Category: night sky

New Zealand and French Polynesia – January 2013


I do not typically use this blog to discuss personal events except as a framework to discuss the photographic techniques I used to create the images I discuss about a particular photo trip. However, I will make an exception in this case and discuss my vacation to New Zealand and French Polynesia in January, 2013 with as much focus on photography as I can.

Here is a direct link to the New Zealand photo gallery.

New Zealand

I departed LAX on Saturday January 5 around 10 PM and landed at AKL on Monday January 7 at 8 AM or so. From there I waited a few hours and then boarded a flight to Queenstown on the South Island. The overnight flight and morning arrival coupled with my extra-cost super economy seat meant I was not jetlagged in any way. I carried my new camera, a Canon 6D, which is an “affordable” full frame sensor D-SLR with both WiFi and GPS built-in. I also brought my trusty 24-105 f4 IS lens and my 50 mm f1.4.

South Island

Queenstown is the center of the NZ action sports/activities universe. In winter it is a ski resort destination, in the summer it is the bungee jumping, jet boating and zip-lining capital. It is also in the middle of some utterly spectacular scenary – the Remarkables mountains and Lake Wakatipu. Nearby is Lake Wanaka and Mt Aspiring with the Rob Roy glacier – very alpine.

Mountains and clouds above Lake Wakitapu

Queenstown is at roughly the southern latitude as Portland, OR is north – 45.5 degrees – and has the same weather. This meant that the weather was cool and cloudy with rain and snow at the higher elevations for part of the first week. It was nice weather for hiking and roadtripping, but not for photography. The only exception was some forest images I took while hiking a trail (Kiwis call them “tracks”) to Mt Creighton near Lake Wakatipu. Forest light filtered by rain clouds is less intense and allows for interesting light and dark interplay due to the low contrast environment.

Rain-swollen stream near Mt Creighton, New Zealand

My first few days were in the Queenstown area, driving along Lake Wakatipu to the western end at Glenorchy, taking a cable car up a mountain to get an alpine overview of the entire town, the lake and the surrounding mountains and then later when the weather cleared for a few days driving to Lake Wanaka and Mt Aspiring National Park. I also went out Fiordland National Park and Lake Manapouri.

The Remarkables mountain range above Queenstown, New Zealand

I had planned a cruise on Milford Sound but the weather did not cooperate and that activity had to be cancelled.

Ultimately the South Island weather cleared up and presented many opportunities to explore, be awed by and photograph some of the most incredibly beautiful scenery I’ve ever experienced.

North Island

After a week of fun on the South Island I flew from Queenstown to Auckland and then went by car to Cambridge, a town near Hamilton. Cambridge is near a town called Te Awamutu, the home town of a favorite musician of mine, Neil Finn. The main library in that town includes a small museum, and in the museum is a “shrine” to the Finn brothers, Neil and Tim. I went there for an hour or so one day. I also visited a very pretty seaside beach town called Taurunga, whose main geological feature besides the coastline is a small dormant volcano cone called Mt Maunganui. The North Island is still volcanically active; not only is Auckland surrounded by dormant volcanoes but there is a small thermal public bath at the base of Mt Maunganui.

Eroded rocks – Mt Maunganui, Tauranga, New Zealand

I learned to drive one day and then took a borrowed car on my own out to a region called The Coromandels, which is a lightly populated peninsula of vacation beach towns and beautiful rain forest. A few days out there was not enough time, but I managed to drive the entire paved highway (highway 25). The rest of the peninsula is reachable only by gravel road, something I was not willing to drive on with the car. If you click on the linked map, you’ll see that this sparsely populated, very wild and natural area is only about 20 or 30 miles across the bay from Auckland. Highlights of this part of the trip were definitely Cook’s Beach and Hot Water Beach and Mercury Bay.

Looking west from the top of Hwy 25 in the Coromandels.

I wrapped up my second week in New Zealand by seeing Elvis Costello and the Imposters live in Auckland, staying in the city through the weekend then flying to Papeete, Tahiti, French Polynesia that Monday morning.

View of the harbor from Auckland Sky Tower

French Polynesia

Here is a direct link to the French Polynesia photo gallery.


