Western dark skies

The western portion of the US has long been on my list of places to explore. I have always been intrigued by the way of life that people describe about the west. It has a lure unto itself, often described as a simple life. A life uncluttered or disrupted with our normal day to day experiences on the east coast. I had the opportunity to attend some training in South Dakota over the summer. Once I confirmed the dates, I started checking the calendar and maps for places to explore during my visit. It just so happened that I was visiting during the peak of the Perseids Meteor Shower and as luck would have it, it was a new moon phase that same week. Each night of my stay brought clear skies, an astrophotographers dream! It had been a long while since I was in a place where the skies were as dark as what I experienced here. I scouted out some locations in the Black Hills National Forest during the evening and then waited for the sun to set. Being there with such good weather and clear skies made it easy to try out some different techniques. I was able to do some time lapse photography a few long exposures and sat out and watched an incredible meteor shower. The only thing I was a little nervous about is being in the middle of the mountains/woods in complete darkness knowing full well there are hungry animals out there. Thankfully I didn’t have to fight any off. Here are a few shots from the different shoots. For the last shot, I stood on the roof of my rental. This gave me a good silhouette against the night sky. Climbing up there in the dark wasn’t easy, but I got it done without damaging myself or the rental. Hope you enjoy…

Dark skies over Black Hills National Forest, Deadwood S.D. © Rob Loughrey
Dark skies over Black Hills National Forest, Deadwood S.D. © Rob Loughrey
Perseids Meteor Shower, Black Hills National Forest S.D. © Rob Loughrey
Perseids Meteor Shower, Black Hills National Forest S.D. © Rob Loughrey
Stargazing - Black Hills National Forest, S.D. © Rob Loughrey
Stargazing – Black Hills National Forest, S.D. © Rob Loughrey

Amazing Sky after dark

It was just after sunset, the temps were dropping and we were once again skunked by the cloud cover while at the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains. We wanted to take in the setting sun, but it didn’t work out for us. Don’t get me wrong, I will take clouds over an empty sky any day. When the conditions are right, the clouds light up providing a spectacular sight as the sun dips below the horizon. It just wasn’t our lucky day. The wind was blowing pretty good and I noticed that the clouds were also moving at a pretty good speed. Our lucky break was, that the wind was in our face, so I took advantage and pulled out my 10 stop ND filter. I shot my test image and adjusted my exposure to be 1/2 sec at ISO 200. Don’t remember what my aperture was because it wasn’t important at the time. I just know that when I add my 10 stop filter onto the camera my exposure goes from 1/2 sec to 4 minutes, which was what I wanted for good cloud movement in the sky. I made sure I focused and composed ahead of time, set my exposure to the bulb setting and then added my 10 stop filter. I use my phone to time the exposure and fired away. The tough part about this is that the light is rapidly falling off as the earth turns. So on my 2nd and 3rd exposures, I either added a minute onto the exposure or opened up a stop. I also turned off my long exposure noise reduction to make sure I was able to shoot a few sequential shots and adjust my exposure. This prevents a second 4 minute exposure with the shutter closed (the method the camera uses to reduce the noise). The trade off is, that I have quite a bit of hot pixels to deal with in post processing. The image you see is pretty much right off the camera. I cleaned up the hot spots, of which I’m sure I missed some, but I’m happy with it at the moment. Hope you enjoy…

Long Exposure atop Clingmans Dome - Great Smoky Mountains NP © Rob Loughrey


Following up from my previous post – a self portrait from a night on the beach in North Carolina this past summer. This was a week with a new moon, so we had several days of very dark skies. After midnight, the town would turn off most of the bright lights which helped reduce the light pollution. It took 10-15 minutes for your eyes to adjust to the darkness, and even then it was still hard to see anything. Even though it was 3 or 4 am, the glow from the approaching sun was still evident to the image sensor.
Atlantic Solitude - Cape Hatteras National Seashore, NC © Rob Loughrey

