Creative Light Blog

The Annual Prairie Burn



Moonlight Over the Prairie Burn
Moonlight Over the Prairie Burn

The annual Flint Hills prairie burns are again approaching.  In just a few short weeks ranchers in the Flint Hills will begin their annual burning of the prairie.   This event has become an event to experience for casual observers and photographers alike.

Where and What are the Flint Hills?

The Flint Hills – Big sky, expansive landscape, and a horizon that stretches on forever is the beautiful four-million-acre swath of land in eastern Kansas makes up about 80 percent of what is left of the world’s tallgrass prairie, according to the Nature Conservancy. The prairie’s is composed of mostly Big and little bluestem, switchgrass and Indian grass, and a geology of limestone and shale.  Historically it was known as Bluestem Pastures or Blue Stem Hills.  Zebulon Pike was an explorer who first coined the name Flint Hills after entering in his journal about “very ruff flint hills”.  It was suggested that over time Flint Hills had a better ring to it than something like Bluestem Pastures.

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Dusk on the Burning Prairie

A Bit about the Flint Hills

It’s written that clay soil and cherty (flint) gravel is what saved the Flint Hills from the plow, While there were some areas used for agriculture during the period between the Civil War and the 1900’s, much has been turned back into pasture. Among Flint Hills folklore, author James Kindall, suggested the Osage Indians, after having been displaces for the third time to what is not the Flint Hills, were pleased about its unsuitability as farmland as the tribe was unlikely to have to move again.

Why do they Burn?

The Prairie Burns
The Prairie Burns



Prairie fires are essential to maintaining the unique ecology of the flint hills. Native Americans used fire on the prairie to generate new growth that attracted bison. And later, with the arrival of cattle in substantial numbers in the 1860s-1870s, burning and grazing, as key range-management methods, have helped maintain the structure and function of the tallgrass ecosystem.

Without the burning practices the prairie, which provide nutrients and help the grasses grow, would become mostly a scrub forest of essentially Eastern Red Cedars and would have little practical use for anything. As such, the ranchers have a springtime ritual, which sustains the lush grasses for the cattle and has come to provide unique and beautiful opportunities for photography. While the winter and spring weather will determine when the burns take place, it usually happens during a period around mid-March through the latter part of April. Last year the burn took place following a two-year hiatus because of drought conditions; though, high spring-time winds can also cause ranches to cancel or postpone  planned burns.

Prairie Burn Photography Workshops

For the last couple of years Craig McCord Photography Workshops teamed with Manhattan Kansas photographer, Jason Soden, conducting several exclusive prairie burn photography workshops. It is really a joyful experience, not only for the great photography involvement, but to get to know the ranchers and their way of life. These folks are true Americans that love their simple but  hard-working  lifestyle and are happy to share their stories and experiences with visitors.

Photographers work their creative magic during the burn
Photographers work their creative magic during the burn

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While photographing the burns it was a pleasure to watch young rancher-to-be children participating in the springtime prairie burn ritual. Then later they played and roasted hot-dogs as the elders prepared the cowboy meal for our photography group. As we relaxed around the camp fire enjoying our cowboy meal of pulled pork and all the fixings, including homemade cookies and brownies, we discussed photography and prepared to venture out for the second burn of the day, the dusk burn. This time of day for me is the most exciting, as the flames reach toward a red setting sun that creates cowboys silhouettes against the backdrop of the burning prairie.

This year we are again we will host a  host  Flint Hills Prairie burn photography workshop at the Clover Cliff Ranch and Bed and Breakfast in Elmdale, KS. .  We are looking forward to another fantastic exclusive photography event.  If you wish to take part in next year’s prairie burn workshops, send me an email at and I will make sure you get on the list.

Sometimes it’s Best to Listen to that Guardian Angel

Log Jam, Oneonta Gorge, Columbia River Gorge, Oregon

We as photographers, particularly landscape photographers, often take risks beyond what good judgement would allow, just to get the shot.  I have read of several instances where a photographer met an untimely fate by not following simple rules of common sense.  I guess some would say that common sense may not be really be all that common.  Nonetheless, photographers will take that one extra step, if only to get slightly closer, fine tune that composition, stay just a bit longer along the sea stacks (not realizing one is about to be trapped by a rising tide).  I have a photographer friend who a few years ago fell from a height of over 40ft while photographing in the Columbia River Gorge area trying to get into position for a unique shot of Punchbowl Falls.  He was very lucky, a couple of broken ribs, a ruptured spleen after hitting the cold water below,  and then several days in the hospital after having to be carried out of the gorge in a rescue basket.  Maybe there was a little injury to his pride as well.  As a side note, his camera and tripod were unharmed.  They remained standing on the outcropping from where he fell into the cold pool of water below the falls.

During my trip to the gorge two summers ago,  I wanted to photograph an area called Oneota Gorge, a popular area for many hikers and photographers.  One can hike this gorge when the water levels are accommodating,  much like Virgin Narrows in Zion National Park.  But unlike the  high red rock walls of the Narrows, the Oneota Gorge has high moss-covered granite walls lining the edges of the creek.  If you hike up Oneonta creek a little over a half mile you can reach Oneota falls, another great photographic opportunity.