I flew from Auckland, New Zealand to Papeete, Tahiti, French Polynesia. I departed Monday morning 10 AM and arrived in Papeete (Faa’a International Airport) at about 4 PM Sunday afternoon. Papeete is the capital city and is the “Honolulu” of French Polynesia. Tahiti itself is the largest island. I stayed overnight on Tahiti and in the morning I took a puddle jumper aircraft from Faa’a to Moorea’s airstrip, a 12 minute flight.


Moorea is 12 million years older than neighboring Tahiti and the volcanic crater erosion and barrier reef demonstrate its age. I was staying on Cook’s Bay. I was visiting French Polynesia at the lowest of the low season; there were a grand total of 6 people in my hotel. It meant I had the place to myself, basically and no one seemed to really care. The weather was not very good; it rained in a monsoon the night of my arrival and it was gray and drizzly the first full day on Moorea, but eventually the clouds dissipated and the sun came out. I was able to get a lot of beautiful images by renting a car and driving around the island and taking a boat ride. I even did some long exposure timelapse images one night. I was on Moorea 3 nights and had a good time.

Under a Tahitian Moon – timelapse of the Moorea reef

Bora Bora

I then flew to Bora Bora, which is the classic South Pacific tropical island but was a bust for me. The weather did not cooperate at all, the island was under a hurricane warning (it was 500 km away but it meant the hotel reduced some of their services) and it wasn’t as much fun as Moorea. Eventually I got sick, probably from drinking the water. I was there two nights and flew back to Papeete and then home the same day.

The Bora Bora lagoon from the airport dock

Death Valley November 2012 Photo Trip

Earlier this month I again went out to what has become a favorite location for photography of mine – Death Valley National Park. The goal was to once again work on low-light, night and long exposure techniques for the most part at night and do fun exploring and typical dawn, dusk and HDR work during the day.

The technique I was most focused on this time was exposure stacking, which is a Photoshop technique where a series of short-ish long exposures of the night sky are layered together to achieve the same visual effect as a single long exposure. The image below is the most successful example I have from the trip; a mesquite bush on a sand dune with a series of 60 20-second-long exposures to give a total exposure effect of 20 minutes. The mesquite bush was lit for a few minutes with a hand-held flashlight using a painting-with-light technique.

A Moonlit Scene Looking West to the Panamint Range from Death Valley National Park’s Harmony Borax Works site

The stacking technique is superior to the single long exposure technique for me now for several reasons. First, the sky stays black since the 20 seconds at f4.5 and ISO 100 exposure used in this case is not enough to lighten the sky. Second, sensor noise does not build to a detectable degree with a 20 or 30 second exposure. I believe my workhorse Canon 40D may be getting “old” because it seems that longer (multi-minute) exposures are much noisier now than they were even 2 years ago.

This next photo is a late afternoon 3-image HDR shot looking east across the valley at the Amargosa Range from 6400 ft (2000 m) high Aguereberry Point in the Funeral Range very near Telescope Peak. This was a 6 mile improved gravel road drive that my 2005 Camry was able to do, much to my surprise and delight. I arrived at the overlook about an hour or so before the sun dropped below the Sierras and Panamint Ranges and I was able to get a few panoramas and HDRs of the views.

Another site visited was Trona Pinnacles, which I visited on the drive out to the park. Trona Pinnacles is in the California Desert National Conservation Area and is an unusual set of tufa formations. They have been the site of many film and advertising shoots and are unusual looking. They were formed from between 10 000 and 100 000 years ago, when the area was a large Pleistocene Era lake.

A multiple image panorama of the Tronas Pinnacles

A three image HDR photo of the Tronas Pinnacles in Tronas, CA

I have an album of photos from this Death Valley trip in my photo gallery immediately next to the Anza Borrego night sky photo.

Death Valley February 2012 Photography Trip

Earlier this month I spent a long weekend in Death Valley National Park on a photo safari. Death Valley is a favorite destination for me because it is typically fair weathered and clear skied during the day and night. I had timed my visit to correspond with a waning full moon with the idea that I would do a lot of long exposure work using the light of the moon to illuminate the desert floor and mountains.

Unfortunately the weather was not cooperative; beautiful cloud-filled skies during the day and complete overcast at night (!) meant that my primary goal was not met. Instead I did a lot of panorama and HDR photography during the day and experimented with flash and “painting with light” techniques at night.

