Category Archives: Ravings

Going Solar Part 2

Last Updated 2024-05-02

Before we jump back into solar, I’m going to tell you that wherever you see *aig* on an image caption, it means it is an Artificially Intelligence Generated image. Generally using Had to dip my toe in the AI thing to help break up the longish paragraphs…

A typical winter day with a 13.6 kWh FranklinWH AC coupled battery, 18 Rec Alpha 410 Watt solar panels (7.36 kW) and Enphase IQ8 microinverters looks like Chart 1, below. Positive values are USAGE and negative values are EXPORTS except for the yellow (solar) production. Just before 8:00 AM you’ll notice a little cyan (house utilization) peak. This was partially offset by solar production (yellow) and part offset by import from the grid (purple). After 3:30 PM another little cyan spike is partially offset by solar, and part battery discharge. See the legend for more details.

Chart 1: A typical winter day production with a battery system.
(1) Insufficient battery so drawing from the grid (purple).
(2) Using energy while the sun shines (cyan)
(3) Riding out the PEAK and night with battery (green)
(4) Charging battery (green) and exporting to the grid (purple)
(5) Battery charge percentage

System Quirks and “Gotcha’s”

There are a number of things that can go wrong or be wrong with your solar setup. Many revolve around what is observable/measured and what is not.
In particular, if your system is unable to see the big-picture consumption it may not behave as you expect, and you might, for example, get surprises from your utility company when they bill you for much more than you thought you’d be billed.

We’ve already thrown around the terms “kilowatts” (kW) and “kilowatt-hours” (kWh) like a pro, but let’s give them quick definitions. A kilowatt is a thousand watts and is a measure of power. An apt analogy to watts is the pressure in a water hose. A kilowatt-hour is a measure of the AMOUNT of that power used in a given time. It is a measure of energy. In our hose analogy it would be the number of gallons or liters that are used from the hose over a given time. And you might also remember that a watt is equal to 1 amp at 1 volt – but that’s not important here.

Excess Energy for Sale

Your utility may reject YOUR solar energy and may in fact try hard to prevent you from installing your own power production. *aig*

Many people, especially those with solar-only systems assume that the best use of the excess energy is to feed it back to the utility company and get credit for it. But that’s less true every day. Typically there is an incentive for exporting excess but as solar energy becomes more prevalent, there is less incentive for a utility to WANT your energy, and they typically will not want to pay you for it. Some utilities won’t pay you for any energy you export as we described in Going Solar Part 1. Some utilities see your energy generation as competitive and are therefore hostile to having to pay anything for that energy (even though every kWh that you export they don’t have to generate and can sell to your neighbor at a hefty profit). In fact, at “grid scale” (very large) solar farms can produce energy at a cost of about $0.025 per kWh and they’d much rather charge you 33 cents for their 2.5 cent energy! As solar becomes more prevalent, a utility company is much more likely to incent you to send them energy when they are not able to produce it themselves (i.e. when the cheap wind and solar systems are NOT producing).

There are currently four major billing/reimbursement models:

Net Energy Metering – in the early versions of this model there is often a one-to-one correspondence between energy you use and energy you export. But the value of the energy is usually NOT a one-to-one credit, and can vary dramatically.

Net Energy Metering 2.0 – again, the specifics vary from location to location, but generally version 2.0 means you get SOME credit, less “non-bypassable” charges for energy you export. The 2.0 implies that the value of the export is roughly equivalent to the value of energy you import. Some utility companies (with the blessing of state public utility commissions) charge you the full rate for the electricity you consume and only periodically (once annually) credit you for the energy you export. The credit may be dollars or kWh and usually cannot be carried over to the next period.

Net Energy Metering 3.0 – generally this model is similar to 2.0, except it implies that the exported energy is credited at the “wholesale” rate and that rate is typically miniscule. Most 3.0 plans also run on monthly billing cycles, not the protracted cycles of 2.0.

Demand/Response Billing – this is a “wild ride” where the value of energy you consume (import) and the value of the energy you export are driven by current loads, time of day and the market forces. The rate can swing dramatically at 15 minute intervals. And curiously there are some times of day when you can be PAID to consume energy (because there is excess load on the grid and the power needs to go somewhere). This method of billing is not very common for residential customers in the US, but it is “behind the curtain” of all of the utility companies. The California Independent System Operator {CAISO}, for example has fascinating graphs of the costs of energy. I am aware that in the UK Octopus Energy has several plans including a demand/response plan that they call Agile. The US Department of Energy has details on other Demand/Response plans, but I notice the majority of them are only available to large energy-using businesses.

Chart 2: The wild world of wholesale energy pricing. The “LMP” (Local Marginal Prices per Megawatt-hour) can be both positive (e.g. $14 for Kirkwood, and New Spice), and negative as shown here for San Mateo, Curtis and Morgan Hill). I’ve filtered out the higher costs, but at this same time the highest energy costs in this area were $67 for Hollister. The average cost is $10.97 across the region. ($0.011 per kWh!)

Not for-profit utilities will prefer to get their energy at the lowest cost so they can charge a lower cost. There are a few utilities that offer plans to those with batteries that allows them to discharge your battery to the grid to help with load imbalances. These arrangements are referred to as Virtual Power Plants (VPP) and as battery adoption and capacity ramps up, this strategy could save utilities BILLIONS of dollars in cost – because, well, customers have borne the cost of the batteries themselves. OhmConnect was formed to be a VPP of a different sort. I participated aggressively with them until my solar system made it impractical. OhmConnect is a large base of people who agree to reduce energy usage at specific times in order to gain incentives (like cash and prizes). A utility that can coax the batteries of hundreds or thousands of customers into helping them out is a powerful tool. Of course such plans usually come with monetary incentives, too, below is one example.

Enrolled battery systems will be directed to discharge every day from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. during the months of August through October, a critical window when energy needs are highest in California. In exchange, customers will receive an upfront payment of $750 and a free smart thermostat for participating. 
~ Sunrun announcement

The utility company taking kilowatts out of your battery 🙂 . *aig*

Would I trust my utility company to use my battery and energy wisely? NO! However some installers, a FEW battery manufactures and a FEW utility companies are adopting virtual power plants (VPPs). Tesla, Sunrun, and sonnen are some of the battery manufactures with such arrangements. FranklinWH and Enphase have announced plans, but have not yet rolled out this potentially game changing technology as best I can tell. Feel free to leave a comment if you know otherwise!


Electricity is like apples. Your utility company can only count what you send them, not how many you pick. *aig*

How Do Utilities Determine My Net Usage?

Why doesn’t your utility company credit you for all the energy you generate LESS the amount that you use? Unless you have multiple meters the utility company only sees your exported energy AFTER your house consumes what it wants. The analogy I like is this: you pick a basketful of apples from your tree. You use some of those apples to make pies, some to make applesauce and you give the remaining apples to your neighbor. Your neighbor is grateful for the apples, but doesn’t know how many apples you originally picked, only that they got half a basketful. The utility is like your neighbor, only less friendly – and the apples in this analogy are kilowatt-hours of electricity.

By the way this same “net usage” principle is why a partial backup battery solar system may only see SOME of your usage as we mentioned in Quirks, above.

The Kilowatts are Stacked Against You

The ratios may be stacked against you. *aig*

Before assuming that selling electricity back to the utility is your best option, pay attention to the rates. In Northern California and many areas of the country your electricity cost has at least two components: the cost of generation of the energy (free in the case of solar – discounting amortization and maintenance of the equipment), and the cost of distributing that energy over the poles and towers, under the ground, through the transformers and wires that comprise the grid. As explained earlier, some utilities will give a FULL credit for what you export, some will give full credit less “Non-bypassable” charges – including “minimum delivery charges”. Unpopular plans, like NEM (Net Energy Metering) 3.0 in California mean that excess energy is reimbursed at a paltry $0.05 per kilowatt hour. But the minimum cost to import that energy is about $0.35 per kWh. Under NEM 3.0 to break even you have to export 6 to 12 times as much energy as you import. Ah, but it is costly and not allowed by most utilities to generate that much EXTRA energy, and nor is it practical to do so, especially in the winter. It’s also worth noting that if you are connected to the grid there is some cost to maintain that grid and the utility needs to recoup that cost in order to provide you a service.

