Irix 15mm Blackstone f2.4 – First Night Test

 Irix 15mm Blackstone f2.4 – First Night Test

As I said way back in my in-depth review of this awesome bit of kit, I was originally interested in the Astro photography potential of the Irix 15mm Blackstone/Firefly lens.

Monday night – 24th July – saw myself and Rik heading for Snowdonia in North Wales, and in particular the small wooden foot bridge over Afon Idwal, just a ways up the old miners track behind Ogwen Cottage.

The weather forecast was for clear skies, and Google Earth in conjunction with Stellarium and TPE told me that around 11 pm the Milky Way would be over said small wooden bridge.  So we packed a few things and off we toddled.

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IMPORTANT: THERE IS NO SHARPENING ON THIS IMAGE. All 33 image frames (32 light frames plus the long exposure frame) had ZERO sharpening applied during processing. The Milky Way towers high in the night sky over the mountains of Snowdonia in North Wales. A small wooden footbridge over the rushing waters of the River Idwal forms the focal point.

The place was rammed with people coming down off the mountains – and a pile going up as well – as it transpires, they were having an all-night party on the shores of Llyn Idwal higher up the track – nutters!

The Welsh midges were out in force and doing their best impression of man-eating tigers and guess who forgot to bring the mozy repellent!

The composition I was after entailed me setting up on the path and shooting straight along the bridge,  so I set the camera up with the Irix 15mm Blackstone set on the infinity click stop and the focus locked with the locking ring.  I knew from all the testing I’d done that this would give my tack sharp stars even with the aperture wide open and that stopping down to f6.3 or narrower would render a sharp foreground to around 1.5 metres.

The ‘plan’ was to shoot a foreground image at low ISO during twilight in order to save having to shoot a long exposure with LENR under total darkness – and that’s exactly what I did, then it all went a bit ‘Pete Tong’!

What caused the confusion was my Photpills app on my iPhone telling me that the Milky Way was already where I needed it to be in about another hour and a half, so the whole shot was not going to work – bear in mind the sky is still too bright to see any stars.

So like an idiot I believed it and moved the camera, looking for another composition that would work – as it transpired a fatal mistake.

A lesson for the future – if a mobile app does not match up with Stellarium, the Photographers Ephemeris and Google Earth try restarting the phone and re-calibrating the compass!!

After 45 minutes of struggling to find another composition using the new projected position of the Milky Way in the growing darkness, I looked up and saw the Summer Triangle – in exactly the position that my original plan had calculated.

After a short bout of self-directed expletives based around men’s dangly-bits and the act of procreation, I got the camera back in something approximating its original position, but of course, the original framing would be ‘off’ so my initial low ISO foreground shot was useless.

Starting over, I set the camera to shoot 32 frames in continuous low and used a locking cable release to shoot  rapid sequences of 32 frames – an easy way to do the job that does not always work too well with a big zoom like the Nikon 14-24, or Canon 16-35 – occasionally you can get ‘mirror vibration’ effects on your images.  But with a short-barreled prime like the Irix 15mm, this is not a problem I ever see.

By around 11.30pm I’m happy with the sky shots I have in the can, but now comes the long exposure foreground shot.

I’m actually dreading this shot as it’s going to take a long time to produce and I’m anticipating some of those aforementioned party goers to come wandering back down the track with head-torches waving around all over the place.

I opted for a 10-minute exposure with long exposure noise reduction enabled in the camera – so the shot is going to take 20 minutes to produce.

Twenty minutes later, the shot on the back of the camera indicated that in reality, it needed around another stop and a half-ish of exposure time.  I’d got away with no torches wandering through this shot, but if I did another, longer one I was certain it would get ruined.

So I shot 32 dark frames and another couple of 32 frame sequences, then we packed the gear away and headed for home.

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The total number of frames for this shot with the Irix 15mm was 85 and comprise of:

  • 32 light frames 6secs @f4 6400 ISO
  • 32 dark frames 6secs @f4 6400 ISO
  • 1x 600sec @f6.3 400 ISO – (no need for re-focus so no focus breathing problems).
  • 20 frames to make the master flat file

(If you to learn why we shoot so many frames and what to do with them all then buy my latest Astro photography training video HERE).

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Made from 32 images with 32 dark frames and a flat-field frame by Starry Landscape Stacker 1.4.0. Click to view full size.

As you can see from the image above, stars are tack sharp (even with no sharpening added in post), and coma is minimal.  And most importantly there is plenty of colour in those fainter stars – something that is a little harder to achieve with the ubiquitous Zeiss glass.

I could improve the image quality even further by correct that minimal coma in Photoshop with a custom brush and the clone tool, and make a star mask and reduce the noise even more (see my training videos if you want to know more!).

And of course, if I hadn’t had the wobble over composition then perhaps I would have ended up with something like this:

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Or something in between the two!

But either way, the session proved to equal or exceed my expectations of this Irix 15mm lens capabilities.

So, am I impressed by how this lens performs under Astro photography conditions?  You bet I am!

I’ll never use my trusty Nikon 14-24 for Astro photography ever again as far as I can see – why would I…

Sharp focus with the Irix 15mm is so easy to achieve, and there is now no reason to re-focus on closer foreground objects – all I need to do is stop down the aperture a bit.  So that’s all those focus-breathing errors out the window for starters.

Then, there is less coma, less chromatic aberration and a lot less barrel distortion.

When fumbling around in the dark, personally I think it would be good if Irix could increase the diameter of the focus locking ring, but that’s such a minor point it’s only just barely worth a mention.

What’s next?

Irix have just sent me a set of their new Edge 95mm screw-in filters, including 10x and 7x ND filters and the circular polarizer – so some daytime landscapes seem to be in order over the next couple of weeks.

I just wish I’d had the 11mm for the shot of the Milky Way!

Iceland Photography Trip

Iceland Photography Trip

For a while now I’ve been toying with the idea of running landscape workshops in Iceland.

Now you know by now I NEVER try and sell anything I haven’t ‘done’ myself first, so the last Monday of February saw myself and Richard boarding an Easyjet Airbus at Manchester bound for Keflavik airport for something of a recce.

We had teamed up with the ‘oh-so-nice’ Malcolm Stott, a super guy who’s been traveling to Iceland as a naturalist and tour guide for nearly 50 years – what he doesn’t know about Iceland isn’t worth knowing!

Poor man – he had absolutely NO DAMNED IDEA what he’d let himself in for agreeing to take me and mini-me on a whistle-stop tour of the land of fire and ice.

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Poor Malcolm – look at him, taken on the last full day we were there – he’s definitely suffering from PTSD!

With all my experience in Norway I thought I’d got a pretty good idea what to expect – how freaking wrong can one be!

We piled into Keflavik while it was still daylight, got picked up by Malcom in our hired Toyota 4×4 and headed straight for the Northern Light Inn where we’d be staying for one night before heading up to the North east region and Myvatn.

Cracking hotel – and just 2 hours after Easyjets rubber hit the Icelandic tarmac we were out taking pictures of the Aurora:

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A lone photographer (it’s Malcolm really!) stands beneath the Northern Lights just south of Keflavik in Iceland.

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Aurora Pano over a snow-covered lava field. The light pollution on the right is the town Keflavik, and the horizon is still lit by the afterglow of sunset.

It was while at this location that Richard and I got our first taste of the scourge of serious photography in Iceland – bloody tourists!

They walk in front of you waving torches and camera-phones without so much as an excuse me – inconsiderate bastards – I could have got a lot of satisfaction had I thought of adding a Glock 19 to the kit !

So, lesson learned for the future – keep away from the tourist traps; or so we thought.

