The light on the horizon – photos of zodiacal light

“But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?”

-Romeo Montague, “Romeo and Juliet”

“Wow, look at that z-light!”

-Me

 

Ah,  zodiacal light, that confounding glow on the horizon long after the sun has already set. At times (particularly in the fall in the northern hemisphere) I have cursed it because it interfered with my view of the Milky Way, but more often than not I celebrate it. 

Why?

Because I think it looks cool.

After you’ve taken tens of thousands of photos of the night sky you start to really appreciate unique events or circumstances, and even though I’ve photographed zodiacal light a number of times, it’s still (to me, anyway) a rare and exciting phenomenon. I still think it adds a lot of visual interest and an air of unpredictability to the standard night sky.

But what is it?

It’s billions-of-years-old space dust, lit by our sun! If that answer doesn’t suffice, check out EarthSky’s articles on the topic (found here and here), or even wikipedia’s.

So as an ode to these bright triangles of glowing interstellar dust, below I’ve assembled a collection of my zodiacal light photos, in almost no particular order below.

 

 

The planet Jupiter hangs over the jagged peaks of Arizona's Kofa Mountains.

“Jupiter rising, Kofa Mountains,” the largest planet in our solar system, bathed in zodiacal light, hangs over the jagged peaks of Arizona’s Kofa Mountains.

The above photo (“Jupiter rising, Kofa Mountains”) was one of the rare times I had anticipated seeing zodiacal light in the night sky. Why? Because I had seen it in the same place the year before, and the weather conditions were similar. This time around, I knew Jupiter would be very close to the zodiacal light (it was more in the southern sky the year before), and I had hoped that the planet and the z-light would line up. My hopes came true.

The desert southwest is a great place to go to see zodiacal light in the wintertime: That clear, dry air seems to really allow for some great z-light displays. In this case, I set an alarm for a couple of hours pre-sunrise, got up and left my phone glowing in the bottom of my tent (see photo below), and then took these multi-row panoramas. The final field of view on these is somewhere around 180 degrees wide.

 

Zodiacal light glows in the night sky.

“A light on the horizon,” zodiacal light appears behind the Kofa Mountains, Arizona.

But dry conditions in places like the desert southwest aren’t required for taking these sorts of photos. Occasionally the skies clear up on the “wet” side of Oregon’s Cascades, giving us Oregonians a chance to view zodiacal light as well.

The photo below was one of the first times I had an opportunity to properly shoot zodiacal light and incorporate it into my composition. (Previously I had only haphazardly photographed it, not really realizing what I was seeing.) In the case below, I had researched where the sun would set, and I knew it would line up pretty closely with where I wanted it to be for the composition below. What I didn’t realize is that strong zodiacal light would persist well after sunset. Surprisingly, I’ve seen zodiacal light in this same location a number of times, despite the Oregon coast not being well-known for its clear skies. 

A waterfall flows toward zodiacal light on the Oregon coast.

“False dusk and falls, Oregon coast,” second-place winner in The World at Night’s 2014 Earth and Sky photo contest.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve really come to enjoy photographing the night sky in the wintertime, for various reasons that I won’t get into here. In the two photos below you can see the results from a night of winter shooting at the Oregon coast (the same location as “False dusk and falls, Oregon coast” above).

 

Zodiacal light glows in the night sky off the Oregon coast.

“Tributaries in the river of light,” zodiacal light appears off the Oregon coast in this familiar location. This photo received “special mention” in TWAN’s 2016 Earth and Sky photo contest.

Zodiacal light, airglow, and the Milky Way shine in the night sky in this upward-facing view taken at the Oregon coast.

This full-dome view of the night sky at the Oregon coast shows the winter Milky Way, airglow, and strong zodiacal light that nearly reaches the sky’s zenith (right side).

The photo below was another memorable occasion for shooting zodiacal light, mostly because it was on a sub-freezing morning at Joshua Tree National Park during my first visit to the park. This particular shot was 

Zodiacal light shines brightly behind a Joshua Tree.

Zodiacal lights shines brightly during the pre-dawn of a winter morning at Joshua Tree National Park. In this case, the planet Saturn bathes in zodiacal light, while the bright star Vega shines on the left side of the photo.