These factors create a problem just as with roadways that are funded with gasoline taxes. Less gasoline consumption equals less road funding = deteriorating roads for all drivers. Less electric energy consumption from the utility results in less funds for maintenance of the grid. It’s also a bit unfair to those in apartments or with insufficient income to afford their own solar generation – because those folks are “left behind” to pay for those grid maintenance costs.

The one thing I will leave you with in this discussion, however, is that you almost always will get more value out of USING that energy than it sending it back to the utility. Some ways to do that are described in “Energy Hacks”, below.

Battery Or No Battery?

Chart 1 again…

A close look at Chart 1, you’ll notice that the battery system (green graph) is providing all of the energy to run the house after the sun gives out around 3:30 PM in the winter.
Moreover, the battery is being charged from about 8:20 AM until the battery is fully charged at about 1 PM. Thereafter excess energy is then sent back to the grid. You can even tell from the graph that the energy sent back to the grid on this relatively productive winter day is less than the amount of energy imported in the morning (1).
Another take away – the battery didn’t discharge from midnight on because it was set to maintain a minimum 25% charge for emergencies. In this case setting that minimum lower (e.g. 5%) may have avoided ALL of the grid imports on this day!

One obvious takeaway is that the battery is charged “for free” and is used to cover the cost of energy from 3 PM through midnight. Indeed for our home system that energy will generally last until about 2:30 PM the following day. That means for this winter cycle we use ALMOST *NO* energy from the utility at all! One reason energy was imported (other than the 25% reserve) is that the prior day production was low. Notice how the battery level at the end of this day was 60%, but it was only 25% in the morning.

Even if you have a great energy export rate, a well sized battery can prevent almost all import costs!

Some assume that with JUST a battery they can MAKE money by buying it at off-peak rates and selling it back at peak rates (provided that option exists). And yes, that CAN work, but usually won’t unless these things are true:

  1. The rate differential is at least 15% (charging and discharging the battery incurs an average 11 to 14% LOSS). Don’t believe the 6% or 11% figures – those are under IDEAL conditions.
  2. You can actually GET a higher export value for exported energy (or a higher value than the import cost).
  3. You do not have to then also IMPORT energy during the peak period, or a significant amount of off-peak energy.
  4. You are able to export energy while also supplying your home. Remember the apple analogy? If your home load is high, both the battery discharge capacity, and the home load consumption will prevent you from discharging. For example, if your battery discharge rate is 5 kW and you’re running a 4 kW oven, the MOST you’ll be able to discharge is 1 kW.

Let’s do some quick math on the these points to make it clear. Let’s divide the day up between off-peak, generation time (the sun is shining and producing ample energy to supply the home), and peak (non-generation) periods a typical home may use 10 kWh during generation time (all of which is offset by solar production), 7 kWh during PEAK non-generation time, and another 10 kWh during the remaining time (which is usually also off-peak like late night and early morning where there is no generation). Let’s further assume peak rates are $0.50, off peak $0.30. The energy you would need for the non-generation period totals 17 kWh: $3.50 is peak, $3.00 is off peak.

We have these three choices:

(A) Use the energy in self consumption mode only (don’t discharge to the grid unless the battery is fully charged);
(B) FULLY (as much as possible) discharge the battery to the grid during the peak and earn per kWh exported;
(C) Limit exports so that you only discharge as much energy to the grid as is NOT needed to offset off-peak usage.

The last strategy isn’t easy to implement, because we have to guess how much energy will be required through the peak and off peak periods until generation resumes. The best strategy depends on the USABLE battery size and the export rate.

If the export rate is less than the off peak import rate, exporting energy only makes sense after there is no non solar peak or off-peak energy to offset.

Compare Table 1 with a favorable export rate and Table 2 with an unfavorable export rate below. Both are daily comparisons at different battery sizes, utilization and rates. Two obvious takeaways are that a battery CAN save if there is a good export rate (Table 1). The size of the battery relative to non-solar use dictates how much savings are possible. In both cases the maximum savings/earnings are achieved if there is sufficient battery to cover all PEAK and off peak usage. In Table 1, Exporting All possible energy during Peak is clearly the winner, but a Limited Export strategy also works – but no strategy has a positive cashflow unless the battery is > 18 kWh. That’s not to say a smaller battery is of no help, compare the 0 sized battery to the others and all battery options reduce the net cost by about $2 to $5 per day.

Usable Battery SizeSelf ConsumeExport ALL PeakLIMIT Export
Table 1: Battery Usage Options at $0.60 Export rate;
7 kWh @ 0.50 peak and 10 kWh @$0.30 off peak

If the export rate is unfavorable (e.g. $0.05 in the case of NEM 3.0), then limited export or self consumption are the best choice, – if the battery is sufficiently large. Trying to export energy is a money losing strategy. However as in the prior case ANY battery will reduce the costs!

Usable Battery SizeSelf ConsumeExport AllLimit Export
0 -4.90 -4.90 -4.90
5 -2.70 -2.70 -2.70
10 -1.26 -2.21 -1.26
20 0 -1.77 0.23
Table 2: NEM 3.0 ($0.05 Export rate);
5 kWh @$0.50 peak and 8 kWh @ $0.30 off

Partial Or Full Backup?

When installing a battery system there are a number of constraints. Most them were described in Part 1, but briefly: there are three important specifications: total capacity in kWh, peak discharge rate in kW, and sustained discharge rate in kW. Because of these limitations, it’s often recommended to install a PARTIAL back up system where some number of circuits (essential circuits) are covered by the battery should the grid go down, and the other (non-essential) circuits lose power. The reasons to NOT backup things include: a very high starting or sustained energy draw (e.g. an AC, Heat Pump or pool pump motor) vs a desire to protect things like refrigerators, lights and comfort power like TVs, routers and commonly used lights.

But there is an often UNDOCUMENTED sinister side to this arrangement. Specifically a battery system can normally see all the solar inputs, the battery charge and discharge and the use of the essential circuits. But unless monitoring devices called “CTs” (current transformers) are installed, the system cannot see the rest of the circuits. This creates three problems:

1. Your system won’t know how much energy you are actually using… so what your system says you imported or exported from the grid is NOT what the utility company sees and this can be confusing. If you refer to Chart 3 below, you can see that energy coming from the grid that does NOT go through the solar/battery panel isn’t observable by the components that come after the solar/battery breaker.
2. Normally battery systems are configured to charge the battery with excess solar production (meaning energy would flow back to the grid). However because the system doesn’t see the non-essential consumption, it may elect to charge the battery instead of using the solar energy to run your air conditioner or space heater.
3. You won’t be able to know how much energy you are using at any given time with the system app. This makes it harder to chase down energy hogs.

Chart 3: A Line diagram of a solar system with a battery backup that can run when the grid is down.
1. The main meter/grid power.
2. The breaker that ties the grid to the solar/battery system. Other breakers/circuits in this panel are NOT backed up.
3. The internal disconnect. If there is no power coming in, the FranklinWH aGate (brains) throws a “switch” disconnecting the solar and battery from the grid.
4. The “essential loads” panel which is backed up and will continue to run if there is solar power OR battery power (or both).
5. The solar panel “combiner” box – attaches to the panels on the roof.
6. The FranklinWH aPower (battery).
NOTE: I elected NOT to connect the AC to a smart circuit and instead plan to connect an EV charger.

In my home system we elected to NOT include a radiant under-tile floor heater, the AC and 8 or so other circuits, unfortunately including what we thought was an “unused” bathroom plug that is the source of the power to our security cameras. One take away here… make sure you know what ALL your circuits control before making choices for a
partial backup system.

As you might guess, the floor heating system uses some significant power when it’s running for 5-6 hours a day and 850 watts per hour is up to 5.1 kWh per day or 153 kWh per month ($51 at the best off-peak rates)! It was more than a little disappointing when we got our electricity bill for the first full month and saw a LOT more imported energy than we expected. Mind you the bill was about 10% of what we had paid the previous year, so we weren’t complaining much. We plan to move this circuit to the backup panel to avoid the “gotcha” since we clearly have sufficient battery to make it possible.

