Sony Alpha 1 Sample Pictures

Sony Alpha 1
The Sony Alpha a1 Meets a Redhead, Field Report The Sony Alpha a1 Meets a Redhead, Field Report

Last week's goal was to put a significantly challenging subject in front of the Sony Alpha a1's AF system.

This project started with 350+ images of whitetail deer captured with the outstanding Sony FE 600mm f/4 GM OSS Lens. At f/4, this lens produces a shallow depth of field that presents an AF challenge. Initially, the deer were milling about (erratic motion), but the game was quickly upped when a large group of deer came in fast, primarily single file, leaping toward the camera position. With animal eye detection and the entire AF area selected, the a1 easily and impressively tracked these subjects' eyes and produced an extremely high in-focus rate, including when the deer were leaping at close distances.

Despite the in-focus aspect of the image, none of these pics were worth keeping as the deer were shedding their winter coats and looking shaggy. I needed pictures that would look good in a review. From a wildlife perspective, birds, primarily ducks, were the acceptable subject I had access to.

After watching the weather forecast and the migration reports for some hotspot locations within driving distance, I made a final decision. On this day, the temperature was going well above freezing, and clear skies were forecasted. Bright sunlight brings out birds' iridescent colors, and the sky color reflects in the water, which, in this case, provided a surrounding blue color in the image (deep blue late in the day). The wind speed was supposed to be light for calmer water. The temperature was going to be comfortable — sitting in the water in the wind and sub-freezing temperatures complicates duck photography.

On this morning, I drove to the closest of the four selected locations, about 2.5 hours away. Unfortunately, the perfect subjects, the wood ducks reliably found there, were not there. While Canada geese were plentiful, I was looking for something different.

Plan B was immediately implemented. The Chesapeake Bay location was 2+ hours farther away, but this location is best in the afternoon, so there was still time to make it there for the ideal lighting.

Upon arrival, I discovered that the huge winter flock of ducks was down to a small fraction of the count. I expected a reduced count, but not this reduced. Fortunately, a selection of the ideal species was there, and with fewer birds, it was easier to isolate individual subjects, making the situation was ideal.

The scenario was ideal except for some wind that made the water choppy. Ideally, swimming duck photography is done at the water level, with the camera just above the water. This low camera position provides a side view of the duck, with a more-distant background, meaning the background has a stronger blur, making the subject pop.

When photographing floating ducks, getting the camera low involves sitting in the water, with chest waders and thick insulated pants required at this time of the year. With the high-frequency wind chop, splashing salt water was an issue, requiring a slightly higher camera position (a LensCoat rain cover protected most of the camera and lens). An unexpected wind complication was that bobbing with the ducks while looking into the viewfinder contributed to a strong sense of motion sickness.

Ducks floating on water may seem a low challenge to photograph (the proverbial sitting duck), but this scenario was the completel opposite. Many near-1' (0.3m) waves rocking the already-twitchy, constantly-erratically moving ducks and me (at different frequencies) made keeping a duck in the 600mm frame (I started at 840mm with a 1.4x teleconverter) extremely challenging (especially when the duck was obscured by a wave). I monitored image sharpness until becoming confident that a 1/3200 shutter speed eliminated motion blur in most pictures.

One of the biggest wildlife (and portrait) photography challenges is to keep the proper AF point selected. A motionless subject permits a focus and recompose strategy, but moving subjects require selecting a specific AF point that produces the optimal composition while remaining on the subject's eye. Fast AF point selection is an especially big challenge for unpredictable wildlife. Tracking a twitchy, bobbing duck with a specific focus point held on the eye would have been nearly impossible. However, the 600mm, f/4, close distance combination's shallow depth of field made focusing precisely on the eye a requirement.

Eye AF eliminates this challenge for a significant percentage of subjects. With the Sony Alpha a1's eye AF enabled, bird selected as the subject, and the entire AF area chosen (most of the frame), I was left to concentrate primarily on framing the scene and timing the shutter release press. Note that, when eye AF is locking on the subject, gloves are no longer an impediment to cold-weather wildlife pursuits.

When many changes are happening simultaneously, a fast frame rate has your back. I began shooting in the 30 fps drive mode but backed off to 20 fps when I saw how fast the image count was increasing.

Twenty fps is still an exceptionally fast frame rate. Most 20 fps shot sequences captured, minimally, a properly-framed duck image, and often, many well-framed shots, despite all of the motion (ducks would sometimes bob from one frame border to another during a short burst). With 20 fps capture, I didn't feel the need to repair closed necessitating membranes as the previous or next image still had the ideal pose. The foreground and background matter, and wave and reflection nuances vary constantly. These elements can be the deciding factor for selection, and the 20 and 30 fps capture rate provides considerable options in this regard.

That the a1's viewfinder responded fast enough to keep the birds in the frame was remarkable, and the lack of viewfinder blackout was also critical. Even more remarkable was the extremely-high in-focus rate the a1 delivered. In this 3:45 shoot, 8,985 images were captured, and in almost all of them, the eye was in sharp focus – even when the eye bounced into the periphery of the frame.

When packing, four batteries seemed a lot, but 4% of the fourth battery was consumed by the time I walked out of the water. That said, capturing nearly 3,000 images per relatively-small battery is great performance.

Similarly, taking a full terabyte of memory cards seemed overkill, but the last 256GB card was half-filled when shade reached the water. As much as I want to purchase CFexpress Type A memory cards for the a1, I can't get past the current price. Let's put a Type A number on this day. As I write this, adequate 160GB Type A memory cards to contain this under-4-hour shoot would have cost $2,394.00.

In comparison, four fast Lexar 256GB Professional 1667x V60 UHS-II SDXC Memory Cards currently cost $300.00.

With these Lexar cards, the a1 was writing the buffer to the card most of the time. This writing prevents some camera features from being accessible, though image playback functions during the writing process.

Ultra-high performance AF combined with an extreme frame rate results in a problem, albeit a great problem — too many excellent images yield a long selection process. You may have foreseen this issue: reviewing nearly 9k photos is a massive project, and the phenomenal in-focus rate makes that job far more difficult. It is hard to delete excellent pictures, but the quality bar must be raised (or considerable hard drive storage space acquired). Again, the a1's extreme performance create a problem you want to have.

I didn't mention the a1's 50MP resolution in this post, but the bouncing ducks were often not ideally framed. This camera's high resolution meant that significant resolution remained even after cropping deeply.

The Robus RC-8860 Vantage Carbon Fiber Tripod (great tripod, excellent value) provided the support for this shoot. With the tripod leveled, the two-way pan and tilt of the smooth-functioning Wimberley WH-200-S Sidemount Head ensured that every shot was level (though the wave action diminished this requirement).

The bottom line is that Sony Alpha a1, and especially its AF system, is an outstanding performer, as expected.


 
600mm  f/4.0  1/3200s  ISO 400
Sony Alpha 1 Captures a Weasel's Curiosity, Rocky Mountain National Park Sony Alpha 1 Captures a Weasel's Curiosity, Rocky Mountain National Park

Adorable or vicious killer? Right — both descriptions accurately describe this little predator.

The opportunity was a unique one. What started as a glimpse of a weasel hunting in the brush turned into an afternoon of waiting, with some watching and photographing mixed in.

Often nocturnal, weasels are seldom seen, and when they show do themselves, getting these fast- and erratically-moving critters in the frame is tremendously challenging, even without accounting for accurate focusing. This weasel finally paused momentarily to check out (her reflection in?) the near-ground-level Sony FE 600mm f/4 GM OSS Lens aimed in her direction.


