Friday, November 25, 2016

Omni-directional Light Painting with Mini LED Camp Lanterns

Lighting the underneath side of natural arches like Mesa Arch (Canyonlands Nat'l Park, Utah) is the perfect application for omni-directional mini LED camp lanterns. © Royce Bair
Wayne Pinkston photographed the Milky Way with this cottonwood tree at the bottom of a sandstone pothole, during a workshop I was conducting in Grand Staircase-Escalante Nat'l Monument. Once again, I used an omni-directional mini LED camp lantern, placed near the bottom of this 60 feet (18 m.) deep pothole. (Wayne has a new version of this photo, you may like even better.) See the pre-dusk lighting preparations, below. © Wayne Pinkston
Preparing a string of tied-together mini LED camp lanterns and lowering them into the 60 feet (18 m.) deep pothole, just before dusk. The last few feet of orange nylon rope is traded for transparent monofilament (the kind used for fishing) and tied to a large rock, and placed behind the photographers so it cannot be seen in our photos. Photographers then prepare to shoot during the "blue hour" twilight. Once this is done, two of the three lights are turned off, as only one is need for full Astronomical Dusk photography with the stars. Click photos to enlarge. Photos by Eugene Louie and Royce Bair

Camp lanterns cast light in all directions (omni-directional, or almost 360 degrees). They are one of the three types of lights I discuss and demonstrate in my Milky Way NightScapes eBook. The other two are LED panel lights and spotlights. Spotlights have very narrow beams with high intensity, and must be kept moving during the camera exposure process. Panel lights and camp lantern lights are wide-angle coverage lights that can be stationary during the camera's exposure.

Problems with most LED camp lanterns. There are two major problems I have with most LED camp lanterns when using them for NightScape style photography: 1.) Most LED lights are too cold or bluish. To make them usable, I usually have to wrap an orange conversion filter around the lantern. Without the filter, their output is typically between 5600º Kelvin (a little bluer than daylight) to 8000º Kelvin (very blue). This does not match the camera White Balance I like to use for starry night photography, which is between 3800º to 4400º Kelvin. By the way, scientists have also proven that the bluish LED lights cause more eye fatigue—something to consider if you plan to do a lot of night reading in your tent.  2.) Most LED lanterns are too bright. When you are working with high ISO's between 3200 and 6400, you do not need a lot of light to exposure your foreground features. (Wayne Pinkston and I like to call this Low Level Landscape Lighting or LLL. In most cases, we are only trying to match the brightness of the stars.) Most LED camp lanterns only have two brightness settings. Even at the lower setting, I typically have to wrap several layers of translucent, white cloth around the lantern in order to make these older lanterns dim enough for NightScape style photography.

Sunset Arch, in Grand Staircase-Escalante Nat'l Monument was lit underneath with two older style mini LED camp lanterns that had to be filtered to 3200º K and wrapped with several layers of white, translucent fabric in order to dim their bright light output. © Royce Bair
The "Shane Cabin" near Kelly, Wyoming (used in the 1953 movie, "Shane") was also lit inside with three older style mini LED camp lanterns that had to be filtered to 3200º K and wrapped with several layers of white, translucent fabric in order to dim their bright light output. © Royce Bair 

LED Camp Lanterns Compared 2011 - 2016: 1.) GE Chromalit 3D lantern, circa 2011. 300 lumens output, powered by eight D-cell batteries (very heavy), but could last for up to 200 hours in its low setting. All of the following are considered "mini" lanterns, except for #6, which is a "micro" lantern.  2.) Life Gear Glow lantern, circa 2012, white (very blue) and red LEDs, 25 lumens.  3.) CREE XLamp Warm White LED Camping Lantern, circa 2013. Output 110 lumens on high. The low setting is capable of 48 hours run time, using 3 AA batteries. It's light usually warm enough to not require filtration, but even at low power it often required several layers of white fabric to dim it enough for starry night photography.  4.) Ozark Trail LED Lantern, circa 2014. This original Walmart product produced 50 lumens on high (the current model produces 75 lumens). Its 25 lumens low setting allowed it to run for 28 hours on 3 AA batteries. It is show here with an orange conversion filter that I’ve wrapped around it. Even with it’s low setting, the lantern usually requires 2 to 4 layers of white fabric for dimming. This lamp was used in the top photo of Mesa Arch—hung from a 20-40 feet of rope until the underneath glow of the arch look right.  5.) Goal Zero Lighthouse Mini Lantern, 2015. (See full description below.)  6.) Goal Zero Lighthouse Micro Lantern, 2016. (See full description below.) Click image to enlarge.

My two favorite LED camp lanterns. Recently, I have begun to use some of the newer miniature camp lantern lights that have been appearing on the market. Two of my favorites are both made by the incredibly innovative Goal Zero, the "Power-Anything-Anywhere" company. These preferences are the Lighthouse Mini Lantern and the recently introduced Lighthouse Micro USB Rechargeable Lantern.