However the other catch to this situation is that WHEN one uses power matters. (See Energy Hacks, below).

Energy Hacks

I see lots of commercials about doing your laundry, running your dishwasher and charging your EV at late night or morning. That makes sense if you have to pay to import energy because it moves those activities to the lower rate period. However the LOWEST rate period for a solar system is when it’s producing enough energy to cover the consumption… that is DURING DAYLIGHT hours. So that proverb about making hay while the sun shines, applies also to electricity usage.

If you have solar energy… use it while you have it! *aig*

The MOST cost effective way to use generated energy is use it when it’s sufficient to run your appliancesMost of the time that will be from about 11:30 AM to about 2:30 PM and even later in the summer months. You’ll have no conversion losses (except from the DC power on the roof to the AC power for your house). However its a good idea to make sure there is sufficient energy to also charge the battery system in case you need it for an emergency outage, and to avoid the peak rates which start right about sunset. For a bigger battery, it’s optimal to gain enough charge to see your home through all the peak and off peak hours until generation begins again. Another trick is to stage your heavy appliance usage such as doing the washer and dryer loads before or after you may need that power for your air conditioner. Indeed, tracking when you have excess solar production can be quite helpful to saving energy.

When Do I Have Excess Solar?

Ideally there would be an easy to use automation that does useful things like charge the EV, run the AC, and more WHEN there is more energy available from the sun than is needed. Figuring that out manually is doable IF you can see the actual energy from the viewpoint of your utility in real time. I ended up using Emporia Utility Connect, and Emporia VUE energy monitors to supplement my monitoring regimen because my partial-backup FranklinWH system doesn’t see the full picture. Either or both of those tools paired with Emporia Smart Plugs allow me to do some automation. One of those is a “Greener Hack” I describe below.

Optimizing Payback (Getting Paid for Excess)

We touched on the “export” option, but the gist is pretty simple. Unless you can export energy at a greater profit than the cost to import it, it doesn’t make sense to try to export energy to offset your bill. Under NEM 3.0 a strategy of extreme self consumption is usually most cost effective, and the least prone to rate changes.

Getting a Little Greener

Our house has a natural gas furnace. It is not “green” by any means, but it runs well, and because our blower/thermostat IS battery backed up, we can heat our home even if there is no grid power. However watching electricity flowing back to the utility made me realize I could do even better!

I bought three 750/1000W space heaters with mechanical thermostats and NO remote control. Notice the maximum energy usage is 1000 Watts which is 8.3 amps at 120 Volts. I paired each of them with Emporia Smart Plugs that have a maximum sustained usage of 10 amps (1200 Watts). Why mechanical thermostats? Because most of the fancy heaters these days – especially those with remote controls will NOT come on when the power comes on. Those with mechanical thermostats can be set up so that when the power is on, they will run and produce heat up to the maximum mechanical thermostat setting WITHOUT needing intervention.


IMPORTANT Safety NOTE: Your smart plugs generally can NOT handle a typical space heater load. Nor should you use extension cords or power strips. The typical extension cord and power strip is undersized for the current used by a space heater and may overheat and catch fire.

Using the Emporia App, I set up those smart plugs in the “Excess Solar” option. I’m not entirely sure how their algorithm works, and I had a few surprises, but mostly it seems to work.

Here are some screenshots from the Emporia app.

A smart plug configured to turn on when there is excess solar. Notice the Cyan color indicating it’s on. This smart plug just turns a lamp on to let us know when we have energy to “burn” on things like laundry and space heater.

The configuration of “Excess Solar Management” looks like this. It is under the “Connect” device which watches what our meter is reporting to our utility company in real time.

This is how the smart plugs are configured. “Excess Solar Indicator” is turned on if there is excess solar followed by each of the items listed and “on”. It can also change the living room thermostat.
The “meter” status with one of the space heater plugs overlaid on it. The app, unfortunately doesn’t let you plot more than one thing at a time.

Time of Use Plans and Battery Systems

Curiously, my experience is that most systems (FranklinWH, Enphase, and more) don’t take FULL advantage of rates. In the FranklinWH system for example, I had to set up a plan to force my system to NOT import during the off-peak time and instead import during a “super-off-peak time” which I created. This rate doesn’t actually exist, but the problem is that off-peak is Midnight to 3 PM. But charging the battery at midnight means burning money by importing from the grid. However if I force it to wait until noon, then my solar system gets a crack at charging the battery for FREE before the Time of Use plan drinks costly juice from my utility. And if the sun has been insufficient to the task, it makes sense to spend a couple of hours charging the battery before the “Mid Peak” and “Peak” rates kick in and drain more from my wallet. But this is true for me because my off-peak rate is $0.334 but the summer peak rate is an appalling $0.724 – that’s more than enough difference in rates to make up for the roundtrip losses using the battery. Setting this up in the current FranklinWH app is a bit too tedious to explain, unfortunately. I’d point you to Reddit where it’s been discussed. When you switch between modes or edit the Time of Use schedule and rates watch it carefully! I made a mistake and instead of playing out my battery at off-peak, it elected to import from the grid to cover my household use instead. My utility company netted an extra $2 a day from me due to that mistake!

Questions To Ask

If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably wondering… what questions should I ask my installer, and what things should I try to discover for myself.

  1. How long have you been in business? When did you do your first residential solar panel installation? When did you do your first do a solar + battery system? How many total installations have you done to date? Is residential or commercial solar systems your primary company focus?
  2. Are you the company that will do the installation? Or are you a broker, or reseller, or sales organization? If the installer, do you have a C-10 Electrical contractors license?
  3. Do you stock equipment like solar panels, inverters and batteries?
  4. What is a typical work-start to system-completion timeframe, currently? What causes the bulk of that time to pass?
  5. Do you do warranty repairs, or monitoring of the systems you install?
  6. Is the crew you use your employees, or do you contract out some or all of the work?
  7. Are your skilled workers paid competitive rates?
    > Why this question? An increasing number of utilities (e.g. Pacific Gas and Electric) will not certify/allow interconnect if the workers are not paid “competitively”.
  8. Can you quote me systems that optimize my return on investment? Please be sure to include the expected total cost over 5, 10, 15 and 20 years. (This is especially important if you are thinking of getting a lease, a Power Purchase Agreement, or financing the purchase with a loan).
  9. Do your estimates and financial models include degradation of components like solar panels, batteries and inverters? What annual energy cost increase (or decrease) is assumed in the model?
    > A model that assumes NO cost increases may be conservative, but might also be more accurate than one that outrageously assumes cost increases.
  10. Tell me how you affix racks and panels to my roof. What methods do you use and what guarantees do you have regarding roof penetrations and roof leaks.
  11. Does the system you propose have tools that will make it easy for me to monitor and track my daily and monthly energy consumption? I.e. can I expect the system to agree with my utility company to within, say 5%?
  12. Why did you propose these panels, inverters (and batteries) over others?
    > It may be familiarity, cost, or availability that leads them in one direction or another. And it might be profit.
  13. Do you have any reference accounts for a system similar to the one you are proposing that I can compare daily and monthly costs with my own? Preferably another house in the same area or neighborhood?

If any of those questions make your proposer/installer hesitate, I’d suggest treating them with circumspection. Also, it’s rather useful to get more than one estimate from more than one installer because two estimates sometimes reveal things you may not think about. For example one estimate might include a larger battery and a smaller number of panels or vice versa.

Finally my $0.02 on the cost: it’s unwise to try to pay the “lowest possible cost”. If you want your installer to stay in business to support you and do repairs under warranty, you need to pay them enough to make a profit that keeps them in business.

Disclaimer of Warranty and Stuff

If you’ve got general questions, I’m a night photography guy who is nerdy enough to dig into the minutia of things like this. I’m not making myself available to answer every (or any) question you may have. But I can recommend some resources worth looking into.

* Reddit subgroups [Solar, FranklinWH, Enphase, Electrical, EmporiaEnergy]
* YouTube Channels: [Gary Does Solar some very practical advice from a Brit, Solar Time with Martyna – some interesting comparisons of panels and the effects of shading)

Related Topics:
* Tech Connections: My Furnace is Too Big; Your HOUSE can Store Energy, too

If you want to ask, feel free to ask. If I see enough interest in a direction I’d like to go, there might be a third article in this series!

