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Big Dipper Over Tufa, Mono Lake

Posted by
Don Smith (California, United States) on 7 November 2010 in Landscape & Rural.


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I have been finding myself returning to some of my favorite locations recently but not to photograph during the fringes of the day (though I still do that); rather, I am photographing these locations at night. I have experimented with star trail images but I find myself drawn more to capturing the night sky more to how it appears to my eye. In that regard, I have found some technical issues that must be dealt with in order to render the night stars as motionless. Let's take a look at these issues.

First off, through trial-and-error, I have discovered that most night scene exposures captured with wide angle lenses cannot be exposed for more than 30 seconds. In a perfect world, this time should really be closer to 15 seconds (but wide angles allow for a bit of fudge room). The reason is the earth's rotation will allow for star trailing to be noticeable at anything more than this time. With an f2.8 lens, on a moonless night, this will call for an ISO of 3200 thus adding digital noise to the equation. I can hear all you Nikon aficionados boasting already about your camera's high ISO tolerance (especially the Nikon D3S) but let me assure you, there is still noise (look at your image at 100% magnification).

So the next logical step is to run the image through a noise reduction program like Nike Dfine 2.0. Here is the caveat: regardless of what noise reduction program one uses, it is a fact of digital life that using a noise reduction program will reduce the overall sharpness of the image. To get the sharpness back, requires adding back a bit of noise (not all that was taken out but some). It is really a matter of testing to see where the best image quality can be achieved. I know, I went through this procedure for months on end. I even went so far as to contact astrophotography expert Jerry Lodriguss and purchased some of his excellent e-books on the topic of night photography. My conclusion was that the only way, based on the current technology of the best 35mm digital sensors on the market today, was to purchase the fastest glass available Canon's 24 mm f/1.4 Series II and use it in conjunction with Canon's best noise handling camera, the MKIV (though the Canon 5DMKII is roughly equivalent).

This combination allowed me exposures ranging in the 15-30 second range at ISO's of 800 and less! Today's image was actually captured at 400 ISO as there was still a bit of twilight (though to my eye it appeared completely black) evident above the crest of the eastern Sierra range. I was able to use an exposure of 20 seconds and had pre-focused on this tufa tower along the south shore of Mono Lake while awaiting the night stars.

I used three apps on my iPhone to help calculate this image. The first was Star Walk, a personal planetarium $2.99 app that shows you the night sky from your position and helps you to identify constellations. I knew that from my position that the Big Dipper would be hanging over this silhouetted tufa tower. The second app I used (and use on a regular basis) is The Photographer's Ephemeris ($9.99) which provided me with the exact sunset and civil twilight time. Unfortunately this requires cell reception and I was right on the edge, but I had calculated my time earlier in the day and simply wrote it down.

The last app used was to help me calculate hyperfocal distance was Depth of Field Calculator (which retails for $.99). It allowed me to dial in my camera (to determine sensor magnification), then my focal length and finally my aperture. It will calculate my hyperfocal distance and more importantly for this image, my true infinity point.

The bottom line for me was the purchase of the fast glass. I'm confident that in the future technology of digital sensors noise issues will become less and less of a problem, but for now, if you are serious about night photography and selling your images and ridding yourself of noisy images, fast glass is the only answer.

Canon EOS-1D Mark IV 20 seconds F/1.4 ISO 400 24 mm

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