Goal Zero Lighthouse Mini Lantern: The key features for photographers are its warm, 3500ºK light output and its infinite number of dimmable selections. Although it will put out a bright 210 lumens, it can be dimmed to about 7 lumens! You can also choose to operate only one side of the lantern (180 degree coverage), or choose to use both sides of the lantern (360 degrees). With these options, and the dimmer, the battery can last from 4 to 500+ hours (about 26 days)! The powerful (3000 mAh) and rechargeable Li-ion battery (via a built-in USB cord) is also capable of recharging your mobile phone or a GoPro camera via a USB outlet. Four power indicator lights let you know the charge status of its replaceable battery. Watch this video for more unique engineering features. View the complete PDF user guide. Price: $59.99 - ORDER direct from Goal Zero

Click image to ENLARGE

Goal Zero Lighthouse Micro USB Rechargeable Lantern: The key photography features for this lantern are similar to the mini — a warm, 3800ºK light output that is completely dimmable. It's maximum brightness is 150 lumens and it can be dimmed to about 7 lumens! You can choose to operate only two of it's four LEDs or all four, and infinitely dim them. The Li-ion battery can last from 7 to 170 hours, depending on the number of LEDs you choose and how much you decide to dim them. Although the battery is not replaceable (like the mini) it can be recharged hundreds of times via a built-in USB charging tip (that folds inside when not in use). Four  blue indicator lights let you know the charge status of the battery. The lantern is also waterproof, with an IPX7 rating. Although the Micro is not as versatile as the Mini, its benefits include lower price and a remarkably small size. View the complete PDF user guide. Price: $19.99 - ORDER direct from Goal Zero

(You can also order the Lighthouse Micro Flash model, which includes a built-in flashlight, for only $5 more.)

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Planning for Monthly Milky Way Movement

This alignment of the Milky Way over the Grand Tetons, from the Snake River Overlook, required me to wait until mid-September.
I waited until mid-September so the Milk Way would align with the Grand Teton peak, which faces almost due West from the Snake River Overlook. Although the bright core of the Milky Way is just below the horizon, “The Great Rift” (where the MW splits and forms the “Sea of Darkness”) rises dramatically over the Tetons. It was taken with my Canon 5D Mark III, using a Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 @ f/2 • 13 sec • ISO 6400 for the sky. I blended the sky exposure with a second exposure for the foreground @ f/2.8 for 240 sec • ISO 3200 (using the camera’s “Long Exposure Noise Reduction” function).

Planning your Milky Way alignment: I was required to wait until September in order to align the Milky Way with the Tetons. Although the core of the Milky Way moves nightly from East to West at about 15º per hour, the seasonal movement adds another 30º per month —moving the MW almost 150 degrees to the West, going from April to September. You can forecast your alignment using apps like Photopills and SkyGuide.

Click image to enlarge
In the above chart I’ve taken six Milky Way images from the Sky Guide app, all captured at 2:00am on the same day of each month (the time and date I ended up taking the top photo) and pasted them into one composite photo to illustrate the monthly movement of the Milky Way; and, I’ve added a real silhouette of the Teton Range on the West side to show the actual perspective from the Snake River Overlook. Using this illustration, it's easy to see how the seasons not only affect the westerly move of the Milky Way, but the height the Central Bulge, as it rises above or sinks below the horizon.

Behind the Scenes... Finding Ansel Adams' Tripod Holes: Compare my NightScape photo with Ansel Adams’ famous 1941 “Tetons and the Snake River”. Both images were taken from the same vista (now called the Snake River Overlook), but new tree growth now blocks much of the classic “S” curve from the Snake River:

Tree Trimming Needed? Despite all my planning and the impact of the Milky Way, my photo lacks the beautiful snow pack that disappears from the mountains by August. But even more noticeable is the growth of the trees that has occurred since Adams took his photograph in 1941. This new grow has obscured much of the Snake River.

Some Grand Teton park visitors have wondered if the park should trim these trees similar to what is being done in Yosemite. Under Yosemite’s “Scenic Vista Management Plan” young trees are being removed that block the historic views that John Muir and Ansel Adams rhapsodized about when they first saw Yosemite in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. What’s your opinion?

Thursday, August 11, 2016

My Computer Workflow and Backup System

Why I think Backblaze is the best cloud backup solution for digital photography files: Because photographers are often producing hundreds of large image files every week, they need an online backup service that provides them with inexpensive, unlimited backup storage. Most competing cloud services claim they provide “unlimited” backup, but this isn’t always true. Compare Backblaze with the competition.

Boards under the MacBook & display pedestal
are to lift it to the proper viewing height.
My Computer Setup: I'm currently using a 13" Apple MacBook Pro. Instead of a spinning internal hard drive, I've opted for a 500GB flash drive. Since it has no moving parts, it’s extremely fast, but it fills up quickly. I only keep my software applications and my most current image files on this drive. On the road, I connect to the compact 2TB Seagate external USB 3.0 drive you see to the left of the MacBook. This serves as my away-from-the-office backup. In the office, the computer is connected to the 27" Thunderbolt display, a keyboard/mouse, the Drobo to the left of the display, and the ioSafe to the right. Let me explain the purpose of these two backup drives...

