Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Photographing Nightscapes

Valley of the Gods Utah
Sony A7r II Voigtlander 12mm f/ 5.6 25-seconds ISO 400
Near Tucson AZ
Sony A7rII Mitakon 50mm f/0.95 15-seconds ISO 1000
“Nightscape Photography” is the combination of landscape photography and the capturing of dark skies, sometimes with or without the Milky Way.
Near Tucson AZ
Sony A7rII Mitakon 50mm f/0.95 5-seconds ISO 1250
The past couple of months have been spent attempting to photograph nightscape images incorporating the Milky Way using various cameras at our disposal as well as different mounting and lenses.  Here’s what we’ve found so far…
Milky Way over Mexican Hat Rock NM
Sony A7rII Voigtlander 21mm f/1.8 10-seconds ISO 4000
Light painting near Tucson AZ
Sony A7rII Voigtlander 21mm f/1.8 10-seconds ISO 1250
First, your sleep pattern is blown to hell.  You need to be out at dusk in order to setup and then you wait.  If there are too many clouds in the sky you may as well pack in; likewise the moon.  If the moon is too bright you won’t be able to capture the dark skies as there aren’t any. You also need to be aware of the time the sun and moon set.  Recently we were in Shiprock NM and the moon was at 17% brightness which can be very bright if you’re trying to see a dark sky.  The good news was that it set 8 PM which allowed for several hours of darkness. 
Navajo Nation
Sony A7rII FE16-35 f/4 30-seconds ISO 2000
Milky Way over Shiprock NM
Sony A7rII FE24-70GM f/2.8 10-seconds ISO 2000
Milky Way over Mexican Hat Rock NM
Same file B&W or color
Another issue is light pollution. Light pollution from neighboring towns can become a real problem.  Mexican Hat Utah is a very small community yet has a lot of lights.  The good news is that just about all the lights go out shortly after 11PM.  Unlike Shiprock NM which is much larger and much brighter.  We waited well past 1AM and it was just as bright as earlier.
Milky Way over Shiprock NM with light pollution
Sony A7rII Voigtlander 21mm 30-seconds ISO 4000
shot using the iOptron SkyTracker

Milky Way over Shiprock NM with light pollution

Sony A7rII Voigtlander 21mm 20-seconds ISO 3200

shot using the iOptron SkyTracker


So what do you need equipment wise?  This is what we’ve learned so far.

A sturdy tripod along with a cable release so you aren’t touching the camera and introducing unwanted movements. 

You need or maybe a better way to express this, is want a wide lens.  Sandy has experimented using a 16-35 as well as a 24-70.  Both worked well enough however the next issue is how fast the lens is.  Both of these lenses are Sony, and the “fastest” setting is f/4.  That is until Sony released the new and vastly improved 24-70 GM f/2.8.  Sandy still has the 16-35 however she now has and loves the newer much faster 24-70 GM lens. 

The marriage of ISO (film speed) and lens coupled with shutter speed. 

When we began our quest Sandy had the older slower lenses.  The slower the lens the longer the shutter speed and the higher the ISO.  This combination brings problems.  The slower the shutter speed the more star movements.  The higher the ISO the more chance of noise.  Sandy captured a beautiful image of the Milky Way behind a windmill however it could have been much better with a faster lens that she now has.  This is how we learn.

Don on the other hand has been trying another method.

Attaching a camera on top of a telescope and allowing the built-in tracking to keep the camera orientated in the sky.  The first attempt using the medium format Phase One XF, 80-megapixel IQ180 digital back met with limited success; that success was so limited we’ve decided to abandon any further testing.

Next came the use of “star-trackers”.  These are instruments that are placed on top of a tripod with a camera attached.  These use the star Polaris to lock in your alignment.  The camera can be moved to any spot in the sky afterwards so long as you don’t move the tracker.  The trackers with proper alignment allows for much longer shutter speeds without the introduction of movements in the stars.

After trying and failing to capture nightscapes with medium format Don went back to using his Sony A7rII however with much faster lenses. So far he’s used a Voigtlander 21mm f/1.8 as well as the super-fast 50mm Mitakon f/0.95.

