Tag Archives: night photography

The Six Month Sabbatical

It is amazing how a planned six month sabbatical turned into 14 months. We decided to retreat from our teaching and photography schedule for the first six months of 2015. Family and work issues lengthened that to 11 months… and well, it has taken another several months to get back on our feet.

And we are re-starting with a Free “Exploring Night Photography” class that extends from April 6th, to May 25th, 2016.  However before I even started writing this column the class was full. The class would not help many of you since it is being taught in Los Gatos, California, with thanks to Venture Christian Church for providing the venue.

But there is good news: in the coming weeks we will be publishing the material we use in the class HERE on the website.  The class is aimed at DSLR photographers who have gotten out of “Automatic” mode at least once, but that is the only real requirement.

Here is the course description:


You’ve got a Digital, Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) camera, and you are getting fairly good at it. Now it is time to try something new and creative: photos taken at night. Night photos can reveal the amazing majesty of the night sky (Isaiah 40:26). You will learn how to photograph in low-light using your DSLR. Along the way you will learn a little about the night sky and several photography techniques that will aid all of your photography efforts. Most of all you’ll be amazed at how much there is in the dark that remains unseen without the aid of a camera. You just might unleash a creative direction you may have never considered. This is a hands-on course. You will be taking photos on the very first session of the course, so bring all the equipment listed in the prerequisites.


  • Must have a DSLR camera (smart phones are not acceptable)
  • Must understand the basics of exposures – i.e. the relationship between f-stop (aperture), sensitivity and exposure length, and have shot photographs in some mode other than “Automatic”.
  • Your camera’s operators manual

Also recommended are:

  • A tripod- strongly recommended!
  • A remote release (cable)
  • An Intervalometer (Steven will have some to loan)
  • Extra batteries
  • Memory card(s)


Teacher Bio

Steven Christenson is the founder and teacher of StarCircleAcademy.com, and winner of the 2010 Greenwich Observatory “Astronomy Photographer of the Year”, and a runner up in 2012. His work has been published as album covers, in the Economist and Backpacker Magazine and even featured on local TV stations. Steven specializes in “Landscape Astrophotography” a field that is easily approachable by anyone with a DSLR camera and a tripod.  You can read his instructive columns on his website (StarCircleAcademy.com).

What you will miss is the hands-on portion, of course, and the relentlessly punny style of Steven’s teaching, but the good news is that the discussion, resource list and class exercises will be right here for you to follow along.

And, it is not too late to influence what we cover… So feel free to ask any beginnerish questions here and we will either respond directly or include that material in what we publish here on the web.

Hope your skies are dark and clear, and the stars smile for you!

What to Look For in a Night Photography Lens

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

As Numerous at the Grains of Sand

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

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

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

Things that Do NOT Matter

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

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

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

What DOES Matter

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

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

Usable Aperture

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

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

Manual Focus & Maximum Sharpness

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

Accurate Markings

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

Minimal Distortion / Chromatic Aberration

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

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

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

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

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

Minimal Vignetting

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

Other Obvious Tangibles Common to All Lenses

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

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

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

Cheese, Emotion and Star Trails

KQED has listed the content of the May 18, 2011 Quest show on their website.  My segment in the episode was taped on March 15th. From left to right below are Josh, the assistant producer, night photo guy (me), Amy, producer, and Helen the sound engineer. Also featured is Helen’s four-footed companion.  It was a fun time – especially since it was pouring rain before we got here!

What’s the Quest episode about? Well this episode (#503H) is:

Science of Cheese/Emotions Revealed
Discover the microbiology of cheese-making, and explore facial expressions with Oakland psychologist Paul Ekman. Plus, see Steven Christenson’s images of the night sky on “Your Photos on QUEST.”

