Tag Archives: gear

Exploring Night Photography: Lesson 3 – Gear

Two weeks ago in class we covered basics (what is a photograph, using manual settings) Last week we learned a bit about noise, and its primary causes – temperature being the principle problem. And we explored different creative directions under the umbrella of night photography. We also got outside under a half-full moon (first quarter) and shot on campus. And learned a little about the night sky.

This view is southwest. From left to right are Canis Major, Orion and Taurus. The moon is off the top edge.

This view is southwest. From left to right are Canis Major, Orion and Taurus. The moon is off the top edge. The glow in the lower right corner is the glow bracelet on one of the student’s tripods. The sky remains blue due to the moonlight. Settings for this shot are ISO 800, f/2.8, 10 seconds, 20 mm on Canon 5D II.

Now it is time to talk about gear. Fortunately we already wrote a nicely detailed article about gear. Take a look here. We even updated it recently.

Too busy to read the details? That’s a shame, but here is the super quick summary in order of importance:

  1. GOOD tripod.
  2. Night photography friendly lens (wide angle recommended)
  3. Decent camera body with an optical viewfinder. Full frame preferred, but not necessary.
  4. Layered clothing and good shoes, including lightweight gloves (G) – and heavy gloves in cold season.
  5. Sturdy camera bag
  6. Extra batteries and memory cards
  7. An intervalometer (1), and extra batteries (2)
  8. Headlamp (B) and flashlight assortment (C, 3, 6)
  9. Other needful things: clear shower cap (A), lens cloth, hand cloth.

What About Other “Gear”?

MiscGear
Here is what is usually in our bag besides the camera gear.

  • (H) Glow bracelet/stick to mark the camera location (we have just started experimenting with other methods, too, like the LED band (4).
  • Hand warmers (F and 5) and rubber bands (G) for dealing with dew formation
  • Creative lights – bulbs, keychain lights,  and cord (3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 9)  Item 7 is a green laser pointer.
  • Insect Repellant  (E)
  • Gaffers Tape – flat black duct tape (L). We don’t take a whole roll though!
  • A smart app that shows the positions of the stars, planets, and bright satellites. Also helps if it shows meteor showers.
  • A smart app that shows the location(s) of sunrise, sunset, moonrise and moonset.
  • A game or two on the smart phone to pass time.
  • An external battery to keep our smart phone juiced (5) and the appropriate matching cord.

Before We Leave We Also Use the Following

  • A star map (planisphere). On our desktop, we favor Stellarium, but it is a little geeky to use well. On iOS we like Sky Safari, Star Map.
  • Weather prognostication tool
  • Sunrise/set Moonrise/set predictions.

 

Last Week’s Homework

We asked you to pick a creative direction. Here are some shots our students took including “semi transparent” you, moving lights.

XNP_Alex_assignmentsTop: f/4 1/30, 500 ISO, 20mm; Lower photo: f/4,  1/4, 1600 ISO,  20mm. Bottom was from moving the camera body

 

XNP_Tracie_Assignment

XNP_Troy_assignment

 

This Week’s Homework

  1. Use the light you were given in class to write a message or draw an image in light.
  2. The moon is full, if you didn’t work out settings for capturing the moon. Now is another chance. If you did work out the settings, compare them to your last shot when the moon was half-full. Notice anything?
  3. Find a way to make a strong white flashlight a different color. Use the colored light to illuminate your foreground. Your light may have to be really bright to compete with moonlight.
  4. If you are using a “white” LED flashlight, you’ll notice it is significantly cold (blue). Can you think of a way to make it a warmer color?
  5. Is there any “Other Gear” listed above that intrigues you? E.g. what can you use Gaffers Tape for?

Next… Lesson 4.

What to Look For in a Night Photography Lens

Last Updated: December 1, 2017
Original Publication: Oct 20, 2013

As Numerous at the Grains of Sand

Taken with a 15mm f/2.8 Canon Fish-eye Lens – partially “defished” using Adobe Camera Raw

Obviously here at StarCircleAcademy we love our night shooting. And because many of you love it as well, we get asked a lot of questions about gear: which lens, which camera body, which tripod. To be frank we try not to answer questions about specific gear because there are many tradeoffs that you must consider when choosing. Those tradeoffs revolve around your budget, desire, goals, current equipment, and the mix of photography that you do.

If you’ve already invested $4,000 in Nikon, it really doesn’t make sense for us to recommend a Canon-only lens… and vice versa.  If you do a lot of wildlife photography and only occasionally dabble in night photography an ultrawide fish-eye lens may not make sense in your camera bag.  However, there are some important considerations for night photography that may not be obvious so in this article we are going to tell you what the most important characteristics of a Night Photography oriented lens are… things you may not have considered when choosing a lens for other purposes.

