Though this is a blog about photography, “how bad do you want it” is a question that applies to just about anything and everything, but I digress…
You may be thinking, Jason, what the hell are you talking about… well. “How bad do you want it” is a question I ask myself just about every Friday before my head hits the pillow. For those of you who don’t know, much like many many other landscape photographers, I have an “adult” job. Not adult like an adult film star or anything, but a full-time job that has nothing to do with photography.
After working over 40 hours a week, at times away from my lovely wife and all the comforts of home for several days, there is nothing more I would rather do than sleep in, relax and marathon Walter White as he Breaks Bad. So, I have to ask myself, “how bad do you want it“? And for me, “it” is that one banger shot that makes you smile when it pops up on the back of the camera after hearing the shutter click. It could be vivid colors of the Milkey Way arching over Enchanted Rock or a beautiful smile beneath piercing eyes in dramatic black & white.
Being a photographer in a digital world is, in many ways, so much easier than it was when I started shooting film. In an instant after freezing time, you can know if you captured your vision. The leaps in technology have, for sure, brought with it benefits that I can’t imagine living without. However… with all those wonderful leaps forward there is bound to be an equal and opposite reaction, according to some guy that goes by the name Issac.
Social media is without a doubt a huge part of what I do as a photographer, as it is with just about every business these days. It is still possible to do well without social media, but when you can reach 100K plus people with one banger image, well, that’s a large audience and you would have to be a little crazy to pass that up. But, with social media, there is a constant pressure to produce great content. That could be a single image, a video, tutorial, or a blog post like this one. And, contrary to what some people think, pumping out content and posts that will actually catch the attention of an audience is a large dedication of time not to mention a lot of work.
One Friday night, a few weeks ago, after a very busy week at my “real” job, I had to ask myself “how bad do you want it“? The weather forecast that night called for zero clouds, which can be great if you’re into shooting nightscapes like I am. It also called for temperatures in the upper 30’s. I know what you’re thinking, upper 30’s isn’t cold. Well if you live in Central Texas and are going to be standing lakeside on a breezy night, its cold.
For several weeks that I had been waiting for a clear night on a weekend so I could get what I hoped would be Star Trails above the Austin, Texas skyline. But that meant waking up at 3:30am, driving for over an hour, walking for about a mile with 38 pounds of camera equipment on my back, just to stand in 39° temperatures for several hours. Gotta want it pretty bad to go through all of that after the week I had.
So it was cold… really cold… But I think I mentioned that. My fingertips and toes were numb and the filters I was trying to use kept getting condensation on them, which really sucked because it ruined the shot I wanted so much. Originally I had a grand plan of making a video out of the trip with some great aerial B-role as the sun broke the horizon and illuminated downtown Austin. Though I did piece together the video below, there isn’t any epic drone. I couldn’t feel my fingers by the time the sun started to rise. Sometimes things just don’t go as planned. But, the video doesn’t do it justice and I loved every minute of it.
So, that brings us full circle. How bad do you want it? What are you willing to do to get the thing you want most? Next time you think you would rather sleep in or not get out and make it happen, ask yourself that.
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One of the most difficult aspects of landscape photography for me would seem to be a very simple part of the process for a lot of you, getting out there…
Typically, the best times to shoot landscape photography is in the early morning just before and during sunrise, and late in the day before and during sunset. At these times you can not only capture some of the most beautiful natural colors in the sky caused from the light breaking through the atmosphere, dust and water vapor along the horizon, but the side light shadows created by the sun being low in the sky can create depth and dimension in the scene. And if your lucky and get some thin and high altitude Cirrus clouds, the sky just seems to catch on fire with a pink and orange glow.
This doesn’t mean it isn’t possible to get fantastic images during the middle of the day though. Depending on the conditions it is very possible to capture something amazing. Personally, I like shooting black and white at these times, the dark shadows can create a lot of contrast. But as a general rule, during the middle of the day when the sun is high in the sky, everything can appear to be a bit flat due to the harsh light and the lack of dimension in the shadows.
Of the two prime shooting times, I normally prefer to shoot in the early morning hours. There are normally fewer people out which helps me have a scene to myself, take my time, and not worry about missing the perfect light due to distraction or an unintentional photobomb.
Though I am a morning person and rarely sleep in, planning on a morning landscape shoot can be a big investment in time. Unless you are lucky enough to live in one of those areas where you are just surrounded by amazing scenes, this means you have to wake up at 3:00’ish, drive 1-2 hours, walk in the dark to get to your location, set up and wait for that magic light to “Hopefully” happen.