We moved on to a much more secluded location and a small frozen lake:

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The Aurora Borealis lights up the night sky above a frozen lake in Iceland, with the moon reflected in the ice.

We got back to the hotel around midnight, Malcolm retired to his bed, but Rich and myself were doing it pro-style, downloading and backing up images and pinging a post up on Facebook.  Coupled with a thirst for tea we didn’t see sleep until around 3am, which was far from ideal as we had a mammoth drive up to Myvatn the following morning.

I could do the drive myself in about 4 hours – but I’d lose my license and be bankrupted by speeding fines in under 2 hours – driving speed limits in Iceland are bloody awful if you are a UK driver!

The drive up to Myvatn was intense and non-stop, and we decided to stop at the iconic falls of Godafoss – big mistake – tourist alarm!

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A panoramic winter view of the iconic waterfall of Godafoss in North Eastern Iceland.

The wind was off the falls so we had problems with spray on lenses, so close work with a wide angle was impractical to say the least – so a further PoV and a pano approach with a longer lens was called for.

Once the vista view was done we waited for the sun to get low enough for the God Rays to start showing in the huge curtain of spray that we were ‘blessed with’ – the results certainly had the throng of Chinese tourists totally engrossed:

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Landscape photography is all about analyzing what you can see, and when you struggle to make the standard view work for you you MUST find something in the detail – and detail can be shot no matter how much of an ‘epic fail’ the scene appears to be.  Yes, the two shots above might not be your ‘cup of tea’, but I know someone will like them and make a purchase!  And we’ve got dozens of them – so it’s not a fail!


And NEVER go out on a landscape session without a short to medium telephoto – EVER!

In the evening, after checking in to the Hotel Sel at Myvatn and getting over the shock of the smell of the water coming from the taps in our bathroom (oh my God it was bad!) we were treated to another display of Aurora that must have peaked at Kp7 around midnight:

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The Aurora will just sit there in the sky looking awesome.

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Then suddenly it will split the sky at lightning speed, break apart and dance around all over the place.

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Then it’ll slow down and start to fade, perhaps coming back later – or perhaps not!.

Big Kp number displays are incredible to witness and in truth stills cannot do it justice – you have to stop taking pictures and just look up in awe – and I guarantee it’ll make you painfully aware of your own insignificance……it makes you feel like what you really are, less than a blip on the screen.

We had the opportunity the photograph the Aurora on 5 of the 7 nights we were in Iceland – we certainly filled our boots with it I can tell you.

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One of Rich’s many Aurora shots done with the D4 and the super-sweet Nikon 18-35mm – actually a far more forgiving combo than the 14-24mm+D800E combo I was using.

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The daylight opportunities in and around the Myvatn area where far too numerous for us to really do them justice in the time we had available, but we did our best:

The Hell-Hole of Námafjall Hverir

Not the best time of year to photograph this area – covered in snow, the vivid colours of the ground are hidden for the most part.  But it still feels like the gateway to Hell, and the over-powering sulphur-laden atmosphere leaves a lasting impression – especially when combined with the tap water back at the hotel.

But if you want to be in an extreme volcanic area you have to take it all in your stride.

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A panoramic view of a collapsed steam vent or fumerole at Namafjall in Iceland.

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The Namafjall fumeroles make a constant deafening roar as they pump tonnes of high pressure sulfurous steam into the atmosphere.

Now here’s the thing; sulfur, air and water go together to make sulfuric acid, especially when we take into account the additions of extreme heat and pressure – nice!

Tourists again find this spot a big draw – having a good time standing warming their dumb asses against the fumeroles and trying to hover their bloody DJI Phantoms in the acidic gas clouds!

Really, to get great images here you need to pitch up in the autumn, late in an evening when they’ve all buggered off in their coaches back to their hotels.

And before anyone says ‘they’ve as much right to be there as you Andy’ – NO they haven’t, not when they show such disrespect to the landscape and environment – you should see the litter they drop for starters…..bastards….grrrrrrr.

I was stood talking to a Norwegian geologist while at Namafjall, who told me in a very matter-of-fact manner that the magma was rising and was only around 800 meters below my feet……’great’ says I, ‘do all these Muppets know this?’

‘The tour leader on the coach tells them, but they either don’t listen or are too stupid to comprehend it’ says he.

I can’t blame the Icelandic people for letting them in – get their money before they get burnt to a crisp here, or drowned at Vik!

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Within this close up of a geothermal pool in Iceland there is sulfur, sulfur-eating bacteria, boiling mud and ice.  Getting this shot made me go light-headed through lack of breathable air!

Major Geological Landmarks

The Mid Atlantic Tectonic Plate Boundary – it’s Hand of God time!

Just over a mile up the road from Namafjall is this rather innocuous looking feature:

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The mid Atlantic ridge tectonic boundary at its highest elevation above the sea bed in Iceland. The European tectonic plate is on the right of the image and the North American tectonic plate is on the left.

But innocuous and insignificant it certainly is not!

Coachloads of tourists drive straight past it never giving it a second thought.  I’d love to photograph this from the other side with the sun setting in the gap – another shot for autumn.

The Tephra and Pseudo Craters of Myvatn

Hverfjall Tephra Crater

The geological processes which formed these two landmarks boggle the mind – both features result from a meeting of copious amounts of ground water and boggy ground and even more copious amounts of hot moving lava flow.  Put simply – you just wouldn’t want to be there at the time, believe me!

I’d been looking at the Hverfjall Crater for two days trying to find somewhere to plonk the tripod to get the shot I had in my head.  And towards the end of Thursday I found it, quite by accident, down a track leading to a stuffed bird museum (don’t ask!).

Stunning winter light and a pancake flat snow field, kill the saturation in post – yes sir thanks muchly.  Out comes to 70-200 f2.8 and just wait for the sunlight to pop from behind the cloud.

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Looking towards the huge Hverfjall Crater tephra cone across a snow covered Lake Myvatn in Iceland. The houses on the far side of the lake give some scale.

The big thing that got me was the light quality, which is something you can only get at high latitudes – it’s a landscapers dream.

About two hours later I found the location to shoot the next image, a group of pseudo craters around Lake Myvatn – the sunlight gave some cracking top lighting to this landmark feature.

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Winter snow and stunning light over pseudo craters or rootless cones in the north eastern region of Iceland. They were created by a huge steam explosion through an advancing lava flow as it moved across wetland bog around 2500 years ago.

And we have to have a colourful one of the lake don’t we:

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Lake Myvatn at daybreak.

Friday morning saw us making the next big move down to Skaftafell, and because the highland road was closed because of the snow, we had to do the N1 eastern coastal route.  Eleven hours driving, but a stunning drive it was – the light over the highland plain and the immense vistas of the Eastern Coast blew me away.

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The daybreak light over the North East Highland Plain was breath-taking. Shot with the D500 and 18-35mm combo.

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View across the mouth of the Faskrudsfjordur fjord and Skrudur island.

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Looking south towards the mountain range at the mouth of Stodvarfjordur on the eastern coast of Iceland.

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Looking south east from the inner end of Berufjord, again on Icelands unvisited eastern coast.

Two things struck myself and Rich on this mammoth coastal drive.

  • You can’t help but ‘pano everything’ because the vistas are just too epic.
  • Why is there no one here?

Skaftafell, Jokulsarlon & Vik

Checked into the Skaftafell Hotel and YAY – no sulfur in the water!

No way was I paying the price to eat in the evening here – so it’s over the road to the N1 services for the best meal I’ve had in ages – all you can eat buffet of breaded pork medallions, spring rolls, potatoes gratin and pepper sauce – under £30 for me and Rich – we were stuffed!

