Night in the Tetons

Cunningham Cabin, stars, Grand Teton National Park

Cunningham Cabin, Grand Teton National Park

The Cunningham Cabin north of Jackson, dating (originally) from 1885. It’s easy to imagine what a remote location this must have been back then! According to Wikipedia “the cabin was the scene of a shootout in 1899 between a Montana posse and two horse thieves, who were killed at the scene”.

Star trails Schwabachers Landing Tetons

Schwabachers Landing, Grand Teton National Park

Walking with a dinosaur

For those with long memories, the introduction of the Canon 400mm f/4 DO in 2000 occasioned a lot of excitement. It was the first camera lens to use diffractive optical elements, and seemed to presage a future in which the super-telephotos would be significantly lighter and more compact (if not, alas, any less expensive). Early reviews were very positive. Fast forward 14 years and super-telephotos have indeed gotten significantly lighter, due to the use of new materials, but of diffractive optics we’ve heard scarcely a peep. Canon did introduce a 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 DO – which sits uneasily in the lineup as neither the lightest nor sharpest 70-300 – but the expected expansion of green rings elsewhere in the high-end hasn’t happened.

Perhaps we should add, yet. If the 400mm f/4.0 DO I rented for the Tetons (from the always excellent LensRentals) seemed like a bit of a lens design dead-end when I placed the order, by the time it arrived at FedEx it was a dinosaur, courtesy of Canon announcing a version 2 of the lens. Unless you already own one, it’s unlikely that you or I will ever shoot with the original again. Diffractive optics is the future, once more.

How did it perform? In one word, outstandingly! The normal complaints one hears about the 400mm DO are that (1) it’s not as contrasty as the other super-telephotos, (2) it flares more easily, and (3) the bokeh is odd. These may well be valid gripes (and indeed Canon implicitly acknowledged the flare issue in their blurb explaining why the version 2 is better), but in practical use I didn’t find them a problem. And the benefit of the lighter weight is undeniable – this is a pretty fast stabilized super-telephoto that can realistically be hand-held for extended periods of time. I enjoyed using it for both landscape and wildlife shots.

Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone

Tourist at Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone

Yellowstone bison

A bison shaking off the dust

Fog, Grand Teton National Park

An island of trees among the morning fog, Grand Teton National Park

Tetons beaver

A beaver swimming to his dam

Pronghorn antelope

A pronghorn antelope in the grass, Tetons

I’m always slightly amused to read internet commentary that seems to implicitly assume that when you buy one of Canon or Nikon’s most expensive lenses, you have the right to expect it’s the best lens they know how to make. Self-evidently it ain’t so. Better lenses could certainly be designed, but actually realizing them in glass and metal would require some combination of heavier optics, more exotic materials, and better manufacturing tolerances, all of which would mean higher prices. Zeiss’ marketing for the Otus line notwithstanding, even the “best” lenses are compromises between cost, weight, maximum aperture and sharpness, and when weight is an important consideration the 400mm DO (and no doubt its successor) may well be the best choice.

Total lunar eclipse

Total lunar eclipses aren’t nearly as rare as total Solar eclipses (the Earth is a lot larger than the Moon, and casts a much bigger shadow), but they still don’t come around all that often. After considerable planning – and angsting over what would be the best location – I drove up to Brainard Lake in the Indian Peaks wilderness early Wednesday morning. Make that very early, as I left home at 2:30am! I didn’t get quite what I expected, in part because this was my first time shooting an eclipse so I didn’t know what to expect and in part due to intermittent cloud cover, but I’m pleased with the end result.

Total lunar eclipse Colorado

Driggs, Idaho

The Tetons are perhaps North America’s most iconic mountain range on account of the lack of foothills on the east side, which makes for a dramatically vertical vista as seen from the plains north of Jackson. The west side is less immediately spectacular, but it’s also much less busy and the starting point for several great hikes that access the “back” side of the range. Driggs, Idaho makes for a good base, there are various motels (much more reasonably priced than those in Jackson) and even a surprisingly good Thai restaurant (Teton Thai). Returning from a long day hike at sunset, scenes that strike me as pretty quintessentially Idaho were easy to come by…

Idaho cow road

Along the backroads of Idaho

Driggs Idaho sunset

Sunset, Driggs, Idaho

Stars at the Scala dei Turchi

Scala dei Turchi, Sicily

A star trail panorama shot at the Scala dei Turchi (literally the “staircase of the Turks”) in southern Sicily this summer. During the day this is an unusual, and unusually popular, white limestone formation, but after sunset it was very peaceful and beautiful. There can’t be much air traffic over this part of the Mediterranean at night as for once no plane lights intruded into the shot.

