Return to the Mountains


Unintended consequences (also called unanticipated consequences or unforeseen consequences) can be defined as an outcome that is not the one intended by a purposeful action. Unintended consequences, for my photography, is when I am exploring one idea and I discover a whole new idea.

During my first early morning trip into the Shenandoah Mountains I wanted to photograph the sunrise and some fall colors. When I planned my arrival I thought I’d be sitting in my car for an hour waiting for the sun to come up. I arrived that morning and I saw the stars above me for the first time and I didn’t spend a single second in my car waiting for sunrise. I Jumped out of my car and began photographing the stars and learning a whole new form of photography (for me).

I’ve never tried to shoot the stars before from a location like this and once I started I knew I was going to run out of darkness (which was happening fast with sunrise quickly approaching) and that meant that I couldn’t do everything I wanted in just one trip. I proceeded to learn as much as possible on that first trip and I started thinking about a follow up trip. For this blog entry I’ll talk about my second early morning adventure into the Shenandoah Mountains and how I captured some of my favorite shots to date.

Lessons Learned from My First Trip

On my first morning trip into the mountains I had just over an hour to photograph the stars. I quickly broke out my tripod on that first trip and I tried the longest shutter speed my camera would capture without a cable release (30 seconds). I dialed in some standard settings such as:

1) Setting the camera to manual focus. For most landscape photography I focus the lens at infinity by hand instead of relying on auto-focus. With so much darkness I doubt my camera/lens combination could have locked onto anything to focus correctly.

2) Setting the camera to Manual mode. Doing this lets me set aperture and shutter speed instead of allowing the camera to make it’s own decisions about exposure. It’s possible that some manufacturers have smart cameras that understand night photography but I knew Manual mode would be preferred for my camera.

3) Setting the aperture to f8. Most lenses acheive the highest clarity and sharpness at f8 and in my own testing (of my personal lenses) I’ve always found f8 to be a great starting place for almost every shot I take.

4) Setting the ISO to 200. This is the baseline setting for my camera and it achieves the highest dynamic range and the lowest noise at this setting. This setting for ISO is always my starting point and I make adjustments to ISO based on how things look on the LCD on my camera (or with a computer when I’m shooting tethered).

5) Setting the cameras file capture to RAW and white balance to auto. Capturing RAW files gives me the most flexibility later when I start processing but setting white balance to auto isn’t as important since white balance can easily be changed with RAW editors like Lightroom. Setting to Auto White Balance is a habit when I’m shooting RAW.

I began shooting and I quickly found that 30 seconds (at f8 with ISO 200) wasn’t giving me much brightness in my foreground. My solution was to increase my shutter speed by using my cable release.

My Cable Release

I call my wired remote a cable release but they’re also known as a remote shutter release or a wired shutter release. Back in the film days of photography, a cable release would screw into a threaded hole in the shutter button (or another location on a camera) if it was equipped to use a remote shutter release. The old school cable releases had a spring loaded push button that would move a cable inside a PVC jacket that pushed the shutter release button on the camera. Cable releases were used in landscape and macro photography to allow a photographer to activate the shutter release without introducing additional movement to the camera (which could result in a slight blurring of the final image). Modern shutter release systems do the same thing but with an electronic contact closure instead of a moving cable inside of a PVC jacket. My release is modern but my thinking (and naming) is still old school. This is my cable release and I think it cost me about $15 from B&H Photo:

Not all cameras have a cable release option but if yours does using a remote shutter release (wired or wireless) is a great way to get clearer shots for very little investment. I use my cable release pretty much whenever I’m using my tripod. If your tripod isn’t very sturdy (like my super light travel tripod) then using a remote shutter is almost a requirement for taking sharp shots with a longer shutter speed. Here’s a look at where the cable release connects to my Sony A900:

The genuine Sony release for my camera costs around $69.00 new (around $50 for a used version) but the third party versions seem to work just fine. If you’re interested in finding an inexpensive shutter release for your camera be sure to check out B&H, Adorama or Flash Zebra to find some different options.

A really cool feature built into most cable releases is the ability to lock the shutter open when you set your cameras shutter speed to Bulb mode. Bulb mode is a setting for shutter speed that keeps the shutter open as long as you are pressing the shutter release button (on the camera or on your remote shutter remote). By using bulb mode I was able to acheive shutter speeds well above the 30 second maximum built into my camera.

