Epic Rocky Mountain National Park Milky Way
Sony a7R IV and Epic Rocky Mountain National Park Milky Way The Sony a7R IV and Sony FE 24mm f/1.4 GM Lens teamed for an epic Rocky Mountain National Park Milky Way on this September evening. While chasing elk in rut was our top priority during the RMNP workshops, photographing the night sky was also on the to-do list and a clear RMNP night sky never fails to wow us.
For the Milky Way to reach down close to its reflection requires the reflecting surface to have little obstruction above it. Large bodies of water have distant shores and that distant perspective usually results in lower shoreline sky obstructions. Small bodies of water are more likely to have a calm surface than large bodies but trees and mountains typically get in the way of the little-obstruction requirement. Mountains often bring elevation gain that tends to bring reflection-erasing wind.
This particular small mountain lake is set high enough for the southern view to open up to the sky while being protected from the wind for the perfect combination. I love pointed spruce treetops and always welcome their great character on the horizon. Reflections can be counted on to double the value.
24mm f/1.4 13s ISO 6400
Bull Elk Chin-Up Pose in Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park is very scenic but some locations within the park have better environments for elk photography than others. Elk go where they want to and little will stop them from doing so, but I have some favorite locations and usually will pursue the elk found in these. This elk was in one of my go-to locations, featuring a low, clean foreground and rocky mountain base in the background.
Elk are very large animals and that means relatively long distances are required to fit them in the frame of a long lens (and for personal safety). Longer subject distances mean increased depth of field and that means the background will be less diffusely blurred. The 600mm f/4 focal length and aperture combination creating a three-dimensional effect that makes the subject stand out from the background is especially valuable when photographing large animals such as elk.
After seeing how sharp the Sony FE 600mm f/4 GM OSS Lens was (and experiencing how light it was), I opted to use this lens behind the ultra-high-resolution Sony a7R IV for all of my late summer and fall wildlife photography.
The bull in this photo was moving across the meadow in front of us and this great rut-characteristic chin-high pose was my favorite. The other images captured in this sequence provided a small additional amount of background that, with the lack of distracting details, I later decided to merge with the original image, creating a panorama. With the 61 MP resolution provided by the a7R IV, I didn't need the additional pixels. Moving back and cropping would have been easier from a post-processing perspective but moving back would have resulted in a missed opportunity in this instance (and the original framing would have been fine). Note that this capability likely exists in some of your images — be cautious when deleting the lesser images.
Images captured under a cloudy sky, including this one, usually readily accept some contrast increase and a modest amount was added to this image.
600mm f/4.0 1/500s ISO 500
Whitetail Buck in the Forest, Shenandoah National Park
It is generally much easier to photograph deer in a field or meadow than in the forest where tree trunks and branches create obstructions and chaotic backgrounds. However, the forest is where many deer spend large amounts of their lives. Heading into the forest may reduce the odds of getting good images but the increased challenge makes a successful in-the-forest image more rewarding.
While a 600 f/4 lens is an awesome choice for obscuring a distracting foreground and background via blur, the narrow angle of view can be challenging to use in the forest due to the obstructions. A farther away view results in a higher chance of trees and branches being in the way. Despite having a Sony FE 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 GM OSS Lens with me in Shenandoah National Park, I mostly used the Sony FE 600mm f/4 GM OSS Lens. The images this lens makes are hard to beat and once one acclimates to 600mm f/4 images, it becomes difficult to be satisfied with anything less.
All 600mm f/4 and similar lenses are very expensive but the high price has one advantage: it is a barrier of entry, making it harder for those without such a lens to compete with those having one. In a world with an unimaginable number of images being captured daily, this lens' image quality is a differentiator and those able to make the investment should frequently make use of their advantage.
I was working ahead of this buck (with a somewhat unusual drop tine), looking for openings it might pass through. He came into this opening and cooperated nicely, looking toward the camera. After quickly capturing a few images with the currently-selected focus point, I changed the focus point to a more optimal position in the frame and captured another burst of images before the buck turned its head. I selected the image with the best deer pose (both ears forward and looking toward me) and stitched another of the images captured using the other focus point for a slightly wider overall image.
