Rural landscapes in the summer, plus comet Neowise

Summer in the southwest Alentejo natural park is usually a very busy season, with a large number of people choosing the area for vacation. The main attraction are the many pristine beaches that exist along the coastline and that allow a well deserved rest in a natural and quiet setting. This bit of coastline is probably one of the last “wild” ones in Europe.

I spent a short vacation in the region last week, and noticed that this year the number of visitors had dropped considerably. No doubt the result of the ongoing pandemic crisis. The impact on the local economy will be significant, as in many parts of the World where tourism is a large part of the local income.

For this trip I had no definite plans concerning particular photographic endeavours. Weather permitting, I was hoping to spot comet Neowise after sunset, and go out to photograph the rural fields dotted with the typical hay bales. One of the things I like best about this area is the sea versus land dicotomy that is always present: only a couple of kilometres inland from the coast, the landscape is dominated by rolling hills and rural farmland. If it weren’t for the sea breeze, one might be well within the interior of the country. A true surf ´turf of geographic and climatic nature.

I had previously spotted a few places with abundant hay bales, but I wanted to find a location where they would be complemented by the native cork oak tree, to add a bit more of interest and context to my photos. I found such a place near the island of Pessegueiro, between Milfontes and Porto Covo. After parking the car, I started to walk around looking for potential frames in my mind. I had about 1 hour before sunset, so I was in no rush to start shooting. I normally take my time before setting up the tripod, just familiarizing myself with the surroundings and the light.

Pessegueiro island. There are Roman archaelogical remains (fishing station), plus a ruined late XVI century fort.
Endless.

The light had a nice golden quality to it, thanks to the approaching sunset; shadows from the bales were long, complemented by some soft wispy clouds. For some photos I used a polarizer filter to enhance the sky and define the clouds a bit more. I kept moving around and trying different angles, to include the farm houses, the trees, the distant hills and some wind turbines.

Bale and cork oak tree.
Farmland.
Paired.

Besides using a wide angle lens for greater depth and context, I also used a telephoto lens to isolate the subjects a bit more. Like in the previous photo, and the following ones.

Leaning.
Power lines.
Rural energy.
Sunset.
Sunset.

What about the comet? I went to a dark area after dinner, at around 10.30 pm. I knew it would be visible to the northwest, just below the Big Dipper. It was actually easy to find with the naked eye, and it was a great experience seeing it with binoculars. I set up the camera on the tripod and took a few shots, testing the shutter speed to avoid star trailing. There was some atmospheric haze (the day had been very hot) that affected the visibility, as the comet is not very high above the horizon. But overall I am happy with the results, and above all I felt privileged for being able to witness such a spectacular visitor.

Neowise.
Neowise.

I was glad I went out for the comet that night, because for the next 2 days the entire coast was covered in fog!

Night photography in Santa Clara a Velha

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to carry out a night photography session in a reasonably dark area near the village of Santa Clara a Velha, in Odemira municipality (southern Portugal). A few months ago, when I walked a trail between the villages of Santa Clara a Velha and Sabóia, I passed through a ruined windmill at the top of a hill. The place afforded a clear and nice view to the North, over the rolling landscape. At the time, I made a mental note about returning to the location during the Summer, for some start trail and night shooting.

Fast forward in time, and I went back on the night of 30th August, during New Moon. I arrived at Santa Clara a Velha around 8 pm, parked the car, and took the trail up the hill, to the windmill. I had packed a small chair, plus a light dinner and a flask of hot tea, which proved nice to have a few hours later, as the night settled in. I wanted to arrive at the location before night fall, to facilitate setting up the tripod, camera, and lens. I had with me the Fujifilm X-T2 and Fujinon 16mm f/1.4 lens, plus a head lamp. At sunset time, I took a few nice photos of the village down below, and even happened to catch a lone biker coming up hill in his mountain bike. Other than that, it was a very peaceful night from then onwards, with only the sound of birds and crickets as company.

I proceeded to find the North and frame the ruin of the windmill in the lower right hand of the composition. My plan was to have a nice rotating star trail around the windmill, centred on Polaris. I manually focused the lens, set at f/2, and left it untouched for the remaining of the night. The plan was to use the interval timer plus T mode of the camera, to shoot about 1.5 hours total exposure time. This means 181 photos at 30 seconds each. Finally, my ISO was 1600. To me, part of the fun to do this type of photography is being out in the Nature at night and enjoy the star rich sky in a dark location. In the meantime, as the temperature was dropping, I took a few cups of hot tea.

