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This was billed to be one of the best meteor showers ever as the Perseids swept through Earth’s orbit last Sunday. Even the weather was clear for a change.

I had never done star photography before, but I studied up like mad — and made a number of poor decisions that resulted in two useable photos out of 320 exposures.  And no meteors captured!

So here’s my Top 10 list of ways to screw up a star shoot.

10.  Choose the wrong place.  I went to Stone Lick State Park, the location used by the Cincinnati astronomer’s club for their shoots I went to where there was a large parking lot and a beach, but it turned out to have a honking great security light that no one arranged to swtich off. Scouting the location that afternoon I’d spoken to a park employee, but he just shrugged….I can’t imaging the astronomer’s club hasn’t dealt with that problem, but this wasn’t an official function, so…

9.  Too much ambient light from distant shopping centers.  Even out in the boonies, there was enough light on the horizon to make things a little murky.  Dark means dark, baby, and don’t settle for anything less.

8.  Have no way to deal with dew.  The sky was clear, but the air was moist, and it all condensed on my camera lens.  Had to interrupt my shooting sequence to wipe lenses, and even so a light mist of condensate kept creating a hot spot (and not too clear) in the center of many shots.  There are expensive lens heaters available, and then there’s this arrangement which I  used a couple of days later.  Don’t anticipate crowds, and don’t overestimate the common sense and good manners of said crowds.  You’d be amazed how many people cruised in around 1:00 AM, lights blazing, car stereos blaring.  I should have chosen a spot with less ease of access, but no crowds.  Just not easy to find such a place.

6.  MIsplace your red light night-vision headlamp (very helpful that is).  Of course with the zoo out there on Sunday evening, they weren’t so essential. A lightning trip to Walmart solved this problem for me on my way to the location.

5.  Think you understand your camera’s intervalometer, when really you’re not so sure. (An intervalometer calculates how many exposures the camera makes, how far they are seaparated (the interval between exposures), and when the camera starts shooting). My problem was not being sure whether the start-time clock was time from NOW or actual local time. (Turns out to be local time, but I was slow figuring this out).

4.  Don’t have a good method of focusing in the dark. Autofocus is useless in these conditions. There are a couple of techniques that can help, but even so it’s an iffy business.   One way is to focus using the video or live-view function, at the highest ISO your camera can manage, then switch off live view and go back to the ISO you are using for the shoot.  The other is to have practiced during daylight and making a note of just where the “magic spot” is for true infinite focus.  There’s a little indicator on your lens .  When you’re really in focus, note where that mark is relative to the (infinity) sign engraved on your lens.  Then you can come really close to accurate focusing just by aligning the mark with your remembered spot along the infinity sign. You’ll need the flashlight and maybe a small step stool to do this at night.

3.  Underestimate the power of the moon.  Local moonset was 10:55 pm, but even 45 minutes after that there was a powerful glow in the West; actually, it enabled me to get one of the only useable pictures from this night time folly.

2.  Don’t locate with a suitable foreground object.  If you don’t have one, you have pictures of the sky without something to give them a purpose and depth.  You can get into trouble be being too close or too distant (too close is more of a problem really, because you want both the foreground object and the stars to be in focus).

1. Don’t install fresh batteries and forget an alarm clock.  Even with fresh batteries, you may run out of juice before the shoot is finished.  That’s why you need the alrm clock,, so you’re awake to change batteries while the camera does its automatic thing.  I was OK on battery power due to my “shootus interruptus,” but in a subsequent shoot my batteries died after 3 hours 15 minutes, and they needed to go 3 hours and 45 minutes to do the whole sequence. I didn’t know because I was asleep. Grrr.


Having  committed all of these blunders, and having missed my chance at the Perseids per se, I set up for another go around at star track / time lapse photography two days later.

Here’s what I did differently.

1      Did not use my f 1.8 28mm lens.  Wide open this lens sucks in plenty of light but is just a whisker soft, and soft you cannot afford in this situation.  Used the f2.8 24-70 instead. Practiced during daylight until I was sure I could find the infinity focus point by referencing the index and lens marks correctly.

2.  Read and watched another tutorial on the D800’s built-in intervalometer.

3.  Rigged a hairdryer on a lamp stand to waft warm air over the lens to counteract the dew.  It looks ugly, but it worked well.

20130814_212743 copy

4.  Framed my shot during daylight.

5. Tested the shot around 10:30, made sure the focus was right, set the intervalometer and went to bed.  Exposure was f2.8, 13 seconds (to reduce individual star tracking, little commas on every star), ISO 640.  Next time out I will use ISO 800.  Noise was not an issue with this camera at ISO 640, but the exposure needed to be bumped a bit in Photoshop.  I think this camera will be OK at ISO 800, and I really don’t want to lengthen the exposure.

6.  Went to bed.  Got up at 5:15 to find the camera was no longer shooting; the battery life ended 15 minutes before my shoot was scheduled to end.  But it had completed 777 exposures, with results you can see below.  Now I know that external batteries or a brief excursion to change batteries are vital.

Here’s a single shot (number 534 as it happens)

Star Field 534 copy

And here’s the time lapse movie:

So here’s the tip of the day — do your homework and practice before you get to a one-time-event.  You can get invaluable advice from – Sky_Considerations

I was just a little too casual about it the first time around.  The second shoot provided gold.  Just do your homework and all will be well.

Is it better, photographically speaking, to ask for forgiveness or for permission?

Well, it depends, of course. For me, it depends on the general class of shot, the kind and availability of permission needed, and how feasible it is to get that permission.  Now I’m a piratical old coot, so generally tend to get the shot first and apologize later.  But you can’t be brainless about it.