There is a lot of planning, pre-scouting locations, watching the weather, and even then you can’t be sure what exactly you are going to get once the sun starts to break the horizon. Clouds, wind, humidity, rain, light… There are so many things constantly changing and can’t be predicted that all the planning and preparation can seem to have been wasted. It’s easy to get frustrated after driving for several hours, hiking for 3 miles while carrying 30-40 lbs of gear, just to have the clouds close in and shut down the excitement of getting that hero image you were chasing.
Just taking the step to get out there and put yourself in the places and situations needed to capture an epic image is something I struggle with on a regular basis. Photography is a huge part of my life and as much as I love being out in nature, life isn’t that one dimensional for me and there are things that conflict with getting out there. Family, friends, dinner, drinks, cookouts, movies… It isn’t always easy to cut your fun short on a Saturday night because 3:00 comes so very early, especially if you are fortunate enough to have someone like Mrs. Red 5 in your life that loves the nightlife.
That being said, there are only 2 times I can think of that I actually regretted taking a step out the door so early in the morning. The process and journey are always rewarding not to mention the sense of accomplishment from setting and crossing a goal off your list. The real reward is given in the fresh air, being away from all the thoughts of bills, meetings, and normal day to day stresses.
So be sure to take that first step. Find a place and situation to put yourself in that will elevate what you do. Challenge yourself to go a little farther, try something new. And most importantly, Get Out There!
Do you edit your images? I get that questions a lot and the answer is a very simple, yes.
Now I am not talking about changing out the sky or adding a dinosaur to the foreground. What I do in post-processing would be considered more as adjustments in my view. The reason is not to make the image look more impressive or different, but to make it look more like the scene and composition looked to me when I pressed the shutter release. That raises the question “why doesn’t the image look the way it did when you took it”?
There are a few reasons for this. First would be that I shoot everything in a RAW format. Raw files are named so because they are not yet processed and therefore are not ready to be printed or edited. These files capture and contain much more information and detail from the scene than you would get from a Jpeg image, which is great. The downside of shooting RAW is the images look somewhat drab and flat straight out of the camera.
Another reason is the dynamic range of the images I normally shoot is greater than can be processed straight to a JPeg image, it is just way too much information to be stored in that format. Bit, all that extra detail in the RAW files can be pulled out by processing the image. I use Adobe Lightroom for 85% post-processing, and by making a few simple adjustments to the image, the dark shadows are brightened to reveal detail that you couldn’t see, and the highlights are muted to allow the blown out areas of the image to be tamed and more impressive.
Once I have pulled images into Adobe Lightroom, the first few adjustments I make are pretty much the same for all my landscape shots and though they are very slight, they have a pretty big image on the overall look of the image.
I don’t have a standard amount for each adjustment, it is all done by eye to get the visual impact of the image to be as close to what the scene was when the image was taken. These are just the normal adjustments I make, and depending on the image I will make other changes as needed to the Whites and Blacks of the image, Exposure, and Sharpness.
Something I try not to adjust that often, and when I do, it is very slightly, is the color saturation of the image. Instead, I use the color Vibrancy adjustment. The difference between the two is that the vibrancy raises or lowers the primary color of the image, for this image it most affected the greens. Color Saturation, on the other hand, affects the level of every color in the image, and it is really easy to get carried away.
Adjusting the saturation of an image can really help and I don’t want to give the impression that I don’t ever use it, this image has a very slight saturation boost as a matter of fact. That being said, I think oversaturating images is something that a lot of photographers go to in an effort to elevate the impact of the image, and there are many that take it too far. So, I would suggest having a light hand when adjusting the saturation, but that is just my opinion.
Two other adjustments that I use but try to keep at a minimum are the Clarity slider and the Sharpness. Both can have a pretty dramatic effect on the image but can be taken too far pretty easily. Adjusting the Clarity can soften the image giving an ethereal look, or it can add a gritty harshness to the shot, which can lend well to some styles.
Sharpness is very important to most images, and having a slider seems like an easy way to raise the level of the detail. The downside of using the sharpness adjustment is that the more you add, the more grain or pixelation there is to the image, and this can really cause a messy look to the image if you are printing it. When I am adjusting the sharpness of the image, I will always use the Masking feature along with it. This allows the adjustment to be applied to specific areas of the image rather than the entire image in a blanketed fashion. So, rather than an entire blade of grass, just the edges.
In addition to making adjustments in Adobe Lightroom, I do also use Adobe Photoshop for other editings, like removing, people, trash, powerlines or just clutter from the image that I would rather not be there. Photoshop does an awesome job at this and it is a very easy step in my workflow when finishing the image.
So to answer the question again, absolutely I edit my images. It is an important part of the process of landscape photography and like I said earlier, the majority of the images you see on Instagram, Facebook, and other sites have been edited in some form or fashion. As a photographer in the digital world, post-processing technics are something that I spend a lot of time practicing and expanding on, the same way I do with new photo technics.
