Thursday, September 25, 2014

Nights on the Nolan River

Throughout the summer months I kept returning to the Nolan River to photograph the Milky Way in the pre-dawn darkness.  I have found several locations to photograph and while most of my visits centered on my favorite spot, I have a few others I also visited.

The fact that I can be here in one hour is great.  I would leave Fort Worth at 2am and be standing in the river at 3am.  In the summer months that gives you between 2-3 hours at best to photograph before it gets light.

As the months went by the Milky Way was moving across the sky (ok, we are really moving around the sun making the Milky Way move) so every month had different angles of view.

In the late summer we decided to visit a different location than usual and waded into the river on a warm summer night.  Here we actually had to walk down the river to reach the spot I wanted to go and having a good pair of Wellies was a must.  We were often 20" of water and Wellies help keep you dry. 

Several times wading I spooked rather large fish wish darted out of sight quickly.  While I suppose there could be snakes or turtles out here, my biggest worry is actually walking through the grass on the way to the river and getting chigger bites.

As you wander down the river we passed through a few deeper spots and the were able to walk along some rock ledges.  Working our way past a few stray boulders and along a small bluff.

A few small clouds were in the sky and the Milky Way was visible too, but the angle would make it tough to always work into a shot.

We would make a few images then move a little farther down the river to make more.  Before we knew it, the stars were fading and morning was on the way.  I think we were back in town by 7am having breakfast.

Getting out for nights made this summer my most productive ever in Texas.  Normally the clear sky and hot days make summer landscape photography difficult and I rarely get more than one or two opportunities.  This summer I was out every new moon weekend chasing the Milky Way and those clear skies gave me many nice images.

As we slide into fall the Milky Way becomes a just after sunset object and the fall colors will become my focus.  However, I now look forward to the summer months as another chance for some nights on the river.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Sony A7S Review for Night Photography

I rented a Sony A7S to take with me over Labor Day on my trip to the Lost Mesa for night images.  I had read Ian Norman's review at Lonely Speck and thought it would be fun to see how a camera can shoot at ISO 51,200 does in the field.  Ian gets into the technical side.  I will stick to mostly the user experience and results.

The moon phase was past the new moon but I was hoping it would still be a thin enough crescent to be able to photograph in the evening after sunset.  I knew the moon would set around midnight so early morning would be dark and I hoped the Milky Way might be in a good spot for a few locations I had wanted to do some night photography at.

My camera set up for this trip would be my full frame Canon 5D Mark II, my crop (APS) sensor Sony NEX6, and the rented full frame Sony A7S.  Because there are few full frame NEX mount lenses I also rented the Metabones adapter allowing me to use my Canon mount lenses on the Sony.

I had two lenses I could alternate between the full frame 5D2 and A7S. The Bower 14mm f/2.8 and the Bower 24mm f/1.4 (both really Samyangs under the Bower brand) are both really great lenses, sharp, excellent at night, and cheap.  On the Cropped sensor NEX6 I would be using the Rokinon (also a Samyang) 8mm fisheye.  This is a NEX mount specific lens that is tiny, sharp, and cheap.  

All three lenses are very good wide open and at night with low coma.

In the field I found the quarter of a moon was already so bright it was casting a shadow on the dark open range country of the Lost Mesa.  I photographed at night after sunset but knew it would be better in the predawn dark.  I was using all three cameras-each set up on a tripod. 

Night is the only time to try three cameras as the longer exposures all you to move from camera to camera.  It was do-able although I was always moving.

The Canon and NEX6 are second nature to me.  I know each one very well and even though they are very different I am comfortable working with both-even in the dark.  The Sony A7S has some similarities to the NEX6 so it was pretty easy to adapt to it.  Overall it has some good simple analog controls.  Having said that, there were still some settings that I did not make the adjustment to very easy in the few days I had the camera.  So from a control standpoint its good but I think it could be better.  

The NEX6 and A7S are also very similar in the size of the camera body.  Both are small.  The big difference is the lenses.  The NEX6 has some dedicated lenses that are tiny.  The kit lens is a 24-75 and collapses to make it tiny and easily pocketable.  Even the fisheye is small-like a shot glass.  The A7S does not have dedicated lenses I need so I was able to adapt my Canon lenses but you then end up with a camera and lens that really is only marginally smaller than my 5D2 setup.  

See the example here.  The Samyang 24mm and Canon 17-40 are very similar in size.  As you can see with the adapter you gain very little in in a size advantage.  In fact you now have a rather front heavy camera.  Just look at the NEX6 to see what you can do.  Granted a full frame lens will be bigger than this, but it should still be significantly smaller than a DSLR lens.  This is the big "issue" for this camera right now-it needs dedicated not adapted lenses.

The images this combo produced were great.  However, I think that the full frame NEX models will not come into their own until Sony and Samyang start producing some dedicated lenses for it that are small.

The difference in size between the Samyang fisheye for a crop sensor DSLR and the crop sensor NEX is significant.  If they can make a similar size reduction for the full frame cameras you will really have something.

Image quality out of the A7S was very good.  It had the lowest pixel count but the best high ISO performance.  I typically shoot the 5D2 and NEX6 at ISO 6400 at night.  Both are just starting to reach into noisy territory but the increase in light gathering makes it work.  On rare occasions I will push each to 12,800 (where images only work some of the time)but 6400 is my normal setting.

