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Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Earth & Sky

Shooting at the edges of the day, Art Wolfe pursues an ongoing photographic quest to unite the heavens and the landscape

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Art Wolfe
Cerro Torre, Argentina
Such tricky technique is par for the course if your goal is a single image combining stars and earth. Even for a seasoned photographer such as Wolfe, though, there has been a dramatic learning curve, as evidenced by his experiences photographing one of the strangest and most beautiful astral phenomena—auroras.

“I’m bitter about this,” Wolfe says. “The very first time I started photographing auroras was up in Manitoba. I was up early in the spring photographing polar bear cubs emerging from den sites. The added element that I wouldn’t have predicted was that we had great auroras. I knew nothing about photographing those, and based on all my experience as a photographer, guesstimated on what I needed to do. I was shooting film, so I had no chance to verify at the time what I was getting. I totally blew it. I gave it too much exposure. If you shoot auroras that are moving across the sky with too long of an exposure, it softens it to the point where it looks just like washed-out clouds—which is in fact what I got. So that was a steep learning curve. I came back and looked at some websites and learned what to do. The next time I went out specifically for getting the auroras, I learned from my mistakes and from what those websites offered, and I nailed it.”

Wolfe says the key to photographing auroras is all in the shutter speed—30 seconds instead of two or three minutes. That guidance also holds true with much of these otherworldly landscapes, especially now that digital capture has allowed him to produce previously impossible images. Before the advent of low-noise, high-ISO digital capture, it was impossible to create a readable image of a nighttime earthly landscape with a shutter speed short enough to stop the stars in their tracks. In the last few years, though, as high-ISO capture has been accompanied by relatively noise-free images, Wolfe has been able to adjust his approach and photograph tack-sharp stars in conjunction with elements of the earth. It’s a real revolution.

“I have the latest Canon [EOS-1Ds Mark III],” Wolfe says, “and at ISO 800 or even 1600, that baby is pretty darn clean. It doesn’t have a lot of noise to it, so it even makes shooting stars that much easier. Anything that’s really open enables you to take a faster shutter speed. And the magic number with a wide angle is at least 30 seconds, but you can go up to 45 seconds. The result is the perception of a pinpointed star. Anything beyond that, like a minute, and they become little oblong stars.

Art Wolfe
The moon hovers above desert foliage, Big Bend National Park, Texas.
“There’s actually software now,” he adds, “though I haven’t used it, that can take all the stars from several exposures and make lines from star to star to star. You can actually replicate what we were able to do with an eight-hour exposure.”

The software could come in handy for digital photographers because, as Wolfe points out, if you’re after those eight-hour star-trail exposures, digital capture just won’t do. The holy grail of nighttime sky photography is the ability to capture pinpoint stars within the landscape, and to do that Wolfe advises photographers to stock up on some simple supplies and apply straightforward techniques.

“Definitely at least ISO 400 and a wide-open aperture,” he says. “That’s probably a good starting point. A 30-second exposure is the shortest length of exposure and probably 45 seconds is the longest. Focusing on infinity, make darn sure before it gets dark that it’s set with your eye on the subject. If you’re trying to include it with an element, that’s a critical thing. If you rely on trying to figure it out after it’s dark, it’s just too dark to focus. So I try to prefocus before it gets dark and then make sure that at infinity the closest element is still in focus.”

Adds Wolfe, “It’s absolutely easier with a wide angle if you’re trying to incorporate any kind of element in the shot. If you’re using a telephoto at infinity, you’re focusing on the stars, and you have to be a long way away then from a tree that’s incorporated into the image. A wide angle is so much easier to deal with. The bottom line is a wide angle works because you can incorporate that many more stars.

“If you want to do star trails,” he continues, “and you don’t want to use film, you’d have to use that software to take the collective of 400 single exposures that you shoot over the course of the night, put it in the computer and stitch them all together, and you can replicate what we could have done with film years ago. Or shoot film.”

To see more of Art Wolfe’s photography, visit www.artwolfe.com.


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