There is no doubt that technology has advanced light years from the time I picked up my first camera. Just the ability to see the image in mear seconds after pushing the button has got to be one of the biggest advancements in photography. It doesn’t seem like that long ago when we had to get the film to a dark room, run it through several solutions in horrible red light, just to see a negative image. But now, you can know in an instant if you captured what you saw in your mind, and if not, have time to recompose, adjust and try again.
Another big jump in the right direction has been the detail that today’s sensors can capture. Dynamic range is the difference between highlights and shadows and can dramatically change your images. If you have ever shot with the Canon 5D Mark IV or one of the other top-end brands that offer incredible quality, you know the incredible detail you can pull out of seemingly black shadows or almost pure white highlights. This is one of the things that allows me to shoot into a cloud covered sun and still have a clear and evenly exposed subject. That along with filters, bracketing, and a lot of luck at times.
Something that has improved over the years, but not as dramatically as the camera itself is also one of the most important parts of capturing a great image, the lens. Sure there have bee huge improvements like image stabilization and lens coatings that have really made a big difference in color and sharpness of an image. But you can have all that and if the glass isn’t clear, well it just doesn’t matter. Glass quality and clarity is what makes a lens great. This is why I have always suggested investing in quality lenses rather than a camera body. Companies like Zeiss, Canon, and Nikon have been putting out wonderful glass for decades. And I think we can all agree that image sharpness is pretty important when making an image worthy of hanging on the wall.
So it’s starting to sound like the answer to the question at hand is leaning toward the camera rather than the person behind it, right? Well here is the kicker and where my argument begins. You can go out and buy a Canon 5D Mark IV, Benro Mach 3 Carbon Fiber tripod, 16-35 Canon L Series Lens, and still take crap pictures. I personally know people that have spent thousands on camera equipment and are constantly disappointed because their images are no better than some point and shoot images they took years ago.
And why is that? You know the answer, its the knowledge and skill level of the photographer. Now, this is just my opinion, but I believe that the most important ingredient in making an amazing image is composition. You have to know how the position the camera so the foreground interest leads the eye throughout the image and to your subject so it is “pleasing” to the eye. If you aren’t able to balance the composition, you will be hard-pressed to find a camera that will do it for you..
And the argument doesn’t stop there. If you cant flip through the knowledge in your head like a checklist, you wouldn’t know the effect the direction of the sun has on the lens and filters, how when shooting on the beach, your tripod will sink into the sand causing the slightest amount of motion blur, or just how important a tripod is to capture a sharply focused image.
So, if you couldn’t already guess what my answer to the questions would be… I would have to say that it is more the person behind the camera than the camera. Now don’t get me wrong, I am completely aware of the advantage my gear has provided me, and there is definitely a plateau where the scale starts to tip a little more toward the equipment. So where I do think knowledge and experience give a photographer the advantage, its a balance of the two that can allow the experience and knowledge to be elivated.
It has been my opinion for many years that if you are interested in capturing better images, before you run out and spend a lot of money on the new shiny thing that just came out… Pick up a book, browse YouTube for tutorials, check out some photography workshops, or just ask someone whos portfolio you admire. Most photographers I have reached out to have been more than happy to offer advice or pass on knowledge. Some of my best lessons have come from doing just that.
It seems that there is always something new coming out to make taking pictures easier or better. Some are amazing leaps forward that can simplify your workflow and others that are just gimmicky waists of money.
After making a few disappointing purchases, a Facebook friend sent me a message asking if there was something I have purchased that stood out and really made a difference in my landscape photography. That is a tough one to answer because everything I use adds something in one way or another to my particular style and how I shoot. But, I can say there was something that immediately improved my images many years ago that I still use today, filters…
And no, I’m not talking about the Instagram or Facebook filters you may be familiar with. There are a lot of different filters that do many different things to change the final look of an image, but the basic way they are all used is the same. Filters are somewhat translucent materials that affect the wavelengths and/or color of light that hits the camera sensor or film. There are color filters that block specific light waves, some are used for special effects causing a foggy look in a scene, and others add another dimension to the image.
For me and my style of landscape photography, there are really just a two that I use on a regular basis. One is a larger category of its own, and I probably use in 75% of my photography, the Neutral Density filter. An “ND” filter reduces or modifies the intensity of all wavelengths and colors of light equally, giving no changes in hue of color. So its similar to potting on sunglasses.
One of my favorite ways to take advantage of this is when shooting landscapes with motion, like water and clouds. Let’s say you are shooting a river scene and would like to soften the white water as it passes over rocks, but your proper exposure calls for a shutter speed of 1/60 second, which wouldn’t give that softness. You can either tighten your aperture, possibly affecting your depth of field and sharpness, Or use a 6 stop ND filter allowing you to have a shutter speed of 1 second and achieving that soft velvety look.
