Whilst I’m busy sorting my photographs from Fuerteventura and the photographs I took this morning when I made a trip with my good friend and fellow blogger Poppy to capture the sunrise, I thought I’d write this quick article that I hope some of you will find useful.
With modern digital cameras, we tend to take focus as a given. We all have auto focus so why would we ever resort to manual focus? There are times however, particularly with landscape photography, when auto focus can let us down and to get optimum results, we do need to think about manual focus if this is an option with a particular lens.
When taking landscape photographs, we’re usually looking for maximum depth of field. We want our pictures to be sharp from front to back. Using auto focus, if we focus on our foreground interest, there’s a good chance that whatever our background might be is going to be soft. Similarly, if we auto focus on whatever is in the distance, our foreground interest is going to be soft.
To get over this, we might resort to focusing at the hyperfocal distance using an app on our phones to determine where that is but again, there’s a good chance this won’t actually give you the best result. Hyperfocal Distance Focusing is great for producing column inches in photography magazines but not much else in my experience. The hyperfocal distance will give you a theoretical optimal point but in all probability, your photograph will not be as sharp as it could be. The optical physics maybe spot on but I have never managed a good sharp result using this method and boy did I try.
As a rule of thumb, if we auto focus approximately one third into a scene, we’re going to get a sharp picture with good depth of field but where exactly is one third into a scene? This can be a little difficult to determine. This is where a bit of experimentation comes in as every lens has a sweet spot. A spot on the focus ring where you’re going to get optimum focus from the front of your picture to the very back. An hour or two spent in the garden determining the sweet spot on your particular lens can be time very well spent. Particularly when it comes to long exposures at night where there’s a good chance there’s not going to be an option to auto focus on anything anyway.
I’m lucky enough to own an AF-S Nikkor 14-24mm f2.8 lens. It’s a beauty but when I first bought the lens and started using auto focus, I wasn’t particularly happy with the results I was getting. So, I got an app for my phone having read various articles on hyperfocal distance focusing but I was still not happy with the results I was getting. I knew this lens to be an exceptional one so I wasn’t really sure what was going on. I solved the issue by going out into the garden with tripod and laptop nearby and started to experiment. After a little, well actually a lot, of trial and error, I found the sweet spot on the lens where everything, front to back was sharp. I never auto focus with this lens now. I don’t focus at the hyperfocal distance. I manually set the focus ring to my sweet spot and it works everytime. Here it is, conveniently right on the right edge of the infinity symbol so I didn’t have to mark my lens in any way..
Now, even if I go out in the dead of night to photograph the Milky Way for example, I don’t need to worry about trying to auto focus my lens maybe using a torch to illuminate a distant object to get a focus point. I just set my lens to the sweet spot and I know I’m going to get a good result. An hour or two spent experimenting with your particular lens, really getting to know it, can save an awful lot of hassle whenever you go out to take pictures.
To prove my point, here’s one of the pictures I took this morning, up on the Malvern Hills just before the sun rose. As you’ll see from the very tight crop below particularly, the bench and the buildings way below the hills and the trees in the distance are all in perfect focus. You can even read the dedication on the bench, ‘In memory of John Alfred Knight who with his wife Maureen and family, loved these hills’. The combination of the Nikon D800e and this amazing lens really do create images with the most incredible detail.
And here’s a picture taken just as the sun rose above the horizon bathing everything in golden light. It was about minus 3°C up on the hills this morning. A little different to Fuerteventura to say the very least. I had to get up at 4 to make it to this point in my wheelchair by first light but I think it was worth it.. :-)
I was asked by Leanne Cole to write an article for her excellent and very successful blog Leanne Cole Photography on the subject of neutral density and graduated neutral density filters and how I use them in my landscape photography. This is what I came up with. Most of the photographs you’ve seen before but they provide some good examples..