 
600mm  f/4.0  1/1000s  ISO 500
Going Down in the Steeplechase – Sometimes 30 fps and 50 MP are Critical Going Down in the Steeplechase – Sometimes 30 fps and 50 MP are Critical

Even when 50 MP resolution exceeds the final resolution required for an image, the ultra-high resolution is often unexpectantly valuable. In this example, the selected camera position was optimized for capturing vertically oriented images of the runners jumping from a hurdle (going high in the air) while attempting to clear a water pit.

Crashes always draw attention, and the fall was the eye-catcher of this pass. However, the compressed body position and splashing water no longer worked well in the vertically oriented frame. The horizontal orientation crop seemed favorable, and the optimal framing required a tight crop, including pulling in from the sides. Despite the heavy cropping, the a1 image provided an often sufficient nearly 20 MP of final resolution.

While the Sony Alpha a1's 30 fps drive rate seems extreme, I am finding it addicting. In this case, the 30 fps results provided the ideal moment of touch down and splash combination.

Regarding splashing water, bright water droplets in front of a subject are notorious for stealing a camera AF system's attention. While a sustained high volume of water drops covering the subject sometimes eventually stole the a1's focus, the default AF settings held on the subject's eye behind the splashing very well.

The 400mm and f/2.8 combination is often perfect for photographing track and field events. In this example, the Sony FE 400mm f/2.8 GM OSS Lens renders the foreground and background diffusely blurred, making the subject and water drops stand out. Despite the cloudy day and 1/2000 sec. shutter speed, the ISO setting remained relatively low.

We can enjoy the spectacle of this water crash without feeling too sorry for the runner. Being cold is apparently motivating for running because she went on to win this event with a top 10 list time for the university.


 
400mm  f/2.8  1/2000s  ISO 1600
Sony Alpha a1 and FE 12-24 GM Lens Team for Concert Hall Image 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.

Concert Hall Tripod Position

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
The Sony a1 and FE 35mm GM Lens Capture the Exit The Sony a1 and FE 35mm GM Lens Capture the Exit

The conversation (via text) went something like:

"Dad, can you shoot graduation pictures for me?"

Answering that question required no thought. "Of course!"

"Can I come down the day before graduation for that project?"

"Sounds good."

Later, I asked what time we can start.

"How long does shooting in 5 locations require?"

I replied, "Figure 15-30 minutes per location plus time to get to the next location."

Her reply: "15 minutes should be adequate."

Later, she says: "I can't be ready until 6:45 PM."

I quickly calculate the amount of time before the 8:14 PM sunset to be 1:29. That meant 15 minutes per location and 15 minutes total for getting to the next locations, which happen to be spread over a half-mile distance. You see where I'm going here — it was going to be a rushed shoot. Then she arrived 30 minutes late.

I foresaw the shortness of the time allocated for this portrait shoot and planned for shooting fast and for shooting in low light.

One of my overriding goals was to include a sense of place, to include background showing the university campus. This goal caused me to favor wider but still portrait friendly focal lengths as these angles of view would include more background and avoid unrecognizably blurring it. Still wanting to keep the subject standing out prominently (and wanting the shutter speed help for run-and-gun handheld shooting that would end in very dark light levels), I opted for wide aperture lens options. That these lenses were also among the best available from an image quality standpoint made the decision process easier.

Into a MindShift Gear FirstLight 30L went:

The Sony FE 24mm f/1.4 GM Lens.

The Sony FE 35mm f/1.4 GM Lens mounted to a Sony Alpha a1.

The Canon RF 50mm F1.2 L USM Lens mounted to a Canon EOS R5.

The Canon RF 70-200mm F2.8 L IS USM Lens (primarily intended for headshots on this shoot) mounted to a Canon EOS R5.

The 24mm lens didn't see much use, but having the other three lenses instantly ready (already mounted to a camera) enabled efficient use of the limited time. And, the image quality delivered by this entire kit was outstanding.

The a1 and R5 both feature outstanding eye AF performance. With the cameras set to the widest AF area (covering most of the frame) and people eye AF enabled, switching between camera brands was easy, and my primary job was to create the composition.

This shoot started with a grand exit, and the Sony FE 35mm f/1.4 GM Lens was called into play.

Here, the ambient shade light mixed well with the interior lighting brightness level.

Precisely capturing symmetry in a scene is a challenge even when not rushed. Ideally, the camera should be centered in the scene and horizontally level.

I worked with a variety of camera distances and roll angles, including fully leveled. From a technical perspective, I like the sides of the door frame parallel with the side of the camera frame. However, I kept coming back to this image as my favorite. The slightly lower camera angle makes the subject appear grand as she exits the doorway to this beautiful building. In addition, this camera position aligns the subject's head on a background window and includes the chandelier in the frame.

I hope to share images captured by the other mentioned lenses soon.


 
35mm  f/1.4  1/160s  ISO 100
Needles Eye and Milky Way, Custer State Park, Black Hills, SD 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
The Sony FE 20mm f/1.8 G Lens Finds a Perfect Sunset in Rocky Mountain NP The Sony FE 20mm f/1.8 G Lens Finds a Perfect Sunset in Rocky Mountain NP

The weather forecast indicated partly cloudy skies at sunset and a clear sky afterward, with low wind speed throughout the duration. That is a perfect recipe for an evening of landscape and nightscape photography over a mountain lake, and our workshop group headed to one of my favorite Rocky Mountain National Park locations. The plan was to photograph the sunset reflecting in the water and then the milky way doing the same after dark.

Which lenses to take? The best nightscape lenses are usually outstanding landscape lenses, and the Sony FE 20mm f/1.8 G Lens is an excellent choice for night sky photography. It made the small set in the pack this evening.

Post processing of this image involved a manual HDR process.


 
20mm  f/8.0  1/4s  ISO 100
Sony FE 24mm f/1.4 GM Lens, The Ultimate Northern Lights Lens Sony FE 24mm f/1.4 GM Lens, The Ultimate Northern Lights Lens

When cost, time, and effort are invested into a photography trip, generally only the best-available gear (or something new being reviewed) makes the pack. Milky way and aurora nightscape photography opportunities were on the potential list for a recent trip, and my three favorite night sky lenses were packed specifically for these subjects.

When the milky way is visible, the scene is extremely dark. While the milky way exposures are long, the earth is rotating, creating a form of action photography.

The aurora has varying intensities and can be pulsing and dancing around the frame. If the exposure is too long, the dancing and pulsing aurora turns into a big smear of color. Thus, aurora photography also involves action, an action that is often moving considerably faster than the earth's rotation.

Wide apertures are a big advantage for stopping action, and each of the lenses included in the above list is the widest available at its respective focal length. Just because a lens has a wide aperture does not mean that you want to use that aperture, as many wide aperture lenses are not sharp wide open, becoming considerably sharper as they are stopped down. However, those in the above list are outstanding performers wide open.

While the f/1.4 aperture is a clear advantage held by the FE 24 over the other two lenses, f/1.8 is still very wide. Motion blur is caused when subject details cross over pixel wells on the imaging sensor. Because the 24mm focal length magnifies subject details more than the 14mm and 20mm options, a slightly faster shutter speed is required to photograph the same subject at the same distance with an equivalent amount of motion blur. This shutter speed difference offsets some of the aperture difference.

Mostly, I selected between these three prime lenses based on the angle of view they provide.

The day started with a 5:30 AM alarm and a long search for moose. Upon returning late morning, we learned that the northern lights forecast was favorable. However, the weather did not appear to be favorable, with heavy cloud cover promising to block all higher altitude subjects. Still, the National Weather Service hourly forecast showed the skies expected to clear at 2:00 AM at our desired viewing location. That time coincided with the moon setting, yielding darker skies.

