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A Beginner’s Guide to Planetary Astrophotography

A Beginner's Guide to Planetary Astrophotography

As we transition from summer to fall, two of the most photogenic planets, Jupiter and Saturn, have passed the point of closest approach (opposition) to the Earth for the year. Yet, they still make great targets for planetary astrophotography, especially since they are now high in the sky soon after sunset. As another bonus, photographing these planets does not require traveling to a dark sky site. This kind of astrophotography can be done from our backyards.

Saturn’s rings make it a favorite of astronomers, but Jupiter’s larger apparent size (due to its larger actual size and closer orbit), easily visible cloud bands and cloud swirls, and four bright moons make a more dynamic target for astrophotographers.

On rare occasions, these planets actually come close enough to be photographed together (a conjunction), as they did in late 2020. The composite shot below shows the two planets passing each other (from our viewpoint) over a few days, providing a convenient size comparison. The moons of Jupiter can also be seen in various positions around Jupiter. Our Moon was added to the composite as another size reference. It was not close to the pair during this conjunction.

The photo below is a single shot showing Jupiter and Saturn at their closest approach on December 21, 2020.

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The photos above are examples of what can be done with a standard camera equipment (Nikon D850 + 2x teleconverter) coupled to a moderate-sized refractor (mine is a Japanese Borg 100ED, a 100mm diameter, f/6.4). The lower photo was shot with a Canon RP mirror-less camera coupled to the same telescope.

Shooting for Maximum Detail

When trying to shoot detailed shots of the planets, in many respects, planetary astrophotography is very different from most other types of astrophotography. Instead of taking longer and longer exposures, planetary astrophotographers try to take short (video rate) exposures and stack hundreds or thousands together to beat the natural distortions of our atmosphere. High magnification is also used compared to most other types of astrophotography.

To meet these goals, specialized equipment is necessary: a telescope to provide the high magnification is needed to start. Typically, this is a telescope which utilizes mirrors, which are less expensive in large sizes than a refractor. Amateur equipment typically goes up to 14-inch diameter (35 cm) reflecting telescopes. Refractors generally become impractical and too expensive beyond 6-inch (15 cm) diameters.

On the back end, a modern camera capable of shooting video (even a cell phone) can be used, but the tradeoff is loss of detail and dynamic range due to the 8-bit format and compression used in consumer cameras. The best solution is to use an astronomical “video” camera that features high dynamic range, lossless “raw” recording, and fast data transfer, usually to a computer via USB 3. A wide range of popular cameras are made by manufacturers QHY and ZWO in China.

Sophisticated Software

Along with the specialized cameras specialized (but fortunately free) software is used to capture bursts of video. More specialized (and free) software is used to sort, align, and stack the captured frames. To sharpen and remove noise from the resulting stacked image, yet another free program is used to extract the highest possible detail from the image.

As mentioned earlier, planetary astrophotography generally requires taking high-speed but short bursts of frames, unlike deep sky astrophotography, which may take frames of a single target throughout multiple nights. The reason for this is that many of the planets are rotating so rapidly that stacking a long burst of frames will smear the final image.

Using Firecapture’s versatile capabilities also makes it easy to schedule regular bursts of frames, process each burst, and then assemble the resulting stacked frames into a time-lapse animation. Jupiter’s easily visible details and moons make the best target for this. In the example below, Jupiter’s moon Io is crossing Jupiter while casting a shadow on Jupiter. In the meantime, on the other side of Jupiter, the Great Red Spot (a permanent storm feature) comes into view.
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Regular astrophotography of Jupiter can also yield some rare results. Recently an amateur astronomer was lucky enough to record a flash of light against the disk of Jupiter. This was probably a large meteor, estimated at 20 meters across, exploding in Jupiter’s atmosphere.

In some cases, longer bursts of frames need to be stacked as often amateur astronomers opt to use monochrome cameras with separate red, green, and blue filters for the highest resolution. In this case, three bursts of frames need to be taken sequentially, during which time planetary rotation can be unacceptable. In this case, another specialized program (Winjupos), will map the frames to a 3D model of the planet and stack the frames after “derotating” them to line them up properly.

Other Planetary Targets

Another favorite of planetary astrophotographers is Mars. At the closest approach, many surface details such as dark areas and polar caps are visible, but the instances of close approach (opposition) only occur about every 26 months. The next Mars opposition will be in December 2022. At the moment, Mars is on the far side of the sun relative to the Earth. However, later this year, Mars will become visible in the morning sky. It will be small but will be growing in apparent size as we approach opposition.

The remaining planets (Mercury, Venus, Uranus, and Neptune) have little or no features which show up in typical amateur telescopes, but photographing them all for your “collection” is a nice challenge. The family portrait below shows the planets as photographed over a marathon all-night (sunset to sunrise) session in July 2018. A Beginner's Guide to Planetary Astrophotography 3

Back in 2018, the planets were lined up in the sky as shown in the 180-degree panoramic shot below. At the time the panorama was made, Mercury had already set, and Uranus and Neptune had not yet come up in the East.

One thing to note in the planetary family portrait above is that Mars was close to opposition, so it appears very large compared to the other planets. Mercury and Venus show partial illumination phases at various times, appearing “full” when smallest. The range of apparent sizes (in arcseconds) of the planetary disks are:

  • Mercury: 4.5” – 13.0”
  • Venus: 9.5” – 66.0”
  • Mars: 3.4” – 25.1”
  • Jupiter: 29.8” – 50.1”
  • Saturn: 14.9” – 20.7”
  • Uranus: 3.3” – 4.0”
  • Neptun: 2.1” – 2.3”

For reference, the Moon and Sun are about ½ degree (1,800 arcseconds) in size.

Planetary Combo Opportunities

Because the planets are always moving against the sky and relative to each other, other photo opportunities to watch for are conjunctions (close apparent approaches to two or more objects) or even occultations (eclipses) of planets by the Moon. Jupiter and its moons also provide photo ops at certain times when the moons are occulted by Jupiter or pass in front of Jupiter, often also casting shadows on Jupiter.

In any case, if you’re looking for challenges in astrophotography, check out the planets.

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A Beginner’s Guide to Why Photographers Use High ISOs

A Beginner's Guide to Why Photographers Use High ISOs

Along with aperture and shutter speed, ISO is one of the three fundamental exposure parameters, and mastering it is crucial to being able to produce successful images. If you are newer to photography, this helpful video tutorial will show you what ISO does and why photographers sometimes use high ISOs. 

Coming to you from David Bergman with Adorama TV, this great video tutorial will show you some important concepts about ISO, particularly high ISO values. A common mistake newer photographers make is sacrificing shutter speed in an attempt to keep ISO lower. It is good to try to keep the ISO as low as possible, as this gives you less noise and greater dynamic range, but if you make your shutter speed too slow, you risk introducing blur either through camera shake or subject motion blur. The important thing to remember is that there are always techniques to deal with noise from a high ISO in post, but generally, once a photo has blurring from camera shake or the motion in it, there is not much you can do to save it. It’s always better to have a noisy, sharp photo than a blurry image. Check out the video above for the full rundown from Bergman. 

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A Resource for Astrophotographers: ‘The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide’

A Resource for Astrophotographers: 'The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide'

In a previous article (Easing into Astrophotography with a Telescope), I listed a few resources for stepping up to telescopic astrophotography. Beyond learning the basics of sky navigation and learning to extend your photographic equipment knowledge into long exposures, an introductory overview of astronomy is a good idea so that you are aware of the photographic possibilities available to you and the wide array of equipment that may be needed.

If you are like me, as technology has advanced, I have been getting less and less of my information from books and magazines and more from web pages, eBooks, and online videos. While having resources at our fingertips on the internet is great,  the problem with these sources of information is the scattered, fragmented nature of their organization. If you are aware of a topic and know now to optimally phrase a search query, the depth of information available is amazing. But downsides are the sometimes questionable accuracy or out-of-date info and poor presentation of the information.

