As time marches on, it’s worthwhile to look back and review your photographic work. Some people make Top 10 collections of photos. Others single out their personal best for the year. It’s often hard to pick out one just one image as best. But we’ve done the tough job, and picked our favorite child, I mean, favorite 2019 photos.
Part of the value of this exercise is to examine our photos critically. To determine what we find works for us, but also what didn’t work. Instead of presenting a random collection of images, we include our reflections on these points. A self-critique, if you will.
So here we go, our favorite 2019 photos!
On April 5th, 2019, I was busy meeting with sources for a story I was working on about electric vehicles in my hometown of El Paso, Texas. Unfortunately, the president of the local photography club, John, was also occupied that day, so nobody I knew made it out to shoot the new moon.
I brought up the idea of shooting on April 13th/14th. The moon was a 58% Waxing Gibbous, which wasn’t ideal for dark skies. However, looking at the PhotoPills app, I found that the moon would set at about 3 AM, which gave me just under an hour and a half to shoot the Milky Way before the blue hour. I shared my findings with John who agreed to meet me at City of Rocks State Park, NM.
On April 13th, I drove 2 hours to the park, paid my fees, found a campsite, and parked. I shot at sunset and scouted before nightfall. Once it was dark, I decided to hop in my truck and take a nap and sleep until 3 AM.
The moon was out, and it was bright. I could see every formation and the shadows they cast. The conditions were not looking favorable for the Milky Way so, maybe I wouldn’t get a shot.
At just after 2am, I finally fell asleep.
At about 2:45 AM, a bright red headlamp shone on my face as John was walking around preparing a late dinner. Annoyed, I almost rolled over and went back to sleep. But I noticed something. It was pitch black outside.
I thought clouds had rolled in, but then I saw the big, yellow moon in the rearview mirror of my truck and the faint Milky Way through the windshield. I hopped out and headed to the first of two compositions I had scouted out the afternoon before.
This image was the second of the two.
What went right:
A lot went right with this image. First, I successfully planned a Milky Way outing at a seemingly terrible time after the new moon.
My careful planning gave a friend and me just over an hour to shoot the Milky Way, and we both did so successfully despite the number of people that backed out of the trip because of the moon phase.
Carefully planning your Milky Way shooting around the rise/set times of the moon can extend your possible shooting days far beyond the 2 or 3 days after the New Moon.
Second, I successfully used Astrotracer with a wide-angle lens.
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Astrotracer does not play well with wide lenses, as my multiple outings have demonstrated.
By choosing to use ISO 6400 instead of a lower number like 3200 or 1600, I was able to use a shorter exposure time of 1-minute, which meant my corner stars didn’t get too stretched from the wide-angle lens distortion.
By stopping down to f/4, I was able to reduce any corner coma or chromatic aberration that would have otherwise made the unavoidable trailing in the corners considerably worse.
Lastly, I was able to create an ethically-sound image without changing anything but camera settings. National Geographic standards allow blended images; images shot from a single position, time, and focal length.
I created a very real photo while applying a few tricks that were only meant to increase the quality of my image. The extent of my Photoshop work was just spent blending the foreground with the sky.
I increased the quality by shooting the foreground at a lower ISO, by tracking the sky to create sharper stars, and by tracking the sky to extract as much detail from the Milky Way as possible.
What went wrong:
Sleep. Get plenty of it.
From the time I woke up on April 13th to the time I went to sleep on April 14th was just over 36 hours with 4 hours of driving on flat, quiet, New Mexico highways in a truck with a low drone from an aftermarket exhaust.
I ended up having to stop for coffee less than 30 minutes into my drive just to keep my eyes open.
Unfortunately, I’m not Marybeth Kiczenski, so I do require things like healthy food, proper hydration, and some amount of sleep to keep myself going.
Because I didn’t sleep or taking a morning nap, I was in a potentially dangerous situation of being exhausted and sleep-deprived on a quiet and boring drive.
This image is my personal favorite from 2019 because it was the result of careful and successful planning, as well as the result of a lot of extra in-field work to create a blended image in-camera, rather than on a computer.
