Rather than boring you with all of my favorite night photographs taken during 2016, I have combined them all into one image.
The Sony A7Rii has proven itself to be quite popular in the field of night and astro-landscape photography, in part due to its excellent low light performance and high resolution 42 megapixel full frame sensor. But the camera has earned a fair share of criticism for its confusing and unwieldy menu structure. With hundreds of menu choices scattered among six top-level menu tabs and dozens of sub-menu pages, it can be a daunting task to find the specific settings you want to change. Making changes quickly is nearly impossible by simply wading through the cumbersome menu structure. Sony provides four methods to help overcome this problem:
- The Quick Navigation Menu (invoked with the [DISP] Button)
- The Function Menu (invoked with the [Fn] Button)
- Custom User Modes  and  on the Shooting Mode dial
- Custom Key assignments
Of the four methods listed above, the one most effective in simplifying use of the Sony A7Rii is item 4, Custom Key assignments. Unfortunately, many A7Rii owners do not take full advantage of the flexibility and speed the Custom Key settings can provide.
In this post I will share my Sony A7Rii system settings and Custom Key assignments, along with the reasoning behind my choices. Because the majority of my photography occurs at night, I have chosen to optimize the Sony A7Rii settings for night imaging, while still allowing easy access to camera features I find important for daytime photography.
Quick Navigation Screen
Sony includes the ability to cycle the [DISP] button to a Quick Navigation screen, shown above. From here you can access and adjust several shooting parameters, however you cannot select what predetermined settings appear on the screen. Sony has made that decision for you, and further, the task of adjusting settings via the Quick Navigation screen are neither intuitive nor easily accomplished. A touchscreen LCD would make this feature extraordinary, but as it stands today, it is not very useful and I rarely use it.
[Fn] Function Menu
Sony also includes a Function Menu, where you can place twelve settings on a screen that appears at the press of the [Fn] button. The functions that can be placed in each of the twelve available slots is quite limited, however. It is a step in the right direction, but not an optimal solution regarding ease of use. I find the Function Menu to be a good location to place functions I use frequently in daytime photography, while reserving the Custom Key assignments for those functions I use most often at night.
Customized User Memory Banks on Mode Dial
Another feature Sony included in the A7Rii is a programmable User Mode  and User Mode  on the Shooting Mode dial. There are four additional user memory banks, called [M1], [M2], [M3] and [M4] available for each User Mode  and User Mode , making ten memory banks available to the photographer in all. It sounds good on paper and spec sheets, but the implementation by Sony leaves much to be desired. The User Memory Mode has so many limitations that I find it impractical to use.
First, only a small number of menu parameters can be saved, namely, those that occur in the Camera Settings Tab. If you want to save parameters from the Custom Settings Tab or the Setup Tab however, you are out of luck. The net result is that you can never bring the camera to an exact “known” state by using the User Memory Modes. This pretty much defeats the purpose of custom User Memory Modes, in my opinion.
Second, for some strange reason, Sony decided that the [M1] through [M4] Memory settings should be stored on the SD card, which means all the custom settings you assigned to these memory locations disappear each time you format the SD card. Compared to my Panasonic GH4 for instance, which saves the entire camera state into user memory for instant recall, the Sony system has proven itself ineffective for my needs. The main issue I have is that one can never be sure that all camera settings are as expected when switching to a User Memory bank.
Custom Key Settings To The Rescue
One way to cope with the clumsy menu interface, limited Quick Access Menus, and a useless User Memory system is to assign the most commonly used settings to Custom Keys on the camera body. This is the approach I have taken, and it is one feature of the Sony A7Rii that simplifies and speeds up camera usage considerably.
It makes sense that a photographer would assign the most frequently used settings to Custom Keys and make menu selections appropriate for the type of imaging the camera is used for. Since I shoot primarily at night, I tailored my Custom Keys to fit my camera usage. The button assignments and menu settings I have arranged over the past two years reflect my usage of the Sony A7Rii, which is my night photography workhorse. While your assignments and settings will probably differ from mine based on your photographic requirements, I am sharing my settings, along with comments, so you can see the thinking behind my choices, and perhaps tweak my suggestions to suit your particular photographic needs. Before jumping into the Custom Key and Menu settings, let’s start with three important issues – back button focusing, power saving and Bright Monitoring, because all three of these issues directly relate to your Custom Key settings.
Back Button Focus
The auto focus system on most digital cameras is activated by default with a half-press of the shutter button. Back button focus reassigns the auto focusing initiation to a button or function key on the rear of the camera body, instead of the usual half-press of the shutter. The benefit of using back button focus are discussed at length here and here. While I do not use auto focus for my night photography, I use it frequently in daylight shooting, so I have set up my Custom Keys and menu choices to implement back button focus.
A major complaint photographers share regarding the performance of the Sony A7Rii is short battery life compared to Canon or Nikon DSLRs. Mirrorless systems are shrinking the size of the camera body, and with that comes smaller batteries with less capacity than their DSLR siblings. Additionally, the power hungry Electronic Viewfinders (EVF) in mirrorless systems are a source of power usage that DSLRs do not experience, since they are equipped with optical viewfinders.
I have mitigated the battery life issue in two ways. First, I added a battery grip to the Sony A7Rii, which instantly doubles the battery life. Second, much of the Sony A7Rii power drain photographers have been experiencing comes from menu settings that have been made without regard to energy usage. By making intelligent choices about camera settings that affect power consumption, the A7Rii owner can influence battery life significantly. For example, by changing the default settings for the LCD monitor and EVF behaviors, the battery life of the A7Rii can be extended dramatically.