There are a few essentials that no landscape photographer should be without. There’s the camera of course and almost as importantly, there’s the tripod. Third on the list of landscape photography essentials is a set of Graduated Neutral Density Filters. Neutral Density filters are also useful although not essential so I’ll be mainly talking about ND Grads in this article suffice to say, neutral density and graduated neutral density filters are your camera’s equivalent of a pair of sunglasses. They cut down the amount of light reaching your camera’s sensor and whenever you cut down the amount of light reaching your camera’s sensor, whether it’s by stopping down the aperture or using a filter, exposure time is affected.
32mm f/22 4 sec ISO-100
Neutral density filters cover the whole of your lens and therefore cut down the light hitting the whole of the sensor. These are useful in extending exposure times allowing you to achieve that lovely silky water effect in rivers and waterfalls. These come in a variety of strengths right up to the now very popular 10 stop Neutral Density Filters. These allow just a tiny fraction of available light to enter the camera allowing you extend exposure times significantly allowing you flatten and smooth the ocean or achieve the silky, smoky water effect even in bright sunshine. These 10 stop filters are so dark it’s not possible to see through them so it’s necessary to compose your shot and focus before attaching the filter. Ten stop filters are often used by architectural photographers to simply make people disappear from busy buildings. All the time people are moving, they will not show up in a long exposure. There is a lot more I could say about using filters like the Lee Big Stopper but I’ll perhaps save that for another article and get back to my favourite filters of all, the Graduated Neutral Density Filter or ND Grad.
24mm f/9 1/500 sec. ISO-100
ND Grads are used to balance exposures. The sunglass effect is graduated such that skies are darkened leaving foregrounds unaffected. One sure fire thing that will let your photographs down from a technical standpoint is blown highlights and lost detail in shadows. These are very basic faults and the easiest ways to avoid them is to pack a set of ND Grads. If you have a bright sky and darker foreground, some of it in shadow, without filters you have two options, expose for the sky and you’re going to lose details in shadows; expose for the foreground and there is a good chance you are going to blow out the highlights in the sky. Strictly speaking you have a third option and that is to use exposure compensation and bracket a series of shots but I’ll get to that.
Once highlights are blown there is nothing in post processing that will allow you to bring them back. Conversely, modern sensors are very good at garnering every ounce of detail from any scene you are shooting but if your shadows are just too dark, attempts to recover them in post will give you blotchy unattractive results. You can’t make detail appear that just isn’t there and believe me I’ve tried. Attempts to do so look very messy indeed.
ND filters normally come in sets of 3. The filters are labelled differently depending on manufacturer but a set will usually allow for a 1, 2 or 3 stop exposure compensation. The table below relates to both ND and ND graduated filters.
It’s important to note I think at this point that it’s worth spending a few pounds on these filters and avoiding the cheaper options you see on websites like Amazon. You can easily find a set of ND Grads for under a tenner if you look but anything you put in front of your lens will degrade your image. Why spend hundreds of pounds on a decent lens and then put a cheap piece of glass or worse, plastic, in front of it. These filters will last a lifetime if treated well so it’s worth saving a little before taking the plunge and buying a set.
50mm f/9 1/100 sec. ISO-100
I use Lee filters because I think they are arguably the best and I have no affiliation with Lee. Hitech filters are right up there however and I’m hoping to put that to the test. Both of these companies offer 100mm filters with holder systems. When using my Nikkor 14-24mm lens, I use the Lee Super Wide system and 150mm filters. The bigger sizes really come into their own if you’re using wide angle lenses. Cokin Z-Pro filters are also 100mm I believe but I have no experience or knowledge of those. The first set of filters I had were of the smaller Cokin variety and I used to have to crop my wide angled shots rather defeating the object This was because the edge of the filters were picked up by my Nikkor 24–70mm lens at 24mm but if you’re on a budget, these are an ideal choice, certainly to get you started.
Another point to be made in favour of spending a few pounds or dollars is that Neutral Density Filters and ND Grads are so called because they have a neutral impact on the colour of your images, or at least they are supposed to. Not all ND and ND grad filters are created equally. Colour cast can be a real issue with cheaper filters and even with the more expensive ones when you get up to 10 stops. It can be corrected, using colour balance tools, but it’s best to try and keep things truly neutral from the start.