Atlantis Discovered (aka. Santorini, Greece)

It has been almost 20 years since my wife and I first visited Santorini, Greece. On our first trip we spent time in Marathonas (South East of Athens on the Greecian mainland). Thereafter we also visited Athens, Sounion, and Delphi. Next on that first trip we visited Santorini (Firostefani and Oia), and finally Crete. Nine years later we went back to Santorini and stayed in Imerovigli at Absolute Bliss. And nine years after that, from October 23, 2022 to November 6th we spent our time in Kamari and then Oia – which is pronounced EE-ah. You’ll will be saying “aaaaah” a lot. First you should know that the locals call the island either Santorini (a name bestowed by the Venetians) or more commonly Thira. Don’t confuse Thira with Fira – the “main town” on the island. And don’t be surprised if some shopkeepers refer to Oia as “Oh-ia” because they know many tourists won’t get it right!

Our Travel Style

I want to let you know what kind of travelers we are so you can decide if the information we are providing here aligns with your own style of travel.

We enjoy: Off Season, uncrowded, non-hot (i.e. cooler climate), with natural beauty, history, language, and culture. We like mountains and beaches, but are not sun soakers. We have interest in local foods, wines and spirits, but little interest in bars, night-life, parties or crowds. We prefer an authentic local experience and eschew tourist extravaganzas. We prefer a modest budget, but are willing to spend where there is value. We like to explore the surroundings, learn about culture, architecture, language, food and history – preferably not as part of an organized tour. We like to move at our own pace – usually slow and methodical. We are the kind of people who actually visit and read most or all of the exhibits at a museum. We take pictures of food and drink for the memories… usually not to post on Facebook. And I, Steven, in particular always make an effort to be up before sunrise, and out through and after sunset into the night to capture sunrises, sunsets and night photos.

As you might gather we are not much interested in the opposites: crowds, heat, cruising, tours. But, of course, sometimes you can only learn things in tours. For example in November 2021, we took a Viking river cruise down the Rhine from Basel Switzerland to Amsterdam. Some of our very best memories are the things we saw and learned from the tours. But one of the reasons we remember that trip fondly is that it was just as Covid restrictions were ending and our boat with a 180 passenger capacity had a total of 48 passengers with a crew of 49 – so it met our “uncrowded” preference far more than we could have anticipated.

Sunset, Oia

About this Article… It’s a Travel Guide

In contrast to many of our prior articles, this is intended as a travel advisory of sorts: things to know before you go. In the next article we endeavor to offer some photography tips – both night and daytime, as well as cell-phone photography tips including on-phone editing of images. Santorini is a bit of a challenging place for Night Photography… why the challenge will be explained in the next article as well.

Santorini – one of about 220 Cycladic islands – is well known as a destination for summer travel, and it’s probably the most photographed island EVER with its white cave houses that are often literally carved into the steeply sloped volcanic rock, windmills, and a plethora of blue domed churches all nestled up and down the caldera of a dormant volcano. The island was once called Strongyli (the round island). But then it blew it’s top forming the large caldera filled with the Mediterranean blue waters – and subsequent eruptions formed two fire islands (Nea Kameni and Palea Kameni). But in the process of blowing its top – it did so in a way that makes the Mt. Vesuvius destruction of Pompeii seem like child’s play. Indeed the eruption of Strongyli and the tidal wave produced is believed to have been the event that provoked the end of the Minoan Civilization.

TIP: Santorini due to its plethora of steep, irregular steps and inclines is not a good place for the mobility impaired, or those with low energy, bad ankles or bad knees.

Travel To Santorini and Interisland Travel

A cruise ship slips out of the Caldera in the Evening. (Good bye to the crowd!)

We often tell people about our wonderful experiences in Santorini. Some of our friends who have visited Santorini only in the context of cruise ships, or during the hectic summer months have questioned what we liked about our visits. See More Tips about Santorini, below for why we think cruise ship based excursions are not as enjoyable unless you actually spend days on the island. Note that the high season is mid June through early September. Offseason in Santorini is October through early April, with most shops closing at the end of October and reopening in mid to late March.

If your only experience of Santorini has been as a result of an excursion from a cruise ship, you really have missed a lot of the charm of the island.

We have not visited any of the surrounding islands that are visible from Santorini (Sikinos, Folegandros, Ios, Anafi) – but you can reach many of them via a passenger or car ferry. Ferries run irregularly in the off season. For example, to get from Santorini to Sikinos – about 15 miles to the northwest, there are two ferry lines. Zante leaves from Santorini at 7:30 AM on Thursday, November 17 and takes two hours arriving at 9:30. You could then return the same day leaving at 13:35 and arriving at 15:30. Santorini Cruises has ferries on days Zante does not, but there are no ferries on Wednesday, or Saturdays in the month of November that go from Santorini to Sikinos. is one of the best resources we have seen to find schedules. If you want to go farther, e.g. to the southernmost large island of Crete, expect a similar lack of options and much longer transit times. E.g. from 6.5 hours to 11 hours travel time depending on the ferry and the route it takes. Also, we were warned that if you use a ferry with a rental car, there is additional insurance required. I priced out a 2-passenger ferry from Heraklion to Santorini and back two days later WITH a bed/birth and it was 290 Euro (). For just reserved seats it was 145. Open seating (on the deck) was 139. The locals tend to prefer the ferries.

Finally, you should also know that getting from Athens airport to Santorini by ferry is also possible. It’s a 90 minute bus ride and about 6 Euros to get to the port in Piraeus (and about 65 by taxi). Travel to and from the Greek mainland to Santorini takes about 8 hours by ferry – vs 45 minutes flying time. In the off season there is often only one ferry per day and the cheapest round-trip for a ferry is about 135 per passenger. For this reason, we have generally always preferred to fly directly to and from JTR (the Santorini Airport code).

We have concluded that travel by air is the most efficient and reliable means to reach Santorini – in part because there are fewer restrictions and much less travel time.

Typical Ferry Schedule and costs Athens (Piraeus) to Santorini and back. Not including bus or taxi from Eleftherios Venizelos Airport (Athens) to the port of Piraeus.

Flights, Business Class and Layovers

Arriving in Munich

Because we live on the US West Coast, even the BEST flying connections to get to Santorini require two or three flights and at least 18 hours of travel each way. So this is one area where we are willing to spend to upgrade from Economy to Premium Economy – but not to Business or First Class. Why? Practical considerations. Comfort is of value, but it does not make sense to us to pay 3 times the fare for the flights (as is normal for Business Class) when we can spend that extra money on better lodging, meals, gifts and excursions.

Moderately long layovers are a travelers FRIEND.

For example our flights to Santorini took about 22 hours with no layovers longer than about 3 hours, whereas on the way back, we flew from Santorini to Munich where an 18 hour layover allowed us to stay at the Munich Hilton for 250 for one night – with breakfast. The value add for that Hilton is that no taxi or shuttle is required. We got a comfortable night of sleep in before the 13 hour flight from Munich to Denver. Also note that by taking that layover, we ended up with a $300 cheaper airfare so the stay in the Hilton paid for itself! We did not pay for premium economy upgrades for the shorter flights (3 hours or less) but the Denver to SFO leg may have well been worth an upgrade as it was a United Airlines flight (all other legs were Lufthansa) and we were crammed in a full flight with only center seats. I’ve only ever had one GOOD experience with United, all other experiences were zero star affairs… so needless to say I avoid United (and American and Delta, for that matter).

The Munich Airport Hilton

One last comment about layovers vs direct flights and cost: I’ve come to prefer moderately long layovers between flights to short ones. Why? Well several reasons: a longer layover allows you to get off the plane, have a real-person sit down meal, toilet break, walk, etc. And more importantly a too-short layover may result in high stress and missed connections as happened to us when our 77 minute scheduled layover in Denver was cut to less than 60 minutes by a late arrival and then we had to go through customs, fetch our luggage, recheck our luggage and go back through security to get to our next flight in ANOTHER terminal. In fact, by the time we actually got OFF the plane our next flight was already boarding – so we missed it. A 3 hour layover would have been FAR more comfortable and I’m frankly perturbed that such an aggressively short layover was even offered. Had there been a Munich to SFO direct flight available I’d have preferred it! But also note that off season, almost all flights to and from Santorini go through the Athens airport.