The default behaviors of the finder (EVF) and monitor (LCD) on the Sony A7Rii presents a potential for rapid energy depletion if not carefully managed. In default mode the LCD is powered on and the EVF is off. When the photographer looks into the EVF, a sensor detects the proximity of the eye (or any other object) and turns off the LCD and turns on the EVF. The LCD will come back on and the EVF will shut off when the eye is taken away from the EVF eyepiece. After a predetermined interval of inactivity, the camera will go into power saving mode and shut down both the LCD and EVF.
Under most circumstances this system works well. The problem relating to energy consumption occurs when the eyepiece sensor detects the proximity of something other than the photographer’s eye, and switches to EVF ON mode. This can happen, for instance, by forgetting to switch off the power before placing the camera into the camera bag. The sensor detects the camera bag, and in response, powers ON the EVF. Because the camera bag is continually detected by the eyepiece sensor, the power saving feature of the Sony A7Rii never switches the EVF off, thereby draining the battery rapidly. Another common scenario for this system to go awry is when the camera is carried by a neckstrap or chest harness. The eyepiece sensor will continually detect the proximity of the photographer’s body, and the camera will not go into power saving mode, resulting in rapid battery drainage.
Another power drainage issue with the Sony A7Rii results from the default behavior of the LCD/EVF during camera usage. While the camera is in use, the default settings result in the LCD being on. Night photography often requires very long single exposures, or a large number of consecutive time-lapse exposures. With default settings, the LCD monitor remains powered on for the duration of the exposure(s). Both of these problems can be overcome with the settings I describe.
The Custom Key assignments and Menu Settings I recommend will result in the following LCD/EVF behavior. First, the automated eyepiece sensor switching is disabled during LCD use, so that the photographer makes the choice of which display to use. The camera will default to using the LCD monitor, and the camera will switch off the LCD after the power saving interval has elapsed. Pressing the [Down] Button toggles between the LCD and EVF. When the EVF is selected, the EVF will only turn on when the eye is in proximity to the eyepiece. So when the camera is idle, there is no power being utilized by the display system at all. This results in large energy savings during the course of a night.
Second, these settings now allow us to shut both the LCD and EVF off during long exposures or multiple time-lapse exposures. This results in tremendous energy savings during these types of exposures.
One more important setting that affects power usage is the Remote Control menu setting. This setting activates the IR sensor on the front of the camera, which will always be “looking” for an IR signal. As a result, the camera never goes into power saving mode when Remote Control is set to ON.
The specific settings required to achieve these battery saving objectives will be described in the relevant Menu settings and Custom Key assignments later on in this post.
Bright Monitoring is one of the most important yet overlooked and/or misunderstood features of the Sony A7Rii for night photography. Perhaps this is because it does not even appear anywhere within the massive Sony menu system, and is covered by a mere sentence or two buried deep in the Sony A7Rii User Manual. In fact, the Bright Monitoring function is usually found by Sony owners by word of mouth, or by stumbling upon the function while assigning Custom Keys. Two highly respected guidebooks I own for the Sony A7Rii do not even mention Bright Monitoring at all! Here is what Sony has to say about Bright Monitoring, which sheds little light on what Bright Monitoring actually does, and when you should use it:
What exactly is Bright Monitoring? The name might suggest that Bright Monitoring simply boosts the brightness setting of the display, but this is incorrect. Bright Monitoring actually over-samples the usual Live View display, but at a much slower refresh rate. When Bright Monitoring is used in dark conditions (as in night photography), the display builds up the brightness of the image displayed on the screen by accumulating photons over a longer period of time than usual, offering a Live View image that seems to “see in the dark”. Bright Monitoring is highly effective for composing the image in a dark environment. Many night photographers are citing Bright Monitoring as a valuable feature that soon becomes indispensable in their work. By including Bright Monitoring as a Custom Key assignment (which is the ONLY way it can be accessed), a very important night photography composition aid can be unlocked on the Sony A7Rii camera.
My Custom Key Settings For Night Photography
The Custom Key Settings can be assigned by navigating to Tab 2 (Custom Settings), Page 7 in the Sony Menu system. The Custom Key Settings are subdivided into Page 1 and Page 2. Here are my Custom Key assignments, with explanatory remarks.
Custom Key Settings – Page 1
Control Wheel – Not Set
I do not customize the Control Wheel at all. I have found that it is easy to change settings by accident when the Control Wheel is inadvertently touched while using the camera in a dark environment, so I leave the default setting of the Control Wheel alone.
Custom Button 1 [C1] – SteadyShot
Although most of my photography is accomplished using a tripod, where using In-Body Image Stabilization [SteadyShot] can actually degrade an exposure, I still want to be able to shoot off-tripod quickly, without having to wade through menus to turn SteadyShot on or off. By assigning this fuction to [C1], I can immediately access the SteadyShot feature of the A7Rii.
Custom Button 2 [C2] – AF/MF Ctrl Toggle
For night photography I always use manual focus mode, but in daytime I switch between auto and manual focus often. Simply pressing [C2] instantly toggles between auto and manual focus.
Custom Button 3 [C3] – Focus Magnifier
An important skill in night photography is the ability to achieve sharp focus while operating in a dark environment. Precision focusing is aided by the ability to quickly magnify any portion of the composition to visually adjust focus. Assigning the Focus Magnifier function to the [C3] button allows the me to zoom in on the image at 5X or 12.5X magnification, which greatly simplifies the task of attaining sharp focus.