After a short nap, a 2-hour drive ensued, heading north for darker skies and a favorable viewing location. Intermittently checking the skies, the clearing began right on schedule. Unfortunately, the aurora was not yet apparent to the eye. Dim northern lights are considerably easier to see in a long exposure image, so cameras were mounted to tripods and put into action. Test images showed a small vertical column forming over Denali, the mountain in the bottom of this image.

Initially, the northern lights were small, muted, and stationary. The 24mm lens made the little show larger in the frame than the other two lens options, and also accentuated Denali in the foreground.

The show progressed, significantly increasing in intensity and motion, with this image requiring only a 4-second exposure at f/1.4 and ISO 2500. Eventually, the 20mm angle of view (sample here) was needed to take it all in, and the 14mm angle of view (sample here) became optimal not long afterward.

We pulled into the driveway at 6:30 AM. Aside from a short nap and a few eyes-closed rests, it was a 25-hour day. As is usually the case, I struggle to remember the details of the exhaustion, but the memory of the dancing northern lights is still clear, and the images will last a lifetime, keeping the memory alive.


 
24mm  f/1.4  4s  ISO 2500
Weasel Carrying Ground Squirrel, Rocky Mountain National Park Weasel Carrying Ground Squirrel, Rocky Mountain National Park

Previously, I asked if the weasel was adorable or a vicious killer? Most would rate the other image as considerably more adorable, but on this day, both descriptions accurately described this little predator.

As I said before, the opportunity was a unique one. What started as a glimpse of a weasel hunting in the brush turned into an afternoon of waiting, with some watching and frantic photographing mixed in. Often nocturnal, weasels are seldom seen, and when they do show themselves, getting the fast- and erratically-moving critters in the frame is tremendously challenging, even without accounting for accurate focusing.

On this afternoon, a pair of weasels were raiding ground squirrel nests. Capturing photos of the weasels alone was extremely challenging, and capturing photos of the weasels returning to their underground caches with ground squirrels in their mouths was even more so.

A key to successful wildlife photography is knowing (guessing properly) where the subject is going, and finding an attractive composition it might enter into. I guessed right on this weasel's return path, and the near-ground-level Sony Alpha 1 with a Sony FE 600mm f/4 GM OSS Lens mounted captured the weasel running over a rock with a clean background.


 
600mm  f/4.0  1/1600s  ISO 320
Mountain Bluebird, Rocky Mountain National Park Mountain Bluebird, Rocky Mountain National Park

The mountain bluebird is one of my favorite birds, and like many of my favorite birds, the color of this one is spectacular.

While this bird is relatively common in Rocky Mountain National Park, getting a good photo of one remains challenging. This morning, I was searching for elk when a bluebird landed in front of me, sitting long enough for a few photos.

Despite having the Sony FE 600mm f/4 GM OSS Lens mounted, I was focal length limited, and getting closer would have frightened the bird. A high pixel density imaging sensor can save the day when deep cropping is required. In this case, the Sony Alpha 1's 50 MP resolution provided a good enough final image resolution.


 
600mm  f/4.0  1/200s  ISO 100
Broad-Tailed Hummingbird, Rocky Mountain National Park Broad-Tailed Hummingbird, Rocky Mountain National Park

Hummingbirds are fascinating, and a worthy challenge to photograph.

I was looking for elk (in Rocky Mountain National Park), but this broad-tailed hummingbird was consistently landing on the same branch, and spending a few moments waiting for that to happen resulted in some nice images.

Hummingbirds are tiny, and despite getting relatively close with the Sony FE 600mm f/4 GM OSS Lens mounted, I was still focal length limited. As I said in the just shared mountain bluebird image, a high pixel density imaging sensor can save the day when deep cropping is required. The Sony Alpha 1's 50 MP resolution provided a good enough final image resolution.


 
600mm  f/4.0  1/400s  ISO 200
Bedded Elk Calf, Rocky Mountain National Park Bedded Elk Calf, Rocky Mountain National Park

Elk calves were at the top of this Rocky Mountain National Park photo trip priority list. However, finding portrait volunteers was quite challenging. Challenge does make success sweeter.

Elk calves spend most of their time bedded, and bedded calves are much harder to find than those up on their hooves. Another challenge was finding the angle to photograph a bedded elk calf. The babies often go down amongst dead trees, brush, and other obstacles, and often, there are no good angles.

The camera angle shown in this image was the only one that worked for this calf, one of only a few bedded calves that were optimally photographable during this week.

Baby animals bring a cuteness factor to images that is hard to beat. So, start making plans to find the babies this spring.


 
600mm  f/4.0  1/100s  ISO 3200
Alien Throne and Milky Way, Valley of Dreams, New Mexico Alien Throne and Milky Way, Valley of Dreams, New Mexico

Photographing Alien Throne in the Valley of Dreams, near Bisti Badlands, De-Na-Zin Wilderness Area and Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wilderness Area was on my to-do list, and obviously, I made that trip happen.

You've heard it said that a photo should tell a story. I agree that telling a story is a good aspect of a photo, but storytelling is not always important, and oftentimes, the capture of an image creates a story. This image falls into that latter category.

Some images are complicated to capture, some images are complicated to edit, and some images are both. Again, this one landed solidly in the latter category.

Even beyond any travel required to get to New Mexico, getting to Valley of Dreams requires a long drive (for everyone) that ends on high-clearance two-track "roads" (and a popular mapping app does not currently provide the correct directions). Once driving capabilities are exhausted, the hike to Alien Throne is nearly two miles with, at least for the newcomers, GPS guidance over the trailless desert.

The Valley of Dreams is a dark sky location, optimal for photographing the Milky Way. Add darkness to the hike, and even most Valley of Dreams-experienced hikers need constant GPS navigation assistance as your vehicle becomes a needle in a haystack on the return hike.

Choosing to photograph the Milky Way in April means a middle-of-the-night shooting time (with, likely, no other photographers competing for your location). After photographing a sunrise, napping, scouting, and photographing sunset at Alien Throne, and resting back in the SUV for a couple of hours, we started the second hike to Alien Throne in the darkness at 1:00 AM.

Once in position, establishing the composition was the first goal, and darkness greatly increases this challenge. I brought low-level lighting for this scene, but we opted to go with natural lighting due to the myriad of hard shadows present here.

With the composition established, the Milky Way became the focus. The lens was manually focused on the stars, and the mental note for a quick return to optimal infinity focus was that this setting was immediately after the camera's distance meter changed from a number to the ∞ symbol.

I was uncertain where the Milky Way would be compositionally ideal as it rotated through the image, and there were clouds that could shut down visibility later. Thus, images were continuously captured until the Milky Way was clearly rotated beyond the optimal position.

Next, without moving the camera, the foreground was focused on. The 24mm focal length at f/1.4 does not provide adequate depth of field for this entire scene, making focus bracketing important for that goal.

The ground subjects would not be obscured by clouds, and they were not moving in relation to the camera. Thus, they could be photographed at leisure, and longer exposures created a brighter image without concern for star trails. For this image's foreground, three 30-second images were captured at three focus distances, with the duplicate images enabling some of the noise to be averaged out.

After the blending, the three foreground images were focus-stacked into a single image. Focus stacking is easy in Photoshop (& Lightroom). Open as layers in Photoshop, select all layers, select Edit > Auto-Align Layers [select Auto], choose Edit > Auto-Blend Layers [select Stack Images]. Then, the Milky Way sky image was focus-stacked into the final image.

Further processing primarily consisted of adding contrast, cooling the color tone, and darkening the foreground significantly.

It was after 4:00 AM when we packed up to start the GPS-guided route back to the car, and the sun was up by the time we arrived at the hotel. Hotel breakfast was the end of the story behind this image.