Seeing the Broad Overview

For these reasons, when getting into a wide-ranging subject such as astronomy, having a comprehensive introduction is essential.  For this reason, I’ve been recommending “The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide” by Terrence Dickinson and Alan Dyer as the best introduction to astronomy everyone should get first.  And particularly timely for you if you’ve been contemplating getting into astronomy/astrophotography is that the fourth edition is just days away (September 15) from general availability. This is a much-needed update to the previous edition published over a decade ago. Keeping up with the technology of astronomy is as challenging as keeping up with the technology of photography, but this update has caught up to the present.

To tackle the challenge of presenting a broad overview, the book is organized into four major parts:

  • Getting Started: Basics for getting familiar with the night sky with your eyes and binoculars
  • Choosing and Using a Telescope: understanding technology of telescopes and accessories and factors you need to consider when choosing one*
  • The Telescopic Universe: what you can do and see with your telescope
  • Capturing the Cosmos: astrophotography equipment, techniques, workflow, and post-processing

 * Warning: one telescope doesn’t fit all needs!

It should be clear from this book’s organization that Fstoppers readers are coming into astronomy via the back door. While some of the technical knowledge about cameras, optics, and light is a definite advantage, the basics of astronomy and its specialized terminology are important too. First of all, “The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide” does a very good job of covering what is up in the sky from as close as the edge of space (aurorae, meteors, noctilucent clouds, etc.) out to what we might consider as normal astronomy (stars and galaxies). This opens our photographer’s eyes to potential subjects for astrophotography as well as lets us know what kinds of specialized equipment may be necessary.

The other subject this book covers well is when targets of interest may be available for observing or photography. At an introductory level, a part of section one is devoted to what constellations and parts of the Milky Way are visible in different seasons for both northern and southern hemispheres.  

Telescopically, in section three, a nice succinct summary of the sky in each season is presented as telescopic “sky tours,” with descriptions for northern and southern hemisphere highlights. Coverage of southern hemisphere objects is sparser, but nevertheless, this is an excellent way to get an understanding of the variety of available targets and of the timing and planning required to shoot different targets or astronomical phenomena.  

For the less frequently occurring phenomena, such as eclipses, summary lists for the next decade are included, allowing us to do some really long-range planning.

A similarly organized tour of the Moon, ordered by the lunar lighting phase, walks through the interesting features of the lunar surface. This is something that may be of interest even to experienced astrophotographers who may have been actually avoiding shooting on nights when the Moon is up.

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Another important, but perhaps subtle feature of this book is that most of the photographs are from Earth-based, amateur-class telescopes. These may be at the high end of what is achievable but are more realistic to beginning astrophotographers than the false-color, planetary probe, and Hubble space telescope images dominating the internet.

Fuel for G.A.S. (Gear Acquisition Syndrome)

Of course, an important aspect covered in this book is broad coverage of the wide range of astronomical equipment available and discussions of what types of astronomy and astrophotography require them. Equally important are the included text and diagrams showing how the equipment unique to astronomy is used.

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What’s Not Covered

From the astrophotographer’s point of view, a few specialized topics are not covered, such as high-resolution solar and planetary imaging. Both of these require very specialized (and very different) techniques from “normal” deep-sky astrophotography, so it’s understandable that there are limits to what is included in this book.

Bonuses

And finally, as a bonus, appendices cover several topics important to anyone seriously getting into astronomy:

  • Polar alignment
  • Cleaning optics
  • Collimating (aligning) optics
  • Testing optics

For astrophotographers, understanding polar alignment is key to all but the simplest astrophotography projects and often not well understood. Modern computerized aids are very convenient, but a basic understanding of the alignment theory and process should be something as well understood as the concept of depth of field for conventional photography.

The remaining three appendices should not be ignored, as most astronomical equipment is subject to exposure to the elements much more than conventionally used camera lenses. In addition, for the sake of saving weight, many telescopes have an open frame instead of a sealed tube, exposing even more surfaces to the elements during use.

Keeping Up With the Times 

One of the disadvantages of an infrequently published physical book is that it goes out of date quickly, particularly when technology is involved. To combat this, the book’s companion website includes current reviews of equipment as well as covering the equipment featured in the book itself. Many entries link to interesting detailed astronomy gear review sites such as Astro Gear Today.

Waiting for an Electronic Version?

Are you waiting for an eBook version? Checking the book’s website as well as Amazon, there is no indication that an electronic version will be released, and that makes sense to me. Creating an electronic version of this book, with over 400 large pages and high-resolution photos, would make a file much too large for eBook readers and impractical to display on e-ink or even high-resolution LCD screens. Though well organized, it’s also not a book to read through only one time. Instead, I recommend skimming through it completely at least once to get an idea of the broad coverage, then selectively backing up to sections of particular interest.

In its large, hard-cover form, this book is meant to sit on a coffee table, standing by for perusing on those cloudy or rainy days for inspiration on the next clear evening!

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The Photographer’s Guide to Planning the Ultimate Fall Color Trip

The Photographer's Guide to Planning the Ultimate Fall Color Trip

My favorite season is about to hit the Northern hemisphere, autumn. With its riotous color and vibrancy, the forests of autumn transform into a landscape and nature photographers’ playground. Here are my tips for planning your ultimate fall color adventure.

Go at the Right Time

When photographing fall color, timing is of the essence. If you go too early, you just have green leaves, too late, and the trees are brown and bare. Autumn hits each region and location at different times. Even in one forest, elevation changes or bodies of water can affect the timing of when the leaves will change. I calculate the timing of fall color each year in the areas that I visit based on experience from prior years, rainfall, and temperatures leading up to autumn. For a first-timer, it is best to just average the timing based on previous years as there is a slight margin of error. If you don’t hit the perfect peak, there will still be plenty of colors.

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For your first go at estimating the best fall color timing, check online (Instagram, Facebook, Flickr, 500px, etc.) and search keywords or hashtags for your intended locations to see the exact dates when others in prior years found the color at its best. You can also Google search the location and just look up the fall color estimator chart. These are graphics put out by local organizations and forestry groups, but be warned that they are broad estimates and can be very off for specific photography locations. It is best to hone in on your exact locations and look at the photos from previous years. For my favorite fall color destinations of New England in the United States, the very end of September into mid-October is the timeframe in which to look. Also, each state and area has a different specific peak timing which lasts only a few days to a week. While it might be a hassle, planning your bookings ahead through research rather than just guessing can mean the difference between photographing glorious color or showing up to brown, dead-looking trees.

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There are a lot of factors if you want to calculate the perfect peak timing, but you are on nature’s schedule. If a bad storm comes through, it can knock down a bunch of leaves. Be flexible and roam a bit. If the color is sketchy in one small area, explore a bit farther south or at a lower elevation. When the color turns, it isn’t all at the same exact time or place; don’t be discouraged if your planning is slightly off. Just adapt and keep moving to find more color nearby.

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Alternatively, if you have the flexibility of being able to plan at the very last minute you can also check ski resort webcams for forest conditions, check hashtags again on social media, or check the location’s social media page for exactly what the color looks like and just go right then. Many state parks and national forests post regular updates about the fall color conditions in autumn, as it is a huge source of pride and tourist attraction for them each year. The downside to waiting for the last minute is that hotels and campsites may be completely booked out. However, if you live close by or want to risk it, you can just wait for the perfect color and weather to go on your fall color adventure.

To summarize, when planning your fall color trip in advance, check previous years and average the dates. If you have a wide range, err on the side of going slightly earlier rather than later in case of storms. It is better to see a mix of colorful and green leaves than to go too late and see brown leaves and bare trees.

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One last aspect to note is that timing also means the time of day. I won’t harp on this one too much, as I am sure you have heard of golden hour a thousand times. However, I will give you a better tip. In autumn, when the temperature drops at night, so often does the wind. In the morning, as the sun rises and begins to heat things up, fog and mist often form over the water and wet low-lying areas. Even if the mist doesn’t form, water surfaces without that wind will have the best reflections. If you want to get fall color reflection shots, go at sunrise. You can check the forecast to confirm the wind hour by hour and see how still the morning will be. If your fall color spot has a lake or pond, go 30-45 minutes before sunrise and wait for the show. Watching the sunrise over a cool, misty lake is the best way to enjoy fall color.