Fall in the Tetons

Tetons sunrise

I’m back from what is always one of the highlights of the year – a trip with my brother hiking, photographing and viewing wildlife in the wild areas of North America. After several years seeking out bears in Alaska, this time we stayed closer to home and visited the Tetons in time for the Fall color. I’ll be posting more about the trip as time permits over the next few weeks, but for now a teaser… a storm at sunrise over the Teton range.

Mount Ida

In one of the early issues of the magazine National Geographic Adventure (that I must have read maybe 15 years ago, before I moved to Colorado) there was a story of a hiker who’d gotten hopelessly lost in an ill-advised attempt to hike to the Gorge Lakes via the summit of Mount Ida, in Rocky Mountain National Park. The story – which ended happily with the guy getting rescued – is a reminder that, however touristy Bear Lake and Glacier Gorge may appear on a summer’s day, my local park also has its share of difficult and remote country. Hiking to Mount Ida gives a glimpse of these less trafficked wilds from a lofty perch close to 13,000 feet on the Continental Divide. Needless to say, unless you want to feature in a future magazine article, descending into Forest Canyon and the Gorge Lakes is an altogether more serious endeavor for the experienced only!.

The hike starts at Millner Pass, on the west side of Trail Ridge Road. After about a mile you break through the tree line, and the rest of the hike is a glorious ramble across the tundra, with great views out toward the west. Almost from the start Mount Ida is visible, initially as an indistinct high point along the Continental Divide.

Stitched Panorama

In total it’s 4.75 miles, with a net elevation gain of 2,000 feet, from the trailhead to the summit of Mount Ida. From the top, you look straight down on to the highest of the Gorge Lakes in Forest Canyon. It’s easy to see why people want to visit them. Unfortunately getting to them via the summit of Ida is difficult (even if you don’t get lost), while getting there via the seemingly easier but trail-less route through Forest Canyon is harder still!

Stitched Panorama

This hike is almost entirely above the trees, and you’d want to avoid it on a day when storms threatened. On a good weather day though, which ours was, it’s a hike I highly recommend… just under ten miles of moderate hiking with great scenery and relatively few people.

A long hot summer

I spent my summer in Europe, with stays variously for work and pleasure in Liverpool, Kent and Cornwall in the UK, Chamonix, Sicily and Copenhagen. It will take some time to process the images, but in the meantime here’s a summer sampler…

sicily_temple

Tourists at the Valley of the Temples, Sicily

cornwall_sunset

Sunset in the fields, Cornwall

chamonix_glacier

The Mer de Glace, French Alps

kent_poppies

Poppies in the Darenth Valley, Kent

Shooting star trail panoramas with multiple cameras

Over the Christmas holidays the thought occurred to me that it might be fun to try shooting some wide star trail panoramas – wide enough perhaps that the stars could be seen rising on one horizon and setting over the other. A minute with google was enough to demonstrate that this was not a new idea – Vincent Brady has been shooting what he calls “planetary panoramas” with four cameras bolted to a custom rig. Nonetheless I haven’t seen that many star trail panoramas, no doubt because it requires multiple cameras and lenses, and it seemed that there might be some interesting images to be made with this technique in Colorado.

Star trails from Trail Ridge Road

Having now tried a few it’s time to collect some tips and lessons learned. There are two parts to creating a stitched star trail image, the image capture and the post processing, and although both are pretty straightforward as always there are things to keep in mind.

Shooting

  • You don’t need identical cameras and lenses. I’m sure it would be better if you had duplicate equipment, but I’ve gotten by fine with a combo of a Canon 5D3 / Zeiss 18mm and Canon 7D / Canon 10-22mm (shot at the wide end, i.e. at 16mm equivalent focal length). Modern stitching software can handle it.
  • The cameras need to be mounted as close together as possible, especially if you have any foreground. I’m using a Novoflex QPL 350 rail to mount both cameras to an Arca-Swiss mount on my ballhead. It’s a reasonably solid arrangement, though in high winds I’m seeing a little bit of flex visible as slightly wiggly trails viewed at 100%.
  • Having two cameras bolted to a single rail is optimal if the image you’re after (like the one above) has the horizon midway through the frame. Often you’ll instead be canting the cameras skyward to capture more sky and less foreground. In this case I think the rail is not optimal – it would be better to have each camera independently leveled against the horizon. This would need a rail and two heads, which I haven’t tried yet.
  • The simplest approach is to start shooting continuously as soon as it gets dark enough to see stars, but while there’s still enough light to capture the foreground. At Colorado’s latitude, with exposures of 30s, f/3.5 at ISO 1600, that works out to be about an hour after sunset. It’s pretty gloomy by then, so you’ll want to set up well in advance.
  • Check how good the edge resolution of your lenses is when shooting stars. My Zeiss 18mm is very nicely sharp at the edges wide open, the Canon 10-22mm (also a good lens) less so. It may be advantageous to stop down one stop or so for optimum quality of trails.
  • The basic concept is that the stacking software chooses the brightest pixel across the stack of images, so if you start as the light is fading the first frame will provide all of the image apart from the stars and any moving elements such as bright clouds. It’s fine then to change exposure parameters between the first frame and subsequent ones. For example, if you need plenty of depth of field, you could start with a single f/16 frame, then wait till it gets dark enough that a wide open image is darker and continue from there.
  • Long exposure noise reduction (dark frame subtraction) needs to be off.
  • I use lockable wired shutter releases and my fastest cards to keep the cameras shooting with as little gap as possible between frames. Over an hour or two, you’ll find that one camera is a little slower and a noticeable lag develops. This is fine, but to make the stitching as accurate as possible try to end the total exposure at the same moment (I put a lens cap on the “slow” camera just as the quicker one finishes its last frame).
  • Post-processing