This image was captured on a bright cloudy day. Clouds act as a giant softbox, eliminating the harsh shadows often encountered in the woods. Images captured in cloudy weather often appear slightly cool and low contrast is also normal for images captured under cloudy skies. Adding a small amount of contrast and saturation and warming the color balance slightly brings the image to life.
The increased challenge, increased reward concept applies to many genres of photography. Welcome ways to increase your challenge!
600mm f/4.0 1/400s ISO 2000
Mercury Transit of the Sun
Smart people told us long in advance that the planet Mercury was going to pass in front of the Sun for many hours on 11/11/2019 and that the transit was going to be visible across a huge swath of the world, including my location on that date, falling during my Shenandoah National Park Workshop.
My first thought regarding photographing this event was that I could take a picture of the Sun anytime and simply use the paint brush tool to drop in Mercury planets wherever desired. While the result would look fine, it wouldn't be nearly as fun or as phsychologically rewarding as experiencing the event firsthand and capturing the real thing. Photographing the Sun is easy and a little black dot in front of it was going to be equally easy to capture so, I packed the required solar filter for the trip.
The Sun was not going to be our primary subject on this day, we didn't have time to shoot throughout the entire many-hour transit, and the cloudy sky made photographing it challenging during the few times we attempted to do so. Still, I wanted to show the entire transit in the final result. To fulfill that goal, I pieced a number of images together and then duplicated a Mercury planet to fill in the entire path across the Sun.
While the Mercury transit does not rise to the level of amazing as the recent solar eclipse, it was still fun to see and photograph.
When photographing the Sun, everything else in the frame is black unless there are clouds being brightly lit while darkening the Sun enough to even out the dynamic range. With black periphery being easy to create during post processing, framing the Sun a tightly as possible becomes the goal. Still, the Sun will not come close to filling the frame even at 1200mm, the longest most photographers will use, on a full frame camera. In a focal length limited scenario, higher pixel density on the imaging sensor means more resolution remaining after cropping and the Sony a7R IV has that. The Sony FE 600mm f/4 GM OSS Lens and FE 2x Teleconverter were used to gain the 1200mm focal length.
Among the many images captured were some with a cloud-caused fiery haze surrounding the Sun. Adding some of these images into the Photoshop stack provided the option of including the haze in the final image as shared here.
Here is a question for you: Since I watched Mercury transit the Sun in an electronic viewfinder, did I really see it?
1200mm f/8.0 1/125s ISO 100
Hallett Peak Reflecting in Dream Lake at Sunrise, Rocky Mountain National Park
On this day's schedule was giving some great gear a workout and the Sony a7R IV and Tamron 17-28mm f/2.8 Di III RXD Lens combination were chosen. These were packed in MindShift Gear BackLight 18L along with a Really Right Stuff TVC-24L Mk2 Carbon Fiber Tripod with a BH-40 Ball Head mounted and the very early AM hike to Dream Lake ensued.
I don't like to be the second person at a popular location and some may say that I arrived too early for this one. The extra time ensures adequate setup time with some starry sky photography included. The extra time also means that very warm clothes were needed, especially with the wind often encountered here.
I love perfectly still water surfaces in the shade and the mirror reflections those surfaces create. This morning did not provide such and the mentioned wind was relentless.
Between reviewing long exposure, high ISO image captures and the light becoming bright enough for the foreground rocks to be visible, this composition was settled on. I wanted the closest round rock centered between the mountain peak reflections with a clean border around it and the other foreground rocks. The camera was leveled for both roll and pitch. I seldom want a camera that is not leveled for roll when photographing landscape and in this case, I also chose to avoid an upward or downward camera angle that would have caused the straight tree trunks to tilt inward or outward respectively. The focal length was selected to be inclusive or exclusive of details in the scene and the camera height was selected for the final composition. The color balance disparity of the warm first light of the day hitting the mountain mixed with cool shade in the valley below is natural and I love it.