Drobo 4-bay array
Your 1st line of protection: In my opinion, it’s a good idea to have your own in house data backup system. All my image files are archived on my external, Drobo 4-bay storage array. The Drobo technology is very reliable. It is my first line of data protection. Although I’ve had many hard drives fail, I’ve never lost any data on the Drobo since I purchased it eight years ago. This is a "self-healing" system that goes beyond the typical RAID array. Drobo has several disc array size solutions, starting at under $300 (hard drives not included).

ioSafe Solo G3
Fire & waterproof
Your 2nd line of protection should be a backup that is off-premise. This is to protect your digital data against physical file damage (such as fire and water) and theft (of your computer or external hard drive). Cloud storage, like the Backblaze Online Backup, is a perfect offline solution. Yes, you can backup to another external hard drive, and rotate these to an offsite location, but it is inconvenient, and not routinely executed by those that try it. Until recently, my only second line of data protection has been my ioSafe Solo G3 (which I still continue to use, even though I also have the Backblaze cloud backup). Using the ioSafe is similar to an offsite solution because it is fireproof and waterproof; and you can anchor (bolt it) to your desk, so it’s less apt to “walk” away. The 2TB ioSafe Solo G3 is under $300, and the 4TB ioSafe Solo G3 is only $100 more.

Inevitable Digital Data Loss: There are really only two kinds of computer users: those that have lost their data, and those that are going to lose their data! It’s amazing that with virtually 100% of the world’s photos and movies now digital, fewer than 10% of people are backing up their computers; and eventually all of these digital items will vaporize. The median hard drive life is about six years (one-half are expected to die during this period). Data can be sometimes be recovered from a failed drive, but recovery can cost as much as $3,000. Systematic backups are a much better solution.

Recovering Cloud Data from many online backup services can be a long process, if you lose a hard drive. Downloading several hundred gigabytes (or several terabytes) of data can take several days or even weeks. Luckily, Backblaze has faster recovery solutions that other services don’t offer:
  • Web Browser — For free. You select the files/folders you want to restore using your web browser to download the files. This is good for small amounts of data, typically 1GB or less as the web browser itself is prone to timeouts and errors.
  • Backblaze Downloader — For free. You select the files/folders you want to restore using your web browser and then download and use the Backblaze Downloader to stream and checkpoint the data download. This is similar to apps like iTunes and Netflix in how data is downloaded. Be aware that larger amounts of data will consume lots of network bandwidth and will take time.
  • USB Flash Drive — For $99, you select up to 110 GB of files/folders you want to restore and get your files on 128 GB USB flash drive. Backblaze will send it to you next day express (within the US) so you get your data fast and you get to keep the drive.
  • USB External Hard Drive — For $189, you select up to 3,500,000 MB of files/folders you want to restore and get your files on an external USB hard drive large enough to hold your data, up to a 4 TB drive. Once prepared, Backblaze will send it to you next day express, and you get to keep the drive. There’s no extra charge for the next day shipping and if next day shipping is not available, Backblaze will use the fastest means available to them via FedEx. NOTE: If you have more data than that, you will need to order additional USB Hard Drive restores. Each drive you order is $189. If you have multiple computers that you need to restore from, you will need to order one drive for each separate restore.

How Backblaze works: I’ve used Carbonite for several years, but I find Backblaze to be uniquely better is these ways:
  • Truly unlimited cloud backup - unlimited data, unlimited file size, unlimited file types, unlimited number of external drives, and unlimited bandwidth — all for $5 per month.
  • Backs up all your data. Unlike other services, there is no need to pick folders and files. Backblaze is the only cloud backup solution that backs up all your photos, movies, music and documents automatically.
  • Your Data is Safe. All your files are encrypted before being transmitted. You can use a personal encryption key for additional security.  Backblaze’s native code does not use Java (Java is responsible for 91% of security attacks).
  • Fast and seamless backups. Backblaze works in the background, and typically uses less than 1% of your computer’s processing power.
  • Inexpensive. Only $5 a month, or $50 a year.
  • 15-day free trial - without having to give out your credit card information!
Inside Backblaze's data center and their custom built data storage "pods"
Geeky stuff: If you like understanding how things work, you'll enjoy reading how the employees at Backblaze designed their own data storage ''pods'' — with a complete list of parts, just in case you'd like to build your own 135-TB storage pod for a mere $7,384! That was actually pod version 2.0, and three years ago. They are now putting pod version 4.0 (each holds 180-TB) into their data center which is now storing 100 petabytes of customer data — that's 100,000 terabytes, or 1/4th as much data as Facebook stores today for its 1+ billion users.

This year, Backblaze beat out Facebook as one of the fastest growing technology companies.
Fast Growth. Although it took Backblaze 2.5 years to get from 0 to 10 petabytes, it only took the past 3.5 years to get from 10 petabytes to 100 petabytes. From 2009 through 2013 they've grown revenue 917%. That was good enough for 128th place in the 2014 Deloitte Technology Fast 500™ in the United States — just beating out Facebook in the 129th spot.

Employee Perks. Backblaze is one of a very few companies that offers unlimited vacation time for their employees. At Backblaze, all of their employees know what they need to do. They prioritize their work, keep others informed of what’s going on and get their jobs done. When they need to take a morning off to run an errand or pick up a sick child at school or just to sleep in, they do it. There’s no need to negotiate with a boss as to whether you were on vacation, taking comp time or sick time or whatever.