After shooting the star trail, I also took a few series of shots of the Milky Way: 10 in total, for later stacking. I was packing up my gear when I noticed the Pleiades rising on the East, so I took another series of photos. There was some light pollution, coming from the nearby villages and a main road in the distance, but I was happy with the results. After a good session, I was confident that I had some good images to work from, so I returned to the car. Before leaving the village, I made a few night shots of the church, which was illuminated. On the way back, I also stopped at the train station of Sabóia; the place had an eerie feeling about it, very different from the daytime.

In terms of image processing, I have used Sequator to stack the photos. In the past I have used Star Stax, a good programme too, but Sequator has a couple more useful options, like the ability to separate the “land” from the “sky” part of the image.

Location
Location

Lone biker
Lone biker

Dusk over Santa Clara a Velha
Dusk over Santa Clara a Velha

Night time
Night time

Looking up
Looking up

Star trail
Star trail

Church
Church

Eerie
Eerie

Attention
Attention

Too late for passengers
Too late for passengers

Wide angle lens for Sony A7 system – another option

In the search for a high quality wide angle lens for my Sony A7 system, a friend of mine recommended that I look at the Nikon AFS 20 f1.8 G lens. It is well known that so far, there are no options below 25mm (Zeiss Batis) for the system. The Sony 28 f2 lens accepts a converter that gives 21mm, and of course there is the Sony Zeiss 16-35 f4 zoom. None of these fit my requirements of a high quality, fast wide angle lens below 24mm, to shoot landscapes and night skies. So far, as illustrated in my previous post, I have been using a Nikkor AIS 24 f2.8 lens, which is a very good option. But I need something a bit wider and faster for some of my photography.

Thus, I started to investigate about the above mentioned Nikon lens, which is a recent introduction into the f1.8 Nikon lens line for FX (Nikon’s name for full frame 35mm format). Reading some reviews, it quickly became apparent that the lens is arguably Nikon’s best 20mm so far, which is saying a lot. Then the chance presented itself to use the lens for testing in one of my preferred areas, southwest Portugal coast; and with a new moon night sky, some star trail and Milky Way photography would provide a good testing ground.

Now, it needs to be said that using a Nikon G lens (no aperture ring) on a Sony A7 means that setting the aperture is done via a ring on the adapter (I have a Novoflex). At first, this a bit awkward, but after a while, there is no problem, as one can count stops easily by noting the changes in shutter speed, while using said ring. Another thing is, the manual focus ring is not as smooth as a true manual focus ring (no surprise there), the focus throw is not large (short turn of the ring between close focus and infinity), and the depth-of-field scale is, shall we say, not very useful (f16 marks only). Oh yes, and there are no hard stops at close focus and infinity.

Regardless of the above (normal) limitations, the lens delivers very good results. Below are some initial test shots: a general photo to illustrate the location where I set up the night sky shots (taken at about 9.30 pm), plus a star trail and Milky Way panorama. I had a bit of concern about being able to achieve precise infinity focus, but using magnification in the LCD, I was able to quickly and easily focus on a bright star.

I will keep testing the lens in similar situations, but so far, it is looking like a winner. In terms of handling and ergonomics, the lens is not heavy, it has the common 77mm filter diameter, and comes with a lens hood. If Zeiss ever comes out with a wide angle Loxia (say 21mm or there about), it needs to be pretty good optically to outperform this Nikon.

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View of shooting location

 

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Star trail of around 120 minutes total

 

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Milky Way panorama – 8 photos

 

 

 

Startrails and night skies

This is a type of photography that I like very much to do. It is not easy, as it requires the photographer to be out in the field at ungodly hours, but… why not make the most of today’s camera technology to capture the beauty in our sky? The other difficulty for most people seems to be to actually find a dark enough place to see the stars and constellations!

But, if you happen to be in a such a place at or near new moon (when the sky is darker), then it is not difficult obtain good results. You will need a good tripod, a wide angle lens, and a cable release.

For star trails, I typically I set my camera in Manual mode, ISO 1600, aperture around f2 or f2.8 (depending on the lens), and shutter speed around 30 seconds. Then I just shoot in Continuous drive with the cable release in lock mode. In this way, most cameras will keep on shooting for as long as you wish, or for as long as the batteries last.

It also advantageous to shoot a couple of dark frames, before and after the sequence, so you can use them in programmes like Starstax (highly recommended) to process for dark frame/noise subtraction.

Another option is simply shoot isolated frames of the Milky Way, say ISO 1600 or 3200, f2.8 and around 20 – 30 seconds. Exposure times will depend on the focal length; the longer the focal length, the shorter the exposure time must be to avoid trailing in the stars.  It is also possible to shoot multiple images and later on align and process them in programmes like DeepSky Stacker; these will align the images and produce a single one, the advantage being that with several images, one can boost the S/N ratio. There are some excellent guides available on the WWW, one of my favourites is http://starcircleacademy.com/quick-tips/

Below are some examples I took in Southwest Portugal.

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