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One More Night…

Saturday night, I led a few people from our photo club to the northern end of the Laguna Meadows for some night photography. We took advantage of the dry conditions (monsoonal moisture arrived again on Monday), early moonset near new moon, and pleasant night temperatures*.

Below is the sole image that I set out to make that night, the result of stacking twelve exposures of 20 seconds each, at ISO 3200 and f/2.8.

I don’t know… as much as I enjoy just being out there and witnessing the magic and majesty of the Milky Way appearing before my own eyes, I find this whole process rather bothersome: capture data, stack it (with either Starry Landscape Stacker, which is what I used on the Mac, or Sequator on Windows), process it.

Don’t get me wrong: there’s some astonishing (and most of all, well-planned) night photography out there. But it is certainly more skewed towards the “mechanical” aspects of image creation, rather than the artistic, and “seeing”. So I don’t think I’ll seek out more night photography (unless something really itches me).

Speaking of processing, I did run the stacked image through Topaz Sharpen AI too, to reduce the deficiencies of the lens that I was using (more on that below the photo). I also resisted the temptation to blend the Milky Way with a twilight image of the meadow and trees that I had made earlier (which I’ve done last year and as good as that does look indeed: it’s totally hip right now, which is reason enough to avoid it😉).

Finalizing the development of the photo, I aimed to bring out a little bit more of the Milky Way and the foreground, without overcooking it. There are way, way too many overcooked night photos out there. Artistic license or not, I honestly don’t know what’s wrong with showing the night sky and landscape in a more honest and realistic manner.

Enticing people to get out there and see it for themselves is one thing — setting them up for disappointment (something that landscape photography in general seems to increasingly excel at) is another.

“If we feel something is nice, we tend to exaggerate it for fear that others don’t see what we saw.” (Bruce Percy, in a different context, but oh-so true.)

I think subtlety adds to the impact of a photo, and not deter from it — but if you need to leave an impression in the ~1.3 seconds of attention that you get on Instagram before people continue to scroll through their never-ending feed of images, I guess overcooked images are the result…

The subject was of course nothing new for me — the Milky Way above Laguna Meadows. What I really wanted, and why I’m not even entirely sure, was to get a better quality and higher resolution version of “the original“, made in 2011 with my D700.

Last summer, when I set out to do just that, I noticed that my ultra-wide angle zoom lens had a softness on the right side of the frame: a fault that has somehow “crept back” after the lens was with the Nikon Service Center in Los Angeles, for fixing that very problem, about two years ago! Ugh.

Needless to say, this flaw is annoying, and the fact that it came back after the lens had been in for repair makes me question the quality of the lens and service but, full disclosure, it’s the lens that I dropped from about 4 feet high onto the concrete of our garage quite a few years back (which, needless to say, also required professional repair, back then). I guess it’s just shitty now because of that original damage. I certainly won’t send it back to Nikon for yet another repair that’s going to cost close to $400.

Because instead, I got myself a 14mm f/2.8 Rokinon (aka Samyang, Bower) manual prime, last year already. I use it mostly for real estate photography of smaller and tighter places, and now I finally got the chance to test it out at night.

And as much as I like the lens and its performance at f/8 for real estate, it is a little bit of a disappointment wide open at f/2.8 for night photography. Which is not a major complaint because the lens costs “only” around $400, but still: it would have been pretty awesome to have a 14mm f/2.8 that produced sharp enough images wide open, for night photography.

But, as the saying goes, if something sounds too good to be true — like a 14mm f/2.8 for $400 that is sharp wide open — it most likely isn’t true! Using the lens at f/4 improves the performance, but then I’m not exactly gaining a lot over my 16-35/4, of course… (except that the 14mm doesn’t have that glaringly obviously problem on the right side of the frame.)

So maybe I’ll toss both the shitty 16-35mm and the 14mm “into the bay” (eBay) and try to get my hands on a Tamron 15-30/2.8 for evaluation. It should be possible to get one lens that serves me well for the ultra-wide angle demands of both real estate and Milky Way photography!

As a bonus, here’s the real “star” of the night, at least for me: the CCC! (concerto of cicadas and crickets😉). It was absolutely mesmerizing to walk the trail back in the dark and be surrounded by this ambiance. It’s surprisingly loud out there at night! I loved every second of it, and luckily, this time I did bring my external stereo microphone with me!

I still need to work on my technique, though: the microphone is damn sensitive even to the slightest bumps and movements (which I cut from the recording)… but I hope you enjoy this field recording as much as I do. :)

Concert of cicadas, crickets, and wind rushing through the trees; Laguna Mountains, 10:16 PM.

The background sound is, I didn’t really want to believe it myself at first, just wind in the trees, which began to pick up after 10 pm. At times, it almost sounded like distant rushing water to me because it was so constant, but there’s no running water up there (and nothing else that would make this constant, rushing sound).


*) …even though we did put on our jackets as it got later, darker, and cooler. No matter where you originally come from, after a couple of years in Southern California, you put on a jacket when temperatures go down to the mid-60s. 😅


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11 thoughts on “One More Night…”

  1. I think your image strikes a great balance between trying to make the Milky Way have enough presence and not over-cooking it. I’ve only attempted it a couple times myself, and have to admit the effort far outweighed the excitement over the images.

    Reply
  2. I absolutely love viewing these sorts of photographs, and this one specifically. But like you, I’m not all that drawn to the more technical branches of photography that require so much work in post and often using specialized software. So I’ve never tried this type of photograph and instead take pleasure in viewing yours. :-) Having said that, I am curious about the technical side of what you’ve done. At 20 seconds and 14mm you’re likely creating individual images where stars look pretty good with little motion blur. But when you make 12 of those I’d think the stars will move enough between shots that they won’t all line up anymore in the final merged image. Is that correct? Does the software you used compensate for that, shifting parts of the sky to line up? Or is all that actually a benefit by making it look like more stars than there are so they’re brighter and more visible? Can you tell I’ve never researched how this type of photography is performed? :-)

    Reply
    • Haha! I would NOT have been able to tell! ;) Your assumption is correct – the software aligns the stars automatically. That way, the high ISO noise is reduced and as a bonus, moving elements (airplanes and shooting stars alike) vanish as well.

      Reply
  3. Lovely work, Alex, and well said about the value of subtlety. I think it’s a dying art, and greatly underappreciated. I must also agree about these highly technical types of photography – personally I find I don’t do so much either, probably because it feels too much like my regular work .

    By the way, did you get to prefer this new creation of yours over the ten year old version? The few times I tried to redo a photo, the result tends to be rather disappointing (or at least anticlimactic). So I’m wondering about your experience.

    Reply
    • The original image, noisy and everything, has its own charm, the new one is technically more convincing. As I wrote, I don’t even know why I wanted to make this exact same photo again. I guess I had to repeat the exercise a number of times before realizing that I might as well let go now. ;)

      Reply
  4. Beautiful image! Thanks for the link to the software you use! I agree, too many are overcooked. Yours is very nicely done. Loved the sounds. Just like my backyard at night. I live just outside of town so have a nicely wooded area to experience these sounds.

    Reply

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