Things that Do NOT Matter

Let’s first set aside a few myths and talk about lens features that get hotly discussed in flame wars on photography boards.  Those include things like:

  • Prime vs Zoom
  • Wide Angle vs Super Wide Angle
  • Rectilinear vs Fish Eye

A lens for night photography can be any and all of the above. Ultimately the question is how good is the lens? Whether it’s a prime, zoom, macro, or not is irrelevant. No lens should be disqualified because it’s a zoom or a fish-eye.  There are theoretical reasons why a well made prime lens will outperform a well made zoom lens… but that doesn’t mean that any given prime will out (or under) perform any other lens. There are dozens of compromises to be made for any lens and some compromises severely hamper the usefulness of a lens at night.

What DOES Matter

Because there is so little light to focus, an autofocus lens is not particularly helpful. In fact some standard lenses that are designed to autofocus are notoriously difficult to get focused at night. Here are the considerations we believe are most important, roughly in priority order:

  1. Usable Aperture
  2. Manual Focus & Maximum Sharpness
  3. Accurate Lens Markings
  4. Minimum Distortion and Coma
  5. Limited Vignetting
  6. Build Quality (Mechanical reliability and sturdiness)
  7. Weather Sealing
  8. Dew Shield/Lens Hood
  9. Cost

Usable Aperture

A lens that tempts you with an incredibly fast aperture of f/1.2 is all but useless if you have to stop it down to f/7 to make it acceptably sharp. Usable Aperture refers to the maximum aperture at which you can make exposures that you would be proud to hang as poster sized prints on your wall, and yes, that is very subjective. In night photography, as in astronomy, aperture wins.  The more light a lens can drink in, the more stars and dim details the lens can capture.  The f/ number is a ratio of the size of the front glass to the focal length of the lens. That means that the larger the front element, the more light it can drink – all other things being equal.  There is no substitute for “fast”.  Another advantage to a fast lens is that you’ll get more detail in your viewfinder.  You may be able to make out foreground objects in an f/1.4 lens that will be entirely inscrutable at f/4.

A zoom lens may have a variable f-stop ratio. This may be a detriment. If the ratio changes, e.g. from 2.8 to 4.5 then you’ll lose quite a lot of light when you use the zoom.

Manual Focus & Maximum Sharpness

Sadly, lenses designed to autofocus quickly are often the worst choices for night photography. Take the Canon 50mm f/1.4 lens, for example. The amount of play in the focus ring is miniscule so manually adjusting focus for a night shot is a lot like trying to peel a grape while wearing mittens. A tiny 1/128th of a turn takes the shot from out of focus in one direction to out-of-focus in the other.  The lens, therefore, is only usable if there is enough light to get it to autofocus before taking the shot.  By contrast nearly all manual focus lenses are designed to allow plenty of room for focusing. A Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 allows me to turn the focus ring almost 360 degrees to adjust the focus.  That is a big plus when you want to get focus just right – it also means that slight errors in focus are less drastic. Avoid a lens that does not have a manual focus ring. Unfortunately more and more of the kit lenses are dropping the manual focus ring and lens markings.

Accurate Markings

A lens with nicely tunable manual focus is not so nice to use if you can’t start close to the correct focus location.  Many really cheap lenses have done away with the lens markings all together. We recommend you avoid those lenses.  An accurate marking may allow you to dial and shoot without having to check and recheck focus. That can be a time and patience saver.

Minimal Distortion / Chromatic Aberration

No lens is perfect. If you found a perfect lens, you will have paid an enormous price for it. Every lens must make trade-offs. Some of the less desirable trade-offs for night photography include coma – bird wing or “comma-like” stars most notable in the corners of the frame and at wide open apertures. My expensive Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 L II lens has pretty awful coma in the corners.  That doesn’t mean I don’t use the lens, it means when I want the whole field of view I need to either stop down to reduce the coma, zoom in, or plan to crop:  all compromises that are unpleasant – but – my work with the 16-35mm lens sells just as well as with other lenses and it is a sturdy, well made lens.

Chromatic aberration – color fringing – is also a common distortion problem. Sometimes night shots reveal chromatic aberration more significantly than any other shots because of the sharp differences between say a bright moon and a dark sky.

Ghosting and flare are two other villains that produce strange artifacts on your shots.

Finally there is distortion due to the lens geometry. For example, fish-eye lenses render elements at the edges of the frame with odd curvature. Sometimes this is a really pleasing thing, sometimes not.  Fish-eye lenses also often suffer from “Mustache” distortion which causes a strange bowing of the bottom middle of the frame. Other standard distortions include pincushion and barrel distortion where the center of the image appears to be shrunken or enlarged. Many of these distortions can be corrected in post processing – but that doesn’t mean the image is going to be perfect.