Another type of ND filter is the Graduated ND. These filters transition from clear on one side to the ND tint on the other and are used for balancing an exposure rather than modifying the entire scene. For instance, say you are shooting a sunset and your foreground is somewhat dark because of the fading light, but the sky is bright and filled with highlights due to the angle of the sun on the atmosphere. Normally taking this shot would either cause the sky to be too bright and blown out losing all detail in the clouds, or the foreground would be dark and silhouetted.
By using a 3 stop Graduated ND filter you can adjust the horizon line with the tint line on the filter, allowing you to use a longer shutter speed to capture both the detail in the foreground and properly expose for the sky allowing all the beautiful colors of the sunset to come alive.
The other filter I use most of the time is a circular polarizer. A polarizing filter is often placed in front of the camera lens in order to darken skies, manage reflections, or suppress glare. I have gone through how I use this in an older blog, How Did You Do That?.
Using a filter is pretty simple. There are 2 main types of filters, round screw on filters and square drop-in filters. Which one is best is a decision that I think is up to the photographer and what they prefer. Personally, I use the LeeFilters 100mm drop-in system, for 2 reasons. First, for quality and affordability, I don’t think you can beat the LeeFilters filters. And second, using the drop-in system allows me to have one set of filters that can be used on all my lenses rather than buying a screw-on filter for each of the different millimeter sizes of my lenses.
If you are interested, below is a list of all the filters I use with links.
There are a lot of Great photographers out there, a few that I follow regularly on YouTube for inspiration. Professionals like Thomas Heaton, Nick Page, & Brendan van Son are putting out some great content, if you haven’t heard of them, I would recommend checking them out.
One of the downsides of following top-notch landscape photographers is they can unintentionally make it seem like getting an awesome shot is as easy as hopping in the car and going to the park, and well, that just isn’t the case. One reason I enjoy the three photographers above is they share the bad along with the good, so you don’t just see that epic hero shots.
Getting discouraged or stuck in a rut is a pretty easy, it happens to me about the same time every year as a matter of fact. It’s really important to remember that landscape photography isn’t just about getting that shot. And that isn’t just my opinion, a lot of the great landscape photographers out there have said the same thing. Don’t get me wrong, I want and almost expect to get a somewhat decent shot when I go out, but its also just getting out there that is part of the overall experience. For me, it’s the clouds, the river, trees, stars and so many other things that you just can’t find in a studio. Something I think a lot of people forget or just don’t understand.
For instance, when was the last time you enjoyed a sunrise or sunset? And I don’t mean enjoy seeing an image of one on Facebook or Instagram. When was the last time you got up before the light starts to silhouette the clouds just to drive to a location, have a hike with 30 pounds of gear so you could be at a specific spot that in your mind, you think would be an EPIC place to watch the sunrise? By the way, sunrises & sunsets can be just as epic in your backyard, sometimes even more enjoyable if you change out the 30 pounds of gear for a cup of coffee or a frosty cold margarita.
Just off the top of my head, I know of 6 times just this year that I have done just that, and not even taken the camera out of the bag due to weather or conditions that can’t be controlled. And you know what, I don’t regret a minute of it.
It is important to remember how often exceptional photographers, that you & I admire, are out making images. The more you put yourself in the environment you want to photograph, the better the chances that the sky with light up, the bird will look your way, or the clouds will clear on a dark night…
Having realistic expectations is extremely important in anything you do, especially when there are so many factors that are out of your control. So even if you have triple checked the forecast, planned your route on a map, prepped all your gear…, know that you may just have to enjoy being outdoors and making the effort. Starting out with that frame of mind really helps me appreciate the entire experience and leave me with a smile on my face.
Have you ever seen a photographer, tripod in hand looking for a composition and said to yourself “I wonder what is in their camera bag”? I know I have, just about every time I see someone with a Peak Design or even when I see a great image taken by some of my favorite shutterbugs.
Over the past year, some great things have happened and a few of my images have gotten some great exposure, and I have been blessed enough to have gained a lot of new followers. Several of which have asked me about what gear I use while out photographing.
So, below is a list of almost everything I use. I have included links to everything I can find that is still sold, some of the links will take you to Amazon. These Amazon links are “affiliate links” which means if you click on it and buy it, I make a small 3% – 8% commission. Thank you for your support.
Cameras and Lenses
Canon 5D Mark IV– This is to date my favorite camera body. Superb image quality and excellent dynamic range. The on-screen zoom in allows for sharp focus and the overall ergonomics will be very familiar to Canon users.