Honestly, it was hard to pick a favorite image, as I was fortunate enough to travel to some very epic locations. I narrowed it down to Colorado, Utah, and Michigan. The Rockies made for some beautiful and jaw-dropping backgrounds. The Nightscaper Conference in Moab took me all over the picturesque and Mars-like landscapes of Utah with some of the most awesome people in the world. I did not think either of those locations could be topped.
Then the Aurora show of Labor Day Weekend happened. Two solid days of the Northern Lights proved to me that I could be emotional. That feeling has not left me since! Therefore, the nod goes to Michigan and the Northern Lights!
What I like about this image is it combines both the Milky Way and part of the Aurora. Since these two subjects of interest are usually found in opposite sections of the sky, it can be hard or impossible to get into one shot.
Well, in the wee hours of the morning, the way the Aurora shifts and Milky Way moves, they do become a little closer. While not completely visible in this shot due to clouds is another type of phenomenon – a STEVE. This Aurora-like phenomenon does not happen all the time with the Northern Lights. The fact all of these things came together on one night – is magical!
What Went Right
The first thing that went right was the fact the Northern Lights didn’t drop below G1 (Geomagnetic Storm) level for more than 48 hours. That in itself is absolutely insane. So, this gave ample time to really play around with the camera, settings, and multiple compositions. That is if you are willing to stay up all night! Which, of course, I was because I’m borderline insane.
I was able to use the Skywatcher Star Adventurer tracker all night and really mess with the look and feel of the Northern Lights. For a real dreamy look, I would let it track the stars anywhere from one to four minutes. Then set up for long exposure foreground shots. I also shot for shorter exposures to get more detail in the pillars and freeze the motion of the dancing lights. Gave me plenty of data to mess with in post.
What Went Wrong
As with any trip, there are a few things that never go as planned. This one was no different. I lost a comp or two due to the focus being bumped and forgetting to check it.
The drive itself was crazy and unplanned. I had this idea for different locations to shoot from, but with the weather forecast, I had to change last minute. Resorted to “winging it,” which seems to be a trend. I followed my gut, to some areas I already knew, and hoped for the best. Luckily, it did end up working out, as this image was my favorite of the year.
Choosing my favorite image of 2019 is a slam dunk. If you follow me on social media, and there is a good chance that you don’t (FACEBOOK, INSTAGRAM), you already know which photo I created that took the top slot. I spent the year shooting other genres, and when it comes down to it, some images are perhaps better, but this image took the title.
The planning, the preparation, the trip, the uniqueness, and lastly, the emotional attachment that I have to the location all play a part in making this image my favorite of the year. Not only that, but it is also in my All-Time Top 5.
What Went Right
Well, just about everything. Now this image was not on the plate when I first came up with this idea. I did get the shot I had first thought of several years ago, but then I saw this composition. I did the work to get the angles like I wanted, took the shots I needed to create the final product, and to me, it is a better image than the one I initially envisioned.
The short story is I first came up with this location several years ago. It is a place that I am familiar with as I spent a lot of time in my youth there. Then one day, I opened up Photopills, looked at different dates and times to see if what I had planned would work. I then shelved the idea for a while.
Then last year, I decided to make it a reality. I had to choose a window to make the 600-mile trip. Once I had selected that window on the calendar, I had two days to get the shot. Then it was paying attention to weather forecast models as I would make a final decision on if I was going or not about 12 hours before I would have to get on the road. Even then, things would be dicey. With a background in chasing thunderstorms on the High Plains, I had seen weather forecasts make dramatic changes just within a couple of hours of the forecasted time. Once I got on site and scouted my locations, I did end up chasing some weather before nightfall. Was not the first time.
Even though it is an excellent area for astrophotography, I could not find very many astrophotography images in Google Image Search from this location. That surprised me since it is a haven for tourists during the summer.
Lastly, post-processing. I took three shots to get the one. Two photos to light the building walls, then one for the Milky Way.
What Went Wrong
My inexperience with complex Milky Way images like this shows as I should have used focus stacking to capture the adjacent wall as it is not as sharp as it should be. I could have probably worked on the lighting just a little bit more also.
All in all, it was a high-risk shot, that had a lot of prep and research put into it that came together.
I have a very powerful emotional attachment to this image and the images from this location that I got that night. They represent what photography can be with the work and the journey. You can read more about the trip here.