The one distortion I despise the most is coma. Second most: chromatic aberration.

Minimal Vignetting

If you want to use the whole field of view, it’s not helpful if the corners are two or three stops darker than the center of the frame.  While the correct term for this phenomenon is light fall off, most people know it as vignetting. Picking on the Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 L II, it vignettes heavily at 16mm.  I find I have to zoom to 17 or 18 mm to reduce that effect. As with other distortions noted earlier, some post processing can remediate, but not eliminate the vignetting.

Other Obvious Tangibles Common to All Lenses

  • Build Quality
  • Weather sealing
  • Dew and/or Lens Hood
  • Cost

A well designed lens hood is very useful for keeping off-axis light out of your shot and protecting the front element from damage and dew. A lens hood is more important in night photography than in daylight!

Keep in mind that lenses generally hold their value very well. A lens you pay $1000 for today will probably be worth that much or nearly as much (or even more!) in 3 or 4 years. By contrast, your camera body will probably be worth less than half of what you paid for it because a newer, more featured, more powerful body will have replaced it. In the old days you could get better pictures by taking your good camera and putting better film in it. In the digital world the better film comes at the cost of a new camera.

Top Ten Reasons to Do Night Photography

I presented this list the Palo Alto Camera Club recently. Much thanks to them for being a wonderful audience and for the opportunity for Harold Davis and me to speak.

Docked [C_050127+]

10. Night photography takes time so you get a free lesson in patience.

9. You can’t use the meter so you really DO have to learn how to take photos.

8. Lots of challenges to overcome = excitement for geeks and engineers (and some normal people, too).

7. You can refer to yourself as the CRAFTER of LIGHT (if you want).

6. The camera sees all: including colors at night.

5. Automation makes night photography almost easy.

4. An excuse to upgrade: I’ve GOTTA get better high ISO performance!

3. You have PROOF that you were behaving when you were out all night!

2. You don’t have to give up your day job to do night photography.

1. Is there a more fun way to meet people in the dark?

Resources for Astrophotography

Original Publication: Oct 12, 2011
Last Revised: Nov 9, 2017

Local Stores (San Francisco Bay Area)

Orion Telescope Center

10555 S De Anza Blvd
Ste 105; Cupertino, CA 95014
(408) 255-8770

Mon-Sat 10 am – 5:30 pm
Sun 12 pm – 5 pm

Equipment Recommendations

There is a lot of gear out there and a lot of thought about what is good / better / best.  For the purpose of my recommendations I’m assuming your interest is primarily Astrophotography and primarily based around using a telephoto lens or a small/lightweight telescope attached to a DSLR. Of course you might succumb to a small telescope. Most of my recommendations are based on personal experience. Some are based on observations of people much wiser than me.  If you decide to get a mount, here are representative alternatives.

OrionMountsCompared

Before we dive into conventional mounts, however, lets take a look a well featured, light-weight solutions.

Approach A: Good, Light and Portable

Astrotrac

AstroTrac TT320X-AG – photo from AstroTrac site.

Since, portable, inexpensive and stable do not all fit into the same category the best solution is the AstroTrac. It is light, well made and moderately priced (from $546 to $1,959 depending on the package – not including shipping). You will be limited to using the AstroTrac with a telephoto lens on a camera unless you buy some dubious additions to turn the AstroTrac into a big scale solution – but since you’re reading this that is probably what you intended anyway. Be sure to get the Polar Scope as it is difficult to align without it! This mount will track at Lunar, Sidereal or Solar rate!  While $546 might sound expensive, for the light weight versatility it’s hard to beat. For a video and more information, see the manufacturer’s page.

Pros: Total schlep weight (tripod, heads, polar scope, battery, AstroTrac) is about 12 pounds (less if you have a lighter tripod); setup is pretty easy; accurate tracking;  maximum load is 33 pound; stops automatically to prevent damage.

Cons: Limited weight; repointing at a different object may compromise the alignment;  2 hours tracking before reset; single drive solution.

Orion Astrophotography Bundle

A possible solution – much cheaper at $180 but also with very significant limitations is the Orion Astrophotography Bundle.  It is a light weight, low load mount with a single axis drive and no alignment scope. At 14 pounds assembled and a load of up to 7 pounds it’s not bad for very wide field astrophotography – but it will never take more than a single camera load. I DO NOT recommend it. For why, please see my review.

Polarie

Another product that has caught my eye is the Polarie device.  Imagine a device about the size of  a DVD slip case only about 3 times as thick.

Polarie Device with Polar scope (image from Amazon) – requires TWO heads and a tripod.