 

 

And finally, here’s one from the dry side of the Cascades. Again, Jupiter played around in the zodiacal light for me, which is always a nice bonus.

Zodiacal light shines over the playa of the Alvord Desert in eastern Oregon.

Zodiacal light shines over the playa of the Alvord Desert in eastern Oregon.

Against the night

Like a fool, earlier this summer I decided to start following up with for-profit companies and individuals who were using my photos for free, some of them for years at a time. (I have no idea why I didn’t do this during our amazingly rainy winter and spring, but, alas, I waited for the good weather to begin this project.) Although I had occasionally exchanged emails with some prior infringers, I hadn’t launched any sort of full-scale email campaign, which is what I’ve been up to (other than my Crater Lake workshop) over nearly the past month.

So, rather than going outside into the bright sunshine and enjoying my summer (or at least getting some much-needed yard work done), I’m scouring the Internet, drafting emails, and then replying (and replying and replying) to reply emails.

Although I’ve had a couple of reasonably pleasant experiences in dealing with infringers, for the most part it’s a little like going down the rabbit hole into a universe where culpability doesn’t exist, where copyright theft is committed by no-longer-with-us interns, rogue website builders, or just people who don’t want to take a few seconds to see if the image that they want to prominently place on their website’s home page may in fact actually be copyrighted. The same excuses keep cropping up over and over again until you know how the infringers will reply before they even reply. It’s disheartening, to say the least, and an activity not unlike reading the comments on news stories online: If your faith humanity has been shaken, you’re not going to re-solidify your faith here.

This accountability blitz started when, after reviewing some records, I realized that I haven’t licensed much imagery in the past year. Weird, I thought to myself, maybe no one really is interested in using my photos to promote their business anymore. Of course, a quick google search immediately proved that to not be the case. Instead, what people wanted was to use my photos without paying for them, a subtle but important distinction.

In the past, I’ve been criticized by members of the photography community for placing watermarks on my photos. As a result, I’ve spent way more time than I should’ve trying to find a balance between making sure that my copyright can be seen and trying not to make it obtrusive. It’s not easy. And believe me, I would rather not mark them at all, but with “I didn’t know it was copyrighted” being such a rampant excuse for theft, it seems more necessary than ever.

What’s most surprising, to me anyway, is the members of the creative community who have used my photo to promote their services. As someone who creates and uses my own music on my website, blog, and videos, I’ll never understand that.

Anyway, I’ll keep you posted as to how it goes.

Photo Details

“Against the night”

A rock spire stands against the galactic core of the Milky Way, southern Utah, spring of 2017.

“Against the night,” a rock spire stands against the galactic core of the Milky Way, southern Utah, spring of 2017. Click the photo to view it full size.

 

 

I took this vertical panorama this spring, with my full-spectrum Canon 6D and a Rokinon 35 mm f/1.4 lens. This is a total of 6 shots, 3 focus-stacked and 3 for vertical height, each taken at ISO 6400 for 15 seconds. (My aperture was unrecorded, although it was probably either f/2 or f/2.8.) I panned upward using my Nodal Ninja 4, which I love. The photo was taken in southern Utah.

 

Samyang 14mm f/2.4 premium vs. Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 comparison

Introduction

I should probably preface this review by saying that I loved the Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 when it first came out. It was inexpensive, ultra-wide, and the best part, especially for a photographer like me who spends his nights out under the stars, is that it wasn’t afflicted with coma, an aberration that’s the bane of night-sky photographers (or at least this night-sky photographer). I bought my gold-ring Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 in 2011, and it’s been a workhorse of a lens ever since, although it’s suffered a fair amount of abuse at my hands. Despite me having no relationship with Samyang/Rokinon/Bower (all the same company, in case you were wondering), I’ve long recommended the brand to photographers who have taken my night-sky photography workshops and lessons.  

 

Hopes and dreams

I was pretty excited when I heard that Samyang was releasing a “premium” version of this lens, the 14mm f/2.4. On their website, Samyang Lens Global boasted that this lens was a “premium manual focus photo lens designed for high resolution photoshoots.” And then they continued, “It has the unprecedented resolving power, matched with 50 megapixels photo and 8K video productions. The resolving power contains abundant pixel information.” Wow! Sign me up, right? Never mind the fact that I’m shooting with my old Canon 6D, with its puny 20-megapixel sensor. 