Public property, urban settings, etc — if taxes built it, I own it, so I can photograph it.  No permission needed, and I don’t care what the rentacops may say in this post-9/11 world.  If there’s a nuclear site or a military base involved, well maybe permission would be a good idea.  But pictures of infrastructure like dams, bridges, locks?  Help yourself.

Malls and shopping centers, though privately owned, are considered public spaces and so you can shoot anything you want..

Photographing emergencies.  Go right ahead.  The cops, firemen, EMT people have no right to make you stop photographing.  They DO have the right to do their jobs without interference.  My rule of thumb:  shoot, but don’t get in their faces.

If hassled, be polite, but carry this little flyer on “legal rights of photographers” in your camera bag and show it to any official or rentacop who is interfering with your legal right to photograph.  Do not agree to hand over your equipment, including memory cards, or to erase them.  (But keep a file recovery program on your computer at home, just in case).

Private property.  You do not need permission to shoot almost anything, almost anywhere in the United States.  You cannot be arrested (legally) for shooting pictures of private property, but you CAN be ordered off private property if the owner doesn’t want you there.  That’s how Google gets away with their street view photographs.  They stay off the properties they’re shooting.

My rule of thumb with private property is “ask first if it isn’t urgent.” Asking first can really pay off.  The other day I was searching for a new and better site to take pictures of the Cincinnati skyline.  I ran across a kid on a small motor scooter and asked him.  He said, “follow me” and threaded us through a maze of small streets until VOILA.  A really good site, but the ideal location was in a back yard.  It being a Sunday afternoon I was able to find the landowner, and he was delighted to let me shoot —  seems he’s had lots of trouble with trespassers and was just happy someone was polite enough to ask.

Not only did I follow through, I was asked to join him and his family for the monster fireworks display on Sept. 1.

Here’s what asking permission got me

And this:


People shots.  People shots are permissible in public places or in private ones by permission.  You can’t barge into your girlfriend’s bathroom, yell “Surprise!” and shoot her in the tub.  She can order you out of there and sue your sorry butt off if you publish or sell those photos because she had a reasonable right to privacy.  Not true if it’s a couple making out on a park bench.  Quite obviously they’ve abandoned their right to privacy.

So if it’s a shot that tells a story, or conveys some deep human quality or trait, I’ll take the shot.  But if it’s feasible to ask permission, I’ll do that, too.

Caution:  You can shoot almost anything or anyone, but what you do with the photos is another matter.

You can publish people photos for what’s called editorial use, but if you want to imply that the person in the picture is endorsing some product or service, you’d better have a model release handy.  Likewise, if your shot is taken to make them look bad or to cast their character in a bad light, think twice before publishing the photo (and that especially includes Facebook!)

Closed or fenced off areas on public lands.  This one is tricky.  Some areas are closed off for “CYA” reasons, others are truly dangerous, and some are closed off for the convenience of bureaucrats.  Government CYA does not keep you from shooting.  But if it’s a matter of safety — that is YOUR business.  Hop over the fence above Niagra Falls?  Probably not a good idea.  My rule of thumb is to assess the situation.  What are the risks?  How dangerous is this?  Is the photograph worth the risk?

I have to admit that as I age (now in my late 60s) I’m not as sure-footed as I used to be.  So maybe I won’t try crossing that roaring stream by dancing from one moss-covered boulder to the next.  But if the shot were really, really, worth it, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity?  Yep, get out there where I can actually take the photo.  If the shot is truly important, I’ll do what it takes to get it.

But if they won’t find the body for a few weeks or months, and there’s a reasonable chance you might fall, it might be worth a second though before you hop over the fence.  This is a matter of judgment — yours against some agency determined to err on the side of safety.  Don’t be an idiot about it, but you do have the right to shoot on public lands.  Period.  Fences don’t abridge that right, they just make it difficult to exercise it.  Sometimes for good reason!

So here’s my tip of the day:  Shoot what and where you want to, but do not leave your brains or your good manners at home.

When shooting macros, particularly when using a macro lens on a DSLR at anything approaching wide open, depth of field may be less than a centimeter.  Even at higher apertures like f8 or f11 depth of field can be extremely shallow.

The cure for this is a technique called stacked focus.  Basically, you focus on various parts of the image, moving from closest to further way, and shoot a frame for each.  Then back in the computer you “stack” these images to form a single, in-focus image.


  1. You MUST use a tripod
  2. You MUST use manual mode and use the same exposure values for each image in the series (you can cheat on this, but you risk the camera doing something stupid)
  3. You SHOULD shoot in RAW for best results
  4. The subject MUST be absolutely still.  Any movement at all will ruin your results.
  5. In general, more shots in a stack will give better results than two or three. Just make sure some other part of the scene is in focus for each exposure.

Photoshop has an automated routine to help with the stacking process.  Here are instructions on how to do it.  NOTE:  I didn’t write these, and I haven’t been able to find out who did., so if you read this, whoever you are, let me know so I can give credit where it is due.


  • With the camera on a tripod so it doesn’t move, shoot a number of frames using the same aperture setting but with different parts of the image in focus. Try to make sure that everything you want to be in focus is in at least one shot.
  • Process the images in Lightroom or Adobe Camera RAW (ACR) using the same settings for each one, and load the photos shot at different focal points into Photoshop as a single layered document.
  • In Photoshop, in the Layers Palette, select all the layers and choose Edit > Auto > Align layers to make sure all the layers are in alignment (even a tiny amount of movement on the tripod could ruin the focus stack).
  • In the Auto-Align dialog, make sure to choose Auto as the projection method.
  • To blend the images with different points of focus, choose Edit > Auto-Blend Layers.

Successful Example

Cone Flowers stacked focus websize

Want more tips?  To buy Explorations in Photography as a print version for $35.95, go here.  To buy it as an e-book for $9.95, follow this link .


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