    The basic workflow here is (1) process individual frames for white balance and noise reduction, (2) stack left and right images independently, (3) stitch together, (4) adjust final image. This is going to involve quite a bit of destructive editing and reprojection of the image, and since you’re starting with long exposures that haven’t had the benefit of dark frame subtraction a bit of care is needed. The good news is that you’ll be ending up with a lot of pixels in the final panorama, so even if it’s not perfect at 100% a large print (never mind a version to stand tall on Facebook) can still look good.

  • I start by applying a consistent white balance to all the images, along with a first pass at global adjustments (shadows, highlights, saturation etc). It may be helpful to brighten the foreground an extra stop, this makes stitching later easier and you can take that stop back in a final process of the image. Don’t overdo sharpening at this stage (I export from Lightroom with sharpening set to “low”) – there will be time for that later. Correct for vignetting but leave the distortion as is… the stitching software can handle it and there’s no point interpolating the pixels more times than necessary. Be wary of using gradient filters at this stage as they may not line up perfectly between left and right images.
  • Camera lenses are marked in f-stops rather than T-stops (transmission). This means that even if both cameras shot at the identical exposure, one image may be brighter than the other if you’re using two different lenses. You need to measure this difference and correct it at some point, and it may as well be done now.
  • Different cameras / sensors will need different levels of noise reduction. My 7D is quite a bit noisier than the 5D3 at ISO 1600, so in Lightroom I’m using something like 25 luminance noise reduction for the 5D3 but 40 for the 7D.
  • Hot pixels can be a problem. In the sky these need to be dealt with manually, but in the foreground you can take advantage of the fact that only the first frame is going to count toward the stack. I mask out the foreground in all but the first frame and push it 8 stops toward black to suppress hot pixels.
  • I use StarStax for stacking. It’s free, fast and works well. This step is straightforward.
  • Once you have the “left” and “right” stacks, it’s time to stitch them. I use Autopano Pro, which is not free but which works unbelievably well for almost all panoramas. Except these. I don’t find I’m able to stitch these super-wide star trail panoramas automatically. Instead I use a two-step approach. First I add back the EXIF data on focal length (which won’t be output in StarStax .tif files) and have a go at an automatic stitch. If you’re lucky the mid-ground (e.g. the mountains in the image above) may stitch fine, but the sky won’t. You’ll need to add maybe 20 manual control points to the sky, distributed horizontally and vertically across the region of image overlap, to get a good stitch. Finding them is pretty easy – planes with flashing lights (which make trails of dots across the image) are probably best, but the start and end of the trails work too as long as you remembered to end the exposures at the same time. Once the sky and mid-ground are set, the foreground normally falls into place automatically.
  • With the image successfully stitched, you can import back into Lightroom for final adjustments and sharpening!
  • All of the above is pretty obvious, but there are enough steps that I’ve screwed up a fair few times. Hopefully I now have the mechanical part sorted out, so the next step is to find locations where the technique makes for a good image…

    Trail Ridge Road

    Trail Ridge Road, which reaches more than 12,000 feet en route between the east and west sides of Rocky Mountain National Park, has just opened for the season (it usually opens on Memorial Day). There’s still too much snow high up for easy hiking, but I thought it would be interesting to take some photos from the road while the mountains still have their wintery appearance. With various roadworks (US36 from Lyons to Estes Park is being rebuilt this summer after last Fall’s devastating floods) I just made it to the Forest Canyon overlook (elevation 11,700 feet) in time for the sunset.

    Trail Ridge Road sunset

    And then stayed on for an hour of shooting the stars. As usual, this is a two frame panorama of stacked 30s frames, here shot at f/8 and ISO 1600. Stopping down – which was here necessary for depth of field – has the additional benefit of substantially sharpening up the edges of the 10-22mm lens I have mounted on the Canon 7D (the Zeiss 18mm I have on the 5D3, on the other hand, is sharp even wide open). The light on the far left, behind Longs Peak, comes from Denver.

    Star trails from Trail Ridge Road