset. Even with plenty of light to get shutter speeds in excess of 1/500 of a second, they’re positioning their tripod legs, adding what looks like a lot of effort to each snapshot.

View from atop Doe Mountain in SedonaI have no shortage of tripods, so I started using them. The results were not much better, although just using the tripod forced me to think harder about every shot — mostly because of what a pain in the ass it is to set up a tripod. I actually bought a new ball head for my good Manfrotto tripod just to make setup easier.

Cleaning the sensors seemed like the next step. I’d done a dumb thing a year or two ago: I’d used canned air to try to blow dust out. I should have realized that propellant could also come out with the air and that propellent might stick like glue to the sensors. After thinking about this for a good six months, I finally had an opportunity to take the camera in to get it done professionally.

Hence my trip to Tempe Camera.

Tempe Camera LogoIf you’re a professional photographer in the Phoenix area, I don’t have to tell you about Tempe Camera. You probably know it very well. If you’re a serious amateur, you should get to know it. It’s a great resource.

The place is basically split into three departments:

  • Sales sells new and used camera equipment, including camera bodies, lenses, tripods, camera bags, lights, light stands, etc. They even sell darkroom equipment, film (remember that?), and photographic paper and chemicals. If it has anything to do with photography, chances are, you can find it on Tempe Camera’s second floor sales area.
  • Repairs does camera repairs. They’ll handle anything from my simple sensor cleaning job to more complex repairs on any kind of camera equipment. You’ll find them on the first floor.
  • Rentals rents camera equipment. Not only will you find a bunch of camera bodies and lenses, but they have a ton of video equipment, lights, light stands, audio equipments, etc. You’ll find them on the first floor, to the left of the Repairs desk.

After dropping off my camera at the Repairs desk and chatting with the folks at the rental desk about my Moitek Video Camera Mount, I climbed the stairs to start exploring the possibility of getting a new camera. Because of my huge lens investment, I didn’t want to upgrade to a camera that couldn’t use the lenses I already had, but I was ready for bad news if it would be delivered.

At the counter, I soon got the attention of a guy not much older than me who, fortunately for me, was a Nikon guy. (Anyone who does photography knows that there’s a Nikon vs. Canon rivalry that’s just plain silly. They’re both good cameras. Anyone who’s heavily invested in one is not likely to switch to the other, so just give it a rest, folks.) During the conversation, I discovered that he’d been doing serious photography and had had photos published for the past 38 years. (He wasn’t some college kid — Tempe is home of ASU — who doesn’t know jack shit about photography.)

Cactus FlowersI told him my situation: I’d owned a D80 for three years, had a lot of decent quality Nikon DX lenses, and was disappointed with the clarity of my photos. Was there a better camera model I could upgrade to without having to toss my lenses? He asked about the kinds of things I shoot. I told him I mostly shot landscapes, outdoors, in natural light.

The cameras were laid out on a shelf under the glass countertop in order of price/feature set with the low end cameras on my left and the higher end cameras on my right. He pointed out the D90 and D300S. He told me that stepping up to either one would make a big difference, since they both used CMOS sensors and had better software. Both would use the lenses I had. He then told me a personal story about stepping up from a D200 years ago to some other newer model (I forget which) and the mind-blowing difference in the quality of his photos. Camera software was very important.

We talked about my lenses. I told him about the 16-85mm and 10-24mm DX lenses. He said the 10-24mm lens I had was probably the second best lens Nikon made in that line. He said my problem was probably not due to the optics of my lenses.

I asked him about the full-frame sensors — and pardon me if I got the name of that wrong, but he did know what I was talking about. He said that they weren’t likely to improve the overall quality of the images. He said that what they would do is make it possible to create much larger prints. Cameras with full-frame sensors could not be used with my lenses, so I didn’t need to explore that avenue much farther.

We talked about a few things that could improve photo quality. The subject of shooting in raw and manipulating in Photoshop or some other image editing software package came up. He claimed that alone could improve image quality by 33%. (No, I don’t know where he got that number from.) I’d been told by others — Ann Torrence comes to mind — that shooting raw would help, but I know nothing about processing raw, so I hesitated to open what would likely be a tangled can of worms. Now I’m thinking about that can and have already started studying up with Camera Raw courses on Lynda.com.