One challenge I immediately faced when I arrived at Oneota Gorge was this huge log jam blocking easy access to the creek.  No problem I thought.  I could carefully climb the numerous granite boulders supporting the jam and then hop across the various logs to reach an area I could easily navigate upstream.  Easy right?  NOT!  I slowly climbed atop a few of the boulders, being very careful.  Even with good hiking shoes, these rocks were very slick.  Okay, now what?  As I considered my options of which logs to traverse to the other side, I watched two young couples on the opposite bank appear to easily navigate through and over the logs.  They had obviously done this before.  Well, if they could do it why not me?  Then I think my guardian angel tapped my on the shoulder and said…wait dummy!!  You are not 30yrs old anymore.  And by the way, have you considered the amount of gear on your back, and its cost?  And those logs you are about to do a balancing act on are slicker than the rocks you just climbed.  If you break a leg in the process, how long before someone comes by?  Okay, I convinced myself to retreat to maybe come back another day.  Possibly research other points of access.  So I turned and began my route back down the rocks.  By the way, has anyone ever noticed how it is much easier to climb up than to climb back down?

After careful effort, I did make it back down safely and managed a few shots of the log jam and the walls of the gorge.  I will explore a little deeper on an upcoming visit back to this beautiful area.  This time I managed to listen to my guardian angel.

Christmas on the Plaza

Christmas on the Plaza, Country Club Plaza, Kansas City, MO
Christmas on the Plaza, Country Club Plaza, Kansas City, MO


Went to the Country Club Plaza in Kansas City several nights back. Thought I would try to capture something with the Christmas lights for a card. Spent some time with a fellow photographer checking out a few possible locations for a nice sunset over the Plaza.  Unfortunately, the previously predicted 24% sky cover did not materialize.  Such conditions could have provided the elements for a really nice sunset.  But a cloudless sky is all we ultimately had to work with.  After chalking it up to little more than a scouting mission, we grabbed a few shots and my fellow photographer friend decided he should call it a night. I too figured I would capture a few more and head home.  As I walked a few blocks I noticed another photographer at a corner deeply involved in his work.  As I approached I saw he was photographing through a clear crystal ball.  I introduced myself and listened as he explained what he was doing and he then graciously offered me the opportunity the try a few shots through what was like a giant raindrop. Of course the image appeared upside down but that would easily be corrected in post processing.  It was different and certainly produced a unique image for this year’s Christmas card.

Merry Christmas  to all my photography fans and friends

Returning Home?

Broken Cottonwood, Jackson, WY, Canon 5DSR
Broken Cottonwood, Jackson, WY,  Old and New, Death and Life, and the Passage of Time


I am a big fan of Eric Clapton, especially of his later years where he returned to his blues roots.  I recall his “From the Cradle” CD where he really went back to the blues in a strong way.  Not


sure why I am attracted to the blues but always have been as long as I can remember.  What has this got to do with this post?  Well, many years ago as I got started in photography I, like many others, experimented with black and white.  Over the years I progressed through several camera formats, including 4×5 large format, with a basement darkroom.  I would study the works of Ansel Adams and John Sexton and others.  Studying Ansel’s zone system and using a modified Pentax spot meter is how I really learned exposure.  This is one reason, even today, my primary camera mode is “manual” with spot metering.

String Lake, Grand Tetons National Park, WY
String Lake, Grand Tetons National Park, WY


While over time I came to shoot both color and black and white, I eventually began to shoot only color.  Lately however, I find myself struggling with a desire to return to my earlier days of the monochrome capture.  Every time I see a well done monochrome image I become increasing conflicted internally on a path forward personally.  Why not just do both you ask?  Good question.  I really love it when I capture a beautiful color image with magical light.  But the images don’t seem to have the same lasting power.  A well done black and white print is not only beautiful but seems timeless.  I also find that, for me anyway, I have to place myself in a monochrome mindset.  It is a whole different way of seeing.  Hard to do both.

Anyway, I made a promise to myself that the coming year I would refocus, return to my roots so to speak, and shoot monochrome for any personal work.  While I will of course shoot some color in support of several workshops I conduct, personal work will be monochrome.  It will be interesting to see my work by year’s end.

Beech Tree
Beech Tree

Milky Way and Star Trails at Teter Rock

Star Trails over Teter Rock, Flint Hills of Kansas,
Star Trails over Teter Rock, Flint Hills of Kansas,


Back during a September evening the forecast for the  night sky was clear for the Kansas City area.  So I thought I’d head out to the Flint Hills on the Kansas side to a place called Teter’s Rock for some night photography.  The Flint Hills encompasses a region in eastern Kansas and north-central Oklahoma.  It features a band of rolling  hills and grasslands with wide open skies. A place where in the spring  you might see storms developing 50 miles away.  In this area you can easily escape the light pollution of the city in search of a dark sky for star photography.  While the dark skies are great for night  photography, you have to really search for something to effectively use as s an interesting foreground element.  Enter Teter Rock.