The final image is the result of combining two images using manual HDR blending. As is often the case, those exposures were different with the sunlit areas captured darker (f/11, 0.4 seconds, ISO 100) and the shaded areas coming from brighter settings (f/11, 30 seconds, ISO 200).
As you likely noticed, the longer exposure is dramatically longer and includes a 2x-brighter ISO setting. This exposure was needed to compensate for a 6-stop Breakthrough Photography X4 ND filter (great gift idea) being used. The longer exposure this filter permitted allowed the water to be smoothed, averaging out the reflection details in the lake surface ripples, giving the mountain reflections some definition. A third image (another darker one) was pulled in because some of the trees were less motion-blurred than in the primary image.
The aforementioned gear all performed excellently. It was a superb choice for this event. Of course, the bottom line is that Dream Lake and its rocks rock!
20mm f/11.0 30s ISO 200
An Acadia National Park Mountaintop Experience
Looking for a lens to carry while hiking? You likely want a compact and lightweight model but do not want to substitute image quality to get those properties. The Tamron 17-28mm f/2.8 Di III RXD Lens and its sibling 28-75mm f/2.8 Di III RXD Lens are great choices and both are quite remarkable lenses overall.
This afternoon in Acadia National Park found the 17-28 RXD along with a Sony a7R IV in a MindShift Gear BackLight 18L on top of Bald Mountain anticipating a great light show at the end of the day. Unfortunately, that show mostly did not happen. The weather forecast did not hold true and as can be seen in this image, thick clouds ruled the sky.
Just when we thought there was no hope for seeing a sunset, a tiny hole appeared in the clouds and awesomeness shined through. I dropped the tripod into the nearest location that looked compositionally promising and shot a several frame bracket, ensuring that one image had bright foreground detail captured at f/11 and the darkest of two others had a tiny bit of color remaining in the sun. The latter two images were captured at f/22. While f/22 results in softer image quality than f/11, it delivers a larger, better quality starburst effect and the clouds nicely hide the softness in the portion of f/22 capture used in the final image. Note that changing the aperture changes the starburst including the orientation of the star points. When bracketing such images, be sure that most of the images containing the starburst are captured at the same aperture to avoid an awkward appearing composite.
By the end of the first bracket capture, the warm sunlight was no longer reaching the foreground and after a second bracket at a slightly adjusted camera position, the sun was completely cloud-blocked again. The foreground lighting was better in the first set of images and cropping those from the bottom gave me a result similar to those captured in the adjusted camera position.
I seldom use ISO settings above 100 when photographing daylight landscape but you will notice that a setting of 800 was used for this image. Along with the heavy clouds came very strong winds and I was estimating the exposure duration that could be tolerated between gusts. The Really Right Stuff TVC-24L Mk2 Carbon Fiber Tripod and BH-40 Ball Head held solid and I probably could have used longer exposures — though sun time may not have permitted that.
20mm f/11.0 .6s ISO 800
Bass Harbor Lighthouse Sunrise, Acadia National Park
Everyone loves lighthouses and lighthouse images, right? After awaking to a 4-something AM alarm for three days in a row, I was finally treated to some morning sunlight at the Bass Harbor Lighthouse. While some cloud drama would have been welcomed, the white sky created by the solid cloud cover present on the previous two mornings was not as photogenic.
When the sky is clear at sunrise/sunset, there are some expected parameters for landscape photography. One is that the first/last light will be very warm in color and another is that pastel colors will show in earth shadow and the Belt of Venus above it low in the sky opposite the rising/setting sun. These two parameters combine very nicely.
I don't always require myself to use a completely level camera (tilt and roll) for landscape photography but did so in this case, primarily to keep the sides of the lighthouse from leaning. Adding to that compositional constraint was the desire to have the reflections availed by the foreground tidal pool included in the frame. The lighthouse reflection was the primary interest and it was very tightly framed between the surrounding rocks, further limiting the camera position to within that narrow line. With the rocks being indicative of the Maine coastline, having them close and emphasized seemed logical and led to this final camera position.