Gunsite ButteI told him my husband already had a D90. He told me I should try it and see if I could notice a difference.

And this is what impressed me so much about my visit. I took at least 5 to 10 minutes of this guy’s time and picked his brain for information. Although I was ready to seriously consider buying a new camera, he didn’t try to sell me one. Instead, he offered some solutions that would take advantage of the relatively expensive equipment I already had. It was a “try this first” approach; not a “buy this first” approach.

So the next time I take a trip, I’ll bring my husband’s D90 along. I’ll use a tripod and I’ll shoot in jpeg+raw. I’ll experiment with raw file post-processing. And I’ll see if anything makes a difference.

One thing I know for sure: if I decide I’m ready to put my D80 aside, I’ll be gong to Tempe Camera to buy its replacement.

A Simple Wildlife Photography Setup

What I’ve found useful.

Juvenile Robin
Juvenile Robin captured at f/5.6, 1/30 second, ISO 400 with 300mm lens.

Let me start again with this disclaimer: I am not a professional photographer. I am a relatively serious amateur who happens to have a bit of extra cash now and then to invest in decent quality — but not professional grade — camera equipment.

Yet I made all three of the bird photos in this blog post and a bunch of others I’m pretty proud of.

I believe in simplicity when doing photography. I don’t like to carry around a lot of stuff. I feel that the more crap you carry around and have to juggle to get the shot, the less likely you are to capture the fleeting images that we see — and miss — every day. And there’s nothing more fleeting than wildlife, especially birds and insects.

After yesterday’s impromptu shoot from my camper — when I went outside barefoot in an attempt to photograph a killdeer mother and her three chicks — I realized that there are only three pieces of equipment a serious amateur wildlife photographer needs:

  • Nikon D80

    A decent quality digital SLR. Mine is a Nikon D80. It’s two years old and it does what I need it to do. My husband just got a D90 and it looks like another good option. Some folks like Canon equipment. That’s supposed to be very good, too. (My favorite point-and-shoots were always tiny Canon PowerShots — but they’re really not appropriate for serious photography.) The important thing is that it offers all the features of an SLR camera, including various modes so you can shoot with aperture or shutter speed priority, with manual settings, or using the camera’s built-in programming. And, of course, it needs to support interchangeable lenses.

  • Nikon 70-300mm Zoom Lens

    A good fixed focal length or zoom telephoto lens. I’m talking 300mm or better here. I have a Nikkor 70-300mm f4.5/5.6 ED-IF AF-S VR Zoom Lens. This is not a cheap lens; don’t get suckered in to buying the cheaper version of this — or any other lens — if you can afford the better lens. AF stands for autofocus, which I actually need, as my vision deteriorates. VR stands for vibration reduction. There’s some kind of a motor inside the lens that kicks in to steady the image when needed — usually when I zoom in to 300mm. If you’re an old film photographer, keep in mind that most digital cameras, for reasons I’m not 100% clear on, have different focal length equivalents from your old film camera. On my Nikon, it’s a 1.5 ratio. That means a 300mm lens on my Nikon D80 is equivalent to a 450mm lens on my old Nikon 6006. That’s a lot of magnification.

  • Manfrotto Monopod

    A good quality monopod. Yes, a tripod would be steadier, but I simply cannot capture those fleeting moments when I’m fiddling with a tripod head to get my camera set up right. I know because I tried my tripod first yesterday. I got fed up within 60 seconds and switched to the monopod. My monopod is a Manfrotto 679B with three sections. It has a foam grip and rubber foot and makes an excellent walking stick for hiking. I bought it over a year ago and didn’t use it for six months. I tried using it with video and it wasn’t steady enough for me. But it’s perfect for still photos using that big zoom lens.

Now put the lens on the camera and the camera on the monopod. Resist the urge to take along any other lenses or equipment. Go to a place where you know there will be wildlife. Extend the leg of your monopod so the camera is about level with your face. Be quiet. Wait. When the wildlife comes, point and shoot.

