The Sony 12-24mm GM Lens Finds a Perfect Sunset in Rocky Mountain National Park
The day before my arrival, still late summer, Rocky Mountain National Park received a wintry weather blast that included a snowstorm. With a clearing storm forecasted for the next morning, heading to a high elevation mountain lake for a dramatic landscape image seemed the right plan. That excitement ended abruptly. Instead of an amazing set of landscape images, I was delivered dense cloud cover, continuous snow, and brutal winds.
However, the sunset conditions easily made up for the AM troubles. The wind became still, and the remaining clouds took on great color.
There are times in the field when you know that you are capturing an image that you will be excited about. This was one of those times. I quickly shot a variety of images from my rock perch, capturing bracketed exposures, varying the focal length, and fine-tuning the composition. This selected image was a single exposure captured at an extremely wide 12mm focal length, enabling the large rocks on the lower right side of the frame to be included along with the high clouds and their reflections. A fully-level camera keeps especially the trees on the left side of the frame straight.
What do I like least about this composition? The wide-angle focal length makes the distant mountain appear small in relation to the foreground. I decided that there was enough valuable supporting detail in the frame to offset that deficit (and I zoomed in to capture that image also).
Unknown to me this evening was that the snowstorm had cleaned the air of wildfire smoke and that this would be the last time I would see an even marginally photogenic sunrise or sunset for the duration of my time in Colorado.
12mm f/11.0 1/4s ISO 100
Back Against the Rocks, Blue Hour Milky Way, Monument Cove, Acadia National Park
Sometimes, an ultra-wide-angle lens becomes a requirement to get the shot. Sometimes, a wide aperture is also required. Both were requirements down in Monument Cove, Acadia National Park, on this night. The Sony FE 12-24mm f/2.8 GM Lens had the credentials to get the job done.
As I climbed down into the cove, the plan was to capture the monolith in front of the milky way. Upon arrival, I decided that the rock on the other side of the frame also had great character and wanted it included in the image. Even at the extreme 12mm full-frame angle of view, keeping everything seen here in the frame meant my back was against the rock wall.
The milky way is typically photographed against a black sky. However, if the sky is dark and the milky way is in view, it can be photographed at the end of the blue hour. This image was captured about 7 minutes after "nautical end." Despite a bit of light showing in the sky, it was very dark in the cove, and the f/2.8 aperture proved very helpful, keeping the ISO setting down to a still-high 8000.
12mm f/2.8 20s ISO 8000
The Christmas Tree 2020
The annual Christmas tree photo session was late this year, but ... I'll take satisfaction that it happened before Christmas.
Our space calls for an ultra-wide-angle focal length, and a wide max aperture lens typically makes the starburst effect from individual lights pronounced at narrow apertures. Last year, the impressive Canon RF 15-35mm F2.8 L IS USM Lens got the call for this job. Another impressive lens, the Sony FE 12-24mm f/2.8 GM, was a recent addition to the kit and a perfect choice for this year. That lens choice made the Sony a7R IV the easy camera choice.
When shooting the same scene every year, the composition selection tends to become established, and I didn't get too creative this year vs. last year, choosing again to utilize the wall unit as a right-side frame to the full room scene. The straight vertical lines of the wall unit lead me to a level (for pitch and roll) camera as those lines need to be straight along the edge of the frame (or they can be angled enough to appear intentionally so). The leveled camera position then determines the composition.
Note the lack of geometric distortion in this uncorrected 12mm capture.
With the close foreground, this composition requires f/16 for adequate depth of field, and narrow apertures produce larger starbursts. However, f/16 is considerably narrower than the a7R IV's DLA (Diffraction Limited Aperture), meaning that the image becomes very noticeably soft at f/16. Since this lens produces nice starbursts at f/11, I opted for this aperture for the base image and composited the closest subjects and the candle starbursts from an f/16 image via layers in Photoshop. Otherwise, this image is right out of the camera.
With that, another Christmas tree photo is in the archives.
12mm f/11.0 30s ISO 125
Sony Alpha a1 and FE 12-24 GM Lens Team for Concert Hall Image
This concert hall is an impressive space — and fun to photograph.
The image shared here is a combination of three exposures.
The goal of the primary exposure (1/50, f/2.8, and ISO 400) was to capture sharp performers moving under the bright stage lights. While a 1/50 shutter speed is slow for freezing moving (mostly swaying) people, individuals were small enough in the frame for their details to not cross pixels in that timeframe.
Three brightness variations of this image were blended to even the stage lighting (it was hot in the center) and improve the transition to the darker environment. Utilizing a single image for this blending meant there was no difference in the image content, including no chorale member movement to edit for. The Sony Alpha a1's incredible dynamic range easily accommodating the brightness adjustments in both directions.
The 12mm focal length at f/2.8 provides a significant depth of field at this distance, but it was inadequate for absolute corner sharpness. A 10s, f/11, and ISO 100 exposure met that requirement. While f/8 should have been adequate for depth of field and would have produced slightly sharper details, using f/11 provided stronger sunburst effects from the lights.
The f/11 image provided all of the sharp detail required to finish the picture, but time permitted a third image capture, this one at 5s, f/16, and ISO 400, for inclusion in this blend. The narrower-still aperture result is softer than the f/11 result due to diffraction, but this setting creates slightly larger sunbursts from the lights. Only the lights from this photo are included in the final image.