As an employer, Backblaze does not have to keep track of vacation time or sick time. Their sick policy is simple, if you’re sick, stay home. They do not have to keep track of things such as “Billy taking 2.75 hours of sick time on Thursday.” Nor do they have to worry about how many hours of vacation "Zach" has accrued.

To date, no one has abused Backblaze’s vacation policy or lack of one. If anything, they have had to occasionally remind people to take a few days off. Employees watch out for each other since they are all dependent on each other for Backblaze to succeed. Besides, they all want to work with well-rested, happy people, not grumps who haven’t taken a day off in years.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Photographing Meteor Showers by Thomas O'Brien

Double Arch in Arches National Park during the Perseid Meteor Shower ~ © Thomas O'Brien

2014 Meteor Reel from Thomas O'Brien. A collection of time-lapse shots from the past seven years of meteor showers. Please watch in HD —you can see more meteors. The footage was shot during the Perseid, Geminid and Leonid Meteor showers. (All footage shot and edited by Thomas O'Brien and is available in 4K resolution. Check here for additional credits, contacts, equipment, and software used in this production.)

Written by guest pro, Thomas O'Brien: Photographing a meteor shower is more like photographing a time-lapse than traditional still photos. You can never anticipate where or when a meteor is going to streak across the sky. In order to catch them you have to set up and take as many photos as you can throughout the night with a wide angle lens on the camera. If you leave the camera in the same position you can use the resulting images for a short time-lapse clip in addition to the still images you can capture.

On May 24, 2014 and through Memorial Day weekend, we are about to pass through a brand new comet tail.  Not much is known about this meteor shower, but we do know the debris was created by a comet passing through this area of space in the 1800s. The best viewing will be in the Northern Hemisphere (Southern Canada and the continental US). As with all meteor showers it could be a dud or it could be great. The meteors will be radiating from the north in the constellation Camelopardalis and should be visible all night in the northern hemisphere.

  1. Find a location that is far away from the light pollution of major cities and towns. You can use this handy website to see at a glance where the dark skies are.  Use this site as a general guide, and keep in mind that there are things like oil rigs and mining operations that don't show up on these maps.
  2. Get set up as fast as you can, the more time your shutter is open and taking photos the more chances you have of capturing a meteor.
  3. Use a good sturdy tripod in order to get a sharp photo of a meteors.
  4. Focus to infinity. This can be somewhat tricky in the dark, so a good way is to pre-focus the lens when the sun is up and tape the focus ring with gaffer's or duct tape so it won't move while you are moving around and setting up shots. You can also focus on the moon (if present) or a bright star, or use your camera's live-view function. Obtaining accurate infinity focus is critical.
  5. You will need a wired cable release (just a simple cord with a locking shutter release button). Set your camera to the widest aperture the lens will allow, and the highest ISO that you are comfortable shooting with and an exposure that gives the best results for the location, light, and phase of the moon.  A good starting point is f/2.8, ISO 2000 and 15-25 seconds. If you have an f/1.4 lens, that's even better as it will allow you to shoot with a lower ISO and have a less noisy photo. As soon as you have a good exposure you can put your camera on continuous drive mode (where you press the button down and it takes photos until you release) then lock the button down on the cable release.
  6. Use your fastest f-stop (the lower the f-stop number the better) and widest angle lens you have.  You are looking for a lens that is at least f/2.8 and preferably an f/1.4 lens. The lower the aperture the more light will get let into the camera.  You will capture about double the meteors with a lens that opens to f/1.4 when compared a f2.8 lens.
  7. Have an adequate power supply (a battery grip on your camera with dual batteries) or direct DC power connector to an external battery pack. You are aiming for shooting all night long with very few or no breaks in shooting (remember the goal here is to keep the shutter open and taking pictures as much as possible while you are out there). The best meteors are generally just before sunrise so try to make sure your camera is taking images all night. In a pinch, it's fine to use a single battery with a replacement that you can quickly swap.
  8. Position the camera facing anywhere from the Northwest to the Northeast will give you the best results. I have found that positioning the camera slightly away from the radiant point of the meteor shower results in longer meteors since they are not coming straight at the camera. The position of this radiant will make for some incredible time-lapse footage spinning around the north star.
  9. A large capacity and relatively fast memory card for your camera. You want to try to get a card that will hold an entire night's shooting and also has a fast enough write speed so your camera can empty the cache and continue to take images without having to pause. If you have to stop to change cards you may miss a giant fireball meteor. I usually shoot with 64 Gb compact flash cards and have found that you can generally get through most of a night even in the winter with one of these cards.
  10. Composition - after all the techy stuff, you still want to make a compelling image. Choose a foreground element, such as as stand of trees, a rock formation, or mountains. Something to anchor the photo and give it a great look rather than just a shot of the stars and meteors alone in sky. At the same time, you want to include as much sky as possible, and this why we recommend the widest possible lens.
Now, get out there and capture some meteor showers!