If you’ve been following this blog, you know I’m living in a trailer parked in the small RV park at a golf course. Every night they water the lawn between the sites. Every morning and evening the birds come out to pick in the grass for worms and other goodies.

There’s a family of killdeer that absolutely taunts me. I see them from my window every day: a mom and three chicks. The chicks are adorable; miniature versions of the mom. I’ve been trying to photograph them for days, but they’re extremely skittish and run off across the parking lot as soon as they see me.

Juvenile Robin

Juvenile Robin, captured at f/5.6, 1/60 second, ISO 400 with a 300mm lens.

I tried again yesterday. When they ran off, I set my sights (and lens) on a number of baby robins. The photos in this blog post are the result. I used the equipment listed here. The camera was set to program mode. No flash (of course).

I shot 79 photos in the span of about 30 minutes. I never ventured farther away from my camper than 150 feet. I couldn’t; I was barefoot! (Next time I’ll remember to throw on a pair of shoes.) I was shooting two juvenile robins at the base of a tree when they suddenly flew up into the tree. They perched on low branches well within reach of my lens. I got many good shots of them but I think these are among the best. The other shot was taken a bit later when a mother bird came to drink and bathe at a puddle near her “baby.”

First Bath

Mother robin showing her baby how to bathe, captured at f/5.6, 1/400 second, ISO 400 with a 300mm lens.

The two bird close-ups are full-frame photos — not cropped at all. The photo of the mom and her baby is cropped; I discovered that when you get too close to a robin and her young, the robin will fly off, leaving the baby behind. So I kept my distance for this shot to include both of them.

Anyway, the point of all this is to remind photographers that they don’t need a lot of fancy equipment to get good wildlife photos. What’s more important is having quality equipment, some kind of steadying platform for the camera, and patience. Go where the wildlife will be. Wait. If you can get into a kind of hidden position, great.

I’m sure I’ll be repeating this exercise again soon. I still need to capture those elusive killdeer.

My Geotagging Workflow

How I add GPS coordinates to my photos.

A while back, I decided I wanted to include the GPS coordinates in the EXIF data for my photos. Because my cameras (a Nikon D80 and a Nikon CoolPix something-or-other) don’t have built-in GPS features or communicate via bluetooth (or any other method) with a GPS, I have to manually attach the GPS coordinates to the photos.

I say manually, but I do this with software that automates the process. (I’m not a complete idiot.) Still, there’s a slightly convoluted workflow to get this all together. I thought I’d outline it here for two reasons:

  • Some blog readers might be genuinely interested. I’m not the only photo-snapping geek around.
  • By documenting this, I can look back, years from now, and see yet another example of how technology changes to make things easier and how I solved a “problem.”

So here’s the workflow rundown. I skipped the nitty gritty details to keep it short. (I read somewhere that people don’t like to read long blog posts.)

Step 1: Acquire the Photos

GlobalSat BT-335Bluetooth GPS w/ ChargersWhen I go out to do photography, I take minimal equipment. I don’t like to carry a bunch of stuff. But one of the things I do take with me (other than my camera) is a GPS data logger. I bought a GlobalSat BT-335 Bluetooth GPS Data Logger. I made my choice after lots of research, including this excellent review on bioneural.net. Three things sold me:

  • Price. It’s $69.95 on Amazon.com.
  • Size. It’s small and lightweight.
  • Connectivity. It’s Bluetooth, so I don’t have to deal with cables. (I hate cables.)

As an added bonus, when paired with my MacBook Pro, it puts live GPS data on my computer. Which is kind of cool, even though I currently have no use for this capability.

I’m not saying you should go out and buy this. I’m just saying that I did and I’m very satisfied. And while I certainly welcome comments that suggest other models, my choice has been made, so please don’t try to sell me on your solution.

A GPS data logger like the BT-335 does one thing, and it does it well. It keeps track of where you’ve been by recording GPS coordinates and corresponding times. It stores all this data inside itself with virtually no user interface. I attach it with a wrist strap I bought at a camera store to my camera’s shoulder strap. Before I start shooting photos, I turn it on and it does its thing. I basically forget all about it.

So when I go out to do photography, I turn on my GPS data logger and use my camera to take pictures. Pretty simply stuff, no?

