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Shoot For The Stars

Good Night Sky • When The World Is Flat • Staking A Clamp Or Plamp

Lepp’s four-image panorama of an Oregon night sky (see below) reveals the Milky Way and its gaseous clouds, grounded by a mountainous landscape. Note the path of a meteor streaking through the center of the image. Canon EOS-1D X with an EF 35mm ƒ/1.4L lens at ƒ/1.8. The exposure was 30 sec. at ISO 3200.

Good Night Sky

Q Lately I’ve seen a number of interesting images of the night sky showing a silhouetted foreground and the Milky Way. Does this take special equipment? How is it done?
D. Blackburn
Via email

A You can accomplish astro-landscape images that include the Milky Way; you’ll need a dark night sky, a recent-generation digital camera and some standard techniques.

Of these three requirements, the optimal night sky is the most difficult to come by. Light pollution is a problem around cities, and you need the sky to be as dark and free from extraneous light as possible. The best places to photograph the night sky are at the top of a mountain in the middle of California’s Sierra Nevada, high in the Andes Mountains, the middle of Death Valley (not facing Las Vegas) or at the top of Mauna Kea in Hawaii. You get the idea—away from city lights and elevated so you can see as much of the sky as possible. The darkest sky I’ve seen was in the Namib Desert in Namibia, with no moon and no lights for hundreds of miles. So get out of town.

You need a recent DSLR camera because these have improved capabilities at high ISO settings. At higher ISOs, the newer cameras’ sensors are extremely sensitive to light with less of the by-product of excessive grain or “noise,” which is evidenced in random color and tonal anomalies. Film cameras functioned well at ISOs (film rated) of 100 or less. Early digital cameras worked well at ISO 100 to 400 and with short exposures. The latest DSLRs (in my own experience, the Canon EOS 5D Mark II and Mark III; other manufacturers market cameras with similar ISO capabilities) have excellent low-noise properties at ISO 1600 and 3200. They also give good results with exposures that range from 30 seconds to many minutes. It’s because of these advancements that you’re now seeing beautiful night sky images that weren’t possible only a couple of years ago.

The preferred lens for the night sky is a wide-angle that’s fast, as in a large ƒ-stop. The ideal lens is a 35mm ƒ/1.4, but wide-angles in the ƒ/2.8 to ƒ/4 range can be employed with not quite as spectacular results. Don’t forget a tripod and cable release.

So now we’re out of town, in the dark and have the right gear! Next, technique is critical. You’re using a lens nearly wide-open, so focus must be dead-on due to the minimal depth of field. You accomplish this by using Live View on your camera’s LCD. I find a bright star/planet, set the Live View magnification to 5x or 10x, and using a Hoodman Loupe (, bring the fuzzy star/planet into a pinpoint of light. Then, determine the exposure. Your exposure needs to be no longer than 30 seconds. The earth’s rotation will render the stars as streaks in exposures longer than 30 seconds. (This can also produce interesting star-trail photographs, but right now, we’re going for a sharp capture of the Milky Way.) The ƒ-stop needs to be nearly wide-open. Usually lenses aren’t their best at the widest aperture, so normally I try to stop down one stop (to ƒ/2.0) with an ƒ/1.4 lens. You don’t have this luxury with an ƒ/2.8 or ƒ/4 lens because you need as much light-gathering capability as possible and the higher ƒ-stops (smaller apertures) won’t allow enough light to capture the Milky Way in 30 seconds. Next comes the ISO. Start with 1600, and then try 3200. At the higher ISO, you’ll capture more information, but beware of noise. Postprocessing your images in Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom will enhance the overall look of the Milky Way and gas clouds; the better you capture them, the better the final result.

It should go without saying that composition, as always, counts. A foreground or base to the image is essential to conveying the enormity of the sky and the smallness of the earth and we creatures on it.

It should go without saying that composition, as always, counts. A foreground or base to the image is essential to conveying the enormity of the sky and the smallness of the earth and we creatures on it. Some photographers use tree silhouettes, sometimes painted with flashlights; my example here uses some mountains, but I can imagine a number of striking foregrounds that would convey an interesting message, if you could get it all to come together.