24mm 1/125 sec ISO-100
For most landscape shots, I like to keep my aperture constant at f/11 for maximum depth of field. You need to choose the right ND Grad to get the right effect. The sky is naturally brighter than the ground so you want to keep it that way. To achieve the most natural looking result you need to choose the right ND Grad to correct the exposure difference to within 1 stop.
If I point my camera at the sky, not the sun, and take a light reading and my light meter suggests a shutter speed of 1/200sec and I then point my camera at the foreground and take another light meter reading and my light meter suggests that to properly expose the foreground I need a shutter speed of 1/125 sec. This would be two stops and I would choose my 1 stop filter which would be my 0.3.
I would of course have the option of keeping my shutter speed the same at 1/200 sec. and opening the aperture from f/11 to f/9… This would still be two stops and I would still need my .03 filter to even the exposure.
Likewise, if my light meter suggested that to properly expose the sky at f/11, I would need a shutter speed of 1/250 sec. and to properly expose the foreground I would need a shutter speed of 1/125 sec. this would equate to one stop. I would therefore use my 1 stop .03 filter to darken the sky enough for me to shoot at f/11 and 1/125 sec. This would ensure I wouldn’t lose any details in the shadows and highlights wouldn’t be blown out in the sky. A balanced exposure in other words.
36mm f/11 1/160 sec. ISO-100
ND Graduated filters, as well as coming in different strengths as it were, they also come in hard and soft varieties. The hard and soft relates to the graduation between the darker glass and the lighter. Soft filters have a much more gradual division between the two halves. My recommendation would be to buy a set of hard ND Grads. It may be tempting to go for soft thinking this will allow for easier blending of the filter effect. The problem with soft grads is that often times you end up pushing the filter so far down the filter holder it’s nearly out the other side to darken a bright horizon. Having darkened the sky above the horizon sufficiently, because you’ve pushed the filter in so far, you end up with the area below the horizon being adversely affected by the filter.
The graduation on a hard ND Grad is not as stark as it at first might appear. You’re not going to see a hard line across your horizon unless of course, you set it too high but this is less likely because the hard edge also makes it much easier to set the filter in the right place. It’s not always easy to see through the lens, especially with the 0.3 filter, exactly where you need to set the filter. It soon becomes evident when you try and process the picture if you’ve set it in the wrong place however. A dark smudge right across your landscape does not look good. A dark sky with a bright strip just above the horizon doesn’t look good either but you’ll soon get the hang of setting the filter in the right place.
24mm f/11 1/125 sec. ISO-100
I had hoped to show some ‘with filter’ and ‘without filter’ photos to demonstrate just how effective these filters are in properly balancing an exposure but we have had thick fog in Cornwall for the last five days and with no let-up in sight, I’ve run up against my deadline for this article but please, take my word for it; with a set of these filters in your kit bag, you’ll be able to tackle shots you just might not be able to manage otherwise without under or over exposing one part of the picture or other.
This is where I should come back to bracketing as another way to balance awkward exposures. Bracketing can be very effective and when weather conditions make the use of filters awkward, I use this technique myself. But, bracketing is going to give you a whole lot of work to do in post that you just won’t have to do if you use filters. You can use programs like Photomatrix to make light work of merging bracketed shots but in my experience, this is difficult to do without getting an HDR like effect, even when using the ‘exposure blending’ rather than the ‘HDR’ option within Photomatrix. Filters are the best, and in terms of workflow, by far the most efficient option in my opinion.
15mm f/22 1.6 sec. ISO-100
As well as balancing exposures, you can also use a darker ND Grad than your light meter suggests for creative effect. I’ve peppered this article with photos I’ve taken where the use of a filter was essential in order to get a proper exposure and others where I’ve used a darker filter than was necessary to create drama or to otherwise enhance the sky.