This is the overlook from Dante’s View of the Badwater Basin area – it’s looking due west. The moon had risen just a few minutes prior to opening the shutter. The image is 1408 seconds, roughly 25 minutes. The cloud cover has already moved in, blocking the stars and the sky to the west. But it is worth noting that even under these conditions there is sufficient light to expose the floor of the salt pan at Badwater and to illuminate the sky. Star trails are faint but visible in larger versions of this image, too. So, this is a failed image but a success at proof-of-concept.

This is a 3-image +/- 1 f-stop HDR image of a mesquite tree on a sand dune near Stovepipe Wells. I deliberately went for a more surreal look to the HDRs I took here.

Rhyolite, Nevada’s Cook Bank Building in silhouette

The Cook Bank Building at the ghost town of Rhyolite, Nevada. 3 image +/- 1 f-stop HDR image.

A 10 image panorama of Death Valley’s Badwater Basin area.

An old pulley on mining equipment at Death Valley California’s Warm Springs Campground

Some Depression-era mining equipment at Warm Springs Camp. Accessible by Jeep, Warm Springs is a former mining camp nestled in a small valley in the middle of the Funeral Mountains on the western side of Death Valley. The spring there is constantly flowing and was used as a source to fill a large swimming pool (visible in the Google Maps link) at the camp.

I have an album of photos from this Death Valley trip in my photo gallery immediately next to the U2 Joshua Tree photo.

Joshua Tree National Park Full Moon Photography

This weekend was a lunar perigee full moon. These don’t happen all that much together; perigee is the moon’s closest point to Earth in its orbit so the net result is an ever so slightly larger and therefore brighter moon. I decided to take advantage of this situation by driving to Joshua Tree National Park, a roughly 3 hour trek. I left the house around 12:30 PM and arrived at the Visitor’s Center at the northern edge of the park at 3:00 PM. A quick discussion with a ranger, a purchased entrance fee and off I went into the park. I ended up driving on the Geology Tour Rd and Queen Valley Rd (both unimproved) before deciding on hanging out along a stretch of Geology Tour Rd. The ranger assured me that area would very dark and pretty much devoid of people.

I stopped at the very southern corner of Geology Tour Rd and shot this panorama looking north of Pleasant Valley.

I found a good turn-off next to the road and set up. The moon rose above the rock formations and I took this image.

The full moon is behind a cloud. This was an ominous beginning; the clouds were coming in from the coast in front of the rain storm that hit us the next day. The clouds cut down the light available and made exposure estimation that much harder.

This was a multiple-minute exposure of a granite rock outcropping just off the road.

Eventually the clouds became so heavy I had to abandon the activity; the light was less than half what it was at the beginning of the evening.

Lessons learned:

1. Bring extra batteries. I went through a double battery pack in 3 hours of shooting. The long exposures really drain the batteries.
2. Next time I’ll get a hotel room out there and work all night instead of feeling like I had to get done by a certain time so I could safely drive home.
3. Give more time for location scouting.
4. Improve my autofocus management technique.

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I have an album of photos from Joshua Tree National Park in my photo gallery.

Another Beautiful California Pacific Sunset Tonight – January 7 2011

I went down to the Oceanside Pier again tonight and using an improved technique again took several 3 image HDR image sequences. Generally speaking they were +/-1 f-stop images and I tried to keep the tone-mapping to a very natural look. These are sharper than the ones from yesterday (but the sunset was not as spectacular).

Beautiful Sunset over the Pacific Ocean at Oceanside CA Pier January 7 2011

The images are in my Southern California image album page 6.

Beautiful California Pacific Sunset Tonight – January 6 2011

I went down to the Oceanside Pier tonight because the cloud pattern looked promising for a spectacular sunset and took several 3 image HDR image sequences. Generally speaking they were +/-1 f-stop images and I tried to keep the tone-mapping to a very natural look. I learned a few things tonight about my technique and will apply them next time.

Beautiful Sunset over the Pacific Ocean at Oceanside CA Pier January 6 2011

The images are in my Southern California image album page 5 and Southern California image album page 6.

Sedona and the Grand Canyon, Arizona

I spent a few days in Sedona and took a day trip to the Grand Canyon (Sedona and Grand Canyon photo album). I was very lucky in that one night the weather cleared completely and I was able to experiment with long exposure imagery using only the light of the full moon.

Sedona Red Rock In Full Moonlight

Sedona Red Rock In Full Moonlight

Sedona Red Rock In Full Moonlight

I also experimented with HDR a little more.