Teters Rock is a group of stones standing as a tribute to a man, James Teter, who owned the land where a small community developed around some oil fields.  Of course the community is long gone and all that remains are these standing rocks on some high ground that represented what was originally intended as a guidepost for homesteaders searching for the nearby Cottonwood River.  The original stones are long gone but the current day monolith was erected as a tribute to James Teter, while most any other sign of the former community is long gone.  Teter Rock now offers a great foreground object to include in a composition while photographing the night skies of Kansas.

Arriving on site,  I began to evaluate the area for possible compositions.  The sun was just about to set so I caught a few quick shots of the setting sun through the openings of the rocks comprising the Teter monument.  I then explored positions facing north to determine where to best set up  to place the rock in relation to the North Star, which would be the center of rotation of my star trails.  My initial objective  was to plan for a length of time to take multiple exposures to later stack together to show the resulting star trails over Teter Rock.  There are always small things to consider on the horizon, such as a flashing strobe on a distant tower, glow from a small town in the distance,  should I position my camera closer to the ground for  a lower perspective, and other considerations.   The camera I had available to me this night was my Canon 5DSR.  This camera is a great choice for landscapes because of its high pixel count, allowing for very detailed images.  However, because of the higher pixel count it does not perform as well at high ISO settings often associated with night  photography.  But it is the only camera I had available at the time so I chose to use it to actually test its performance in these conditions.

When taking star trail images you won’t necessarily need to higher ISO’s such as 3200 or 6400.  In fact I will often start out around f/4, ISO 400, 4min on a dark night without a moon.  I might take a couple of test shots to fine tune my exposure.  With desired exposure and composition determined, I set the intervalometer for no more than 4 min exposures and fire it off , sit back in my rag chair and enjoy a beverage and snacks, and just let it go.  I had allowed for only a 1 sec interval between exposures and used a total of about 60 exposures to create the star trail shot above.

The crescent moon, which provided a small amount of ambient light, began to get low on the horizon as the night wore on.  The brightest portion of the Milky Way, easily identified by its proximity to the constellation Sagittarius, was still about 15-20 degrees above the horizon.  I could now reposition and try a few Milky Way shots above Teter Rock.  Now this is when I really expected to run into problems with noise in my images because of having to increase my ISO.  Using a  Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 lens  my strategy was to stay as low as possible on the ISO to mitigate the

Setting Sun at Teter Rock, Flint Hills, Canon 5DSR
Setting Sun at Teter Rock, Flint Hills, Canon 5DSR

noise and rely on the speed of the lens to capture the needed light.  I knew that by using my 24mm and  applying the 500 rule ( 500 / focal length of lens = max exposure time)I should keep my exposure time to no longer than about 20 seconds to render the stars as points of light in the image.  Nonetheless, I decided to push the exposure to 30 seconds considering I kept my ISO at 1600 in lieu of the 3200 or 6400 I might have otherwise chosen using my Canon 5D Mark III.


2016_09_teeterrocknight_0074_dxo-edit-copyAll things considered, the images I came away with were quite acceptable after post processing, and to my surprise the noise was very manageable. You can see, however  in the 100% magnification of the Milky Way image of why you should be mindful of your exposure time when your objective is to capture stars as points of light.  While the image viewed at normal magnification looks acceptable, when magnified it clearly shows the elongated rice-shaped stars resulting from the earth’s movement over that 30 seconds.  Where this would really become obvious is if you decided to make a large print.  The lesson here is that you should always consider the 500 rule in these cases and even do a test shot and  then magnify the result  in your LCD to be sure your stars are both in focus and your exposure is within limits to produce stars as points of light.

The prime season in the Northern Hemisphere to view the Galactic Core of the Milky Way is from March to October, with best viewing between April and July.  While the Milky Way is still visible throughout the year, the brightest portion of the core will be below the horizon from November to February.




Appreciate the History of a Place you Photograph

Each Spring and Fall I conduct photography workshops in the Missouri Ozarks.  The focus is on the Ozark National Scenic Riverway   and the mills, springs and rivers in the vicinity of Shannon, County Missouri.  During my fall pre-workshop scouting, I came across a small cemetery at Akers, MO.  Noticing it was established in 1861, I had to stop and explore a little further.  I believe many photographers are drawn to  old cemeteries, much like they are to old barn structures and abandoned buildings.  There is something about the mystery of the history associated with these things that we find intriguing as photographers.  As we click our camera shutters we contemplate what stories these places could tell us.  Years ago, when I was a young officer in the military, my commander would tell me how he always explored the history of a new place he visited.  He wanted to have a feeling for why streets or small towns had certain names.  Sometimes what was discovered was quite interesting.  Made for some nice trivia, if nothing else.

I explored the Akers Cemetery in part because it was established the year the American Civil War broke out.  Or as some southern boys would call it, “the war of Northern aggression”.  As expected I found one

Akers Cemetery, Shannon County, MO

gravestone of the era, that of 2nd Lt John Calvin Welch of the 9th Mo Infantry, CSA (Confederate States of America).  There were small fresh confederate battle flags placed at each side of the gravestone and some rather fresh looking, albeit artificial, flowers at its base.  It was clear current day family still visits his grave site and honors his service and sacrifice for what some post war writers would call “the lost cause”.