Was the reward worth the effort? Definitely. With photography, it usually is.


 
24mm  f/1.4  13s  ISO 8000
Alert Weasel in Rocky Mountain National Park Alert Weasel in Rocky Mountain National Park

I shared a pair of weasel images (Curious Weasel, Weasel Carrying Ground Squirrel) captured while hanging out with (mostly waiting for) a pair of weasels in Rocky Mountain National Park. One of my favorite aspects of these images is the strong background blur that makes the subject boldly stand out.

While many of you following this site might find this advice basic, the basics are important, especially for those starting out, so let's talk about some background blur basics today.

1. Get Closer to the Subject

Moving closer requires a shorter focus distance. The shorter focus distance takes the background out of focus, increasing the blur.

2. Position Against a More Distant Background

Positioning the camera and lens so that the background is farther from the plane of sharp focus increases the blur. Orienting the shooting position to avoid the closer background trees, rocks, buildings, etc., makes a more significant blur happen.

3. Use a Longer Focal Length Lens

A longer focal length increases the magnification of the background details, which increases the blur.

4. Use a Wider Aperture

A wider aperture creates a shallower depth of field. That effect increases the background (and foreground) blur.

5. Use a Camera with a Larger Imaging Sensor

A full-frame camera takes in a wider angle of view than an APS-C model using the same focal length lens. A wider angle of view requires a 1.5x (Sony) or 1.6x (Canon) longer focal length or a position considerably closer for the subject to remain the equivalent size in the frame. Both of those options are already on this list.

Today, the interchangeable lens most adept at blurring the background is the Sigma APO 200-500mm f/2.8 EX DG Lens set to 500mm f/2.8. However, a reality check after looking at that behemoth's price and specs (B&H | Adorama | Amazon) leads us to consider the second most background blurring capable lens. The next best choice is one of the 600mm f/4 options.

While not small or inexpensive, the 600mm f/4 lenses reward the owner (or renter) for their expense and carrying effort by creating differentiation in their photos. A 600mm f/4 lens on a full-frame camera, such as the outstanding Sony FE 600mm f/4 GM OSS Lens and Sony Alpha 1 Camera combination used for this example can melt the background into a pleasant color blur. That blur can make a subject pop from even a busy, distracting environment.

Keeping small subjects such as the weasels relatively large in the frame makes the getting close blur aspect happen by default. Of course, keeping these hyper little creatures in the frame at this distance is quite challenging. Fortunately, I guessed right at this time, being in the ideal position when the weasel paused to look around.


 
600mm  f/4.0  1/1250s  ISO 640
Low-Level Lighting Mobius Arch, Milky Way at Alabama Hills, CA Low-Level Lighting Mobius Arch, Milky Way at Alabama Hills, CA

Photographing the Milky Way behind Mobius Arch in the Alabama Hills near Lone Pine, CA seemed like a worthy challenge. The arch and other rocks nearby are compositionally complementary to the always awesome Milky Way. Some lighting seemed the optimal method for making the foreground subjects visible in the image, and this time, low-level (low intensity) lighting was the strategy implemented.

Low-level lighting involves setting up continuous lights on the foreground. The requirements for these lights include:

A quality spectrum output is paramount. Just as you care that the entire light spectrum is evenly transmitted through your lens, you care that the full spectrum of light is provided in the first place. Correcting light spectrum issues during post-processing can be a huge, time-consuming challenge, especially if the entire image does not share the same deficiency (such as the sky). Look for lights with a CRI specification of 95 or higher.

While having the entire visible light spectrum equally provided is important, additionally helpful is the ability to continuously adjust the light's color temperature output, enabling emphasis of the foreground feature's color and matching the desired night sky color temperature — try 4000-4500k. Especially important is having warm settings available. Look for lights providing minimally 3200k, and lower is better.

Most night sky photography involving foreground lighting is not done in the back yard. Thus transportation and, often, hiking are involved. Especially when using multiple lights, compactness is a desired trait.

Yes, reducing the size of the light causes the lighting to be harsher, producing a sharper transition into shadows. However, the size of night sky foreground subjects is usually quite large, and the lights are typically placed at a distance from the features, making the size difference between portable lights typically irrelevant.

Compactness means less storage space is required.

Compact lights usually feature light weight, also a feature desired for transport.

Another important low-level lighting feature is continuously adjustable brightness. Light intensity falls off at an inverse-squared (very fast) rate, so the intensity required for one situation can be vastly different from another. For example, the light behind the arch in this image was much closer than the light illuminating the entire scene. Look for a light that provides 1-100% intensity adjustment control in small increments (1% is ideal).

I saved a key requirement for last. Unless lighting distant mountains, the light output needs to be extremely dim.

No manufacturers are saying, "Let's see how dim of a light we can make", and nearly everyone wants their lights to be as bright as possible. Indeed, brighter is better for most photography and videography lighting applications. Ask lighting experts for the dimmest light recommendation, and their eyes glaze over.

However, the night sky is dark, and extremely dim light is required to balance the foreground with the night sky. We are talking about quarter moon phase light levels.

I took three Luxli Viola² 5" On-Camera RGBAW LED Lights for this trip. Aside from meeting the just-shared requirements, the battery is powerful and removable, permitting the lights to be checked on a flight. In addition, a Bluetooth controller app enables the lights to be controlled remotely, an especially helpful option when working in challenging areas in the dark.

While the Viola lights are not the lowest wattage lights, they dim to a much lower intensity than the considerably lower wattage lights I've tried, even at their 1% settings (making me question the accuracy of the 1% setting indication). The Violas use the common NP-F550 Lithium-Ion battery pack. This battery is not tiny relative to the light, but it is long-lasting (especially at 1% lighting levels) and readily available.

On this morning, I carried all of the requisite gear to the location — at 2:30 AM. This time of the day, along with strong wind and low temperature, resulted in complete solitude.

Because of the uneven, rocky scenario behind the arch, the plan was to set up the accent light on Robus Monopod supported by a compact Robus SBM-001 Stabilizing Base. That plan seemed great until I returned to the camera position and heard the distinct sound of a Viola light hitting rock.

Remember that wind factor I mentioned? There was not enough base surface area to prevent the light from blowing over. At that time of the night, it took two such occurrences to prove to me that this light stand was insufficient for the conditions.

A true light stand is a inexpensive, lightweight option for positioning low level lights. After all, holding lights is what they are designed for. However, these need a flat surface (or a weight) to prevent them from tipping over.

Tripods provide significantly more flexibility and stability, and there were two tripods in the MindShift Gear BackLight Elite 45L. Hoped for was that I could shoot with two cameras simultaneously, but the reality was that the Really Right Stuff Ascend-14 Long Travel Carbon Fiber Tripod had to take on the light stand role.

Did I tell you about the wind? While hearing the light hit the rocks twice was painful, hearing the new RRS Ascend-14 go down into the rocks provided that sick feeling you've likely experienced at some point in life. But, unwavering to the challenge (and better educated), I improved the Ascend-14 setup, and there were no more blow-downs.

Noteable is that the Viola light suffered only a scratched plastic housing after falling approximately 4' into the rocks three times.

A second light was positioned on a rock far off to the camera left to provide broad foreground lighting.

The next challenge was getting the lights dim enough for the scene. Even at 1% brightness, the Violas required flagging of much (75%?) of their face. While the flagging requirement left this equipment project incomplete, a high-quality, workable solution was in hand.

I enjoyed photographing the Milky Way until the sky became bright enough to hide the stars.

What is the best neutral density filter for night photography? That is a question you have not likely asked before. However, the 1% light output was too bright, and this project was continued upon my return to the studio. Some of the light had to be blocked.

