Shooting the Stars

Lately I’ve become interested in astrophotography.  Not so much shooting galaxies in deep space (yet), but capturing star trails and the Milky Way are my two of my latest challenges (along with panoramas, HDR, and all of Photoshop.  Focus, haha, is not my strongest point).

So far the most important lesson has been that you can focus past infinity!  Who knew!  Turns out beyond infinity is quite fuzzy and doesn’t make for the greatest photograph.  I had my best luck by having the camera focus on something at least 10 metres away, like torchlight lighting up a tree, but I learnt the hard way to check, check, then check again zoomed in as much as your camera will allow on your LCD.  Infinity is often slightly to the left if where it’s marked on your lens; on my to-do list is to mark exactly where it is on my lenses.

Otherwise, many of the usual things for long exposures apply to astrophotography:

  • Tripod
  • Remote release or timed release – no vibration from shutter pressing
  • Turn off IS/VR
  • One I keep forgetting: Take a black exposure, ie with the lens cap on.  It can be used to remove noise by stacking software
  • A focus trick: Turn off auto focus.  Look at Live View, zoom aaaaaall the way in with zoom buttons, manually focus on a bright star until it’s a sharp point.  Don’t touch the lens again!

For the Milky Way:

  • High ISO
  • Likely no longer than 30 seconds exposure, otherwise you’ll start to get star trails.  Test this however, it is dependent on your focal length
  • Get that black exposure!

Conversely, for star trails:

  • Low ISO
  • 20-30 second exposures, but play with this.  The longer the exposure, the more noise, but also more stars
  • Multiple exposures, for at least an hour

I strongly recommend Charles Niauton’s “How to Photograph Stars” tutorial, it helped me immensely.

For star trails, I’ve had some reasonable success with Star Stax.  It’s not perfect, but it was how I was able to put together this star trail taken over my house, in suburban Brisbane (yes the house is ugly, we’re planning a renovation which has its own blog at Gecko Reno).

Southern Celestial Pole over my house

Southern Celestial Pole over my house

I’d like to say I knew the Southern Celestial Pole was there, but I did not.  I was expecting some arcs and mostly just out there to learn and practise, so it was quite a kick to see the pole.  Given it’s my first attempt I’m not unhappy with this at all.

My first Milky Way is less successful.  This was taken up near Ballandean, in Queensland’s Granite Belt region.  The Granite Belt is up to 900 metres above sea level, and the coolest region in Queensland, so it makes for beautiful clear skies (I wrote about a previous visit to the region here).  Unfortunately the weather wasn’t really playing ball; a strong wind blew regular clouds and rain squalls over us so I only had a short window to play in.  This is the best attempt, but I’m not really happy with the noise or the composition or the wow factor of the stars.

Milky Way over the Granite Belt

Milky Way over the Granite Belt

The following night I had another short go.  My husband insisted on trying some 60 second exposures – I was dubious thinking we’d end up with star trails, but actually that was ok.  Less ok is the noise and the hot pixels, but then they’re only visible when pixel peeping which is a bad habit of mine developed from submitting images to stock photography sites.  I’d be interested to know which photo people prefer!

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Milky Way 60 seconds

Will also liked the stars being blue.  Post-processing these images is an art in itself which I can’t claim to have come to grips with but I’m working on.  These Lightroom presets by David Kingham, and the accompanying videos, have helped immensely however.  The presets are donation-ware and I’ve donated, if you find them useful I recommend that you do too.  I can vouch that sussing this stuff out on your own isn’t straight-forward, especially the white balance.

On a final note: my uncle sent me this interesting video of a lecture given by Barbara Cunow.  Cunow is an amateur photographer who’s photographed all 110 Messier objects, with minimal equipment and terrible light pollution but some smart photography and processing techniques to compensate.  A lot to learn!

Beyond the Camera

Once upon a time, I was one of those anti post-processing “purists”.  “I love the natural look, I hate processed photos”, I bleated to myself.  What I’ve since realised is that what I meant was, “I don’t know what I’m doing”.

This obviously doesn’t hold true for all photographers who keep their processing minimal.  This wonderful presentation by National Geographic photographer Michael Melford taught me a lot about bring out the best in an image without serious post-processing – National Geographic have a policy of only presenting real photos to their customers and will not accept overly-processed shots from their photographers – and I have nothing but admiration and respect for his gorgeous images.  But I’m not a National Geographic photographer.