The Polarie device costs about $400 USD, but that doesn’t include the possibly unnecessary polar scope – which is an extra $250 – or a tripod rig to set it all on.  Like the Astrotrac, Polarie is light and portable and runs on conventional batteries.  A competitor is the iOptron Skytracker. Very similar features to the Polarie with a few advantages and disadvantages. The Polarie is a miss, mostly in that the scope is expensive, and requires removing the whole face. Once you put camera gear on it, the distribution of weight changes enough that the alignment via the scope is useless.  It didn’t do a good job managing my Canon 50d with a 70-200 mm lens.

iOptron Sky Tracker

iOptronSkyTracker (requires head, tripod)

Of the Polarie and the $400 Sky Tracker, I prefer the Sky Tracker. It’s better thought out.  The down side is you’ll need to remove the head from your tripod and put this in it’s place then put the head from the tripod on the face of the Sky Tracker.

The faceplate only “locks down” via that single screw. I found it sometimes slips. Also there is a little slop in the gearing. The good news is that unlike the Polarie with its expensive polar scope, you can actually mount your camera ON the face and make sure there is room to also use the scope to accurately position things.

There is a newer Sky Tracker Pro available which is more like a “real mount”. Haven’t investigated that much.

The advantage of the SkyTracker over most solutions is that it is light and easily portable.

A Canon 50d with a 70-200mm lens was more than it could manage well.

 

iOptron Sky Tracker Pro

We have no experience with this unit, however one of our workshop participants managed to make it work well. iOptron Sky Tracker Pro (no experience)

 

Astro

There is even a new contender rising in the KickStarter arena… it’s called Astro: Time-Lapse Motion Control.  It’s not clear if it will be accurate enough to track at sidereal rate, but I am hopeful.

It’s not designed for astrophotography, but if the rate can be set precisely enough, and a simple alignment done it may work quite well.  It does have a built-in intervalometer, though and as you can see it’s quite compact.

NOTE: I purchased one and found it disappointing.

 

Approach B: Good, Economical

The next bump up in capability is the Orion AstroView Equatorial mount ($250) to which you must add the single or dual drive ($140, recommended) motors for a total outlay of about $390. It’s carry weight is around 31 pounds including batteries but it can handle 12 pounds of payload and you may not need to use all 12 pounds of counterweight. Orion does have mounts in between, but I say skip ’em.  The disadvantage here is that it really can’t take a telescope, there is no autoguider port, and no “GoTo”. But it does come with a polar alignment scope. Tracking accuracy at sidereal rate is pretty good. I haven’t pushed the mount beyond 450 mm so I can’t make final conclusions. One advantage over a normal “tripod” is that the extra weight makes this solution much more stable than a conventional tripod. The latitudes range for use is 18-63 degrees. With some finagling I was able to physically get the angle down to 0 degrees – but you can’t track the RA axis at that angle. Two more drawbacks are that the tripod is lightweight aluminum square tubing with a plastic clamp – it’s begging to fail from overtightening, and the drive motor connectors stick out like sacrificial lambs begging to be broken off when placed down on a hard surface incorrectly.

Approach C: Serious Astrophotographer

Once you move up the value chain you will want to get a “GoTo” scope. This moves you from the $400 neighborhood to the $1400 address which gets an Orion Atlas EQ-G that can support 40 pounds of payload, and costs about 80 pounds in back buckling schlepping to move it around (22 pounds are counterweights).  The good news is a modestly sized telescope can go on this thing – you could even give your toddler a ride. The bad news is there is still plenty you’ll want to buy: an autoguider… and perhaps even a telescope. If that’s where you want to go, perhaps the best bet is the even stronger solution, the Orion Sirius EON 120mm EQ-G GoTo APO at $2800.  None of the above  include an autoguider, or the few miscellaneous parts you’ll need to attach your camera.   If you want a slightly less expensive, lighter system the Sirius mount isn’t a bad deal.

If you KNOW you’re going to put a immodestly sized scope on your mount, you might find yourself in the $4,000 district where a forklift or weightlifting team can help you move the apparatus around. Trust me, $4,000 still isn’t the penthouse suite!

Approach D: Insanely Serious Astrophotographer

Actually I can’t recommend anything in this category because it enters a realm where I’m not willing to go financially. For a down payment on a house you can get a large refractor (or reflector), massively accurate GoTo mount with autoguider, a high-end imaging camera, and a wheelbarrow full of accessories. Names like Losmandy, Takahashi, AstroPhysics and others rule this realm.

Polar Alignment

  • http://www.astronomy-pictures.com/Imaging-Tips.htm#zero
  • http://www.petesastrophotography.com/polaralignment.html
  • http://www.astronomy-pictures.com/Zeroing%20it%20in.%20Using%20a%20DSLR%20or%20CCD%20to%20Align%20Your%20Scope.pdf

Imaging