Re-evaluation of images is essential for better photography. There are many times in photography when things appear to run perfectly at first glance. You’ve worked hard, often in poor conditions, to create what you believe will be a brilliant photograph.
But when you view the result of your endeavours you are either disappointed that things perhaps didn’t go quite as you anticipated, or in some circumstances you are delighted with the initial results but fail to see the real potential of your image.
Such was the case for one of a series of photographs that I was shooting for my forthcoming book ‘’.
The idea was to photograph seven tin heads, all cast from Dartmoor-sourced tin, at night on South Hessary Tor with star trails in the sky beyond, requiring a large number of exposures over a four hour period. My co-author Neil Mercer and I had tried this a few times over the last few years on Dartmoor but had always been thwarted by a combination of circumstances, with the weather usually being the most significant limiting factor. Without a clear sky for around four hours there will be no stars visible, making the shot impossible.
Technology was also found to be a problem, particularly when using my Nikon Z 6. Now you’ve got to appreciate that once you press the button to start a sequence you have to let the camera and intervalometer run for the full period without being able to check that what you’re shooting is correct! I’d had no problems when using the Nikon D3S so assumed that if I used the same techniques I’d also have no problems when using the Nikon Z 6. The camera has to be set up on a tripod, using a compass to align the frame with the Pole Star to ensure that the circle of star trails created has it’s centre in the desired spot in the frame. As I was also shooting objects in the foreground the set up had to be done while there was enough daylight to be able to see what I was doing. Once the set up was done the camera would be switched off until the light level was sufficiently low to start the sequence, but that created a problem that I hadn’t foreseen. Every time the camera was started the lens would refocus, no matter where I had set the initial correct focus point during the set up phase. Assuming that all was fine I would shoot a four hour sequence only to discover that everything was out of focus!
Thus everything had to be set manually in order to allow things to work. So in this shot I was using my Nikon Z 6 fitted with the MB-N10 Battery pack, mounting an FTZ Adapter fitted with the NIKKOR AF-S 16-35mm f/4G lens, set to f/8 at ISO 200 with one 30 second exposure every 45 seconds. While setting up the shot Neil and I were joined by another photographer who said that he was going to try and photograph Comet Neowise, a once in 6000 years event, from a position close by. To be honest we didn’t have enough time to take a great deal of notice. During our brief chat with him we were unable to discover exactly where we might see the comet and we were thinking much more about achieving our goal. Soon the photographer packed up all his kit and disappeared, saying that he didn’t think that he would get what he wanted from this position.
The first usable shot had to be one with the heads illuminated, which would later be used as a cut out on top of the star trails sequence. Using nothing more sophisticated that a hand-held Maglite torch the heads were shot until I was satisfied that I had one well exposed image with which to start the sequence. Once that was in the bag the intervalometer was initiated and I was able to crawl into my sleeping bag while the camera ran on for the next four hours.
When we checked the resulting sequence in Adobe Bridge we were amazed that everything appeared to have gone so well; everything was in focus, the exposures were great and we appeared to have achieved our goal. The next step was to run all the high resolution files, output from the RAW files via Lightroom, through StarStaX to get the result we desired. In fact we never gave Comet Neowise a second thought and were really happy to get the image shown below.
However, almost 18 months later we were carefully reviewing all the images for the book, knowing the we would be going back to the original RAW files in order to make the final high resolution CMYK files, and discovered that our initial euphoria at getting a great image was misplaced! A number of factors contributed to this. Over the intervening period there had been a large number of improvements to both Photoshop and StarStaX software that allowed me to do far more with the RAW files than I was able to in 2020. I also discovered that I had started the star trails build-up sequence too soon after obtaining the 'master’ shot with the illuminated heads in, allowing the brighter sky to burn out what we discovered to be Comet Neowise! By running every image through Adobe RAW again, removing the first dozen frames or so where the sky was too bright, adjusting the exposure on the remainder and then using StarStaX latest features to stitch the 400 odd images together we found that our unique image had become - if possible - even more ‘unique’ as it showed Neowise in all its glory.
So the moral to this story is - never assume that everything is fine; take time to re-evaluate what you’ve got. Re-examine old files in new software. Try to perfect the steps to achieve your goals and write down the details so that you can use them as a basis for the next time you shoot a similar subject. What would I have done differently? A number of things spring to mind. First I would have used the NIKKOR Z 14-30mm f/4S S-Line lens instead. Second I would have raised the ISO to around 800-1200 which would have allowed shorter exposure times and less long exposure noise (which was a pain to retouch). Third, by having shorter exposure times I would have been able to double the number of images shot making for smoother trails and an overall better image. All I now have to do is wait 6000 years until Comet Neowise reappears…!