Category Archives: Night Photography

Boron Air Force Station 360 Night Panorama

Boron AFS Night Panorama
The Mojave Desert…in July? Yes! During last week’s full supermoon I spent 2 nights shooting 360 panoramas at the abandoned Boron Air Force Station. Boron AFS was built in the 1952 as part of the Air Defense Command radar network. After being decommissioned in 1975, Boron was used as a Federal prison from 1979-2000. The radome is still operated by the FAA.

Temperatures were 100º in the daytime, and in the 80′s at night. The monsoon season brought fantastic clouds both nights. I was shooting with the Canon EOS 6D, and used the built-in GPS feature to record the location of each panorama. Setting the GPS to record positioning at 2 minute intervals seemed to have barely any affect on battery life. A screenshot of the Lightroom maps module for the shoot is below. The GPS coordinates also get picked up by Pano2VR, which will save a lot of time when building a virtual tour.

You clicked the image at the top and looked at the 360 pano already, right?

Update: There are now 9 panoramas in the night tour of Boron AFS. I’m still adding panos, and hope to have a tour with 25-30 panos and a map when everything is done.

Boron AFS - Lightroom GPS Coordinates

Boron AFS – Lightroom GPS Coordinates

Sony a7R vs. Canon EOS 6D: Long Exposure Noise Tests, HDR Bracketing, Panoramas and More

I’ve wanted to try the Sony a7R ever since I read Fred Miranda’s review on using the a7R with Canon lenses. In addition to a sizable jump in resolution over the Canon 6D and 5D Mark III, the a7R’s 36 megapixel full frame sensor reportedly has better dynamic range.

The ability to lift the shadow details in underexposed a7R files is really impressive. Not having an optical low pass filter also makes these files quite sharp straight out of the camera. The a7R’s sensor has offset gapless micro-lenses to help with wide angle corner performance.

Would these benefits improve image quality, resolution, and workflow for my type of shooting? What were the trade offs? I rented a Sony a7R and Metabones Canon to Sony adapter from LensRentals.com to find out.

360 Panoramas: Sony a7R vs. Canon 6D

I often shoot 360 panoramas in 4 shots on the EOS 6D with a Canon 8-15mm fisheye lens. The final file is 10,500 x 5250 (55 megapixels). The same lens and shooting pattern on the Sony a7R results in 14,000 x 7,000 (98 megapixels). This resolution gain allows more zooming online, and bigger prints. The 6D would require 6 shots around, 1 up, and 1 down to achieve this resolution.

The a7R files look sharper out of the camera, and wide angle lens edge performance is just as sharp at the edges as the 6D, if not better. The ability to lift shadow detail without a noise penalty is really impressive.

HDR Bracketing: Sony a7R vs. Canon 6D

For those of you who shoot HDR, it’s important to note that the a7R’s exposure bracketing options are more limited than on Canon.

Canon EOS 6D: Versatile HDR bracketing options
Set your own exposure level increment in 0.3 stop intervals.
Decide whether you want 2, 3, 5 or 7 shots.

Sony a7R: Fixed/Limited HDR bracketing options
0.3 stops/3 shots – 0.3 stops/5 shots
0.5 stops/3 shots – 0.5 stops/5 shots
0.7 stops/3 shots – 0.7 stops/5 shots
1.0 stop/3 shots – 2.0 stops/3 shots – 3.0 stops/3 shots

Most of the time, a 3 shot bracket at 2 stop intervals is enough for what I shoot. Occasionally I’ll shoot a 5 shot bracket every 2 stops with the 6D. That’s not an option on the a7R. Considering the added dynamic range of the a7R, perhaps the 3 shot 3.0EV bracketing would work OK though.

Conclusion: Despite the bracketing limitations, the a7R’s extra sharpness, resolution, and dynamic range would be a big plus for the 360 panorama shooting that I do.

Long Exposure Noise: Sony a7R vs. Canon 6D

For night photography, having a camera that can produce clean files without the need to run long exposure noise reduction (LENR) is really helpful.  When LENR is turned on in most cameras, noise reduction runs after your exposure finishes.

If your shot is 5 minutes, the camera runs noise reduction for an additional 5 minutes before you can shoot again. During that 5 minutes that camera takes a dark frame that is used to subtract noise and hot pixels from your photo. This process is great for image quality, but can significantly cut into your productivity and battery life.