With a decent set of filters and with these pointers in hand, the best advice I can give is to get out there, take photographs and experiment. For the added effort of a few minutes setting up, you’ll be amply rewarded, your landscape photographs will improve enormously and you’re going to look very professional to boot.
This tutorial covers the basic steps necessary to capture images like the one above. Our galaxy, the Milky Way, is shaped, as the late Sir Patrick Moore, (a BBC, well actually, national institution described it, a man who presented a late night astronomy programme for 55 years) like two fried eggs back to back. We live about halfway across the white. It’s about 25,000 light years to the centre of the galaxy and about 25,000 light years to the edge. With light travelling at 186,000 miles per second, getting your head around how far light can travel in an hour, let alone a year and then multiplying that by 25,000 to get to either the edge or the centre of the galaxy from where we are situated, it really is quite mind-boggling.
The size, the complexity, the multitude of stars and planets, standing on a beach or a cliff top with a camera pointed at the night sky, looking towards the edge of the galaxy that stretches like a huge arch above our heads, one really can feel very small and insignificant indeed. I had a little chuckle to myself, remembering ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ where in the opening chapter, Earth was demolished to make way for an intergalactic highway. With all attempts to contact us having been ignored, so wrapped up in the idea that we are the only ones, the highway was going ahead unchallenged and that was it, Earth was no more and the intergalactic bulldozers trundled on remorselessly.
Find a nice dark Sky
The first step is finding a dark sky without light pollution. This is becoming increasingly difficult as towns and cities spread. I’ve been using a website called Blue Marble to find areas local to me that should be dark, or at least dark enough to capture these images. I have a certain advantage in being able to find a nice flat relatively dark horizon looking out to sea but even then, darkness can not be guaranteed. The orange glow in the image above comes from a trawler or tanker. In the picture below the glow from Falmouth, and a few more towns around the coast plus what I think are navigation lights from a fishing trawler that was coming and going across the horizon clearly impact on the image but not disastrously so. The orange glow from the sodium lighting used the world over will wash out the further stars from your Milky Way image so really, get as far away as possible from towns and cities.
Locating the Milky Way
Once you’ve found yourself a nice dark area of countryside, you need to find the Milky Way. The best advice I can offer here is to look for what could be a ribbon of clouds across the sky on a clear night. The billions of stars that make up the Milky Way can appear just like that but if you look more closely at the cloud you’ll see that it’s made up of stars. To be more exact, the Milky Way extends from the constellation Scorpius (Scorpio) to the constellation Cygnas, (the swan) particularly the area closest to Sagittarius. There are a myriad number of apps available for smart phones that will help you locate what we’re talking about if you’re still nonplussed or if light pollution is obscuring the best of the Milky Way. Here in the UK at the moment the Milky Way can be seen directly overhead extending north-east to south-west at around midnight. Summer is a good time to see the Milky Way. In winter the sun is in the constellation Sagittarius introducing cosmic light pollution. The moon can also be a culprit so it’s best to view during the Lunar cycle when the moon is absent or new.
Right, you’ve found a dark sky and you’ve located the Milky Way, what you now need is a sturdy tripod. With exposure times extending to 30 seconds, you cannot hold your camera still for that time. That said, don’t let not having a tripod hold you back. If you don’t have a tripod you could lay your camera on its back and set the self-timer. Setting the self-timer allows for the shutter to fire without jogging the camera.
To get the widest field of view, to get more of the Milky Way into your photograph, wide angled lenses are best. A typical kit lens would be 18-55mm. 18mm is a good starting point. If you can go wider, all the better. Faster lenses are better. By that I mean lenses that allow you to open the aperture to around f1.4, 2.8 or 3.5. This is simply because the wider the aperture, the more light you can collect on your sensor in the time the shutter is open.