Setting up at Mexican Hat Rock NM
Using Vixen Optics Polarie-Star Tracker

Phase One XF/IQ180 and 35LS
on top of a 6" telescope
Using fast lenses allows for lower shutter speeds (as slow as 5-seconds) while using medium to higher ISO as low as ISO 500 to as high as 5000 without the introduction of noise.
Night sky over Mexican Hat NM
Sony A7rII Voigtlander 21mm f/1.8 13-seconds ISO 4000 
Milky Way over Mexican Hat NM
Sony A7rII, FE 24-70GM f/2.8 13-seconds ISO 2500
What we’ve also found that in using super-fast lenses is we don’t need to use a star tracker as we don’t normally exceed 20-seconds.  It seems 20-seconds is the threshold of star-movements.  Sandy will likely begin using a star tracker as the current fastest lens she has is f/2.8.
Equipment used to date. 
Really Right Stuff tripods one with a RRS Ballhead while the other doesn't need a ballhead. 
We have 2-trackers that we like.  The first one used is a Vixen Optics Polarie-Star Tracker that supports up to 4.4 lbs. (2 kg).  It operates on 2 AA batteries and is about the size of a large paperback book.
Our newest tracker is an iOptron SkyTracker which like the Vixen Optics operates on 2 AA batteries yet has a 7.7 pound (3.5 kg) payload.  This device is just as easy to setup and use as the Vixen Optics however it is slightly larger since the tripod attachment is built-in. 
Here are more sample images.
Milky Way over Mexican Hat Rock
Sony A7rII Voigtlander 21mm f/1.8 13-seconds ISO 2500
 Busy Sky over Valley of the Gods NM
Sony A7rII FE16-35 30-seconds ISO 2000
This is the first of a series on photographing nightscapes so stay tuned for more.
As always, thank you for allowing us to share.
Sandy & Don

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Catching up

Salton Sea California
Sony A7r II FE 24-70
Crescent City California
Sony A7r II 90mm
Near Crater Lake Oregon
Phase One XF, IQ180 and Schneider LS 40-80
It’s been about 120-days since we last posted and many things have happened.
We’ve done a lot of traveling since our last post using some new equipment.
Sunset at the Salton Sea
Phase One XF, IQ180 and Schneider LS 35
Near Crescent City California
Sony A7r II 90
Carmel California Sunset
Sony A7r II 70-200
Lets catch up on a couple items:
The KPS T5 geared ballhead we wrote about January 7th remains a hit having used it at the Salton Sea, San Francisco, Carmel by the Sea, California Redwoods, Death Valley, Valley of the Gods Utah, Monument Valley to mention just a few of the locations we’ve traveled to since our last post. Our travel schedule reminds us of the Johnny Cash song “I’ve Been Everywhere”.

San Francisco California
Phase One XF, IQ180 Schneider LS 40-80
Phase One XF, IQ180 Schneider 40-80
Japanese Tea Garden San Francisco California
Sony A7r II 24-70
While we’ve kept Face Book, Instagram and Twitter accounts up-to-date we’ve been lax in posting here. We hope to fix that with this post.
Dante's View Death Valley California
Phase One XF, IQ180 Schneider LS 75-150
Bombay Beach Salton Sea California
Phase One XF, IQ180 Schneider LS 35
Don has changed or better yet simplified his filter systems during this time.  Previously Don had to pack 2-complete systems for his medium format lens since neither Cokin nor Lee offered a system that would fit all his lenses.  The Lee SW150 fit his Mamiya 28mm however they hadn’t yet offered a 105mm ring for the Schneider 35LS or 40-80LS so he had to rely on the Cokin X-Pro system.  While both systems are equally good it was a problem packing 2-complete systems.  But no more since Lee began offering adaptor rings in 105mm.  Don is now using the Lee SW150 filter system on all his lenses ranging from 28mm to 240mm with great success.
Sony A7r II 24-70mm
Sony A7r II 16-35

Valley of the Gods
Sony A7r II 16-35
Valley of the Gods
Sony A7r II Mitakon 50 f/0.95

We’re including a lot of images here and will explain where each was taken as we go along.
We’ve just returned from Bluff Utah where we were shooting late night dark skies while scouting locations for a possible workshop next year.
Goosenecks State Park Mexican Hat Utah
Sony A7r II Voigtlander 12mm
Near Show Low Arizona
Sony A7r II 24-70
Monument Valley Utah
Sony A7r II 16-35
Monument Valley Utah
Sony A7r II Voigtlander 12mm

Don has picked up a Sony A7r II to add to his ever growing camera bag as well as a new Mitakon 85mm f/1.2 to add to his 50mm f/0.95.  Sandy will shortly be upgrading her 16-35 f/4 to the newer f/2.8 as well as replacing her older 24-70 f/4 for the new f/2.8 GM lens.
Seven Sailors Valley of the Gods Utah
Sony Ar7 II 24-70
Seven Sailors Valley of the Gods
Sony A7r II 24-70
Valley of the Gods
Sony A7r II 16-35
17-Room Ruin Bluff Utah
Sony A7r II 24-70
As you can see by the images we’ve been busy traveling seeing beautiful areas, visiting friends along the way and making new friends.  As always, thank you for allowing us to share our adventures.