And now I LOVE post-processing.  I love playing with my photos.  I love experimenting with colour and shades and shade and shading, painting my little adjustment brush all over the place, cloning out that distracting branch, softening the focus with low contrast and clarity or making everything razor-sharp with the reverse, tinging my highlights and shadows, cropping and flipping and and all and any combination of the above.  The magic of those little Lightroom sliders… I love it.  I may love it more than taking the photo, especially if taking the photo means getting up at 4am.  I feel a little disappointed when I look at a photo that’s pretty fine with minimal adjustments and think, “Is this as good as it gets?”.

Lightroom is what turned me.  It’s something you can play with without much knowledge, although youtube videos quickly helped me understand the magic.  Lightroom is non-destructive, so I can layer change upon change then turn back time with a click in the History panel.  It lets me take snapshots so I can capture a few of my favourite experiments then directly compare them.  It’s a tool like any other in the photographer’s bag and skillfully wielded it can turn an ok image into a grand sight.  I’m not all that skillful but I love it.

And that it’s hardly a new thing is something I knew but it only really hit home recently.  For example, here is what Ansel Adams had to say about his famous “Moonrise” photo:

I decided to use dilute D-23 and ten developer-to-water sequences, 30 seconds in the developer and 2 minutes in the water without agitation for each sequence. By using ten developer-water cycles I minimized the possibility of uneven sky.

The negative was quite difficult to print; several years later I decided to intensify the foreground to increase contrast. I first refixed and washed the negative, then treated the lower section of the image with a dilute solution of Kodak IN-5 intensifier. I immersed the area below the horizon with an in-and-out motion for about 1 minute, then rinsed in water, and repeated about twelve times until I achieved what appeared to be optimum density. Printing was a bit easier thereafter, although it remains a challenge.

There were light clouds in a few areas of the sky, and the clouds under the moon were very bright (two or three times as bright as the moon). I burn-in the foreground a little toward the bottom of the print. I then burn along the line of the mountains, keeping the card edge in constant motion. In addition, I hold the card far enough from the paper to produce a broad penumbra in its shadow; this prevents a distinct dodging or burning line, which would be very distracting. I also burn upward a bit to the moon to lower the values of the white clouds and the comparitively light horizon sky. I then burn from the top of the moon to the top of the image with several up-and-down passages. – Taken from Notes On Photographs

He did what who where?  There was no Photoshop, but while Photoshop didn’t exist photo manipulation did and had done for as long as photography has existed.  Photoshop wasn’t born out of thin air, it was wanted by photographers to be the digital equivalent of all this work film photographers did (and still do) in the darkroom.  You can see the difference between the straight from camera print and Adams’ post-processed one here.

I recently subscribed (I’m not that keen on the subscription model but the Black Friday sale won me over) to Photoshop.  I used Photoshop a little several years ago but hardly any since, and just opening it is daunting.  I don’t even know where to start.  I really should get to grips with it, add this powerful tool to my bag for special occasions, but I feel I’ve been handed a chainsaw to peel an apple.  I rarely feel the need to leave Lightroom… suspect I’m scared!  Back to youtube I should go but this feels more like a chore than a pleasure.

Anyway, I’m completely on-board with post-processing now.  It definitely helps to get as much right in camera as you can.  But even when you do, sometimes there’s an extra je ne sais quoi you can add in Lightroom.  The eleventh secret herb or spice.  The touch that makes this photo mine rather than any other photographer’s who’s stood in the exact same spot, and I’ve stood in the same places as many, many photographers.

Am I misrepresenting the world?  Sometimes a little, sometimes a lot.  Sometimes I’m merely adjusting for the camera’s desire to average the world’s colour to grey (“no, lil camera, the sunset really was that red”).  Sometimes I’ve flipped the world in a mirror, removed parts of it, changed the colours, lit it up… But while it might not end up the exact scene I photographed, it is what I felt.

Lil Nanshe

When I was a teenager, I would only write in my diary when I was sad or angry.  I don’t want this blog to become the same thing, but as Banderas’ final post is here, it seems fitting to place lil Nanshe here too.

Nanshe was put to sleep yesterday.

Nanshe came to us at the same time as Banderas, coincidentally around the same time my husband and I first got together.  I went from a single person living alone to having a partner and two troublesome cats in about a week.  The cats were truly troublesome; they were about two years old, and had come from a small house with 18 other cats in it.  Neither cat was at all socialised and for several weeks we could barely go near them.  Over time, with bribes of food and toys, they came to allow us to pat them and hold them.  Neither really ever became lap cats, but they did become a lot more affectionate.

Nanshe had additional troubles, as the runt of her litter.  I couldn’t tell if she was eating at all at first, and she wasn’t properly toilet trained.  Again, over time and with patience, both problems were resolved.