Should circular polarizer filters be used for all landscape photographs? While CPL filters are easily my most-used filters and I very frequently use them for landscape photography, this was a time when using the effect provided by this filter was a detriment to the final look. Cutting the reflections on the rocks and in the tidal pool created a dark, flat, lifeless look to the foreground rocks and water, detracting significantly from the result. It didn't take long to determine which look was preferable.
Wet dark-colored rocks absorb a lot of light even without a CPL filter and two exposures were combined to ensure that details were retained in those rocks in the final image.
17mm f/11.0 .6s ISO 100
Emphasizing #1 with the Sony FE 20mm f/1.8 G Lens
No, post-processing was not used to create that perfectly-placed shadow. Outdoor photography is often about being at the right place at the right time. On this day, my timing was about perfect for the shadow of a large university field house to fall across the lanes of the outdoor track next to it, shading all but the first lane.
Also aiding in emphasizing the "1" was the perspective. With the 20mm lens positioned closer to the "1" than the other numbers, the "1" becomes the largest in the frame and therefore the most prominent. Everyone loves number "1" and there are far more uses for an emphasized "1" than any other number.
The Sony FE 20mm f/1.8 G Lens is very fun to walk around with, letting your creativity take over. The results from this lens are quite impressive.
20mm f/11.0 1/80s ISO 100
Incredibull, Rocky Mountain National Park
It had been two years since I photographed this bull elk and he was #1 on my list of subjects to find on this trip to Rocky Mountain National Park. He didn't let us down.
This year, Mr. Incredibull was a 7x7 (referencing 7 points on each antler) with remarkably long G3s (the third point on each side) and long swords (G4s, the fourth point on each side). This morning found the huge elk in my favorite meadow, with short grass and a clean background ideal for photographing in.
While the Sony FE 200-600mm f/5.6-6.3 G OSS Lens is not the ultimate choice for blurring the background (compared to the Sony FE 600mm f/4 GM OSS Lens for example), it's zoom range has very strong benefits. The 600mm prime does not do 500mm, the focal length needed for this image.
This bull was not moving fast and permitted a large number of images to be captured. I chose this one as a favorite in part due to the leg position, showing nice separation and a bent front leg conveying a sense of action.
I like as many tines as possible to show in antlered animal images. With this bull's head tilted up, the tail of the left antler is hidden by the body. However, I'd rather capture the desirable bugling pose and there is not much that can be done about partial missing antler in this situation. One tine is hidden on the right antler but the shadow brings that one to light. Antler shadows are great.
500mm f/6.3 1/1250s ISO 320
Blue Hour Architecture Photography with the Sony FE 20mm f/1.8 G Lens
A university administration building had caught my eye. It seemed a perfect subject for the Sony FE 20mm f/1.8 G Lens I was reviewing and photographing it was on this evening's to-do list. During the blue hour is a great time to photograph architecture and starting with a shooting direction away from the sunset provides the earliest brightness balance between the building lights and the sky. As the sky darkened, the light balance on the other side of the building, looking toward the sunset (brighter sky), improved and that was the direction the camera was facing for this image capture.
To get a level camera for this perspective required fully extending the Really Right Stuff TVC-24L Mk2 Carbon Fiber Tripod legs and positioning the feet as close together as possible without risking stability. The camera was well above head height but the tilt LCD enabled proper leveling and composition. The low geometric distortion of this lens makes it a great option for photographing subjects with straight lines along the edges of the frame.
This was a single RAW image (not an HDR) captured with the brightest areas of the image somewhat too bright. In post, utilizing the Sony a7R IV's excellent dynamic range, the highlights were pulled back and the shadows were boosted for a balanced appearance.
20mm f/8.0 13s ISO 100
Christmas Tree in Room Captured with a Level Camera
Want all of the windows to appear square in the frame? You need a camera leveled for roll to avoid the perspective distortion issue and leveled for pitch to keep them straight. In this case, a very tall tripod setup was required.
