Category: On Location

Shooting the Mythical Milkyway Part I : Joshua Tree National Park

“When he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.”

– William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

O Milky Way, What art thou you bright band thingy in the sky? 

What is it about the night sky that fascinates us so much? There’s nothing quite like lying down on a bed of soft grass gazing up at the heavens as a canopy of stars shine bright and tell you tales of yore. Astrophotography is a very very interesting experience and if you’ve not tried your hand at it before, I highly recommend that you should. I say this because after one time of shooting stars, you will be dying for another chance to get out there and capture the glory of our galaxy. Right then, what about the Milky way? According to Wikipedia, The Milky Way is the galaxy that contains our Solar system. This name derives from its appearance as a dim “milky” glowing band arching across the night sky, in which the naked eye cannot distinguish individual stars.The Milky Way appears like a band because it is a disk-shaped structure being viewed from inside. All right, enough trivia.

Challenges and difficulties thy shall encounter : I have told thee often, and I re-tell thee again and again

While it would be supremely awesome to walk out each night and see the Milky way with your naked eyes, such a scenario rarely materializes, unless you are like one of those guys in a Geico Ad living under a rock in the desert. Even so, it would be difficult because the moon plays a huge role in you being able to see the Milky way.  The main impediment to seeing and capturing the Milky way is the lack of dark skies. The cities we live in usually light up in the night and this produces what is called Light Pollution.  Basically, these large neon lights and their close cousins make the sky all bright and the visibility of the stars reduces. Hence people have to travel away from these bright cities to even stargaze! Sometimes, just moving away from city lights isn’t quite enough. Their influence spreads much farther than their borders. To summarize this long winded point, I say, find a super dark place like a desert, a mountain range or a forest. Some coastal areas work too, but these are quite rare to find.

Next pick a day when the moon isn’t there in the sky, or shy away from the moonlight as much as possible while choosing your spot. Usually new moon days in the summer are ideal for shooting the Milky way. All right then, great! You’ve successfully found a dark spot! Congrats! You are now only a couple of steps away from recording our glorious galaxy on your sensor. So what are those steps then?

For starters, finding a good composition. The milky way has now been shot to death, almost everyone has a shot of it and most of these shots look the same! The real trick is coming up with something new. I’ll delve into that soon.  Another potential stumbling block is the camera you have. You’ll need a camera that has a decent ISO performance. To shoot the Milky way, you will need ISO values between 1000 and 3200. A camera that has a decent noise performance at this ISO range helps a lot. That doesn’t mean that you can’t shoot it if your camera isn’t that good, but, you will be limited by the ISO performance in terms of what you can shoot. On that note, lets jump into some tech talk. I’ll next discuss what you need in terms of equipment and also share some tips on planning your shoot.

Equipment and planning : Away, and mock the time with fairest show

Before you go on your noble quest O brave knight/fair maiden, thou shall need the following  to slay any dragons along the way :

  • A camera with good noise performance in the ISO range of 1600-3200.
  • A fast, wide angle lens which has a large aperture, e.g. f/2.8
  • A remote timer release ( Preferably, but not essential)
  • Extra batteries for your camera ( A battery grip would work wonders)
  • A sturdy tripod
  • A flashlight and/or headlamp
  • A compass
  • Coffee/Tea and other snacks to consume whilst waiting for the shot

While you can use any lens you desire to capture stars, there are some salient aspects that you should be aware of when you choose a lens for the shoot. First, the stars are not going to stay still and pose for you all night (They have jobs you know?). Since the earth rotates, stars appear to be moving across the night sky. What does this mean for you? Basically, this means that there is an upper limit to the shutter speed that you can use to get pinpoint stars before they start streaking. While increasing the ISO and lowering the aperture helps, it does not solve the problem always. An increase in ISO means more noise, and changing the ISO-Aperture combination does not always guarantee a streak free shot. What does all this have to do with lenses? Fast, Wide Angle lenses can really help you in stretching the limits on you shutter speed. More on the shutter speed aspect later. Extra batteries always help since you never know when you’ll run out of juice for your camera. In the dead of night, it’s not easy getting new batteries right? Also, it can get very cold out there, so layer up, and be prepared for chilly weather (Hot beverages help and they can keep you awake!).  Another thing that is very important is to know the lay of the land well. If you are visiting a place for the first time, get there ahead of time and scope out the area. Never take risks in the dark, it’s not fun!