Custom Button 4 [C4] – Application List
Sony has incorporated an API (Application Program Interface) into firmware on the A7Rii, which gives third-party developers some limited abilities to create apps that can be purchased and installed into the camera system. While I am excited about the potential of after-market apps, the implementation of the idea by Sony has been a disappointment. While some apps are better than others, I have generally found them to be of limited use. My hope is that the poor initial implementation of downloadable apps by Sony does not kill this wonderful concept before it has a chance to mature. Having said that, I do use the Sony Play Memories Remote Camera Control app often. Controlling the camera via WiFi and reviewing the images immediately after capture on a large, bright tablet device is a powerful tool that I turn to intermittently during a night of shooting. By assigning the Application List to the [C4] button, I can easily switch to using my tablet device for camera control.
Center Button – Standard
The button in the middle of the control wheel is called the Center Button. I generally leave it unassigned, but use it occasionally when I would like to temporarily assign functions to a button for aiding in special projects or techniques.
Custom Key Settings – Page 2
Left Button – Drive Mode
I change Drive Modes frequently during the course of the night, and since the camera body is labeled with a Drive Mode symbol next to the Left Button, I leave the default setting as is.
Right Button – ISO
I change the ISO frequently during the course of the night, and since the camera body is labeled “ISO” next to the Right Button, I leave the default setting as is.
Down Button – Finder/Monitor Select
By assigning Finder/Monitor Select to the [Down] Button, I can control which display I want to use, based on my needs at the moment.
AEL Button (switch in DOWN position) – Bright Monitoring
Refer to Bright Monitoring previously discussed for the details of Bright Monitoring.
AF/MF Button (switch in UP position) – AF On
See the previous discussion of Back Button Focusing. This button is perfectly situated to press for auto focus, either while the camera is hand-held or when it is perched on a tripod.
Focus Hold Button – Not Set
The Focus Hold Button is found only on specific lenses, none of which I own.
The menu structure used in the Sony A7Rii consists of six top-level menu tabs, with each tab containing numerous sub-pages. The top-level tabs are:
- Camera Settings
- Custom Settings
Under each top-level tab are up to 9 sub-pages of menu choices. In describing my selections, I will use the form [2-5] for instance, which designates Tab 2 (Custom Settings) – Page 5. I have included only those menu settings that have a direct affect on night photography.
Tab 1 – Camera Settings
[1-1] Quality – RAW
My color-managed workflow philosophy is simple – (1) capture as much useful data as possible in the field, at the highest resolution, greatest bit-depth and broadest color space offered by my equipment; (2) maintain the quality of this image data throughout the editing and printing process; (3) make my own decisions regarding image quality, color temperature, sharpness, etc. and not hand this over to a jpeg algorithm concocted by my camera’s manufacturer. Shooting in RAW is necessary to achieve this goal.
[1-5] White Balance – C.Temp – 3900ºK
Many photographers use [Auto White Balance] for normal daytime shooting, and are tempted to keep this setting for night photography as well. Although shooting RAW image files allows you to alter the white balance of an image in post-processing, there are advantages to designating a specific color temperature in camera at the time of capture, rather than changing it later in post-processing. The image displayed by the LCD monitor or EVF screen is actually a jpeg representation of the RAW sensor data, which uses the white balance setting to derive the jpeg image. By setting the color temperature in camera close to that which actually exists in the scene, the monitor image will more closely resemble the actual scene. Another reason to set a specific color temperature is so the initial image previews generated by the RAW processing software (Lightroom, ACR, etc.) closely match what existed in the scene, since the previews are also jpeg representations of the RAW data, as modified by the white balance set in camera. I set my white balance to 3900ºK for astro-landscape photographs, because I have found it consistently produces a sky color pleasing to my eye. For urban nightscapes, I will usually set the color temperature to 2700ºK if sodium vapor fixtures provide the predominant ambient light.
[1-5] RAW File Type – Uncompressed
The Sony A7Rii was originally introduced with only one RAW file type – 12-bit compressed RAW files. The compression algorithm Sony implemented is a “lossy” compression scheme, which means some of the RAW data gets thrown out with file compression.
With a Firmware 2.0 Update, Sony added an optional 14-bit uncompressed, “lossless” RAW file format. Why the change? It turns out the two-stage compression scheme used by Sony has a nasty side effect – problems with haloing and artifacts along high-contrast edges. While most photographs do not exhibit adverse effects from the compression algorithm, high-contrast edges are commonplace in night photography, and are seriously affected by Sony’s compression algorithm. Due to the outcry from the photographic community, Sony released the 14-bit uncompressed, lossless RAW file option in late 2015.
In a way, the inclusion of the 14-bit uncompressed RAW file type is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, the problem of compression artifacts has been eliminated, but at the cost of greatly increased file size:
- 12-bit compressed “lossy” RAW file – 40MB file size
- 14-bit uncompressed “lossless” RAW file – 80MB file size
The advantage of using the new, 14-bit uncompressed RAW format is tempered by the doubling of the RAW file size, which not only increases storage space requirements, but also the computational power required of the editing equipment in use, especially when considering that many astro-landscape techniques involve the layering of a large number of images within editing software.
There is a way to mitigate the problem of a doubled RAW file size, while still obtaining the benefits of a 14-bit uncompressed, lossless RAW file. It turns out that by converting the Sony 14-bit uncompressed RAW files into DNG format files on import into Lightroom, the resulting DNG files are half the size of the 14-bit uncompressed RAW files, so that we end up back at the 40MB per file. The compression algorithm used by Adobe in the 14-bit conversion is lossless, unlike the compression used by Sony for the 12-bit compressed RAW files. So by converting to DNG, we get the benefits of lossless compression and retention of all image data captured in the field.