It’s important to note here that the time on my camera must be right — at least within 10-20 seconds (if I’m on the move) or 1 to 2 minutes (if I’m moving more slowly). I check it against my computer’s clock (which is set by atomic clock) and adjust it a few times a year. The GPS data logger gets its date/time information from the GPS satellites.

Step 2: Get the Data and Photos on the Computer

The next step is to get all of the GPS data and the photos onto my computer.

LoadMyTracksAlthough GlobalSat has a perfectly fine utility for getting the data off its unit and onto a Mac, I use the freeware application, Load My Tracks. I tell it I’m using a GlobalSat DG-100 and because the unit is paired to my computer, it finds it. I can then download tracks into either GPX (which I need) or KML format. I download both — heck, why not? — into the folder where I’ll soon be downloading the photos. I then erase the data logger so I don’t have extra track points in it the next time I use it.

Next, I use a card reader with Image Capture, which comes with Mac OS X, to download all photos from my camera into the folder where I saved the track logs. They don’t have to be in the same folder, but I like it that way. Nice and neat. And it makes it easy to back up the logs with the photos.

Now I’ve got the GPS data and photos on my computer.

Step 3: Match GPS Coordinates to Photos

Next, I launch GPSPhotoLinker, another freeware application. I use the Load Tracks button to load up the GPX data file for the photo shoot. Then I use the Load Photos button to load all the photos I took during the shoot. I go into batch mode, which has my settings saved from the last session, and click Batch Save to Photos.

GPSPhotoLinker uses my settings and the data to write the GPS coordinates, including altitude, to each photo. It displays a progress bar as it works. When it’s done, the Latitude and Longitude for each photo appears in the appropriate columns in the list of photos. Here’s what it looks like while it’s working. (Yes, I took pictures of very big, red rocks.)

GPSPhotoLinker In Action

As for the big, red rocks, you can find them here. (But it seems to be off by a 10-20 feet; maybe it’s time to adjust the camera time again.)

Step 4: Backup

After losing a hard disk for the third time two years ago, I have become fanatical about backing up my data. After importing photos and linking the GPS data to them, I burn them onto a CD or DVD (depending on the capacity needed). When the burn is done, I check the CD or DVD to make sure it functions properly. Then I apply a label with the date and some descriptive information and file the CD or DVD in a box with a bunch of others.

I format the memory card for my camera in my camera to clear it out completely.

I then feel good about deleting photos off my hard disk, adding them to iPhoto, or modifying them in Photoshop or some other image editing too.

Sounds Like a Lot of Work?

It really isn’t a lot of work. It’s a whole workflow thing. Do it enough times and you can do it quickly. Steps 2 through 4 take about 15 minutes from start to finish.

That’s my flow for geotagging. What’s yours? Got a camera with a GPS or GPS connectivity built in? Please do brag about it by adding a comment here. I’d love to learn more.

Better Christmas Boats

If at first you don’t succeed…

I was very disappointed with my photo of the Christmas Boats the other day. Let’s face it — I took the shot from the window of my hotel room. I set the camera on the window sill, which is very close to the ground, and I let the self-timer press the shutter so there wouldn’t be any shutter shake. The framing is awful and the exposure is only so-so. It really didn’t capture the mood here, where the boats really bring out the Christmas spirit — even in folks like me.

So tonight I took the camera with me for a walk around the north side of the harbor. There were benches along the way that I could set the camera down on. I took about 40 shots and threw away 20 of them. This was one of the best.

Christmas at Ventura Harbor

By the way, that bright point of light in the sky is Venus.

My CoolPix apparently has a night scenery setting. I gave it a try. It seems to play around with the light a bit; 100% magnification on the 10 megapixel images shows some weirdness around the parking lot lights in the distance. I’m wondering how my Nikon D80 would have handled it. Shot properly from a tripod with a cable release, of course.

A[nother] Trip to Lower Antelope Canyon

I finally make time to do a photo walk in the sandstone canyon.

For the past month and a half, I have been living less than two miles from Antelope Canyon in Page, AZ.