Shine On You Crazy Diamond

Compelling composition in the dark : What`s that, I pray?

All righty then, let’s get to the fun part, shooting the Milky Way. Most of the heavy lifting is needed during setup. Taking the actual shot is very very easy. Let’s break this section into byte sized chunks shall we? Before we begin, I’m assuming your aperture is set to the widest your lens can go, e.g. f/2.8 . Trust me you’ll need it!

  • Manual Focusing : Perhaps one of the more challenging steps in the process. In order to render your stars sharp and as pin-pointy as possible, you need first pre-focus to infinity. In order to do this, first switch your lens from Auto Focus to Manual Focus mode. The reason you do this is because your camera and lens system cannot auto focus in the dark. Additionally, if you are including foreground in your shot (which I highly recommend), then you need to ensure an optimum depth of field. For more on this and depth of field calculation, check out Most lenses nowadays have focusing rings with distance markers. This makes your life a lot easier while choosing the exact distance to focus on. Another neat way of focusing manually is to use the Live View option on your camera if you have it. While in live view, zoom into any bright object in the sky (mostly a star or in some cases the moon) and adjust the focusing ring until the object appears tack sharp on the screen. While it takes a little bit of time to get the hang of this, rest assured it becomes second nature soon. I’d recommend taking a test shot after this to see if everything appears sharp and in focus. That way, you can focus on altering your composition and other things without worrying about a botched shot. 
  • Choosing the correct shutter speed :  As I mentioned before, stars tend to move after a certain exposure time, so choosing the right shutter speed is key. There is a rule/suggestion known as the rule of 600 which can help you choose the correct shutter speed based on the focal length you are shooting at. Here’s how it works:


  • Take 600 and divide it by the focal length you are shooting with. The resulting number is the number of seconds you can expose your shot for before the stars start moving. For example if you are shooting at 20mm, then 600/20 = 30 seconds is the maximum exposure time you can get away with before the stars start moving.
  • Do note, that this rule only works for a Full Frame Camera as described above. In order to get the number for a Crop Sensor like a Canon 7D for example, you need to divide 600 by the Effective Focal length of the lens. For example, if you are shooting at 20mm on a crop sensor with a crop factor of 1.6, then the maximum shutter speed is 600/(1.6*20) = 18.75 ~ 19 seconds. You may be thinking that 19 seconds is a long time, but in terms of astrophotography, it’s nothing at all! Why am I saying this? Read on to the next point.

Footnote: This whole procedure involves a lot of trial and error. Work around with the shutter speed until you get the right shot. The rule/suggestion of 600 is not written in stone. It helps you find a good starting point. However, it is up to you to play around and find the best shutter speed for you.

  • ISO – I SO want to avoid noise :  In the previous point, I mentioned that 19 seconds is peanuts when it comes to night time exposure. Why? The light available in the environment, known as Ambient light does very little to help you. So if you are left stuck with an underexposed shot at a maximum exposure time of 15 seconds, and you are already wide open as far as aperture goes ( f/2.8 or the maximum your lens can go), then you NEED to up the ISO. Don’t worry about noise and bump the ISO up. Most cameras deliver surprisingly good performance at high ISOs. So, go ahead and up the ISO as much as needed. Also note that you can record a lot of sky detail with higher ISOs.
  • Composition – Run of the mill is boring : Everyone can shoot the Milky Way guys. It’s easy once you know how. However, what separates the great shots from the good is the composition. Having a compelling foreground in front of the Milky way makes a huge difference to the shot. Just imagine, having the Milky way reflect off the placid waters of a lake, or having it arch over a mountain range. Shots like these, where the photo stands on it’s own without the Milky way in it, really make the difference. So it’s good to come early around or after sunset and frame up a composition. Then it’s a patient waiting game for the right moment. Additionally, you could also light paint and get some really cool effects into your shot. The possibilities are endless!

Experience of taking the shot : This gentle and unforced accord sits smiling to my heart

My first experience at shooting the Milky Way was awesome, for lack of a better term. I had a lot of fun, and while it was challenging, it was nonetheless very rewarding. I realized you can read all you want about the proper technique, equipment and other factors, but there is NOTHING like actually being out there in pitch darkness, fumbling with a torch light, and focusing your camera manually on a distant star and waiting with bated breath as a miracle pops up on your LCD. It’s a very very surreal experience. So go out there and have fun guys!