Understand the Trees for the Best Rainbow Effect

Part of the fun of fall color is how gorgeous and vibrant the trees become. An overlooked factor for many photographers however is the understanding that different trees turn different colors and how to use that to your advantage. Color theory is an important part of photography and can help you create stronger and more colorful compositions or conversely to focus on specific hues for same on same tonal studies. In plain terms, you can focus your fall color trip on the type of scene you want to see by understanding the flora of the regions.

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In autumn, when the trees turn, different species take on a completely new look. Aspen, ash, American elm, birch, sycamore, yellow poplar (tulip tree), and some maples, oaks, and more turn brilliant yellows in autumn. The aspen trees in particular are famous for their golden color. So, if you dream of seeing trees dripping in gold, you would want to head to the Rocky Mountains. There are quite a few places in Colorado, United States, and Alberta, Canada that are iconic for aspens.

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If your style and eye are drawn to bright pops of color instead, you will want forests with more diverse tree species that mix together to create that visual autumn feast. This is what draws me to New England in the United States every year to bask in the fall color. This region has a unique temperature zone and geographic habitat that allows multiple different species of trees to coexist. In my experience, the best reds I have ever seen are in New England. The area is famous for its red sugar maples. In autumn, when they turn, it is like a kaleidoscope of color, with those vibrant reds as the star of the show.

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In the United States, you can get a decent color range on the East coast, from the Appalachian Mountains of Maine all the way down to the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee. There are iconic road trips to explore fall colors like Skyline Drive in Virginia’s Blue Ridge and the Shenandoah Mountains, Kancamagus Highway in New Hampshire, Green Mountain Byway in Vermont, Rangeley Lakes Scenic Byway in Maine, and so many more. The best part is that each area is invested in its fall color and the forest and park systems are a great resource. They have routes with scenic lookout spots, fall color hotlines, maps, itineraries, and more for you to browse on their websites.

Gear to Help You Make the Best of Your Trip

Other than my basic kit of camera and accessories, there are three tools that I find invaluable for my fall color trips, the first of which is a combo: my circular polarizer (CP) and tripod. I am often shocked when I find out how many photographers don’t own a circular polarizer, do not know what they do, or haven’t even heard of one. I know that some of you will read this and think it is silly, but I get so many comments from folks asking about circular polarizing filters that I have to mention them for anyone who needs to know.

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Circular polarizing filters are a game-changer for landscape photography, full stop. They act like sunglasses for your camera. When you use this filter, it cuts the glare off reflective surfaces of your photos. While most people only associate this with water and then only use the filter for waterfall or lake images, that is a mistake. The polarizer can boost the color in the sky by cutting through the haze, bring out greens in foliage and color from all plants by reducing that glare on their surface, and yes, cut the glare off the water, making the colors darker and objects in the water more visible. Leaves are shiny, and when you twist on your polarizer and activate it, the color will pop in a way that you can’t replicate with post-processing. With the circular polarizing on fall color, you are cutting through foliage glare to record that fine detail and vibrancy data to your image file. It makes a big difference.

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If you are one of those people who mostly photograph nature images and keeps a UV filter on your lens for protection, swap that for a circular polarizer right now. It is a circular rotating filter. If you don’t need it at any moment, twist it and the effect goes away. Then when you need it, twist the filter back around to activate the magic.

The tripod part of the combo is a trouble spot. I know. Tripods are annoying, and you don’t want to carry the thing around. It is so easy to just stand there, take your photo, and move on. But this is fall color, and let me tell you something, the leaves are not perfectly still. Even a slight breeze, and the branches are swaying. If you want to tack-sharp images you need to slow down and take the time to set up your tripod. If you are looking at me funny, let’s compromise. For the regular touristy photos, just take them as you walk by, but for the really breathtaking spots, bust out the tripod, slow down, and stay in one place, notice any distractions and adjust your composition, wait for the clouds to move into the frame or out of it, and explore different perspectives or angles. Really invest in the good locations that are worth a more critical eye, and use of all of the tools at your disposal.

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The last thing that I use to help me get the best fall color photos is the PhotoPills app on my phone. I use this to calculate sunrise and sunset times. I also use it to see if the peak fall color time that I calculated will line up with a full moon, milky way, or meteor shower. This year, I have a new moon during one of my fall colors trips and a meteor shower just after that. So, if the forecast keeps the clouds away, I can hope for fall color, Milky Way, and a meteor shower all in the same trip.

By using the PhotoPills Night AR mode, I can even plan out the exact compositions in advance to see if everything lines up with precision. There is also a Planner map view to check it on a bird’s eye view and an exposure calculator to help me decide if I want a single sharp image or to use interval shooting and get star trails. I will probably do both! I was able to plan a few exact spots with compositions for this year, and if the clouds stay away, I have everything set up. I just need to go, set up my camera, and push the button.

Go With a Group

If the idea of planning out your trip seems overwhelming, you can always join a fall color photo tour or workshop instead. These are great for people who just want to take photos and not worry about the logistics. They are also beneficial if you need a helping hand with how to photograph the fall color and make the best setting and composition choices for each location. In addition to learning from a professional, you will also have the benefit of being with peers to make friends a enjoy nature’s show together.

To find a group to join, you can check if you have a local camera club that does outings, look up workshops in the area you want to see, or even post online and grab some of your friends for a trip.

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As a professional photography guide, I look forward to teaching fall color workshops every year. I find that they are an invaluable resource for so many people for different reasons. Ultimately, many join my trips for my knowledge of hidden off-the-beaten-path locations and my experience with the areas where I photograph. I take people both to places that aren’t in the guidebooks and the iconic popular spots for the full experience. In whatever way you choose to enjoy the fall color, whether on a workshop, your own road trip, or just a local park nearby, don’t let that camera collect dust this autumn. I hope that my tips were helpful and you can get out there and create some new photographs and memories this fall.

For more information about Kate’s workshops, you can see the full list of trips on her website www.TorvaTerra.com.

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A Photography Guide to the East India Coast: Bengal and Odisha

A Photography Guide to the East India Coast: Bengal and Odisha

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It was a sunny afternoon some twenty-odd years ago when I, as a toddler, first stepped foot on a sea-beach and heard what I thought was probably some kind of a prehistoric beast, hungry and roaring in the distance. Turns out, it was just the ocean.

This incredible sight of water as far as the eye can see, with waves breaking all around was something which made a lasting impression on my childhood fantasy, and many years hence, this is what contributed to my decision to work in Bhubaneswar, a coastal town in Odisha, India.

Throughout my stay in Bhubaneswar, I happened to spend a lot of time photographing the coast, starting from all the way back at West Bengal’s Ganges delta and going up to the Odisha border.

Consolidating all my experiences, this article will be more of a tour guide rather than a manual of photography technicalities.

Bakkhali

Our trip down the Eastern Coastline begins at Kolkata in West Bengal.

A hundred and thirty kilometers drive from Kolkata across the countryside will get you to a very busy fishing town called Namkhana. There happens to be a recently constructed flyover that will take you over the wide channel of water below, and within an hour from here, you will reach the wide-open seashores of Bakkhali. The tiny village is located on the Southernmost point of a huge island which is adjacent to the famous world-heritage-site mangrove forests of Sunderban.

At first glance, you may be inclined to assume that there is no sea here, given the fact that at low tides, you can barely see the sea, which recedes a good three or four kilometers, thus leaving behind an endless desert of black sand. But at high tide, like an enraged ex who has scores to settle, the sea comes back with vengeful ferocity! With wide-open beaches, clear skies, and zero light pollution for astrophotography, you won’t be short of things to shoot here.

The adjacent Kargil beach has even more opportunities to make images, as I found out only a few weeks back when I was there, and got caught in the middle of a thunderstorm. Exhibiting questionable behavior, as I’m sure the photographers among you would do as well, instead of running for cover, I was looking for compositions and came up with one of my favorite images.

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Tajpur

Moving down the Eastern coastline, our second destination lies a hundred and seventy kilometers from Kolkata. A few kilometers away from the huge and bustling holiday destination of Digha, Tajpur is like the younger brother who is overshadowed by his sibling’s good looks, but quietly passes all examinations with distinction. Shielded all over by a forest of casuarina, the tranquil beach is the perfect holiday destination for those among us who are fed up with the dreary Mondays and wants out.

