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June 8, 2015

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Photographing Stationary Stars

February 10, 2014

I have photographed stars in the past but usually star trails like this:

650xW GI_101117_ST3 V1

But lately I have been enjoying some nighttime photography and in particular, photographing stationary stars like this: 

1200x GI_140118_5065 V1

For stationary stars, the best results are produced using a very fast lens (e.g. f1.2 or f1.4) because you want to collect as much light as possible in a relatively short exposure. Due to the rotation of the earth, the stars will appear to move in the sky with longer exposures. That is what makes star trail photographs possible.  But for stationary star photographs the idea is to limit the exposure time such that the stars don’t blur (don’t appear to move). The general rule for determining the longest exposure possible before star “movement” can be noticed is as follows:

500/focal length = seconds of exposure

So, for example, using my 24mm lens, 500/24 = 20.83 seconds. That means that exposures of 20 seconds or less should have stars that are not noticeably blurred due to the movement of the earth. It makes sense that the wider the lens, the less apparent the movement is and likewise, the more telephoto the lens (the closer stars appear) the more apparent the movement will be.

So, as you can see, with the shutter time pre-determined in order to avoid star blur (in my example, no longer than 20 seconds), the amount of light gathered is controlled by aperture and/or ISO.

But besides collecting as much light as possible during the exposure, the biggest problem facing photographers in these situations is having enough light during pre-exposure focusing. Most modern auto focus lenses focus past infinity (for the most part this is so the lens motor can “search” for focus without hard stopping at infinity). So it is not possible to just set the lens to infinity and shoot. Focusing is required to find infinity. Looking for stars and focusing through the viewfinder is just not possible. Instead I use Live View and zoom. But even with dark nights and lots of stars in the sky, finding a star in Live View can be difficult.  One key to success is a fast lens. Using an f1.4 lens at ISO 1600 makes finding stars possible and enables manual focusing using Live View. A slower lens of f2.8 or f3.5 etc. makes the task of seeing a star on the LCD and manually focusing it virtually impossible.

During the limited exposure time (e.g. 20 seconds) a fast f1.2 or f1.4 lens makes all the difference in gathering as much light as possible. Remember that each stop is a doubling or halving of the amount of light. So an f1.4 lens will “collect” four times as much light as a f2.8 lens. This is really one time where equipment really does make a difference. Try to achieve similar results with slower lenses is just not possible.


When it comes to those little specs of light in a black sky, this makes all the difference.

It is really quite an amazing experience to setup the camera, see just a few stars on the Live View display while focusing and then being completely blown away 20 seconds later when the exposure is displayed on the screen. The camera with such a fast lens is capable of “seeing” even more stars than the human eye. It can be very exciting.

I also find that beyond a certain point, increasing the ISO has no benefit and only impacts negatively. I usually shoot at ISO 1600. If I shoot at 3200 or 6400, the image is brighter but more noise is introduced. Taking an ISO 1600 image and adjusting the levels in post to a point similar to the 3200 or 6400 exposures, creates an image of similar illumination but with much less noise.

1350x GI_140202_6940 V1

I have recently been experimenting with attaching an external smartphone to my camera via USB in order to use the larger display to assist in manually focusing on stars. I’ll tell you all about that in an upcoming post.

Cheers, Scott

A quick guide to understand the “Shift” in Tilt-Shift lenses

January 6, 2014

My landscape kit is comprised of Canon Tilt-Shift lenses. I find these lens incredibly powerful and I abandoned my wide angle zoom lens years ago. I think the most important feature of these lenses is the Tilt ability which can be used to create images with both the foreground and background elements in focus without having to stop down beyond the optimum aperture setting for the lens.  That means super sharp focus across the entire image at f8! There is no comparison to the soft focus that f16 or f22 can produce in an attempt to use Depth of Field to achieve the same range of focus. The tilt feature has other creative uses but today I want to focus on the second most important feature of these lenses. Shift is a sometime under appreciated or mis-understood feature. This blog posting quickly shows you what Shift can do.

Here are two slides taken from the  “HDR and Panoramic Techniques for Landscape Photography” workshop I present now and then. They show the images that can be taken by these types of lenses using the shift feature.  In this case, the 24mm TS-E was used. Without moving the camera, the lens can be shifted left or right or if reoriented, shifted up or down.

TS Hort

TS Vert

To understand what “shifting” means, here is an image of the 24mm TS-E being shifted left, no shift and shifted right:

24mm TS-E being shifted. Copyright © The Digital Picture

Depending on the camera’s orientation (portrait or landscape) this creates 4 different options for taking additional images all without the camera moving. By using software to stitch the three resultant images, a much wider image results than that focal length would have produce without shifting. You can think of this as a mini panoramic image.