With a small bit of research I found that John Calvin (“Jack”) Welch was the father of 7 children.  He enlisted in 1861 with Freeman’s Company, Missouri state militia for six months, after which the union forces captured and took him to Alton Illinois, where he was held prisoner until September 1862.  Later he enlisted as a First Sargent in  Co. FM,  9th Mo. Infantry.  After fighting in the Battle at Pleasant Hill, LA, in 1864, he was promoted to 2nd Lt.  He served under the command of Gen J. Shelby who surrendered to union forces at Shreveport, LA in June of 1865.  After the war he returned to Missouri and farmed and was later elected County Collector.  He died at the age of 74.

Klepzig Mill, Shannon County, MO

The image here of Klepzig Mill in Shannon County, MO also has an interesting history, which I will highlight in later blog.  Having photographed this area for a number of years now, I have come to meet some very interesting and friendly locals.  Several Klepzig ancestors have contacted me over the months and  have talked of the mill and earlier times when the Klepzigs lived in the area and worked the mill.  More to come on that in the future.

Next time you venture out into new areas, do a little research.  What you find might not only be interesting but might offer some good leads on subject matter.


It’s Not Always About the Golden Hour

Oxbow Bend, Grand Tetons, WY Canon 5DS R, 1/50 sec, f/14, 24 – 105mm @ 105mm, ISO 100


How often do we hear the mantra “It’s all about the Golden Hour” or another explaining how the “Blue Hour” is where the most beauty hides.  Others may insist that landscape photographers should best use the middle hours for scouting and taking combat naps to ready for the next golden hour.  While all these statement have some validity, I would posit that one can often lose out on some fabulous opportunities if you adhere to this guidance too literally.

Take for example the image above photographed at the iconic Oxbow Bend in the Grand Tetons National Park.  Every morning hordes of photographers, some of which have traveled from around the world, gather to photograph this location at first light.  And to be sure, this is an ideal time to catch some beautiful light slowly begin to paint Mount Moran and the fall colors along the Snake River.  After the morning show, many go on about their way to grab a shot at some other site on the way back to breakfast or their favorite Starbucks beverage in Jackson.  Maybe that is why when I arrived at this spot around 10 am there was hardly anyone around.  Seeing this I immediately pulled in my workshop group to take advantage of these near perfect conditions.  The clouds, the stillness of the air, and the beautiful light on the fall colors worked together to serve a perfect image well beyond the golden hour.  Certainly a little serendipity played a role, as within about 15 minutes of our arrival a breeze came up which created ripples on the river, completely eliminating the reflections.  The image opportunity was gone.

2016_09_tetons_0702-edit-copyAnother example is the Tetons and Golden Willows Image.  This again was taken during a period many photographers might be having lunch, photographed around 11:30 am.  Now to be fair, the overcast light does act as a diffuser and enables soft even light without harsh shadows you might otherwise have during this time of day.  Which brings up another point I make of exploiting these conditions to expand your shooting day.  No, you may not get that beautiful sunrise or sunset but I guarantee you will find many compositions that otherwise may have simply  not worked in other lighting conditions.

The Jenny Lake image was a long exposure taken a little later in the afternoon around 4pm.  Surely not the golden hour but it was late enough to be getting some depth creating shadows in the mountains.  I wanted something more than just an afternoon shot of the lake and mountains so I grabbed my trusty Lee Big Stopper 10 stop ND to create this 239 second exposure.  This created the motion in the clouds and also really smoothed out the lake to provide somewhat a semi-reflection of the mountain.  It also produced a sense of sereneness to the overall scene.

Jenny Lake, Grand Tetons National Park, Canon 5DS R, 239 sec, f/22, 24-105mm @ 24mm, ISO 100
Jenny Lake, Grand Tetons National Park, Canon 5DS R, 239 sec, f/22, 24-105mm @ 24mm, ISO 100

Again using the Lee Big Stopper, I went for a similar effect at String Lake.  This time the effect was slightly more subtle but still effective.  The image was taken at 1:30 pm and did necessitate some consideration of shadows for foreground elements.



String Lake, Grand Tetons National Park, Canon 5DS R, 350 sec, f/22, TS-E24mm
String Lake, Grand Tetons National Park, Canon 5DS R, 350 sec, f/22, TS-E24mm



Even with the bright afternoon light you can still get some interesting, story-telling images while otherwise on your midday scouting mission. The image, “Boots and Bones” offers an example. Taken at 12:40pm It could be argued that this images best works during this period, as it adds to a feeling of a desolate place and the harsh life of early ranchers of the area.

Boots and Bones, Grand Teton National Park, Canon 5DS R, 1/13 sec, f/16, 24-105mm @ 38mm, ISO 100
Boots and Bones, Grand Teton National Park, Canon 5DS R, 1/13 sec, f/16, 24-105mm @ 38mm, ISO 100

So, don’t sell yourself short by ignoring times other than the often mentioned “Golden or Blue” hour.  There are great opportunities throughout the day, not just the edge of day.