What I really wanted from the lens were the following:

  1. A reduction in astigmatism/field curvature, which was my main criticism of the original Rokinon 14mm f/2.8. The old lens tended to really elongate stars near the corner of the frame, which required either cropping or a lot of cloning work in post-processing.
  2. A usable wide-open aperture. When I first began shooting with my old 14/2.8 I wasn’t terribly bothered by the softness at f/2.8, but as my skills as a photographer grew over time (and I began making larger prints) I realized the limitations of that lens at f/2.8 and began to shoot at f/4 more often, gaining a sharper overall image but losing a stop of light in the process.
  3. A brighter overall frame (less vignetting). Making panoramas from my old 14/2.8 was problematic, as the edges of the frame were considerably darker than the center (even at f/4, unfortunately). 

And that’s pretty much it. Although these seem like modest requirements, I hadn’t yet found a lens that met them in this price range ($999). And all this language about “unprecedented resolving power” made me wonder if I should open the lens’s box with gloves, lest I cut myself on the sharpness of the lens.

 

Initial thoughts

As mentioned before, the Rokinon 14mm f/2.4 SP  retails for $999, versus $299 for the old f/2.8 version. Although this might sound like a big difference in price, I was willing to pay a premium (pun intended) for a lens with even small improvements over the older f/2.8 version. The first thing I noticed when I received the lens was the designation “SP” on the box, which I had somehow missed when ordering the lens. The SP stands for Special Performance. Perhaps the word “premium” didn’t fare as well in focus groups? (That pun not intended.)

Cool box, huh?

Cool box, huh?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A side-by-side comparison of the Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 and the Rokinon 14mm f/2.4SP.

The Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 and the Rokinon 14mm f/2.4SP.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From an aesthetics standpoint, which I honestly care almost nothing about, the 14SP is a nice-looking lens and was clearly designed with Zeiss’s external look in mind. The focus ring is rubber, like the older version, but doesn’t have the grippy ridges of the old version. The front element is also larger, which probably accounts for the extra 200 grams of weight from the f/2.8 version to the f/2.4 version. The lens isn’t overly bulky, though, and feels fine on my Canon 6D. Unlike the older f/2.8 version, the SP version doesn’t have a manual aperture or manual aperture ring: The aperture is controlled electronically via the camera body.

 

The new 14mm f/2.4 SP weights in at 793 grams.

The new 14mm f/2.4 SP weights in at 793 grams, or 1.74 pounds, with rear cap.

The ol' 14mm f/2.8 weighs in at 593 grams.

The ol’ 14mm f/2.8 weighs in at 593 grams, or 1.3 pounds, with rear cap.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Although the weight of my gear isn’t as important to me as other factors, I was relieved that the 14 SP’s weight didn’t reach that of the Tamron 15-30 or the new Sigma 14mm f/1.8, which are around half a pound heavier.

Also worth noting, unfortunately, is that the lens does not mount smoothly to my 6D, unlike any other lens I’ve owned or have tried. Instead, there’s some metal-on-metal friction that eases halfway through the twist before becoming sticky again. The closest comparison I can make is when, years ago, I bought the cheapest set of macro tubes I could find on amazon. This is not a good sign.

 

Comparison methodology

For these comparison tests, I shot with the lenses on my Canon 6D. Mirror lockup was used, as was my tripod. Neither the camera nor the tripod were moved between shots. Focus was achieved manually, with live view zoomed in 10x on the same focus point for each lens. I was extremely careful not to touch the focus ring at all after achieving critical focus. I also used a wireless remote with my drive set to a 2-second timer to eliminate any chance of camera shake.

The photos below are both completely boring (it’s Oregon in the winter, what can I say?) and unedited, save for the default settings applied by Lightroom. All photos were exported as web-res jpegs with no output sharpening.

 

Initial tests

All right, let’s get to the good stuff. We’ve been cursed with cloudy skies for quite a while in my part of Oregon, so instead of taking the lens out for some star photography, I took the Rokinon 14mm SP for a quick trip down to a local park. For this first set of comparisons, I chose a particular tree far beyond the bridge, which is where I focused the lenses (see below). I did that to simulate the technique of focusing on a faraway object (like a star, for instance) while shooting at night.