The Viola lights are not the smallest available models, and if the light requires dimming, why not select a smaller, lighter light to work with? Since I was going to block light, perhaps I could block the extra light coming from more compact LED lights.

The second round of research resulted in a few Simorr Vibe P96L RGB Video LED Lights joining the kit. That the Simorr P96L light specs are solid, and their cost is considerably less than the Violas, are positive aspects.

The Simorr batteries are integrated, meaning the light must be carried onto a plane and that a fresh battery cannot be inserted in the field. However, these lights are so small that they require little space in the first place. The battery drain at 1% is low, and a second light costs only a bit more than a spare NP-F550.

Back to the dimming problem. Neutral density filters are designed to block light, and that is the need being addressed.

You care about the spectrum color neutrality of your lens, and we just discussed the need for your light, but the spectrum color neutrality of your neutral density filter is just as important — and perhaps a bigger challenge to overcome. Color deficiencies can be accounted for during post-processing, but accurately fixing the deficiency requires high-level post-processing skills, along with an image of a standard ColorChecker or similar captured in the same lighting. When the spectrum deficiency is not identical throughout the image (the LED light will not affect the sky color), the color correction skill level requirement increases significantly.

The next phase of this project was to order a Lee Filters Zircon Dark Density 24x24" Gel Filter Sheet. Simply cut the inexpensive gel filter into LED light-sized pieces, and tape them on the lights as needed. Right? That plan seemed ideal until the strong red color cast in the test images immediately disqualified this solution.

Knowing that many threaded neutral density filters have the same problem and that there was a resolution, I gaffer taped a Breakthrough Photography neutral density filter, known to be free of color cast, over the Simorr light. The result was perfect.

While carrying a range of round ND filters in the night photography kit to tape on rectangular LED lights is not optimal, this is the best solution I've found so far. Breakthrough's 100mm square neutral density filters align nicely with the size of the larger Viola lights, but they are an expensive addition to a kit not otherwise using them.

Back to the low-level nightscape lighting strategy. Surely, you have heard of light painting. So here are the low-level lighting advantages over light painting.

What are the Low-Level Lighting Advantages Over Light Painting?

  • Once set up, low-level lights provide shot-to-shot consistency that also facilitates timelapse recording.
  • Less skill is required. Light painting is an art — don't underestimate the skill level required to create even lighting.
  • Many photographers can share a single light setup, regardless of their max available aperture and other camera settings.
  • Low-level lighting preserves night vision.
  • It is easier to light from multiple locations simultaneously without tripping over rocks in the dark to get from one to the other during the exposure time.
  • Low-level lighting does not intrude upon other photographers or those otherwise enjoying the night.
  • Multiple cameras can be operated simultaneously by a single photographer, and long exposures facilitate such.

What are the Light Painting Advantages Over Low-Level Lighting?

  • Provides entertainment and challenge during long exposures.
  • Raises anticipation — brings back the film days excitement of never being certain what the image would look like.
  • Provides a greater variety of lighting in the result set — and a higher failure rate.
  • There is no setup.

Reviewing the Lights:

What are the Low-Level LED Light Requirements?

  • High-quality spectrum output (CRI 95 or higher)
  • Continuously adjustable color temperature output, with 3200k or lower available
  • Continuously adjustable brightness, including extremely dim
  • Compact size, light weight
  • Probably: a method of further dimming the light — flagging or filtering

As shared, the Simorr Vibe P96L RGB Video LED Lights and Luxli Viola² 5" On-Camera RGBAW LED Lights are good options.


 
24mm  f/1.4  13s  ISO 6400
Cherry Springs State Park Milky Way Cherry Springs State Park Milky Way

When two wide-angle f/1.4 lenses promoted as ideal for photographing the milky way (an addicting pursuit) show up in the same box with a dark, cloudless sky predicted for the next evening, you drop everything and drive hours to the darkest sky location in the region. In this case, that location was Cherry Springs State Park, an International Dark Sky Park, near Coudersport, PA. After a few hours of sleep and especially after loading the photos from the memory cards, you forget about arriving home at 2:30 AM.

The two lenses were the Sigma 20mm F1.4 DG DN Art Lens and the Sigma 24mm F1.4 DG DN Art Lens. The 20 and 24mm ultra-wide-angle focal lengths are ideal for framing the heart of the milky way, and the ultra-wide f/1.4 aperture allows sufficient light to reach the imaging sensor in the exposure time necessary to prevent star trails.

Here is the Cherry Springs State Park Milky Way at 24mm.


 
20mm  f/1.4  15s  ISO 5000
7x6 Bull Elk Bugling in the Meadow, Rocky Mountain National Park 7x6 Bull Elk Bugling in the Meadow, Rocky Mountain National Park

I just returned from over two weeks of chasing the elk rut (and landscapes and nightscapes), including nearly two weeks of leading small photography groups in Rocky Mountain National Park.

With the incredible performance of the cameras now available, selecting a small number of images to share is daunting, to say the least. The image shared here was low-hanging fruit. Why do I like it?

The subject is a good starting point. Elk make great photo subjects, and this bull is an especially great specimen, having a big body and a large set of antlers, with all points visible. Also, all four legs are partially visible (no overlap).

Bugling is one of the primary elk rut activities, and this bull, angled slightly toward the camera, has his nose up and curled back. The high head position better facilitates a catchlight.

The cloudy sky provided even lighting void of harsh shadows.

The 600mm f/4 compression and shallow depth of field combined with a low shooting position render the foreground and background strongly blurred, making the subject stand out. At the same time, the juxtaposition of the blurred items is complementary to the bull.

While working on a monopod is significantly more demanding than working on a tripod, the monopod permits fast position adjustment that makes captures such as this one possible.

When photographing wildlife in dim light levels, it is advantageous to use a relatively slow shutter speed to enable optimally bright images with a lower ISO setting for less noise. However, motion-blurred subjects are not usually acceptable.

Elk seldom move fast when bugling, and the bugle usually lasts long enough for a quick adjustment before shooting. However, once the bugle is completed, the bull may suddenly chase after another animal. This fast action requires a significantly faster shutter speed.

I use manual exposure mode with the ISO set to Auto to enable quick shutter speed adjustment. A quick roll of the top dial takes the camera from still motion to fast action shutter speeds in a fraction of a second, with the ISO automatically adjusting as needed.

To accommodate auto exposures being affected by bright grass or a dark forest (both seen in this image), I adjust exposure compensation. That adjustment is simply the turn of a dial on the Sony Alpha 1.


 
600mm  f/4.0  1/320s  ISO 400
Pouncing Coyote, Rocky Mountain National Park Pouncing Coyote, Rocky Mountain National Park

I did not set out to photograph coyotes this evening, but Rocky Mountain National Park sometimes produces the unexpected.

While waiting for a herd of elk to do something interesting, movement in the tall grass caught my eye. It didn't take long to determine that a coyote was on the hunt. However, it was mostly obscured by the grass. Autofocusing on the coyote was impossible, and focusing on the grass at precisely the same distance was nearly as challenging.

Then, the coyote made a pounce to catch a rodent. On heightened alert, I readied to hit the shutter release on the next leap. This process was mostly waiting with little shooting, but it only takes one successful sequence to get the desired image.

As the coyote cleared the grass, a Sony Alpha 1 shutter release press instantly locked the FE 600mm F4 GM OSS Lens's focus and tracked through the leap.

Yes, this leap also resulted in dinner for the coyote. Of course, that dinner was mostly hidden by the grass.