A Follow up to the Perseids Meteor Shower

This year’s Perseids Meteor show was said to peak on August 12th.  In these parts the sky conditions on evening of the 11th and early morning of the 12th not ideal for sky watching, to say the least.  I was  to lead a workshop the evening of the 13th (early morning of 14th) in hopes of catching some of these elusive and brief glimpses of  a few Perseids rocks lighting up our sky.  The good news was the forecast was for clear skies for two nights running.

The night before our officially scheduled meteor workshop, and friend and I ventured out into some uncharted, or at least unfamiliar to us, areas of the Flint Hills.  After much driving in search of a good location, we finally opted for a spot offering at least the potential for some dark skies.  The coyotes were already beginning to howl so we figure we may as well stake out a spot.  Soon after dark we actually spotted the Space Station lighted up and traveling across the night sky.  Very interesting to watch as it moves and flickers across the sky.  Then it quickly fades and disappears.

We settled on a  location that was simply a gravel road, typical of this area of Kansas, which was oriented North/South.  I set up in the center of the road facing north, thinking I would compose a somewhat symmetrical composition with the north star directly above the road trailing off into the distance.  My thought was that even if I did not capture any meteors, I could stack enough images to create star trails above the road as it vanishes into the distance.

Star Trails in the Flint Hills Creating almost a vortex view drawing you into the Image
Star Trails in the Flint Hills Creating almost a vortex view drawing you into the Image

Any thought of Milky Way shots were quickly dashed as we had a bright 75% waxing gibbous moon and the Milky Way completely washed out as it followed the moon slowly across the night sky.  So we set up facing North, realizing that Perseids meteors would likely come from the North East.  While I did make several adjustments for exposure and composition, I finally settled on about an ISO of 1200 at 2.8 with my Rokinon 24mm f/1.4.  The Rokinon is a great lens for night photography but it is strictly a manual lens.  I had previously  focused on the moon to ensure a lock on infinity and taped my focus ring down with gaffers tape to avoid accidentally moving it in the dark.  I set my  intervalometer for 2 sec intervals to minimize any gaps in star trails,  and in order to keep my stars as points of light for a single image, I kept my exposures to no longer than 20 seconds, based on the 500 rule (500/focal length = max exposure for stars as points of light).

Very soon after getting set up Murphy dropped by.  That is Murphy as in Murphy’s Law.  My intervalometer quite working.  Great!  As it turned out the battery was dead.  Should have checked it ahead of time.  Good news…I had another intervalometer.  You should always consider the possibility of our old nemesis  Murphy arriving on scene.   Preparation and equipment redundancy is always a good thing.

Perseids Meteors. Stacked Image with Layers adjusted to reflected more accurate position of the meteors
Perseids Meteors. Stacked Image with Layers adjusted to reflected most accurate position of the meteors

As the night wore on, we did see some meteors and were lucky enough to catch a few in our images.  The image posted here is a composite showing a number of small meteors over a period of time.  In order to complete this image I had to stack individual frames as layers in Photoshop.  Then using Free Transform, slowly rotate each layer around Polaris as a reference and get the stars aligned because of the movement of the stars in the sky over time.  After alignment, I would paint in only the meteor on the background image.  This placed the meteor in a relatively accurate position in the sky.  The whole process is not really that difficult but likely a subject of a future blog.

The Milky Way Chases the Setting Moon
The Milky Way Chases the Setting Moon

Now as the early morning hours approached and the moon began to set, it was possible to take advantage of the darkening sky to catch a Milky Way image.  Usually this time of year in our area  the brightest portion of the Milky Way rises above the horizon to the South.  As the hours progress the view of the Milky Way moves toward the west.  This day as the moon set the Milky Way became most visible toward the West.  Using what I had to work with for foreground and some slight lighting assist I was able to catch a last image of the night, or morning, depending on how you viewed it.

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Star Trails over the Lower Fox Creek School, Flint Hills of Kansas

On the second night, we had an excellent foreground element, the Lower Fox Creek School House at the Tall Grass Prairie National Preserve in the Flint Hills.  Impacting our exposures, however, was  a 82% waxing moon that would not set until after 3 am.  It did nonetheless provide some natural light for the landscape and  school house in our compositions.  An occasional vehicle traveling along Hwy 177 would also throw a little light (sometimes a lot) into our compositions.  We would also at times paint a little extra light on the schoolhouse, or shine lights through the windows on the opposite side to give the appearance the schoolhouse had interior illumination.

Below is a star trail animated time lapse of the school house.  Hope you enjoy.  Please tell me what you think in your comments below.

All-in-all I believe everyone came away with some nice images, albeit without much success in our quest for a Holy Grail, sky illuminating meteor.  I speculate combined with the moonlight, and that we were probably 48hrs beyond the official peak, we had the odds stacked against us.

Lessons Learned:

The Need for Preparation:  Exploring an unfamiliar area an hour or so before sunset on night one is an example of what not to do.  This was not a workshop night but it serves as an example of why it is important to do some pre-planning or scouting before you venture out, especially when you may not have a chance for a do-over.  We ended up having to settle on a spot, not choose a location based on factor which might have increased the chances of some great images.  Now it is true I was able to composite an okay image showing several meteors, but still not the best of circumstances.  Aside from good old fashion pre-scouting, there are many apps available to assist in planning.  The Photographer’s Ephemeris is one, but there are others to help in predicting moon/sun placement, tides if you are on the coast, moon phases, sky maps and more.