An O'Brien "selfie"
Thomas O’Brien grew up in Stowe Vermont. He started exploring the woods and mountains at an early age he picked up a camera and began to document his adventures around the age of 15.  After focusing on the arts in high school he moved out to Utah and attended the University of Utah where he earned a Bachelors of Arts in Photography.  While attending school in Utah he also was a member of the first US Snowboard Team and raced on the World Cup from 1993 – 1999 with a number of podium finishes and was ranked 13th in the world for combined racing disciplines.  While attending school in Utah, Thomas was a co-founder of Volume Video magazine, it was the first video magazine that documented the changes in the ski industry from 1990-2006. He helped produce 14 issues of the video magazine working on motion graphics, video editing, website and print ads.  

After graduating from the University of Utah, Thomas immediately dove into the photography industry working at The Stock Solution in Salt Lake City where he sold stock photography then branched out into archiving, scanning, retouching and then fine art printing and art reproduction at Bair Art Editions.  In 2001 he moved to Aspen Colorado to continue with a focus on fine art printing to become the Director of Digital Arts Aspen, a high end digital studio, classroom and fine art printing studio.   While Working at Digital Arts he met Lynn Goldsmith and began working as her Studiomanager shortly after, where he did scanning, celebrity retouching, archiving, book layout, fine art printing, studio portraits and event photography.  

Thomas has called Aspen Colorado his home for the past ten years.  He currently works as a  freelance photographer, consultant and photo instructor (both private and group workshops).  For the past year he has been focusing on a series of fine art landscapes and exploring new techniques to capture extremely high resolution panoramic images and photos of the night sky.  Near the end of 2013 and early 2014 Thomas re-focused on capturing video and time-lapse photography, after having taken four years off from shooting video and motion.

More of O'Brien's photography and stock footage are available at his website

Additional Meteor Shower Photography Resources:
Yuri Beletsky's Geminid meteor shower photography
David Kingham's "Snowy Range Perseids" photography
David Kingham's "Nightscape" eBook (David has one of the best how-to sections on capturing meteor showers that I've ever seen —highly recommended for the serious night photographer)

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Overcoming Coma Aberration - Part 2

Stars and coma: Capturing stars as points of light is a challenge in optical design. Without the addition of special aspherical elements, stars and other points of light are often reproduced with great distortion, particularly near the edges of a photograph. This lens aberration is called coma. Stopping down the lens to a smaller aperture can overcome some of this distortion, but not all of it. Surprisingly, very few general photography lenses come with coma correction!

Canon 24mm f/1.4L II lens
A disappointing experience: Since the typical photographer rarely photographs subjects that require coma correction, most general photography lenses do not incorporate aspherical elements in their lens designs. For this reason, I was quite surprised when I spent $1,800 in 2011 for one of Canon's best 24mm lenses, only to be extremely disappointed with it's wide-open performance when photographing stars (the lens works great for everything else).

The Canon 24mm f/1.4L II lens seemed like the perfect answer for my star photography. All the reviews I read said that it performed well, even wide open, with only moderate vignetting (which is important when you want to stitch several images together into a panorama). By being able to shoot at f/1.4, I could lower my ISO and greatly reduce the noise I had been getting in my starry night skies.

None of the reviews mentioned the problem of coma. To my horror, I noticed stars in my photographs that were shaped more like white doves in flight! Returning to the Canon dealer in distress, I was told the only solution was to stop down my new 24mm lens. (Note: Not all aspherical lens designs are created equal. This expensive Canon lens has two high-precision aspherical elements, and 2-UD elements, but exhibits much more coma than another prime lens costing about one-third the price!)

Canon 24mm @ f/1.4: enlarged area near the edge shows stars with severe coma distortion (click image to enlarge).
My tests soon revealed that at f/2.8 most of the coma did indeed go away, but I was now back to using the same aperture as my other less expensive lenses! It seemed like there was no way to avoid coma without shooting at f/2.8 or using an even smaller aperture. This meant using longer exposures, but that produces star movement or trails. I could use higher ISO's to the prevent longer exposures, but that meant increased digital noise. (Click image below to enlarge.)

Aspherical elements in Samyang Optics 24mm f/1.4
Samyang Optics to the rescue: Canon and Nikon have chosen to make only a few prime lenses with aspherical elements that control coma. Over the past year I have discovered there is a manufacturer that does make fast prime lenses with aspherical elements, and at inexpensive prices: The South Korean optical company, Samyang Optics. Samyang produces three wide-aperture aspherical lenses under a variety of brand names (Rokinon, Bower, Samyang, and ProOptic). These lenses are often one-half to one-fourth the price of Canon and Nikon lenses with similar focal lengths and maximum apertures specifications. The Samyang / Rokinon / Bower lenses that I recommend for starscape photography are the 14mm Ultra Wide-Angle f/2.8 IF ED UMC, the 24mm f/1.4 ED AS UMC Wide-Angle, and the 35mm f/1.4 Wide-Angle US UM. All three have the largest apertures in their class, and all three have aspherical elements.