 
600mm  f/4.0  1/1250s  ISO 6400
Royal 6x6 Bull Elk in the Rain, Rocky Mountain National Park Royal 6x6 Bull Elk in the Rain, Rocky Mountain National Park

This handsome bull elk is watching his herd of cows from the forest's edge on a rainy afternoon in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Does rain keep you from your pursuit? While heavy rain hinders visibility, light rain is often not a problem. Wet foliage appears saturated, and the rain clouds create even (though dim) lighting. That combination, along with the raindrops, adds diversity to the portfolio.

Put a LensCoat rain cover on the camera and rain gear on yourself, and go out shooting.

Images captured on cloudy days or in the shade often benefit from warming the color balance — add red and subtract blue. A slight increase in vibrance brings out the colors.


 
600mm  f/4.0  1/640s  ISO 2500
Photographing a Stand-alone Tree in Stunning Red Fall Foliage Photographing a Stand-alone Tree in Stunning Red Fall Foliage

It is my favorite time of the year — Fall. The landscape is taking on spectacular colors, and I feel the need to make the colors last by photographing them.

However, I frequently encounter beautiful trees in full fall color with uninspiring surroundings. The challenge is to capture the beauty without including unsupporting subjects, especially power lines, in the composition.

As the relevant example for this image, our local high school grounds have a border of large maple trees that get extraordinary color each fall. While the school property and nearby neighborhood are nice, the buildings, streets, wires, etc., are not what I'm looking for in a nature picture.

In this case, the simplest tactic is often to get out the telephoto lens and isolate a portion of the tree.

The timing of this year's peak fall leaf color coincided with the Tamron 50-400mm f/4.5-6.3 Di III VC VXD Lens review. This lens has the perfect range for isolating leaves (and the excellent image quality necessary to make the shoot worthwhile).

A large tree can offer many compositions, but after moving around to figure them out, I typically come back to a small number of favorites. To find these, try zooming out to the widest focal length and then zooming in as the composition is adjusted until nothing extraneous is in the frame, and the remaining limb lines and leaf clumps are balanced. Lock the tripod head, take that shot (perhaps several if the leaves are moving in the wind), create some variations, and then zoom in further to get a different look. Then, start over, perhaps after moving to a different position.

This maple tree's foliage was not solid, meaning some background showed through. The best options were to fill the foreground tree's holes with sky or, as shown here, with a background tree across the street. Note that the horizon and other orientation-identifying subjects are not discernable in this image. In this case, it is OK to tilt the camera slightly to adjust for the available details (I keep telling myself that).

This image was captured just before the sun set. The bright red leaf color lit by warm light made the red channel the one to watch for exposure. A Breakthrough Photography circular polarizer filter reduced the reflections on the leaves, further saturating the primarily red colors.


 
277mm  f/11.0  1/20s  ISO 100
The Milky Way and Low-Level Lighting in Badlands National Park The Milky Way and Low-Level Lighting in Badlands National Park

The foreground lighting in this Badlands National Park Milky Way image is courtesy of a pair of Simorr Vibe P96L RGB Video LED Lights on Manfrotto Befree Advanced Travel Tripods.

Even at their lowest intensity settings (1%), half the light face required gaffer tape to bring the overall light balance down to Milky Way levels.

Post-processing of this image primarily involved peripheral shading correction and increasing the contrast of the foreground and background independently.


 
24mm  f/1.4  13s  ISO 6400
Sony Alpha 1 and FE 600mm Lens Capture a Huge Bull Elk in the Rain Sony Alpha 1 and FE 600mm Lens Capture a Huge Bull Elk in the Rain

Sharing a favorite image from my late summer and early fall elk photography here. The colors in this image are right out of the camera using Lightroom's default settings — I didn't create this 7x7 bull's unique orange antler color during post-processing.

The great lighting (and water drop streaks) is curtesy of a rainy day. When photographing wildlife, I always keep a LensCoat rain cover on my camera and lens. With a quality rain shell on me, moderate rain does not hinder the pursuit, and it often enhances the photos.


 
600mm  f/4.0  1/200s  ISO 1000
Satellite Bull Elk Fight, Rocky Mountain National Park Satellite Bull Elk Fight, Rocky Mountain National Park

Their day job primarily involves harassing the herd bulls, but the satellite bulls will also fight each other. These two young Rocky Mountain National Park bulls seemed to be sparing vs. having an all-out battle.

To keep the eyes of both bulls in the sharp plane of focus, a side-on position was taken. A low shooting position gives the elk a larger apparent stature and increases the background distance, letting it go strongly blurred.

This fight took place early in the day. With limited light, an all-action-stopping shutter speed required a very high ISO setting. I opted to shoot with a slow shutter speed to avoid the high noise levels. This decision reduced the keeper rate, but often a small number of great images is better than many mediocre ones, and I had a nice quantity of sharp images from the fight.

That said, the ISO 4000 setting yields a noticeable amount of noise. Subject detail, such as hair, hides noise better than evenly colored areas, such as the smoothly blurred background. Strong noise reduction destroys details, but it is especially helpful for removing noise from a blurred background.

So, this image was processed once with weak noise reduction and once with strong noise reduction. The two images were loaded into photoshop layers, with the subject-selected mask hiding the strong noise reduction layer. The subjects retain details (and noise) and the background appears similar to a low ISO setting. A similar tactic can be used in Lightroom.


 
600mm  f/4.0  1/200s  ISO 4000
Morning in the Meadow, Bull Elk in Rocky Mountain National Park Morning in the Meadow, Bull Elk in Rocky Mountain National Park

During last year's Rocky Mountain National Park instructional photo tour, we spotted this bull elk from about a mile away. The size of the antlers was an easy reason to go after this animal, but there was another good reason.

While a great subject is paramount for a great image, a primary wildlife or portrait subject often fills a relatively small percentage of the frame. Elk are large animals, and this one fills the composition enough to leave just-comfortable breathing room at the top and bottom. Still, most of the frame is background.

The full Sony Alpha 1 image measures 8,640 x 5,760 pixels, yielding 49,766,400 total pixels. Cropping the image to fit only the elk results in 3,499 x 4,729 pixels and 16,546,771 total pixels. Dividing the smaller total pixels number by the larger one indicates that the elk consumes only 33% of the frame.

Therefore, the background is a vital part of the image. Blurring the background is a great option for emphasizing the subject and removing distractions. While a 600mm f/4 lens can blur the background stronger than most others, the size of the elk pushes the focus distance long enough that the background details remain discernable. Thus, the background still needs to be supportive.

A reason for pursuing this opportunity was the evenly vegetated meadow background. The meadow provides a complementary color and a sense of the location without competing for attention.

A bull elk standing in bright sunlight is an easy scenario to produce a sharp image in, and a fast framerate is unnecessary, right? Not so fast.

That bright sunlight creates heatwaves, and telephoto-focal-length-magnified heatwaves blur the image. The background is already blurred, but the eye must be sharp. Heatwaves move fast, and high-speed continuous shooting often results in some eye-sharp images among the blurred ones.


 
600mm  f/4.0  1/800s  ISO 125
There Are No Marmot Photography Workshops, Rocky Mountain National Park There Are No Marmot Photography Workshops, Rocky Mountain National Park

You can try searching, but there are no marmot photography workshops available. At least, I didn't find one.

Certainly, you could talk someone into providing a custom marmot photo tour, but there is a reason (or multiple reasons) why such tours are not readily available. I'll start the list. We don't value marmots and marmot photos enough to spend our time and funds chasing them.

However, these small animals are fun to hang out with, and they are easily cute enough to be photo-worthy.

I photographed these creatures in three national parks last year. This marmot was a Rocky Mountain National Park resident. However, a couple of coyotes were attempting to end that residency. Thus, survival was at the top of this wary marmot's priority list, and the high rock perch advantaged the marmot in this competition.