- 14-bit uncompressed, lossless native RAW file – 80MB
- 14-bit compressed, lossless DNG file – 40MB
[1-5] Creative Style – Neutral
There are various Creative Style presets available on the Sony A7Rii including Standard, Vivid, Neutral, Portrait, Landscape, B&W, Clear, Deep, Light, Night, Autumn, Sepia and Sunset. Each allow further +/- tuning for Contrast, Saturation and Sharpness. The factory default setting is Standard, but I have switched to Neutral instead, and here is why.
The Creative Style setting is used by the camera in two ways; 1) to adjust the jpeg image seen on the LCD / EVF, and 2) process the jpeg file (if shooting jpeg). If capturing RAW images, the Creative Style setting will be written to the EXIF data, but ignored when creating the RAW image file. So if I am shooting RAW files, why do I care which Creative Style is set? Because the camera applies the Creative Style to the LCD and EVF displays. Because I use the Sony A7Rii primarily for astro-landscape photography, where focusing (and confirming focus) on pinpoint stars is both vital and difficult, I want every advantage I can get. I have found that critical focusing at night is easier and more accurate with the Creative Style set to Neutral rather than Standard, perhaps because the camera software is not trying to sharpen or add contrast to out-of-focus stars before displaying the image on the LCD / EVF.
[1-6] Long Exposure Noise Reduction (LENR) – Off
I rarely set LENR to On. Heat buildup on the image sensor during long exposures causes the creation of LE noise, more commonly known as “hot pixel” noise. LENR uses a process called dark frame subtraction to remove hot pixel noise from a long exposure image, and while effective, it introduces limitations to the astro-landscape photographer.
Because the LENR process has the camera take a second shot of the scene, this time with the shutter closed, the camera is unavailable for use while the dark frame is taken and the image is processed. So a 30 minute exposure becomes 1 hour between shots, which is a lot of precious shooting time to sit by waiting for the camera to finish the LENR. Some of the techniques in use by astro-landscape photographers make the use of LENR impractical as well. To alleviate random (high ISO) noise from an image, many photographers have adopted a method of stacking up to a dozen sequential exposures, for the purpose of averaging out random, high ISO noise. Doubling the interval between each exposure increases the odds of failure in the stacking and aligning process. The successful stitching of panoramas can also be affected by the movement of the stars when there is a lengthy delay between shooting each panel of the panorama.
The good news is that there are great, simple methods of eliminating hot pixel noise from images in post processing, so there is really no need to use in-camera LENR.
[1-8] SteadyShot – Off
SteadyShot (Sony’s term for image stabilization) is designed for hand-held camera use, and may actually introduce image softness when active while shooting from a tripod. Since all my night photography is tripod based, I set SteadyShot to Off. To make it easy to quickly switch from hand-held to tripod use, I have assigned SteadyShot to Custom Button [C1]
[1-8] Color Space – Adobe RGB
My philosophy has been to capture the maximum amount of useful data my equipment is capable of, and maintain the quality of that data throughout my workflow whenever possible. The Adobe RGB Color Space is the widest gamut available with the Sony A7Rii, so that is my preferred choice. The wider gamut can always be rendered to a narrower gamut, such as sRGB as necessary later on.
Tab 2 – Custom Settings
[2-1] Zebra – 100+
The Zebra Pattern is a visual highlights warning system that shows a zebra stripe pattern on portions of an image that are exposed to the percentage specified in this menu option. The selection of 100+ means that the Zebra Pattern will overlay any overexposed portion of the image. It serves the same function as “blinkies” do in image review, but is active in the display prior to taking the exposure. It is a valuable tool used to identify exactly where clipping will take place. The histogram shows whether highlight clipping is occurring somewhere in the image, but highlight clipping is expected and desirable in some instances, such as in street lamps. Zebra Patterns help the photographer see where the clipping occurs in an image, and to make appropriate adjustments if necessary.
[2-1] Manual Focus Assist – Off
When Manual Focus Assist is set to ON (by default), whenever you turn the focus ring the image in the display is magnified 5x, to aid in precision focusing. At first glance this might seem useful, but in night photography it is not. When focusing at night I like to zoom in to maximum magnification (12.5X) at some exact spot in the frame. It is easier to start with the entire image on display and move the focus box to the desired position, then magnify, than it is to magnify first and try to scroll around hunting for the desired spot within the image. That is why I set Manual Focus Assist to Off.
[2-2] Auto Review – Off
I leave Auto Review off because much of my night photography involves taking many exposures in quick succession, either for image stacking, star circles, or stitched panoramas. In these scenarios, I do not want any delay between exposures. It is only a matter of pressing one button to review the image, so there is really no penalty for setting Auto Review to Off.
[2-2] Peaking Level – Low
I like to set the Peaking Level to Low to aid with focus. My primary use for focus peaking is with focus stacking situations, to visualize which zone is in focus at the moment.
[2-4] Finder/Monitor – Monitor (Manual)
See the previous section above regarding Power Saving. Setting this to Monitor (Manual), along with the assignment of Finder/Monitor Select to the [Down] Button, allows me to toggle the display from the LCD to EVF, or turn off the LCD during long or multiple exposures.
[2-4] Release Without Lens – Enable
Because some of the lenses I use are fully manual lenses, such as the Rokinon series of wide angle lenses, it is necessary to set Release Without Lens to Enable, otherwise the shutter of the Sony A7Rii will not operate.
[2-5] Auto Focus With Shutter – Off
I have implemented Back Button Focusing by setting [Auto Focus With Shutter] to Off here, and by assigning Auto Focus to the [AF/MF] Button in the Custom Keys Settings. See the previous section on Back Button Focusing for additional details.