Canon 7D Mark II – This is a wonderful crop sensor camera body that I used for years before upgrading.
Canon 16-35mm f/4L IS USM Lens– This may be my favorite landscape lens. Great quality and not terribly expensive. I would venture a guess that 75% of my images have been taken with this lens.
Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM Lens– Though I don’t shoot in this range a lot, this is a wonderful lens to have in the bag for those in-between ranges. Not too pricey and great quality.
Lowepro Whistler BP 350 AW – Best camera backpack I have owned. It may be a little bit depending on what you are doing, but it has enough space for what I need while allowing extra space for hiking or camping gear. Very durable and comfortable.
Lowepro Flipside Sport15L AW– A wonderful compact bag great for day trips and light travel.
I use a range of graduated ND filters, ND filters, a polarising filter. All of these are used with the Lee Foundation Holder. The quality of the filters are second to none. The polariser causes minimal vignetting even at 16mm.
LaCie 4TB Rugged RAID External Hard Drive – This holds all of my media, Lightroom Catalogs and Adobe Premier Project files. This system allows me to seamlessly switch from laptop to desktop without ever having to sync folders or re-edit images.
Adobe Lightroom– Yes, all my photos are edited. I use Lightroom to make minor adjustments to shadows, highlights, contrast, color, sharpness, and clarity. The majority of the time my post processing is minimal and I try to keep the final images as I saw them when taking the image.
Adobe Photoshop– For more in-depth adjustments such as removing a power line, street signs, or just clutter, Photoshop is great. I probably only use 3% of what the program can actually do.
Garmin Fenix 3 GPS Watch– For those of you that tend to get lost in the great outdoors, this is a must-have. It also has alarms for the approaching sunrise and sunset which I use a lot.
Vallerret Photo Gloves – It doesn’t get cold that often in the Texas Hill Country, but when it does, these are the only gloves I will wear. They have wonderful grip and allow the tips of your thumbs and pointers to poke out.
Foxelli Trekking Poles– When you have to hike a few miles to get to that perfect photo spot while hauling 40 lbs of gear, these give that added stability and support while adding minimal weight.
Over the past few months, several people have messaged me on Instagram and the book of faces asking how I get the water in a lot of my shots to be so clear and colorful. Well, this seemed like a great time to pass along a little of what I have learned over the years.
First I will answer the most common question I am asked on this subject, No, I didn’t use photoshop to paint in colors and detail. As you can see in the image above, the water in the foreground is very vibrant and clear. You can see the rocks and details under the water, and it looks almost a tropical color.
As much as I would like to say I have some secret skill or a magic wand that creates this look, It’s really much more simple that most people think. So in the majority of my outdoor landscape images, I use a filter that is called a Circular Polarizer. Here is a little of the science behind the filter.
The light that reflected off of a non-metallic surface becomes polarized. This effect is strongest at angles about 56° from the lens. A polarizer rotated to pass only light polarized in the direction perpendicular to the reflected light will absorb a lot of it. This allows glare reflected from water to be reduced.
So to simplify that, as you are looking through a lens with a Circular Polarizer attached, if you turn the polarizer you will notice the glare reduction and in some cases, disappear. There are 2 images below that illustrate this.
Both images are with the same settings, with a circular polarized and have the same post-processing adjustments. The image on the right is un-polarized and as you would see if there were no filter on the lens. The image on the left is the polarized image after turning the polarized about a half turn. You can see the difference mainly in the reflections off the water. The polarized image has very little reflection which allows you to see the detail under the water. In addition to the detail, you can see more of the color through the water.
For this image, I actually went with a semi-polarized shot because the contract created by the reflections improved the overall look. That’s just my opinion though.
There are a variety of Circular Polarizers on the market from a number of manufacturers. After using several different types, I am now using the LeeFilters system. They have wonderful clarity in the glass and the system is easy to use. If you are interested in learning more, there is a link HERE.
Hopefully, this has helped answer some of the questions you may have about photography. There are always new techniques and products coming out, I am learning more and more every day. Let me know if there is something more you would like to know and I will see about getting an answer for you.
The Milky Way…. For me, there’s always been something about images of the Milky Way that has fascinated me. I don’t know if it’s the idea that something as small as a DSLR camera can capture colors of gasses hundreds of thousand miles away that cannot be seen with the naked eye or the childhood obsession I have with space. For years I have wanted to capture a good shot of the center of our galaxy. And though I haven’t gotten what will be that one magical image that I have chased for so long, I am getting closer and am starting to get the hang of it.
To be up front and honest, I am far from an expert in the realm of Milky Way photography. There are many many photographers that are leaps and bounds beyond my skill level when it comes to this genre so please keep that in mind. This is just my learning experience over the past 2 years, and it is ongoing.
