Sunday, January 14, 2018


"What are you doing?"

"I think I can get a good photo of the valley and the stars using a long exposure."

"So, how long...?"

"Fifteen seconds ought to be good, I figure."

"No, I mean how long are we going to be here?"

"Oh. Um, almost done."

By now we've established that a full frame camera with 24mm f/1.4 lens is my favorite setup for night landscapes and starscapes. And if we find ourselves looking out over a valley under a brilliant night sky, and if I mistakenly left the lens - and the tripod - back at the hotel, I can capture the scene almost as well with a good pocket camera.

Another thing we've learned is that watching someone else take pictures is really boring.

It had been a long day, up Four Mile Trail to Glacier Point, then back down to the Alwhanee, er Majestic Hotel in time for dinner and a sunset. We were driving back when we passed Tunnel View. We both noticed a crowd of people milling about in the darkness.

"Hey look, lots of people checking out the view. In the dark."


"Want to go see the dark view?"


And we pulled in. Plenty of parking available, and as our eyes adjusted to the darkness a beautiful dome of stars revealed itself. A crescent moon illuminated the landscape. We stood in awe. And that's when I realized I'd forgotten to bring the astro lens and tripod. No matter, I have two good cameras with me, the Canon 6D with ultra-wide zoom in the trunk of our car with my backpack, and my Ricoh GR compact, in my pocket as always. I figured the GR has an ASP-C sensor - same as you get in most DSLRs - and a relatively fast and wide lens. Being on hand, the GR became my choice. It also has a flat bottom suitable for propping up on a rock wall. So I prop it up, and after a few minutes of fiddling, I'd captured the night scene as we remember it.

Shoot the Stars

Just about any modern digital camera can take a starscape photograph. All you need is a dark sky, an steady mount, and some knowledge about your camera's features. Little secret: If the camera is very still you can leave the shutter open for a long time and collect a lot of light. While shooting handheld I don't like to go slower than 1/125, or if it's very dark 1/60 if I hold still - I like a fast shutter speed to minimize shake blur for sharper photos. However, photographing the stars requires a lot of light, and the limiting factor here is the rotation of the earth making the stars appear to move across the picture, smearing their light on the sensor. The wider the angle the longer it takes to produce these star trails. If you explore the googles and the photo blogs you can find some handy charts illustrating theoretical limits of different lens and sensor combinations. My rule of thumb is something like...

  • 50mm, 5-10 seonds
  • 24mm, 15-20 seconds
  • 14mm, 25-30 seconds

Pointing the camera further north - or south - closer to the celestial pole where the apparent motion of the stars is faster, allows more open shutter time, while for me some of the more interesting stuff (Orion, Milky Way core, and so on) is near the equator where there's less time. So with the same setup I might use a 20 second exposure for Cassiopeia, and 15 seconds for Sagittarius.

Aperture? As wide open as possible, stopping down just enough to make sure the corners are sharp.

ISO? How much can your sensor take before getting noisy? That's something you'll learn from trial and error, experimentation, and photo discussion groups.

For example, my Ricoh GR has an equivalent field of view of 28mm and 15 seconds will get plenty of light and limit star trails. With the 6D I usually go for a sensor speed of ISO 3200 or even 6400 (I once got a spectacular black and white at 25,600 camping under the milky way at high altitude and crystal clear skies) but the GR is a lot cleaner at 1600. So 15 seconds at ISO 1600 and f/2.8 is my go-to setting under dark skies.

There's a few numbers you have to learn, but once you learn them, you can pretty much set the exposure the same way every time, and you'll get a feel for adjusting this for different conditions... moonlight, car headlights, clouds, and so on. With experience you'll learn what works.

And Don't Be Annoying

The last thing everyone wants is to stand around while you fiddle endlessly with a complicated camera. You should be able to set up and take this shot in the same amount of time it takes to organize people into a group photo.


One skill you absolutely need to master is manual focus. Again, the Internet has great resources and how-to articles. The short answer is to focus on a bright star using the camera's LCD screen at maximum zoom. If you're using a fully manual lens you can even mark the spot on the focuser. Infinity will be in the same place every time.

Framing Your Shot

The next challenge of photographing in a dark environment is simply pointing the camera. When it's a dark night, your LCD screen is solid black, making adjustments tricky. Even with a pentaprism DSLR, it can be difficult to see what's in the corner of the frame. So how do we frame the shot? Trial and error.

In the following sequence you see a number of photos where I take the picture, look at it on the camera's LCD screen, and move the camera in a direction and amount that is basically a best guess.

