How I Took This Award Winning Night Sky Group Photo

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Last weekend one of my photos was selected as a category winner in the national night sky photography competition, the David Malin Awards. The category was “People and Sky”, and Darren asked if I could write a post describing how the photo was created.

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I assist friend and colleague Phil Hart with regular night sky photography workshops under the beautiful dark skies of country Victoria (Australia). Knowing my love of fisheye photography, Phil had an idea for a photo to help promote the course: A group photo under the stars by fisheye lens.

I immediately had a vision in my head of the photo and knew it would look cool, so I set myself to working out how to achieve the difficult task of composition and balancing light. Once night fell and we made sure the students were all confident with their new skills and happily taking photos of the night sky, I put my Sigma 8mm f4 circular fisheye on my full-frame Canon 5D MkIII. To achieve this effect you will need a circular fisheye lens and a full-frame camera, or a fisheye lens designed to give a circular image on a cropped sensor. A diagonal fisheye will not capture the whole hemispherical field of view needed to image the whole sky.

Testing the setup and lighting.

Testing the setup and lighting.

From experience shooting the night sky with this lens, I knew that I would be shooting at the widest aperture of f4 and the full 30 seconds shutter speed. Balancing noise and sufficient exposure I chose an ISO of 8000. These settings give me a good exposure of the night sky and particularly the milky way, which would feature in the shot. This is incredibly faint! My main problem was how to light the faces of the students to approximately the same brightness of the Milky Way.

At first I considered using a flash, but even at the lowest setting, even with significant diffusion, the exposure was too difficult to control. The other problem is that I’d need the light to be omnidirectional so that all of the people in the shot would be evenly lit. Ultimately the solution I came up with was to use my LED video light, dialed down to its lowest power setting and laid face down on the ground on a piece of white paper. Only a little bit of light leaked out from around the edges, but it was even and spread out in all directions. Due to the relatively warm white balance of the Milky Way I adjusted the light’s white balance to be warm to match.

A recreation (in my office) of the setup I used. The video light is pointing straight down into the paper.

A recreation (in my office) of the setup I used. The video light is pointing straight down into the paper.

I took a few test shots to make sure the exposure, focus, white balance and everything else was working just right, and when the galaxy had risen to it’s highest point and was nearly directly overhead we called everyone together. We formed a circle and put our arms over each others’ shoulders to ensure even spacing, and tried to keep where the camera would be in the centre. Linking arms also helped us all to stand as still as possible for the 30 seconds of the exposure. Once we were all ready, I set the camera to 10 second self timer mode and placed it on the ground pointing directly up.

There were a couple of confused comments as people tried to work out how it would look, and jokes about how we all must have looked to anybody watching us from the outside. But once we got a look on the back of the screen, everyone was convinced. This was a truly unique group photo.

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Neil Creek is a professional photographer from Melbourne, Australia. He has been shooting with a DSLR since 2004, and blogging about his experiences since 2006. Neil has authored five ebooks and a video training course, all designed to help others improve their photography. View Neil's folio at his home page. Learn about his publications here.

  • That is quite impressive of a shot. Thanks for sharing that. I am a bit surprised that you got that much lighting from a source like you set up . . . gives you an idea of how much light you really need to make things work. Kudos to everyone for standing that still for 30 seconds and having that little movement in the shot. But what makes this photo for me most is the Milky Way.

  • Stephen

    Thank you for the tip on your settings for night time shooting. I have tried multiple settings with not much luck. I shoot in Big Bear California and the light pollution is minimal but my pictures just do not POP like yours did. Next time I am up there I will try those settings and see if I can get better results. My aperture was way different and I think that is why they are not as nice. Thank you for sharing your ideas with us.

  • Well done Neil, a cracker of a shot and worthy of the win.

  • I know that taste accounts for a lot, but I’m not sure I’d call this ‘award-winning’ or really all that adequate. Other than the stars, which are nicely exposed, the people are overexposed, blurry, distorted, and have entirely unflattering expressions.

  • @Clyde: Thank you. The light level was extremely low. It needed to be to match the exposure of the Milky Way, which as you know from seeing with your own eyes is incredibly faint! I had a hard time getting as little light as possible on the faces.

    @Blake: Thanks for your feedback. May I ask how you would have done it differently? Perhaps some suggestions?

  • JvW

    Now this is photography, experimenting, painting with light, balancing, composing. That must be a heck of a fun and inspirational workshop, Neil. You got me thinking, thanks.

  • Dan

    I think the photo is great! You should have had a chocolate bar prize for the one voted as having held the stillest. (Is that a word?) Thanks for letting us in on how you did it.