On my first trip I tried shooting with 5 minute long shutter speeds and I really liked the results I was seeing. The unintended consequence of the long shutter speed was the stars (during the 5 minutes I had the shutter open) traversing the morning sky. This is something you don’t see with your eyes but the camera, locked onto a tripod, can clearly see that the earth is rotating. At 5 minutes of shutter speed I had a hint of star trails that  looked good but not great. I instantly wanted even more star trails in my shots.

I decided that if 5 minutes started to give me a cool star trail then 10 minutes should look even better. Unfortunately when you’re shooting such long shutter speeds you only get a few shots each hour and you have to evaluate each shot to make small changes if you want each shot to look better than the last (or to fix any major mistakes). On that first morning I captured less than 10 frames before the rising sun brought my long exposure shooting to an end. If I wanted to continue to shoot long exposure shots of the stars I needed to come back to try again and that’s exactly what I did the following morning.

Applying the Lessons I Learned

I proceeded to shoot the sunrise on that first morning and I left the Shenandoah Mountains after a few hours of photographing the fall colors. I had plenty of new ideas I wanted to explore for my next trip. Without a client assignment scheduled for the following day I decided to make plans to return (a little earlier) to try again the next morning.

Because of the lessons I learned on my first trip there were a few things I changed on my second day such as using sandbags to steady my tripod in the high mountain winds. I use a pretty sturdy tripod from Manfrotto but when you’re keeping the shutter open for so long any little thing you do (like using sandbags) can help. I also dressed considerably warmer since it was pretty cold up at the higher elevation.

When the next morning arrived my car was already packed and that let me get an even earlier start. I was out the door before 4:00am and I arrived well before 5:00am (with a hot cup of coffee) and I began to get myself setup.

One thing I always think about is safety so I bring all sorts of extra gear along like safety cones, a first aid kit, flashlights (along with plenty of spare batteries) and a high visibility vest. In the early morning hours it’s dark and I’m shooting by the side of a road so I make sure that drivers can see that I’m there. Dark clothes and a black camera on a black tripod before sunrise in the mountains can make it a bit unsafe to be out photographing on the side of a road (even with a low 35 mph speed limit) so I like to make sure I’m easy to see. Here’s a shot of me shooting in the early morning civil twilight and wearing a high visibility vest:

It was time to get set up and begin capturing some new star shots.

Two Shutter Speeds, Two Totally Different Shots

The previous night I had an online chat with Jay Abramson on Google+. Jay told me that I could get some interesting shots that froze the stars if I kept my shutter speed below 25 seconds (using a wide angle lens) and increased my ISO and my aperture to compensate for the faster shutter speed). It would introduce some noise to the final shot but I could deal with any extra noise in Lightroom and Photoshop. Here’s a look at my slow shutter speed shot of the stars above me in the Shenandoah Mountains:

This shot turned out pretty cool but I was left feeling like I needed a much wider lens to make the shot work. I liked how the colors of civil twilight painted the lower part of the frame in orange colors and how it transitioned into the cool blue colors above. The only thing I wish I had was a little more information in those dark areas (on the road and in the trees) but that’s difficult to do with only 30 seconds of shutter speed. Special thanks go out to Jay for helping me to get the shot.

With my shorter shutter speed shot complete it was time to get a super long exposure shot. On my first trip into the mountains the longest shutter speed I captured was 5 minutes long. I liked the shot but I wanted to get longer star trails than I saw in my 5 minute shot. I wanted to be able to take a shot, see the results, make changes and then capture a new shot (and repeat until I was happy). I decided to start by gettting some captures with a 10 minute exposure time. Here’s the best 10 minute shot I captured:

What I wanted with this shot was a little more than just some star trails. I wanted a little bit of the road and the landscape to help the shot make some sense. With civil twilight coming quickly the sky was really getting bright quickly and I was going to lose the stars. This was my final shot and the best shot I captured that morning. I liked it a lot more than the shots I captured the previous morning but I knew that I could do even better the next time I visited the Shenandoah to continue shooting the stars.

As the sun began to rise my long shutter speed shooting came to an end. I did stick around to capture the sunrise, some more fall color shots and I also took some moving car shots (which came out totally cool). Be sure to check back in a few days when I post the blog entry talks about how I set up and captured the moving car shots.

Next up I’ll talk about my third trip into the mountains to capture a long exposure shot late at night instead of early in the morning. While they may sound like the same thing I discovered that there are, in fact, huge differences between late night shooting and early morning shooting.

Update: the late night blog entry is now posted here

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