35mm f/16.0 30s ISO 100
Bath Time in Rocky Mountain National Park
A cow elk gives her calf a bath while standing in a lake in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Long telephoto lenses were meant for times like these. This was a scenario where I couldn't get any closer – wetter was not an option I was willing to accept. Not only did this lens's 600mm focal length make the animals substantial in the frame but the f/4 aperture created a blurred background even at this long distance, making the subject stand out.
I am considering a return to Rocky Mountain National Park in September.
Let me know if you want to be part of this trip!
High-Stepping Whitetail Buck, Shenandoah National Park
This old buck has its eyes on the doe it is pursuing.
I like some animal leg positions better than others. In this case, the lifted-high front leg and corresponding raised back leg show that the deer is in motion. When I have the mental wherewithal to time image captures with the ideal leg positions, I do. When I don't, that is what a fast frame rate is for.
While the beautiful early morning sunlight gives the image a warm look, the frost-covered whiskers indicate the true scenario. This was a very cold day. While I was functionally challenged by the heavy gloves (and my breath freezing on the camera), the Sony a7R IV worked flawlessly in these low temperatures.
It only takes a short amount of time with a great subject in a great scenario to generate a large selection of good images. Selecting a single image to share from such a situation becomes the next challenge. I opted to share two images (for now) of this buck, the other illustrating the lip curl behavior.
600mm f/4.0 1/640s ISO 320
Lip Curl, Whitetail Buck, Shenandoah National Park
The lip curl (Flehmen response) is a deer behavior especially common during the rut, exposing the vomeronasal organ (Jacobson’s organ) to scents, especially those of a doe in heat. While this behavior is not unusual, it is different from the many images captured of the same old buck simply standing and looking.
The bokeh buck is a want-to-be contender. He doesn't stand a chance against this clearly superior buck.
As I mentioned in the other photo of this buck, a few minutes with the right subject in the right light and location scenario can result in a lot of nice images on the memory card.
600mm f/4.0 1/640s ISO 320
International Space Station Solar Transit
Sean's recent Filming an ISS Transit of the Moon article reminded me to check for an upcoming locally-viewable International Space Station transit. Amazingly, there were two ISS solar transits scheduled for the next week, with my back yard being the perfect location for the alignment I wanted for both transits.
Sean's How to Photograph an International Space Station Lunar Transit article was directly applicable, with a solar filter being an additional requisite.
Only the sun was going to be illuminated in the frame, and the space station is especially small. I combined the longest focal length lens combination I have, the Sony FE 600mm f/4 GM OSS Lens and Sony FE 2x Teleconverter, with the highest resolution ILC camera available, the Sony a7R IV. This combination was then mounted to the most solid tripod and head in my kit, the Wimberley WH-200-S Sidemount Head on a Robus RC-8860 Vantage Carbon Fiber Tripod.
The ISS moves across the sky very rapidly, leading me to select a 1/2000 shutter speed to avoid motion blur. With the transit duration predicted to be a mere 0.52 seconds, timing the shot was crucial. From testing, I knew this camera with a V60 SDXC card loaded would capture an over-four-second burst before the buffer filled. At just under two seconds before the transit start time, I pressed and held the release button on the Vello ShutterBoss Remote Switch.
The a7R IV's high speed+ mode netted three images that included the ISS in front of the sun. That count seemed a little weak in the composite (the space stations were "spaced" too far apart), so some additional space stations were cloned into the final image.
1200mm f/8.0 1/2000s ISO 1600
Using Photography to Create Stories — A Waterfall Adventure
Much is said about using photography to tell stories, but another great aspect of photography is creating stories. I'm not talking about deceptive reporting and the like, but setting the goal to be photos, and enjoying an adventure unfolding, the story, while capturing them.
There was an exceptionally long off-trail hike in north-central PA involving a couple of deep canyons and lots of waterfalls that I had been planning to take for a long time. The schedule for this spring looked favorable for making that adventure happen, and I selected what appeared to be the perfect waterfall photography day. The weather forecast indicated full cloud cover and some light rain could be expected.