With excellent Bengali cuisine and freshly caught fish, the food here is a real ecstasy. For the photographer, the casuarina forests offer deadwood all around to use as a foreground for great seascapes. Even with no good light, like in the dead of winter when it’s cold and windy, minimalistic images can be found all over the place.

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Chandipur

Crossing the West Bengal border and into Odisha, the first destination you will be arriving at is called Balasore. Being a huge and bustling town, you will find no shortage of transportation. A half-hour auto-rickshaw ride will get you to Chandipur, one of my most favorite destinations.

Hotels are few and far in between, which is why you won’t find hordes of tourists flocking here like in some of the places in Bengal. Spend your afternoons with one foot over the other while the salty sea air gently caresses your face. At sunset, however, it’s showtime! A boring sunrise or sunset here is as uncommon as Elvis in a rap battle. Color fly left right and center, with pinks and magentas all over. It really is not extraordinary to see double rainbows arching over the crystal clear sea at sunrise: this really is paradise. When the sun creeps down the horizon, clear skies can provide great opportunities for astrophotography as well.

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Puri

Crossing over a huge distance of similar beaches, two hundred and seventy kilometers away from Chandipur lies the holy town of Puri. The town houses one of the most ancient temples in India. Constructed in 1161 CE, this temple houses incredible architecture and history. A short distance away from here, lies a beach which a very heavily frequented by tourists. With shops and markets all around, you will struggle to find an inch of space to walk. However, a long walk along the beach will take you to the confluence of the Dhaulia river and the ocean, where you won’t really find a soul in sight.

The ocean here can be very moody, mostly always roaring like an angry bear. For the photographer, Puri is more of a place to practice street photography, rather than landscapes. Early mornings in Puri beach are a great place to be in, as the fishermen return with their catch and try to dock their boats without flipping over. Rough seas also mean that a long lens can get you great wave abstractions, given the light is good.

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Rambha

A short distance from Puri lies a tiny hamlet of a place that can easily compete with some of the best places in the country, but only the locals are aware of it. Rambha is a tiny railway station close to Berhampur. Most trains coming from Bhubaneswar towards Vizag take a five-minute break at this forlorn station, from where you need to take an auto-rickshaw to reach your destination.

The Chilika lake, which starts just after Puri, is Asia’s largest brackish water lake and also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The huge and sprawling lake, on entering Rambha, is transformed into something out of a photographer’s dream. Hills surround the entire region of Rambha with the lake centered in the landscape.

For the wildlife photographer, the marshland has plenty of migratory birds flying in during the winter as well. If you are feeling adventurous, you can take a long and meandering boat ride in the lake, and go even closer to the surrounding hills. With some luck, you might also find a group of Gangetic Dolphins racing alongside your boat.

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Gopalpur

Our long journey across the Eastern coastline of India ends at Gopalpur, the southernmost beach of Odisha. About forty kilometers from Rambha, Gopalpur is unlike any other beach that we have come across in our journey. First impressions might make this place feel very ordinary, but look closely, and you will find huge rocks jutting out of the water, making the water swirl and twist all in a single, beautiful motion.

There is a cliffside adjacent to the sea, where a large and dilapidated fort stands guard, looking out at sea like a silent observer. The sea here can be very violent, as the rocks provide a lot of resistance to the breaking waves. If you are in luck, the light here can be absolutely gorgeous, as I found out so many times in all my visits to this beautiful location.

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Apart from the locations I have mentioned here, there are plenty more along the Bengal-Odisha coastline which has possibilities for spectacular imagery, but most of these places are crowded throughout the year and lack breathing space, which as a photographer I really value. Heavy commercialization and easy access have made most of these locations lose their natural charm, and plenty more of the same ‘development ‘ is ongoing.

Here’s to hoping that the tiny, off-the-beaten-track locations along the Eastern coast that I have had the fortune to visit and photograph remain as they are now: untouched, unadulterated.

Wild.


About the author: Ranit Dholey is a landscape and street photographer based in Kolkata, West Bengal, India. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of Dholey’s work on his website, Facebook, and Instagram. This article was also published here.


Image credits: Header illustration of India by Nichalp and licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

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Guide to creating hyperlong exposures

Guide to creating hyperlong exposures

Photographer Garry Pycroft combines the past and present into a single hyperlong exposure image that spans 100 years. He shows you how in this guide


Your guide: Garry Pycroft

Guide to creating hyperlong exposures 24
Garry Pycroft is a self-taught photographer, courtesy of YouTube. Fortunate enough to live in the French Alps, he is therefore spoilt for choice when it comes to photographic locations. He has been spent the past five years building up his photography portfolio. To see more of his work, see alpinephotographers.com and hyperlongexposure.com.


Living in the French Alps I have an abundance of stunning scenery on my doorstep; however, this isn’t what I’m passionate about. Photography for me is being able to tell a story. It wasn’t until I received a photograph from a friend showing the past and present of a street scene in San Francisco that something ignited inside me. This approach to capturing the essence of time totally resonated with me. I saw so many stories and the opportunity to include people and how they go about their daily lives, and how this has changed over time.

I chose to refer to this technique as ‘Hyperlong exposure’ photography. Traditionally long-exposure photography is where we maintain the shutter open for several seconds or minutes; here however, the end result is the culmination of the original photographers’ initial photos and my photo taken typically 100 years apart, so I would consider that ‘hyperlong’!

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Rue Vaugelas, Annecy, France

Getting started

For this technique you will need a sophisticated photo-editing software such as Photoshop as you will be using and manipulating layers. It goes without saying that a good understanding of how layers work is required. Everything of course starts with the original image, and this is maybe the most important step in the entire process. Without a good foundation to work from, the chances of achieving a great end result are going to be challenging.

I look for images that show the people and life as it was at the time. Avoid images that purely show the landscape; it’s highly unlikely this will lead to the story you want to create in your final image. To find your source image my first approach is the town’s archive department. You will often find these online, and if not, a visit to your local museum may be required. The benefit here, compared post card retailers, for example, is the quality of the image.

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Place Darcy, Dijon, France

Another aspect that is very important is noting the photographer or editor of the original image. Recognising copyright obligations is something I strongly adhere to and all images I use I go through the process to determine the rights. I would suggest having several images available of your chosen location, as you will find matters have changed at the original location, such as trees being planted in the middle of the scene and of course new construction. These are common issues I face when sourcing images.

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Place de l’hotel de Ville, Thonon, France

When it comes to visiting your chosen location to capture the present day, check for street names or any info supplied with the past photographs. I then suggest spending some time on Google Maps with Street View rather than spending hours walking around searching for the location on arrival.

It’s worth pointing out now that on many occasions I’ve found the streets have been renamed, which is why research before the shoot is imperative. Another thing to bear in mind when preparing for your shoot is what time of day and light conditions were the images shot in? It will look unusual to have a composite image that has a random combination of light conditions. I’ve often found that daylight is the norm.

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When you’re on location and you’ve established that the buildings still exist, no trees are blocking the view and the sun is not blinding you, look carefully at your original image. If you have hills in the background, where do they intersect the buildings? Look at how buildings intersect with each other, where does one rooftop cross an adjacent building? I recommend capturing six images from the true location, moving a couple of yards each time in different directions to cover a range of angles. Sometimes the smallest shift can help bring everything together perfectly.

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Unless you have a tilt-and-shift lens your images will have keystoning where the buildings appear to be falling inwards; you can compensate for this in post processing, but I try to include a 10% border as this will leave blank areas in the photograph.

Another aspect I love about these images is that I don’t need to be concerned if there are people or cars present when I’m shooting, because in all likelihood the base of your composite image is going to be replaced by the people from the original photograph. So, if it’s a busy location, no problem. Just dodge any double decker buses!

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Rue Sainte Claire, Annecy, France


How to create a hyperlong exposure

1. Reduce saturation

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Starting with the old image in Lightroom, I slightly desaturate it. It’s likely the detail is less than perfect, but it’s all part of the contrast in the two images. Increase the clarity to try to highlight some detail while reducing texture to remove noise and also any small blemishes that may be present.

2. Compare scenes

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If any major flaws need removing, I open the image in Photoshop and use the Spot Healing Brush tool. I then return to the library panel in Lightroom and use the compare mode to study my images to determine which one best appears to align to the old image. Apply any lens corrections required now.