  • Well, I’d have just shot the stars as-is without ruining it with people. If you really wanted people in it, I’d have just shot a group photo like any other group photo. Just because you CAN do it doesn’t mean you SHOULD.

  • Blake, perhaps you missed the part where I said we wanted a group photo of the students. I’d like to see a “group photo like any other” taken with the Milky Way in it 🙂 Besides, I like trying to take unique photos. It seems you’re the only one who doesn’t think that I should.

  • Shannon Wilson

    Neil, that’s a super photo. I love seeing images that are out of the box like this. I thought it was just really cool that the sky is so beautifully exposed and you have the group drawing attention to it. Great group photo. I, personally, don’t think I could be perfectly still for the 30 seconds. You all did a great job 🙂

  • RockinRita

    Wow Blake! I guess you have never heard “If you don’t have anything nice to say, keep it to yourself”. Just because you CAN speak, doesn’t me you SHOULD!

  • Ramesh

    I was very impressed with the composition. To get the Milky Way and the group into the same photo is a very technically challenging goal. Your attention to the details planning for this and then sharing your thought process with us is greatly appreciated. Congratulations on the well deserved award for this photo. Finally, when I first saw the photo I was almost certain this would be a tutorial on post processing technique! Boy was I fooled! 🙂

  • That is a wonderful photo!! Thank you for sharing the process with all of us 🙂

  • Sarah

    @Blake – I thought the same thing. Seemed immediately amateur to me and I was surprised.

  • @Sarah – I’m glad someone else sees it – I thought for a moment that I was in the Twilight Zone or something, or maybe I had some rare disease where good things look awful and I’ve been wrong all these years on what constitutes good photogrtaphy or not!

    Honestly, it would have been better to just take separate photos and Photoshop it in.

  • JvW

    @Blake & Sarah, there’s nothing wrong with having an opinion but lets hear opinions about the same thing, okay? Read the article: this is about photography, a photography course for people who enjoy photography and each other’s company. If you prefer mouse-clicking Photoshop to shutter-clicking photography, that’s your choice.
    Believe it or not, great art or a great photo is not always technically perfect, and the judge in the competition knew that: “It is also a significantly difficult feat to record a good picture of a dozen faces and the Milky Way in one exposure…” as you could read if you clicked on the awards link. “One exposure” also precludes your composite photo.
    And to be honest, if you think your critique is the only correct, you do indeed even after all these years not know what constitutes good photography or any other kind of art. ‘Not your taste’ doesn’t make it bad.
    Relax, kids, and try to enjoy photography. Anyone can (mouse-)click soulless snapshots.

  • Todd

    Neil great photo and well written tutorial. I can see why this was chosen as a winner. It’s unique and not something you see everyday. Well done.

    @Blake funny how you are the only person here who didn’t bother to read the post. And your comments makes you pretty much look like an amateur who doesn’t know what they are talking about. Your comment, “I’d have just shot a group photo like any other group photo” goes to clearly show your skill level and lack of creativity. Sure anyone can take a group photo, just like thousands of photographers have shot the same milky way from the very same angles. But how many have included a different element in it such as what Neil did?

    As a professional photographer, coming up with different ideas and angles is what breaks the monotony of just taking a normal shot. I’m sure that he took plenty of milky way photos but as it was a group class he wanted something different to remember it by, not to be judged for trying to be creative and coming up with something new. That’s what being a photographer is all about. And so a person should assume that every single one of your shots are 100% technically correct and that your creativity is off the charts so that everyone else’s idea pales in comparison to what you can create?

  • I really like the photo and composition. Not very often you see people used for framing. I would have done one thing different. I don’t have a laser light, so I would have used an electronic flash face down as you did instead. This way it would not matter if expressions on the faces changed, they would be sharp. A little bit of movement of the body would not matter as much, as in your photo. Good job!

  • Kathy

    Great photo!! I’m just starting in night time photography and I’m hooked. This is a great shot and fun for those students with you.

    I don’t normally sound off on posts but @Blake and Sarah in case you didn’t read the post it was a photo to depict people and sky and I think Neil captured a very cool image. Just because you don’t like it doesn’t mean he can’t be proud he won an award for it and call it award winning!! He did. End of story. It wasn’t posted for critique, it was posted for us who are learning and/or love photography.

    Well done Neil. I think it’s an awesome photo and deserves the award you won!!