I know from experience that the Canon EOS 6D is clean in the 6-8 minute exposure range without using LENR (as long as the weather is cold). I was curious to see how the Sony a7R stacked up for night photography. I ran the cameras through a series of tests with long exposure noise reduction (LENR) turned off. The body cap was on. The ambient temperature was 66 degrees. The ISO was set to 100 on both cameras.

Noise Test Results: Sony a7R vs. Canon 6D

For exposures of 15 seconds, 30 seconds, 1 minute, and 2 minutes, both cameras produced clean files. There was little to no performance compromise for leaving LENR turned off in both cameras.

3 minutes: The 6D still looks good. The a7R is just starting to show faint traces of noise and hot pixels. Nothing objectionable.

4 minutes: The 6D is just starting to show a few signs of noise and hot pixels. The a7R has a bit more noise now.

6 minutes: The 6D is still fine at 6 minutes. The Sony a7R has noticeably more hot pixels by this point. Enough to where you’ll spend a few minutes with each file cloning them out.

8 minutes: The 6D still is still good. The a7R has reached the breaking point, with additional hot pixels.

10 minutes: The 6D has a bit more noise now. You’ll need to clone a few hot pixels, but it’s still usable. a7R = nope.

15 minutes: The 6D is past my comfort level for noise at this point. The a7R has galaxies full of hot pixels.

Conclusion: The 6D is good for long exposures up to 8 minutes without LENR.  The a7R is good up to 4-5 minutes. This gives the 6D the advantage for shooting long star trails in one shot, and for doing star trail stacking using less shots. If you’ve read this far, maybe you’d like to download the RAW files [160MB zip file].

Turning on Long Exposure Noise Reduction

I also ran some tests with Long Exposure Noise Reduction (LENR) turned on in the camera. Both cameras were perfectly clean on 5 minute, 8 minute, and 10 minute exposures.

15 minute exposure: The 6D still looks great. The a7R file shows a few hints of noise.

30 minutes: The 6D shows some luminance noise that will benefit from additional noise reduction in post, but is still usable. The Sony battery died during the 30 minutes that noise reduction was running. The file was still saved on the memory card, but without any noise reduction.

Other Considerations

Battery Life: Canon is the clear winner here. Both cameras started the tests with a fully charged battery. The Sony battery died during the 30 minute exposure test. The Canon battery still had 40% capacity left at the end.

When the Sony a7R LCD screen is active, it does not turn off all of the way. Even when the screen appears blank, it’s still slightly lit up and using battery life. Switching to the EVF may not help, and also makes reviewing images a pain. Advantage: Canon

Timer Remotes: There are a wide number of timer remotes available for shooting long exposures on Canon. Sony doesn’t have a remote with a built-in timer, only an expensive manual option. There are only a few third party remote options for Sony, and I’m not aware of anyone who makes a wired remote with a timer. Advantage: Canon

Focusing: I haven’t tested the a7R under full moon conditions, but did find Sony’s focus peaking feature to be an excellent tool for daytime landscape shooting. Canon’s AF is better for faster moving subjects. I don’t use AF very much, so this is not really an issue.

Lenses: Canon DSLR’s have a wide range of high quality lenses available. You can also use Olympus OM or Nikon lenses on an adapter. Native full frame Sony lens options are much more limited, but Sony’s E mount will take a wide variety of lenses with an adapter. If you want to keep autofocus, the adapters can be expensive and AF slow. For landscapes this isn’t a problem. For wide angle lenses, having a quality adapter is important to maintaining sharpness across the frame. Advantage: Canon

Size and Weight: The a7R is 5.0 x 3.7 x 1.9 inches and weighs 14 ounces. The 6D is 5.7 x 4.4 x 2.8 inches and weighs 27 ounces. The 5D Mark III is 6.0 x 4.6 x 3.0 inches and 30 ounces. Saving a pound in your gear bag is nice. Advantage: Sony

Build Quality and UI: No problems for me here with either camera, other than needing to test the a7R to make sure there are no light leaks during long exposures. The Canon has a slight edge in UI, but the Sony is pretty intuitive.