Use of Filters:  For most night photography I would say not to use any filters.  I often see photographers using UV filters over their lenses.  When asked why, the best answer they can give is the camera store salesman suggested it for lens protection.  I would often respond, “So, I guess that advice increased his/her sale, right?.  Bottom line I am not a proponent  of UV filters, or any filters, without a specific intended affect on the image being created, with only one exception.  That is to protect from environmental issues such as rain, mist, blowing sand, etc.  That shouldn’t be too much an issue during night photography, unless  you are photographing a thunderstorm.    I have used a Hoya cross star filter get a slight cross star effect on a couple of the brightest stars.  Occasionally I might use a enhancing filter if I am photographing the Milky Way to bring out a bit of additional color in the Milky Way cluster.   But most times it just naked glass.

Combating Dew:  Everyone seemed to adhere to the advice of bringing along some hand warmer packets to wrap lenses to mitigate the inevitable dew formation.  Some think that if there is a slight  breeze you won’t have a problem with dew forming on your front lens element.  This is not true.  Unless maybe you are in the high desert with no humidity you are likely going to have to deal with this issue.  Small towels also proved quite useful in protecting the camera itself from becoming wet with dew by simply draping it of the body while it clicked away exposures of the night sky.  Regardless of precautions it is always good practice to check you lens occasionally.  Last thing you want is half your shots, especially the one with the huge meteor, to be fuzzy because of a wet lens element, so have some microfiber cloth on the ready.

Equipment Familiarity:  I always see this issue come up in workshops.  Make sure you are familiar with the functions and menu’s of your camera and other devices.  I guarantee you that good old Murphy will tap you on the shoulder just at the most unexpected  time.  It is very difficult to try to resolve problems in the dark when you cannot find the right menu, or otherwise try to troubleshoot a problem.  And there will be problems.

Headlamps:  Aside from what you might use as a light painting tool, a head lamp or some small flashlight is a must, if for no other reason than safety.  However, your headlamp should have the red light option and you should wear it around your neck as opposed to on your head.  The will prevent the inadvertent light activation from ruining someone’s shot or their night vision.  The red light on low illumination preserves your night vision and can still provide sufficient illumination for safe movement.  Another option is if you have a smart phone, you can use it’s screen as a low light illumination to allow you to see some camera settings and even for movement without disturbing other photographers around you.     

A Place to Lay Your Head:  The down side to doing night photography is you don’t get much sleep.  If you camping in the back country, not a problem.  If however you have traveled two hours to escape the city lights it’s nice to have someway to lay your head back and catch a snooze while your intervalometer is clicking away.  I have finally located what I think may be a solution I intend to use on my next venture out.  It’s a Kamp-Rite Tent Cot.  It can also be used as a lounge chair simply to relax as you watch the night sky.

Kamp-Rite Tent Cot
Kamp-Rite Tent Cot




Will be posting upcoming workshop for star trails to include a post processing  seminar for both night images and time lapse techniques.  Contact me if Interested.




Photographing the Perseids Meteor Shower

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I am gearing up tonight to photograph the Perseids meteor shower.  Will be trying over the next couple of night but the best prospect will be Saturday night the 13th based on my anticipated location in the Flint Hills of Kansas.  The actual peak will be tonight and tomorrow early morning hours; however the weather/sky conditions are not predicted to cooperate.  Saturday night in the Flint Hills it is forecasted to be clear in the late hours and as the moon sets after 2am, I am hoping for the best opportunities.  Can’t expect much sleep that night but will hope for the best.  I thought I would throw out a few tips if you are hoping to capture this event.

Recommended Equipment and Misc Items: 

  • DSLR Camera (obviously)
  • Wide angle Lens
  • Tripod
  • Large capacity memory card (16 gigs or higher)
  • Intervalometer or locking cable release
  • Extra Batteries
  • Dew heater.  Many folks will use the air-activated hand warmer packets you can get in most sports stores.  If you fasten these around the barrel of your lens it will help prevent dew from forming on your lens.  You can use rubber bands, a strip of Velcro, or other means to fasten them to your lens.  I use an item called the Lens Muff , made by Kevin Adams, Digital After Dark.  Handy thing for you
    Lens Muff from Digital After Dark
    Lens Muff from Digital After Dark

    bag if you do night photography at all.

  • Headlamp or small flashlight.  It’s ideal to have a headlamp with the red light option so you don’t spoil yours and everyone else shot with a sudden blast of bright light.
  • Microfiber cloth
  • Small cloth towel.  This is drape over your camera to keep the dew off.
  • Lawn chair.  You could be up for a few hours.  May as well be comfortable.
  • Bug spray
  • Cooler for snacks and beverages

Background on Perseids:  The meteors we hope to catch are really nothing more than tiny bits of dust or slightly larger particles burning up in our atmosphere.  This particular shower, the Perseids, is a result of the Earth’s passage through the ice and debris associated with the comet Swift-Tuttle.  The intersection of the Earth’s path with this debris occurs every summer and emanates from the constellation  Perseus, from which the shower gets it’s name.