Getting around on Santorini

There are buses and a few taxis – but no Lyft or Uber. We frankly never invested any effort in learning the bus schedules because even the locals point out that the buses run infrequently. Our preferred method of travel is a rental car plus walking. Surprisingly TWO WEEKs of car rental WITH full insurance was a scant $330 US dollars in October, 2022 (through! But be forewarned, you’ll want a SMALL car (to be able to navigate some narrow roads, tiny parking places, and traffic), and there are very few automatic transmission cars available… so be sure you’ve practiced using a manual transmission. One day rentals from many places will be 45 or more euros per DAY in the off season.

Rental cars – especially via the airport are cheap and most efficient for thoroughly exploring Santorini.

The biggest problem you’ll face navigating the island is parking, and some peculiar winding one-way and dead-end roads. And remember that many of the destinations along the caldera rim (hotels, houses, and restaurants) are ONLY accessible by foot paths including plenty of stairs – something that may become painfully obvious if you rely on the normal means of navigation (Google maps). The good news is that the island is small enough you can circumnavigate the WHOLE island in less than half a day… nothing is more than an hour drive from anywhere else. The key places on the island to get to and from are the airport on the southeastern side of the island near the town of Kamari, the Athinios Port near the middle of the Caldera on the west side of the island – that is where most ferries arrive and depart, and the Old Port of Fira where many of the cruise ships and pleasure cruises arrive and depart. One tip about the maps, use google to load maps of Santorini before you leave to go there. But you’ll probably discover that having a data plan and the ability to make calls while on the island is quite helpful. Verizon, for example, offers a “bring your plan” for $10 per day that provides reasonable amount of calls and data.

Lodging In Santorini

We have stayed in a variety of places around the island, mostly along the Caldera rim. Prices on the island range from quite cheap ($50 USD a night away from the caldera) to outrageously expensive ($3000 USD/night) in the OFF SEASON. For views that are about as gorgeous as you can imagine, the caldera rim (and any of the towns along it: Fira, Firostefani, Imerovigli, and Oia) are hard to beat – provided you actually have a view and a modicum of privacy. Expect that wherever you stay along the caldera you’ll have two impediments: parking (if you rent a car) and lots of stairs.

The first place we stayed 18 years ago: Sun Rocks, Firostefani was expensive when we first stayed there, and has gotten progressively more expensive. We stayed in two different rooms there, including their most expensive “Experience Room” which is located at the bottom of the property with gorgeous views and quite a lot of privacy. We still have very fond memories watching a violent storm roll in while room service brought us Dakos (rusk bread with tomatoes, olive oil, feta cheese and capers) – see Foods, below. Firostefani is NOT in Fira, so it’s a bit quieter, but it’s still a quite walkable distance into Fira. There are many other properties in Firostefani, too.

Later that first trip we stayed in the 5-star Katikies Resort in Oia. It was nice, but rather prohibitively expensive. We had to move to there because Sun Rocks closed at the end of October (and did so again this year) – along with much of the rest of Firostefani.

Absolute Bliss, Imerovigli, Santorini. Oia is near the center of the image in the distance.

On our next visit we stayed in Imerovigli at Absolute Bliss. We still hold that experience up as about as close to ideal as one can get – and it was reasonably priced. It has marvelous views, the service and breakfasts were fantastic, and the manager of the resort showed us great kindness. Indeed I slipped and fell on my elbow along the high road. When we asked about where to find bandages she offered to drive us to the hospital – and kept up with us for the remainder of our stay. Fortunately the damage to my elbow wasn’t that bad – and the cuts and scrapes were mostly caused by me trying to prevent my camera gear from getting damaged.

Our most recent trip we stayed in two locations on opposite sides of the island. The first in Kamari was called Santorini Crystal Blue Boutique Hotel. It was hard to find, indeed, I recommend that to get there you do what we eventually did and just call them! They have a private parking lot about 300 meters away from the property. They, like most properties close in the off season. The Melitis restaurant on site was absolutely fantastic. Thereafter we stayed in the Marble Sun Villa Caldera House in the center of Oia. Being centrally located was nice. Being directly on a travelled path in all of Oia was a bit less nice. From extensive searching the Marble Sun is one of the VERY few caldera properties that afforded two private master bedrooms. That’s why we chose it since we were sharing the space with some dear friends of ours. There are multiple ways to book the property we stayed in, including through the Caldera Houses site, on, via VRBO, and more. I recommend taking a look at all avenues since the rates and availability sometimes vary considerably. And there are MANY properties available. What you are unlikely to find is an inexpensive property with a nice view, parking, limited walking and central access to a town.

More Tips About Navigating Santorini

Crowds can be a PAIN and cruise ships bring crowds. But you can consult port calendars and avoid caldera locations on heavy cruise ship days.

As I noted, we’ve been to the island 3 times over 18 years. And what we observed on our last trip was a bit disheartening. On our first trips the island was almost universally uncrowded in October and early November. Our most recent trip was much more congested than we expected. We are not sure of the why, except that Covid seems to have created a pent-up demand. One day there were SIX cruise ships – each adding about 2000 or more passengers. Effectively the population of the island doubles (or triples!) on such days so the throngs of excess persons made the narrow walkways and smallish shops unpleasant in much the same way as attempting to depart from stadium full of people. Indeed, we scheduled an early boat tour of the volcanic islands to be sure we wouldn’t have to fight the crowds for space but did not realize that when we got back from that half day cruise we would be competing with thousands of cruisists for a seat on the cable car to get back up to Fira. It took an hour and half waiting in line. The 330 steps or a donkey ride up are also possible alternatives.

Here comes (or goes) another crowd. Each cruise ship or ferry carries from 800 to 5000 passengers. This is a Viking Cruise Ship so is on the smaller end of the scale.

A little Greek can go a long way to unlocking a pleasant experience. Kalimera! (Good Morning) Kalispera (Good Evening), Ef haristo’ (Thank You), and Parakalo’ (Please)

I am a big proponent of learning some simple phrases in the native language of any country you may visit. You may be surprised how much more welcoming people are when you make an effort to greet, ask and thank them in their native tongue. Think about it for a moment: if someone came up to you on the average street in the US and asked you in Swahili where to find the nearest Taco stand… would you understand? Wouldn’t you think the person a bit rude or at least naïve? Well the same goes in any other country. As a rule we have found the Greeks on Santorini to be friendly, and helpful ALWAYS, but it sure doesn’t hurt that I am careful to greet them, and especially thank them in Greek. Sure my Greek may not be all that great – it’s a tough language – but by starting in Greek I’ve had some truly heart warming and compelling discussions with the locals – many of who are NOT local at all, but come from various other countries and work their butts off on behalf of tourists. There are many sources to learn Greek, so we won’t copy them here.

A couple of tips I picked up after listening to the Greeks… the town of Megalochori is pronounced with the “g” sounding like an h or a “y”. Ditto for the popular dish “Gyros” (Year-os, not Geer-os or Guy-ros). The town of Monolithos is not “Mono-lithos” but Mon-oh’-lithos with the emphasis on the second syllable. That’s the way you would do it in English – emphasizing the third from the last syllable, but it took me a few listens to get it right. If you pay attention to the Greek letters, you can start to pronounce words on sight… you just have to remember that what looks like a P (Ρ or ρ) is a Rho – an r, what looks like an V (ν) is a lowercase N. What looks like a y (γ) is a gamma – a lower case G (Γ). What at first glance passes for a N (Π) is actually a capital Pi (P). Thus what might at first glance read as Napkin (ΠΑΡΚΙΝ) is really Parking! On the mainland you’ll see lots of ΠΑΡΚΙΝ signs – on Santorini nary a one, but you may see the more universal white P on a blue background meaning parking, or more likely, lots of NO Parking symbols.

Two street signs that are worth noting are the “Do Not Enter/One Way sign” and the “No Parking” (on this side of the street) sign. The no parking sign is routinely ignored, by the way!