3. Brighten up

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In Lightroom’s Basic panel I tweak a few of the parameters to brighten up my ‘current day’ scene. I like to add extra vibrance to highlight the contrast between the monochrome age and the vibrant colourful scenes we see today. Export to Photoshop for the finishing touches.

4. Enable Guides

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Starting with the new image, I enable guides to help me to align the distinguishing features in the images, such as the walls, rooftop, base of the door, or a chimney etc. Copy and paste (or drag) the old image onto the new image – this will appear as a separate layer in your Layers panel.

5. Align images

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Using the guides, position the old image. It may also require scaling and minor distortion editing to align buildings past and present. To fine-tune the process, it helps to reduce the old image layer opacity to 50%. Pay close attention to people within the image, so they don’t become overly distorted.

6. Use Layer Masks

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With the old image at the top of the layer stack paint with a black brush to reveal the new image layer beneath. Reduce brush opacity to soften the edges for a gradual transition between the two. Now you can apply the finishing touches such as adjusting the colours or retouching for blemish removal.


Further reading

Is this the world’s longest-ever exposure?

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The Photographer’s Guide to Beauty Dishes

The Photographer's Guide to Beauty Dishes

The Photographer's Guide to Beauty Dishes 37

The beauty dish is one of the most commonly used light modifiers for beauty and portrait work, but being popular doesn’t mean that it’s an easy-to-use modifier without any quirks and intricacies. In fact, you can only harness the true magic of the beauty dish if you know the principles behind it inside-out. In this article, I will explain everything you need to know when using a beauty dish.

What Is It?

A beauty dish is a relatively small, often metal, reflector, that is very wide and short. A staple of every beauty dish is the deflector plate in the middle. Without it, you can’t call your modifier a beauty dish.

The shape of the dish is also very important. There are other modifiers that have the option of adding a deflector plate in the middle, however, they would not be categorized as a beauty dish. It is important to note that most beauty dishes are anywhere from 20-30” in diameter.

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The shape of your dish is crucial, as the main task of this modifier is to reflect or bounce, light.

Types of Beauty Dishes

Beauty dishes come in two interiors: silver and white. As you can guess, a silver one will reflect light, while a white one will bounce it.

Read also: 11 Popular Light Modifiers Compared: Which One Is Right for You?

Silver

The less popular of the two, a silver beauty dish is very underrated in photography. Because the light is reflected by the specular silver interior it will produce a direct reflection. As a result, the light beam will have direction, produce more contrast, and have a 30-20 degree light spread. This is of course useful when your main goal is to bring out detail.

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White

The white counterpart is loved by many photographers. The light is bounced instead of reflected. This produces diffuse reflection, which is a type of reflection where the light travels in multiple directions, as opposed to one indirect reflection. Diffused light that the dish produces will spread over an area of approximately 50-60 degrees and have less contrast. This will account for less detail brought out.

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Accessories for the Beauty Dish

Grid

A grid will limit the light spread of the beauty dish. Commonly grids will be around 15-30 degrees. Although you can use a grid for both silver and white beauty dishes, there is little use for a grid on a silver dish. As you know, the silver interior produces a lot more direction, and hence a smaller light spread. Adding a grid will have little effect on an already thin beam of light. The rule of thumb is to use a grid on a white beauty dish as it has a much wider spread that can be narrowed down effectively. Importantly, as you make the light spread narrower contrast will increase.

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Sock

Otherwise known as diffusion fabric, this will simply further diffuse the light. Many photographers who own a silver beauty dish put a sock over it to make the light more flattering to the skin. There are few uses for a sock on a white beauty dish in most applications.

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Deflector Plates

Commonly the deflector plate is solid white, however, there are a few more options. Some companies make a frosted glass deflector panel for their beauty dishes. This will deflect some light, but also allow a bit to pass. Overall, this is a rarely used accessory, however, it is quite useful if you want to create more punch and get a slight hotspot in the middle of your light beam.

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How Does it Work?

The principle behind every beauty dish is standard:

Light from the tube enters the modifier, hits the deflector plate, travels back, and fills the whole dish evenly.

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The deflector plate creates a soft spot in the middle. Here is how it looks:

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Ideally, you want to place your subject into that soft spot, that is where the light will have its magical semi-hard semi-soft quality.  Technically, this is the shadow that is cast by the deflector plate. ON a silver beauty dish, this shadow will appear smaller, while on a white one it will be larger. This is significant as positioning the silver dish is crucial while a white one is more forgiving.

The light created as the result of this unique mechanism is somewhat soft, but has a punch to it and delivers great detail.

Possible Uses

Beauty Photography

The name suggests this clearly, so I won’t go into too much depth as there are thousands of tutorials. This is commonly used as part of a traditional beauty setup: the dish is positioned above the subject, a reflector is chosen to fill in the chin shadows, and a few background lights are used. My suggestion would be to experiment with the position of your beauty dish when approaching new beauty photos.

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Portrait Photography

A collapsable beauty dish would be ideal for portraiture as it is very small and easy to take around. The beauty dish is most effective at relatively short distances, and for fairly tight shots. Lighting your whole subject with one dish will be very inefficient. However, if your portrait has the face filling much of the frame, by all means, use a beauty dish.

Sports Photography

One of my favorite sports photographers, Gary Land, loves to use a silver beauty dish for his sports work. This allows him to capture detail, sweat, and texture in athletes which is a look sought-after in the commercial world. The direction of light allows sports photographers to highlight certain parts of the body only.

Background Light

Abert Watson is known to use a beauty dish for a lot of his portrait work, this includes lighting backgrounds. 4 dishes will create even illumination on the background which will make it a clean white. Importantly, using a striplight will actually create a subtle gradient which is undesirable, especially if you’re shooting film.

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An Unusual Way to Use a Beauty Dish

Some beauty dishes have the option to remove the deflector plate, this is common with portable ones

Removing this plate will allow you to create a very hard light that is similar to sunlight. The effect would be similar to what the discontinued Bowens Sunlite does (by far the best way to replicate sunlight in the studio).

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Recommended Beauty Dishes

There are a few brands that make beauty dishes: here are some that stand out to me.

Profoto OCF White Beauty Dish

This is the one I own and take on every shoot. It’s collapsable and quite durable. With the deflector removed and the diffusor on it doubles as a small octabox.

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Mola Demi Beauty Dish

An expensive but slightly different light quality from other dishes, with its patented design it claims to be a lot more efficient than regular dishes.

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Glow White Beauty Dish

An inexpensive option that seems to be a popular choice and a great beginner’s modifier.

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Closing Thoughts

There are countless ways to use something as popular as a beauty dish. It is now down to your creativity and artistic touch. Knowing the basic concepts in this article is certainly helpful to mastering the art of using light shaping tools. Don’t let the name fool you: a beauty dish is a modifier not only for beauty photography but for all genres.

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A Beginner’s Guide To Cropping Photos in Adobe Photoshop for Print and Screen

A Beginner's Guide To Cropping Photos in Adobe Photoshop for Print and Screen

Cropping is straightforward for the most part, but it can be tricky at first, and especially so if you’re looking to crop for printing purposes. This video gives you a great, beginner’s guide to cropping your photographs for all purposes using Adobe Photoshop.

Cropping your photographs in post-production is one of the fundamental tools every photographer needs, but it isn’t always straightforward. If you’re looking at turning your 16:9 ratio landscape into a 1:1 square crop, there’s little to know, but when it becomes more intricate than that Photoshop has a number of tools to help. These tools are particularly useful if you are looking to print, where the aspect ratio your image is in is only a part of the whole process.

It may seem absurd, but cropping images is one of the most satisfying components of post-production for me. I often shoot on a medium format body, and so I have a lot of wiggle room with resolution. (That said, most modern cameras, regardless of sensor size, can crop in comfortably.) On a recent trip, however, I found that I was cropping a lot of my drone shots for better composition, and working my way through a lot of images meant full control over shortcuts and tools sped up my workflow significantly.

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The Ultimate Guide to Softboxes: The Anatomy of Light Shaping Tools

The Ultimate Guide to Softboxes: The Anatomy of Light Shaping Tools

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Softboxes are among the most popular light shaping tools. Few photographers have never shot with softboxes, and more often than not a softbox is a go-to modifier for beginners. In this article, I will break down the anatomy of a softbox, from physics to possible applications for it. Read on to become a master of using softboxes.