With the A7S ISO 25,600 looks as good as ISO 1600 or 3200 on either of my other cameras.  I even shot at ISO 51,200.  Both looked pretty good, although I think I would stick to ISO 25,600.  Gives you extra light gathering capabilities and also allowed a shorter exposure for sharper stars.  At ISO 51,200 the biggest thing is not the noise.....but blowing out the sky.  That's right, you have to go short on the exposures or you will blow out the Milky Way.  Did you ever think you would hear that about night photography?

In the early morning darkness I was back out making images.  The A7S with 14mm and NEX6 with fisheye for images of petroglyphs and the Milky Way.

Here I also did a test of putting the Fisheye lens (a cropped sensor lens) on the full frame A7S since they are both the same lens mount.  Obviously the image only filled the central portion of the frame but when cropped down gave me a chance to use the fisheye at the high ISO capability of the A7S.  The images have a similar look to the NEX6 but you have significantly fewer megapixels to work with.  See those images at the top.

I also spent a night on this trip at Guadalupe Mountains National Park.  I wanted to try some shots of the prominent cliffs that make up El Capitan and the south end of the Guadalupes.  I again shot all three cameras and worked at a variety of ISO on the A7S. Here is a comparison of a few.

Again, I was impressed with what the A7S could do and that you could get a 2 stop advantage over the 5D2.  That two stops gives you more light gathering ability and therefore more stars.  It also makes a difference in allowing shorter exposures.  That helps eliminate star trails and lets you make more images over the course of the night.  

I use the 450 rule.  By that my 14mm should be able to do a 32 second exposure or so without star trails.  I usually shoot 30 second exposures and at extreme closeup there are trails forming.  ISO 25,600 would let you do 15 second exposures and help eliminate them.

So after a long weekend how does the A7 fare?  Pretty good.  The camera is another winner from Sony.  What holds it back is lack of small prime lenses.  When Samyang and Sony start making them, this becomes a real option.  Until then you are buying this solely for high ISO where it has significantly better capabilities than the 5D Mark II and even holds an edge on the 6D.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Western Lake Sunrise

Western Lake is a small lake in South Walton County, Florida.  It is very near where my wife and I stay when we visit the beach.  It is a location I can quickly reach in the morning and always seems to have nice atmosphere on a humid early summer morning.  Clouds and/or fog seem to be the norm.

I make it part of my morning routine to visit here on several mornings in hope of getting a nice sunrise or two.

This last trip I made 3 or 4 visits during my stay and I got a chance to see some nice clouds, some soft light and the like.  I had my Sony NEX6 with its 24-75 kit lens, the tiny Rokinon 8mm fisheye, and my small Sirui 025X carbon fiber tripod.  This is my work/I am not really photographing photography kit.  Very small and compact.  Easy to slip in the backpack or computer bag.

It gives me plenty of photography capability and takes very little space.

Here are a few samples of what it did at Western Lake.  It is a mixture of both wide angle and slight telephoto from the pancake kit lens.  Then also a fisheye shot where you can take it all in.

The 24mm wide angle view is a great feature from a kit lens.  Especially considering that almost all other "kit" lenses start at 28mm.  That extra 4mm makes a BIG difference.  However the 5mm you give up on the long end is not missed at all.  Sony really nailed it with this lens-tiny, compact, great range.  Here is a wide view of sunrise over Western Lake.  It take in plenty of the sky and lets me feel I am able to do this sunrise justice.

The longer shot of the pines is one of my standard images at Western Lake.  This small stand of pines leading out to the dunes makes a nice reflection.  I can shoot it wide, but I like just a little bit of zoom to make the trees a bit bigger.  The kit lens does it well.

Finally the fisheye (image up top).  Put the horizon in the middle and you get an ultrawide view you do not have to correct at all.  The hardest part about this shot-not getting your feet in it!

This little camera kit gives me the versatility to get a variety of images on what really is a small lake.  Very different views in a small area from a small kit.

It makes for a happy photographer.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Wilderness Act Turns 50!

This September the Wilderness Act turns 50! 

The Wilderness Act goal was to provide protection of wild, natural landscapes to remain so forever.  No roads, no buildings, no vehicles.

You can basically enter on foot, by canoe, or by horse.  

The goal to preserve our amazing natural treasures in perpetuity was and remains a noble goal.  Think about it this way, America was carved from the wilderness.  The pioneers traveled into the great unknown and built our country.  However by the close of the 19th century the country stretched coast to coast.  Foresighted conservationists like Theodore Roosevelt began setting aside National Parks, Monuments, Forests and Wildlife Refuges.  Millions of acres were saved and many national treasures such as Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon were preserved.

In 1924 the Gila Wilderness was named the worlds first wilderness thanks to the work of people like Aldo Leopold.

Society marched on and by the 1960's we saw that not only should forests be preserved, some should be preserved in their most wild natural state and not be harvested.  Some areas of parks should not have roads.  There are areas we should set aside forever.

Thus the Wilderness Act was born.

Now we have wilderness stretching from coast to coast.  Places where you and your great grand children can enjoy in their pure wild natural state.  

I think the founding fathers would be proud.

I have but one image to share with this post- a piece of land deserving of wilderness protection.  A desert grassland and mountains covered in petroglyphs.  A lonely wild place calling out for protection.  A place I call the Lost Mesa.

Here the stars still blaze at night and you can still experience the vast distances and big empty land this is.  A place we should set aside as is forever as wilderness.