Do Not Enter (One way) Sign – May be red on Blue instead of Red on White
No Parking (this side of the street)

Recommended Places to Visit, Things to Do (and Why!)

A map (from Google Maps) of Santorini also called Thira. We will later refer to the numbered items. The caldera rim includes all those areas around the interior of the island bordering the Mediterranean.

These are in no particular order. Note that many are closed in the off season… check before you go. The numbers below correspond to the locations marked on the map, above.

  1. Kamari. While it is just south of the airport, you have to drive inland for a bit before you can make a left turn onto the road to Kamari. Like most of the rest of the island Kamari is open seasonably, but unlike some towns on the caldera, Kamari has a year-round population and a main square (and a sizeable supermarket). The black sand beach (ok, rocks and sand) is easy to reach, beware however, the sea bed itself is not sandy but is hard rock with ankle busting “potholes” throughout. It’s also on the sunrise side of the island and as our host at Santorini Crystal Blue Boutique hotel pointed out: the sun does not charge a tax for you to see it rise! In all it has a quite different vibe from the caldera side of the island: more laid back. I imagine in summer, however it’s just as or even more crowded. One tip: the main drag along the waterfront is a walking path only, except in the off season. You may choose, instead to visit Perissa/Perivolas which is farther removed but a longer stretch of black rock/sand beach. It’s also worth mentioning that on the way to Kamari is the Cave Winery Museum (also known as the Koutsogiannopoulos Winery). On the same road you also find the Argyros Estates and several other wineries as well as the Crazy Donkey Brewery. Adjacent to Kamari is Ancient Thira, described below.
  2. Ammoudi Bay at the water level in Oia. 287 steps down from the top it’s not a small journey to descend or ascend, but the contrasting rocks, architecture and the absolutely stunningly colored Mediterranean vistas are worth a visit. You may even hire a donkey to get you back to the top if overwhelmed by the ascent. The waterfront restaurants are well known for their seafood dishes.
  3. Ancient Thira. Perhaps my favorite spot on the island. An 8 euro per person entry fee is charged after you’ve driven up a steep set of 21 switch backs. It affords some spectacular views by virtue of its altitude, but I feel a very deep sense of history strolling around among the ancient Roman ruins – and can’t help but imagine what life was like to live in that town in that era.
  4. The Domain Sigalas winery is near Oia, north of Finnikia. The views are not spectacular, but the hospitality is awesome, and the wines are better than any other winery we visited. Try the Apiliotis and the Vinsanto – both dessert wines made from sun dried red and white grapes respectively. Check to be sure they are open as they have limited hours (and menu) in the off season. Santos winery has spectacular views… but beware its one of the wineries that is heavily hit by tour buses and that gives it a very touristy/industrial feel. Venesantos winery – which we didn’t visit – has a higher recommendation rate on TripAdvisor than Santos.
  5. Prophet Elias Monastery on the highest point of the island is worth a visit. The monastery may be closed off season, and there are some steep stretches of narrow roads to navigate – but the view is excellent. The nearby town of Pyrgos sits up on a large hill and is strongly reminiscent of hill top towns you might find in Europe. One restaurant near there that comes highly recommended (but which we were unable to visit) is Metaxi Mas. At some point in your island driving you’ll find yourself on at least the shoulder of the hill where Pyrgos is, so it’s worth a stop.
  6. The Santorini Lighthouse located at the extreme southwestern edge of the island is another worthwhile visit. You can’t visit the interior of the lighthouse, but you will get views of the caldera from a different perspective. Off season most every surrounding restaurant will be closed except perhaps closer to the town of Akrotiri which has a small year-round population. Combine your trip to the Lighthouse with a visit to the Red Sand Beach and the ancient Akrotiri archeological site. Follow the signs to the Red Sand Beach. Off season parking near the church should be easy. Take good shoes if you decide to take the trail down to the beach itself, though the best shots can be taken before the trail gets more difficult to navigate. For best pictures of the Red Sand beach, try to get there in the morning hours.
  7. Fira and the Old Port. Fira is the capital city of Santorini, sits along the Caldera and offers either 330 steps down to the old port, or for 6 euros each way you can take the cable car. There isn’t that much compelling down at the port, and beware – it’s where most cruise ships passengers are tossed out by the tender boats (the cruise ships do not dock). But there are several possible cruises available from the old port, including the next suggestion.
  8. A boat tour of the volcano. There are half day and nearly full day options. The half day option takes you to Nea Kameni where an improved (but still fairly strenuous) hiking trail will provide great views of the caldera, smoking fumaroles, and if you have a good guide some interesting history of Santorini – including how it got its names, and the frequency of eruption. After Nea Kameni, the boat stops at Palea Kameni where “hot springs” warm the water with sulfurous aromas. Hint: “Hot” is probably not quite accurate; tepid is a better description. New on a last trip was an additional 5 euros or so per person to disembark on the Nea Kameni island and take a tour. Still worth that, however! On the longer cruise you can continue on to Thirassia – the fisherman’s island and either brave a steep walk up, or hang around the few shops and restaurants down at the water level.

I didn’t mention it as yet, so I will now… there is a walking trail between Fira and Oia that will provide lots of great views. Allow from one and a half to 3 hours each way should you choose to make the trek. And one last thing… there are a lot of one way roads and one of those one-way roads will lead you INTO Oia from Imerovigli, but you can’t take that road out of Oia. This is called the “high road” and its worth following all the signs headed toward Imerovigli from Fira, but instead of turning (left) toward Imerovigli, keep headed North. There are some great vistas from the high road, including some pull outs, snack sheds and even a few luxury properties. There is also a trail up one of the volcano cones which forms another high point on the island.

There are also several museums scattered around the island, including a new one called The Lost Atlantis Experience in Megalochori near the Grigoris Bakery (see below). It seemed like a tourist trap so we didn’t visit it. And it’s also worth peering into the churches if/when they are open. The Greek Orthodox touches and Byzantine architecture of some of those 400+ churches on the island is fascinating.

Unique Foods, Gifts and Restaurants in Santorini

There are few things we recommend you try.

Tomato Balls (τοματο κεφτεδες). aka Tomato Keftedes. They are fried treats made with local Santorini cherry tomatoes. Every place we tried them they were good… and each place made them a little bit different. Some more like flat pancakes, some resembling the “balls”. All of them were delicious.

Galaktoboureko (Γαλακτομπούρεκο) – while not unique to Santorini, this Greek Custard Pie is quite different from the familiar baklava. Galakto means “butter”. You can think if it as a custard burrito usually soaked in sweet water or honey. We had tasty versions of this dish from several sources, including the Furnissimo Bakery near the airport in Messaria (Μεσαριά) on the corner of the road leading to Kamari, the Family Bakery close to Fira in the town of Megalochori (Μεγαλοχωρι), and the Grigoris Bakery on the southern outskirts of Megalochori. If they are out of Galaktoboureko, Bougatsa is similar enough to give it a try. If you’re in the Kamari area, the Erotokritos Cretan Bakery comes highly recommended, but we didn’t try anything from there. Oh, and for an island with only 15,000 permanent residents, there are a surprising number of bakeries… we have only listed the ones we personally visited.

Vinsanto – literally “holy wine” is a dessert (sweet) wine made from native assyrtiko grapes that are harvested and allowed to dry in the sun for up to two weeks before they are juiced. Almost all the dozen wineries on Santorini make this wine, some are noticeably better than others. The resultant wine is quite sweet and may be strongly redolent with “raisin” flavors. A similar but far less common dessert wine is Apiliotis which is made the same way, but using Mandilaria (red) grapes. And while we’re talking about wine, there are several species of grapes that are indigenous to the island, almost all of them are used to make white wines – including the aforementioned assyrtiko grape.

Dakos – this is a simple salad originating from Crete made with tomatoes, olive oil, hard rusk bread, feta and sometimes other ingredients like oregano capers and caper leaves. It is surprisingly good if you allow the tomato and olive oil to soften the bread. It’s a great alternative to Horiatiki the traditional greek salad with tomatoes, cucumbers, feta and olives. Not every restaurant will carry Dakos.