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Every great once in a while, things fall so perfectly into place that it is almost scary. I have a couple of photography friends in various states that I like to meet up with for my Milky Way adventures, and on August 3rd, 2019, I made the 4.5-hour trek across Missouri and into Kansas to meet up with my friend Sandy. While searching on Google Maps earlier in the week, I discovered this little country church in a dark sky area of Kansas. As I did a little more research, I could not find any images of this church with the Milky Way. It seemed too good to be true, but we wouldn’t know until we saw it for our selves.
What Went Right
Sandy and I arrived late in the afternoon after exploring back roads on our way to this location. As we pulled up to the place shown on the map, we could barely contain our excitement at what we were seeing. This old country church and the treeline behind it was absolutely gorgeous. Some puffy clouds were moving through, and our weather apps showed it would be clear later that evening.
I always say that half the fun is getting there, and if it seems like I am being vague about the location of this little church, you are correct. The other half of the fun is discovering these little gems, and therefore I will refrain from giving away the exact location of this church, other than to say that it is in a quiet little dark sky area, somewhere in Kansas.
Although I had placed the Luxli Viola LED light inside the church pointed towards the windows on the right side of the image, I used no additional lighting on this image. What I initially thought would be a problem creating this image turned out to be a bonus. Further down the main road and to my left, there was a house with a light on a pole near the garage. A 20-second exposure was long enough to soak up some of that stray light.
In addition to that faint light, I took advantage of the headlights from the rare vehicle that passed by. It took several tries, but I was able to figure out the correct timing of opening the shutter and the point where the car was passing by. Open it too soon, and the headlights from the vehicle would blow out the front of the church.
What Went Wrong
Anytime you are photographing in the Midwest in the middle of the summer you will be faced with high humidity. By the time the Milky Way was in this position, the grass was wet, our shoes were wet, we were soaked, and our lenses and gear were covered in dew. Upon review of my images on the back of my camera, I noticed that my images started looking soft. At first, I thought I had bumped my lens and knocked it out of focus but soon discovered that every couple of exposures I would need to wipe the dew from the front of my lens.
- Canon 5D Mk IV
- Rokinon 14mm SP 2.4 lens
- Velo Shutterboss Cabled Timer
- Pro Media Gear – BH1 PMG Ball Head with Arca-Type Clamp
- Pro Media Gear – TR344-
BLACKTR344 Pro-Stix 59″ inch Carbon Fiber Tripod w/ 34mm diameter legs 4-Section
- Really Right Stuff L Bracket
- Mindshift Backlight 18L Camera Backpack
- Luxli Viola LED light with
Most times when you leave for Milky Way Photography, the only thing you truly are thinking about is “Will I get skunked with clouds?” But once you are there at the tripod and the stars are begging for you to capture their image you go into a mode of instinct and giddy focus.
You earn instinct through going out over and over to capture the Milky Way in many different conditions. The giddiness never goes away. That focus you have is “experience,” reminding you that you best hurry because who knows when the clouds will come back. On too many previous outings, you took your time, and the astronomical twilight started to seep into the horizon and started blowing out the detail of the Milky Way.
This early morning image from Island in the Sky in Canyonlands National Park was meant to be an exploratory trip. To practice shooting from a spot we had scheduled for our NightScaper Conference 1-Night Workshop.
It turned out to be the perfect combination of quality exposure & quality composition that not only makes it my favorite image of 2019 but my favorite Milky Way Image of all time!
What Went Right
Three things went right to make this image what it is, and the first one has nothing to do with photography techniques… sort of.
- An optimistic patient willingness to wait for clouds to leave
- Long exposure foreground blended seamlessly into the sky exposure
- Composition complemented the Milky Way way featuring the brilliant Canyonlands
When we arrived, the sky was covered in a big blanket of clouds that, while it didn’t cover the entire sky, managed to hang on top of the eastern sky blocking the Milky Way for hours. In the video above, you will see a section where we left our mics recording and sat there in the vehicle waiting nearly two hours for the clouds to stop forming and clinging to the sky, where the Milky Way was.