My favourite use is to set the camera in portrait orientation and using a tripod, shift the lens left and then right. The resultant image created from the three is much larger (60% on a full frame camera or 100% on a cropped sensor) but it is similar to the single image I would have created by having the camera in landscape orientation using a wider lens. I have effectively increased the resolution of my camera and produced a much higher resolution image with much more detail. And combined with the sharpness achieved by using tilt, it is a unbeatable combination.

So instead of just getting this:


with virtually no extra effort in the field and just a quick software stitch in post, I get this:


You may have to click on the two above images to see a fair comparison due to the blog resizing the images.

Like tilt, there are many other uses of shift including maintaining perspective control but these topics are beyond the scope of this quick blog posting. If you want to learn more about Tilt-Shift lenses and whether they may be right for you, the best resource I know of is this eBook available at

Cheers, Scott   

My Favourite Images from 2013

December 31, 2013

Excluding the 2013 panoramic images I posted yesterday, below are my “best of” selections for 2013. It was a much tougher task than I imagined to go through a year of images and just pick off a few. I have allowed myself 24 images; I figured two per month would be an acceptable average. I’m sure I have some months with no “best of” images and other months with many more. These images are the ones that resonate with me today. Tomorrow, the selections might be completely different. And although a detached/non-bias/objective selection process would be ideal, forget it. There is always some emotional connection to images and since this is just my look back, I have allowed that part of the selection process to remain. So here goes…

We start off with images from around Abraham Lake in Alberta. I always seem to find myself there sometime in January/February and 2013 was no exception.




And then mix in a few favourites while exploring other parts of Alberta during the Winter…



Spring 2013 was a slow period for me. I did not do that much shooting but did spend a great deal of time planning my June solo trip to Iceland. So, it should be no surprise that some favourites from Iceland make the list…






Once I was back from Iceland, I still managed to get a few weekends in exploring abandoned homesteads in Alberta..



And a few weekends backcountry camping in the Rockies…



During the Fall of 2013, I was in Ontario and then again off looking for abandoned homesteads in Alberta…Image



I mentioned emotional attachment to images…well, my wife and I celebrated our 30th Anniversary in Mexico in October, so it should be no surprise that a few images from that trip made the list…




In November, I again found myself exploring abandoned places in Berlin but my favourite image from that trip came from a very “not abandoned” office building…


Back home and still exploring Alberta, the new snow contributed to these two images…



And finally, to wrap up the year, the image below was taken around 1pm on Dec. 31st, 2013. Just inside the deadline…


It seems my favourite image is always the one I just finished processing, so I thought it would be fitting to include this one.

Well that is my year in review. Certainly not as much shooting as other years but certainly some productivity. Thanks for stopping by to have a look. All the best for 2014!

Cheers, Scott

My Favourites Panoramic images from 2013

December 30, 2013

It seems popular this time of year to create a gallery of favourite images taken during the year. I started to create a gallery but realized that my love for creating large panoramic images is growing.  So I have decided to create two “looking back” galleries with this being the first one, specifically for panos. As you will see, my interest in panos is focused primarily on sunrise/sunset images. I love the challenge of the necessary planning (knowing ahead of time where the sun will rise/set and how it works into the composition) and having to work quickly in fast changing lighting situations. The required post production work is also challenging. I think I really have developed a style for these type of images. I hope you enjoy viewing these as much as I enjoyed creating them. Click on the images to see a larger size in a new window.


 This first image was actually photographed in late 2013 but the image was not ready for printing until Jan. 8th 2013 so I decided to include it. It is a sunrise abandoned homestead image and was taken just south of Calgary, Alberta. From a planning standpoint, there were only five days during the year where the sun rose in the desired position between the house and little barn. Months of waiting paid off.  Image size: 18730×7217, prints up to 104″x40″


This next image was created in Iceland on May 31st 2013. I had found this location earlier in the evening but it was raining heavily. The weather did not look promising, so I moved on. Later that night, the sky started to clear. So I rushed back, driving about an hour, to arrive in time to create this image. This was taken around 11:30pm. Image size: 12882×5785, prints up to 70″x32″


Another Iceland image; this one not only required advance knowledge of when/where the sun would set but also the tide schedule. There were only two days during my visit where low tide happened around sunset and I was there on one of those days. It was quite a drive to this part of the island (Hvitserkur) but I think it was worth it. Image size: 17020×5835, prints up to 94″x32″


This Iceland sunrise image was created at around 3am at the famous Jokulsarlon Lagoon. I had photographed the location until about an hour after sunset (1am) and and then just waited around for sunrise at 2am! Image size: 19658×5753, prints up to 110″x32″


