Author Archives: matthewsaville

Timelapse Photography: “Holy Grail” Method Versus Aperture Priority

(This article is a supporting part of our ongoing testing of low-light camera metering reliability)


One of the most challenging genres of modern digital photography is nightscape photography, and one of the most difficult ways to capture this subject is with a day-to-night (or night-to-day) timelapse.

As an example, from bright sunlight to a moonless, starry night, a camera’s exposure will need to change by a whopping TWENTY stops or so.

Simply put, no camera can capture that range without adjustment, and this is unlikely to change. And, no matter what, the best image quality will always come from a correct exposure. Therefore, it becomes necessary to adjust your exposure during any timelapse in which the light changes significantly.

Before we continue, let’s make one thing clear: for most nightscape (also known as landscape-astrophotography or astro-landscape) photographers, if you are only capturing still images of a scene then you will do well to only ever use manual exposure, and to completely ignore your camera’s light meter. Instead, your histogram alone should be trusted.

How To Adjust Your Exposure During A Timelapse

There are multiple ways to tackle these challenging conditions, such as sitting by your camera for two hours, carefully checking and adjusting the exposure every minute, and then attempting to correct the stepped” exposure brightness in post-production.

Or, you could try letting your camera meter do its job, and hope that it knows how to correctly meter a night sky and not just give you pure black photos.

The Holy Grail Timelapse Method

The “Holy Grail Method” of timelapse photography is, in a nutshell, sitting next to your camera and manually adjusting the exposure. Between every single shot, you check your histogram, and bump up (or down) the exposure by 1/3 of a stop if it’s needed.

If you’re doing a full day-to-night timelapse and you’re going from bright daylight to a moonless, starry sky, that means you could be adjusting your exposure (and bumping your camera’s pointing?) 60 different times!

Unless your tripod is a boat anchor and you have a very gentle touch, this is very likely to create highly visible shaking in your final timelapse. You can try using a Bluetooth/WiFi-paired cell phone (most camera brands’ mobile apps allow you to control your camera’s exposure), but you’ll still create a very noticeable brightness “jitter” that has to be corrected very carefully in post-production with specialized software. (See the video above for a full demonstration!)

NOTE: the above video was made using a Nikon D800, which failed to meter correctly almost immediately after sunset, which is why back then I was still a fan of the Holy Grail Method. In our standardized test, the D800E fails to meter at about EV0, which is one of our worst scores.

Today, however, many cameras (especially mirrorless cameras that use their main image sensor for metering) can meter well below EV0. Depending on the ambient light of your nightscape, (moonlight, nearby light pollution, or Low-Level Landscape Lighting), you might be able to get…

The Benefits Of Aperture Priority (And Auto-ISO) For A Day-To-Night Timelapse

First and foremost, if you use Aperture Priority and auto ISO, you won’t have to touch your camera nearly as much. You might have to dial in some positive exposure compensation right after sunset or just before sunrise, but that’s about it.

Second, there is an added bonus that many people don’t realize! More and more (though not all) cameras have an additional perk of auto-ISO: they actually use extremely small exposure increments, much smaller than 1/3 stop, resulting in a perfectly smooth transition from day to night.

Nikon’s latest cameras (D850 and newer) have a built-in interval timer which is capable of exposure smoothing, and it works very well! Sony, Canon, and other cameras may or may not have this feature; the best way is to just go out and test your particular camera!

Speaking of testing: in the past, there has been a fundamental problem with this timelapse method: many cameras’ light meters would just completely fail and you would get a timelapse that rapidly transitioned to nothing but black frames.

HOWEVER, lately, more camera have been able to meter very well in extremely dim light, such as the light of a full or even crescent moon, and a select few cameras, shockingly, can meter a pitch-dark, moonless starry night sky with impressive accuracy.

That is why we created THIS TEST CHART, so that you can know what types of lighting conditions you can trust your specific camera to give a good exposure in.

Conclusion | The Best Day-To-Night Timelapse Transition Method

The combination of not having to touch your camera dozens of times during blue hour and having quite smooth output makes the second choice seem very tempting: use the “Holy Grail Method” if you must; however, you could get perfectly smooth exposure transitions by using auto ISO and Aperture Priority, thus saving significant work in post-production and likely producing a higher quality final result.


Integrating Sphere & Camera Metering Test Project

Main Project Page – Test Results

Project Overview – What Is An Integrating Sphere, and How We Used One to Measure Cameras’ Low-Light Metering Capability

Frequently Asked Questions / FAQ

What are EVs, and What do They Mean for Different Cameras? (Non-Technical Explanation)

The Technical Explanation of EVs, and Calibration of the Integrating Sphere

So, How Did You Build an Integrating Sphere, Anyway?