File Size: The 6D’s CR2 files are about 20 MB each. The Sony a7R ARW files are about 37 MB. Memory cards and hard drives are inexpensive. The a7R RAW files are referred to as “visually lossless” but they do throw away some data to keep the file size down. I have seen one example file where the quality of a star trail shot was affected by the Sony’s lossy file type. Something to keep an eye on. Advantage: Canon

Shutter Shake: Much has been written about the a7R’s shutter design causing soft photos with long lenses at shutter speeds between 1/30 and 1/125. Luckily, I don’t even own any long lenses.

Price: The a7R lists for $2300, but can be bought new for as low as $1865. Make sure to budget $150-400 for an adapter if you’re planning to use Canon lenses on the a7R. This brings the Sony in around $500 cheaper than a 5D Mark III, or $500 more than a 6D.

Final Thoughts: While the a7R has a few notable quirks for the types of shooting that I do, the benefits seem to outweigh the demerits. I’ve added a Sony a7R to my camera bag alongside my Canon gear. I will primarily use the a7R for shooting 360 panoramas. It will be interesting to see what Canon has up their sleeves with the rumored 7D and 5D Mark III replacements.

Valley Junkyard Night Photography Workshop and West Yard 360 Tour

Valley Junkyard West Yard 360 Night Tour
The next Valley Junkyard Night Photography Workshop will be September 6-8, 2014. In addition to the main yard, we also have access to the west yard, which has some amazing 40′s and 50′s cars, an ambulance, a hearse, and a stretch taxi. Take a 360 night tour of the west yard.

The Valley Junkyard workshop is a great way to improve your night photography and light painting techniques. My co-instructor Troy Paiva and I also cover composition, color theory, and post processing during the daytime sessions. The last workshop sold out quickly. Registration for the fall workshop opens to our email list on June 9th, and to the world on June 10th. Contact me if you’d like to sign up!

Las Vegas Neon Museum 360 Night Panorama

Ernie's - a 360 degree night panorama of the Las Vegas Neon Museum

During last week’s IVRPA conference in Las Vegas, I arranged an after hours photo tour at the Neon Musem. The museum runs 1 hour guided tours during the day and evening, but no tripods or monopods are allowed. About once a month they have a night shoot that allows tripods. Big thanks to the talented photographer eyetwist, who gave me the lowdown, and to Erin at the museum for the hospitality. We had 7 photographers and 2 videographers in our group, which maxed out the small museum space.

As we only had 1 hour in the boneyard, I shot my 360 panos at 4 shots around, using a Canon EOS 6D with the 8-15mm fisheye lens at 12mm. This sacrifices some resolution for speed, producing images that are just over 10,000×5,000 (50 megapixels). I shot a 3 image bracket at each camera position, with exposures of +/- 1.5 stops.

Many of the amazing old neon signs were lit with bright LED lighting that scrolls through different colors every few seconds. I knew this was going to make both shooting HDR and blending the panoramas a challenge.  Surprisingly, Photomatix Fusion didn’t have any problems blending the bracketed images, even though the color and intensity sometimes changed between exposures.

Next, I imported the images into PTGui Pro. Here’s how the pano looked after stitching, but before blending across images.

Las Vegas Neon Museum 360 Degree Night Panorama - Unblended

Las Vegas Neon Museum 360 Degree Night Panorama – Unblended

I tested PTGui, Smartblend, and Photoshop, and the PTGUI blender did the best job feathering the different colored lighting. Adjusting the masking in PTGui helped fine tune the transition areas.

Once I was happy with the results, I used Pano2VR Pro to create the interactive panorama. This pano is my first test using the new HTML5 multiresolution feature. As time permits, I will add a few more panoramas from the Neon Museum and create a virtual tour.

Nevada Car Forest Night Photo Rendered in Wood by Ian Smith

Ian Smith is a marquetry artist based in the UK. He creates amazing hand made images by designing, cutting, and laying out wood veneers. A few months ago he completed a wood version of a 360 night panorama that I shot of an old gas station in Desert Center, California. The gas station piece was a hit in a recent art show, and will soon be making the journey from England to California, where it will be displayed on my wall.

Last week Ian finished a wood picture inspired by one of my night photos of the International Car Forest of the Last Church. The original photo and Ian’s wood version are below. I love the way he rendered the cars, and the way the wood grain looks in the sky. You can see more of Ian’s work at themarquetryshack.com

A row of cars under star trails at the International Car Forest - by Joe Reifer

A row of cars under star trails at the International Car Forest – by Joe Reifer

Car Forest marquetry by Ian Smith

Car Forest marquetry by Ian Smith