Then my youngest daughter asked if she could go along, and after my enthusiastic, positive response, I was then asked if three of her friends could also come along. After warning them over the duration and exertion this hike entailed, all were set on going. All four of the girls were distance runners, so I expected they were physically up to the hike. They were advised to bring the appropriate gear and supplies for an entire day that could include rain, and I welcomed the additions to the adventure.
We arrived at the start location late in the morning, and a beautiful waterfall greeted us a short distance into the forest. I hurriedly set up the camera (four girls were waiting for me), established the right settings, and captured some nice images. We then bushwhacked, rock-hopped (including creek crossings), and hung on the side of very steep terrain for, according to my daughter's Garmin watch, three miles until we arrived at another impressive waterfall. I captured more images, and we ate lunch.
That was the last time the camera came out of my MindShift Gear BackLight 26L. The rain started and quickly exceeding the forecasted slight-chance volume. The sky became very dark, and the rain didn't relent until it was nearly dark out.
Waterfalls require a cliff for the water to fall over, large falls require big cliffs and the falls that we continued to encounter had larger-than-needed cliffs. Getting around waterfalls meant moving downstream a distance until the wet sides were climbable (without ropes). How steep were the canyons, and how much time did we spend on them? At the end of the adventure, the girls were complaining that their arms hurt more than their legs, a sure sign that a good adventure happened.
At about 8 miles into the hike, a key landmark was missing. I had spent hours researching the hike, but this missing landmark was a key to finishing the hike as planned. There was no signal to locate ourselves via a smartphone, so I relied on a previously downloaded topographic map and a conventional compass to continue our route. While I knew we wanted to go east, I was not precisely sure how far north we had traveled. If I didn't guess correctly, we could miss the canyon we needed to find. Hedging enough to be safe, we walked southwest across the vast, densely forested, flat mountaintop. Note that walking through such terrain under a cloudy sky without a navigational aid is a sure way to get lost.
About 2 miles into the compass-directed portion of the dark and rainy adventure, the girls were becoming nervous, and one member of our team was staying immediately behind me. Eventually, we encountered a swampy area with a little flowing water, and I relented to traveling due east following that flow as the water had to be going down into the canyon we were hunting.
After a considerable distance down the steep mountain, we arrived at the targeted creek. While there was some relief among our group, deep, forested canyons are dark, and the what if we don't make it out before dark question began to be raised — repeatedly. I assured the group that we would light up the dark (I like the Black Diamond Spot 325 Headlamp BTW), and that we had the supplies necessary to make it out.
Still, the challenge of hiking the sides of the waterfall canyons increased while the light levels decreased. Finally, I declared that everyone had to begin wading across the streams. Yes, building rock bridges was fun, but it was time-consuming, and darkness was approaching.
Amazingly, we arrived back at the first waterfall at the precise time I had guessed to the group to expect to return. My distance estimate was not quite as accurate, with the Garmin indicating 13.1 miles of distance with 3,500' (1.07 km) in elevation change. The excitement brought on by the accomplishment and relief hitting the girls simultaneously made the adventure worthwhile, and all were ready to sign up for the next adventure. Interesting is that the next day their arms were sorer than their legs — due to holding onto trees and rocks while navigating the steep terrain.
No girls were harmed in the creation of this image, but photographically, the adventure was not so productive, with most of the waterfalls being from the sky. However, I know where some great images are, and will likely return for at least a partial repeat hike.
What will your story be? Use photography as a purpose for creating a story!
Here is one of the last photos I captured on this journey: Girl on a Waterfall Adventure.
16mm f/11.0 .6s ISO 100
Girl on a Waterfall Adventure
A camera leveled for both tilt and roll is often a good choice when photographing a waterfall.
A very still girl is also a good choice when the shutter speeds reach 0.6 seconds.
The mid-day darkness foretold of the incoming weather that brought water falling from the sky for much of the day.
16mm f/11.0 .6s ISO 100