This final Iceland pano in the 2013 gallery is not a sunrise or sunset image. But it did require being there for a specific event. In this case, that event was low tide. This image was taken from about half way across the little bay in front of the island. I had brought rubber boots with me to Iceland and I created this photo while standing about 250 meters from shore during absolute low tide. After taking this image, I was able to walk right across the bay and photograph the ship up close. However, the tide came in incredibly fast and my return trip was with water up to my waist and my camera gear over my head. I guess if I had waited much longer, I would have had to spend the night on the island! This image is very big. I have one print that measures about 18 feet long! Too bad you can’t see it at full size on your monitor 😦 The best compliment I have had on this image is: “It looks like an Edward Burtynsky image”. Image size: 38280×5681, prints up to 210″x32″


 And last but not least, another abandoned homestead sunrise image from Alberta, taken in July. Image size: 16478×5683, prints up to 92″x32″

Thanks for viewing!

Stay tuned for the second 2013 gallery featuring non-panoramic images.

New images I’m excited about…

November 19, 2013

If you don’t visit my fb page, you might have missed seeing these new images. I’m really pleased with how they turned out.

Octagon under the stars

Homestead Summer

Outdoor Photography – Planning ahead for the sun’s position

February 15, 2013

We all like to think we can just grab our camera, head into the great outdoors and stumble across the perfect landscape scene to shoot. Not only will we find the perfect location but we will arrive just when the light is at its best. It can happen but most of the time when location scouting, we might find something great but not when the light is at its absolute best. So assuming you can recognize the potential of a location when it is poorly lit (a skill unto itself), what can you do to plan your return to get that perfect shot? Or if you only have one chance to be at a location (e.g. while traveling abroad) how can you determine where the sun will be so you can time your arrival perfectly?

One of the most valuable tools that can help landscape shooters in this type of preparation is The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE). By the way, an ephemeris is a table of values that gives the positions of astronomical objects in the sky at a given time or times. TPE is a software tool that is available for Desktop Computers (PC & Mac, both free!) as well as mobile devices (IOS and Android). It uses an interface that provides Google Satellite Imagery and allows the user to quickly and easily pin point a location. Once the location has been selected, TPE provides lots of information but most importantly the position and times of sunrise, sunset, moonrise and moonset on any given day. A real plus is that not only are the positions supplied as compass bearings but their light path is overlaid on the map to allow you to “see” where the light will be coming from as a line across the terrain.

For example, let’s say this coming July 1st you want to drive out and photograph sunrise at Moraine Lake in Banff National Park. Using TPE (see Figure 1), you could see that the sun would rise at 5:34am and rise above the horizon at 50 degrees (there are other features of TPE that account for mountainous terrain but I’ll keep it simple for this example). The light orange line shows you the path of sunlight and would let you “see” what mountain peaks should light up nicely as you look south. Similarly, if you wanted to wait around until 10:02pm, TPE shows you where the sunset light will fall (dark orange line).

Fig 1 TPE Moraine Lake

Let me give you a real life example of how I used this tool in the planning of an image that was many months in the making. I had discovered a really nice old abandoned farmhouse that had several other buildings surrounding it. The house faced due west, so to show the front of the house, I would need to have the camera pointed east. I wanted it to be a sunrise photo and I was planning to create a large panoramic image of the scene. The problem I faced was with the position of the sun as it came over the horizon. The several buildings behind the house were located to the NE and SE and I wanted the sun rising between them and bathing the side of the house in light.

Figure 2A shows that by using TPE, I was able to determine that I only had a very limited number of days in early October during which the sun would be in the perfect position for the image I had in mind.

Fig 2A TPE perfect

I had to put the shooting of the image on hold and wait months before my opportunity arrived. And of course, just because I knew where the sun would rise on any given day, did not mean I would get a wonderful sunrise. We all know how unpredictable weather can be. So when my shooting window arrived, I traveled out to the location each morning, setup and waited for the sun to rise. It took me four mornings before I got what I wanted.

Figure 2B shows a view from TPE in the days leading up to my shooting window. Notice that the sun would be rising too far to the north to be visible and would not light up the side of the house the way I wanted.

Fig 2B TPE to early

And Figure 2C shows a view from TPE just a few days after I did capture the image. Notice how the buildings to the South East would have been blocking the view of the sun.

Fig 2C TPE to late

Without using TPE, it would have been much more difficult to plan and execute the capture of this image.

As per the image itself (see below), I have since printed it at 50”x20” and I’m very happy with the result. I’m glad that I took the time to determine when the sun would be in the perfect position and that I was there when it happened.

Finished Image

As mentioned in my previous blog posting, if you are interested in all the details on how this panoramic image was captured and then all the details on how it was assembled and processed, then please check out my upcoming seminar being presented by The Camera Store in Calgary.