Aurora photography on this Friday night and small hours of Saturday morning came in two parts.

The hotel lies at the foot of two huge glaciers coming down from the huge Vatnajokull ice cap.  There’s something of a penalty to pay for being near the foot of a glacier, and that penalty is a katabatic wind.

Holy Crap! They come from nowhere, are so cold you can’t believe it, go so fast they’ll rip the clothes from you back, and then disappear as fast as they arrive.

Here’s one caught by Rich, on its way down the glacier to give us a battering:

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You can see the katabatic ‘cell’ approaching the foot of the glacier – it’s the gray ‘cloud’ full of fine ice particles which wasn’t there 30 seconds before!

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Another katabatic cell rushes down the glacier but we are too far away to feel it’s effects – thank God!

We gave up after 30 minutes and half a dozen batterings, and went back to the hotel – and waited….

And sure enough things calmed down and the skies cleared around 1am on Saturday morning, and we were off out again.  A different look to the lights this time around – very active but diffused:

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Three shot panorama – D800E+14-24 f2.8 @ 14mm

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Fjallajokull Glacier.

Above is a pano of the Fjallajokull Glacier, which creeps its way down from the main Vatnajokull ice cap.

This is 19 vertical frames stitched together for 49000 pixels – and there’s another three rows to go on this top and bottom, but it keeps making my Mac fall over when I try to put it together!!
Spot the lunatic tourist bottom right – he’s good for scaling. We were taking bets on whether he’d fall in or not, and how long he’d survive if he did – what a prick.

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To ND or not ND – that is the question? Answer – do both! A large chunk of blue glacial ice being battered in the surf on the western black sand beach at Jokulsarlon.

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A macro panoramic view of the intricate surface texture of glacial ice washed ashore on the beach at Jokulsarlon in Iceland.

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Looking up towards the immense icy peaks of the western end of Vatnajokull.  This was shot with the camera and me jammed in the gap of the open rear door of our 4×4 – trying to keep the camera steady during a massive katabatic blast.

I also got the opportunity to take one of those super-minimalist abstract landscapes:

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Bad weather from the North Atlantic approaching the coast of Southern Iceland, viewed over a perfectly flat sheet of snow-covered ice. This is a genuine image not a composite.

Eat your heart out Rhine 2 – hey, a bloke can dream can’t he?

Later the Aurora paid us another visit:

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One from Rich on the D4 + 18-35mm combo.

Sunday was a strange day.  Lack of sleep was getting to both of us and Malcolm too, but we headed for the East Beach at Vik for the iconic sea stacks:

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A panoramic view of the iconic landmark and popular tourist destination of the Sea Stacks at Vik on Iceland. The shot is taken from the quieter and less visited Eastern Black Sand Beach nest to the village of Vik.

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There’s a damn fine looking landscape here if the tide was a bit further in and there were NO people or footprints! Rich and Malcolm working hard.

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Then we moved on to Skogafoss Falls but it was rammed to bursting with idiots having a laugh falling over – I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a crowd.

I was standing in the river with a standard composition ready to go when a guy wades out in front of me, sits on my feature foreground rock and starts drinking a bottle of beer.  Then his mate starts taking pictures of him.  I ‘nicely’ asked them what their game was and their reply was they were doing a series of shots with ‘beer boy’ drinking a beer in the dodgiest situation they could find at various landmark sites around the world.

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I just nodded and quietly left the river, packed up and went back to the car park before I ended up doing a stretch for murder…

So we drove on a few hundred yards and left the vehicle, having decided to walk up to the hidden waterfall of Kvernufoss:

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The waterfall of Kvernufoss which is hidden at the end of a small narrow valley near the larger and more visited Skogafoss falls on the southern coast of Iceland.

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What a stunning little hidden gem this fall is, it would be nice to go back in the autumn and get behind the fall curtain!

We left Kvernufoss for the long drive back to the Northern Light Hotel for our last night in Iceland, but we had not gone very far – Holtsos actually – when we were greeted by a view of the most magnificent sunset sky over the Westman Islands:

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The sun sets behind the Vestmannaeyjar or Westman Island chain off the coast of southern Iceland.

Here’s a wider pano with a rather annoying drone operator in the bottom of the frame to add some scale, and the rocks in the lake removed:

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Click me!

Then another minimalist shot emerged in front of me:

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As the sun sets in the west, the view south east across a partially frozen lake reveals delicate pastel shades of pink and blue in the sky and its reflection in the ice and open water of the lake.

No Aurora on Sunday night, the Valkeries obviously felt they had shown us enough, so it was a case of a few large mugs of the fabulous hot chocolate, a bit of packing, a shower, some more hot choc and BED.

Our plane wasn’t due to leave until 7.40pm Monday so we had some hours to fill, and our plan was to have a drive down to the Sea Stacks at Reykjanesta.  The sky was grey and there was a bit of a ‘blow’ on the go so things looked promising.

On the way I made Rich take one for the team:

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Great way to start the morning – sulfuric acid shower. He’s a good lad!

Reykjanesta is a stunning place, and also a place of great sadness – and a bucket-load of shame too.  This small bit of coastline was famous as the breeding colony for the Great Auk.  But their favorite breeding island vanished in a puff of volcanic action in 1830.  That was on top of their slaughter by British sailors in 1808.

Those few that remained took refuge on the small basalt rock island of Eldey which lies on the horizon about 15km offshore. But on the 3rd of June 1844 four Icelandic fishermen set sail for the island to secure a specimen Auk for a collector.

What they found when they got there is unclear, but suffice to say when they left Eldey the worlds very last pair of breeding Great Auks were killed and their single egg smashed.

And folk wonder why I hate the majority of human-kind.

As a memorial there is a near 6 foot bronze Auk set into the cliff top and it gazes out in the exact line of sight to Eldey – it brings a lump to your throat for sure:

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The sea was like a washing machine gone mad with 20 to 30 foot breakers smashing into the sea stacks:

It wasn’t exactly fun, but it was exciting (apologies for any language you might have heard!) and I knew we had an escape route from this cave under the cliff – but we were on the ragged edge of safety!

The pics were well worth the effort:

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The Sea Stacks at Reykjanesta on the southern tip of the Reykjavik peninsula in Iceland. Large waves pound this beach constantly, making it a very dangerous place to visit if you are not careful.

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The Sea Stacks at Reykjanesta.

That’s about it then, afterwards it was off back to Keflavik airport and a delayed flight back home for tea and medals thanks to a strike by French ATC.

I’m going to be organizing at least two landscape workshops to Iceland in 2018/19.  I haven’t formulated them yet, but they will most likely be in September 2018 and March 2019.  They will be formatted in such a way as to steer clear of the main tourist traps and concentrate more on locations that are not quite so well known.

I have had a lot of interest in these so far, but if it’s something you fancy just drop me a line.

Happy photography everyone, hope you enjoyed this post!


Twilight & Astro Landscape Photography

Twilight & Astro Landscape Photography

Everyone likes a nice moody sunset, but great images await those camera operators that start shooting after most folks have started packing their gear away and heading home.

For me, twilight is where the fun starts.

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The rock stack lying off the boulder-strewn beach of Porth Saint, Rhoscolyn Head, Anglesey.

The low light levels on a scene once ‘civil daylight’ has ended mean you get awesome light with lower contrast shadows, subtle skies, and nice long shutter speeds for dreamy water effects without needing expensive 10 stop ND filters.

However, that awesome light vanishes very quickly, so you have to be ready!  I waited nearly 90 minutes for the shot above.