Sandy & Don





Thursday, January 7, 2016

The KPS T5 Geared Ballhead

A short time ago a good friend of mine Ken Doo wrote an extensive review of the T5 on his blog titled, “The KPS T5 Geared Ballhead: In Search of the Elusive White Unicorn”  I suggest that you read this at some point.


Up until several months ago I had been shooting the majority of my landscape work with a technical camera; one that demanded precision in every aspect of setting.  During this same period I used an Arca Swiss Cube with great results.  The Cube allows for quick, easy and precise adjustments with a load capacity of 85 lbs. (38.5 kg)  The only downside was the weight and physical size.

One other downside to the Cube is that due to its form, I used it primarily for landscape and nature; while it could be used for wildlife in a pinch you’re much better off with a ballhead. I quickly ordered a geared Arca-Swiss d4 shortly after it was released thinking that it would be a great companion head to the Cube that would allow me the quickness of a ballhead and geared movement of the Cube.  Sadly it didn’t work out for me and I quickly sold it. The d4 was replaced with a Really Right Stuff BH-40 Ballhead having a load capacity of 18 lbs.(8 kg) that has remained my principal ballhead for any quick movement photography.

I ended up selling the Cube shortly after I sold the technical camera and reverted to using the BH-40 for all my tripod work however I found I missed being able to set the level adjustments quickly and began rethinking a geared head for my Phase One XF.  Ken had attempted to get me interested in the KPS T5 last year at our annual workshop however at the time I was still using the tech camera and Cube and figured that if it wasn’t broke why fix it.  This was also before Phase One released the new and improved XF body which made me rethink my shooting gear.

I contacted Legio Aerium late last year in an attempt to try their T5 however I quickly found that they didn’t have any in stock and as a matter of fact the T5 was being tweaked for a new, updated design.  I was however informed that I would be able to try out the new design as soon as it became available; which is now.

The rest of this will be my initial thoughts of the T5.

I received the T5 yesterday and due to other commitments haven’t had a chance to really try it outside of the studio.  That said, I like it.  A lot.

I installed the RRS TH-DVTL-40 Round Dovetail Plate to the bottom of the T5.  This plate allows me to quickly attach a head to my tripod and something I have on all my tripods and bottom of all the heads.

After installing the plate I also installed a RRS B2-AS-II lever-release clamp on the top.

KPS offers a wide choice of ballhead setups and I chose the KPS T5 Geared Ballhead (without clamp) as I already had a RRS clamp that I’ve been using with great success.

The photo at the beginning shows a side by side comparison between the RRS BH40 and KPS T5 both of which are set up the way I will be using them.  The only thought is that I might also add a RRS PC-LR panning clamp as I’m use to that particular workflow.

Did I mention I like the T5?  Well in case you missed it I do.  It’s slightly taller than the BH-40 and weighs a couple ounces more with a load capacity 0f 88 lbs. (40 kg) however what it offers over a regular ballhead is immense. While I’m still getting used to it I see a vast improvement of leveling over a regular ballhead.  Trying to get a precise level with a regular ballhead can take 2-hands (one to hang on to the camera while the other attempts to find a level without jerking the entire system) and several minutes.  The first time I placed the Phase One XF on the T5 I felt that it was very sturdy (the same as the BH-40) however the difference came in leveling.  I found the leveling aspect very similar to the Cube and achieved perfect level in seconds; plus I wasn’t worried the camera would fall over in the process. I see the T5 becoming my primary head as it more than satisfies the dual role of quick action ballhead and the precision needed in landscape.

This will become the first part of a multi-part blog regarding the KPS T5 as I’m heading to the Salton Sea area in a couple weeks which is where I’ll get a great chance to kick the tires and really try this ballhead out.

Did I mention I like it?  And yes, barring any unforeseen issues I plan on not sending it back and will in fact buy it.

Now go read Ken’s blog on the KSP T5.



I had thought that I would have to wait a couple of days to really put the T5 to a test however I found myself using it the day after I wrote the above.  I ended up shooting an interior and used the T5 with my Phase One XF.  Without any thought of what I was doing I set the camera up much as I would have when I still used the Cube.  Very simple and without any real effort.  It wasn't until an hour or so later that it dawned on me what I had done and just how easy it was.
The sign of a great piece of gear is the ability to use it with little to no concern and get the shoot.  Which I did.
You can guess the rest.  I ended up asking for an invoice which I promptly paid.  The T5 is now mine.  Yes, it's that good!