Too close, that tree

Too low, the rock wall is visible at the bottom

Even worse

Better. I see the whole tree and more sky now
Obviously if each picture is a 15 second exposure, this can take a long time, right? So, we can fix that. Instead of using the camera's optimal settings, crank up the ISO to maximum and shorten the exposure time to a few seconds. The pictures will be noisy as all get out, nothing you'll want to show off, but they will let you see the composition of the shot and quickly zero in on the picture you want.

Once you have it framed, put your settings in the optimal mode for that final shot. With some post processing and noise reduction, you might find you have a picture you'll be proud to hang in the living room or share on your social face gram.

One Last Skill

The final skill for taking these pictures, for taking a picture like you would any vacation snapshot, is most critical. You must be able to do all of the above, quickly, in the dark. Forget to focus? The shot is ruined. Auto ISO? Ruined. Switching to the wrong exposure? Accidentally push the wrong button because it's dark? Forget it. You should be able to say, "Wow, look at that sky," get out your camera, focus, adjust the framing with quick shots, and reset the exposure for your final picture, all before your friends and family get tired of waiting for you. Not that sitting under the stars is the worst burden you could impose on them! But the more you're there and present for the people around you, rather than just obsessing with your camera, the better for everyone. 


Nobody does anything perfectly the first time. It takes practice, it takes attention to detail, it takes constant self-improvement. A hobby is something you spend time on, and this is a good one. So next time there's a meteor shower, invite your friends to spend a night out in the woods watching shooting stars. Bring a picnic basket. While everyone is ooh-ing and ahh-ing at the celestial show, you'll have all the time you need. 

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Sunday, November 12, 2017

And Now What?

Why do I take pictures? And why so much time to make pictures better? Why carry a camera? Sure, important events with loved ones make good enough reasons, and sharing memories with loved ones is good enough reason to want to get better at it. But that's not always the reason. What about the abstract, the artistic, the playful dancing with light?

And what if I'm stuck in a rut? What if I want a challenge? Photo exercises! Introduce rules that force me to only take certain kinds of pictures. I've listed here some possibilities. Each theme has its own theme and restrictions, which can be adhered to for a period of time, say a week, or for a number of photos, say ten satisfactory pictures I'd be willing to share in an exhibit. Either way, you must follow the rules, and no sneaky going back to your favorite settings while the game is in play!

Some ideas that pop into my head for no particular reason:

  • Black and white only. Obvious. Photogs have made careers out of this one. 
  • A dominant color, or complimentary colors. Pick one or two accordingly.
  • A particular shape: spheres, triangles, etc.
  • In-camera only, no post processing. 
  • An everyday activity, say people getting coffee.
  • Things that move.
  • Things that stay still.
  • An emotion: love, friendship, sadness, or envy. 
  • A time of day. A sunrise series seems obvious here. 
  • A part of the body: eyes, hands. 
  • Take a picture every day for a year.
  • Then don't take any pictures at all. Any missed opportunity jump out at you? What sticks in your mind?
  • Pick a "master" to study, a famous photographer, then try to replicate their best shots. It's okay to steal ideas!

    It's all practice.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Goodbye, Old Keens

They were the best birthday present and the best camp shoes, from the bottom of the Grand Canyon to the top of Kilimanjaro. When they started falling apart I took them to a cobbler and had the stitching fixed. When the entire heel strap let go, I had to reluctantly admit that these shoes have given me all they're going to give, and it's time to let them go.

And with that, I welcome my new pair of shoes. Brand new shoes!

It's the same shoes, really, Keen Newports, just in a different color. They feel tight, and that makes me realize just how long I'd hung on to the original pair, loose and worn as they were. The new pair feels... well, new. In the first few hours of wear the stiff fabric will mold gradually around my feet, feeling progressively more a like part of me. I can't help but think about all the new adventures I'll have in these shoes, and I'm eager to begin. My feet have an itch only a mountain or canyon can scratch.

Now that's a well-worn sole.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Walking and Talking Past Each Other

In Chicago, I took the same picture I take when I come across any building of this moniker, but this time I had friends to help me. As we collaborated on this piece, I noticed a group of three people watching us. I don't want to stereotype, but let's just say they looked "rural" and "Trump-voterish," and after we took the picture, as we were walking past them I heard one of them say to his friends (not to us), "Too bad Hillary doesn't have a hotel, we could do that too."

And as we walked away I said to my two friends, "But Hillary doesn't have a hotel, does she? Because that's not what she does."