Part II will deal with processing the Milky Way Image! Stay tuned…


Comments, Questions or Suggestions? Feel free to drop a note below!


Let the Light Charm you : Windansea beach, San Diego

“Light is the first of the painters. There is no object so foul, that intense light will not make it beautiful”- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Isn’t light amazing in so many ways. Emerson’s quote really brings out what I’ve had in my head about the wondrous power of light. In photography, light is king. Without the right light, even the most beautiful object would look mundane and boring. Light has that magic touch which changes how anything looks, how you perceive the world around you and the emotional response that something evokes from within you. Composition is one thing and I’ve talked about that in my previous post. But you can have all the elements in your scene perfectly arranged, you could have the most amazing set of elements in the scene, but without the right light, the image would fall flat on its face.

When I first took up photography, I was very keen on getting a cool shot, one that had people stop and say “Wow! That’s awesome”. During this phase, what I didn’t notice was that the shots that people around me liked were the ones where the light was awesome. I didn’t know what constituted great light at that time, given that my intentions were solely on clicking away at anything that felt good inside. What really helped me was finding out why I felt that urge inside to take the picture at that precise moment. For me, it was (and still is) all about the light. To really understand light, you must first let the light charm you. I say this in no light sense (Pun unintended).

Ask any landscape photographer for a term that’s thrown about a lot these days and most of them will respond thus, “The Quality of Light”. So what is it then? In a very broad sense, it is the nature of the light in the scene that has a certain impact on the shot. The quality of light changes the emotions that you evoke from the viewer of your photograph. Therefore, the quality of light is just as important as composition when it comes to shooting. The Quality of light in the scene is defined by three attributes, namely, the direction of light, the size of the light, and the color of the light. Each of these characteristics have a significant impact on the final image.

Look at these two images. These were taken at the same location, using the same camera and lens, at about ten feet of each other and with the same camera settings. However I took these images 30 minutes from each other. Can you see how dramatically the light has changed over 30 minutes? Each image has a different emotional impact and evokes a different response from the viewer. In fact if you look closely, you will see the same ship in both images (though in different positions). Also note that by waiting for some time, I was able to bring in the moon into the composition. I like both these images just as much, but the impact that they have on me (and You as well I hope) is very very different.

While I will discuss these briefly here in this post, I will dwell more on each of these aspects in individual posts in the future. This is because there is so much to be said about each of them.

Direction of light: The first factor that affects your image is the direction of light. This decides which parts of your image fall into the shadows and where your highlights are. For example, the sun was setting to the right of these moss covered rocks. Consequently, parts of the rock on the right were illuminated more, which brought out the textures in those areas, while the other areas are more “hidden” so as to speak. A midday sun provides the harshest light while the sun positioned low on the horizon provides soft diffused light. Think about how you’d want the light to hit your subject the next time when you are out shooting.

The Size of the Light Source: How big or how small your light source is defines in some sense the transition between shadows and highlights in your image. A larger light source produces more even diffused light, while a smaller light source produces a “hard” focused light, which makes the transition between shadows and highlights more abrupt. For example, shooting at noon is something you’d do well to avoid, as it produces really harsh contrasts that are very hard to correct in post post-processing. Why? Because the sun is right overhead and is a small light source ( It’s millions of miles away from the earth). Therefore it produces focused beams which really don’t light up all parts of the scene in the same way. The same sunlight during the sunrise or sunset is more soft and diffused and lights the scene evenly.



The Color of the Light : The third characteristic is the color of light, which is how “warm” or how “cool” the light is. In fact a better term would be the temperature of the light source, but I feel “Color of light” is easier to grasp. The warmness or coolness of a light source is actually not the literal temperature, but a measure of the dominant colors and tones that the light produces. For example, red, orange and yellow are warm colors and these are characteristic of a “warm” light source. Typically, you encounter these colors during sunrise or sunset. Blues and violets are characteristic of cooler light sources. One can see these tones in the blue hour ( duh!) after the sun has set or during midday. In the two shots shown here, you can see how much variation there is in terms of color temperature. One of the shots was taken at sunset and another after sunset.