Timelapse Methods Compared: Aperture Priority VS Holy Grail Method

(YOU ARE HERE)


 

Happy 7th birthday, Canon 6D. You’re still one of the best values in astrophotography!

Today, in 2012, the Canon 6D was announced. It only had a single SD card slot and Canon Rebel-style focus point layout, (so I didn’t count it as a top choice for my day job as a wedding photographer) …but its sensor was, and still is, a huge milestone in high ISO image quality. So, happy birthday, Canon 6D! (Also known as the 6D mk1 or 6D classic, now)

Canon 6D – Astrophotography Legend

The 6D sensor was shockingly good in its day. It forfeited just two megapixels compared to its bigger brother, the Canon 5D mk3, but it was actually significantly better than its predecessor at high ISO image quality, particularly 3200-6400 where many nightscape photographers will likely spend a lot of time.

Smart photographers who needed incredible image quality more than they needed the flagship AF and dual card slots that the 5D3 offered, opted for the 6D as soon as its image quality was extensively tested and nightscape, landscape, and adventure photographers, in general, realized that not only did it have great image quality at high ISOs, it had better dynamic range at its base ISO than all previous Canons ever, including all flagships.

Though, admittedly, that base ISO dynamic range was still 2-3 stops behind Nikon and Sony, so if you also do a ton of shooting at ISO 100, then I must stop praising the 6D for a second and suggest that you consider the similarly priced (used) Nikon D750, which recently had its 5th birthday, I  might add. The D750’s high ISO image quality is not as good as the 6D’s, (though it’s close!) but its dynamic range at ISO 100 is still considered “insane” *1 by today’s standards. (Just like the D600 and D610, BTW.)

*1 “insane” is a scientific measurement that means “way better than most photographers will ever need. In fact, you’re more likely to see a bigger difference in image quality by just making sure you use perfect technique, than switching from this camera to anything better.”

Although the Canon 6D lacks a lot of pro features, it wins big in one way- that “magnify” button can be programmed to offer 1-click 100% zooming, unlike the Nikon D600 and D610. It even plays back the zoomed-in image if the LCD is off!

Indeed, when shopping used, you can easily find a good condition 6D for $700-800, making it one of the best values on the market today for anyone who needs a hard-working full-frame sensor in a very affordable package.

Why buy a Canon 6D instead of a newer camera?

By the way, if you’re curious: why wouldn’t you buy a newer camera instead, let alone a camera for a newer, more future-proof mount? There’s the 6D mk2 and the 5D mk4 for Canon’s EF DSLR mount, both which are old enough to be found for decently good deals on the used market. Plus, there’s the Canon EOS RP which is the newest mirrorless camera body in their RF lineup, yet it debuted at a mere $1300 and can be found for under $1000 used, if you’re patient…

Glen Canyon, Utah | Canon EOS RP, Irix 15mm f/2.4

The answer is, yes, all these newer cameras are good, great even. BUT, they’re all not as “clean” at ISO 3200+ as the 6D sensor, as per photonstophotos.net. Shocking, but true.

Oh, and what about the Sony A7-series cameras that are also starting to get old, the 1st-gen and 2nd-gen A7, A7S, and A7R series cameras? You can definitely find them for under $1K, that’s for sure! But, this is because as underwhelming as the 6D’s other specs are, (autofocus, card slots, etc.) …the early Sonys are worse. Also, most of their oldest sensors are far worse at high ISO image quality.

The only old Sony A7-series cameras that have equal or better high ISO performance versus the Canon 6D are the A7R2, A7S, and A7S2. (As well as the A7R3, if you count it among the now-replaced cameras since the mk4 is here, but the R3 is still a $2500 camera, and remember, we’re shopping for a ~$700 full-frame body.)

So, if you’re just breaking into astrophotography now, if you’re on an extreme budget, and especially if you’re at all familiar with Canon cameras already, then the 6D is still your best value, despite being 7 years old. Whether or not it’s actually the right choice for you depends on your total budget for both lenses and bodies, and of course the other features you are likely looking for beyond image quality. Last, but the polar opposite of least, remember: it’s not about the gear, it’s about getting out there and shooting.

Search for a used Canon 6D on B&H (Latest price check: $689.95-$879.95, depending on the condition)

2020 Astro-Landscapes Photo Calendar Available Now!

The 2020 Astro-Landscapes calendar is finally here!