But that time was spent doing ‘dry runs’ and rehearsals – once the composition was set how I wanted it, the foreground was outside of DoF, so I knew I needed to shoot a focus stack as well as an exposure blend…mmmm….yummy!

Once we have made the long transition from civil daylight end to astronomical daylight end the fun really begins though.

Astro Landscape Photography

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The Milky Way over the derelict buildings of Magpie Mine in Derbyshire.

Astro landscape photography, or wide field astro as it’s sometimes known, is not as difficult as a lot of photographers imagine.

But astro landscape photography IS very demanding of your familiarity with your gear, and will require some expenditure on additional bits of kit if disappointment is to be avoided.

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D4D6747 Edit Twilight & Astro Landscape PhotographyD4D6754 Edit Twilight & Astro Landscape PhotographyHere’s the kit I usually venture out at night with:

Dew Heater Band (A).

An essential bit of kit for astro landscape photography – it’s amazing how rapidly a lot of lenses, especially super-wides like the Nikon 14-24 f2.8 encounter a problem with dew at night.  This will in effect fog the front element, starting at its centre and if left unchecked it can spread across the entire face of the lens.

Heating the lens front sufficiently to keep its temperature above the dew point for your current location and time will prevent a ruined session – don’t leave home without one!

This dew heater is powered by a battery (C) via a dew heater controller (D) with is basically a simple rotary rheostat which controls the level of current driving the heater band.

I use mine at about 75% of ‘full chat’ and it seems to work just fine.

A final note on dew heater bands – these are designed for use by those strange folk who spend hours behind telescopes.  They tape the bands in place and leave them there.  As photographers we need to add or remove them as needed.  The bands can prove fragile, need I say more?

Yes, it pays to carry a spare, and it pays to treat them with care and not just throw them in the camera bag – I’m on band number 3 with number 4 in reserve!

Intervalometer (B).

You will need to shoot a long exposure of you scene foreground, slightly re-focuused closer to you, at a much lower ISO, and perhaps at a slightly narrower aperture; this shot might well be 20 minutes long or more and with long exposure NR engaged to produce a black subtraction.

Yes, a lockable cable release and the timer on your watch will do the job, hence (F) and (G) in case (B) stops working!

But an intervalometer will make this easier – as long as you’ve read the instructions..doh!

If you want to shoot star trails the external intervalometer is vastly superior to your cameras built in one.  That’s because the in-camera intervalometer on nearly all cameras except the Nikon D810A is limited to a 30 second shutter speed.

An hours worth of star rotation is barely enough:

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But at 30 seconds shutter speed you will end up with 120 frames at fairly high ISO.

Far better to shoot at ‘bulb’ with a 5 minute exposure and lower ISO – then you’ll only have 12 frames – your computer with thank you for the lower number when it comes to stacking the shots in Photoshop.

There is also another problem, for certain marks of Nikon cameras.  The D800E that I use has a stupid cap on continuous shooting.  The much touted method of setting the shutter to 30 seconds and putting the camera in continuous low speed shooting mode and locking the cable release button down does NOT work – it only allows you to take 100 frames then the camera just STOPS taking pictures.

But if you use an external intervalometer set to a 30 second exposure, continuous and just drop the camera in BULB and Single Shot then the D800E and its like will sit there and fill your cards up with frames.

Other Essentials.

Micro fibre cloths, bin liners and gaffer tape (B,I and J).

After a couple of hours of full darkness your gear (and I mean all of it) will most likely be wet with dew, especially here in the UK.  Micro fibre cloths are great for getting the majority of this dampness off your camera gear when you put it away for the trip home.

Bin liners are great for keeping any passing rain shower off your camera gear when its set up – just drop one (opened of course) over your camera and tape it to the tripod legs with a bit of gaffer tape. Leave the dew heater ON.

Also, stick the battery supply in one – rain water and 13 volts DC at 4000MAh don’t mix well.

Photopills on your iPhone (G) is incredibly useful for showing you where the Milky Way is during that extended period between civil and astronomical daylight end.  Being able to see it in relationship to your scene with the Night Augmented Reality feature cetainly makes shot composition somewhat easier.

Head Lamp (H) – preferably one which has a red light mode.  Red light does not kill off your carefully tuned night vision when you need to see some camera setting control lever or button.

Accurate GPS positioner (K).  Not entirely an ‘essential’ but it’s mighty useful for all sorts of reasons, especially when forward planning a shot, or getting to a set position in the dark.

D8E5969 Edit Twilight & Astro Landscape Photography

The Milky Way towering over the National Coastwatch Institution (NCI) station at Rhoscolyn on Anglesey.


I love taking someone who’s never seen the Milky Way out at night to capture it with their own equipment – the constant stream of ‘WOWS’ makes me all warm ‘n fuzzy!  This year has seen me take more folk out than ever; and even though we are going to loose the galactic centre in the next few weeks the opportunities for night photography get better as the nights grow longer.

D8E5420 Edit Edit Twilight & Astro Landscape Photography

The Milky Way over the derelict buildings of Magpie Mine in Derbyshire.

So if you want to get out there with me then just give me shout at

The Milky Way will still be a prominent feature in the sky until October, and will be in a more westerly position, so lots of great bays on the North Wales & Anglesey coast will come into their own as locations.

D8E3653 Edit 2 Edit Twilight & Astro Landscape Photography

The Milky Way over the Afon Glaslyn Valley looking towards Beddgelert and Porthmadog. The patchy green colour of the sky is cause by a large amount of airglow, another natural phenomenon that very few people actually see.

And just look at that star detail:

Screen Shot 2016 08 19 at 12.35.40 Twilight & Astro Landscape Photography

Over the next few weeks I’m going to be putting together a training video title on processing astro landscape photography images, and if the next new moon phase at the end of this month comes with favourable weather I’m going to try and supplement these with a couple of practical shooting videos – so fingers crossed.

Night Sky Imaging

Night Sky Photography – A Brief Introduction

D8E3685 3690composite23 Night Sky Imaging

I really get a massive buzz from photographing the night sky – PROPERLY.

By properly I mean using your equipment to the best of its ability, and using correct techniques in terms of both ‘shooting’ and post processing.

The majority of images within the vast plethora of night sky images on Google etc, and methods described, are to be frank PANTS!

Those 800 pixel long-edge jpegs hide a multitude of shooting and processing sins – such as HUGE amounts of sensor noise and the biggest sin of all – elongated stars.

Top quality full resolution imagery of the night sky demands pin-prick stars, not trails that look like blown out sausages – unless of course, you are wanting them for visual effect.

Pin sharp stars require extremely precise MANUAL FOCUS in conjunction with a shutter speed that is short enough to arrest the perceived movement of the night sky across the cameras field of view.

They also demand that the lens is ‘shot’ pretty much wide open in terms of aperture – this allows the sensor to ‘see and gather’ as many photons of light from each point-source (star) in the night sky.

So we are in the situation where we have to use manual focus and exposure with f2.8 as an approximate working aperture – and high ISO values, because of the demand for a relatively fast shutter speed.

And when it comes to our shutter speed the much-vaunted ‘500 Rule’ needs to be consigned to the waste bin – it’s just not a good enough standard to work to, especially considering modern high megapixel count sensors such as Nikon’s D800E/D810/D810A and Canons 5DS.

Leaving the shutter open for just 10 seconds using a 14mm lens will elongate stars EVER SO SLIGHTLY – so the ‘500 Rule’ speed of 500/14 = 35.71 seconds is just going to make a total hash of things.