It’s really good to know what kind of light to expect when you are going out for a shoot. So here’s an exercise that you can try out to get a better grip of how light affects your picture. Pick a place/object outside your home and shoot the same composition during the following times:

  • 30 minutes before sunrise.
  • At Sunrise.
  • 30 minutes after sunrise.
  • Middle of the day.
  • 30 minutes before sunset.
  • At sunset.
  • 30 minutes after sunset.
Use the same camera settings as much as possible ( it’s practically not possible), use the same camera and lens combination. Once you’ve shot these images, look at them side by side. You will see an incredible difference between them. Also pick your favorites among these shots. If you are like most people, you’d pick the ones closer to sunrise and sunset. This period of time is called the “Golden hour” when the light makes everything look magical. That’s why so many photographers line up during the wee hours of the morning or during sunset. It’s an incredible experience to see how quickly the light changes and how this change makes your pictures almost surreal. Remember, let the light charm you, and your pictures will charm others!

Comments, Questions or Suggestions? Feel free to drop a note below!


It’s all about the Lines : Scripps Pier, San Diego

The clouds are back in town and as a landscape photographer, I couldn’t feel happier! I’m picking up from where I left in my last post, and this time, the focus is on lines. Why lines? I’ll get to that shortly. A lot of times, you would have planned ahead, looking at tide charts, or thinking of interesting compositions, sometimes even visited the scene the previous day and so on and so forth. However,  the shot that awaits you when you reach the place on the day of the shoot, is almost invariably different compared to what you had in your mind. Once again, I repeat, a good photograph is not taken, but made.

So, you are left with two options then. I do know some photographers, who are very very picky. Unless the conditions are perfect for their shot, they will not take it! They’ll come back on another day. I truly salute their perseverance and single minded resolve. However, sometimes, you can get lucky if you stick around and try to use the conditions around you. For instance, let me tell you the story of this shot. I had started planning for this one three days in advance. I had looked up the tide charts, sunset times, where exactly the sun would set and also where to park! On the day of the shoot, I used the pier camera for looking at how shallow the tide was and how the light would impact the sand. Everything was in order, and I was quite thrilled that I would actually be able to pull the shot off.

Enter two couples on a wedding engagement shoot. Yes, not one but TWO, on the same day! Add two more assistants to carry fans and flashes. To this concoction, add some thick clouds blocking the sun completely and finally add all the kelp you can find to garnish. A perfect recipe for disaster. I could have just said “Exit, stage left” and returned another day, but something told me that there was a good shot waiting in the wings. My original idea, was to use the reflective sand on the shore to mirror the sky and the pier and I had planned a composition using that. The clouds though, had ensured that the sand wouldn’t be as reflective as I wanted them to be. So when you are thrown a curveball, what do you do? Sunset was 10 minutes away, and I had to think fast. Plan B then! I decided to use the waves as foreground interest and then use the lines they generate to lead the eye in. There was a small hitch in Plan B as well. I honestly believe that a huge ship had docked on shore and dumped all the kelp available in the Pacific right on the shore and then taken off. I couldn’t find a patch of sand that was free from kelp!

My iPhone isn’t too good with high dynamic range ;)

What you see here is Plan C. I decided not to use any of the sand as part of the shot. Instead, I focused on using the waves, the pier and the sky. It was not the ideal composition, but it was the best available that day. Meanwhile, the two wedding photographers were furiously clicking away behind me and the assistants were using the fans like TV antennas. Right then, the setup. When you don’t have any foreground interest in a shot, you can create some by just shooting from a lower angle. I set the tripod up quite low, almost splaying its legs on the sand. Next, the shot itself. I strayed away from the conventional rules of composition, although the pier ends on one of the rule of thirds intersections. I placed the horizon almost on the center of the frame and then just waited. I wanted the sun to peep through the clouds, and secondly, I needed the waves to line up properly. Both these things had to happen simultaneously.

It’s often a case of trial and error, but if you know what you want from the shot, things get a lot easier. It took a couple of takes, but I finally had the shot I needed. The sun looked through the clouds and the waves lined up quite nicely. Once I had the shot canned, I raised my hat to the two assistants who were still diligently holding the fans and left.

In post, my goal was to bring out the experience of the place. I always try to convey the idea of how the place feels, as opposed to telling people this is how the place looks like. If I have made you feel like you were there in the scene, the waves flowing over your bare feet, a cool breeze wafting as the sun casts its last few gazes over the sea before calling it a day, then I have done my job.