This was my far-focus point for all 3 lenses.

The red arrow shows my focus point for all 3 lenses, and I’m estimating  the focus point was around 70 feet away. 

Here’s a comparison of the two photos, both taken at 1/25th of a second, ISO 100, f/2.8. I know many of you are probably wondering, why f/2.8? Well, I’m a star photographer, and this would primarily be a “star photography lens” for me. I have to see improvement in these wide apertures to justify making a purchase like this. If the full resolving power of the lens doesn’t kick in until f/5.6, it’s useless for my needs (although clearly not useless for most other needs, including landscape photography).

On the image below, move the slider right to see the 14SP’s photo, and move the slider left to see the older f/2.8’s photo. 

Right away I noticed the following:

  1. Slightly different fields of view (FOV), despite both lenses being 14mm, which could have to do with…
  2. …less distortion for the 14SP. My next series of photos will better illustrate that the 14mm f/2.8’s infamous “moustache distortion” has been greatly reduced in the new lens. Strangely, the bridge structure appears flatter and more squat in the 14SP version, despite the fact that the older version seems to be a slightly wider lens. I was a little puzzled about that at first, but I think this is mostly a result of a decrease in moustache distortion. If you think about it, moustache distortion causes objects in the middle of the frame to arch upwards slightly. Since that’s been eliminated, I can only assume that buildings, mountains, and other tall, prominent objects will appear more diminished and flatter than the older version of this lens. The fact that moustache distortion could actually benefit landscape photographers who enjoy shooting mountains with an ultra-wide-angle lens was something I hadn’t really considered before.
  3. The 14SP is a brighter lens, I’m estimating around 1/3 of a stop, with more contrast. The brightness may be partly due to the vignetting on the older f/2.8 being so extensive, which leads to my next point….
  4. …less vignetting on the new lens, although some still exists.

I wanted some straight lines so that I could better see the differences between the two lenses as far as distortion goes, so I took the photos below, both shot at f/2.8, ISO 100, 1/30th of a second. The background was intentionally slightly blurred because I focused on a point on the far side of the bridge, which was only about 4 feet away: much too close for infinite depth of field at f/2.8, even at 14mm. Again, pull right to see the 14SP’s results.

Okay, so the new 14SP version clearly has less distortion. But something that really puzzled me on these were the out-of-focus (OOF) areas in the background: The SP’s OOF areas were far more OOF than the old 14’s, but only at the edges of the frame. The center background wasn’t quite as OOF. This inconsistency was my first real indication that something may have been wrong with the Rokinon 14mm f/2.4 SP.

I proceeded anyway, with the following photos, both taken at f/2.8, ISO 100, 1/250th of a second. Once again I focused on the same very far-away object for both photos, which meant I lost a little depth of field at the very front edge of my foreground. Again, pull right to see the 14SP.

 

 

Once again, we see that the 14 SP is brighter, with better contrast and less distortion. But when I started pixel peeping, I noticed some weirdness, which I’ll get to in just a moment, below. But to be honest, and this may sound a little foolish, I really didn’t buy this lens to shoot at f/2.8. I was really hoping to shoot the night sky with its wide-open aperture, f/2.4. After all, if this lens is indeed 1/3 of a stop brighter than the non-SP 14mm f/2.8, and if this lens is usable at f/2.4, we star photographers are gaining nearly a full stop of light (1/3 + 1/2 = 5/6). 

So before we hang it up, let’s make this already highly unscientific comparison even more unscientific: Let’s take a look at f/2.4 on the new lens vs f/2.8 on the old, below. First some notes: Both shots metered the same. The exposure on the 14SP was 1/400th of a second; the exposure on the old f/2.8 version was 1/250th of a second. That’s 2/3 of a stop difference in shutter speed. These two photos were taken about two and a half minutes apart, so it’s entirely possible that the scene lightened or darkened slightly in that time. Again, slide to the right for the f/2.4 version.