We’re on the move as a planet, when you start taking pictures of the stars with long exposures, you’re going to get star trails if that exposure time is too long. To photograph the Milky Way we want to slow the shutter as much as possible before the star trails become too apparent. For this we use the 500 rule. Divide 500 by the focal length of your lens to arrive at a maximum exposure time before star trails appear. Wider angle lenses are better as they are going to give you a longer shutter speed allowing more star light to be collected by your sensor. I’ve been using a Nikkor 14-24mm f2.8.
Set your aperture to its widest. As I’ve mentioned, ideally this will be between f1.4 and 3.5. If your lens doesn’t open that wide, it’ll be harder to get an image but not impossible. With a wide aperture however comes a narrow depth of field so you need to be quite precise in your focusing.
To get enough light on your image sensor, you’re going to have to make it more sensitive to light. This means upping the ISO to anything between ISO 1600 and ISO 6400. The higher the ISO, the more noise will be introduced into the image. I’ve experimented with higher ISO’s and shorter shutter speeds. Really it’s a trade-off. You’ll need to find the best shutter speed/ISO combination that works best for you. I have found with my Nikon D800e that even at ISO 6400 the noise factor isn’t any more troublesome than at ISO 1600. Hence, I’ve been able to set faster shutter speeds to get ultimately a sharper image of the stars. Faster shutter speeds mean less star blur. Despite the introduction of noise at such high ISOs, I’ve printed these images at A3 and they look really good.
Focusing on the Milky Way
You need to set your lens to infinity to get the Milky Way in focus. This is difficult to do on a dark night with no moon to provide a focus point for auto-focus to operate. You’re not going to see anything looking through your viewfinder, the camera is blind. If you have an infinity mark on your lens be wary of just setting to that mark. In my experience setting the lens at the infinity mark will not give you the sharpest picture. It should, and I’m not entirely sure why it doesn’t on a lens costing £1500 but there you are. Perhaps someone could explain that one to me. Anyway, what you really need to do is focus on a distant object while it’s still light enough for your auto-focus to operate. Once you’ve focused, switch the lens to manual and leave the focus ring alone.
This is all well and good but if you want to add foreground interest to your image, given a very wide aperture, if your stars are in focus, your foreground will not be. I have experimented with setting the lens at the hyperfocal distance which, according to the depth of field calculators (numerous ones available for smartphones), at f2.8 on a full frame camera, focusing on a point just 0.83m should give you a sharp image from half a meter in front of the camera to infinity. Sounds too good to be true and it is. This method gives you a very sharp foreground and the stars are OK but they will not be as sharp as they could be. The solution is to focus one image at infinity, and another at the hyperfocal distance and merge the images in Photoshop. If you shine a torch at the hyperfocal distance for whatever f-number you’re using (lots of depth of field apps available for smartphone) for foreground, (ideally f/8 or f/11 with a very long exposure), auto-focus will pick up the point. Once you’ve done that however, you’ve lost your infinity focus and no longer have the option to refocus to infinity because it’s dark. My solution has been to take very careful note of where the focus ring is set when auto-focussing on a distant object. I’ve then been able to return the lens to that point when I’m ready to shoot the stars once more. It’s a bit woolly and if your lens doesn’t have a focus distance scale on it, it’s difficult to do. Some trial and error is going to be required to find what works best for you, your camera and your lens.
That’s it, all you need to start capturing pictures of the Milky Way. Once you have your images and are back at home in front of the computer with a nice cup of tea, you’ll need to process them. I use Photoshop to process my images. Regardless of the software you use to process your pictures, the first thing you are likely going to want to adjust is the white (or colour in Photoshop) balance to remove any colour cast. You can then set about increasing contrast to bring out the detail. There are many tools available to help you get the best of your images these include Topaz Labs ‘Adjust’ and one of my favourites, Topaz DeNoise. If you don’t have Photoshop, it’s available as a full working trial via the Adobe website as are Topaz Lab’s plugins. I’m not going to go into too much detail about the processing of these images as there a million and one ways to go about it but the two most important areas to concentrate on are the white/colour balance and contrast and I’ve mentioned.
Have fun. I hope you find this useful.