Often, the tones you choose in an image, convey the mood of the scene. The tones here are hinting at the onset of twilight (NOT the movie by any stretch of imagination!), and the waves show the dynamic nature of the scene. The lines from the pier and the implied lines from the waves lead you to the clouds and the sun. Like I said, it’s all about the lines. Until next time, have a good one guys! Cheers.



Questions, comments, suggestions? Feel free to post below…

Fruit Punch : Fresh Sunset at La Jolla

Seascapes and sunsets are by far the only couple who have been shot more times than the whole of Hollywood combined. The allure of the golden rays of the sun playing upon the sweeping waves of the coast is very very strong, and honestly, it’s this X-factor that makes me go back to the coast week in week out. Given that sunset shots are so clichéd, what are the ways in which you can make your image stand out from the crowd? This is a question that I’ve asked myself a million times! (And still do for good measure)

Here are some things I’ve found useful :

Be there way ahead of time:  Trust me this helps. There have been many, many, many times when I’ve walked out 20 minutes before sunset and then quickly found a spot that I thought was interesting at that point of time. A few shots later, I’d find out that I have a brilliant sky and setting sun to boot, but the foreground would be just bleh… I cannot emphasize the benefits of going to the location well in advance and having a good look around first. You don’t need to shoot the first thing you see as soon as you reach the spot. I know most of us are trigger happy and go ballistic as soon as the tripod is down and steady. You may get a good shot out of sheer luck, but there’s no substitute to good planning.


Tripod, Tripod, Tripod: One of the biggest advantages of the tripod is that it takes away the camera from your hands. I don’t mean to say you don’t have steady hands, but in low light, the only way you can hand hold a camera and pull off a shot is by yanking the ISO up beyond “The Point of No Return“. Why you ask? Well, typically, the Depth of Field ( i.e. how far into the image things are in focus) for landscape shots is pretty high, meaning you’d be cranking down your aperture to somewhere in the league of f/16 and beyond.  The tripod guarantees a shake free exposure, no matter how long the shutter is open. Plus, I’ve found it very easy to recompose shots when the camera is mounted on the tripod. For example, it lets you get down low, close to the ground without you risking running huge chiropractor bills. Also, you can make fine adjustments to the shot quite easily. A tripod is your trusty sidekick! Never leave home without it.


Composition and Pre-visualization: One of the best pieces of advice that I ever got was that a successful photograph is made not taken. I used to wonder what that meant. If you know what kind of a shot you are looking for before you actually go out to shoot, you have such an unbelievable advantage. There are so many photographers who plan so meticulously for a shot. What separates a good shot from a great one is usually this. For example, knowing exactly where the sun is setting. This valuable piece of information tells you exactly how light would hit the subject, etc. Another example would be knowing how low or high the tides would be and so forth. Composition is something that makes or breaks the shot. You may have the perfect light, perfect exposure and what not. But, if your composition is messed up, then no amount of Photoshop can save you. I’ve learnt this the hard way. There are so many images that I have in my hard drive that have all the  right elements, but the composition is not up to the mark, so the picture as a whole fails.


Patience is key: Wait for the right light. Photography means “Painting with Light”.  Landscape photography is frustrating many times because you have to wait. There’s no fast forward button. But more often than not, patience is rewarded. You can get fantastic results just by shooting 5 minutes later than earlier, simply because the light was better. The blue hour for example is a classic case. I’ve seen so many people take pictures until the sun has set and then just pack up and leave. Seriously, that’s like digging 100 feet into the ground looking for gold and going back home disappointed when actually the gold was just one more foot below! Wait, wait, and wait some more. When you have finished doing that, wait some more. Light is such a powerful thing, and the best pictures exploit light to the hilt.


Post Processing – Before and After:

Here is an image which shows the shot before and after post processing. It wasn’t very hard to process this one as most of the work was done during the actual shot. There are 3 key elements in this shot, namely, the sky, the foreground rocks and the wave. In post, my goal was simple: Bring out as much detail and contrast in these three areas. I used some curves adjustments with masks in each of these three areas. Also, I selectively sharpened the rocks and added some “glow” using luminosity masks. There you go!



Questions? Ideas? Suggestions? Feel free to leave them in the comments!