In the shot below; a crop from the image top left; I’ve used a 10 second exposure, but in preference I’ll use 5 seconds if I can get away with it:

D8E3690 Night Sky Imaging

Nikon D800E,14-24 f2.8@14mm,10 seconds exposure,f2.8,ISO 6400
RAW, Unprocessed, Full Resolution Crop

WOW….look at all that noise…well, it’s not going to be there for long folks; and NO, I won’t make it vanish with any Noise Reduction functions or plugins either!

1444x1444testcomposite Night Sky Imaging

5 consecutive frames put through Starry Landscape Stacker – now we have something we can work with!

Download Starry Landscape Stacker from the App Store:
%name Night Sky Imaging

Huge amounts of ‘noise’ can be eradicated using Median Stacking within Photoshop, but Mac users can circumnavigate the ‘agro’ of layer alignment and layer masking by using this great ‘app’ Starry Landscape Stacker – which does all the ‘heavy lifting’ for you.  Click the link above to download it from the App Store.  Just ignore any daft iTunes pop-ups and click ‘View in Mac App Store’!

I have a demonstration of Median Stacking on my YouTube channel:

This video is best viewed on YouTube in full screen mode.

In a manner of speaking, the ‘shooting aspect’ of Milky Way/Night Sky/Wide-field Astro is pretty straight forward.  You are working in between some very hard constraints with little margin for error.

  • The Earths rotation makes the stars track across our frame – so this dictates our shutter speed for any given focal length of lens – shorter focal length = longer shutter speed.
  • Sensor Megapixel count – more megs = shorter shutter speed.
  • We NEED to shoot with a ‘wide open’ aperture, so our ISO speed takes over as our general exposure control.
  • Focusing – this always seems to be the big ‘sticking point’ for most folk – and despite what you read to the contrary, you can’t reliably use the ‘hyperfocal’ method with wide open apertures – it especially will not work with wide-angle zoom lenses!
  • The Earths ‘seasonal tilt’ dictates what we can and can’t see from a particular latitude; and in conjunction with time of day, dictates the direction and orientation of a particular astral object such as the Milky Way.
  • Light pollution can mask even the cameras ability to record all the stars, and it effects the overall scene luminance level.
  • The position and phase of the moon – a full moon frequently throws far too much light into the entire sky – my advice is to stay at home!
  • A moon in between its last quarter and new moon is frequently diagonally opposite the Milky Way, and can be useful for illuminating your foreground.

And there are quite a few other considerations to take into account, like dew point and relative humidity – and of course, the bloody clouds!

The point I’m trying to make is that these shots take PLANNING.

Using applications and utilities like Stellarium and Photographers Ephemeris in conjunction with Google Earth has always been a great way of planning shots.  But for me, the best planning aid is Photopills – especially because of its augmented reality feature.  This allows you to pre-visualise your shot from your current location, and it will compute the dates and times that the shot is ‘on’.

Download Photopills from the App Store:

Photopills400x400bb 150x150 Night Sky Imaging

But it won’t stop the clouds from rolling in!

Even with the very best planning the weather conditions can ruin the whole thing!

I’m hoping that before the end of the year I’ll have a full training video finished about shooting perfect ‘wide field astro’ images – it’ll cover planning as well as BOTH shooting AND processing.

I will show you how to:

  • Effectively use Google Earth in conjunction with Stellarium and Photopills for forward planning.
  • The easiest way to ensure perfect focus on those stars – every time.
  • How to shoot for improved foreground.
  • When, and when NOT to deploy LONG EXPOSURE noise reduction in camera – black frame shooting.
  • How to process RAW files in Lightroom for correct colour balance.
  • How to properly use both Median Stacking in Photoshop and Starry Landscape Stacker to reduce ISO noise.
  • And much more!

One really useful FREE facility on the net is the Light Pollution Map website – I suggest using the latest 2015 VIIRIS overlay and the Bing Map Hybrid mode in order to get a rough idea of your foreground and the background light pollution effecting your chosen location.

Don’t forget – if you shoot vertical (portrait?) with a 14mm lens, the top part of the frame can be slightly behind you!



Lee SW150 Mk2 Filter Holder – Review

The Lee SW150 Mk2 Filter Holder

D4D3598 Edit Lee SW150 Mk2 Filter Holder   Review

PURE SEX – and I’ve bloody well paid for this! My new SW150 MkII filter system for the Nikon 14-24. Just look at those flashy red anodised parts – bound to make me a better photographer!

I’ve just finished part 1 of my video review of the Lee SW150 Filter holder system for super-wide lenses and uploaded it to my YouTube channel:

First off – please forgive the shirt folks!

The SW150 Mk 2 filter holder is designed to fit a list of different lenses:

  1. Nikon AF-S Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8G ED

  2. Nikon 14mm f2.8 D AF ED

  3. Canon EF 14mm f2.8 L II USM

  4. Samyang 14mm f/2.8 ED AS IF UMC

  5. Sigma 12-24mm f4.5-5.6 DG HSM II

  6. Tokina AT-X 16-28mm f/2.8 PRO FX

and according to the Lee website, additional lenses will be catered for; as the need arises I presume.

I never subscribed to the original incarnation of the SW150, for two reasons:

  • It ‘leaked light’ at the rear surface of the filter (though that was fairly easy to correct with a home-made baffle mod).

But that was of no consequence to me because Lee always gave the impression that:

  • They would not produce the Big & Little Stopper filters in 150mm square format.

So I’ve always stuck with either the 100mm Lee system or used a B&W 77mm screw-in filter on the Nikon 24-70mm f2.8 or a wide angle prime; and I’ve shot many a well-selling image.

nik14 24 24 70 Lee SW150 Mk2 Filter Holder   Review

But, the Nikon 14-24mm f2.8 lens has more than one advantage over its sister lens:

  1. It’s sharper – by a country mile.
  2. It resolves more ‘line pairs per millimetre’ than the 24-70mm.
  3. Its focal length range is more ‘in keeping’ with landscape photography.

And, like all the other lenses in that list above, that vast front element collects SO MANY MORE photons during the exposure.

So, now that I’ve got the opportunity to use the advantages of the 14-24 f2.8 from behind high quality 10x and 6x ND filters – well, let’s say the purchase of the Lee SW150 Mk2 system is a bit of a ‘no-brainer’ really.

The main improvement to the holder itself is the inclusion of a new baffle or ‘lightshield’ as Lee call it – this can be purchased separately as an upgrade to the original Lee SW150 Mk 1.

But you’ll have to do without the sexy red anodised bits that come with the new Mk 2 version if you go that route – these have just got to make me a better photographer!

I’ll be doing part 2 of this video review in the near future, as and when time and weather permit; but for now, I hope you find this video useful folks.

Please consider supporting this blog.

This blog really does need your support. All the information I put on these pages I do freely, but it does involve costs in both time and money.

If you find this post useful and informative please could you help by making a small donation – it would really help me out a lot – whatever you can afford would be gratefully received.

Your donation will help offset the costs of running this blog and so help me to bring you lots more useful and informative content.

Many thanks in advance.


Lightroom Dehaze – part 2

More Thoughts on The Lightroom Dehaze Control

Screen Shot 2015 06 27 at 14.49.06 900x625 Lightroom Dehaze   part 2

With the dehaze adjustment in Lightroom (right) the sky and distant hills look good, but the foreground looks poor.

In my previous post I did say I’d be uploading another video reflecting my thoughts on the Lightroom/ACR dehaze adjustment.

And I’ve just done that – AND I’ve made a concious effort to keep the ramblings down too..!

In the video I look at the effects of the dehaze adjustment on 4 very different images, and alternative ways of obtaining similar or better results without it.

You may see some ‘banding’ on the third image I work on – this is down to YouTube video compression.