Alexandros Jewelry has stores in Athens, Fira and Oia. His creations are truly unique and inspiring. Just ask my wife who has several incredible pieces from this premium jeweler. And truly, Alexandros Rogavopoulos and his wife, Gina, have been very kind to us on each of our visits. The jeweler closes both Santorini stores in the off season and he runs the production / creation of jewelry in his Athens workshop.

There are two local brewers in Santorini. The beers are worth a try. The local beers are Yellow Donkey, Red Donkey, White Donkey, Slow Donkey and Crazy Donkey – which is the name of one of the Breweries. If nothing else the mugs and glasses are amusing. Another local brand is Blue Monkey from Ftelos Brewery on the Caldera side of the island which looks like an interesting brew pub but we haven’t visited it.

Our top 5 restaurants in Santorini

  • Naos – Expensive, creative fine dining in the heart of Oia. They close from late October to November and reopen for Christmas.
  • Skiza – a pizzeria and more with a great view in Oia. They are one of the few places that is open year round. The prices were reasonable and the meals really delicious.
  • Skiza’s sister restaurant Skala in Oia serves a variety of Greek favorites is also open all year.
  • Cacio e Pepe: Italian restaurant in Fira.
  • Metaxi Mas. In Exo Gonia (Έξω Γωνιά) – we really wanted to eat here because it came highly recommended by several on-island people, but alas we didn’t get a chance.

Of course there are many more restaurants we have tried, and we were only disappointed in two of them – but only mildly so. Remember that many restaurants like the Melitis in Kamari are closed in the offseason. Indeed at least half of all the restaurants we visited from October 23rd through November 5, 2022 were partially closed (with limited choices), closing, or about to close. Oh, and there is a Thai restaurant (called Paradox) very near the bus terminal in Oia. It was surprisingly good.

Where to get Great Photos in Santorini

Last Evening in Fira, Santorini (2013)

I chuckle as I write this. While doing my typical pre-sunrise and sunset walks, camera in hand, I got asked that question a lot by people wearing cruise ship stickers. There are a LOT of sites that hawk “best place to take a photo” and two of those spots are well traveled – and happened to be literally feet away from our Oia lodging. But DO NOT be waylaid by such concerns. The island has so many beautiful vistas and fascinating shots my best advice is … shoot the heck out of the place. There are doorways, bougainvillea, cats, dogs, people, churches, steps, walkways, pools, domes, and of course the beautiful coloration in the water of the caldera and the volcanic cliffs themselves. And on top of all that, there are sunsets, sunrises and night vistas. It’s really hard NOT to get a good shot if you follow some simple guidelines about composition and exposure (coming in the next article). Anything that includes color, architecture and scale will make your viewers jealous, guaranteed.

In the next articles, we’ll address cell phone photography, cell phone based image adjustment, and night photography in Santorini.

Night in Oia. Taken with an iPhone 13 Pro Max by tricia Christenson

What Makes An Image Memorable?

Perhaps the highest praise Steven gets as a speaker is this:

Wow, his passion is infectious. I’m now eager to try night photography.”

Almost every photographer makes pictures to SHARE with others so praise of passion is high praise, indeed. Not everyone will have similar interests or feel the connection you feel with your work, but there are some questions you can ask yourself to strengthen the broader appeal of your work, that is, make your image more memorable.

My friend and mentor, Kip Evans sold his photography from a gallery in Carmel, California. One of his laments to me was: I don’t really sell what I find beautiful and compelling, I mostly sell what others have a connection to – often touristy things like images of the Golden Gate Bridge. What drew us into Kip’s gallery was an image of a large breaking wave called Winter Swell. We have print of Winter Swell hanging in our bedroom (and so does at least one coastal hotel).

        Kip Evans: Winter Swell

My wife loves waves – and I share her affinity. She will stand in awe and clap as huge surf crashes on to our coast. There is a visceral connection with the spectacle and power of the scene.

If we spend a little time thinking about what causes that kind of connection, we can endeavor to put elements of it in our work.

From my perspective, images need the following:

  • Scale that inspires awe, grandeur
  • Connectedness – intimacy in the viewer caused by an emotive reaction to the image
  • Interest – an alignment with the passions of the viewer – even if only tangential
  • Revelation – an innovative view that illuminates something either unnoticed or unseeable.

Of course these characteristics are inter-related and if only two of the four are strongly present that may be enough to wow the viewer.


Before you move on to the explanations, consider the following 4 images. Decide which image is the one that best reveals scale, the one that speaks to you (connects with you), the one that is most in line with your interests, and the one that reveals something you’ve not seen or understood before. The answer to each question may be a different image. Indeed, we would love it if you’d answer the four questions in the polls below… If you want to elaborate or leave a comment listing your choices (e.g. “A,B,B,D”) that’s fine, too. And yes, we realize we have mixed in a photo of a cute dog that has nothing to do with Night Photography.

The images are
A: Sky from Orion to the Pleiades, B: Trona Pinnacles with Orion and Canis Major, C: Mount Whitney in Moonlight; D: Pierre Grazin’ in the Grass.




Fortunately for Night Photography, the last part – Revelation – is the easiest. Few people have seen a truly dark sky with starry heavens. If you can connect the viewer by linking Earth and Heaven you can draw people in.  Even fewer people realize that the Milky Way is awesome, and that stars have discernible colors. It is not hard to enchant viewers with a revelatory image.

Revelation can take many forms, however. For example: showing an unfamiliar but interesting place, illustrating a relationship that was not obvious before, revealing unexpected or unobserved colors or details. The camera is very good at seeing color, even in dim light – so it’s almost easy to be revelatory in a night image. In my opinion the single most significant mistake that people make in night images is in not selecting or not providing sufficient interest in the foreground – either because the foreground is boring, or because it is not well enough illuminated to speak on its own. My personal bias is to tune out a photo of a car under the stars, for example, unless the car is really, really sexy looking. My wife, who is a car fan, feels a little differently. I am also not a fan of junkyard scenes with garish colors, but my judgments (biases) are not about revelation, but about Interest.

Perhaps one of the revelatory aspects of image D is the “on-eye-level-ness” with a furry little creature.

Photon Worshippers **Winner Astronomy Photographer of the Year, 2010 - People and Space **

Photon Worshippers **Winner Astronomy Photographer of the Year, 2010 – People and Space **


How many images of sunsets have you seen? Most of them are immediately emotive, colorful, and often compelling… but are they different enough to hold your interest?

People are all over the map in interests: favorite colors, past-times, subjects, hobbies … It is impossible to create an image that will be interesting to everyone. The point here is to think about your audience.  The photo that won Astronomy Photographer of the Year in 2010 (above) garnered interest because it was not a run-of-the-mill, same as everyone else night sky photo indeed it wasn’t a night sky photo at all! The image was something that I calculated would be of interest to judges in the UK. In the UK Stonehenge is an ancient, human-made edifice apparently built to measure seasons. My Photon Worshipper image is of a natural formation that does a similar thing – it only forms a beam of light during the winter solstice.  The image is also unlike the many existing images of the same phenomenon: it is a different view, and includes people to give it human scale.

Scale / Grandeur

Likewise my runner-up image in 2012 (below) was arguably the least well executed of my awarded work: focus is soft, color is off. But the scale and human interest of Lost In Yosemite is hard to miss. The contrast of tiny figures – once you recognize them as people – against towering trees and an immense sky was not lost on the judges.

I love this photo because it illustrates how humbling, even frightening, both the natural world and the cold depths of space can be for us as tiny, fragile human beings. ~ Olivia Johnson

Lost in Yosemite [C_033706] Runner Up - Astronomy Photographer of the Year, 2012

Lost in Yosemite: Two tiny hikers in flashlight against the enormity of the environment.

If you’ve seen it in person the scale of the Grand Canyon is inspiring. If you’ve seen it in photos, the Grand Canyon is LESS impressive. Why? My thought is that most photos lack human-scaled perspective of the kind in Lost in Yosemite above. Image A, above, is an image in which you likely found no sense of scale – unless you’re an astronomer. Image C shows rugged mountains (Mount Whitney, in fact). Hikers and mountaineers will implicitly understand the scale. Image B, however has formations that are of indeterminate size unless you have first-hand experience with them. Image D also gives scale clues… You see the size of the ears in proportion to the dog (named Pierre), and the size of the dog in proportion to the grass and flowers. But it’s not likely that it was the scale or size revelation of the dog that drew you in, is it?  If you found affinity with Pierre, it’s because you have – or had – a pet you are fond of, or wished that you had a pet. But we will address connectedness in a moment.

