Night Photography

The Sony Star-Eater Issue

Milky Way over sand dunes, Death Valley NP, CA, USA

Milky Way over sand dunes, Death Valley. I was puzzled by talk about the “star-eater” issue with Sony cameras, since all my nighttime photos made with my a7R II showed plenty of small stars – including this image made in April from Death Valley.

There’s been a lot internet chatter lately about the so-called “star-eater” issue with Sony cameras. If you haven’t heard of this, last August Sony issued a firmware update for the Mark II versions of all its full-frame E-mount cameras (a7 II, a7s II, and a7r II), and many people have reported that since then these Sony models have been making smaller stars disappear in nighttime photographs. It seems that the new firmware included some kind of noise-reduction algorithm (even with Raw files) that blurred or eliminated those smaller stars. And, unfortunately, there’s no way to revert these cameras to the previous firmware version. In June of this year Sony released new firmware updates for these models, but some initial reports indicated that this new firmware didn’t fix the “star-eater” issue.

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Nighttime Reflections

Clouds and Milky Way reflected in Tenaya Lake, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Clouds and Milky Way reflected in Tenaya Lake, Yosemite. A four-frame vertical panorama stitched together with Lightroom’s Panorama Merge; each frame was 20 seconds at f/2.5, ISO 6400.



On the first night of our recent Starry Skies Adventure workshop we started at Olmsted Point in the Yosemite high country. We had beautifully clear skies at first, despite our proximity to the Detwiler Fire. And the early-evening winds died down, making our group feel warmer, and also creating a chance to photograph reflections in nearby Tenaya Lake.

Before we headed to the lake some clouds started moving in from the east, but I didn’t mind. I love photographing nighttime skies with a mixture of stars and clouds. And that’s what we found when we got to the lake, with the underside of the clouds catching an orange glow from the lights of the Central Valley. Better yet, the wind was calm and the water still, creating beautiful reflections.

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Lightning at Mono Lake

Lightning at dusk, Mono Lake, CA, USA

Lightning at dusk, Mono Lake (35mm, 30 seconds at f/5.6, ISO 250)

The Detwiler Fire is now 85% contained, and emitting little smoke. As I mentioned in my last post, Claudia and I never felt that our house was in serious danger, but sadly, 63 homes were destroyed in the fire. None of our friends lost their homes, which we’re grateful for, but we feel for those who did lose their homes, even though we don’t know them. I’m sure that’s a very tough thing to go through. It is heartening, however, to see the community come together to help those who lost their homes.

The fire started a week before our Starry Skies Adventure workshop on the eastern side of the Sierra. Initially the fire was spewing out tons of smoke, and sending it over the mountains to the east, so Yosemite and the Mono Lake area were pretty socked in. But as the week wore on the smoke diminished, and by the time our workshop started the skies were remarkably clear.

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Death Valley under the Moon and Stars

Milky Way over sand dunes, Death Valley NP, CA, USA

Milky Way over sand dunes, Death Valley. This is a six-image panorama, lit with low-level continuous lighting from two LED light panels on stands, and stitched together with Lightroom’s Panorama Merge. See the main text for more details.

It’s been a busy spring, so I have a backlog of images that I haven’t been able to post yet. Among those images are most of the nighttime photos I made during our two Death Valley workshops (as well as beforehand, while scouting). We encountered a lot of wind, which made things challenging. You just don’t want to be out in the dunes when it’s windy, because you and your gear will get sand-blasted. But the wind helped wipe footprints off the sand, and somehow, during both workshops, we managed to get out into the footprint-free dunes on calm, clear, beautiful nights.

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Moon Setting over Yosemite Valley and Horsetail Fall

Moon setting over Yosemite Valley and Horsetail Fall, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Moon setting over Yosemite Valley and Horsetail Fall, spring of 2017

Every year, around the third week of February, the sun sets at just the right angle for Horsetail Fall. With clear skies and enough water, the backlit waterfall glows with a brilliant orange color, lit by the setting sun.

Some years ago it occurred to me that the setting moon could create the same effect. In the spring of 2010 I had a chance to try this, and it worked beautifully. As I wrote back then, I walked up to one of my favorite Horsetail Fall viewing locations early in the morning, and saw an amazing sight: that beautiful, low-angle backlight on the waterfall, with the cliff behind it in the shade. It looked like sunset in February, only with stars in the sky above it. And the camera captured what my eyes couldn’t see – the orange glow created by the setting moon:

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Zodiacal Light

Zodiacal light over Manly Beacon and a dust storm, Death Valley NP, CA, USA

Zodiacal light over Manly Beacon and a dust storm, Death Valley NP, CA, USA

On the last night of our Death Valley workshop we went down into Golden Canyon, preparing to capture a star-trail sequence above Manly Beacon. As the skies grew darker we noticed a low cloud in the main valley, behind the Beacon. It looked like fog or mist, but that didn’t make sense, since there hadn’t been any recent rain, and, well, we were in Death Valley, the driest place in North America. So we figured it had to be a dust storm.

It was gusty in Golden Canyon, but not windy enough to create a dust storm. Clearly, however, it was windier in the main valley. And the dust cloud seemed to be moving our way. We debated whether to leave or stick it out. It didn’t seem likely that the dust cloud would reach us, so we decided to wait a bit longer, and then a bit longer again.

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