In conclusion I have to say that I find the dehaze ‘tool’ something of an anti-climax if I’m honest. In fairly small positive amounts it can work exceptionally well in terms of a quick work flow on relatively short dynamic range images.  But I’m not a really big fan in general, and It’s possible to create pretty much the same adjustments using the existing Lightroom tools.

In the video I make a passing mention of a third party plug-in by Topaz.

If you take my advice, get the Topaz Clarity plug-in for Lightroom, or Photoshop using the link below.
Clarity banner 125x125 3 Lightroom Dehaze   part 2

I’ll be doing an ‘in-depth’ look at this Topaz plug-in in the next few days or so – it’s got a lot going for it, isn’t all that expensive, and beats the living daylights out of the Lightroom/ACR dehaze tool on those tricky images with a myriad of fine detail.

Clicking the link above means that I can earn a small commission which helps keep this blog going!

Please consider supporting this blog.

This blog really does need your support. All the information I put on these pages I do freely, but it does involve costs in both time and money.

If you find this post useful and informative please could you help by making a small donation – it would really help me out a lot – whatever you can afford would be gratefully received.

Donations would help offset the costs of running this blog and so help me to bring you lots more useful and informative content.

Many thanks in advance.


Lightroom Dehaze

 The Lightroom Dehaze Control

I’m getting a bit fed up with seeing countless folk raving about this new dehaze slider control in Lightroom, ACR etc.

dehaze Lightroom Dehaze

The control itself can be found at the bottom of the Effects panel in the Develop module in Lightroom CC 2015, and at the top of the ACR FX tab.

Yes it’s certainly useful, but I have yet to see anyone illustrating its bad points – so Uncle Andy has made a video: if you are reading this in email, click this link to watch the video

I do tend to waffle a bit in videos so apologies for that…!

You might want to click the YouTube icon bottom right corner and watch this video at a larger size.

I’m not saying that the dehaze control in Lightroom and ACR is crap – far from it.  But I am strongly advising that you deploy it with some caution, especially when images contain small fine edge detail.

Under these circumstances, positive value dehaze control adjustments can have disastrous effects on fine detail.  You might not be aware of these ‘on screen’ but send the image to A2 print and you could be in for some tears.

I’ll be doing another video on the dehaze control shortly, showing some of the positives that I see in it.

Please consider supporting this blog.

This blog really does need your support. All the information I put on these pages I do freely, but it does involve costs in both time and money.

If you find this post useful and informative please could you help by making a small donation – it would really help me out a lot – whatever you can afford would be gratefully received.

Donations would help offset the costs of running this blog and so help me to bring you lots more useful and informative content.

Many thanks in advance.


HDR in Lightroom CC (2015)

Lightroom CC (2015) – exciting stuff!

New direct HDR MERGE for bracketed exposure sequences inside the Develop Module of Lightroom CC 2015 – nice one Adobe!  I can see Eric Chan’s finger-prints all over this one…!

D4D4469 HDR 600x400 HDR in Lightroom CC (2015)

Twilight at Porth Y Post, Anglesey.

After a less than exciting 90 minutes on the phone with Adobe this vary morning – that’s about 10 minutes of actual conversation and an eternity of crappy ‘Muzak’ – I’ve managed to switch from my expensive old single app PsCC subscription to the Photography Plan – yay!

They wouldn’t let me upgrade my old stand-alone Lr4/Lr5 to Lr6 ‘on the cheap’ so now they’ve given me two apps for half the price I was paying for 1 – mental people, but I’ll not be arguing!

I was really eager to try out the new internal ‘Merge’ script/command for HDR sequences – and boy am I impressed.

I picked a twilight seascape scene I shot last year:

5 600x375 HDR in Lightroom CC (2015)

Click to view LARGER IMAGE.

I’ve taken a 6 shot exposure bracketed sequence of RAW files above, into the Develop Module of Lightroom CC and done 3 simple adjustments to all 6 under Auto Synch:

  1. Change camera profile from Adobe Standard to Camera Neutral.
  2. ‘Tick’ Remove Chromatic Aberration in the Lens Corrections panel.
  3. Change the colour temperature from ‘as shot’ to a whopping 13,400K – this neutralises the huge ‘twilight’ blue cast.

You have to remember that NOT ALL adjustments you can make in the Develop Module will carry over in this process, but these 3 will.

4 600x282 HDR in Lightroom CC (2015)

Click to view LARGER IMAGE.

Ever since Lr4 came out we have had the ability to take a bracketed sequence in Lightroom and send them to Photoshop to produce what’s called a ’32 bit floating point TIFF’ file – HDR without any of the stupid ‘grunge effects’ so commonly associated with the more normal styles of HDR workflow.

The resulting TIFF file would then be brought back into Lightroom where some very fancy processing limits were given to us – namely the exposure latitude above all else.

‘Normal’ range images, be they RAW or TIFF etc, have a potential 10 stops of exposure adjustment, +5 to -5 stops, both in the Basics Panel, and with Linear and Radial graduated filters.

But 32 bit float TIFFs had a massive 20 stops of adjustment, +10 to -10 stops – making for some very fancy and highly flexible processing.

Now the, what’s a ‘better’ file type than pixel-based TIFF?  A RAW file……

1 600x375 HDR in Lightroom CC (2015)

Click to view LARGER IMAGE.

So, after selecting the six RAW images, right-clicking and selecting ‘Photomerge>HDR’…

2 600x375 HDR in Lightroom CC (2015)

Click to view LARGER IMAGE.

…and selecting ‘NONE’ from the ‘de-ghost’ options, I was amazed to find the resulting ‘merged file’ was a DNG – not a TIFF – yet it still carries the 20 stop exposure adjustment  latitude.

6 600x375 HDR in Lightroom CC (2015)

Click to view LARGER IMAGE.

This is the best news for ages, and grunge-free, ‘real-looking’ HDR workflow time has just been axed by at least 50%.  I can’t really say any more about it really, except that, IMHO of course, this is the best thing to happen for Adobe RAW workflow since the advent of PV2012 itself – BRILLIANT!

Note: Because all the shots in this sequence featured ‘blurred water’, applying any de-ghosting would be detrimental to the image, causing some some weird artefacts where water met static rocks etc.

But if you have image sequences that have moving objects in them you can select from 3 de-ghost pre-sets to try and combat the artefacts caused by them, and you can check the de-ghost overlay tick-box to pre-visualise the de-ghosting areas in the final image.

3 600x375 HDR in Lightroom CC (2015)

Click to view LARGER IMAGE.

Switch up to Lightroom CC 2015 – it’s worth it for this facility alone.

D4D4469 HDR 2 600x400 HDR in Lightroom CC (2015)

Click to view LARGER IMAGE.


Please consider supporting this blog.

This blog really does need your support. All the information I put on these pages I do freely, but it does involve costs in both time and money.

If you find this post useful and informative please could you help by making a small donation – it would really help me out a lot – whatever you can afford would be gratefully received.

Donations would help offset the costs of running this blog and so help me to bring you lots more useful and informative content.

Many thanks in advance.


Lumenzia – Not Just for Landscapes

Luminosity Masking is NOT just for landscape photographs – far from it.

But most folk miss the point of luminosity masking because they think it’s difficult and tedious.

The point, as I always see it, is that luminosity masking allows you to make dramatic but subtle changes and enhancements to your image with what are actually VERY fast and crude “adjustments”.

This in reality means that luminosity masking is FAST – and way faster than trying to do “localised” adjustments.  But the creation of the masks and choosing which one to use is what crippled the “ease factor” for most.