My suggestion is to be sure that something in your image imparts an easily recognizable scale.  In fact, putting a human in the shot can be powerful – Ben Canales won a National Geographic competition with an image featuring himself and Crater Lake – and a bit of whimsy.


Connectedness, or perhaps better term intimacy is not a single characteristic. By connectedness, I mean that involuntary emotive sense of drawing your attention – either as awwwww or that’s beautiful, or that’s disgusting, or my heart hurts. Sunsets, puppies, and kittens are perhaps the most photographed items of all. Why? Because most of them come laden with affection and fond memories – or sadness, or whimsy.  I immediately feel connectedness with well crafted night skies because I have many fond memories of sitting out in the dark under a horizon-to-horizon Milky Way.

I am reminded that compared to the enormity of the sky I feel small, but somehow embedded in that smallness is always a feeling of importance and one-ness with nature.

I assert that connectedness is usually a product of scale, revelation and interest, but connectedness can also occur spontaneously out of past experience and the human condition. My wife would put it this way:

Life is not measured by the breaths you take, but by the moments that take your breath away.

Technical Competency

I gave thought to avoiding discussion of this important aspect of an image. Some of my most viewed, appreciated and commented images are NOT images that exhibit technical mastery! I purposely chose images B and C because they are older work, and lack technical robustness. Indeed, I have much better images from Trona Pinnacles (Image B), but none have been as popular as image B!

In summary, while technical mastery is a great goal to seek, if you work too hard on making your image sharp, color balanced, and so on, you may neglect choosing environments and images that have more compelling characteristics: Scale, Interest, Connectedness and Revelation.

So What is My Favorite Image – And Why?

If you’ve been paying attention you’ll understand that images, like aromas, colors and words carry different weights due to our personal experiences. I always gravitate to the image below. It’s my wife on our last evening in Santorini, Greece.  We had just finished a fantastic meal, I had given her that ring, and our view was awesome. And, it happens to be a sunset I shot with my cell phone.

Last Evening in Santorini

You probably wanted to know what’s my favorite Night Image, though.  It’s hard to choose, but it’s probably one of these two. I’ve never uploaded the first one, though it’s predecessor was released.

“South Side,” Red Rock Canyon State Park, California

“Like Grains of Sand,” Pfeiffer State Beach, Big Sur, California

If you ask my wife the same question about my images, I am pretty sure she would pick this one:

Famous III [C_035478]

This is all part of a larger talk I am planning for a local Astronomy Club.  I appreciate your votes on the images above so I have a good set of data to go on. Also, please comment on an image that really inspired you – mine or anyone elses!


Publish Date: 29-November-2016

I, Steven, have recently completed one of my bucket list items… capturing stars and astro landscapes aboard a cruise ship. My interest in the idea is based on several observations:

  1. Night photography can be about movement – like star trails, for example – and cruise ships move.
  2. Cruise ships go to and through some of the darkest spots on earth – far away from any land producing artificial light
  3. Being aboard a ship means NOT having to drive anywhere or fly anywhere. Bed, food, drink and entertainment are never farther away than the length of a football field.
  4. I can still spend time with my family rather than alone in the wilderness because… we are all in the same “wilderness” at the same time.


My particular cruise was aboard the Brilliance of the Seas by Royal Carribbean. The ship departed from Tampa, Florida to Key West, then to Cozumel and back to Tampa. The good news is the things I feared most did not happen: I only gained 1.5 pounds and none of my equipment fell into the sea. I also had no motion sickness – though some I traveled with were uncomfortable in what were relatively light seas.

Sunrises, Sunsets and TimeStacks

It does not have to be all about night photography, right?  My travel from the West Coast to the East Coast for the cruise made it a lot easier for me to be awake at sunset and near impossible to greet a sunrise.
Sunset Reversal

Location Is Important

These two trails were taken on different days (one when the ship was cruising south, another two nights later when cruising north). Both were taken from Deck 5 with no moon. The first trail was from near the bow (front of the ship), the other from off the stern (back).

South Bound

South bound star trails from near the bow of the ship** Please read below for how I got here… it is an important detail.

Stern Seas

Looking south from the stern of a north bound cruise – with unfortunate clouds – but look at all the motion!  That bright  streak (and the cloud illuminated above it) are another passing cruise ship.

The ship was steadier when southbound – thus the first star trail looks pretty normal. The second one from the stern of the ship looks like a seismograph! Want to get a feel for the motion from the stern? Watch the video.

Tips and Insights

I did not meet any resistance or complaints from the crew or passengers using my tripod on deck. That is in part because I was mostly using it at night and had already scouted out areas to place it. My first recommendation is to …


First scout your vessel thoroughly… do this before embarking (using deck plans available on the internet), then during the first day, and at night.  I discovered that a passageway open during the day, was gated at night. Unfortunately, that passage led to the darkest part of the ship. More about this in a minute.

Too Little Darkness on Board

Cruise ships are floating cities, and like cities, lights are everywhere and unavoidable. Onboard the Brilliance there were 2 darkish places to go and one dark place where I could not go*. One darkish spot was the top deck toward the bow. There are lights everywhere, but if you shield your eyes and moved deck chairs to cover over some of the bulkhead lights you could make out stars. What I could see, however, was nowhere near the glory that I’ve seen in even moderately rural areas. A darkish spot – mentioned by guest relations, was the starboard (right hand) side of deck 5 near the stern (back of the boat). Again, lots of lights everywhere, but that area was dark enough that with some eye shielding I could easily make out Orion.

See the next photo to see just how much light a ship casts about… the moon illuminated the sky as well – but you wouldn’t be able to see even this many stars by eye in a dark clear sky in any normal area of the ship.

Over the Railing

The light from the ship illuminates the water around it, while the moon illuminates the sky (Cuba is glowing in the distance). Notice how the ship’s pitching and rolling turned stars into squiggles.

Getting Where it Is Really Dark

You may be wondering how I pulled off the photography on the bow given that the passageway was barred at night. It happened innocently. I took advantage of a quirk on the Brilliance of the Seas. In the theater on the ship on the upper level there are what are best described as “box” seats adjacent to the wings of the stage. That area has nearby doors, one marked “Exit” the others are marked crew only. I took the “Exit” and it put me out by the passage to the Helicopter landing pad on the bow of the ship.  There was then another “gate” barring access to the helicopter landing area itself – but it was plenty dark up front. I swung my tripod up on the helopad area and controlled it with my intervalometer being careful to create as little light as possible. That’s how I got images for the first of two star trails above. I then stood at the outer rail of the helipad and took a panorama of the bridge area. Straight up and forward were MUCH darker.

Much of the crew area and the wheel house spanning the entire front of the ship is kept dark with little extra light.

Much of the crew area and the wheel house spanning the entire front of the ship is kept dark with minimal extra light. Note how much light there is on the top deck where you can see silhouettes of passengers through the glass. This is a stitched 4-shot panorama.

Packing for the Cruise

For a 5 day cruise, I took one camera, two smaller lenses batteries and a tripod. I packed almost all of my clothing for the trip inside a single large (carry-on size) bag with some extras in a small carry on “personal item”. That packing arrangement works great for short trips. To accommodate “Formal Night” I stole some space in my wife’s luggage for dress shoes and a suit.

Would You Like To See Celestial Delights On a Cruise?

Knowing that many travelers have never seen a properly dark night sky, I contacted Royal Caribbean and let them know I thought a potentially great ship resource was untapped. If you had a chance to view incredibly dark skies on board your cruise ship, would you relish that opportunity?  Please let us know in a comment below or on our Facebook Page. Perhaps the cruise line will contract SCA to teach night photography in addition to the many other courses on board. I, for one, would love to get on a dark deck and stare up into the Geminid meteor shower – or view the Milky Way at its finest.!