  • Blake and Sarah make some technical observations but seem to have forgotten the creative license of the photographer as artist. I imagine they look at the time exposed shots of waterfalls that are so beautiful and say “But they are blurry”. To get all this in one shot is quite an accomplishment, I challenge them to better it using the same parameters. Fisheye lens, circle of people, Milky Way in the backround. I doubt if they could even get the milky way, 9 out of 10 locations it would not be possible, Personally I have not seen the Milky Way in years. It is a wonder of the universe. Great shot, Neil. If it were me, maybe I would do some more, although the fact that people have to hold still for 30 seconds puts a big limitation on what is possible. I doubt if any other photographer could get people to hold that still. On the other hand, you might try flash for the people, get that exposure right, have them leave, and continue the exposure for the stars. Or maybe if you are lucky your camera will make a double or triple exposure. My D5200 does (I just found out yesterday), but each exposure may have to have the same settings, but you can move the camera. For instance I could do a triple exsposure at 10 seconds each, if the flash goes off in the first exposure, the people are lit, but they leave for the second 2 exposures, if the flash goes off it won’t affect the Milky Way. I just realized that would you would see stars through them….oh well. Hey, Great shot! Actually, maybe a cooler light, my first thought was it was too yellow, if you fixed just that, it would improve 50%.

  • Tad

    What an amazing photograph, Neil. This takes all the basic elements of pure photography and delivers something eye catching. You have an idea, you think, you plan, you test. You take your technical knowledge to the limit. And you get the co-operation of your models. Who cares that there are some overexposed bits, rules are made to be broken.

    T

  • PKaye

    Neil excellent explanation and equally a clever solution to the challenge you had. To minimise the need to be perfectly still, would it have been possible to use a light painting technique. The camera could be placed as is and a person outside the circle laying on the ground could use your light source and putting their hand through someones legs, ‘brush the light’ in a circle to light the people. Naturally you would need to have a snoot arrangement on the light source to minimize lens flare bleeding into the picture.

  • Norm

    I love this picture.. and hearing the thoughts and ideas that made it possible. :o)

    You set me thinking when you called out the guy who criticized you and challenged him to think of a better way to take it. What if.. you’d used a flash to light the people (nobody allowed to wear black) then have them all run away and leave the camera on it’s back in darkness to capture the stars?

    I wonder if that would give the same pic, but with pin-sharp people?

    Whatever! I’m just thinking out loud! Your pic is brilliant! :o)

  • marty

    While Blake & Sarah’s comments may be technically correct, I think they miss the point of capturing the moment (while completely posed, the entire evening was the group’s moment, & very little is spontaneous in night photography) in a unique way. Certainly its deficiencies may dictate that it is not “award winning” in some contests, but others (those damn, pesky judges keep having their own tastes), will find the intent & general impact are quite positive.

  • wolf

    I would disregard Blake and Sarah’s comments. Any muppet can photoshop/blend multiple images and exposures. I’m impressed at how you managed to adequately expose people in the same shot as the night sky. The video light was ingenius.

  • There’s way too many stupid comments to respond to, but here goes. I never claimed to be a perfect photographer – it seems it’s a pretty common response to criticism for people to start shouting “BUT YOU’RE NOT PERFECT EITHER!” or “BUT IT’S ART – YOU CAN’T CRITICISE ART!” at the criticiser as if it’s a valid defense. It’s especially invalid as I never actually claimed – or do claim – to be anything more than an amateur myself.

    What you people seem to forget while you’re busy furiously circle-jerking each other over your mutual slamming the Big Bad Criticiser is that there is a difference between art and technical skill, but you can’t call something artistic if it lacks technical or artistic merit. I can shit on a canvas – does that make it art? No. Managing to take a photo of the stars and include his photography group in a circle might show a certain level of technical knowledge, sure, and I’m all for experimenting, but just because it has a certain level of experimentation involved doesn’t make it art.

    This is not, in my opinion, worthy of praise because it is an ugly photo. Were it just the stars, then I would call it a lovely shot. If it were of the people being nicely exposed and the stars behind them? Lovely shot. But this is ugly. The people are overexposed, they’re squashed around and stretched out, they’re blurry, you can barely see any details. The concept, while interesting, wasn’t pulled off very well and resulted in an otherwise nice star shot being marred.

  • @Blake I can see what you are saying – in normal circumstances you would expect the people in an award winning photograph to be well lit and perfectly in focus. This however isn’t normal circumstances. You aren’t going to photograph people over a 30 second exposure (which was the minimum required for one shot as the OP said) and get everyone to keep perfectly still and maintain a perfect pose it’s just not possible (unless maybe you are shooting corpses 🙂 )

    I think it’s a great shot btw and thanks for the tutorial.

    PS was it really ISO8000 or is it meant to read 800?