[2-8] Movie Button – Movie Mode Only
When operating the camera controls by touch in the darkness of night, it is easy to press the red [Record] button on the side of the camera by mistake. Changing this to Movie Mode Only disables the [Record] button unless the Mode Dial is specifically turned Movie Mode.
Tab 6 – Setup
[6-1] Monitor Brightness – Manual (-)2
I turn the LCD Monitor Brightness to the lowest setting for three reasons. The monitor will more closely resemble what the camera will record, the monitor will consume less power, and the glow from the LCD is less distracting to those photographing near you. Lower LCD brightness might also help retain night vision, but I have not seen evidence of this from any other sources, so just call it a hunch of mine.
[6-1] Viewfinder Brightness – Manual 0
For the most part, I only use the EVF at night for critical focus, and for that purpose I want a bright display, but not blindingly so. The default setting of 0 seems to be ideal for night focusing with the EVF.
[6-2] Display Quality – High
Until some trusted source can provide me with a valid reason to set the Display Quality to Standard rather than High, I see no reason to accept anything less than the highest quality available in the Sony A7Rii.
[6-2] Power Save Start Time – 2 Min
I find that 2 minutes of idle time before the Power Saver kicks in is a good compromise between power savings on the one hand, and the convenience of the display remaining on for a usable duration on the other.
[6-3] Remote Control – Off
I use a wireless remote/intervalometer or WiFi connected Remote Control App to operate the camera, and therefore never have a need to use the IR Remote Trigger provided by Sony. I leave the Remote Control setting Off. Be aware that if you set Remote Control to On, the camera will not enter Power Saving mode, and your battery will drain quickly. Only set the Remote Control to On for the duration you intend to use the IR Remote, and turn it back Off afterward.
[6-4] USB Connection – PC Remote
I have discovered through trial and error that keeping the default USB Connection setting on Auto can lead to intermittent misoperation of several popular brands of intervalometers. Apparently, the multi-functional USB port provided on the Sony A7Rii can sometimes get confused when in Auto mode. The quick fix is to just set the USB Connection type to PC Remote, and the problem seems to disappear.
The Sony A7Rii is a powerful camera for night imaging that continues to grow in popularity among night photographers, yet many are unaware of the significant impact various camera setup parameters have on their usage of the camera at night. I have encountered owners of Sony A7 Series cameras who have shied away from customizing the various buttons and screens of the camera, particularly in the field of night photography. I wanted to share this post so you could see how I tailored the Sony A7Rii to my usage preferences, so that you might start thinking about how you could customize your own camera to reflect your usage habits.
Please feel free to comment with any tips and tricks you may know regarding the setup and configuration of the Sony A7Rii. Much of what I have learned has come from paying attention to lessons others have generously shared along the way.
One of the things I find most interesting in my pursuit of nocturnal photographs is the challenge of incorporating varied light sources into a final, cohesive image. The image above, taken from the Jackson Lake turnout in Grand Teton National Park, is a blended image consisting of two exposures. The first exposure is a single capture of the Milky Way with the roadside trees lit using stationary low-level lighting (LLL). The second exposure (taken without altering the camera location) was the light trail caused by an RV passing on the road, which I blended into the first exposure to create the final image.
The issue of low-level lighting has recently come up in regards to the recent change in policy within Arches and Canyonlands National Parks towards night photography workshops in general, and light painting in particular. Royce Bair has a post explaining the issue thoroughly in his excellent blog, Into The Night Photography. While these issues are being sorted out by the affected parties, I thought it would be useful for those not familiar with low-level landscape lighting to see what it is, and how it can be used.
What Is Low-Level Lighting?
A common goal for astro-landscape photographers is to create an image that combines the beauty of the Milky Way with an interesting foreground subject. To capture an intense, dramatic Milky Way, one usually tries to find geographic locations away from sources of light-pollution, and typically around the time of the new moon. A proper exposure for the Milky Way under these conditions usually produces an image with a silhouetted foreground, as shown here:
What we want is a way to illuminate the foreground in a Milky Way image, to add interest, context and scale to the photograph. This can be accomplished in several ways, one of which is through the use of low-level lighting.
Low-level landscape lighting can be thought of as a foreground illumination technique that attempts to properly expose the foreground while the Milky Way is being photographed, using a dim, stationary, artificial light source that is kept on for the entire duration of the exposure. For those interested, a new informative website devoted entirely to the topic is lowlevellighting.org.
Here is an example of one such light source that I use. It is a knock-off version of the F&V HDV-Z96 LED Light Panel. I have been using three of them without problem for two years. Included with the panel is a clear diffuser and 3200K warming filter. The filters pop on and off easily with embedded magnets. While the specs claim the panel uses 800 LX @ 1-meter Super Bright LEDs, I always use them at their lowest power setting, with both filters attached. Even at that, I usually have to move the lights much further back from the subject than where I initially placed them, in order to balance the light intensity with the exposure required for the Milky Way.
Here is a test exposure I made when setting up the light panels for the image that headed up this post. While the lights may look bright in this image, this shot was taken at ISO6400 for 15 seconds. To my naked eye, the added lighting was barely perceptible. Notice in the test shot above light has “spilled” down onto the roadway below the LED panels. Knowing this would become an editing problem later on, I decided to walk back down the road and fit each of my three LED light panels with a DIY barn door to block the spill.
By sliding a piece of black foam core board between the LED light and the tripod, I created a barn door that allows me to cut out spill from the bottom of the panel.