COMPARE the same stars near the edge of the photograph (shown at 100% enlargement) with the $600 Samyang/Rokinon lens vs. the $1,800+ Canon lens. Coma is almost completely controlled on the left image; however, light fall off or vignetting is more noticeable. Vignetting can be corrected with software. Coma cannot! [Click or touch image to enlarge] ~ © Royce Bair
The Samyang / Rokinon / Bower 24mm lens also includes ED elements that are usually reserved for more expensive lenses. (ED means extra-low dispersion, referring to a type of glass that disperses light less than ordinary glass. Dispersion is the breaking up light into its original colors. Because dispersion can cause chromatic aberration, ED glass elements help reduce purple fringing and other chromatic aberrations.)
Aspherical lenses by Samyang Opics: 14mm f/2.8 - 24mm f/1.4 - 35mm f/1.4
Manual everything reduces their cost: What makes the Samyang lenses so inexpensive is that they lack all of the automatic features we've come to rely on, i.e. auto focus and electronic coupling with our digital cameras. However, none of these features matter much to an astro-landscape photographer. Auto focus does not work on a night sky, so we must resort to manual focus, anyway. Lack of auto aperture (where the camera stops down the lens' aperture to the preset aperture value) is of little concern when you plan to use the lens wide open.

Recommendations and Reviews: Several of my night photography friends have purchased these lenses and recommend them. For example, Masahiro Miyasaka (Astrononomy Photographer of the Year 2012) uses the 14mm; Mike Berenson uses the 24mm; and David Kingham uses the 35mm for awesome panoramas. I have the 24mm and the 14mm.

Grand Canyon with the Milky Way - taken with Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 ~ © Royce Bair (click to enlarge)
The Samyang / Rokinon 14mm has a 114º angle of coverage, and produces awesome vistas of the Milky Way. It has so much depth of field, even at f/2.8, that some have difficulty focusing it, but its worth the extra effort! It has a little more barrel distortion than than the $1700 Nikon 14mm f/2.8D ED, and more barrel distortion than the $2400 Canon EF 14mm f/2.8 L II USM. Both the Canon and the Nikon are excellent choices for architectural photography, where it is important to maintain straight lines, but you're probably not going to notice this too much on landscapes and starscapes. Here is a Digital-Picture review on the Samyang 14mm.

Grand Canyon - Nankoweep area - taken with Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 ~ © Royce Bair (click to enlarge)
The Samyang / Rokinon 24mm is a favorite lens because of its 84º angle of view, its fast, f/1.4 aperture, and its excellent correction for coma and fringe color. For starscapes, I would actually prefer the wider coverage of the 14mm, but its slower f/2.8 aperture gives overall preference to the 24mm. A Flickr contact of mine, Rick Whitacre, did this coma comparison between the Canon 24mm f/1.4 and the Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 (here's a 260% larger view). Rick did other tests on sharpness, brightness, and vignetting starting here (click image to view all sizes). Nikon users will want to see this LensTip coma comparison between the Nikon Nikkor AF-S 24 mm f/1.4G ED and the Samyang 24mm. Here's a Digital-Picture review on the Samyang 24mm.

The Samyang / Rokinon 35mm is probably the least purchased starscape lens because of its narrower 63º angle of view. However, because it has a less distorted view (closer to that of a normal lens) than most wider angle lenses, it is preferred by many photographers for panoramas, where several vertical images are stitched together (like this one by David Kingham). Here's a Digital-Picture review on the Samyang 35mm.

NOTE: All of these lenses are designed for full-frame camera sensors (i.e. a Nikon FX). They can be used on a Nikon DX camera or a Canon camera with an APS-C size sensor, but the angles of view are less. The angle of view with the 14mm becomes 94º using the Nikon APS-C sensor, and 90º using the Canon APS-C sensor. The angle of view with the 24mm becomes 62º using the Nikon APS-C sensor, and 58º using the Canon APS-C sensor. The angle of view with the 35mm becomes 43º using the Nikon APS-C sensor, and 41º using the Canon APS-C sensor.

Pricing and ordering: (the links are to B&H, which often has lower than list pricing)
Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 Nikon mount - Canon mount - Sony mount ~ List: $399.00
Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 Nikon mount - Canon mount - Sony mount ~ List: $599.00
Rokinon 35mm f/1.4 Nikon mount - Canon mount - Sony mount ~ List: $499.00
(Disclosure: using these links give me a 2% referral commission, but add nothing to your cost. Thanks for your support!)

More Low Coma Lens Recommendation

Here is my first article on Overcoming Coma.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

More Low Coma Lenses for NightScape Photography

Comparing for coma aberration —the same stars in the night sky (image edge enlarged to 100%). Most general photography camera lenses do NOT reproduce stars as "points" of light. They suffer from coma aberration. Coma is most apparent near the edges of the image, especially when a lens is used at its maximum or widest aperture. The expensive ($1,800) Canon lens on the right is bested by a $600 Rokinon lens on the left, which is specially designed to reduce coma. ~ © Royce Bair
At only $299 (some camera mounts are higher), the Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 lens is one of the most popular low coma ultra wides on the market (shown mounted to the Sony A7r II via a $99 Fotodiox EF-Sny(E) Fusion Smart AF Lens Mount Adapter —enabling me to use my older Rokinon lens with a Canon mount) ~ © Royce Bair

This is my second list of low coma lenses that I recommend for starry night photography. To receive my recommendation, the lens must be able to reproduce stars near the edges of the image with very little coma aberration, even when the lens is used at its maximum aperture, which should be f/2.8 or wider. One can get by with an f/3.5 or f/4.0 lens, if it has low coma, but these lenses lack the versatility a faster lens offers.