Nanshe’s favourite means of getting your attention was to “dust for fingerprints” – with her hugely fluffy tail, she’d back up to you and vibrate it against you, somethng I later learned was the ultimate cat compliment.  She’d follow me around the house, which unfortunately earned her a few kicks as she was impossible to see when walking in the dark at night!  Often when coming home, she’d be waiting near the bottom of the stairs to greet us, her squeaky purr at the ready (her puur sounded like she needed oiling).  She also loved to follow me into the bathroom, and got most confused when I had a bath, sniffing the water and looking at me like I was a crazy lady.

She was such a small cat she became our international standard of small, and of fluffy.  Her hair was unbelieveably soft, never changing from that kitten softness that most cats lose.  Her name is the Sumerian goddess of dreams, as she reminded me of soft fluffy clouds.  Despite her tiny size and soft hair, she was easily the bravest of the two, dusting and winning over strangers when they came to our house, and she loved going outside when she got the chance.  Our last flat in London was in a loft extension, and in the evenings she’d roam the rooftops of Hammersmith, but came home when called before we went to bed.  Bar one night, when she didn’t answer.  The next morning she still wasn’t home.  During the day at work Will and I created flyers to put up that evening.  Upon getting home later that day, she was sitting in the lounge like nothing had happened.

Another night we had a house guest who didn’t realise Nanshe was outside and shut the window.  The next day it was pouring with rain, absolutely bucketing.  I realised Nanshe was missing, and opened the window and called and called, although with the rain it was loud.  Eventually she dashed over the rooves and into my arms, wet and shivering.

Her favourite way to wake me was to stand right by my ear, and utter one loud “mew!”.

Nanshe loved fitting herself into boxes, the smaller the better.  She would claim a favourite box until her squishing herself into it would finally break one side.

Good night lil Nanshe, I’m sorry I left you.

Don’t Call Me “Tog”

I don’t know why, but I have an irrational hatred of the the nickname “tog”.  Maybe because it made me feel like an idiot – the first time I saw it used, I had no idea what it meant and it took me a while to suss it out.  Tog = Photographer.  Better than a “phot” or a “graph” or heaven forbid, a “her”, I suppose, but something about the sound of the word just jars with me.

I like being a photographer, or at least aiming to be one.  To my ear it sounds elegant, masterful, the science of technology combined with the art of the eye.  I’ve always been interested in technology – indeed currently I work in IT – but have always had an artistic side.  When I was younger, it was dance.  In the background was always writing, which never amounted to much beyond private diaries and a few travel blog posts, and in the background to all of that was photography.  It’s only been in the last few years that I realised that photography is the expression of my artistic side that I revel in the most (well, and that my body can still do!).

Having spent years just taking photos however I felt like whenever I felt like it, with no thought to the technical side, I’m now catching up.  Learning to use a DSLR has meant quite a lot of missed or ruined photos, but when I get it right… wow now that’s fun.  The technical side of photography isn’t just the camera though, it’s everything around you.  Choosing the light, considering the angles, determining the depth of focus, framing the world.  Suddenly taking a photo of that neat looking tree takes on a whole universe of options.  Practice practice practice will make this second nature, but for now I’m constantly evaluating and re-evaulating everything I do.  Sometimes I suspect I get caught up too much in the details and lose my image.  Other times I try so so hard but still miss one little thing that later I realised has ruined the shot.  Sure, with digital there’s “no cost” in taking hundreds or thousands of images that are no good, but it’s still a blow when that I can’t translate what’s in my minds eye to the screen, and of course plenty of wasted time.

Recently my husband and I went to the Bunya Mountains for a long weekend getaway.  I was determined to make the most of all the technical advice I’ve been soaking up recently.  I searched google images for inspiration and learnt about the local famous flora, the distinctive Bunya Pine, and resolved to capture one.  Sunsets were also supposed to be spectacular.

I didn’t get a good Bunya Pine photo, and the day I was ready for sunset disappointed me with an almost perfectly clear sky and not much of interest, so I came away feeling like I hadn’t really made full use of my time there, photographically speaking.  Practice, practice, practice, so that’s what I’ve put that weekend down to.

Bunya Mountains themselves are a sliver of ancient bush surrounded by ploughed fields and tamed land, topped with mobile phone and tv towers.  I’ve never been to a national park with better mobile coverage.  We walked by day (over 13kms one day) and shivered by night, never quite getting the hang of lighting the fire on our cottage.  There was phenomenal clear air at night when the clouds parted, but the impending super moon and the bitter cold kept me indoors.  I wussed out, basically.