Seascape Photography

I really enjoy going to the beach before the sun is up. At an hour or more before sunrise, it is usually empty and peaceful. The surf is slowly breaking with the breeze blowing as you stand at the edge of the ocean. It is amazing to think that out in front of you lies endless miles of water. It makes you feel so minimal in the grand scheme of things on our earth. I usually try to check google earth prior to visiting a beach to see if there are any interesting features. Just a sandy beach can be interesting, but I try to find other elements to include as well. Rocks, a pier or jetty – something to give the beach some character.
Jekyll Island State Park is one such beach. There is a stretch of beach on this island that has ancient trees that were once part of the island. As years have passed and the island slowly erodes, the trees have ended up out in the surf during high tide. While the tide is low, you can easily access the beach and walk among these trees. Some of them have been toppled over from hurricanes in recent past, totally uprooted from the ground, but still lining the beach.

For this shot, I arrived 90 min before the sun was up and was able to scout out a few locations. The tide was very low, but starting to come in. Some fishing ships were leaving for the morning, as can be scene on the horizon. I set my white balance to tungsten to give the image a cold feeling.  This is the first of several images I took while on the beach that morning.

Hope you enjoy…

Twilight at Driftwood Beach - Jekyll Island State Park, GA © Rob Loughrey

Using ND Filters

Recently I was asked about how I achieve the ethereal look to my images of seascapes or waterfalls so I decide to post some information about it. Almost always I prefer this look over having a stopped action shot of the waves crashing in. I tend to use two different methods to create these images. It is very dependent on the ambient light at the location. A tripod is a must for this type of photography. You will also need a cable release. Either a wireless or wired connection. Your camera will also need to operate in bulb mode. This is where you lock open your shutter for as long as you like. Consult your owners manual to confirm that you have a bulb mode on your camera. I will normally take a meter reading from the sky, about midway between the horizon and directly overhead. This gives me my initial meter reading to start from. I adjust my aperture and/or ISO on the camera to give me a 20 sec exposure to start. I snap a 20 sec exposure and review it on my cameras LCD display. I make adjustments as needed to get the proper exposure. After I review the image, I decide if I need a much longer exposure or not. Sometimes I shoot images at 2 and 4 minutes using a 5 or 10 stop ND filter. This really makes the clouds blur and gives a real ghostly feel to the water. Another technique if you have access to Photoshop software is to take 8-15 20 or 30 second shots of the exact same scene, and then stack them together in Photoshop as one file. If you would like more info on how to do this, drop me an email and I will be happy to elaborate. These shots are from a recent trip to Jekyll Island. A 2 minute exposure with a Singh-Ray 5 stop ND filter and Singh-Ray 2 stop Grad ND. I took both a portrait and landscape mode image.
Driftwood Beach at twilight - Jekyll Island State Park, GA © Rob Loughrey


Driftwood Beach at twilight - Jekyll Island State Park, GA © Rob Loughrey


Long overdue update…

Hello folks, sorry it has been so long since I have posted. As many of you can imagine, life catches up with you at times. I have been extremely busy at home and work lately. We recently moved into a new home, have been settling in and working on selling our old house. Work, excersize, family stuff – it all catches up with you. I have have been out shooting in the mornings, just haven’t had much time to do anything with any of the images. To make it better, I have been having issues with my laptop, which is now 6 years old. Another battery has decided to expand on me which may or may not be causing the keyboard and other things to act with a mind of thier own. Enough about all of that…
Since I have been quite busy – I will post one of my favorites from my summer trip to the Outer Banks. This is another shot of some of the star gazing we were doing out on the beach. A perfectly clear night, the waves crashing in, a small campfire dug into the sand and a few of us kicked back in our chairs looking up at the stars. The beaches of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore have to be one of the best places to view the stars on a clear night. I can only imagine that it is even clearer during the winter months. I plan to make a trip down there at some point to find out…

