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Top 10 of 2016 (#8)

Night photography is something I have tried to do more of this past year.  It is so much fun to do and it really gives you so many creative opportunities.  I enjoy shooting the Milky Way, but even though we live several miles outside of any city, there is still too much light pollution.  Star trails are the next best thing, and I have thousands of images on my hard drive to prove it.  

This image was created back in late June.  The hay had just been baled, so I decided to take advantage of that for some foreground interest.  Without any kind of foreground, these usually turn out to be pretty boring images.  There are a couple of different methods for creating star trail images.  You can take a single, really long exposure.  Somewhere in the neighborhood of at least 30 minutes.  Or, capture a series of shorter exposures and stack them together.  Either way will show the apparent movement of the stars over time, as the earth rotates on its axis.  

I choose the use the multiple exposure method for a variety of reasons.  With several different exposures, it is possible to throw out one or two that have issues.  If you take one really long exposure and something messes it up, then you have to start all over again.  One longer exposure will also tend to have more digital noise (grain) due to the sensor heating up.  

The creation of this image consisted of capturing about 50 exposures.  Each image was exposed for 30 seconds, with only about 2-3 seconds in between each image.  They were shot at the relatively wide focal length of 14 mm, at an aperture of f/2.8 to allow in as much light as possible. I kept the ISO at around 1,000, which is about all you need for star trails.  A small flashlight was used to light paint the hay bale in one of the images to provide a little more foreground accent.

After shooting, the images were loading into the Lightroom, minor exposure adjustments were made, then exported as JPEGs.  The JPEG images were then stacked together in a free software program call StarStax, which works really well.  Finally, the resulting star trail image was blended together with the light painted image in Photoshop.

Another thing I should mention is that the camera was pointed in the general direction of the North Star.  This makes the circular pattern in the star trails.  The extra light trails in the final image are actually fireflies that were buzzing around as I captured the images.  I originally thought about removing them, but feel that they add some interest and context to this image. What do you think?   

Grinter Sunflower Farm - 2016

This marks the third year that I've made the little trip down to Grinter's Sunflower Farm, located between Lawrence and Tonganoxie, Kansas.  Each year, I have seen a dramatic growth in the number of people who visit this place.  It really is amazing, and attracts people from all over.  It is a very popular photography location, as I usually see a number of local photographers with various photographic equipment out for family or senior portrait shoots.  The combination of the sunflowers at their peak the lighting, assuming you are there at the right time and the weather is cooperating, can't be beat.  

Many of you probably know that I've been writing bi-weekly articles for the Improve Photography website for the past few months.  My visit to the farm this year was a great opportunity to provide a little more exposure to this wonderful place.  You can check out my article at this link. Check out the other articles while you are at the website; there is lots of great information, especially for those interested in learning how to make great images.   

I mentioned the importance of getting to the fields at the right time.  That applies not only to the time of day, but the time of year as well.  The sunflowers are typically planted in July.  That means they reach their peak bloom sometime in late August or early September.  This year, that time happened to be around the Labor Day holiday.  The crowds that weekend were incredible.  At one point, the farm had to be shut down to visitors because of traffic backups on the incoming highways.  I was there the Saturday before Labor Day, along with hundreds of other people. There was plenty of parking, however, and plenty of space to find my own little peace in the 40 acre field.  

Not only is time of year important, but also time of day.  This is especially important if you want to be there during the times of best lighting for photos.  Generally speaking, this is either just after sunrise or right at sunset.  The low angle of the sun at those times produces golden light and helps to create much more dramatic images.  Mid-day is the least favorable, as the sun directly overhead creates harsh light that just isn't as pleasing for photography.  Of course, if the skies are overcast, it doesn't really matter, but I would try to coordinate a visit when there is mostly sunny conditions and maybe a few light clouds swirling about.  A few high clouds, especially in the western sky can really create some dramatic color after the sun dips below the horizon.  I made my visit in the afternoon in order to catch the sunset.  The sky was sunny, but unfortunately there were no clouds in sight.  

Since the sky was crystal clear, I decided to stay late and catch some late evening and Milky Way shots.  I wasn't sure how dark the skies would be due to the proximity to Kansas City and Lawrence.  There was a fair amount of light pollution, but the Milky Way was still visible.  One of the nice things about staying late is that there are very few, if any, people there.  Once the sun went down, the crowds quickly disappeared, and the farm was as peaceful as one would hope. One of the bad things about staying late is mosquitoes.  I made the mistake of not packing insect repellent and regretted it as I was battling those blood suckers all evening.  

This image was taken well after sunset.  Photoshop was used to create a composite of two images to exaggerate the size of the moon over the field.

The Milky Way over a corn field adjacent to the sunflower field.

So, another year is in the books for visiting this amazing place.  It really is a neat place to go visit and I would definitely recommend it.  Even if you aren't a photographer.  I'll be there again next year, so look me up.