Long Exposure Foreground Blended Perfectly with Sky Exposure
If you have tried to blend a longer exposure foreground with your sky shot, you have probably experienced that annoying moment when your two exposures are so different it looks like the abrupt end of a tinted window.
Dark sky meets crazy clear and bright foreground.
No amount of blending a gradient transition between the two ever looks good. So you might have – like I have had for two years – sworn off long exposure foregrounds as something you don’t like because you always had to darken the foreground in post-processing, and it took hours to keep it from looking unnatural and it more often than not STILL looked unnatural.
Well, by some stroke of luck and most likely due to the nature of the foreground subject, a minute-long exposure, even at the high ISO of 8000, STILL looked completely dim to my night sky!
The best part was that the exposure of the foreground progressively got dimmer where it needed to at the horizon because I was shooting off a cliff!
Shooting off that cliff was indeed perfect for naturally transitioning to a darker exposure in a way that made blending the sky and the distant foreground a piece of cake! Most experiences have a mid-ground subject that doesn’t naturally go dark being so close, so you have to force a transition as it moves up to the horizon where the sky is crazy dark.
Thank goodness for luck sometimes! An experience like that teaches you what you didn’t quite understand in other situations and now informs my composition decision making when trying a long exposure foreground. I look forward to practicing that in 2020!
Composition Between Foreground & Sky Complement Each Other
We always try and make our compositions better, but sometimes we have a large area we are going to cover in a panorama, and we don’t plot out the perfect controlled pano, stitch around what the foreground is doing versus the sky. We are just trying to capture the entire Milky Way in a panorama, and we already believe the front elements will look cool under it.
In this image, the foreground was a cliff edge. When looking out directly east in the middle of my panorama capture, the cliff was close up and a straight line. But as it moved to the right and left, it curved and created a spoon shape. That opened up brilliantly so that the cool and interesting Canyonlands “dinosaur footprint” shaped chasms were visible!
Did I plan it to look this way? NOPE! I got lucky!
But there is no offense or lack of pride in getting lucky! I captured the Milky Way with a solid camera exposure and went through the effort of doing a 9-image or so panorama of the foreground at a minute a piece to get the foreground looking visible. The fact that it turned out even better than that is luck, but my being there, my techniques and my patience to wait for the moment are all the things I feel great pride for!
What Went Wrong
Hmmm, practically nothing went wrong, which is what it takes for an image to be your honestly favorite image of all time. But if there were any devil’s advocate approach I can use with this image, it is that the combination of temperature, my exposure settings, and my post-processing left this image very purple.
Why is it so purple?
The exact white balance setting I settled on for this image is 3690K, which is way more blue than any of my other shots. Having chosen this bluer,
I have already reworked the sky panorama with a more typical Aaron King color choice of 4121K. It looks really good. I am looking forward to finishing the image and seeing how much better it looks when pieced together with the foreground.
I will be submitting this image to the 2020 Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition and I highly recommend you guys find your best 10 Images of 2019 and submit them too!
Portrait of Brendon Porter
In early 2019, I discovered Richard Tatti’s Nightscape Images YouTube channel. Richard heads out into the Australian countryside and finds an array of old cars, abandoned farm equipment, and buildings and then photographs them with the Milky Way. If you’ve not discovered his channel yet, make sure you check it out.
One of his videos, Single Shot Milky Way Portraits, discussed taking portraits under the starry skies. In it, Richard talks about going beyond the night sky selfie that is so prevalent in today’s social media and making outright portraits of your friends. He showed several images of groups of people, while out photographing the Milky Way, stepping into the frame to include themselves into the photo. All shot with off-camera flash and long exposures, it followed traditional portrait lighting techniques. While looking great, hauling the strobes needed into the field is not something I want to do.
And while setting up for a group photo is a great way to record your night’s adventures with some friends, it’s what followed that got me thinking. He showed how he took single-shot images of people, using little more than the glow from their camera’s LCD. The light from the display screen, when placed only a couple of feet from the people’s faces, looked beautiful.
I’m not much of a portrait photographer. But I was intrigued by that idea. Richard’s examples capture one aspect of what I feel and see when I’m out photographing the Milky Way with friends. His photos capture just how my friends look when we are out in a dark location and set up our cameras. There’s such a natural look to the images.