What Is a Softbox?

In the simplest terms, a softbox is a light modifier that is shaped like a box and produces soft light. Softboxes come in different shapes, with each one having a distinct function and look to them. Here are the most popular ones:

Square

A square softbox will produce an even soft light that will have gradated shadow edges. A great use for a square softbox would be for creating soft window light since a softbox is shaped exactly like one. The square shape means that both horizontal and vertical shadows will be the same size.

One difference between this softbox and an octagonal one would be the catchlights. The sharp corner in the softbox will produce much more distinct pointy catchlights when compared to a round softbox.

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Rectagonal

As one side gets smaller and the other bigger it will produce a somewhat narrower light spread. The light will cover a larger area on one side while covering a smaller one on the other. This shape is very popular among fashion and portrait photographers for it allows to light a half-body shot without spilling light on the background too much.

A word of caution: this softbox will create softer shadow edges on the larger side while creating harder edges on the smaller side. Nonetheless, if you’re using a 4×6 softbox to light a portrait that will be barely noticeable, this will be predominantly seen when using a smaller softbox on longer distances.

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Strip

A popular choice for lighting a background, this softbox will create a strip of light. This is a softbox that is narrow on one end while extremely wide on the other. For this, it will create a smooth gradated shadow edge on the longer side and a fine shadow edge on the other.

A stripbox is often used for full-body shots as it covers the whole body on one hand while giving a lot of definition and contrast on the other. A cautious photographer will be wary of using a long stripbox with a flat-end flash as there is a 1-3-stop difference between the center and edge of the modifier.

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Octagonal

A classic among softboxes, the octagonal softbox is preferred to the square one for the round catchlights in the eyes. For all intents and purposes, it gives off a very similar, albeit slightly rounder and wider, light as a similarly sized square softbox.

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Deep (Fake Parabolic) Softbox

It has become quite popular nowadays to purchase deep softboxes because they give an unusual light. However, a deep direct softbox is no different than an octabox. An indirect parabolic softbox, on the other hand, is very useful but it won’t be discussed in this article.

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Accessories For a Softbox

A softbox isn’t complete without accessories, here are some common ones that you can put on most softboxes:

Grid

Softbox grids often are 50deg, meaning that they limit whatever light spread the softbox has (often 180deg) to a much finer one. This, however, makes the light harder.

Soft light is defined as a light that hits the subject from a large family of angles which causes the shadow edges to be gradated. Since the grid limits that family of angles, the light becomes slightly harder. Often it is advised to move the softbox closer to compensate for this.

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Stripmask

Stripmasks are made primarily for stripboxes. They make the edge finer and the light source smaller (in one dimension) This can be useful when trying to create fine reflections or horizontally hard but vertically soft light. A common use for a stripmask is on automotive photography when long but fine highlights are required.

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Round Mask

A round mask will, as the name suggests, make the softbox perfectly round. Another way to control how light modifier reflections look, the round mask has its use in fashion and portrait photography. Using a round mask will make the softbox smaller, and in order to achieve the same level of softness.

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Other Masks

There are also custom masks that exist for softboxes. Some will block out the center, while others can be customized. In fact, you can make your own softbox masks by creating custom gobos or using flags. The way you mask your softbox is just a matter of imagination. The Ultimate Guide to Softboxes: The Anatomy of Light Shaping Tools 61

How Does a Softbox Work?

The principle behind every softbox is that it produces a light that hits the object from a wide family of angles. This is achieved by taking the point light source and reflecting it inside the modifier first through the first and then the second diffuser.

The role of the first diffuser is to take the direct specular rays and modify the angles at which they travel. However, with particularly large softboxes, this will still leave a hotspot in the middle. Often the difference between the center and side is 2-3 stops. This is unwanted, so a second layer is necessary.

The second diffuser further diffuses the light, which produces a much more even corner to corner illumination. The distance between the two layers of diffusion is relatively unimportant, but if you fancy diffusing the light even further you can shoot the softbox through a scrim placed a meter or so from the softbox.

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Possible Uses

I couldn’t possibly list all uses for a softbox, as it is a very versatile and popular modifier. Here are some common places and setups where a softbox will be appropriate:

Portrait Photography

Being a soft and often large light source, a softbox is ideal for creating portrait light. The soft quality of light of it ensures that skin texture appears smooth, while the large size ensures that the coverage is sufficient for even illumination. A softbox placed at 45deg to the subject will produce a classic portrait light.

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Hair& Makeup @karinajemelyjanova Styling @nagyemesestylist Model @polgar_tunde_official Agency @silverchicmodels

Sports Photography

A classic softbox might not be as useful here, but a strip box is. It will be perfect for lighting a full body shot of an athlete vertically while keeping the punchy quality of light horizontally. The hard light will bring out the muscle and other detail in the subject.

Automotive Photography

Most cars have long lines that define their shape. Bringing out that shape with a directed long strip of light will be pleasant for the viewer as it shows the essence of the subject.

Product Photography

One of the most important ingredients in a successful product image is good highlights and direct reflections management. A softbox will be useful when trying to create even linear highlights. Another use would be as a fill source, or as a source of even diffused light which is great for bringing out the color in images.

Fashion Photography

Fashion photography is another common place for softboxes. As it produces a soft diffused light it is flattering for models’ faces which reduces the amount of retouching required. Moreover, a softbox is used to light certain fabrics such as ones that produce diffused reflections (wool or cotton).

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Model @mirinkoli @tamcsii__
Agency @annelise_arieli @facemodelmanagementhungary
Makeup: @karinajemelyjanova
Retouch @oi_retouch
Styling: @nagyemesestylist

Recommended Softboxes

You can choose your own brand of the softbox, however, I will strongly recommend going with a quality brand such as Elinchrom, Broncolor, or Profoto. Their modifiers are durable and worth it in the end.

Read also: Are Expensive Light Modifiers Worth It?

Here are some sizes that will be useful for your studio setups:

Closing Thoughts

Picking the right softbox is difficult. Hopefully, this guide has been helpful in showing you the uses for each one. Personally, I use softboxes here and there but they are not instrumental to my work. The same can be said about every other modifier. What is crucial is the theoretical and practical knowledge of light that pays a dividend in the form of being able to charge more.

I strongly suggest deepening your knowledge by exploring light just by using one modifier. Pick up a softbox that is most interesting for you and dive deep into exploring it. Have fun!

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A Beginner’s Guide to Night Photography

What makes night sky photography so appealing? Is it the hues? Is it the sheer number of stars? Part of it is surely because a long exposure of the night sky is something the naked eye does not see. The possibility of photographing something like that is, in itself, a reason strong enough to woo a lot of photographers.

A lot of photographers consider “night photography” to be synonymous with astrophotography. But in reality, there are countless photography opportunities when the sun sinks. In this article, I will cover nighttime landscape photography in general, not just photographing stars. In fact, much of this article involves how to take advantage of moonlight.

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Moonlit Sky

Equipment Recommendations

Since night photography involves low light and long exposures, specialized equipment becomes mandatory. Listed below is what you need to capture these dark situations:

1. Tripod

Some of you might wonder why a tripod is the first thing I mention, even ahead of a camera or lens. It simply is because it is the most important gear you’ll need to shoot at night.

Make sure that you don’t pick any old flimsy tripod, but a stable one. I have been photographing the night sky extensively in the last decade. I can remember that at least 70% of the time, I was photographing against pretty strong wind. Often, you’ll be taking pictures in areas without structures to block the wind, and a sturdy tripod becomes a necessity. It doesn’t matter if you have the best low-light camera in the world. You’ll still be shooting multi-second exposures that will look blurry without a solid platform for the camera.

There is usually a direct relationship between a tripod’s weight and its stability. Heavier tripods are more stable, all else equal. But no one likes carrying lots of weight, especially in remote areas for nighttime photography. Since stability is still the primary concern, I have two possible recommendations for your tripod. First, for a normal budget, go for a heavy-duty aluminum tripod. It won’t be lightweight, but it will be very stable and not too expensive. I personally have used the Manfrotto MT055PRO3 for over 6 years with good results. It would take a Titan to wreck it. But it’s hardly lightweight.