Perseus and Cassiopeia shown in relation to one another. The yellow blob is the approximate are from which the meteors will emanate

Where to Look:  The meteors will emanate from the direction of Perseus in the northern sky.  Perseus is south of the constellation Cassiopeia.  I know, that probably does  not help much.  Actually though, after you see a few of these constellations in the night sky you will always be able to spot them.  Cassiopeia looks like a big sideways W of bright stars.  And once you recognize Perseus, you will always remember what it looks like and easily spot it.  The are between Cassiopeia and Perseus should be roughly where to expect the meteors to  appear but you may see them anywhere in the night sky.  Probably the easiest way to  find Perseus is with one of the numerous IPhone and Android apps which are available for free download.  Google Sky Map is a good one, Stellarium is another, but there are several good ones out there.

Technical Considerations

Cable Release:  Ideally you will want to have an intervalometer. it will make your life easier.  The intervlometer will allow you to control the exposure time, length of delay between shots, and the number of shots through one group of settings.  Some cameras allow this capability within the camera or by using a smart phone app through wi-fi.  Alternatively you can purchase a generic one at a camera store.  Since you exposure times should be 30 sec or less, you could likely get by with a normal cable release set in the locked position to shoot continuous.  Some type of cable release will almost be a necessity.

Lens Choice:  Remember this is a lot about the sky.  You need a good deal of sky in  your composition to increase chances of capturing meteors.  Wide angle is the order of the day, and it should be fast, f/2.8 or faster.  I would say a focal length of 24mm or wider, based on a full-frame sensor.  Some say if you are too wide, e.g., 11 -1 4, the meteors are less impressive.  This makes some sense because of the stretched perspective.  However, you are getting more sky so I guess it is a balancing act and a personal choice.  I  will be using my Rokinon 24mm f/1/4.  My decision is based on its speed.  My 14mm or 16mm f/2.8 would do fine but I am opting for the little extra speed of f/1.4 and sacrificing a little field of view.  Why is the speed so important?  There will likely be many faint meteors that you might not even notice with you naked eye but with the faster speed lens your sensor might pick them up.  It’s all about increasing your chances.

ISO and Exposure Times:  If we were in a New Moon phase, I would say your ISO would be anywhere between 1600 and 6400 with an exposure time  between 15 and 25 seconds, much as if you were taking pictures of the Milky Way.  However, because we will have a 78% waxing gibbous moon, the ambient light will be a factor.  Expect to do a few test exposures to find the best combination of aperture/time/ISO to fit the conditions.  That being said, you want to keep your exposure times to 30 seconds or less.  Not only because you want the stars to register as points of light, but faint meteors will be lost in the sky-glow at higher exposure times.  Once I have my exposure I will set my intervalometer to fire continuously with only about 2 seconds between exposures.

The moon will provide a little ambient light for the landscape  and any foreground elements you may have.  After around 2am the moon will have set and the sky will be darker and this period of the night we might expect to see more meteors.  This might also require adjusting your exposure as you approach this time as well since you will be losing the moonlight.

A Foreground Element:  Speaking of foreground, I feel it advantageous to have some type of foreground element, e.g., old barn, rock formations, interesting grouping of trees, etc. Simply a picture of the night sky with a meteor, while it might be neat, will not likely have strong compositional value.  A good foreground provides that compositional element and context. Doing this, however, is not without some important considerations. Keeping both the stars and the school in sharp focus could be difficult at a wide aperture setting.

Focus: There are two approaches to dealing with focus. It is very important that we have our stars in sharp focus and to do this we must focus on infinity. There are a couple of ways to do this at night, some easier than others. The good news is that there will be a moon to focus on and then set your lens to manual focus. Now, if you are using an ultra wide angle lens like 14mm you may be good to go, depending on how close you are to the foreground. What I expect to do if I am close is actually be sure I refocus and get one good sharp image of the foreground which I can later blend in with the sky images. Simply use of you hyper focal distance may work okay, depending on your focal length and how close you are to you foreground.

White Balance: I would manually set your white balance.  You might select Auto White Balance as we begin shooting and there is still some light, this is fine. However, after it really gets dark, I prefer shooting around 3800 Kelvin. This tilts the balance to a more blue sky rather than the muddy brown or orange tint you sometimes get with AWB at night. You can also set your white balance to Tungsten to accomplish a similar temp. You can always fine tune later in post if you are shooting RAW. This brings up another issue.

RAW vs JPEG: I strongly recommend you shoot RAW. Shooting RAW will give you the most flexibility in post processing. Shooting JPEG results in an image that has been already compressed and much of the data information as been discarded through the compression. If you must shoot JPEG I would recommend you set your camera to shoot both RAW + JPEG, if your camera gives you this option.

Batteries: Make sure you have plenty of batteries all FULLY CHARGED. We will be shooting a lot of frames and the last thing you want is to run out of battery power.