There are three ways to power this particular LED panel. There is a receptacle for a 12V power source, which I have no need for. I power my LED panels with these NPF970 Camcorder batteries, which usually allow me to utilize the lights for many long night sessions without having to bother with recharging.
To save on space or weight, one can simply choose to use AA batteries instead of the camcorder style battery, at the expense of battery life.
Low-Level Lighting Is Not the Only Way to Illuminate the Foreground
Foreground Lit Only By The Moon
Low-level lighting is one way to illuminate the foreground, but not the only way, by any means. A great way to bring the foreground into prominence is to use moonlight to light the scene. This image was taken overlooking the Bodie Ghost Town in the eastern Sierra of California. It was taken near the full moon, just as the moon was rising and beginning to cause the Milky Way to fade in intensity. In this case, the only artificial lights are the random fixtures located throughout the town.
Foreground Lit Exclusively By Flashlight
This image could be considered the exact opposite of LLL. A powerful hand-held flashlight was used Instead of a low-level LED light panel. Rather than using a low intensity light for a long duration, this image uses a high intensity hand-held flashlight to paint the scene, but only for a brief portion of the exposure. This gives the photographer the ability to create a high-contrast and visually textured image. The effect creates a totally different mood than the somewhat flat, low-contrast light produced with the LLL technique.
Foreground Lit Exclusively By Vehicle Headlights
Another way to light the foreground, and a technique I find exciting, is to use the headlights of random passing motorists to provide the lighting that brings the image to life. When I hear other photographers grumble about passing automobile headlights ruining their images, I begin looking for a way to capitalize on the situation. Many “happy accidents” in night photography are not accidents at all, but merely the by-product of a perseverant photographer. In the image above, when I realized that the deluge of passing automobiles would not abate for hours, I simply found a composition where the vehicle headlights would enhanced the image, rather than degrade it.
Foreground Lit With A Combination Of Moonlight and Flashlight
The image above shows the result of combining a just rising moon with a bit of hand-held light painting with a flashlight.. While the exposure settings of the camera were set with the background Milky Way in mind, the foreground was painted by a brief use of the flashlight, while the midground was illuminated by the just rising moon.
Foreground Lit With A Combination of Low Level LED Panel And Flashlight
The image of the abandoned farmhouse and Milky Way above uses a LED light panel to provide a uniform low-level light for the farmhouse, balancing the exposure with that required for the Milky Way. As an addition however, to add interest and texture to the image, I used a high powered flashlight briefly during the exposure from off-camera right to add texture and depth to the grass.
Foreground Lit With Combination Of Vehicle Headlights and Flashlight
And finally, this image shows an exposure optimized for the Milky Way, with the use of automobile headlights to illuminate the bluff on the other side of the highway. A hand-held flashlight was used to add texture to the grass in the foreground.
Low-level lighting is a valuable tool in the arsenal of the night photographer. With changes to light painting policy that might be coming to public lands, it may become increasingly important to become proficient in various forms of nighttime landscape illumination.
In future posts I will expand on the pluses and minuses of various astro-landscape lighting techniques, and see how they each fit into a future where light painting may be severely or completely restricted in our National Parks. In the meanwhile, you now know what the concept of low-level lighting is, and can go from there.
This is my image editing workstation. Unlike many photographers, I relish the hours spent in my digital darkroom, perhaps as much as I enjoy the hours spent capturing the RAW data that provides the basis for my final images. In examining my workstation, you might be tempted to ask “why four monitors?” Because I couldn’t fit six on the tables!
Being a photographer as well as a blogger, I often encounter days where I am editing images for a blog post in Lightroom and/or Photoshop, writing the blog post in Wordpress, and researching the content of the post on the Internet, all simultaneously. With plenty of screen real estate, it’s fun and efficient to be a multi-tasker, but it can become a headache trying to manage multiple monitors without becoming a monitor “monitor”. This is where the ShuttlePRO v2 shines with Lightroom. Additionally, moving between Lightroom and Photoshop can be annoying, in that many common functions are invoked in different ways or with different keystroke combinations, depending on which program you are using at the moment, a situation that can be remedied with the proper use of the ShuttlePRO. I will expand on these ideas later in this post.
The ShuttlePRO v2 by Contour Designs is the device sitting to the left of the keyboard. It is substantially larger than the mouse on the right, but since the ShuttlePRO is stationary it utilizes less of a footprint in use than the mouse.
As an aside, on the right side of the keyboard is a stylus for a Wacom Intuos Pro graphics tablet that I find myself using less and less in my image editing work. The nature of how I work with images in post-processing has changed so much over the years, and the software I use has evolved so much, that a graphics tablet impedes my workflow now, rather than aiding it. The necessity for me to have pinpoint drawing control today is nearly non-existant, as I use layer blending modes, luminosity masking, and blend-if functions, which are not helped much with the use of a graphics tablet. The abilities of the ShuttlePRO type device are much more suited to my editing style and the way I use my software.
Anyhow, back to the subject at hand, the ShuttlePRO v2. Here is a close up image of the device, so you can see what it is:
There are nine buttons across the top of the ShuttlePRO that are fitted with transparent key caps that pop on and off, so you can print custom labels for these buttons if you choose. There are four silver buttons towards the bottom of the ShuttlePRO, and in the center are two black buttons and two rotary dials. The center rotary dial rotates continuously in either direction, and the outer rotary dial is a spring-loaded jog/shuttle dial. All of the buttons and dials are assigned keystrokes or functions of your choice, so the device can be tailored to the specific commands and keystrokes that are useful for your own particular workflow.