There are a few basic things you are going to need if you want to capture a shot of the Milky Way.
A camera that has the ability to take a 20 second exposure at an ISO of 3200.
A lens with a wide aperture capability.
A good tripod so you don’t get motion blur over the 20second exposure.
A dark place.
This is the very first attempt for me shooting the milky way. It was taken in my back yard just north of San Antonio Texas.
First off, the camera; I shoot with a Canon 5D Mark iv which has some amazing dynamic range capability. It isn’t the best for shooting night exposures but it is far from the worst. For the camera settings, as mentioned above, I use an ISO of 3200 with a shutter speed of 20 seconds. This is just a starting point and there are adjustments to be made depending on the darkness of where you are shooting and the aperture range of the lens with which you are shooting. If your camera has “noise reduction”, be sure it is turned on. This will help your final image and reduce the “graininess” that comes with high ISO speeds and also reduce star trails that are caused by the earths rotation.
The lens I use is a Canon 14mm f/2.8 L. I mentioned the importance of the lens aperture, this is one of the factors that is key for allowing those colors you can’t see with the naked eye to be absorbed on the film sensor. Normally I start with the aperture wide open at 2.8, and to be honest that’s normally where it stays. I have had luck with other lenses and smaller apertures up to 4.5 though. This all depends on the darkness that you are shooting in.
For focusing, set your lens to manual focus and focus all the way out to infinity. This is normally indicated with the ∞ symbol. Once I have set my focus, I put a peace of blue painters tape across the focus ring so I don’t unintentionally knock it out of focus. If you do this, use what tape you want. I use painters tape because it doesn’t leave a sticky residue when I take it off. I would also recommend checking your focus from time to time to be sure it hasn’t changes. It is very hard to see how sharp your focus is through the viewfinder or in the preview screen.
The image above was taken just west of Seguin, Texas late October 2016, July 2016 / ISO 3200, 20 Seconds at f/ 2.8
The next thing is the tripod. I use a Manfrotto 190 Aluminium 4-Section Tripod with a Manfrotto XPRO Magnesium Ball Head. Any sturdy tripod that will hold your camera perfectly still will work. As you probably already know if you have been interested in photography for a while, motion while shooting translates to a blurry image. This is amplified many times when you are using long shutter speeds like 20 seconds. Any movement over the course of the shutter being open will show on the final image. This can be as small as a footstep depending on the firmness of the ground your tripod is on so I try to remain as still as possible while the shutter is open.
A Dark Place
Lastly, a dark place. Now I’m not talking about a dark field 20 miles outside of the city. I’m talking about a place that can be rated on the Dark Skies registry. This for me, was and continues to be a challenge. I currently live in New Braunfels, a small town just north of San Antonio and south of Austin Texas. Being sandwiched between two of the brightest cities in Texas, I have to go pretty far to find some truly dark skies. This is where dedication to getting the image comes in. To get a good shot of the Milky Way I have to drive at least 2 hours to find a spot that has both dark skies and a foreground that provides some interest.
Fortunately, there are some tools that can help find your closest dark skies area in the form of apps and the good old world wide web. I use an app on my phone called Dark Sky, which was free to download. You can also go to the Dark Skies website to find an area with minimal light pollution near you, there is a link here.
Seguin Texas late October 2016, July 2016 / ISO 3200, 20 Seconds at f/ 2.8 / Comparing this shot to the ones below taken at Enchanted Rock State Park, you can see how light pollution can change the image making the milky way almost unnoticeable. This was about 40 miles outside of San Antonio but the bright city lights were just too much for the shot to come out how I wanted.
If you have never ventured outside the bright lights of the city you will probably be amazed that once you are in an area with minimal to no light pollution, you can see the Milky Way with the naked eye. It doesn’t appear as you see it in most pictures with all the vibrant colors. It’s more of a cloudy contrast of black and gray that crosses the sky. This may be difficult to find though depending on the time of the year that you are out. The summer is the best time to get shots of the Milky Way in the northern hemisphere, from what I have read at least.
You can still find the Milky Way even if you can see it with the naked eye by using one of several apps. Sky Guide, Sky View, and Star Chart are a few that are available for most smart phones. I use an app called PhotoPills. It isn’t a free app but it will allow you to plan a trip so you aren’t trying to figure out composition at that last minute, it allows you to find where you would like to shoot and then look into the future to see where the Milky Way will be a day, week or even months in the future.
As I mentioned above, I use a 20 second exposure, ISO 3200, and an aperture of f/2.8 as a starting point. This is something I set my camera to in manual mode before the sun even goes down. Depending on the darkness of where you are shooting, your first images can be over exposed. If this happens I adjust the ISO before anything else. As you may already know, the higher the ISO, the more “noise” you get in an image. Lowering the ISO when at all possible will help in the final image.