Why ISO 400 for a stationary subject? The songs did not always last long enough for the additional 30+ second exposure required, and the changing light colors were another problem. The a1 shows very little noise in normal ISO 400 exposures, and you can't tell that these bright lights were not photographed at ISO 100.
Let's talk about the camera location choice for this image.
A completely level camera centered in the room is usually a great choice for photographing symmetric venues such as this one. The level and centered camera keeps the vertical lines parallel with the edges of the frame and helps avoid perspective distortion. That shot was available, and I captured some images from that location during the rehearsal.
However, I opted to shoot the live concert centered from a higher level. Ultra-wide-angle focal lengths emphasize what is closest to the camera. With the audience seated, the back of heads immediately in front of the camera would have been what was emphasized. At least as important to the decision to move up were the leading lines created by the colorful lights illuminating the ceiling architecture.
In short, I gave up big heads for emphasized colorful architecture.
Not evident in this photo is the tripod position required for this photo. The primary issue was a pair of large lights mounted directly below and extending out from the rail in the center of the hall. Those lights were prominent in the frame until I determined that two small posts used in the light supports could be utilized for tripod feet, along with the railing that was sloped toward the stage. Because the supports were not centered in the room, uneven tripod leg lengths were required to center the tripod head. This screengrab from a phone video shared with me might help that explanation.
Right, that is a risky setup, and I did not have cables along for security. While no one was at risk below me, the thought of the a1, Sony FE 12-24mm f/2.8 GM Lens, and RRS TVC-24L Mk2 Tripod with BH-40 Ball Head hitting the ground was nauseating. That scenario meant my hand had to be grasping the camera or tripod or completely encircling a tripod leg at all times. While not comfortable, we (photographers in general) do whatever it takes to get the shot.
12mm f/2.8 1/50s ISO 400
Needles Eye and Milky Way, Custer State Park, Black Hills, SD
I scheduled three days to photograph Custer State Park in South Dakota. Those three days included two significant travel days and followed a nearly 1-week-long photo trip in Badlands National Park. On that day, the plan was for my daughter and I to scout from Spearfish Canyon down into Custer State Park.
Upon arriving in the park, the highest priority was to scout a milky way photography location in The Needles, featuring incredible rock formations. A Needles Highway closure foiled that plan. An unfortunate person's camper was stuck in the Needles Tunnel, a peril relatively easy to encounter in this extremely narrow tunnel.
After checking in to the hotel mid-afternoon and grabbing a bite to eat, my daughter and I drove the Custer State Park wildlife loop in search of wildlife subjects. That endeavor was mostly unproductive, with only the donkeys cooperating on this evening.
Exhausted from driving all day (and a rough schedule for the prior two weeks), we opted to sleep in the next morning. With the camper now extracted from the tunnel, the original Needles Highway scouting mission was completed late on our only full day in the park. The perfect position was established, and with help from The Photographer's Ephemeris and a compass, it was determined that the milky way would ideally align just before 3:30 AM, just before the sky started brightening in the morning (nautical start).
Hotel checkout was in the morning, and a 7-hour drive to the airport was on the must-do list. Thus, a reasonable amount of sleep was required for a safe drive. However, the National Weather Service forecasted the clouds to (finally) dissipate at approximately 2:30 AM, the already set moon meant that the sky would be dark, and I couldn't pass up this opportunity. So the alarm went off at 2:30 AM. We jumped into warm clothes and drove to the selected site.
While it was the middle of June, the air temperature was low and the sustained wind speed was extremely high. Tucking into the rock spires helped reduce the felt wind, and the high-performing Really Right Stuff TVC-24L Mk2 Tripod and BH-40 Ball Head combination took care of the remaining stabilization requirements. Every frame the Sony Alpha 1 and Sony FE 12-24mm f/2.8 GM Lens captured on this shoot was tack sharp.
Upon establishing the ideal composition, with manual focus on the stars, images were captured in quick succession (as quick as 25-second exposures permit) to ensure the perfect alignment among the needles spire formations, including the Needles Eye, was captured. Also captured was an increasingly bright blue sky, providing a range of options to choose from later. As the new day dawned, the sky continued increasing in brightness, with the foreground brightening as well. Once the milky way had passed through the optimal alignment among the spires, it was time to do some light painting for foreground compositing options.
My light painting flashlight of choice is the Black Diamond Spot 325 Headlamp. This small, lightweight headlight is an excellent all-around choice for outdoor photographers, featuring an extremely bright spot light for navigating in the dark, a red light for preserving night vision, and lower-power floodlight that casts a wide, even light, perfect for many uses, including light painting. The duration of the light panning across the scene was informally measured by counting and adjusted from frame to frame to create varying brightness options.
To gain improved directionality to the light painting, the flashlight was positioned around the far side of the nearby rock spire. The 10-second self-timer provided time to run to this position after the shutter was released.
At 4:00 AM, the milky way was no longer visible. Tired but exhilarated, we packed up and headed back to the hotel for second bedtime.
As so often is the case, the memory of the tiredness, coldness, and effort required for this shot was short-lived, already faded. However, the photos and positive memories will last a lifetime.
Note that a benefit of shooting at this time of the day was that, not surprisingly, we didn't see another car or person during this entire shoot.
12mm f/2.8 25s ISO 6400