Low Coma Zoom Lenses

Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm f/2.8G ED - $1,899.95 MSRP • Nikon mount
A classic. Highly recommended for Nikon full frame (FX) camera users who can afford this great lens. I used the economical Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 for two years with good results, until I closely compare the images from my workshop students who were using the Nikon 14-24mm. The Nikon lens was better built (allowing for heavy professional use), and its images were a little sharper, had better image contrast, had much less vignetting (light fall off near the edges), was easier to manual focus, and of course had auto focus as well as auto diaphragm control for daytime use. Some of my Canon colleagues were even buying the Nikon and adapting it to their Canon cameras, even though they lost electronic coupling and all the automatic controls.  Keep in mind that the large front element on this ultra wide lens (as well as the Tamron 15-30mm and Rokinon 14mm) make attaching filters difficult (there are no threads), if not almost impossible.

Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM - $1,499.00 MSRP • Canon mount
Highly recommended for Canon full frame camera users. This lens is a great all-around performer, albeit my tests have shown it to be just a wee bit softer wide open (f/2.8), near the edges, than the Nikon or Tamron 15-30mm, but still sharper than the Rokinon 14mm f/2.8. I also found its coma (near the edges, when shooting at f/2.8) to be just a little more objectionable than the other three lens. Although the Canon EF 16‑35mm f/4L IS USM has Image Stabilization and is $500 cheaper, this is still the better lens for night and general photography, if you can afford it. It’s 108º angle of view is 2 degrees narrower than the Tamron 15-30mm and 6 degrees narrower than the Nikon 14-24mm or Rokinon 14mm. Unlike the Nikon 14-24mm and the Tamron 15-30mm, this ultra wide angle lens does accept front screw on filters (82mm), which is a big plus for many photographers. I recommend the continuous use of a clear filter for this lens as the weather seal works best when a filter is in place, due to the lens’ focus design. A normal thickness UV filter causes some vignetting at 16mm, so I’d recommend a thinner filter, like the B+W 82mm XS-Pro UV.

Tamron SP 15-30mm f/2.8 Di VC USD - $1,199.00 MSRP
Nikon mount • Canon mount
Highly recommended for both Canon and Nikon full frame cameras. It can also be used on Sony mirrorless E-Mount cameras like the a7s II and the a7r II, by purchasing the Canon mount and using a Metabones adapter. This ultra wide angle zoom lens has become my personal favorite for both starry night and general photography. The construction on this lens is very solid, maybe a little too good (it weighs 100g more than the Nikon 14-24mm and about 460g more than the Canon 16-35mm). Coma is very low, as is almost every other lens aberration. Sharpness and contrast are superb. Many, who have compared this lens with the venerable Nikon 14-24mm, give a slight edge to the Tamron in almost every category (here’s an example). The Tamron is about $700 less than the Nikon 14-24mm and about $300 less than the Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L II. The Tamron also has image stabilization (branded as “VC” or Vibration Compensation), a feature both Nikon and Canon lack. My own tests with this lens showed that the VC feature usually allows me to handhold this lens at least two and even three shutter speeds slower than without VC. On the minus side, the 15mm angle of view was 110.5 degrees compared to 114 degrees for 14mm, and that 3.5 degree coverage difference is occasionally missed when I’m in a tight situation. However, I’ve also appreciated the extra 6 millimeters of closeness I get on the other end of the zoom range (30mm vs. 24mm).

Tokina AT-X 116 PRO DX-II 11-16mm f/2.8 - $489.00 MSRP
Nikon mount • Canon mount • Sony Alpha mount
Highly recommended for Canon, Nikon and Sony users with cropped, APS-C size sensors. This lens is an incredible value. As far as I know, the Tokina 11-16mm is the world's fastest ultra wide lens for the small or cropped format cameras. It's also well made, very sharp and performs better than Canon’s 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 (about $650), Nikon’s 12-24mm f/4 (almost $1,000), and far better than the Sony 11-18mm f/4.5-5.6 DT (about $800) — and with lower coma than any of these three lenses. Light falloff or corner vignetting is also quite low.

Low Coma Prime Lenses

NOTE: Many of my prime lens recommendations are for the Rokinon brand (also branded as "Samyang", as both are made by Samyang Optics in South Korea). These lenses have low coma and high optical performance for their price; however, they do not have auto focus, auto diaphragm or electronic coupling (so there is no EXIF info transferred to the camera). Since NightScape photography requires manual focus and using your camera's manual shooting mode, this is usually not a problem, albeit you'll have to write down the f/stop you were using, if this information is important to you ;-)

Rokinon 7.5mm f/3.5 Ultra Wide-Angle Fisheye for Micro 4/3 - $349.00 MSRP
Micro Four Thirds mount ~ priced at $249.
This fisheye lens gives you a 180° view with dramatic, exaggerated perspective when used with a Micro 4/3 camera. With hybrid aspherical lenses, multi-layer coating and a built-in petal lens hood, you'll be able to produce sharply defined images with a minimum of flare and ghosting.