But with this new Lumenzia extension is so snappy and quick at showing you the different masks that, if you know what area of the image you want to adjust, the whole process takes SECONDS.

Let’s look at a White-tailed Eagle taken just 15 days ago:

Straight off the 1Dx it looks like this:

raw 1 of 1 900x600 Lumenzia   Not Just for Landscapes

RAW unprocessed .CR2 file (CLICK to view in new window)

Inside the Develop Module of Lightroom 5 it looks like:

camera 900x518 Lumenzia   Not Just for Landscapes

RAW unprocessed – (CLICK to view in new window)

A few tweaks later and it looks like:

Lr5adjust 900x518 Lumenzia   Not Just for Landscapes

Tweaks are what you can see in the Basics Panel + CamCal set to Neutral, and Chroma Noise removal in the Lens Corrections Panel is turned ON – (CLICK to view in new window)

Sending THIS adjusted image to Photoshop:

ps1 900x563 Lumenzia   Not Just for Landscapes

(CLICK to view in new window)

All I want to do is give a “lift” to the darker tones in the bird; under the wings, and around the side of head, legs and tail.

Using a BRUSH to do the job is all fine ‘n dandy BUT, you would be creating a localised adjustment that’s all-encompassing from a tonal perspective; all tones that fell under the brush get adjusted by the same amount.

A luminosity mask, or indeed ANY pixel-based mask is exactly what it says it is – a mask full of pixels. And those pixels are DERIVED from the real pixels in your image.  But the real beauty is that those pixels will be anywhere from 1% to 100% selected, or not selected at all.

Where they are 100% selected they are BLACK, and any adjustment you make BEHIND that mask will NOT be visible.

Pixels that are NOT selected will be WHITE, and your adjustment will show fully.

But where the pixels are between 1% and 99% selected they will appear as 1% GREY to 99% grey and so will show or hide variation of said adjustment by the same amounts…got it?

The Lumenzia D4 mask looks like it’ll do the job I want:

ps2 900x563 Lumenzia   Not Just for Landscapes

Lumenzia D4 mask (CLICK to view in new window)

Click the image to view larger – look at the subtle selections under those wings – try making that selection any other way in under 2 seconds – you’ve got no chance!

The “lift” I want to make in those WHITER areas of the mask is best done with a Curves Adjustment layer:

ps3 900x563 Lumenzia   Not Just for Landscapes

Select “Curve” in the Lumenzia GUI – (CLICK to view in new window)

So hit the Curve button and voilà:

ps4 900x563 Lumenzia   Not Just for Landscapes

The Lumenzia D4 mask is now applied to Curves Adjustment Layer – (CLICK to view in new window)

You can see in the image above that I’ve made a very rough upwards deflection of the curve to obtain an effective but subtle improvement to those under-wing areas etc. that I was looking to adjust.

The total time frame from opening the image in Photoshop to now is about 20 seconds!  Less time than the Lightroom 5 adjustments took…

And to illustrate the power of that Lumenzia D4 Luminosity mask, and the crudity of the adjustment I made, here’s the image WITHOUT THE MASK:

ps5 900x563 Lumenzia   Not Just for Landscapes

The effect of the luminosity mask is best illustrated by “hiding” it – bloody hell, turn it back on ! – (CLICK to view in new window).

And at full resolution you can see the subtleties of the adjustment on the side of the head:

ll lum 900x563 Lumenzia   Not Just for Landscapes

With Lumenzia (left) and just the Lightroom 5 processing (right) – (CLICK to view in new window).

If you want to get the best from your images AND you don’t want to spend hours trying to do so, then Lumenzia will seriously help you.

Clicking this link HERE to buy Lumenzia doesn’t mean it costs you any more than if you buy it direct from the developer.  But it does mean that I get a small remuneration from the developer as a commission which in turn supports my blog.  Buying Lumenzia is a total no-brainer so please help support this blog by buying it via these links – many thanks folks.

Please consider supporting this blog.

This blog really does need your support. All the information I put on these pages I do freely, but it does involve costs in both time and money.

If you find this post useful and informative please could you help by making a small donation – it would really help me out a lot – whatever you can afford would be gratefully received.

Donations would help offset the costs of running this blog and so help me to bring you lots more useful and informative content.

Many thanks in advance.


The ND Filter

Long Exposure & ND Filters

D4R3875 Edit Edit 598x900 The ND Filter

A view of the stunning rock formations at Porth Y Post on the Welsh island of Anglesey. The image is a long exposure of very rough sea, giving the impression of smoke and fog.  30 seconds @f13 ISO 100. B&W 10stop ND – unfiltered exposure would have been 1/30th.

The reason for this particular post began last week when I was “cruising” a forum on a PoD site I’m a member of, and I came across a thread started by someone about heavy ND filters and very long exposures.

Then, a couple of days later a Facebook conversation cropped up where someone I know rather well seemed to be losing the plot over things totally by purchasing a 16 stop ND.

The poor bugger got a right mauling from “yours truly” for the simple reason that he doesn’t understand the SCIENCE behind the art of photography.  This is what pisses me off about digital photography – it readily provides “instant gratification” to folk who know bugger all about what they are doing with their equipment.  They then spend money on “pushing the envelope” only to find their ivory tower comes tumbling down around them because they THOUGHT they knew what they were doing………..stop ranting Andy before you have a coronary!

OK, I’ll stop “ranting”, but seriously folks, it doesn’t matter if you are on a 5DMkIII or a D800E, a D4 or a 1Dx – you have to realise that your camera works within a certain set of fixed parameters; and if you wander outside these boundaries for reasons of either stupidity or ignorance, then you’ll soon be up to your ass in Alligators!

Avid readers of this blog of mine (seemingly there are a few) will know that I’ve gone to great lengths in the past to explain how sensors are limited in different ways by things such as diffraction and that certain lens/sensor combinations are said to be “diffraction limited; well here’s something new to run up your flag pole – sensors can be thought of as being “photon limited” too!

I’ll explain what I mean in a minute…..


Most folk who own a camera of modern design by Nikon or Canon FAIL at the first hurdle by not understanding their sensor type.

Sensors generally fall into two basic types – CCD and CMOS.

Most of us use cameras fitted with CMOS sensors, because we demand accurate fast phase detection AF AND we demand high levels of ADC/BUFFER speed.  In VERY simplistic terms, CCD sensors cannot operate at the levels of speed and efficiency demanded by the general camera-buying public.

So, it’s CMOS to the rescue.  But CMOS sensors are generally noisier than CCDs.

When I say “noise” I’m NOT referring to the normal under exposure luminance noise that a some of you might be thinking of. I’m talking about the “background noise” of the sensor itself – see post HERE .

Now I’m going to over simplify things for you here – I need to because there are a lot of variables to take into account.

  • A photodiode exists to do one thing – react to being struck by PHOTONS of light by producing electrons.
  • To produce electrons PROPORTIONAL to the number of photons that strike it.

Now in theory, a photodiode that sees ZERO photons during the exposure should release NO ELECTRONS.

At the end of the exposure the ADC comes along and counts the electrons for each photodiode – an ANALOGUE VALUE – and converts it to a DIGITAL VALUE and stores that digital value as a point of information in the RAW file.

A RAW converter such as Lightroom then reads all these individual points of information and using its own in-built algorithms it normalises and demosaics them into an RGB image that we can see on our monitor.

Sounds simple doesn’t it, and theoretically it is.  But in practice there’s a lot of places in the process where things can go sideways rapidly……..!