This is one of the most important parts in my opinion. If you just want to take a picture of the milky way to see that you can do it as I did from my back yard, there isn’t much planning at all needed. But if you want to capture an image that you can show off and hang on a wall, you’re going to need a plan. Below are the things I consider before I head out the door to capture any night shots, and most of this I do a month or more ahead of time.
Location: For me, its not enough to just take a picture of the stars. I like to have a foreground that is going to make the starry night stand out. I am a big fan of the Texas State Parks so I start by finding those on the Dark Sky map to find one that is within my driving distance and will allow some interest in the shot. I also pre-scout the location. I visited Enchanted Rock State Park 2 times before my trip to find the spot I liked and plan a route to get there and back in the dark.
Timing: Its important to know when the Milky Way will be viable when planning your trip. Its best to go during the New Moon cycle. This is when there is no to little moonlight that can contaminate your shot, the beginning of the month. Also, summer is better for catching the Galactic Center of the Milky Way. This is the brightest and most colorful part that really stands out in pictures. As I mentioned earlier, I use PhotoPills to locate where the Milky Way will be on a given date so I can compose my image prior to the trip.
Weather: Keep an eye on the weather leading up to the trip. Of course you want to know if there will be bad weather so you don’t get in a bad situation out in the middle of nowhere, but this also goes for clouds. Driving for a few hours just to sit under cloudy skies can be a big downer so knowing what you’re getting into can save wasted time.
Gear: There is nothing worse than getting to where you’re going just to find that you have forgotten something. Normally I will get everything I need laid out, checked and rechecked the day before to be sure I have everything I need. It goes without saying that the camera, lenses, and tripod are all important, but that isn’t what I have forgotten in the past. Extra batteries, flashlight, water, chair, snacks… Depending on where you are going you may be there a while and its best to consider not just the equipment you will need, but your comfort while you are there and what you will need to get there. For instance, one night I got eaten alive by mosquitoes. I now take insect repellent with me every time.
The image above was taken just west of Seguin, Texas late October 2016, July 2016 / ISO 3200, 20 Seconds at f/ 2.8
There are a few other things that are really nice to have when shooting at night, but not essential.
A cable or remote shutter release. I use a Vello FreeWave Wireless Shutter Release that was purchased from Amazon.com. It allows both corded and wireless shutter release capability and I have not had any issues with it to date. Above I mentioned how important a good tripod is to have to avoid camera shake. This is in the same category but there is a workaround if you don’t have one. When the shutter is open for 20 seconds, even the smallest bump to the camera will cause a blur. That can be a slight as your finger pressing the shutter release. If you don’t have the option of a cable or remote shutter release, simply use the cameras 2 or 10 second timer. This will allow any shake that your finger can cause to reduce before the shutter opens.
A good LED flashlight, red is best. I use a Princeton Tec Vizz Headlamp that I purchased from REI. When you start your shoot in the black of night, you will probably want to re-position or move for a different shot. Obviously a flashlight is important for this. Most phones have a flashlight that will work for this. I use a head torch with a Red LED option, listed above. The red light will help you to retain your night vision so your eves don’t have to re-adjust every time the light comes on.
As silly as it sounds, something comfortable to sit on is really nice. The first time I went to the middle of nowhere under dark skies the entire shoot was about 3 hours. Waiting for the Milky Way to get in the right spot, recomposing the shot… this was 3 hours of kneeling or sitting in a sticker patch, and I surely felt it the next day. Now I take a light weight backpacking chair, the Alite Monarch Butterfly Chair that I got from REI. It ins’t the most comfortable thing but does do the job. You can use whatever you can carry to where you plan to shoot from a lawn chair to just a throw blanket to avoid dirt and thorns.
Camera Settings to Remember
Shutter Speed 20 Seconds
Focus to infinity
Noise Reduction on
Again, the camera settings above are just a guide and you will need to make adjustments depending on the conditions and your lens. The image to the right is a shot of the back of my camera just after taking the picture. It is unedited and shows what your camera can capture under dark skies. The image was taken at Enchanted Rock State Park in Texas, below is the image after it was processed in Adobe Lightroom along with another that was taken the same night.
Both images above taken at Enchanted Rock State Park, July 2016 / ISO 3200, 20 Seconds at f/ 3.5
For post-processing, I use Adobe Lightroom and Adobe Photoshot. As a disclaimer, I am not an Adobe or post-processing expert. This is an area that I am still learning and fine-tuning my skills so you may want to refer to other sources as well. I can tell from my experience, the darker the conditions were that the image was taken under, the easier the post-processing is. I have listed a few links below to YouTube tutorials that I have found helpful.
