Thursday, March 21, 2013


Monument Valley at 3 am. Camera settings: ISO 2000, 20 sec., f 2.8.
Much like my recent post offering five tips on photographing in Upper Antelope Canyon, I admit that this post offering my thoughts on photographing stars doesn't come from years of experience. In fact this was my first real attempt.

So why should you continue reading?

Because with any photographic technique there will always be a first time. And because I come to these new situations with years of photographic experience behind me, I think my approach and the lessons learned can help you as you expand your photographic horizons and explore new areas or genres of photography.

I mentioned briefly in my post about planning for my Arizona trip that one of the things I wanted to do was try shooting at night. Coincidentally, I also realized that I was going to be in Monument Valley during a large meteor shower, so my expectations were high.

What did I learn?

Star photography is much more that putting you camera on a tripod, setting a long exposure and sitting back while the magic happens.

And of course you already know that you'll need a sturdy tripod, cable release and a flashlight (headlamp works best), right?

Horseshoe Bend at 5 am. Camera settings: ISO 1600, 20 sec., f 3.5.
Probably the first thing I learned was to crank up the ISO. I went as high as 3200, but found that 1600 worked best. Normally when using a tripod, your first thought is to use the lowest ISO available since the possibility of camera shake caused by a lower shutter speed is minimized. But when you consider that the planet your tripod is linked to is moving, a slow shutter speed will cause the stars to blur if the shutter is open too long causing the stars to blur, thus making everything seem out of focus.

Speaking of focus, the second thing I learned is that obtaining sharp focus at night is really difficult. While you think you might be able to set your lens to infinity and all will be good, you'd be wrong. If there is something in the foreground such as a tree or barn that you can shine a light on to set focus then you are fine. Absent that, I would set my focus to infinity, then back off just a bit, take a series of photos, go to the laptop and check focus. I was never able to determine true focus using the back of the camera, even when using a Zacuto Z-Finder Pro.

Even though it appeared very dark, lights from a far-off town became visible on the horizon during the long exposure. Camera Settings: ISO 3200, 30 sec., f 2.8.
Monument Valley was dark, really dark, and remember that darkness is your friend when shooting the night sky, despite the focus issues previously mentioned. Light pollution is all around us, so the farther from civilization you can get, the better. Even as dark as it was in the Arizona desert, I noticed bright spots on the horizon from far off towns would appear after long exposures.

I found a shutter speed between 20 and 35 seconds worked best. Anything longer and you will definitely have soft stars. I set the f-stop somewhere between 2.8 or 3.2, which again seems to go against conventional thinking when using a tripod and trying to achieve a deep depth of field with everything in focus from near to far.

However, if you think about it, you need to strike a balance between getting the most light into the camera without too long of a shutter speed, which is why you crank up the ISO. Luckily today's cameras can handle the higher ISOs.

Remember, even if the temperature is warm during the day, it can get really cold at night, so dress warmly, bring extra layers and maybe a thermos of hot chocolate or coffee. You want to be comfortable when you settle in for a long night of shooting the stars.

Monday, March 11, 2013


When Dr. Robert Ballard, probably most known for the discovery of the RMS Titanic, stepped in front of a screen depicting the future of underwater exploration, I knew I had my photograph.
If you are a corporate photographer and find yourself taking pictures in the same location over and over again, then this post is for you. If you are an event photographer that returns to the same location over and over again, then this post is for you. And if you are either one of these photographers and want to create unique pictures every time you are at this location, then this post is for you.

In my case, I am responsible for covering ceremonies, conferences, and speakers in our corporate conference center several times a month. Everyone from famous oceanographers, Nobel Prize winners, four-star admirals and generals, authors and scientists have passed through and while the presentations are fascinating, it is the same venue, same light, same big screens, etc. You get the picture.

When a Time Magazine cover featuring Albert Einstein appeared on screen I knew that it would make a different photo of Nobel Prize physicist Dr. William D. Phillips.
In this post I'll focus mainly on covering speakers and presentations as opposed to events. So how do I make that interesting or different when I've been shooting in this location for eight years?  Well read on.

On the surface it would appear that nothing changes expect the person and that would seem like the big disadvantage, right? Not really. Your first advantage is that the basics of the environment doesn't change, which means your exposure doesn't really change. I know that I'm going to put my camera on manual with a shutter speed of 100, f-stop around 3.2 and an ISO of 1600. Now that might change just a bit on occasion depending on whether the speaker remains in the front of the room or moves around. But in any case it will only change a stop or so in either direction.

It wasn't until the final slide of his presentation, which featured the cover of his new book, that I felt I had a usable photo of Dr. Peter W. Singer.
The second advantage, and this will save you time in post processing, is you can assign a custom white balance and forget it. As I'm walking up the stairs to our conference center, I set my camera as stated above and make sure that my camera's white balance is set on custom. Now when I enter the room all my attention is on how I'm going to make these images different from the previous ones. All the technical issues were solved years ago.

Which brings us to the title of this post, the fact that you really are shooting the same scene over and over and the changes you are looking for can be subtle.

The dark slide behind former Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead provided nice contrast with his uniform.
More than 90% of the speakers have some type of Power Point slides or video they use during the presentation. You can use those slides to your advantage. Since I am able to include a large video screen in my frame whether I'm shooting from the left or right, I wait for a slide that in some way works visually with the speaker. It could be a graphic or have strong color and because you control the depth of field, it is your decision on how much you want the viewer to know. If it's the title slide or has words that help identify the speaker, then a little deeper depth of field is the answer, or if it is a graphic element or strong color, then shallower normally works.

Professor and complex network theorist, Dr. Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, had some complicated slides so I opted for a  shallow depth of field and waited. 
In one sense I'm fortunate that I have those video screens to use since they do provide endless opportunities. So what if you don't have anything like that? If that was the case, I would most likely place a colored gel and strobe the background to add some punch. Or maybe place some temporary art on the wall that you are confident you could use as visual elements. That's assuming this is a space that you control.

I realize every venue is different, so the key is to figure out all of the basics first, such as shutter speed, white balance and f-stops. The real point is that if you are required to photograph in the same location, then master that location, embrace that location and most of all, be creative in that location. You don't have a choice, right?