The other option is to get a midrange carbon fiber tripod. Don’t get an ultralight version, but a basic high-quality carbon fiber tripod will do well. Carbon fiber is lighter and more stable than aluminum, but it’s also more expensive. You may be paying upwards of $500 for something like a Gitzo Series 2 tripod or similar.

As for the ball head, you’ll again want something heavy-duty that remains stable in the wind. A budget option that should be stable and gets good reviews is the Sirui K-40X, although I haven’t tried it myself. I use the heavy-duty Really Right Stuff BH-55. At about $500 at the time of writing this article, that ball head will possibly out-last any of us. Mine has seen rain, hail, sand, and storms yet looks and works like it did on day one.

2. Camera Body/Lens Recommendations

In terms of the camera, the thing that matters the most for night photography is high ISO performance. Full-frame DSLRs and mirrorless cameras are the weapons of choice here. It doesn’t mean that APS-C crop sensors can’t cut it, but you’ll definitely run into more challenges in low light with a crop sensor than full frame.

Beyond that, you may need to look at reviews to see which cameras have the best high ISO performance. A general rule is that camera sensors with fewer pixels have better high ISO performance, assuming both cameras are otherwise similar (such as same sensor tech and generation). For example, the Nikon Z7 II, which has 45 megapixels, is not as good at high ISO values as the Nikon Z6 II, which has 24 megapixels. However, the differences are usually small if you’re dealing with cameras of the same generation, so don’t worry about this too much.

When it comes to lens selection for night photography, it is pretty straightforward. The widest and the fastest possible prime makes the cut. One of the best designs is a 20mm f/1.8, of which there are several on the market from different companies, like the Nikon Z 20mm f/1.8 S. Similarly good options are the Sigma 14mm f/1.8 DG HSM Art and the Sigma 24mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art. And if you want really wide-angle perspectives, anything that goes to about 14mm or 16mm on the wide end at f/2.8 is always a good choice. The Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 and all the various 14-24mm f/2.8 zooms are examples of that. If you have a DX camera, it’s hard to beat the Tokina 11-20mm f/2.8 or Tokina 14-20mm f/2. (Nikon shooters may find our “Best Night Photography Lenses for Nikon” article useful.)

3. Remote Trigger

With shutter speeds over a second, pressing the shutter button on the camera will induce shake, however steady our fingers are. It also negates the use of a tripod in most cases. You can always set the camera’s self-timer, but on a lot of cameras, that maxes out at 30 second shutter speeds.

The easiest solution most of the time is to buy a basic remote shutter release. I personally use a cheap $5 Chinese wired trigger, and it has been working for the past 5 years without a problem. I would always advise buying wired or radio triggers as compared to the ones that work with in-camera WiFi. The ones with a shutter lock are great because you don’t have to keep pressing it. For timelapses at night, you may want a higher-end remote with more advanced features including an intervalometer.

Milky Way Chasing

Since astrophotography is the most sought-after sub-genre of nightscape photography, let’s cover how to photograph the Milky May. Since photographing Andromeda and nebulas would demand an article on their own, I shall focus on more traditional subjects this article. The first challenge is to find the Milky Way.

1. Finding Darkness

I’m sure you’re aware that finding a place away from light pollution is a must-do for astrophotography. The Dark Sky finder map helps to a certain level. The map gives a fair idea of how dark a particular location is, but it takes at least one scouting trip to know for sure. Below are a few pointers in finding dark skies:

  • You should be at least 30 miles away “as the crow flies” (straight line) from the nearest city/town.
  • The galaxy is generally best around the southern sky. If there are any cities or even towns on the southern horizon, the sky will most likely be polluted.
  • A small town/village with a south-facing seashore/beach is a good potential location.
  • Take note of the size and position of the moon. Anything more than a half moon will usually flush the night sky (a crescent moon will do the same if it’s humid out). Using apps like The Photographer’s Ephemeris helps a great deal in keeping track of the moon-rise/set times and its relative position in the sky.

Take a look at the images below to have a fair idea of how the night sky differs with respect to light pollution.

DSC_0988_1_Full
Heavily polluted sky

The above image was photographed on the outskirts of my hometown. This is a processed image, and the original would have the Milky Way nothing brighter than a faint cloud. The camera was able to record only the core, and that too, even after adding substantial contrast, appears pale, with a distinct color cast. The number of stars is way less than what one would expect from a typical Milky Way sky. Compare the image above to the one below:

A Beginner's Guide to Night Photography 65
Galaxy with lights on

The photograph above was shot in Leh, Ladakh (a town at an altitude of 10,500 ft high up in the Himalayas). Even though the frame itself has city lights all over the foreground, one can notice that the Milky Way is comparably more pronounced than the heavily polluted one. Why is that? The reason is that Leh itself is a small town that does not stretch beyond a couple of kilometers in radius, and there aren’t any other towns nearby for about 200 miles. It’s also very high altitude, which means there are fewer particular in the air for light pollution to bounce off. So, the lights weren’t strong enough to flush the Milky Way.

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At a right-angle to the previous image

I waited for about an hour for the Milky Way to traverse 90° towards the southwest. Now the town of Leh was behind me, and this time we see even more stars.

During my early days in photographing the Milky Way, I would often give up when the horizon had strong light pollution. It was only with multiple visits to the same photo spot did I realize a shift in the angle of the Milky Way could give better results. In other words, one location may be good for Milky Way photos in some directions and not others!

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The darkest skies bring out the best milky way shots.

The picture above was shot at an extremely dark sky. I photographed it deep in the Himalayas, where the nearest village was a 30 km hike. Compared to the prior pictures, there are many more features like dust clouds that are easily visible.

Light pollution isn’t the only important thing. As I said earlier, the moon and conditions like humidity also play a role. Like in this photo:

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The galaxy flushed by the moon.

This was in an area with very low light pollution, but we still don’t see many details in the sky because of the bright moonlight. 

That’s why the position and the size of the moon are major factors when deciding on when to photograph the night sky. It is best to plan the galaxy shoot when the moon is at a quarter moon or less, on a low humidity night. It’s also generally true that as the moon approaches closer to being full, it stays longer in the night sky, so you can’t always just wait for it to set.

The galaxy keeps changing its azimuth throughout the year. That includes where it aligns to the horizon and the direction in which it spreads through the sky. Apps like Stellarium come as great help to plan a lot of things. Compared to most other photography genres, nightscapes demand quite a lot of planning before we even make the trip. A combination of apps like Stellarium, the Photographer’s Ephemeris, and Photopills can yield great results, especially if you re-visit the same spot. The best thing about Milky Way tracking is that it follows a constant and regular pattern, so if you miss the shot once, you can always come back again later, even several years down the line.

Last but not least come clouds. In a country like India, where we have the peak monsoons align perfectly when the galaxy view window peaks (June & July), the greatest challenge is to get clear skies. A few clouds would be fine, but for a good Milky Way shot, close to 100% cloud-free sky is usually preferable. Shooting slightly off the peak time of the year or just hoping for a lucky clear day is about all you can do.

Galaxy Tracking

Below are a few pointers that will help you find and track the Milky Way easily. While you can rely on apps, it’s always best to have actual background knowledge on a topic like this.

  • The Milky Way is most visible between summer to autumn in the northern hemisphere. In November through January, the core of the Milky Way isn’t visible at all. Photographers in the southern hemisphere can more easily photograph the Milky Way year-round but especially March through October.
  • The galaxy cruises around the southern sky. It looks like a pale white cloud that’s the fattest around the galactic core and tapers on both ends. The galactic core is often low along the horizon. If you can’t see the Milky Way, you can try taking photos pointed roughly south to see if it shows up in your photos.
  • Another easy way to track it is by looking for Antares. It is one of the brightest stars visible to the naked eye. In a dark sky, the star is so bright that my Nikon D750 coupled with a 20mm f/1.8 will autofocus on it! Antares is part of the Scorpion constellation.
    Scorpio
    Antares (labeled), Scorpion constellation (in orange), and the Milky Way band (green)

    As you can see in the above image, Antares form the neck of the constellation, and you can perhaps picture the scorpion shape. On the other side of the scorpion, there is the “teapot” constellation with Sagittarius (not shown in the image above). The band of the Milky Way galaxy is between the two constellations and very close to both, as you can see in the image above. Even though the location of the Milky Way can move depending upon the date and time, at all times, if you can spot the scorpion and the teapot, you can spot the galaxy. 