If you are considering getting into Milky Way photography I hope you have found this helpful. As I mentioned, I am still learning myself. If you are interested in learning more there are a lot of resources on the internet that can be very helpful. You may also want to find an expert in the field and ask about taking classes. My favorite camera store in Austin, Precision Camera & Video, has regular classes in many different areas of photography from beginner to advanced. If you have a camera store in your area you may reach out to them for educational opportunities.
Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions or comments. Photography has been a passion for many years and I love talking, learning and helping all thing that are involved. Have a great day and get out there with your camera. You will never get that magical image without taking the first step.
Have you ever thumbed through a magazine or surfed the web and come across a picture that was so perfectly staged it made you want to buy whatever is in the image? This is commercial photography. A mixture of planning, lighting, staging, and processing. If you’ve got all that down and a great imagination to bring a product to life, you just need to find a company that will give you a chance to show what you can do.
This may be my favorite type of photography. Though I do enjoy spending time outdoors waiting for the sun, clouds and subject to be just in the right spot, there is something I love about thinking of an image and planning to make it a reality. Now admittedly, I am not some master commercial photographer. Truth is I have made very little in this area due to my own lack of motivation to dedicate enough time to chasing this dream. But, I have fond that with social media being so prevalent these days, it’s very easy to get your images noticed by specific companies.
Canon EOS SL1 / Canon EF 100 f/2.8L Macro IS USM Lens
Canon EOS SL1 / Canon EF 100 f/2.8L Macro IS USM Lens
The first product shots I ever seriously took was for a local bakery in New Braunfels, Texas. This wasn’t something I was hired to do and I didn’t make any money on the images. It was more for the experience and to see what I could do. Honestly, most of the time I just enjoy the process so much I would do it for free anyway. After posting them on the baker’s Facebook page, they reached out to me to see if they could use 2 of them on their website and possibly to print for business. I was pretty flattered and give them the images below as long as they left my watermark.
After getting a little confidence in what I could do with just photographing an object, I started to experiment with different lighting, doing a little more staging, thinking outside of that I though someone would normally do. Not as easy as I thought at first. It seems all the great photo ideas have been taken so most of my time was spent trying to find something I liked and elevate it. Below is a row of tequila shots that came from something I saw in a magazine. The original image just had 2 shot glasses and a bottle in the background.
Now you’re going to start to notice a theme here and will probably recommend that I start attending AA meetings. I think a lot of people stick close to what they know and well, I may know a bit about whiskey. My first attempts at shooting whiskey pictures were pretty boring and normal, but I was happy with them at the time.
I used what I had around the house for these. Whiskey, a mirror, glass, and some speed lights…. Not very interesting as I mentioned but a learning experience all the same. After shooting a bit with actual ice I realized how difficult this was going to be. The ice would melt pretty quickly and I was constantly trying to get the cubes into the right position before they moved. If you ever plan to do anything with ice, I would recommend buying some high quality fake cubes.I picked up a set of 40 1 x 1 cubes for about $20.00 on Amazon.com.
The shot above was done using a StopShot, something I covered in a previous posts about water drop collisions. This just came from an idea and wasn’t done for anyone pacific. Looking back, this could have been much better adding some branding or just better staging.
The picture above was taken in my spare time for a great veteran owned business here in Texas. They do a lot of outreach for veterans that are coming back from the war and may need some help getting back to normal here in the states. It wasn’t much but I wanted to do something for those that are always doing for others. After sending it to them and reaching out on social media, they let me know they were impressed and would really like to see something a bit different that they could use. I shot the picture below for them, it is still one of my favorites.
Below are a few more of my favorite shots from my “Vices” album. They are geared more toward cigars as you will see, but I didn’t get far from the whiskey.
If I could pick just one genre of photography to make a living on, this may just be it. Some of the really great commercial photographers can spent endless hours coming up with and idea, then days innovating and planning to make that idea come to life in a briefer second. I follow several on Facebook, YouTube and email newsletters like Karl Taylor. He’s pretty bad ass and I may have a little man crush on his work. One of my favorite shots he has done involves 2 “ski jump” like ramps used to launch 2 glasses of whiskey (complete coincidence) into each other. I have watching and re-watching videos of his processes, lighting, planning, and attention to detail like I have a final tomorrow.
Someone told me a long time ago, find something you’re passionate about and learn how to make money doing it. Though I agree with that, I think it needs to be expanded on. Find something you’re good at. Passion will get you so far but it is up to you to challenge yourself, expand on you knowledge and constantly improve on your craft. But what do I know, I’m still in the beginning stages.I just keep telling myself it just takes one. One image, song, report or sale. You just need that one thing to make you shine and be noticed by the right person. Maybe that person is you.