Thanks for attending my Landscape Astrophotography discourse with the San Jose Astronomical Association on Tuesday, June 19, 2018. 7:30 PM to 10:00 PM. Most of the audience are Astrophotographers.
Below is a form you can fill out and we will email you a PDF of the notes from this lecture. Following are some brief excerpts from the talk.
The Meeting of Earth and Sky
Big Sur, California, has earned a reputation for being The Greatest Meeting of Land & Sea, a phrase attributed to Robinson Jeffers, the “Walt Whitman” of the West Coast. Indeed living here is inspiring. The towering cliffs and mountains, lush forests, crashing, craggy Pacific surf all work together to evoke a sense of beauty and wonder that is astonishingly intimate. There are certainly other beautiful places in the world – even nearby. But I believe that there is awesome, virtually undiscovered beauty that touches nearly everywhere in the world: the night sky.
Night Sky photography has grown by leaps and bounds in the last decades. Prior to the age of digital photography, there were relatively few painters of the night sky. Not surprisingly, none of those painters painted just stars. All featured stars with landscapes. Perhaps the most well-known painter of the night is Vincent Van Gogh. In Van Gogh’s day, light pollution was far, far less noxious than it is now. Indeed our super abundance of artificial light has rendered our night sky almost unobservable. But the night sky has such depth and mystery that everyone should find a dark sky to sit under for a time. Part of the allure of the night sky is its expansiveness… its immense scale.
Because the scale of the night sky is difficult to grasp I believe it is important to link human-scale to the starry night. Deep-sky photography of nebula and galaxies reveals things completely unseen or unseeable by the naked eye – and the revelation of those objects is compelling and engaging. But even more compelling are photographs that tie humanly identifiable scale to the mysterious night.
In addition to scale, compelling photographsreveal the unexpected. Photographs can show time, location, relationships, colors, and details that are unobservable by looking. To draw lay people, however, I believe there must be a strong link between what is observable with what is not: a Marriage of Earth and Sky. And for that reason, I’m urging Astrophotographers and astronomers to try Landscape Astrophotography.
This is truly a meeting of Land, Sea and Sky
For more details, please see the accompanying notes.
The point of this article is to describe the multi-row panorama apparatus I created with off-the-shelf, inexpensive parts from Amazon. The good news is assembly is pretty simple. When you are done you will have a gimbal style mount suitable for taking multi-row panoramas using a modestly sized camera/lens combination. It is important to point out that you need a sturdy tripod and head beneath as the extra top-heaviness will tax a wimpy head or spindly legged tripod. I use the Gitzo mountaineer series tripod – it is lightweight, stable and has served me well for many years. I also have an older (much heavier) aluminum-legged Manfrotto. I have Acratech ball heads on each tripod. Those Acratech heads are really light, and solid. I HIGHLY recommend them.
Multi-Row Panorama Gear in action at Asilomar State Beach, California
What is a Single-Row Panorama (or Vertorama)
A single row panorama is what you get when you take a series of photos left to right (or right to left) – usually in portrait mode to extend the field of view up to 360 degrees. A vertorama is the same idea, except you usually use landscape mode. In either case, the camera needs to be rotate around the “nodal point” or “no parallax” point. The no parallax point is usually found IN the lens, and is thus never where you attach the camera to a tripod.
What is a “Multi-Row” Panorama?
Imagine taking a single row panorama, then repointing up (or down) and taking another single row panorama. Now you have a multi-row shot.
Total is about $125 USD and weighs just under 2 pounds.
NOTES:  You can get shorter or longer rails. Might as well get the longer one. While it is heavier, you can use it with a longer lens.
 If you have an old tripod head, it may have a panning clamp and/or leveling base that you can re-purpose.
Other Items to Consider
$430.00 Acratech GPs-s Ballhead with Clamp Ball Head with Arca Clamp. This one is not required, but it’s really good and has the advantage of being usable withouta leveling base by using it “upside down”. And yes, it is designed to be used that way, notice how the markings are repeated so that they are visible right side up, and up side down.
($60-$200) L-Bracket (arca swiss) for your particular camera
At minimum you will need a bubble level somewhere on the horizontal surface or a means to align the unit perpendicular to the ground.
Assembly and Alignment
Assembly is straight forward. The only tricky part may be securely mounting the Panoramic clamp to the vertical rail. All the rest go together with the built-on clamps.
What If I Do NOT Have My Ball Head Upside Down?