  • JvW

    You’re right, if you crap on a canvas it isn’t art. But if Picasso had done it, it would be. See, it’s that easy; there are no rules. Even peanut butter can be art: http://www.geekosystem.com/peanut-butter-platform/ probably because it looks like crap and Wim T. Schippers created it, not you.
    In the same way there is no “this constitutes good photography”, whatever you claim to think. That would imply that there’s a formula, or protocol for good photography, a check list, Lego blocks and paint-by-numbers. And plugins.
    The first time I saw the above photo I immediately though of Salvador Dali. Don’t ask me why, because I dont think Dali did anything that resembles the photo, but that’s what happened. It did something to me, and that alone makes it a good photo. That’s why all the tack sharp, rule of thirds, golden triangle, clipped highs, etc. etc. bull dung that you worship mean nothing in this case: the photo works. For me and obviously many others, including the judge.
    So go ahead, dislike the photo, but I would cut the bull about ‘knowing what constitutes good photography’, because it might make you look as stupid as you say everyone else is.

  • NickyJae

    JVW Right on. Art is an expression in the eye of the beholder. Sometimes the best art is that which breaks away from conformity and goes againat all rules.

  • Thank you everyone very much for your kind words and support. I’m thrilled that you enjoyed the photo.

    @Rod A flash would have worked to create a sharper image of the people, but to get the even lighting I needed I would have had to use a light modifier like an OmniBounce to send the light in all directions evenly. I didn’t have anything like that on hand, but if I ever try a shot like this again I’ll try to use that technique. This would still have a possible problem with black ‘halos’ or stars showing through the people as they may move throughout the rest of the exposure. It’s a challenging shot to get in one photo.

    @George You’re probably right that the WB could be cooled a bit, it’s such a hard call to make after you’ve been looking at a photo for a long time while processing it! I was trying not to take the WB too far from the natural colour of the Milky Way which is quite warm. I may have set the WB of the light to be too warm. Having said that, now that this photo has been awarded, I don’t want to make any changes to it. Next time!

    @pkaye That’s a very interesting suggestion, and could make for an interesting photo, but I can see a couple of problems with trying that: Getting the exposure right would be challenging because you can’t perfectly replicate the same coverage of light with each shot while testing; a torch would still be a narrow beam so only the faces would be lit and the bodies would be in silhouette; finally,the lens is a 180 degree fisheye, so the torch itself would have appeared in the photo as a very bright point/smear of light, even if held low to the ground.

    @norm If the people had moved after a flash but before the shutter closed, the light from the stars and sky would have exposed that part of the photo, making them look see-through. That’s not the look I was after for this shot, so they would have needed to stand there regardless.

    @Blake Rarely have I seen such breathtaking arrogance. Not only do you say that people with a different opinion are “stupid”, not only do you compare my work to “shit on a canvas”, not only do you shame others for slamming you when you slammed me first, but you have the temerity to define for everyone else what does and does not constitute art! Could my photo have been taken in a way that minimised some of the technical ‘flaws’? Yes. Would that change the context or emotional content – which is what I, others here, and indeed the competition judge thought made the photo noteworthy? I think not. I have nothing more to say to you.

  • Kevin

    My first thoughts after viewing your photo,
    Magical… And I need to pick up my camera Now!
    Never dawned on me (until After reading the comments) to dissect your Art.
    I think the need to scrutinize and critique often stems from Jealousy, or perhaps one feeling superior to another.

    I’m surprised the obvious solution to getting the ” PERFECT” photo wasn’t suggested by your critics…
    make a Wax likeness of all the students (like the ones in the museums) arranged around the camera.
    But I suppose you would then lose the Human element,and the contrast between our Fleeting existence and the timelessness of cosmic splendor.

    Art often goes hand-in-hand with controversy, follow your vision?
    Opinions are free, ignoring them is acceptable!

  • Todd

    @blake if you’re really a photographer, maybe you need to take the time to go learn something about the art of the craft and stop getting so hung up on technical details. You obviously have no clue whatsoever what art is. You defending yourself and calling other people stupid just goes to show your maturity level and lack of knowledge as a photographer. But you said it clearly yourself..that you’re an amateur. Can’t really expect much intelligence or skill level out of a person that resorts to the nasty comments. Please go join another forum with the beginners where you will fit right in.

  • Todd

    So the only commenter here that has something negative to say about Neil and his photo, which was taken as a part of a group lesson and just for fun, is this guy named Blake Lewis. He goes on to rip apart his photo saying how bad it is, not artistic, poor lighting, bad setup, etc etc. If anyone cares to see just how “great” his work really is, go on and have a look at his blog:

    http://www.nerd-fury.com

    The title says it all. The pictures aren’t even worth mentioning or talking about.