Still, here is a collection of images that despite my despondence on returning home, I’m actually fairly happy with.  I may not have captured the images I was hoping for, but these aren’t a bad surprise (Mouse over for captions and in some cases, the story behind the image).

Go With The Eye

So many times, something has caught my eye when I’m not really looking for a photo, but I do like to have a camera to hand when I can, so I reach for it and start shooting.

I start with what I saw.  Then I move left, move right, zoom in, pull out,  stop up, stop down… play for as long as time permits.

But so often it’s the first view that works the best.  The main exception is the aperture setting, as generally I leave it as wide as possible which isn’t always the best.  But what is often the best is that angle I first saw and wanted to capture.

So many times I’ve read that you must move around your subject.  And those writers are right, especially when you’re coming up to a well-photographed landmark or a common subject.  When you’re out specifically looking for a photo, then yes, move around, then move around some more.

But when something unexpected has leapt out at you and you’ve just HAD to stop and take that photo, even when your partner has disappeared into the crowd or you’re in danger of running late, then often that first image is the right one.  Time and time again I take a string of photos only to return to the first one, or first few, those with that exact composition that caught my eye in the first place.

Walk around, because there just might be something better, but don’t be afraid to trust your instinct either.  I had twenty-four photos of these ballet shoes hanging from the bar at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre, snatched with a point’n’shoot in the final minutes before the performance started.  Guess which in the series this is.

Worn and loved ballet shoes

Celebrating the Bolshoi Ballet in Brisbane, their first visit to Australia in 19 years.

On Printing

I’ve rarely printed any of my photos, and recently I had a lesson in why this is a habit I should get into, especially if I’m to continue selling my work through microstock, Redbubble, Zazzle, and Fine Art America.  I entered a local photo competition, which required an A4 size print of your work, framed, to display.  I entered two works, one which printed out just fine, and one which really just didn’t look right.  Darks were too dark, spot removals were obvious, weird halos in the sky around the foreground objects, lines too soft, bright colours not all that bright.  What I thought would take me five minutes took all afternoon as I tweaked and printed and tweaked and printed and tweaked (and printed and tweaked and printed and tweaked and printed and tweaked…).

Eventually I got an image I was happy with, but it cost me all my new magenta cartridge and a fair whack of photo paper.

Cliff St framed by the old Baptist church, opened in 1877, and the sculpture "Surge" by Davis-Thomas, installed in 2007

Sandgate – Cliff St framed by the old Baptist church, opened in 1877, and the sculpture “Surge” by Davis-Thomas, installed in 2007

This weekend, I’ve been printing as many images as I can that I have on Redbubble, and now I sit surrounded by prints waiting their 24 hours to pass to I can see the final colour.  Already I’ve learnt that black and whites seem to have a yellow tinge when they first leave the printer but that has faded to true monochrome.  Otherwise, I’m pleased that so far, all of my prints look fine, although I haven’t yet gone over them with a fine toothcomb.  It has cost me another magenta cartridge, plus a blue and yellow this time, but it’s worth it for the peace of mind that anything anyone buys from me to print should work out just fine (and I’ve now found a cheaper shop online to buy toner!).

It’s also made me review some of my older images, and I’m finding I’m not so happy with them as I once was, but I guess that means I’m learning something.

If you’re curious about that photo competition, I didn’t win anything, but apparently I caused “a lot of discussion” with the photo above. Still wondering if that’s good or bad!

A First – A Win!

Every now and then I remember that the Brisbane newspaper “Courier-Mail” runs a weekly photo competition in their Saturday magazine, and I check out the topic, and send a in photo if I have something suitable, and promptly forget.  Imagine then my surprise when I received a letter on 25th February saying I had won!

Ladybird in Rose Petals

Ladybird in Rose Petals

The topic was “Mini”, so I submitted this photo of a ladybird on a rose I took about two years back.  I found her on my stove, and in the absence of a yard of any kind, had moved her to the single rose I had growing in a pot on my balcony.  I’d started experimenting with macro photography so when I found this patient model I took the opportunity to take dozens of photos, most of which, on close inpection, weren’t really all that sharp, or there was something distracting in the background, or numerous other faults.  There was something distracting in the background of this image too, but a tight crop fixed that (admittedly at the cost of quality for a large print).

I’ve always been quite fond of this little lady, especially after the eureka moment I had when I finally managed to balance the colours right to bring out the red (red is always SO HARD to get looking natural).  Now she’s really paid back my good deed.

I have to add, I was quite taken with the first runner-up image in the competition as well. Check it out here – Uluru as you’ve never seen it before.