As we show in the video, we have mounted our Acratech GP-s head “upside down”. This allows us to level what was the base using the ball head and then use the rotation of the base as a horizontal panning clamp. There are several ways you can proceed if you do not, or cannot use your tripod in this way:
If you already have a panning clamp on the top deck of your ball head, level the deck and use the existing panning clamp.
If your ball head has a panning base, you can carefully align the tripod so that the head mount (the deck where your ball head attaches) is level. Then align the clamp so that it is level as well. You can use the panning base of your ball head. Note this is not easy to get right, but a slight misalignment is usually easy to correct in the stitched photos.
NOTE: Be sure to check for level-ness through a complete rotation! Our Acratech Nomad ball head, for example, is not designed to be easily mounted upside down, and this method is what we use.
If your ball head does NOT have a panning base, then you can buy a second panning clamp and attach that to your ball head clamp (or replace your existing clamp with a panning clamp). WARNING: Not all panning clamps are easily attached to arbitrary ball heads as there is little standardization
Taking and “Stitching” Panoramic Photos
Since we have plenty of material on how to do this, we will refer you to our prior articles (see the top of this page).
If assembling a multi-row panoramic head from parts is not exciting, there are several pre-built options.
ProMaster GH25K Gimbal Pan Kit
ProMaster GH25K Gimbal Pan Kit
At about $300 USD, it seems pretty well built. The flaws in the design are:
It does not have a leveling base,
While the bottom head (vertical axis) has handy detent stops, the horizontal axis does not.
There is no bubble level on the base.
I have not used one, but found and played with one in a local camera store, and saw that is also available online. Like the system we laid out above, do not expect this rig to hold up your 20 pound camera/lens combination. Total weight is about 2 pounds and rated capacity about 7 pounds.
Really Right Stuff Multi-Row Pano Package – PG-01 or PG-02 (the Big One)
There are two units. The PG-01 which is similar to what we custom-built above at a price of $285 USD (at B&H). The other option is a beast. And at $795 USD (from B&H) is not cheap, nor complete. You may still need a leveling base. There are many options available, too, including a gimbal cradle. Check out the possible configurations at the Really Right Stuff website (though when we last checked the units were on back-order).
PG-01 for smaller cameras (non telephoto lenses)
You will also need a nodal rail to pair with the above. There are no detent stops for this, and as with others, you’ll need to level your base to use this. (There is also an option that includes a leveling base for about $290). One reviewer reported that he had trouble keeping his moderately heavy camera from slouching down on the vertical arm. There does not appear to be a bubble level on the horizontal bar as there is on the larger model. The version with the built-in leveling base clearly does have a bubble level. There are no detents to set up fixed rotational amounts. Note that the vertical rotational axis clamp is located under where your camera would be and might be inconveniently located.Total weight is about 1.3 pounds with the two pieces plus a nodal rail.
The Really Right Stuff PG-02 Panorama Kit (from B&H)
As with all Really Right Stuff gear, there is some seriously thoughtful design and overbuilding here. It is beefy with big easy to find knobs, great clamps and little touches like the target on the center of the rotational axis. Why is that a good idea? If you align the bulls-eye target in the center of your image (see our video), you have the correct location for multi-row panoramas (provided the set back is correct). You may still need a leveling base (though might be able to use the bubble level at the right edge). You can replace your current head with this unit and have full mobility, otherwise you’ll need a plate to mount the unit to your ball head. All that great design costs money though: about $795 and up. Weight is about 3.3 pounds.
Last week, in Lesson 3, we managed to get through all the creative example slides in a marathon overly long meeting. We also talked about what makes a better camera and lens for night photography – and why “full frame” cameras are better at squelching noise than crop cameras – megapixels being equal. The bottom line is that larger sensors usually have larger sensor area to collect light. The larger area collecting light makes larger sensors produce less noise in comparison to the total light collected. A related, whimsical illustration can be found here. Yes, rather technical, but some of our students want to know!
Inclement weather means we are stuck to an indoor session, but our photos need processing! We are took a second look at focusing tricks since it is a recurring issue. Indeed, we have covered focus in not one, but two prior articles which we reference here. One method for focus is the Bahtinov mask. The Bahtinov mask is aimed at astrophotographers, but it works well with a regular camera, too. Our more normal list of focus tricks can be found in this article.
Like many other night photography subjects, we have done extensive writing about creating star trails. It is no wonder then that we are called “StarCircleAcademy”. Rather than try to summarize many years worth of writing it seems wisest to point you to the articles where different star trail discussions have been chronicled.
It all starts Here – A treatise on taking star and star trail shots. After that…
Is there more, why of course… but we notice your head is spinning, so we will let it rest for a while. 😉
Last Week’s Homework
Use the light you were given in class to write a message or draw an image in light.