The software driver that accompanies the ShuttlePRO v2 is well designed, easy to use and customize, and does a great job of simply making the device work as intended, without getting in the way of the creative process involved in editing photographs. The driver keeps track of which desktop window the cursor’s focus is located, and utilizes the button assignments associated with the program running in that particular window. For instance, when I am working in Lightroom the ShuttlePRO uses the button assignments I have created for LIghtroom, but the moment I move the cursor to a Photoshop window, the ShuttlePRO immediately changes to the button assignments I have created for Photoshop.
My ShuttlePRO v2 Configuration For Adobe Lightroom CC
Now that you know what the ShuttlePRO v2 is and what it looks like, I’ll show how I have tailored it to work within my Lightroom setup. One thing many users of Lightroom do not know is that Lightroom presents the photographer with two different user experiences, depending on whether it is being used on a single or dual monitor system. Lightroom utilizes a second monitor about as well as any software I have encountered, with many options available for either monitor at any given time. But getting the two monitors to display the information you want, in the format you desire can take many clicks of the mouse, in several locations on each screen, to achieve the desired results. Switching this around on the fly becomes cumbersome, so my first assignment for the ShutterPRO was to try and streamline and ease the use of the two display monitors.
I have assigned the top two rows of buttons on the ShuttlePRO to control the display modes of the two monitors, with the top row of buttons controlling the left monitor, and the second row of buttons controlling the right monitor.
The top row of button assignments are for the left monitor, which is where the main Lightroom operations take place. By assigning the top row buttons to [GRID], [LOUPE], [DEVELOP], and [PRINT], I can immediately jump to any of these modes from wherever I happen to be in the program at the moment. By assigning the second row buttons to the right monitor [GRID], [LOUPE], [COMPARE], and [SURVEY] modes, I can immediately switch the second monitor to the view that is most appropriate for the work I am doing at the moment. Each monitor can be set independently of each other, so you can make maximum use of each monitor for whatever task is at hand. The magnification of the image displayed on each monitor can be changed by rotating the jog/shuttle dial at any time. Sometimes I find the Filmstrip Panel useful, but mostly it just gets in my way. I have set the far-right button on the second row to [Show/Hide] the Filmstrip Panel, so it can instantly be accessed or dismissed as desired.
When editing an image, sometimes it is helpful to work on the image zoomed in to 1:1, 2:1 or even greater, while being able to see the editing results displayed on the second monitor with the image at normal size. Other times it is useful to do just the opposite – with each monitor now controlled at any time by the push of a dedicated button on the ShuttlePRO, adjusting what you want to see on each screen is just a button push away, As I have become accustomed to the button assignments and muscle-memory has taken hold, using the ShuttlePRO has become second nature. It is almost as if I just think about what I want each monitor to display, and it magically appears!
A very powerful feature of the ShuttlePRO is the way it handles all the adjustment sliders in Lightroom. There are various MIDI controllers on the market today that work in conjunction with Lightroom, such as the Behringer BCF2000. These MIDI controllers use either rotary dials or mechanical sliders to manipulate the slider controls within Lightroom. Some of these MIDI controllers have as many as 18 rotary dials for working in Lightroom. Controllers of that sort are unwieldy, expensive, and take up quite a bit of desktop real estate. Additionally, MIDI controllers require the use of additional controller interface software to work with your computer system.
The ShuttlePRO eliminates these problems by including the inner rotary dial on the device. Just hover the cursor over any Lightroom slider and rotate the inner dial – the slider in Lightroom will move either left or right, depending on the direction you rotate the dial on the ShutttlePRO. It couldn’t get much easier, and I find it much smoother to work in this fashion, rather than the mouse/slider combination I used to use in Lightroom, or using an expensive, unwieldy MIDI Controller device.
As I mentioned previously, I have set the spring loaded jog/shuttle wheel to control image zoom. At any time on either display, jogging the wheel to the right zooms in on the image, jogging to the left zooms out.
The two black buttons on either side of the center wheels have been assigned to [Undo] and [Redo], while two of the silver buttons on the bottom have been assigned to [Import] and [Export]. I have purposely left the very bottom two buttons unassigned. Because it is so easy to program the buttons on the fly, I use these bottom two buttons for special projects, where it is convenient to have dedicated buttons to perform tasks, but only on a temporary basis.
I mentioned in the opening of this post that the ShuttlePRO v2 could also address the problem of Lightroom and Photoshop having different ways of accessing the same functions. An example of this is changing brush sizes. In Lightroom I can instantly change the brush size by simply moving the scroll wheel on my mouse up or down. In Photoshop, however, the developers have decided that the scroll wheel should always increase/decrease image size, not brush size. Instead, one must use the bracket keys on the keyboard, or the drop-down brush palate along the top menu strip. This just drives me up the wall – why must Adobe use different methods to achieve the same result in these two programs? But with the use of the ShuttlePRO, problem solved! I simply programmed the Inner Dial of the ShuttlePRO to control the brush size, and now it is as simple to adjust my brush in Photoshop as it is in Lightroom.
I have been amazed at just how useful the ShuttlePRO v2 has become in my editing routines. I have fully incorporated it into my Lightroom workflow, and am just beginning to explore the best ways to utilize it’s capabilities for my Photoshop usage. After that, I will see how it might integrate with other software I use on a regular basis. When I have settled on my ShuttlePRO v2 button settings for Photoshop, I will share them here.
Many times products promise the moon, but fall far short in actual performance. I feel the ShuttlePRO v2 actually delivers. It has been quite a while since I have found a piece of hardware that has hooked me so quickly. Thanks, Contour Design!
Note: The author has no relationship with, nor receives any compensation from Contour Design.