It took me two years, but I’ve finally captured enough photos to create the next calendar I had dreamed of making: A panoramic landscape adventure photography calendar.

This is no ordinary landscape photo calendar, though. I had another ambitious goal for my next photo calendar: I’ve annotated the calendar days themselves with a few of my favorite types of landscape photography opportunities, such as a moonrise at sunset or moonset at sunrise, or nights when photographing the Milky Way could be optimal during a new or low crescent moon.

Now, each month you’ll not only be able to enjoy another photo from somewhere in the beautiful American West, but you’ll also be able to quickly glance at a few great shooting opportunities every week!

The 2020 calendar will be 7×12″, and is NOW SHIPPING! There will only be 200 printed, and only the first 100 will be signed and numbered.

Local pick-up is available, however, calendars cannot be reserved without entering into the system, so please order your calendar using the second link below, and you will be contacted for a chance to meet up around Orange County, CA.

Thank you in advance for your support, and here’s to 2020 being full of beautiful adventures!


Order Now! (limited supply remaining, discounted price) $14.99 + shipping






My Passion For Panoramic Photography

I’ve loved panoramic photography ever since I first picked up a camera about 20 years ago. I’ve always enjoyed creating “extreme” panoramic images, however, when I decided that I wanted my next photo calendar to be a panoramic calendar, I realized that most of my existing panoramic images simply would not work well in the desired format.

So, I made some compromises on my goals for the perfect aspect ratio, (7×12″) and I set off on many wilderness adventures to capture more images. Many of my adventures were centered around a singular photographic goal, and yet the images which found their way into this calendar turned out to be almost entirely the unexpected moments of serendipity and breathtaking light which simply cannot be predicted a year in advance.

For this reason, I decided to add not just helpful information about photo opportunities, but also a brief story behind each photo to help set the scene and give a brief glimpse into the moment itself. I am currently writing a book containing many more of these adventure stories, which showcase such authentic moments in the wilderness, and hopefully encourage other photographers to seek out the beautiful opportunities that nature has to offer.

My Passion For Astro-Landscape photography

I first began calling my imagery “astro-landscapes” when I became interested in nightscape photography, and for a period of time, it was the only subject I pursued. After a few years of nightscape photography “dedicated” adventures, however, I realized something- On all of the trips I took, many of the truly memorable moments, and indeed most of the best photographs, were not nightscapes, but images depicting whichever moments were simply the most breathtaking in terms of unique weather, seasonal phenomena, or serendipitous alignments of the sun or moon with earthly subjects.

During this process of discovery, not only did I realize that Astro-Landscapes was about so much more than just nightscape photography, but also, my desire to simply be outdoors as often as possible grew. Inevitably, also, my desire to sit at a computer and post-produce the images dwindled. I came to the following conclusion: I’d rather be outdoors capturing real moments of nature, instead of “fabricating” them later on a computer.

This has been my driving force ever since, and each of the images in this set of 13 represents very basic photographic techniques: Many are single exposures with nothing more than color-correction and cropping to a 7×12 aspect ratio, and others are very simple panoramic stitches, or basic noise reduction layers. In other words, these moments unfolded with the exact timing, scale, and juxtaposition that you see in each image.


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Moonset at Sunrise in the Alabama Hills | Eastern Sierra, California, August 2018 Nikon D750, 70-200mm f/2.8, 200mm, f/8, ISO 100, 1/100 sec

I wish I could say this moment was perfectly planned months in advance, but the truth is, it snuck up on me completely un-planned. I was car-camping in the Alabama Hills during a solo road trip, and had only planned to do a little nightscape photography before getting back on the road.

As per the usual for most of my road trips, I was too exhausted from driving and hiking all day, so a 40-minute nap at 1 AM turned into a 4-hour nap. When I awoke, the moon was still well above the distant, jagged peaks of the eastern Sierra.

At first, I didn’t think anything of it; I was more concerned about getting on the road as soon as possible. Thankfully, the fading stars and pink-blue light of astronomical dawn lured me into telling myself, “just a couple quick shots, then I’ll get going.” Another 30 minutes later, as the last few stars were disappearing and the moon was getting awfully close to the horizon, it finally hit me- I was about to witness one of the holy grails of mountain landscape photography: a perfect moonset at sunrise.

Except, it wouldn’t be perfect; I was in the wrong spot. After snapping two “safety shots” at 200mm of the first kiss of purple alpenglow on Mt Whitney, I threw my gear in my car and raced “backwards” away from the scene to a slightly more distant vantage point. That few hundred yards was exactly what was needed to allow me to start a timelapse in which the moon nestled perfectly into the visual notch to the right of Mt Whitney, as the sun’s first rays washed over the majestic Eastern Sierra.