I think the old Rokinon may have a slight edge in center brightness, but it appears that the new Rokinon 14mm f/2.4 SP may have a slight edge in the vignetting department. I thought about comparing 100% crops of these photos to illustrate what seemed to be a negligible difference in sharpness, but we should probably just go straight to…

 

The weirdness

Okay, back to the weirdness, and this is where this comparison is probably rendered useless. Here’s an approximate 100% crop from the area that I focused the lenses. Pull right to see the 14SP. (Note: The crops don’t line up exactly because the field of view and distortion in each lens are slightly different.)

So I thought these crops were pretty similar, with the 14SP again having slightly better contrast and being slightly brighter overall (which is a good thing for star photography). Here’s where things get weird. Again, pull right to see the 14SP. (Note: The crops don’t line up exactly because the field of view and distortion in each lens are slightly different.)

 

 

Huh? Clearly the Rokinon 14mm f/2.4 SP has a problem with the right side of the frame. If you look closely, just to the right of the playground equipment you can almost see the line where the resolution turns to mush.

 

Here’s a crop from the same photos, far-left side. (Again, pull right for the new 14SP.)

 

 

Okay, so the 14SP is still brighter and has a little more contrast. I think that the sharpness here is fairly comparable, and not at all like the right side of the frame, although the 14SP looks like it may be slightly worse as far as sharpness goes. Which begs the question: Is there also something wrong (just not as badly wrong as the right side) with the part of this lens that renders the left side? Or is this how this is supposed to look?

I’m not going to go to great lengths pondering those questions here because I returned that particular lens and will get a replacement. When I receive the replacement I’ll definitely continue comparing it so that I can upload the results from that. Suffice it to say that this was a disappointing experience.

 

My wholly incomplete conclusion

The results here may lead to more questions than they’ve answered. I’m not sure we can assume that this particular lens only performed badly on the right side, although that may be the case. It very well could be that the entire lens underperformed due to some optics being out of place.

Regardless, we’ve gotta wrap this up with something. So let’s revisit my earlier hopes and dreams for this lens, as follows:

  1. Less astigmatism: Maybe? Less distortion, for sure, but we don’t know if that means less astigmatism for star photography yet. Mark this one “unresolved.”
  2. A usable wide-open aperture: Also “unresolved.” I would need a better copy of this lens to say for sure. On this copy, f/2.4 seems to resemble f/2.8 on my old Rokinon lens pretty closely as far as vignetting and sharpness go, although the new lens has better color and contrast. If I considered f/2.8 on my old lens to be unusable, I would probably have to consider f/2.4 on the new lens unusable, although f/2.8 on the news lens seems to be a clear improvement. But is that enough?
  3. A brighter overall frame: This is true at apertures f/2.8 and narrower. But again, not true at f/2.4. However, I’m not sure how much vignetting can be influenced by out-of-alignment optics, so again, I’ll mark this “unresolved.”

Look, I know it’s unusual to have a usable wide-open aperture on an ultra-wide angle lens, and many photographers assume that they’re going to have to stop down for best performance. Truly, only star photographers hope to use these wide-open apertures. But interest in star photography and Milky Way photography seems to be growing at a pretty rapid rate, and Samyang will continue to have more competition in the fast, ultra-wide-angle lens market, as we’ve seen over the past year. If you’re only going to improve upon an existing product by an aperture value of a half stop, you’d better hope that half stop is usable. 

Bay of Naples panorama

Last year, during a trip to Italy with my family, we spent a few days at a bed-and-breakfast on the side of Mt Vesuvius, up-mountain from the coastal town of Herculaneum. When we first arrived in our tiny rental car, entering through a large motorized swinging gate after being buzzed in, an elderly Italian woman who spoke no English greeted us. She lived onsite, on the upper floor of their impressive tri-level square house, with its acre of land and an impressive garden. The middle and lower floor (where we stayed) were dedicated to lodgers. The house was a gigantic white box with a square white roof, black railings, and a circular turret facing the west that offered commanding views of Mt Vesuvius, Herculaneum, Naples, and the Bay of Naples.