Rokinon 8mm f/2.8 UMC Fisheye II  - $399.00 MRSP
Canon EF-M mount • Sony E mount • Sony E mount (silver) • Fujifilm X mount • Fujifilm X mount (silver) • Samsung NX mount • Samsung NX mount (silver) ~ all lenses priced under $300.
This fisheye lens is specifically designed for APS-C sized image sensors. It provide a 35mm-equivalent focal length of 12mm and a full 180° angle of view. Its fast f/2.8 maximum aperture is beneficial for working in low-light conditions. The lens' design features a built-in lens hood and a UMC coating has been applied to the lens elements to reduce surface reflections and prevent lens flare and ghosting for improved light transmission and more contrast-rich imagery.

Rokinon 8mm f/3.5 HD Fisheye with Removable Hood - $399.00 MRSP
Nikon mount • Canon mount • Sony Alpha mount • Pentax K mount ~ all lenses priced under $280.
This fisheye lens gives you a 167º view with dramatic, exaggerated perspective when used with an APS-C camera, or a powerful circular image floating in the frame when used with a full frame camera. Hybrid aspherical elements and multi-layer coating produce sharply defined images with a minimum of flare and ghosting. The 8mm lens focuses as close as 12" (30.48 cm) from the lens. This version of the 8mm f/3.8 Fisheye lens comes with a removable lens hood that will offer glare reduction and lens protection, but can be removed to offer an increased and unobstructed angle of view when shooting with full frame digital cameras.

Rokinon 10mm f/2.8 ED AS NCS CS - $599.00 MSRP
Nikon mount • Canon EF mount • Canon EF-M mount • Sony E mount • Micro Four Thirds mount • Fujifilm X mount • Pentax K mount • Samsung NX mount ~ all lenses priced under $420.
This wide-angle lens designed specifically for use with APS-C sized image sensors. It has a 35mm-equivalent focal length of 16mm and a broad 105.9° angle of view. One extra-low dispersion element and two aspherical elements have been incorporated into the optical design to minimize chromatic aberrations and distortion in order to produce sharper images. A Nano Coating System (NCS) has been applied to the lens elements in order to reduce surface reflections and prevent lens flare and ghosting for improved light transmission and more contrast-rich imagery.

Rokinon 12mm f/2.0 NCS CS - $499.00 MSRP
Canon EF-M mount • Sony E mount • Sony E mount (silver) • Micro Four Thirds mount • Micro Four Thirds mount (silver) • Fujifilm X mount • Fujifilm X mount (silver) • Samsung NX mount • Samsung NX mount (silver) ~ all lenses priced under $400.
This high speed wide-angle lens is designed specifically for use with APS-C sized image sensors. It has a 35mm-equivalent focal length of 18mm and a broad 98.9° angle of view. It’s fast f/2.0 maximum aperture is beneficial for working in low-light conditions. Three extra-low dispersion elements and two aspherical elements have been incorporated into the optical design to minimize chromatic aberrations and distortion in order to produce sharper images. Additionally, a Nano Coating System (NCS) has been applied to the lens elements in order to reduce surface reflections and prevent lens flare and ghosting for improved light transmission and more contrast-rich imagery.

Rokinon 12mm f/2.8 ED AS IF NCS UMC Fisheye - $599 MRSP
Nikon mount • Canon mount • Sony Alpha mount • Sony E mount ~ all lenses priced under $440.
This lens provides a 180º diagonal angle of view on full-frame cameras for an ultra-wide angle, distorted perspective. The f/2.8 maximum aperture is effective in low light situations. The lens' sophisticated optical design consists of 12 lens elements arranged in 8 groups including three elements made of low dispersion ED glass and two aspherical lens elements to minimize coma and chromatic aberrations. Highly effective nanocrystal anti-reflection (NCS) coating applied together with UMC coatings improve light transmission and reduce ghosting. Its internal focus system keeps the front element from extending during focus.

Rokinon 16mm f/2.0 ED AS UMC CS - $499 MSRP
Nikon mount • Canon mount • Canon EF-M mount • Sony Alpha mount • Sony E mount • Micro Four Thirds mount • Fujifilm X mount • Pentax K mount • Samsung NX mount ~ all lenses priced under $380.
This high speed wide-angle lens is designed for use with APS-C sized image sensors. It has a 35mm-equivalent focal length of 25.6mm and a 79.5° angle of view. A fast maximum aperture of f/2.0 is effective in low light shooting and provides shallow depth of field. With two aspherical lens elements and one extra-low dispersion element, chromatic aberrations are minimized and sharp, color-accurate images are the result. UMC lens coating facilitates even light transmission and reduces ghosting and flare.

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This page is under continuous update. Please return for recommendations and reviews on the follow lenses:

Rokinon 14mm Ultra Wide-Angle f/2.8 IF ED UMC
Zeiss Batis 18mm f/2.8
Sigma 20mm F1.4 DG HSM | Art
Nikon 20mm f/1.8G
Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 ED AS UMC
Sigma 24mm F1.4 DG HSM | Art
Rokinon 35mm f/1.4 AS UMC
Sigma 35mm F1.4 DG HSM | Art
Rokinon 50mm f/1.4 AS IF UMC
Sigma 50mm F1.4 DG HSM | Art
Rokinon 85mm f/1.4 UMC