  • In the northern hemisphere, the galactic core won’t be visible for most of the night during March but will rise over the horizon shortly before sunrise. In April and May, it will rise closer to midnight. During its peak season (June-July), it stays visible almost throughout the night. In September, it rises prior to sunset and dips below the horizon only shortly after blue hour.
  • In the southern hemisphere, the Milky Way is higher in the sky at all times, but otherwise the descriptions above remain accurate.

Galaxy Shooting Tips

Now that we know how to spot the Milky Way in a location with minimal light pollution, the next challenge is to photograph it. Below are pointers that will help make things easier.

  • Considering that you are at a focal length of 24mm or less and a maximum aperture of at least 2.8 or wider, the galaxy shot generally demands an exposure between 10-30 seconds. Please go through Spencer’s article to calculate the required shutter speed.
  • Many galaxy images you see online and in print form are composites. It means they are a result of two or more images blended. Take this photo, for example:
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    Composite of a milky way with foreground

    The image above is a composite consisting of two primary exposures, one for the foreground and one for the Milky Way. That evening had a crescent moon, and I photographed the mountains illuminated by the moon and some residual light shortly after sunset. It was an ISO 200/45-sec exposure to capture the foreground. The second shot was clicked almost 3 hours after the first, when the galactic core aligned to the highest peak of the mountain. The exposure for the galaxy was again a composite of its own. I clicked 6 consecutive shots and then blended them to reduce noise with the technique of image averaging. The final image was a composite of a total of seven images.

  • Remember that stars don’t trail equally throughout your image at a given shutter speed. The stars around the North Star (or South Star region if you’re in the southern hemisphere) trail the least.
  • Everyone has a different preference, but I always say to do whatever shutter speed gives you enough exposure even if it leads to star trails. I would rather take a brighter 30 second photo even with a bit of trailing than a darker 20 second exposure. This also lets me use slightly lower ISO values.
  • Try to compose in a way that would not require any cropping later. As you crop, the stars get larger, and any blur will be exaggerated.

Tips for Focusing

If you have a camera capable of gaining autofocus at -4 EV, you may be able to autofocus on bright stars like Antares. That is with the assumption that you have a fast, ultra-wide-angle lens mounted on it. You may need to align the star to the center of your image and then recompose after you’ve focused. If autofocus isn’t working well, use the techniques we covered here to get sharp focus on the stars. Once you get the focus, lock your lens to manual focus. Make sure you do not touch the AF ring after that. Even spinning the focus ring a millimeter can make your subjects really soft.

Generally, the infinity marker on most lenses isn’t accurate. You cannot align the focus ring to the infinity mark in your lens and expect razor-sharp focus. Instead, it’s better to focus manually by magnifying the stars in live view if autofocus isn’t working. You can also look for bright subjects like the moon to make focusing at night a piece of cake.

Exposing the Foreground

Many beginners make a common mistake – they try to extract shadow details out of an image that was exposed for the stars. Even though the stars are dim, they are much brighter than a night landscape that’s only illuminated by starlight! There’s just not enough detail in foreground silhouettes to recover anything except more noise.

Unfortunately, exposing for the foreground isn’t a great option either, because then you’ll overexpose the sky and probably end up with too much star trailing. Your best options are to leave the foreground as a silhouette, wait for a bit of light (like moonrise or very early pre-dawn light), or make a composite photo. Here’s an example of a composite nighttime photo:

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One shot for the Milky Way, one for the foreground

In the picture above, the Milky Way was shot at ISO 1600 with a shutter speed of 30 seconds, whereas the foreground was exposed for 3.5 minutes at an ISO of 400.

There are a couple of points to remember when we plan a composite image. Firstly, both the foreground and the background should have balanced color temperatures. If either is warmer or cooler than the other, then the composite looks unnatural. Secondly, even though it’s best to expose to the right, one needs to take care of the lighting in the result. For example, if the foreground is too bright compared to the background, it would seem that the foreground has been copy-pasted from elsewhere. On the other hand, if your background is too bright, your picture might end up looking flat. To fix this, you need to darken or brighten the images in post-processing so they match one another prior to compositing.

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You can also read more at our full guide to Milky Way photography.

Moonscapes

Photographing subjects illuminated by the moon had always been one of my favorite things in photography. I personally love the blue tones that the moon brings about, although just as often I’ll convert the picture to monochrome and make it almost look like daytime.

There are two approaches in which one could go about photographing moonscapes. The first one is to include the moon in the frame, and the other would be to focus on the rest of the landscape instead. Very often, I see images of a large full moon included in a landscape (usually composites where the photographer pastes and enlarges the moon in the shot). At least to my eyes,  it usually looks unnatural. Instead, I usually prefer to shoot moonscapes with the starburst effect, as such:

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Moonscapes with the starburst effect

Tips to Keep in Mind When Shooting Moonscapes

  • The starburst effect is basically light diffracted from the aperture blades. To enhance it, one needs to choose a narrow aperture, in most cases somewhere between f/8 and f/11. With narrow aperture like that, you may think the photo would be too dark, but the moon itself usually looks good at that aperture. It’s the rest of the landscape photo that might look a bit too dark. So, just like Milky Way photography, you may sometimes need to make composites. In this case, a simple two-image HDR (one for the sky, one for the foreground) tends to work well.
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    Long exposure shot with a narrow aperture to get the starburst effect in the moon.
  • One of the most beautiful aspects when shooting moonlit scenes is the tones of blues. So obviously, a cooler daylight setting is desirable for your white balance. I personally find something between 4200-5000K as the sweet spot. If you’re shooting RAW rather than JPEG, you can change this in post-processing and don’t need to worry about getting it wrong in the field.
  • Even if the moon isn’t in your photo, it tends to illuminate the landscape enough that you can use autofocus, at least with most modern cameras. Manual focus is also easier because of the extra light, if you need to use it instead.
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    Moonlit Landscape
  • If you’re focusing at infinity (i.e. on the stars or moon), keep in mind that nearby foregrounds will likely be out of focus. This is going to be a bigger problem as you zoom in. If you are over 55mm, you may have to choose between a sharp foreground or a sharp moon. In this case, I always recommend the sharp moon. (Or you could again create a composite, this time a focus stack.)
  • Moonscapes and moonlit images come alive with bodies of water in the frame. Since most night shots are long exposures, the ripples generally are blurred out. If you want a longer exposure to smooth it out further, you can choose a lower ISO or a narrower aperture. A semi-blurred water surface does affect the feel of an image by a good deal.
  • Unlike photographing the galaxy, moonlit shots do not tend to demand a sky totally void of clouds. In fact, a blurred/smokey cloud often adds to the overall feel of the image, contrasting with the sharper areas of your photo. Try experimenting with various lengths of long exposure images to get the right feel.
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    Smoothed out clouds add to the feel of a nightscape
  • It isn’t mandatory that night sky photography should include a considerable area of the sky. Moonlit landscapes have amazing contrast and tones. With suitable gear, moonlit subjects make great, contrasty images. Especially if you are photographing snow-clad mountains or glaciers, the moon illuminates snow in a way that the mountains appear to shine.
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    Moonlit subjects have high contrast and dynamic range.

Last but not least, I love making monochrome images when there’s a sky with stars. Once you have sharp focus on your subject and the stars, landscapes lit by the moon make black and white photography with a beautiful and surreal mood.

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Otherworldly black and white photography lit by the moon

Conclusion

In this article, I have covered most of the things one needs to do to shoot nighttime photos of landscapes, the Milky Way, and moonscapes. A lot of planning goes into making a nightscape image, but the results are worth the effort.

I tried to include the most prominent tips and tricks that I tend to use, but everyone has different approaches to this sort of photography. If you have anything to add, please do so in the comments section so that our viewers can benefit from it. As always, in case you have any queries or need clarifications, feel free to ask. I shall try to respond to it as soon as possible. Stay safe and happy clicking!

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