And the two groups of friends continued on their separate ways.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

What Camera Should I Buy?

This is the question I both dread and look forward to the most, because it's never a question of which camera is best, or even what's best for the money. It's all about what camera is right for you, what kind of pictures you want to take, what fits your style, what you're willing to carry. We're talking about ourselves as much as our cameras, and I love talking about both.

Now instead of thinking about which camera, let's talk about which lens. It's the lens that gathers the light, it's the lens that projects the image. If you project a good, sharp image on any modern sensor and you're good. Choose the camera around the lens, and only then think about other features. You get a good lens, you'll take good pictures.

Okay, so we're thinking about lenses. Aren't there a lot of different kinds? Yes, but there is a list of standard-ish focal lengths to narrow things down. These are all 35mm equivalent in terms of field-of-view. The field of view, how much of the scene is in your frame, depends on the ratio between focal length and sensor size, so smaller sensor cameras will get a similar looking picture from a proportionally shorter lens, and even if we're talking about smaller sensors, when you read about focal length and zoom range the manufacturers talk in 35mm equivalence, what size lens would produce the same image framing, field of view, on a 35mm sensor. Got it?

Wait. Back up.

In the beginning, there was 35mm film, and camera lenses were designed to project on that exact size rectangle. That means the first digital cameras would need sensors of that same size so photographers could use their existing lenses (pros spend way more on glass than they do on cameras). As technology advanced and digital cameras got better, it became obvious the sensors didn't need to be nearly so big to produce great pictures, and that's how we got our smaller formats, crop-frame DSLRs, micro 4/3", and (totally good enough for anyone) 1"  and 1/2.3" compacts.

But we still talk about 35mm equivalent, the lens that would produce the same image framing for whatever size sensor you have (the first picture in this list, for example, is 10.9mm on a micro-4/3"). So that's the frame of reference for these "standard" focal lengths and the kinds of pictures they take.

Why these numbers in particular? Because in the old days, zoom lenses sucked. Non-zoom, prime lenses were sharper and better in low light and fast action situations, so manufacturers, working with photographers to optimize around different uses, settled on this set of lens designs and that's what made the pictures that everyone got used to.

All that said, here is a list of the standard focal lengths and what they do, starting at wide angle and zooming in.

Landscape pictures, think wide open spaces.

Street photography, imagine scenes of life in 1970s New York City by Garry Winogrand.

Vacation photos, family pictures, and generally people in fun places having a good time. If I only had one focal length this would be it.

The "standard lens," classic mid 20th century photos and Humans of New York.


Super portrait.

Anything above this range is super-telephoto. Anything below is ultra wide-angle, my favorite, although (or perhaps because) it is the most challenging to frame. Like if you're at a street festival you can frame the entire street.

Ultra-wide angle.


Of course nowadays zooms are so good you don't choose a single focal length, you get a whole range that includes several of these in a single lens. You may be tempted to get a very large range zoom that covers everything, like an 18-400mm. Don't! There's always a tradeoff and a large zoom range will be less sharp, heavier, and often both. My favorite lens is a 17-40mm but someday I'll "trade up" to a 16-35mm -- only a 2x zoom! The most popular general purpose zoom is 24-70mm (3x) or the almost-as-good 24-100mm (4x).

You can still buy prime (non-zoom) lenses in those focal lengths (and people often do). Even with zooms we keep going back to the old standard focal lengths of tradition. I still prefer 35mm over 40mm and if, with a slight twist of zoom, I take a picture at 36mm, it bugs me for some reason.

But it's up to you how you like it.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Follow Your Sunbeam: A Cat's Guide to Success in Business, Relationships, and Naps

Marble, resident cat and guest blogger

Sometimes I look at my reflection in the window and think, how did I achieve such success in life?

I look out into the world and I realize there's two kinds of cats. Those who are in sunbeams and those who aren't. We all want to be the cat in the sunbeam but I've learned that sometimes we are, sometimes we aren't. And we can't just sit around waiting for the sunbeam to come to our window. We have to seek it out, and find a spot to lie down wherever it is. Even then, it's important to keep a lookout, because the sunbeam will move.

My pursuit of sunbeams may seem intense, but when you enjoy warm sunlight as much as I do, it doesn't feel like work. Eternal vigilance is just the price of warm naps.

Floors, windows, it doesn't matter. Where the sun goes, I go.

Do sunbeams sometimes hide under chairs? Yes they do. 

It takes a lot of work to achieve this kind of bliss.