(For a larger/higher definition image click here)

Channels and Airdates:

Wed, May 18, 2011 — 7:30pm
Thu, May 19, 2011 — 1:30am
Fri, May 20, 2011 — 1:30pm
KQED World
Thu, May 19, 2011 — 6:30am
Sat, May 21, 2011 — 1:30pm
Sat, May 21, 2011 — 7:30pm
Sun, May 22, 2011 — 1:30am
Sun, May 22, 2011 — 7:00am
Sun, May 22, 2011 — 12:00pm
Sun, May 22, 2011 — 2:30pm
Sun, May 22, 2011 — 6:30pm
Sat, May 21, 2011 — 3:30pm


My portion in the show is two minutes.  I’m sure it will be much more popular than that recent Prince and Princess wedding thing 😉  Here some examples of my night photography.

Thumbnails of my Night Sky Photos (subset)

The actual photos seen in the show are here.

Here is one photo they used:

South Side [C_009842-75br]

If you give it a watch, I’d be glad to know your thoughts. Especially which – if any – of the photos most inspire you.

If you’re thinking, Steven, haven’t we seen you on TV before, gosh, yes, you might have. I was featured on KGO ABC7 News. And you may have seen the Buzz Films short about me.

By the way, my friend, mentor and partner in StarCircleAcademy.com (photo at right) was featured on “Your Photos on Quest” in July, 2009. Check out Harold Davis’s Quest feature, his BLOG and his photos on Flickr.

Mission: Peak!

Viewing Space [5_025469]

It is not a secret but one of my favorite places to be is right here, 18 miles away from where I live in Northern California.  The place? Mission Peak Preserve which is located in eastern Fremont California. The most popular access point is at the end of Stanford Avenue off of Mission Boulevard. Mission Peak is part of the Diablo Range which extends south all the way to highway 46 near Paso Robles. The northern portion of this range includes Mt. Diablo, Sunol Peak, Mission Peak, Mount Allison, Monument Peak. Farther south and east are a number of even taller mountains including Discovery Peak, Mount Isabel, and Mount Hamilton. Still farther south the Pinnacles National Monument lies in almost the center of the entire range.

Now lets move on to your questions:

  • What will I see?
  • How long is the hike?
  • How hard is the hike?
  • What should I take?
  • Where should I go for the best pictures?
  • What should I worry about?
  • Who can I go with?
  • What if I still have questions?

What Will I See?

I have posted at least 130 images taken at Mission Peak out of thousands. Mission Peak Preserve is a wonderful place especially when the sun is setting…

When the Lights Go Down in the City [5_018683]

Photo 3: Sunset over the San Francisco Bay as seen from Mission Peak, Fremont, California

Or rising…

Rosy Glow of Sunrise [5_019044ps]

Photo 4: Mount Allison and San Jose, California glowing in the pre-dawn light.

And when the sun is nowhere to be found:

Photo 5: Celestial Rotation over Mission Peak

How Long Does it Take To Hike Up?

Now that is a tough one. You might as well ask me “Steven, how many pounds can I lift?” or “Steven, how far can I hit a golf ball with a 5 iron?”  The answer, of course is I do not know. How fit are you? How much hiking have you done? What are you planning to carry? While Mission Peak is literally a walk in the park, it is definitely not the colloquial walk in the park.  The East Bay Park District guideline says it takes up to 5 hours to reach the summit and return. For some people that may be optimistic. It is a STEEP hike. Mission Peak rises 2,517 feet above sea level, and the longest trail to get to the top from Ohlone College, is a little over 3 and a half miles.  The steepest trail – Horse Heaven trail from Stanford Avenue – is a little under 3 miles.  Walking 3 miles on flat ground is easy for most people to do in about 45 to 60 minutes.  When I carry my 20 pound pack with camera gear, water, extra clothing, first aid kit, flashlight, etc. it takes me about an hour and 40 minutes to reach the summit and about 50 minutes to descend.  When I’m feeling fit and traveling light I’ve reached the summit in 55 minutes. I have friends who can run to the top in less than 30 minutes. I have other friends who, I fear, will never reach the summit.

How Hard is the Hike?