HDR Image of Sedona Red Rocks

HDR Image of Sedona Red Rocks

HDR Image of Sedona Arizona Red Rocks

The daytrip to the Grand Canyon was also great; the day was cold but clear and beautiful.

Grand Canyon and Colorado River

Grand Canyon and Colorado River

Grand Canyon and Colorado River

Here is a 6 image panorama of the Grand Canyon South Rim from Yavapai Point.

Grand Canyon Panorama from Yavapai Point

Grand Canyon Panorama from Yavapai Point

Panorama of the Grand Canyon South Rim from Yavapai Point

High Dynamic Range HDR Images

HDR photography is all the rage now. I know how to make them and I like them but while I can see how they are a huge step forward in photography both technically and creatively I am still not convinced it isn’t a fad. I will certainly say that I far prefer HDR images that have a more natural look to them than the Photomatix-ified comic book looking tone-mapped HDRs that seem to have captured the most attention.

Here’s are a couple of HDR images I did the other night. I like how the water swirls around and smears the lines of the support posts in this image:  HDR image 1 of the Oceanside Pier area.

Oceanside Pier HDR 1

Oceanside Pier HDR 1

I like this one since it has both an ethereal and a realistic quality to it: HDR image 2 of the Oceanside Pier Area.

Oceanside Pier HDR 2

Oceanside Pier HDR 2

These were made with 5 separate exposures each ranging from -2 to +2 stops exposed. I converted them from 32 bit to 16 bit images using either exposure and gamma (HDR 1) or local adaption (HDR 2) conversion processes, did a little sharpening and that’s it, really. I’m still experimenting with this technique; I use the HDR function built-in to Photoshop right now.

Ideally Canon would issue a firmware update that allows me to make 5 or even 7 auto exposure bracketing images to more fully exploit this technique (my 40D only has a 3 image AEB function now).

Night Sky Photography

Night sky photography requires some specific equipment and techniques.

  • You must have a tripod because whether you are shooting digital or film you will be exposing the image for very long periods (in photography a long period is pretty much anything over half a second).
  • You must have a camera that is able to have long exposure times.
  • You must be able to control the lens opening (the “f-stop” or “aperture”).
  • You must have a wide-angle setting for the focal length.
  • You must have a very high ISO film or be able to set the ISO on your digital camera to something like 800 or 1600.
  • (Optional) If your camera has a built-in automatic noise processing function you must be able to turn it off

The reason for all of this is to capture as much light as possible without having the stars turn into fuzzy blobs. With the settings I’ve described above you’ll get a lot of light into the camera and still have pin-point stars. Anything over 30 seconds or if you zoom in to telephoto you’ll start to see star streaks/blobs since the Earth is spinning the whole time, making the star field traverse across the sky.

This night sky image of the stars above Anza Borrego Desert State Park was taken with my Canon 40D with my EF 24 – 105 mm f/4 L IS USM lens. The lens was set to f5, the exposure was 20 seconds (the 40D has a maximum exposure time of 30 seconds, exposure times higher than that must be executed in Bulb mode). The f-stop is slightly smaller than full open in order to reduce/remove distortions caused by the very edge of the lens optics. An f/5.0 setting “chops off” the light at the very edge and sharpens the image at the expense of losing a little bit of light.

Night sky image with star streaks Anza Borrego

If you want to take those super-cool pictures that show the stars as long circular streaks then you are looking at very long exposures – 30 minutes or an hour or even more. In that case you can adjust some of the other parameters so that the overall amount of light entering the camera is less per second. The stars themselves are bright points and get detected OK anyway.

This image of streaking stars above Death Valley is about 30 minutes long at f5 with an ISO of 400. A higher ISO in this case records too much background light in the sky.

Night sky long exposure star trails Death valley

Exposures like this are where film cameras still shine since in many upper-end digital cameras long exposures will trigger the camera’s built-in noise reduction algorithm which requires as long a time to process as the exposure, so a 30 second exposure requires 30 seconds more of processing, so an hour exposure is a two hour total process. You can get twice as many exposures (or be done in half the time) than with a digital camera in those circumstances. If you can turn off the in-camera noise processing you should consider doing so. Photoshop CS3 RAW processing has a noise reduction feature included as way to reduce or eliminate noise artifacts from long exposure images.

I have several photo galleries featuring images of California, the US Southwest, Europe (Germany, Austria and Italy) and Asia (Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and China) at my Photoshelter galleries site.