Nikon D800, 16-35mm F4 lens, Enduro Tripod, Really Right Stuff Ball Head, 13sec @f/4.5, ISO 5000


Beach chairs, camp fire and a star filled sky on the beaches of Avon, NC. © Rob Loughrey




The wonders of the ocean

While out on the beach, taking start trail photos, I decided to take a walk down to the ocean. After going through the efforts of setting up my gear, my eyes had some time to adjust to the moonless night on the beach. While my camera was busy clicking away doing a time-lapse series, I looked toward the surf and noticed that some of the waves cresting had bio luminescent algae. I decided to take a closer look and was amazed at the sight. At various times, in different areas each time, the surf was glowing with each crashing wave. There was no pattern to the activity. Just an amazing display of light. At times, it was as though my eyes were playing tricks on me. After my time-lapse completed, I brought my camera down to the edge and setup for some long exposures. I took about 20 frames over the next hour, trying to time it when the algae was beginning to glow. I put all of the layers together in one Photoshop file and stacked them to let each glowing layer through. I preferred this method because I was not able to get good shots of the star trails as well with varying the timing of the shot of the water (too many gaps in the stars). Nikon D800, 35mm f/1.2, 20 sec @ f/2, tripod.

Ocean glow - Cape Hatteras National Seashore, NC © Rob Loughrey

Long exposure sunrise

Here is a quick shot of the Avon Pier at dawn. I put together this pano image from 3 pictures that were 20 sec each. The ocean was crashing in, the stars will still out and the sun was starting to color the eastern sky. Incidentally, we could not see the color ourselves. When I looked at my LCD on the back of my camera, I saw how much color was present in the long exposure. There were only a few people out on the beach. It made for a great morning…

Avon Sunrise, Cape Hatteras National Seashore, NC © Rob Loughrey

Into the night sky

Continuing on from my last post, I finished up at the dock on the Pamlico Sound. I went back to the beach house and got everyone ready for a planned outing on the beach to hang out by a camp fire and do some stargazing. The sky was so clear during each night that even while walking from the beach house to the beach, we could see the Milky Way. We stayed out on the beach for awhile and little by little each of the kids and family members headed back for the night. As time went by, more and more lights were turned off reducing the light pollution. The display of stars after darkness sets in and your eyes adjust is just unbelievable. We checked the NASA website and were able to see the International Space Station cruise by, saw several satellites and many meteors with the Perseids Meteor Shower starting up towards the end of the week. It really makes you think about how small we really are in the scheme of our Solar System and Galaxy. After midnight, it was just my brother and I out there for hours.  You can check out his work at bplimagedesign.com
Here is the first photo I shot showing the Milky Way. Nikon D800, 16mm lens, 18 sec @ F4, ISO2000 & Tripod.

An abundance of stars - Cape Hatteras National Seashore, NC © Rob Loughrey

The Magic of Disney

Back in June we had a family trip to Orlando where we took the kids to Disney, Epcot, MGM …etc. The first night we arrived in town, we headed to the Magic Kingdom for the fireworks show. I have to say, it was pretty impressive for something they do every night. It wasn’t a NYC 4th of July show or anything like that, but it was a good 45 min show for the kids to enjoy. Unless Disney also owns its own Fireworks manufacturing company, they shell out a good deal of money per year to do this. I found a location off the beaten path and setup my camera with a bracket attached to one of the iron fences. Unless you have the park all to yourself, it is impossible to get to a vantage point where you are head on with the castle. Unfortunately, I had some trees blocking my view of part of the castle. I didn’t bring my tripod with me, so I made due with a clamp and Bogen magic arm and attached it to a portion of fence along the path. It worked fine for holding up my camera and keeping it steady during my 5 second exposures. Even though I wasn’t head on with the castle, I still like how the image turned out.
Hope you enjoy…


Magic Kingdom Fireworks - © Rob Loughrey