This image was processed in Capture One Pro 11. I found that Capture One did the best job of representing such bright, warm colors and tonality without appearing artificially saturated, nor excessively “preserved” as some bright highlight tones can appear in other raw conversion software.

Thank you again for your support!


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Crowds, Chaos, & The Death Of Solitude

I did not grow up with “Nature-Deficit Disorder”, as Richard Louv puts it. Thankfully, I grew up exploring the outdoors, climbing trees and rocks, going camping, and eventually going on more arduous adventures to extremely remote places. Continue reading

Astro-Landscape & Long Exposure Timelapse Testing For Mirrorless Cameras: External Battery Power

Since acquiring one of the most amazing compact super-zoom digital cameras ever, the Sony RX10 mk2, I have been earnestly testing Sony’s USB power input. All of of the newer (mk2) A7-series mirrorless full-frame bodies, for example, can run off a 5V power bank using a USB cable. (Previously, the Sony USB port could only charge a battery while the camera was off, apparently.)

My goal is to see just how ready (if at all) mirrorless cameras are for all-night astro-landscape timelapse shooting.

Continue reading

Yosemite National Park VS Delaware North Companies | Facts VS Feelings

Ugh, I can’t believe this is still making headlines. And now March 1st is just a few days away. But I think the news reports, and the social media hype, are all extremely short on details, and heavy on conclusion and bandwagon-jumping. So, is it justified?

The Whole History of Yosemite VS DNC

Let’s go back all the way. Curry Village for example, was officially named in 1970. So DNC did not give it its name, that’s for darn sure. According to Wikipedia, the concession contract was granted/purchased by DNC back in 1993, for $115M in today’s dollars. (Does anybody care to do the inflation math in reverse?) This sale did include some sort of “intellectual property” however you’ll have to get back to me if the specific word “trademark” is anywhere in that original sale.. (I don’t know if the “intellectual property” was itemized in the sale, either.) Continue reading

Wigwam Motel, Rialto CA

Testing out some new blog sharpening algorithms, and some night exposures with the Sony RX10 mk2. It appears that although I’m displaying the original size images, WordPress is in fact changing the fine detail ever-so-slightly. Bummer. Might have to go back to uploading to SmugMug, and hotlinking the image URL.

Enjoying the Sony RX10 II for night photography.  Considering it’s a bit noisy at all ISO’s, 30 sec exposures at ISO 100 feel about the same as ISO 400-800 exposures on my D750, which gives a natural grain look to night shots. I’m actually adding a bit of “silver rich” grain. Continue reading

Radian 2 Kickstarter Campaign Almost Over

There are fewer and fewer things that I get very excited about these days, as far as photography equipment goes. We’re pretty close to having the “ultimate” camera bodies, the “ultimate” lenses, and amazing other tools for the astro-landscape work that I am passionate about.  I could use cameras and gear from this current generation for the rest of my life, and be quite happy. Continue reading

Alpine Labs Radian – Timelapse Device Quick Intro

I’m always on a quest for ultra-lightweight, simple, and affordable equipment.

That’s one of the main reasons why, despite owning two full-frame cameras and a handful of lenses, I still frequently reach for my crop-sensor Nikon D5300 and Tokina 11-16mm for creating both still images and timelapse footage.

I obsess over weight for reasons other than just being a sissy, by the way.  (Although that may be one of the reasons.) I obsess over weight because the lighter the gear, the easier it is to bring two or three cameras into the wilderness! (Watch this video if you haven’t already)

I obsess over price for reasons other than just being cheap-o, too.  (Although, again, that could be one of the reasons…) Mostly, I like affordable gear because it makes me a little more willing to take a risk I might not be willing to take if $5,000 is at stake.  (Either by destruction, theft, or confiscation by authorities…  ;-) Continue reading

February 2015 Road Trip | Grand Canyon B&Ws

The sunset on February 27th was nice, but not as epic as it could have been considering how much dramatic weather was swirling around. And just after sunset, it started snowing moderately fiercely. The Forester (stock road tires) actually slid around a bit for the very first time! (Well, on paved roads. Getting to White Pocket a year ago was a whole different ballgame!)

The next morning, waking before sunrise, it was completely dark, grey, and still lightly snowing outside.

It was also nice and warm in bed.

Get up and go, the little voice said. (Also, my wife Joy said…) Bad weather is awesome. YUP, it sure is! Continue reading