There are many variations on photographing the night-sky landscape. Try star trails, time-lapses or panoramas. Take one of many classes being offered from an experienced night-sky specialist. One that comes to mind is Canon Explorer of Light Jennifer Wu, who has an upcoming program in Death Valley offered through the Canon Digital Learning Center ( Don’t forget your headlamp!

When The World Is Flat

Q My wife and I will be vacationing in Scotland next May. Do you have tips for producing “quality” photos in flat overcast days?
M. Fiumara
Via email

A Start with a good DSLR, several quality lenses and a medium-powered flash. As you note, some areas of the British Isles are known for their abundant rainfall and long stretches of misty, dull weather, and these conditions pose both challenges and opportunities for photography.

If you shoot JPEGs, you can set your in-camera controls to slightly increase contrast and saturation at capture. I say “slightly” because if you go too far in the camera, it’s hard to pull it back in your image-editing software. As you’re shooting in Scotland, look for bright colors; you’ll have plenty of bright green, but look for other key colors to enhance the composition. Try to minimize the amount of gray sky you include in the scene. People and gardens and interesting midrange shots with the 70-200mm zoom will eliminate the sky. Do a lot of close-ups. Be sure to use that flash in a fill-light capacity occasionally to brighten up the colors of closer subjects. I shouldn’t need to mention that sharp and well-exposed images will always help the end result. But remember also that flat light in itself can be very nice; it renders a soft look and can convey a mood or spirit of the place. At times, you should go with it! And don’t count out shooting during or right after rain, when moisture helps saturate the colors and darkens geological features.

In the digital era, you have the advantage of mitigating some undesirable photographic conditions by increasing contrast and saturation in postprocessing. Some people hate to spend time in front of a computer; for those photographers, I’d say shoot in JPEG and set the controls in the camera to eliminate as much postprocessing as possible. For those wanting the very best results, shoot RAW files, edit your images down to the best ones, and spend some time in either Adobe Elements, Lightroom or Photoshop. The cropping and color-control capabilities will improve your images to a whole new level.

Staking A Clamp Or Plamp

Q I need some way to hold my subject steady and in the position I want it. Another hand to hold a reflector also could be helpful. Do you have any suggestions?
K. Monty
At a workshop

A I used to have two extra hands; then my son grew up and went out on his own. Now I use a couple of photo accessories that find their way into my bag for both studio and field photography. One that has been around for awhile is the Plamp made by Wimberley ( One end clamps to the tripod or other support and from there you have 20 inches of large interconnecting plastic “pop-bead” connectors (my description) that allow you to position the other end where you want it. That end has a small jaw that opens to about three-quarters of an inch and holds your subject or a small reflector/diffuser. The Plamp runs $36.95. To extend the reach, you can purchase an additional 12 inches of “pop-beads” for $5.

Thompson Photographic Accessories ( has come up with a similar tool, but with a twist. One end of the “pop-beads” has a no-twist stake to push into the ground for fieldwork, and the other end has a clip better designed for holding a reflector/diffuser. This can be a great help when working wildflowers close to the ground. The conversion kit (two new ends for your Plamp) costs $19.95. Add in the 24-inch “pop-beads” and the price is $29.95.

I think you need both the Plamp and the conversion kit from Thompson to give you a lot of versatility with the tripod clamp, ground stake, subject clamp and reflector clamp.

For information about upcoming seminars and digital-imaging workshops, visit If you have any tips or questions, address them to: OUTDOOR PHOTOGRAPHER, Dept. TT, George Lepp, 12121 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1200, Los Angeles, CA 90025-1176 or online at

One of North America’s best-known contemporary outdoor and nature photographers and a leader in the field of digital imaging and photographic education, Lepp is the author of many books and the field editor of Outdoor Photographer magazine. One of Canon’s original Explorers of Light, Lepp finds inspiration in advancing technology that fuels creative innovation and expression of his life-long fascination with the natural world.