It is often suggested that a complete light painting kit for night photography should include both incandescent and LED light sources due to the tremendous variation in color temperature between them. But what is equally important to understand is that LED bulbs have a great deal of variation within the LED technology itself. The image above shows the variation in color temperature between three Nitecore company products, each fitted with a different CREE LED bulb.
The shots above were all taken from the same distance, with the three lights adjusted to the same approximate output. All three images were taken within moments of each other, using the same flat-white foam core board and x-Rite color checker device.
The CREE XP-G2 Cool White (as used in the Nitecore EC-21) appears to be the coolest of the three bulbs, with a strong bluish tint. The CRI (Color Rendering Index) of the cool white version of the XP-G2 bulb is 70. A high CRI number is good – the higher the Index, the more accurate the bulb can render the colors. In this case, a CRI of 70 is not a particularly good score for color rendition (for a discussion of the significance of the CRI Index, see here).
The CREE XM-L2 Neutral White (as used in the Nitecore HC-90 Headlamp) moves away from the strong cool blue cast of the XP-G2, but shows an almost greenish tint to the subject. The CRI of the Neutral White version of the XM-L2 is 80, and while not great, is an improvement over the XP-G2 Cool White.
The CREE MT-G2 EasyWhite (as used in the Nitecore P36) is the warmest of all three bulbs compared here. With this bulb, the blue color cast entirely disappears, with the bulb casting a rich warmth to the subject. The CRI Index of this bulbs jumps up to 90, which is considered a very good score. For color rendering accuracy, this bulb outperforms the other two in this article.
There is more to a light than just a bulb, however. Each type of light functions differently, and has been designed for a specific purpose. This is why the major manufacturers each have such a dizzying array of products in their lineup, and why it can be baffling trying to determine which light might be best to purchase. In this regard, I will be reviewing these three LED lights, as well as other lighting equipment in the near future, pointing out those features I find important, and those that are not. I thought it would be helpful, however, to establish the difference in LED bulbs before starting the specific light reviews.
There are several techniques used to create this image, including a method of creating elliptical star paths that is easily accomplished from within Adobe Lightroom. I will walk you through the steps I used to create the image, leaving the elliptical star paths for last.
This is the initial test shot taken of the cemetery entrance monument. I used this shot to confirm sharp focus and to verify that the composition was what I desired. The hand held lighting was used here simply to aid in focusing the monument in the dark, especially helpful as this image was taken on a moonless night. Once focus and composition were confirmed, it was time to begin light painting the monument.
This first light painting exposure was used to create the overall color I wanted to impart to the photograph. This was illuminated using a hand-held LED flashligt with the addition of a red gel held in front of the light. The light was cast from the side, giving some dimension and texture to the monument. The side lighting helps prevent the flat, one-dimensional look that front lighting usually creates. The interior of the monument was lit with a small tea lamp. Because of the side lighting, you will notice a distracting shadow being cast on the right side of the alcove above.
I took another exposure, this time using my hand-held light as a fill-light to paint away the shadow on the right of the alcove. I was not concerned about over-exposing the alcove in this shot, because I was only going to be using the portion of this exposure that filled in the harsh shadow on the right side of the alcove.
To recap, to this point I had three exposures, one test shot, one light-painted exposure, and one fill-light exposure. Now I needed to burn in some star circles.
This is the exposure that was used to capture the star circles. This was a 1 hr@ISO200 exposure, which was enough time to capture star circles of the length I desired. There is no “right” or “wrong” length to star circles – whatever length works for your own artistic sensibilities is the length to use.
Now that I had captured all of the data out in the field that would be necessary to produce the final image, it was time to get creative in front of the computer. The first step was to stack all of the source images as layers in Photoshop. The second step was to blend my light-painted layers with the star-circle layer until I achieved the lighting I desired in the final image The third step is where the novel technique used to create elliptical star paths occurs.
The magic occurs by simply instructing Adobe Lightroom to apply a Lens Correction Profile it has no business using (under normal circumstances). In the case of this image, the lens actually used to record the images was a Rokinon 24mm f1.4. I experimented with various lens profiles, and settled on using the lens profile for a Nikon-Nikor 16mm Fisheye. You can see from the screen capture above, the application of this (incorrect) lens profile created distortion in the star paths – exactly the effect I wanted – with just 1 click!!!
Now I finished the image by cropping the image to a pleasing dimension, touching up some hot pixels, and ended by performing some color corrections.
This is the final image, after cropping, blending, and color corrections. Notice that I chose to alter the color temperature of the sky from what I originally captured on location. Some viewers will like the color of the sky, some will not. Do what pleases you – you are the creative artist. Odds are, if you like the results, your audience most likely will also!
If this interests you, please check out Creating Elliptical Star Paths in Adobe Lightroom – Part 2, which shows a different, but related, method of creating elliptical star paths using the Transform Panel in Lightroom, this time applied to an image taken in Boxley Valley, Arkansas.
Microsoft will begin shipping the new Surface Studio computer in early 2017. From what I see in the promotional materials and specifications, this could well be a game changer for photographic editing, particularly if Adobe gets on board by tweaking it’s editing lineup to take advantage of the surface disk that Microsoft offers.
This is one gorgeously designed piece of hardware, something that you could easily imagine Apple having concocted. One key to the success of the Surface Studio will be Microsoft’s commitment to evolving this product over time to meet the needs of graphic artists and photographers. If Microsoft takes this seriously, they could well replace Apple as the hardware of choice for graphic artists, as Apple seems to be much more focused on smartphones and music sales than computers these days.
Microsoft has posted an informational page on the Surface Studio here, with specifications, features, and pre-ordering available.