Hard. See above. For me, as for most people, going up a steep incline is daunting. People tackle this in two ways: set a slow pace and keep it. Or go at a faster pace and rest when necessary. I prefer the latter.  This hike is hard enough that I use Mission Peak as training prior to my summer backpacking expeditions into the high Sierra.  If I can summit Mission Peak twice in one day I know I can conquer Half Dome in Yosemite. Mission Peak is shorter and at a lower elevation but it is steeper than Half Dome.

My best advice is to try hiking Mission Peak. And when you try, be well prepared. See “What Should I Bring” below.

The last 1/4 mile of the trail climbs about 700 feet over sometimes slippery rocks. Good footing is important.  I do not think anyone – even the acrophobic will find the trail scary. Unlike Half Dome there are no sheer ledges to fall off if you stay on the trail.  By the way, there is no shame to not reaching the top.  The views are excellent once you get past the first bench. TIP: When walking up, use that big muscle (your buttocks) to pull you up – your calves and thighs will thank you.

Also, while traveling up can be exhausting, coming down can be downright painful.  On the way down you are much more likely to slip – especially in bad shoes – and the pounding on the knees and ankles is quite noticeable. You are also likely to notice your quadriceps complaining. They will be doing work they are not used to.

What Should I Bring?

Be over prepared!

  • Water – plenty of water (2 litres or more on a hot day)
  • Snacks for energy
  • Layers of clothing – including WARM clothing and windbreaker. It can be cold and windy at the top – very cold and very windy.
  • A cap or wide brimmed hat, knit hat and light gloves – yes, even in the summer.
  • Sunscreen.
  • Insect repellent is usually not necessary, but might be a good idea as there are ticks.
  • Flashlight or headlamp – even if you do not plan to be there when it is dark.
  • Moleskin or glacier ice (for preventing or managing blisters) and a knife or small scissors if not precut.
  • GOOD hiking boots or shoes with thick, comfortable hiking socks (take a second pair of socks, too)
  • A hand towel to wipe sweat or muck
  • (Optional) A camera and a tripod.  If you’re not taking a tripod you’re not going to get the best pictures, trust me.
  • (Optional) Hiking poles

How Should I Get to the Summit?

Stay on the trails, please. On the way up pick the trail that goes uphill – there is very little down on any of the uphill hikes. My favorite trails in order are:

The two main trails from Stanford Avenue

  1. Horse Heaven trail – the steepest but also the best views and the most varied terrain – and the least traveled by park goers so there is more solitude. Start at Stanford Avenue and take the first fork in the road down and to the right (here it is called the “Peak Meadow Trail”). This trail has a few locations where you can miss a turn so make sure you have a map. The most common mistakes are to take the very steep shortcut too soon or to miss the switchbacks which exit Peak Meadow Trail and become Horse Heaven trail. The Peak Meadow Trail makes a wide 180 degree turn to the left, but before you exit that elbow you must head up the Horse Heaven trail which is easily overlooked if you keep following the fire road.  The Horse Heaven trail joins the Peak Trail on the southern side of the Mission Peak summit closest to Mount Allison. After paying a penalty going up some mercilously steep sections (with a few down segments) getting to the summit involves a kinder, gentler, slip free ascent to the Mission Peak summit.  The Horse Heaven trail crosses very small streams about 3 times.
  2. Ohlone College trail (properly called the Peak Trail or the Bay Ridge Trail) is the easiest and the fastest route to get to the eastern wilderness side of the preserve. Easiest because it is the longest thus the least steep – not easiest as in easy. The Ohlone trail is interesting because a segment of the trail goes through a wooded section where you are very likely to see or hear a rafter of turkeys.  Except for the wooded section, the trail is mostly a fire road. Parking on Mission Boulevard is your best choice. If you park in the college, do not forget to pay!
  3. The “main trail” from Stanford Avenue is where the masses of people aimlessly go. It is the most obvious route and for me, the most boring. The trail (called the “Hidden Valley Trail”) is a fire road that winds its way up to the northern shoulder of Mission Peak. The road is pretty well maintained and drained. From the North shoulder a long scramble (not climbing!) up rocks is in needed to reach the summit OR you can follow the trail around the backside of Mission Peak past Eagle Springs Backpacking camp and then ascend on the easier southern side of the summit. There is almost no shade anywhere along this trail.

