Roger gives his easy to follow guide to Star trails and how to photograph them.
There’s something very special about taking photographs at night. Aside from the challenges of working in low light, successful images reveal things that our eyes don’t ordinarily see; the result of working with lengthy exposures that can run into seconds and often minutes. For me, the ultimate example of this is a star trail, which is why you’ll often find see me heading out when darkness falls.
For me personally, long exposure (LE) photography allows me to explore a sense of calm, a visual relaxation that matches the way I feel when I look at the landscape. But for some, the technical side of this style of photography makes it incredibly frustrating and stressful.
Before we get into the technical side of LE photography and counting exposure increase on our fingers and toes, there is something that is far more important than the technical issues. It is vision, interpretation and connection with your subject.
Ansel Adams said “A great photograph is a full expression of what one feels about what is being photographed in the deepest sense and is, thereby, a true expression of what one feels about life in its entirety.”
Find out how a frying pan can help with your low-angle shots.
After my last blog encouraged you to make a tripod using a piece of string, I’m going to go a little more surreal this time by explaining how an old frying pan can be used to get dramatic low angle images. The standard route to getting a low viewpoint is either to lie on the floor, use a camera with a tilting screen or mount the camera on a tripod that can be dropped to ground level. The first two options can involve you getting wet and don’t work if you want to use a longer exposure as you’re hand-holding. The latter can be a real fiddle. My frying pan groundpod, however, overcomes all of those issues.
So here’s what you need. An old frying pan, a tripod ball & socket head, a nut & bolt and tools including a drill with a 10mm bit that is suitable for going through metal.
First up, you need to check what size screw thread the ball & socket head has. The standard size is ⅜” but you can also get little inserts – as I have here – that converts the thread to a ¼”. In either case, these imperial sizes are not readily available in DIY stores as the world has gone metric, but they can be found online. You’ll need both nut and bolt.
Raise the frying pan off the ground and drill a hole in the centre. It doesn’t have to be absolutely central. Take care if you’re drilling through a Teflon-coated non-stick frying pan like me and, as you’ll discover, this can take some time as frying pans are pretty tough. Once you’re through, tap any sharp edges of metal down with a hammer.
Now take your tripod head, pass the bolt through the hole and screw it into the base of the head. If you have a long bolt like me, cut the excess length off with a hacksaw and then secure it all with the bolt. Your frying pan pod is now ready for action. Obviously, with a bolt in the base, this can’t be used on a solid surface, but it’s perfect for grass, soil, pebbles, mud and sand. I headed to the beach to try mine out.
With an X-T10 attached to the tripod head and its LCD screen flipped out it was easy to frame up my shots exactly as I wanted them at the water’s edge. The sides of the frying pan kept both sand and sea away from the camera so I was able to try a variety of images.
Here’s one of my favourites, I think the sail on the horizon makes it.
Finally, just a couple of notes. While the groundpod can help you get some great low angle images, I can’t be held responsible for any funny looks you might get while using it – it does look as though you’re frying your camera! Also, if you are taking pictures at the sea be aware that cameras and saltwater are uneasy bedfellows.
Beat camera shake using nothing more than a piece of string and a tripod quick release plate. This really works – see the last images for proof!
Tripods. They’re very useful when it comes to avoiding camera shake, but they can be quite bulky things to lug around – even the lighter carbon-fibre versions. But while Fujifilm have created impressive Optical Image Stabilisation systems in their lenses, there is a way of beating the shakes using nothing more than a piece of string and a tripod quick release plate. Better still, you can fit this set up in your pocket so you’ll never have an excuse for leaving it at home.
These are the constituent parts needed to create your stringpod. String (funnily enough), a tripod plate and a pair of scissors (unless you’ve got very strong teeth). I’ve used green garden twine largely because it’s easier to see in these pictures. Normal string does the job just fine.
Start by passing the string through the oval handle on the bottom of the quick release plate.
Now, pull a double length of string out and place it under your foot. Don’t cut the string just yet, you’re just sizing up at this stage.
With the string under your foot, hold the plate so the string is taut and make sure it’s at eye level. It’s worth screwing your camera on to the plate and repeating this process, varying the length of string as required until you get the height perfect for you. Only when you’re happy, cut the string.
Being a failed boy scout, I only know one type of knot, so I tied it here once I had the height right for me. My stringpod was now ready for use.
If you want to use the stringpod standing up and have a Fujifilm camera with a tilting rear LCD, you have two options. First, just place it under one foot, pull the string tight and use the camera’s viewfinder. Alternatively, to shoot at waist level, flip the screen out, stand with your feet around shoulder width apart, pass the string under both feet and, again, pull it tight to create a triangle.
Finally, if you want a lower angle, wrap the string around one wrist, pass it under both knees and pull the whole set up tight. The key to reducing camera shake, is keeping that string tight.
So, how well does it work? Due to a motorbike accident some few years ago, I have the weakest wrists known to man so I don’t really like to stray below 1/60sec when I’m hand-holding. This shot was taken at 1/20sec at f/22 and, as you can see, it’s all over the shop.