Putting the Idea into Action
My first big Milky Way outing in 2019 was at the Nightscaper Conference in Moab. (I know, I should get more!) While assisting Aaron King and Brendon Porter at a Photog Adventures workshop, I noticed Brendon had set up on a little ridge next to me. After the participants were set up and taking their photos, I repositioned my camera. He was looking into the distance, with the light of his LCD illuminating his face. “Ah-ha,” I thought to myself, “that’s it!” I grabbed my camera and set it down by Brendon. I asked him if he minded if I took a photo of him, he agreed, so I set about putting my camera where I wanted it.
When I had the framing set, I told Brendon to place near hand on the camera, so he could brace his body my holding the camera. I then asked him to put his far hand on his camera with his finger on the power switch.
Next, I had him look up at the red rock ridge we were there to photograph. That put his gaze inline with the angle of his lens. Because of my lower position, his arms mimicked the legs of his tripod, and the line of his shoulders. With the canyon country scene and the stars behind him, it made a beautiful composition.
OK – Hold Still!
Now that I had Brendon positioned for the photo, It was time to dial in the settings. Using my Sony a7III, I had a Sony 24mm f/1.4 GM that I had rented from LenRentals.com. I normally shoot at 3200 ISO, but for this image, I bumped it up to 6400. The Sony 24mm GM has a reputation for rendering out of focus stars as beautiful circles when shot wide open. So I wanted to use it at its maximum aperture of f/1.4.
The 500 Rule for a 24mm lens gives a maximum exposure time of 21 seconds. The default setting in the PhotoPills NPF Rule calculator suggested 12.5 seconds. Splitting the difference, I set the shutter speed to 15.0 seconds, which gave nearly round stars. I wanted to have a longer shutter speed to get a good exposure on the background, but not so long that Brendon couldn’t hold reasonably still.
Next, I focused on his eye by using the Focus Magnify function on my a7III. I have it programmed to my C2 button, so it’s right next to my shutter release. It can zoom in 11.7 times, which was more than enough to get good focus.
At 15 seconds, the background looked good. But Brendon’s face was over-exposed from the LCD light. We tried a shot where I counted to eight, and then he flipped off the camera by moving just his finger, all the while holding as still as possible. That was still too much exposure on his face.
I had Brendon tip his head forward a little. That tilted his face more towards the camera, but still maintaining that “concentrating on the distant subject” look. Once more, I checked the focus on his eye. I tried another shot with the LCD on for four seconds, and that just right!
What Went Right
The serendipity of noticing Brendon was the first thing that went right. I don’t think I would have set up this shot if I had not been right there next to him. From start to finish, it took just over five minutes to take the photo. I took only three shots during the entire process.
Preparing mentally for the opportunity to take the photo. I had watched Richard Tatti’s video several times, paying attention to every word said! On the way to the conference, I had intended to get a photo of each of my friends while there. I wanted “found” compositions, and not staged. So I was on the look for suitable situations. Unfortunately, Brendon was the only one I did.
I had the right gear to get the shot. A fast lens certainly helped! That Sony 24mm f/1.4 GM lived up to its reputation of making beautiful, round stars. There’s a little clipping in the corners, where the aperture is starting to get clipped. I ended up cropping in a bit, so they are not that apparent. Stopping down a half a stop would have helped with that.
What Went Wrong
I think getting a little closer to Brendon would have made a better shot. I had to crop it a bit to get this framing. It’s probably equivalent to a 28mm or 35mm lens with the crop.
I’m not happy with the placement of the rimrock right behind Brendon’s head. That’s where moving in closer could have helped. After stepping forward a little, I would have raised the camera a bit to keep his close arm from obscuring his face. The trade-off is his near hand would have enlarged and looked out of proportion to his head.
I’m super thrilled with this image. It’s a beautiful photo of my friend. I plan on doing more shots like this as the opportunity arises in the future!
- Sony a7III
- Sony E-mount FE 24mm f/1.4 GM
- Feisol Tournament CT-3342 3_section Rapid Carbon Tripod
- Benro 3-Way Geared Head (GD3WH)
Tell Us About Your Favorite 2019 Photos
Do you have a favorite 2019 photo you took? Tell us your story!