Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Learning Night Photography

Lifetime Learner - this is a concept that applies to me. I have attended multiple colleges for varying degrees and areas of study and I continue to take classes that involve the natural world and photography. On March 1, I took a Nighttime Photography class in the North Cascades with well-regarded landscape photographer, Andy Porter.

I had recently purchased a new camera and, while my back was healing after some serious snow shoveling during Snowmageddon, I spent some time watching YouTube videos on what settings to use for shooting the night sky. One thing I learned right away is that you really can find everything you want to know on the internet. I was able to find a YouTube-r who had the same camera model and who very clearly explained how to change the settings, with the rationale behind each change.

stars, mountains, great foreground - all out of focus

When I sat down in the classroom, Andy introduced himself and handed out a page with instructions (just like I had found on the internet) as well as calculations for “The 500 Rule” for nighttime exposure. I was feeling quite confident about having sought out this information previously and I was able to quickly make adjustments to my camera. One of those adjustments is manual focus and it is an inexact science on my particular camera since there is no focus ring on the lens. After changing the focus to manual, I watched on the rear screen as I moved the cursor toward infinity and left it that way for the drive to our location.

After everyone had gathered their tripod, camera and warm clothes, the class of 11 students plus Andy loaded up into two vehicles and drove out to the gated closure of Hwy 20 at Colonial Creek Campground (they moved the closure further west this year due to the excessive snowfall) and we were all unleashed into the night. No, not exactly, as we all walked around the gate and onto the bridge across Thunder Arm, to the south of Diablo Lake and set up our tripods.

I screwed my camera onto the tripod, set it up as straight as I could and aimed upward. The sky was cloudy and it was dark. No, I mean really dark; it was so dark, there was nothing to look at on my screen or in the viewfinder. After waiting the two-second delay, the lens clicked closed after 25 seconds. When I pushed the playback button, I could see a dark outline of mountains and stars in the sky. I couldn’t believe it - could it really be this easy, just set up and press a button? I shouted out into the night, “I’ve got stars!”. I tried it again, changing the angle slightly and this time, I saw mountain peaks and stars with some nice color in the sky. This was addictive: I shot many more times, changing direction, adjusting settings and each time, I liked what I was seeing in the display.

reminds me of "Starry Night"

However, it never occurred to me to check my focus or that the simple act of placing the camera in its bag could jostle the lens to be out of adjustment. After that first shot, I was so excited that I couldn’t bear to stop the whole operation to second-guess myself. Another factor was that it was cold and since the camera was relatively new, I couldn’t rely on a gloved hand to press the correct buttons and spin a wheel around. The photos look great and the composition appears to work with some lights in the foreground, but when they are enlarged, their flaws show through.

Diablo Dam, shot in daytime

This was not the end of my learning for the weekend. I had forgotten to bring shampoo and washed my hair with castile soap as a substitute. I'll never do that again.

Seattle from Kerry Park
The great thing about not having great shots from the weekend class is that I have room for improvement, a goal to strive for. Since the class, I have been out two more times in the dark (not a time of day I'm very comfortable with), shooting landscapes. My next project is to map out places around the city that have good vantage points and are not thronged with people, like Kerry Park was on a recent Monday.

Stay tuned for more nighttime photography!

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