Lower Antelope CanyonIf you don’t know what Antelope Canyon is, you’ve probably never read Arizona Highways or seen any of the “typical” Arizona photos out there on the Web. As Wikipedia states, “Antelope Canyon is the most-visited and most-photographed slot canyon in the American Southwest.” Its reddish sandstone walls glow with direct and reflected light at midday, emphasizing the texture of the swirling patterns on the walls.

There are actually two Antelope Canyons: Upper and Lower. Most people go to the Upper canyon, which is upstream (south) of the other area. Upper Antelope Canyon is a short 1/4 mile stretch of slot canyon cut into a huge sandstone rock in the middle of Antelope Wash. It features cool, swirling sandstone walls and hard-packed, almost level sandy floor. I’ve written about it at least twice in this blog: “Antelope Canyon” (September 2006) and “Four Tips for Great Antelope Canyon Photos” (April 2007).

Entrance to Lower Antelope CanyonLower Antelope Canyon is downstream from upper. It has far fewer visitors. I think it’s more spectacular — with corkscrew-like carvings and at least two arches — but I also think it’s harder to photograph. It’s also far more difficult to traverse, requiring climbing up and down iron stairs erected at various places inside the canyon, clambering over rocks, and squeezing through narrow passages. For this reason, the Navajo caretakers don’t really limit your time in Lower Antelope Canyon. You slip through a crack in the ground — and I do mean that literally (see photo left) — and are on your own until you emerge from where you descended or from the long, steep staircase (shown later) that climbs out before the canyon becomes impossible to pass.

Lower Antelope CanyonI went to Lower Antelope Canyon with my next door neighbor and fellow pilot, Robert, today. It had been a whole year since my only other visit. After paying the $26/person entrance fee, I told the woman in the booth that I’d been there before. She told us to go on down, without waiting for a guide.

I had a few things with me that I didn’t have on my last visit. First and foremost was a tripod. I’d left my tripod behind on my last visit, thinking the light would be bright enough not to need it. Wrong. This time, I had a sturdy tripod I’d borrowed from Mike just for this trip. The only problem was, the tripod was old, its legs could not be spread independently, and the tripod was stiff from age or disuse. I also had two lenses I didn’t own last year: my 10.5 mm fisheye lens and my new 16-70 mm zoom lens. I packed light, bringing just the tripod and the camera with those two lenses. Rather than use my camera bag, I put the lens that wasn’ ton the camera in a fanny pack, along with a bottle of water and a lens brush.

Lower Antelope CanyonWe arrived at about 11:20 AM and the place was unusually crowded. But Lower Antelope Canyon is large and everyone spread out. Most folks only made the walk one way, taking the stairs up and hiking back on the surface. We would have done the same, but we ran out of time. We were in there until 2:30 PM; Robert had to be at work by 4 PM.

Robert in Lower Antelope CanyonWe made our way through the canyon slowly, stopping to take photos along the way. Positioning the tripods was extremely difficult sometimes, as the canyon floor was often only wide enough for a single foot to stand in it. My tripod really hindered me, but I made it work. I think Robert (shown here) had an easier time with his. We were two of dozens of photographers, most of which were very polite and stayed clear of other photographer’s frames. This is the biggest challenge at Upper Antelope Canyon. I find it stressful up there, as I told a trio of photographers from Utah. Lower Antelope Canyon is much more relaxing.

Lower Antelope Canyon StairsNear the end of the canyon walk, I was worn out. It wasn’t the hike as much as the struggle to find the right shots and get the tripod into position. I felt as if I’d had enough. So when we reached the last chamber before the canyon got very narrow (and muddy) and I laid eyes on those stairs, I realized it would definitely be better to take the easier route back. I took this shot with my fisheye lens, which was the only way to get the entire staircase in the shot. If you look closely, you can see Robert’s head poking out near the top.

Lower Antelope CanyonI took about 95 photos while in the canyon. Some of the better ones — along with some to illustrate the story — are here. There’s a better collection in my Photo Gallery’s new Arizona section. I’ll probably add others — as well as shots I’ve taken around Lake Powell lately — soon.

If you’re ever in or near Page, AZ, I highly recommend taking the time to visit one of the Antelope Canyons. Even if you don’t take a single photo, a walk through the canyon is something you’ll remember for a lifetime.