We make a lot of assumptions about our pride and joy – our newly purchased DSLR – and most of these assumptions are just plain wrong.  One that most folk get wrong is presuming ALL the photodiodes on their shiny new sensor BEHAVE IN THE SAME WAY and are 100% identical in response.  WRONG – even though, in theory, it should be true.

Some sensors are built to a budget, some to a standard of quality and bugger the budget.

Think of the above statement as a scale running left to right with crap sensors like a 7D or D5000 on the left, and the staggering Phase IQ260 on the right.  There isn’t, despite what sales bumph says, any 35mm format sensor that can come even close to residing on the right hand end of the scale, but perhaps a D800E might sit somewhere between 65 and 70%.

The thing I’m trying to get at here is that “quality control” and “budget” are opposites in the manufacturing process, and that linearity and uniformity of photodiode performance costs MONEY – and lots of it.

All our 35mm format sensors suffer from a lack of that expensive quality control in some form or other, but what manufacturers try to do is place the resulting poor performance “outside the envelope of normal expected operation” as a Nikon technician once told me.

In other words, during normal exposures and camera usage (is there such a thing?) the errors don’t show themselves – so you are oblivious to them. But move outside of that “envelope of normal expected operation” and as I said before, the Alligators are soon chomping on your butt cheeks.


Long exposures in low light levels – those longer than 30 to 90 seconds – present us with one of those “outside the envelope” situations that can highlight some major discrepancies in individual photodiode performance and sensor uniformity.

Earlier, I said that a photodiode, in a perfect world, would always react proportionally to the number of photons striking it, and that if it had no photon strikes during the exposure then it would have ZERO output in terms of electrons produced.

Think of the “perfect” photodiode/photosite as being a child brought up by nuns, well mannered and perfectly behaved.

Then think of a child brought up in the Gallagher household a la “Shameless” – zero patience, no sense of right or wrong, rebellious and down right misbehaved.  We can compare this kid with some of the photodiodes on our sensor.

These odd photodiodes usually show a random distribution across the sensor surface, but you only ever see evidence of their existence when you shoot in the dark, or when executing very long exposures from behind a heavy ND filter.

These “naughty” photodiodes behave badly in numerous ways:

  • They can release a larger number of electrons than is proportional to their photon count.
  • They can go to the extreme of releasing electrons when the have a ZERO photon count.
  • They can mimic the output of their nearest neighbors.
  • They can be clustered together and produce random spurious specks of colour.

And the list goes on!

It’s a Question of Time

These errant little buggers basically misbehave because the combination of low photon count and overly long exposure time allow them to, if you like, run out of patience and start misbehaving.

It is quite common for a single photodiode or cluster of them to behave in a perfect manner for any shutter speed up to between 30 seconds and 2 minutes. But if we expose that same photodiode or cluster for 3 minutes it can show abnormal behavior in its electron output.  Expose it for 5 minutes and its output could be the same, or amplified, or even totally different.

IMPORTANT – do not confuse these with so-called “hot pixels” which show up in all exposures irrespective of shutter duration.

Putting an ND filter in front of your lens is the same as shooting under less light.  Its effect is even-handed across all exposure values in the scenes brightness range, and therein lies the problem.  Cutting 10 stops worth of photons from the highlights in the scene will still leave plenty to make the sensor work effectively in those areas of the image.

But cutting 10 stops worth of photons from the shadow areas – where there was perhaps 12 stops less to begin with – might well leave an insufficient number of photons in the very darkest areas to make those particular photodiodes function correctly.

Exposure is basically a function of Intensity and Time, back in my college days we used to say that Ex = I x T !

Our ND filter CUTS intensity across the board, so Time has to increase to avoid under exposure in general.  But because we are working with far fewer photons as a whole, we have to curb the length of the Time component BECAUSE OF the level of intensity reduction – we become caught in a “Catch 22” situation, trying to avoid the “time triggered” malfunction of those errant diodes.

Below is an 4 minute exposure from behind a Lee Big Stopper on a 1Dx – click on both images to open at full resolution in a new window.

Canon1Dx 900x560 The ND Filter

Canon 1Dx
4 minutes @ f13
ISO 200 Lee 10stop

Canon1Dx2 900x560 The ND Filter

The beastly Nikon D800E fairs a lot better under similar exposure parameters, but there are still a lot of repairs to be done:

D800E 900x558 The ND Filter

A 4 minute exposure on a D800, f11 at 200ISO

Most people use heavy ND filters for the same reason I do – smoothing out water.

NDuse2 708x900 The ND Filter

The texture of the water in the top shot clutters the image and adds nothing – so get rid of it! D4,ISO 50, 30secs f11 Lee Big Stopper

Then we change the camera orientation and get a commercial shot:

D4D9874 Edit 581x900 The ND Filter

Cemlyn Bay on the northwest coast of Anglesey, North Wales, Approximately 2.5 km to the east is Wylfa nuclear power station. Same exposure as above.

In this next shot all I’m interested in is the jetty, neither water surface texture or horizon land add anything – the land is easy to dump in PShop but the water would be impossible:

NDuse1 900x511 The ND Filter

I see the bottom image in my head when I look at the scene top left. Again, the 10 stop ND fixes the water, which adds precisely nothing to the image. D4 ISO 50, 60 secs, f14 B&W 10 stop

The mistake folk make is this, 30 seconds is usually enough time to get the effect on the water you want, and 90 to 120 seconds is truly the maximum you should ever really need.  Any longer and you’ll get at best no more effect, and at worst the effect will not look as visually appealing – that’s my opinion anyway.

This time requirement dovetails nicely with the “operating inside the design envelope” physics of the average 35mm format sensor.

So, as I said before, we could go out on a bit of a limb and say that our sensors are all “photon limited”; all diodes on the sensor must be struck by x number of photons.

And we can regard them as being exposure length limited; all diodes on the sensor must be struck by x photons in y seconds in order to avoid the pitfalls mentioned.

So next time you have the idea of obtaining something really daft, such as the 16 stop ND filter my friend ordered, try engaging your brain.  An unfiltered exposure that meters out at 1/30th sec will be 30 seconds behind a 10 stop ND filter, and a whopping 32 minutes behind a 16 stop ND filter.  Now at that sort of exposure time the sensor noise in the image will be astonishing in both presence and variety!

As I posted on my Book of Face page the other day, just for kicks I shot this last Wednesday night:

D4D0710 Edit Edit Edit 900x598 The ND Filter

Penmon Lighthouse in North Wales at twilight.
Sky is 90 secs, foreground is 4 minutes, D4, f16, ISO 50 B&W 10 stop ND filter

The image truly gives the wrong impression of reality – the wind was cold and gusting to 30mph, and the sea looked very lumpy and just plain ugly.

I spent at least 45 minutes just taking the bloody speckled colour read noise out of the 4 minute foreground exposure – I have to wonder if the image was truly worth the effort in processing.

When you take into account everything I’ve mentioned so far plus the following:

  • Long exposures are prone to ground vibration and the effects of wind on the tripod etc
  • Hanging around in places like the last shot above is plain dangerous, especially when it’s dark.

you must now see that keeping the exposures as short as possible is the sensible course of action, and that for doing this sort of work a 6 stop ND filter is a more sensible addition to your armoury than a 16 stop ND filter!

Just keep away from exposures above 2 minutes.

And before anyone asks, NO – you don’t shoot star trails in one frame over 4 hours unless you’re a complete numpty!  And for anyone who thinks you can cancel noise by shooting a black frame think on this – the black frame has to be shot immediately after the image, and has to be the same exposure duration as the main image.  That means a 4 hour single frame star trail plus black frame to go with it will take at least 8 hours – will your camera battery last that long?  If it dies before the black frame is finished then you lose BOTH frames……………


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