Using my stringpod, however, I was able to get a shake free result using the same exposure combination. I’m not saying it’s going to work with ten second exposures at night, but it could well get you out of a tight spot when you’ve left the tripod at home.
As a landscape photographer, I venture out to shoot – a lot. Much of my work is reliant on timing and interesting light. I’m based in Michigan, which isn’t conventionally known as a photo wonderland, so I am constantly exploring, scouting locations, and biding my time for that special segment of time where the light is just right and I can realize my vision. Most of the time, this involves me running out the door and into my car at the start of golden hour, and my Fujifilm bag (a unique co-branded creation) is perfect for those spontaneous moments.
Admittedly, I’m a bag snob, and I struggled with settling with any camera bag for my minimal kit until now. I could never find one that was just right for what I needed. When I heard that Fujifilm and Domke were partnering to create a never-before-seen version of several Domke classics, I was definitely interested. If the same attention to detail and capability that Fujifilm puts into their products went into the bags, I was going to be in for a treat. Long story short, the camera bag does not disappoint. The FUJIFILM X Series Domke F-803 has just the right amount of storage for me to take my X-Pro2, XF10-24mmF4 R OIS, XF56mmF1.2 R, and X100T – my perfect minimal setup. Even with the kit, the bag still has plenty of room left over for the accessories and extras, like my 10-stop ND filter, polarizers, solar-powered battery backup, and even my lightweight Vanguard VEO 235AB tripod, rendering me completely handsfree.
One problem that I usually have with messenger bags is that they end up being too bulky and uncomfortable, which is not the case with the FUJIFILM X Series F-803. It has a very low profile and feels perfect when it is slung across your body, all while looking super sexy (yep, I said it). The combination of sand canvas and brown leather make for a really classic look. It pairs so well with the aesthetic of the X Series cameras – you know, for people who care about that sort of thing. On the run and chasing light, I’ll be suited up with my new favorite premium X accessory.
Learn more about X Series Domke co-branded bags here!
I thought I’d put together a blog on how I came about taking this image and the thought process I went through.
It was a grey and gloomy day, not overly inspiring for photography but I thought I’d bring my X100s with the TCL-X100 converter attached with me while I took my dogs out for a walk. Most of the walk was spent either trying to avoid slipping over in the thick, wet mud or turning my body to avoid having a face full of rain. I was shooting with the black and white + red filter preset as it worked well with the gloomy conditions for some moody shots. As I reached the top of the hill I was walking up, I noticed how quickly the clouds were moving across an adjacent hilltop and instantly decided to drive back to this location with my tripod and filters*.
I was imagining the image I want to produce while walking back down with the dogs. There was a strong contrast between the immovable trees and the blustery clouds so I wanted to exaggerate this.
I decided to use the X-T1 and the XF18-135mm lens because it was very versatile and meant I could change my composition with minimal effort! I mounted the camera onto a tripod and attached a filter holder system. I have a collection of square filters, these are very helpful as you can use square filters with a variety of lenses with different filter thread sizes, all you need are different filter adapters. Though the systems are relatively expensive, in the long run they are more economical than circular filters. I also used a remote trigger which means I don’t have to touch the camera and introduce any unnecessary camera shake to take the picture, this is very helpful for long exposures.
If you look at the above photo you can see that I have a filter inserted into the filter holder. I decided to use a gradual neutral density filter as this allowed me to darken the sky while having less/little effect on the ground.
Gradual neutral density
10 stop neutral density
The left filter is a gradual neutral density filter, it isn’t square which means you can adjust how far down you want the gradient to affect your picture. The filter on the right is a neutral density filter, which is constant throughout. This particular one is a 10-stop filter hence why it is so dark as it cuts the amount of light passing through it by ten times, so slowing down shutter speeds drastically.
I put the gradual filter in first and set it up how I wanted it, set focus and then inserted the 10-stop filter. The reason why I set the focus first is the 10-stop filter can make auto-focus very difficult so it is better to have it all set beforehand. On this occasion the 10-stop filter didn’t take the shutter speed below 30 seconds, which means the camera is able to accurately read the exposure required. If a 30 second exposure is still too short once you’ve applied the filter, then you’ll need to refer to a chart that shows the difference.
Despite the fact that I’ve used a graduated neutral density filter, I’ve deliberately under exposed the picture to keep it dark and moody, hence why the ground is still dark. The slideshow below is a collection of images that used the 10-stop neutral density filter to slow down the shutter speed and as a result capture the cloud motion.
My photos are dominated by the sky – I deliberately kept the horizon low in the picture as the sky was the main subject for me. With the wider shots, I could have moved the horizon up more but the foreground content wasn’t particularly exciting, the sheep weren’t overly inspiring!
I hope this has been helpful and if you have any questions then please don’t hesitate to ask. There is one colour image above, I’d love to know which is your favourite out of the final four. For me it is the portrait orientated shot as I was lucky enough to capture the sun peering through the clouds.