Marmots, and animals in general, vary on their minimum people distance. In relation to close shooting distance, experience, observation, and acclimation are the photographer's keys to getting the best wildlife images. Marmots in people-frequented areas of national parks tend to be quite tolerant of people.

However, getting too close is not good for photos or the critter being photographed — the subject departs.

When an interesting subject is discovered, photograph it for the insurance shots. Then, if the situation warrants, slowly move a bit closer, perhaps not directly toward the subject. Repeat until, or better yet, just before, the animal shows the least discomfort with your presence.

This image represents what I felt was near this marmot's minimum people distance. It is alert and wary, but his concern is not me.

The marmot presented a variety of poses, but most were looking toward the sides. Composition involves many factors, but the simple one in this scenario was that the critter should be looking into the frame. Placing it high in the frame helps convey the lookout role.

Sorry, I'm not opening a marmot-specific photography tour this year. But, I may have a couple of openings in my elk rut instructional photo tour in September.


 
600mm  f/4.0  1/160s  ISO 200
Elk Rut in Rocky Mountain National Park Instructional Photo Tour 2023 Elk Rut in Rocky Mountain National Park Instructional Photo Tour 2023

This big bull, prancing and showing off his antlers, was heading back to his herd of cows after fending off an adversary.

Where is the best place to be in mid to late September? Rocky Mountain National Park is high on my list of answers. Elk are one of my favorite animals, and the rut behavior makes this time of year optimal for photographing them.

So, why don't you join me in RMNP this September? I have a couple of openings for the Elk Rut in Rocky Mountain National Park Instructional Photo Tour.


 
600mm  f/4.0  1/800s  ISO 6400
Sony Alpha 1, FE 35mm F1.4 GM Lens, and an Epic RMNP Milky Way Photo Sony Alpha 1, FE 35mm F1.4 GM Lens, and an Epic RMNP Milky Way Photo

From my perspective, the heart of the milky way sets up a superb image. A reflective high mountain lake that nearly meets the sky and the character of spruce tree tops substantially raise the bar.

When the Sony Alpha 1 and FE 35mm F1.4 GM Lens are on the tripod in front of that scene, special results await.

Many focal lengths work well at this location, and the milky way will vertically fill the frame with the entire available range. But, I love how the milky way fills out the frame horizontally at the 35mm full-frame angle of view.

The 35mm magnification is stronger than more commonly used focal lengths, including 14mm, 20mm, and 24mm. Therefore, a slightly shorter shutter speed to avoid star trails is required relative to when the wider angle choices are used, but f/1.4 has you covered.

If you have never photographed the milky way from a dark location with an f/1.4 lens, you don't know what you are missing. I'll warn you — addiction awaits. The FE 35mm GM lens is an outstanding choice.

The Really Right Stuff TVC-24L Mk2 Carbon Fiber Tripod and BH-40 Ball Head never let me down for long exposures.

Images don't always tell the full story. In this case, a persistent wind caused stretched star reflections for most of the several hours I spent at this lake this night. Fortunately, I was blessed with still water for about one or two minutes just as the milky way rotated into the perfect position. With that combination, the rest of the evening's images will likely remain archived.


 
35mm  f/1.5  10s  ISO 8000
Sony FE 24-70mm F2.8 GM II Lens Captures Last Light on Rock Cut, RMNP Sony FE 24-70mm F2.8 GM II Lens Captures Last Light on Rock Cut, RMNP

When the sky is clear, focusing on what the last light of the day is hitting is often the optimal plan. Last light typically falls on high-elevation features, and Rock Cut in Rocky Mountain National Park has that qualification.

A Colorado 14er, Longs Peak, also captures the day's last light. Framing this mountain between the Rock Cut features results in what you see here.

The Sony Alpha 1 and Sony FE 24-70mm F2.8 GM II Lens are an outstanding combination. Three manually focus bracketed images were combined for this image.

Join me in RMNP this September. I have an opening or two for the Elk Rut in Rocky Mountain National Park Instructional Photo Tour.


 
66mm  f/11.0  1/13s  ISO 100
After Dark at Rock Cut, Rocky Mountain National Park After Dark at Rock Cut, Rocky Mountain National Park

I recently shared Rock Cut in the last light. I didn't go home after the sun set, and instead tolerated high winds and very cold temperatures for a couple more hours. It seemed that the rock formations here would make a good foreground for a Milky Way photo.

Getting the rock formations to rise above the other landscape meant climbing down to the edge of the cliff, and low-level lighting was used to bring out the rock color. The foreground lighting in this Rocky Mountain National Park Milky Way image is from a pair of Simorr Vibe P96L RGB Video LED Lights on Manfrotto Befree Advanced Travel Tripods.

Once the lights and camera were set up, waiting (did I mention that it was really cold?) for the Milky Way to rotate into the desired position was the remaining task.

The Sigma 20mm F1.4 DG DN Art Lens is an outstanding Milky Way lens. The difference that f/1.4 makes in Milky Way image quality over an f/2.8 lens is dramatic.

Join me in RMNP this September. I have an opening or two for the Elk Rut in Rocky Mountain National Park Instructional Photo Tour.


 
20mm  f/1.4  13s  ISO 6400
Sony FE 20-70mm F4 G Lens Visits Mt. Vernon Place United Methodist Church Sony FE 20-70mm F4 G Lens Visits Mt. Vernon Place United Methodist Church

Sometimes, 24mm is not wide enough. With a bus parked immediately behind me, the 20mm focal length was the key to this Mt. Vernon Place United Methodist Church composition.

Most full-frame general-purpose lenses start at 24mm, but the Sony FE 20-70mm F4 G Lens is a game-changer in that regard.

With the 20mm focal length affording the angle of view needed to comfortably frame the three doorways (love the red doors), positioning the camera perfectly leveled and centered in the middle door was the next task. This vertical angle was selected to split the height of the bottom visible step and comfortably contain the doorway roof peaks.


 
20mm  f/8.0  1/6s  ISO 100
Sony FE 20-70mm F4 G Lens Goes to the George Peabody Library, Baltimore Sony FE 20-70mm F4 G Lens Goes to the George Peabody Library, Baltimore

The grand George Peabody Library in Baltimore screams for an ultra-wide-angle lens. While many Sony wide-angle lenses would easily handle this job, the Sony FE 20-70mm F4 G Lens is the only Sony full-frame standard zoom lens that takes in angles of view this wide.

The other requirement for photographing this architectural marvel is working around the no tripod requirement. The interior is dark, so obtaining the highest image quality requires support.

When is a tripod not a tripod? On this day, the Really Right Stuff TFA-01 Ultra Pocket Pod with a BPC-16 Microball with Panning was no-tripod acceptable.

When photographing a symmetrical scene, find center. Use a perfectly centered and horizontally level camera. Or, don't. Make the composition uncentered enough to make it the uncenteredness and crookedness appear to be a clear decision, artistic instead of sloppy.


 
20mm  f/8.0  8s  ISO 100
Sony FE 20-70mm F4 G Lens Goes to Graffiti Alley, Baltimore Sony FE 20-70mm F4 G Lens Goes to Graffiti Alley, Baltimore

This much graffiti on the walls corresponds to a sketchy environment, right? Not here.

Street legal graffiti is the draw to Graffiti Alley in Baltimore, and Graffiti Alley is a sure thing graffiti photography location (though non-family-friendly content is sometimes created).

Filling the frame with unique color is not a challenge here, but figuring out what compositions are appealing amongst the chaos is. While I was challenged, the Sony FE 20-70mm F4 G Lens provided the full range of desired focal lengths.