The moon is full, if you didn’t work out settings for capturing the moon. Something on the order of 1/1000, f/5.6, ISO 4000; or 1/500, f/4.5, ISO 800; or f/9, 1/200s, ISO 400 (latter is best overall as lower ISO means less noise).
Find a way to make a strong white flashlight a different color… several methods were demonstrated in class. Simple examples: colored cellophane (bread wrapper, etc), bounce light off of or shine through colored paper, or even use your hand as a reflector / light bouncer.
Blue “white” LED flashlight can be made warmer using your hand or something in the yellowish range – see above.
Gaffers Tape can be used for all sorts of things, stopping light leaks through the viewfinder (Nikons are notorious for this), making a “snoot” for a light, covering over offendingly bright lights… and even holding stuff together.
This Week’s Assignment
Weather Permitting, get at least 20 minutes worth of star trails. First determine what the best starting exposure is, then take 20 minutes worth. More is better, though for the reasons we demonstrated in class.
Get StarStax or AdvancedStackerPlus for Photoshop and combine those trails. Or do it by hand in Photoshop.
NOTE: If the stars refuse to shine for you, that doesn’t mean you have to do a “star trail”. You can use the same trick to “expand time” nearly any kind of shot. Like this daylight sunset shot, for example:
This is not a star trail, but it was a sequence of shots combined using the same trick. You could even, for example, do a series of light painting.
Original Publish Date: 06-April-2016
Last Revision: 07-April-2016
Hello. Welcome to night photography. This is the first of 6 lessons on Night Photography based on a weekly in-person course taught by Steven Christenson. Shall we begin?
What is a photograph, really?
Wait… don’t rush off and start reading something else. This is an important question worth spending more than a few seconds on. Perhaps another way to ask this question is what are the essentials to create a photograph?
The class came up with the following answers:
A photograph is a record of a moment in time.
A photograph is a means to evoke emotion or connectedness.
A photograph is a record of light over time.
All good answers, bonus points awarded to the last answer. The key words are lightand time. A better photograph is one that also instills emotion or connectedness, but ultimately a photograph is a record of light.
Use manual mode
Use camera self timer
In class we will be covering those goals point by point. For the reader, start with your camera. Set it into Manual mode (not automatic, aperture priority or shutter priority). Not one of those fancy “portrait” or starlight modes either. Manual. usually it’s “M” on your camera. Next be sure you know how to set and use the “self timer” on your camera. Most cameras have one with e.g. 2 or 10 second delays.
Finally, turn off auto-focus. The experiments we do in class do not require focus to be accurate or correct. If you do not turn OFF autofocus, your camera may refuse to take a photo.
In class we darkened the room as much as possible. We started with an aperture priority shot (f 4.0, ISO 400) and noted that the different cameras all took different exposures – none of which revealed much detail. We then demonstrated how the effect of a quickly or slowly moving light altered the results. Unfortunately there is no simple way to duplicate those tasks for the reader as they are situation dependent.
For Further Study
Mastering the basics: The three components of an exposure are ______, ______, and _______
To get a good exposure if you change the (a) _______ you must change the (b) _______ or (c) _______.
What does “1 stop” (up/down) mean?
How can you judge the “quality” of a photo without looking at the photo? (This is not a trick question!)
Exposure Experiment – in a DARK outdoor environment.
Set your aperture to f/8. Set your camera to “aperture priority” and take an exposure, make note of the exposure setting (shutter speed). Next change to manual mode. Use the same aperture (f/8), and divide the previous shutter speed by 4. Take an exposure at that setting. Make 7 more exposures doubling the exposure time (1 stop more) each time.
Pick the “best” exposure from above and divide the shutter speed by 4. Open the aperture by 2 stops. Take an exposure. Double the exposure time and decrease the aperture by 1 stop. Repeat this process until you reach the minimum aperture for your lens.
Look through all the exposures. What are the most noticeable differences?
Extra credit: Experiment and see if you can find settings to capture stars in the sky while including some land, too.
Extra, extra credit: Work out what exposure settings will capture details in the moon (that is, not a “white blob”, but something that shows the phase and “man” in the moon). What do you notice about the stars in the shot showing detail in the moon? [To do this, you will have to be up when the moon is up!]
Creativity Assignment – Use MANUAL mode only.
From your experiments, select the best settings for a 10 second exposure. Try capturing something that is lit (and moving).
Walk through your shot while it is exposing (may need to use self timer to start it).
Repeat the above, but stand still in the shot.
Extra credit: Try using a (dim) flashlight… what happens?