 

On our first night there, I entreated the woman who owned the house to allow me to take some photos from the roof. She spoke almost no English, and my Italian was limited to around 20 words, exactly zero of which had anything to do with photography, but I waved my camera and pointed and bastardized some Spanish words until I got my point across. She stopped her gardening, wiped her hands on her housecoat, and led me up a creaky wooden staircase on the interior of the house. At the time, I didn’t realize this would require going through her third floor—I assumed the roof could be reached via an exterior tightly-wound circular staircase. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.

 

As we got closer to the top of the stairs, I could hear a baritone voice belting out something in Italian. We walked through her front door and she shuffled ahead quickly, attempting to close the gaping bathroom door before I got an eyeful of her husband (or lover?), who was doing his best Pavarotti impression in the shower. Regret filled me to the bursting point. I did my best “Oh hey, what’s that on the ceiling?” impression, and she quickly waved me through the kitchen and out onto a balcony overlooking the garden, where I found the circular staircase leading to the roof.

 

So the next day, during an approaching storm, I was more than reluctant to ask her if I could go back up on her roof. Instead, outside of the gate of their property and a few hundred feet down a gravelly street was a large, unfinished concrete structure—three floors! All I had to do was jump across a ditch, avoid various construction supplies laying around, and climb its skeleton structure to the second floor, which was conveniently sheltered from both rain and lightning (I thought, anyway).

 

Watching the storm roll in over the bay around sunset was surreal. I spent over an hour on my concrete perch, watching the day turn to twilight with the glow of orange-yellow city lights flickering to life, and finally to night. So much seemed to be happening: The sun setting, with its residual glow, cruise ships entering and leaving the bay, and an endless stream of car traffic. Lightning crashed around me the entire time. Eventually I left and ran to get my wife and kids, despite it being past their bedtime. The show was too good to miss.

 

  

Herculaneum, the Bay of Naples, and Naples, as seen from the second floor of an unfinished house on the side of Mt Vesuvius.

Herculaneum, the Bay of Naples, and Naples, as seen from the second floor of an unfinished house on the side of Mt Vesuvius. (Click for full size.)

 

 

 

Vieste view, an early-morning mission for a panorama

During the final days of my family’s trip to Italy, we stayed at an apartment set directly in the middle of a dusty olive grove on the outside of Vieste, on Italy’s Gargano peninsula. The place was so clean and new, smelling so strongly of fresh paint, we suspected we were the unit’s first occupants, a suspicion confirmed when we discovered that the owners had forgotten several items of importance, including a trash can.

Despite the seemingly endless beaches just a mile away, one of my fondest memories of the trip was sitting outside of our apartment in 90-degree heat, eating sliced tomatoes drizzled with olive oil that had been pressed the day before by our host family.

But my second fondest memory involved the afternoons my wife and kids and I spent hiding under brightly colored, oversized umbrellas and occasionally risking splashing around in the shallow waters of the Spiagga del Castello (Castle Beach). I was captivated by the beauty of the vertical white cliffs that erupted from the seaside to support the city’s old town, as well as the iconic beach monolith Pizzomunno, which stands around 80 feet tall.

While lying on a recliner on the beach I wasn’t entirely sure that I could get up to this photo’s vantage point. But one morning, while in a delirium after a full night of long-exposure photography, I decided to attempt a sunrise photo.

The first step was to find a place nearby to park my rental car, which proved to be a harder task than I first realized on the one-car-wide cobblestone streets of the old town. After parking, it was just a matter of walking uphill and occasionally checking Google Maps. I then found myself at a 6-foot-tall iron gate that blocked off the parking area of a condominium.

Not being one to balk at gates, especially in the pre-dawn of one of the longest days of the year, I climbed over and walked into the apartment’s parking lot. The parking garage itself was couched in the side of the hill, so again I scrambled up the dirt on the side of the garage before I found my way up to its roof.

And there was my view. I cautiously picked my way through some thorny weeds, approached the edge, set up my tripod, and began to shoot. After a series of panoramas, I began to imagine the small section of land I was standing on cleaving and falling 120 feet to the beach below, which led to me losing my nerve a bit.

I decided to get out before I got kicked out, so I packed up my gear and turned to go, only to see an old woman sitting on her apartment balcony. Apparently, she had been watching me the whole time.

 

The resort town of Vieste unfolds below this clifftop view. Click for larger view.

The resort town of Vieste unfolds below this clifftop view. Click for larger view.