 
20mm  f/11.0  .3s  ISO 100
House on Fire, Bears Ears National Monument, Utah House on Fire, Bears Ears National Monument, Utah

On a trip targeting the Bisti / De-Na-Zin Wilderness Area in New Mexico, I ended up in Bears Ears National Monument, Utah.

Why? Two reasons.

First, 3 days of sand and dust storms (even stones were in the air) provided an unfavorable New Mexico greeting. Second, Bears Ears National Monument has some great photo subjects.

This image is of House on Fire in Mule Canyon, Cedar Mesa. Late in the morning, the sun reaches the red rock below this ancient Puebloan granary, creating a warm-toned light that reflects up into the massive rock overhang. That warm light color combines with lines in the rock to create the look of a raging fire over the ancient building.

Photographers chose a wide range of editing choices for this subject, some including red color tone emphasis and wild saturation. The chosen concept is typically to make the flames appear intense, and personal preference or audience preference rules (unless processing for a client).

I opted to process this image using the cloudy white balance setting, cooler than the shade option technically right for the scenario (6500k vs. 7500k), with a bit of vibrance (+30) to bring out the richness in the colors.

House on Fire affords a wide variety of compositions. To fully cover the focal length range potentially desired, I carried two awesome zoom lenses, the Sony FE 12-24mm F2.8 GM Lens and the Sony FE 24-70mm F2.8 GM II Lens.

Primarily, the 12-24mm lens met the needs, delivering this corner-to-corner sharp image in a single shot.


 
18mm  f/11.0  1/8s  ISO 100
Falling Roof Ruin Cliff Dwelling, Bears Ears National Monument, Utah Falling Roof Ruin Cliff Dwelling, Bears Ears National Monument, Utah

On a trip targeting the Bisti / De-Na-Zin Wilderness Area in New Mexico, I ended up in Bears Ears National Monument, Utah — twice.

Why? Two reasons.

First, 3 days of sand and dust storms (even stones were in the air) provided an unfavorable New Mexico greeting. Second, Bears Ears National Monument has some great photo subjects.

I told you that before. This image is of Falling Rood Ruin Cliff Dwelling in Cedar Mesa, and this image capture shares the same circumstances and concepts as House on Fire.

Late in the morning, the sun reaches the warm-toned rock below this ancient Puebloan granary, creating a warm-toned light that reflects up into the massive rock overhang.

The name suggests the unique feature of this subject — the chunks of roof that appear to have fallen. While walking under this overhang, one can't help but wonder when the next chunk of roof will let go.

This image was processed using the cloudy white balance setting, cooler than the shade option technically right for the scenario (6500k vs. 7500k), with a bit of vibrance (+30) to bring out the richness in the colors.

While the Sony FE 24-70mm F2.8 GM II Lens was in the BackLight 26L, a cliff immediately behind this tripod position ensured there was no backing up. The Sony FE 12-24mm F2.8 GM Lens covered all the angles I needed at this location. This corner-to-corner sharp image is a single shot.

The 12mm angle of view captures a vast portion of the scene, including the lines in the rock under the structure.


 
12mm  f/11.0  1/6s  ISO 100
Laughing Gull, Island Beach State Park, NJ Laughing Gull, Island Beach State Park, NJ

This laughing gull's little brain processor is trying to determine if any of my lunch is fully eaten.

When photographing standing birds on the beach, getting as low as possible is usually the optimal choice. This camera position creates the most distant, and therefore, most blurred background.


 
429mm  f/6.3  1/250s  ISO 400
Bighorn Sheep Ewe Keeps Watch at Sunset in Badlands National Park Bighorn Sheep Ewe Keeps Watch at Sunset in Badlands National Park

Briefly, the Badlands National Park skies produced a nice show this evening, complete with the clouds seeming to match the ground texture. While I like the photo, the experience was even better.

See the sheep standing on the leftmost peak? We were in location for the sunset photo when this bighorn sheep ewe showed up on the ridge immediately to our right.

Then, it ran down the side of the cliff and ran up the one it is shown on. The sheep's ability to navigate the steep, slippery terrain at speed is incredible.

Experiences like these happen when you spend time in the right places. A second sheep is bedded on the tall peak close to the center of the image, and two more are walking between the two. Also impressive is that all four sheep stood still for a one-second exposure.

The optically impressive Sony FE 12-24mm F2.8 GM Lens got the call for this sunset. With clouds covering most of the sky, the odds of good sunset color were low. However, that scenario meant the entire sky could light up brilliantly, and I wanted ultra-wide angles of view ready to capture as much color as possible.

A small opening in the clouds created a light show that made 12mm a highly welcomed option. The Sony Alpha 1's ultra-high resolution makes the distant sheep easily recognized when the image is viewed large.


 
12mm  f/11.0  1s  ISO 100
Bugling Bull Elk with Breath, Rocky Mountain National Park Bugling Bull Elk with Breath, Rocky Mountain National Park

Two weeks of guiding elk photography in Rocky Mountain National Park resulted in a rather overwhelming number of images. Selecting the keepers is a huge project, and deciding which image to share first was daunting. It seems that everyone loves breath shots, so I'll start with that option.

This bull walked in so close to us that it didn't fit in the 600mm frame when its head was turned. While I liked the tight image that crops the back of the antlers, I knew that having the entire elk and its breath in the frame might be an option I later wanted.

To avail that option, additional images containing the cropped content on the left and right were captured immediately after the primary image, and the three images were manually stitched in Photoshop as a panorama.

This image utilized a camera position near the ground, just high enough to create a blur that transitions into the animal's legs, and elk legs are one of my favorite leading line sources, especially when they are equally spaced apart. The relatively close proximity of the elk combined with the distant background creates a strong background blur that makes this bull stand out.

Getting obvious breath in an image requires cold temperatures and a supporting background. While I could see the breath in many other images by the changes apparent when browsing one after the other, light-colored and detailed backgrounds often hide the breath in single images. A dark background and backlighting create an ideal scenario for making the breath element obvious.


 
600mm  f/4.0  1/400s  ISO 5000
Bugling Drop Tine Bull Elk, Rocky Mountain National Park Bugling Drop Tine Bull Elk, Rocky Mountain National Park

This bull's herd of cows was split, half on the far side of the ridge with him, and the other half on the near side. Predictable was that he would come back for the rest.

The bull had choices on where to come back over the ridge, but not all were photographically optimal, including significant brush obstructions at some locations. Setting up for the ideal returning elk composition was the logical plan, and this bull hit the opening perfectly.

There is an aspect of this image that I do not like, but I'll start with some of the positive aspects.

The primary subject is a good specimen, with a large rack that includes a substantial and unique drop tine.

The early morning light is soft, avoiding hard shadows and creating a strong catchlight in the eye. The slightly upward shooting angle provides a regal perspective on the animal.

Shooting at 20 fps enabled the capture of this image with the bugling elk and its laid-back antlers precisely framed, without interruption, by pine trees and rocks. The trees and rocks have shape, color, and contrast character, and the distant background consists of an attractive pattern of blurred spruce trees.

Photographing bugling behavior is always a goal, and the front leg, especially the far front leg, bent slightly attractively conveys action and positions the head at a higher level than other positions in its cadence. You can visualize him walking out of the opening.

So, what don't I like about this picture? The elk has three legs. It doesn't really have three legs, but the back right leg is aligned with; and therefore hidden by, the front left leg. Viewed at full size, the larger back leg is visible around the front leg, but at typical web viewing size, only three legs are discernable.

This image is a slight pano. The elk came through fast, and I was holding slightly too far to the left when this pose was struck. The framing a few frames prior included slightly more of the right border that gives the image slightly improved overall balance.


 
600mm  f/4.0  1/320s  ISO 4000
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