I have never taken the trail up from Sunol Regional Wilderness, but it is long and connects to the backside of Mission Peak.  While standing on the summit is a psychological boost, many people do not realize that the summit is NOT where the marker pole is. Also Mount Allison and Monument Peak are both taller than Mission Peak. Mount Allison is the next peak to the south with lots of radio towers on it – the summit area of Mount Allison is private property, but the trail does go around it on the way to Monument Peak.  It is possible to hike across Mission Peak, to Monument Peak and down into Ed Levin park.

Where and When Can I Get the Best Pictures?

If you are reading this thinking I am going to tell you… wrong!  There are thousands of great spots and any time of the day or night presents great opportunities. You may notice I prefer sunrises, sunsets and night time. There are practical and photographic reasons why I prefer those times. The practical reason is that it falls outside my normal working hours, and the mornings and early evening are generally cooler than mid day and mid afternoon.  Early morning and early evening parking is more plentiful, too – except on weekends when huge throngs of humanity take on Mission Peak.

There is more to see than landscapes. There are turkeys, raptors, vultures, ground squirrels, coyote, cows (lots of them!), mice, deer, snakes (including rattle snakes), toads, frogs, lizards, and a variety of flowering plants including lupin, mules ears, venus thistle, clover, butter cups. There are two seasons: the cool lush green season, and the dry brown season. Both have their charms.

What Should I Worry About?

People worry about a lot of things which I think are a waste of energy. People worry about cows and snakes, for example. Both are docile. People worry about seeing or hearing coyotes.  Really, they’re harmless.  I suggest worrying more about good shoes, having layers of clothing, plenty of water and being prepared in case you or someone you meet up with needs attention due to a slip or a fall. And inspect yourself for ticks after a hike. Ticks tend to be abundant where the cattle hang out and Lyme disease is much more sinister and much more likely than a rattle snake bite. There is poison oak in a few spots – none that I’ve seen on the main trail, but some along Horse Heaven and the Ohlone College trail.

I wouldn’t spend much time worrying about getting lost either. Almost the entire mountain side is open so it is usually easy to see where you need to go even when its not obvious which trail is the correct one.

On the other hand vulgar and rude people are not that uncommon.  Cell coverage is extremely spotty. Full bars in one spot and no bars 3 feet from that spot.

There is no water on the trail – only at the beginning.  There is also a permanent pit toilet at the north shoulder where three trails meet, and at the trail head at Stanford Avenue.  Oh, and worry about car breakins! There have been many. Leave your valuables out of sight or not in the car at all.

Who Can I Go With?

I regularly schedule photography hikes with a limited number of participants through the Bay Area Night Photography Meetup. In each I post my planned hiking speed. Please do yourself a favor and know your speed if you plan to join. Often I plan these hikes to arrive in place near sunrise or sunset and slowness means missing the best light.

The San Jose Hiking Meetup also regularly tackles this summit.  They are hikers whose goal, remember is to HIKE for health, fellowship and enjoyment. They are a fun bunch and I always enjoy their company (in part because I have never heard any of them whine about how difficult the hike is). There are other Bay Area Hiking groups, too. Or just recruit a friend and try it first on a weekend when you have plenty of time.  I generally do NOT go on weekends. Too crowded and too many other great places to go.

NOTE: If you have somebody who will drop you off you can massively cheat. Study the maps and you will notice that Mill Creek Road connects with the Peak Trail at 1200 feet. That’s almost half way up – but there is NO parking on that road. Expect a ticket and a tow if you try to park there!

Still got Questions?

If you do not see the answer above and cannot find it on the Mission Peak site, use the comments to ask a question.