Final Thoughts:   If you are lucky and capture a bright fireball in one of our images, you have an image that could truly stand on its own. If on the other hand you capture single small meteors you can load your photos in photo-editing software and create a composite showing the multiple captures. You may also be able to create a little time-lapse sequence based on your total image sequence. This would show the stars rotating, clouds moving, and possibly a few meteor flashes. Some good options to consider for post processing and stacking might include: Star Stax and Deep Sky Stacker.

I look forward to following up this post with some great images.  Hope to see some of yours as well.

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Through the Woods – A Sleeklens Review

The Objective:  Recently the folks at Sleeklens contacted me with a request to do a review of one of their products.  The Sleeklens founders were apparently dissatisfied with the products that offered what they called quick-fix or “all-in-one” approaches to using Lightroom and Photoshop products.  As a goal they set out to create real and useful tools that photographers could use to facilitate and quicken their workflow.  Among their repertoire of products are a number of presets and brushes for a range of photographic styles to be used within Lightroom and Photoshop applications.  Being principally a landscape photographer, Sleeklens asked that I give a review of their “Through the Woods” Lightroom presets, which is part of their Landscape Essentials Workflow bundle.

The Task:  As we all know, many Lightroom and Photoshop plugins contain presets.  To be perfectly honest I have never been a big fan of presets; however, I was willing to explore this “Through the Woods” workflow to see if in fact was really worth the bother. 

So if I am to be convinced at all I thought I should start off with something really challenging.  After scanning through some earlier images from Bandon, Oregon, I chose as my first challenge a well underexposed image at the mouth of the Coquille River.  I had framed the Coquille River lighthouse between some old pilings and

Coquille River Lighthouse Unprocessed RAW image
Coquille River Lighthouse
Unprocessed RAW image

rocks along the river’s bank as foreground elements.  This particular images was well underexposed.  Until now this image remained in my outtake folder, likely to never be process and maybe even deleted.  I show here both the original raw file and the finished image, after using the Sleeklens workflow. 




Coquile River Light House, Finished image with Sleeklens workflow
Coquile River Light House,
Finished image with Sleeklens workflow

Not bad considering what I had to work with. I used several of the presets, which are stackable, and then fine tuned using their landscape brushes

Next I picked one rather easy, just to see how fast I could get it de. Again, this was of the Coquille River lighthouse. This first shot you can see was a little flat and just not much of great light. It certainly

Coquille Rive lighthouse Before Sleeklens workflow
Coquille Rive lighthouse
Before Sleeklens workflow

needed a little punch. After a quick application of a preset, followed by some slight application of a clarity brush, I had a much more pleasing image in literally a few clicks.

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Coquille River Lighthouse and Driftwood Finished using Sleeklens workflow
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Kansas City Skyline RAW unprocessed image

My next effort was using a recent unprocessed image of the Kansas City skyline and using the Through the Woods workflow start to finish. This image was a long exposure of about 60 seconds using a Lee Big Stopper. While using the Big Stopper allowed for the longer exposure by blocking light, it does not block UV light, resulting often in a cooler cast. This is on issue to tackle in post processing, with I was easily able to accomplish using the Sleeklens workflow.   I will look to fill shadows as well as part of my post





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Kansas City Skyline Cropped and finished using Sleeklens workflow

As you can see in the finished version of the Kansas City Skyline, the image has shadows filled, good tonal clarity, and a corrected color balance to complement the finished image.

For a final example I took another under exposed shot of some Pacific coast sea stacks at Bandon, Oregon.  As one might expect this could be a good example of an image to use the delete key as your first post processing action.  But let’s see if anything can be done with this seemingly hopeless capture.

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Bandon Sea Stacks, Bandon, Oregon Unprocessed RAW Image

While the sky looks like it may have some potential, the foreground appears well underexposed.  Going to work on this I used several of the Through the Woods presets and finished using selected brushes to ad some vibrance  to the sky and some targeted tonality adjustments on the seas stacks and to add some tonal clarity.

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Bandon Sea Stacks, Bandon, Oregon Processed using Sleeklens workflow

Conclusion:  The Sleeklens folks developed these workflows to help in easily adding color, light and detail to your images using some categorized, preset recipes, all while increasing the speed and efficiency of your workflow.  The “Through the Woods” LIghtroom workflow offers 50 landscape presets and 30 brushes, all categorized in a manner making it easy to quickly pick ones to accomplish your intended task.  These presets work on both RAW and JPEG images; however, I would highly recommend sticking with RAW.  You will be somewhat limited in how far you can go with JPEGs because they are already compressed files and there is not as much digital information to manipulate.

One of the really nice things is the presets are stackable.  One does not totally cancel out a previously applied preset.  Moreover, you are not stuck with just the effect of a given preset or brush.  You can still adjust your Lightroom sliders to fine-tune the adjustment.  Even after using the presets and brushes, you can still go into Lightroom Basic Panel and make further adjustments.  You have  complete control.

I said initially, that I am not a big fan of presets.  However, what Sleeklens has created in their workflow products is demonstrably value added.  I have included their Landscape Bundle as valuable addition to my post processing toolbox.  I highly recommend you give them a try.

Take a look at Sleeklens here