    @blake I mean really? I think you need to learn to pick your battles and go learn a thing or two about photography before you go and slam a well known and accomplished photographer who obviously has a body of work that is worthy of being seen. Your work is atrocious, to put it mildly. When you want to swim with the big boys and criticize someone’s work, make sure you first have a portfolio that is even worthy of looking at. Until then, please do take the time to learn about photography. It would do you some good.

  • Hahaha, bless you, Todd. Do you feel like a real big man for doing some basic Googling and finding out my name? I don’t exactly hide it, and I actually put my website in every comment. You’re not exactly a star hacker, mate.

    As for your comments on my work? No, it’s not the best I could do, no, but fairly good considering the environments I work in and the primary target is very difficult to shoot at best.. Atrocious? Not by any means. But I’m sure telling people that makes you feel real big and tough on the internet.

    I love how the best thing that all you people can do is to tell me that I don’t understand art, or remind me that I’m just an amateur in response to any criticsms on another photographer’s work. Christ, you people didn’t actually even read my full comment and just leapt on the ‘slam the criticiser’ bandwagon with the only negative bits you chose to read.

    You people really are some unique kind of special.

  • @Blake Good one mate. You got your 15 mins of fame and even a few visits to your site (which I am not saying that anyone else does not visit). Mission accomplished 😉

    @Kevin “contrast between our Fleeting existence and the timelessness of cosmic splendor.”
    well said Sir! When I saw it my first thought was how the hell he managed it and I just didn’t think beyond it! Glad that you did and now this photo is so much more!

  • Melissa

    At the risk of being chewed out I’m going to have to side with Blake on this one. While I appreciate the concept and artistic intent behind the photo, artistic intent doesn’t always make for a good result. He could have Photoshopped it in or stuck with an easier idea, and I like that Neil decided to try something different. My only issue is that the experiment resulted in a rather unattractive final result excluding the really nice stars in the middle, which look fantastic, by the way. I’d love to get into star photography.

    In the end, all the artistic intentions in the world don’t make a photo great and I think Blake is right in that respect. I also agree that making something artisticly doesn’t immediately give it immunity from being criticised.

    At least, that’s what I feel Blake was trying to say, and if so, I agree. A bit of advice for you Blake: photographers are very sensitive people. When Todd called you out for your own photography, you look like you didn’t take it personally, but others do. For a lot of people, the suggestion that their art isn’t good often results in a lot of chewing out for any criticisms even if you’re trying to be constructive. I used to be a member of this photography course that had a large Facebook group full of amateurs, and learned very quickly that any feedback was negatively viewed, because almost everyone there felt that their photography was beyond reproach.

    So my advice Blake, is to consider whether you’re dealing with people that might take offense to anything and ask yourself if you’re really prepared to respond to a dozen people calliing you out, because it sounds to me like you’re the kind of guy that hates being wrong when you know you’re right, and you can’t stop until you change the world. Ask yourself if it’s worth the trouble. 🙂

  • Todd

    @Blake Do I feel like a big man? No. No need to do some basic googling to find out what I need to know about you. All your info is right there with your name, just as you mentioned. And I’m not your “mate” either but I guess I shouldn’t have any expectations considering where you are from.

    Ok. So you mention that your work is not the best you can do. Fair enough for being honest. How is your primary target difficult to shoot at best? Sure you’re in a bar. Lighting is crap. Subject keeps moving around. Space is tight. But if you have the right equipment or you know how to use it, you can get some pretty great shots regardless of your subject matter. Learn more about composition, lighting, angles etc and maybe you can produce some better quality work. Those same shots you took could have turned out much better had you taken the time to really think about what you are shooting. But hey, who am I to criticize right? To each it’s own.

    And I wasn’t by any means trying to be big and tough. I was being honest. Just like you tore apart Neil’s photo. Now the same is being done to you. If you can take criticism and be open to learning a few things, then your work will improve. If you’re going to be all defensive and put down others work to feed your ego then you will never learn.

  • Hey Melissa, thanks for your reply. You hit the nail on the head, and I’m sorry that I wasn’t able to articulate it better. You’re right, though – I hate the way that so many photographers aelf-aggrandise themselves, I really should learn to just keep my mouth shut around them rather than try and remind them that they’re not immune to criticisms, and that not everything they do is gold. I get this everywhere I go, and I do the same thing with my politics as well, and it never ends well for me.

    I’m glad someone else sees what I see, though. Thanks again for your input!

  • Melissa

    @Blake – No problem! I know exactly how you feel! The problem with most photogs is that they spend so much time hearing from friends and family that they’re the most amazing thing ever, so as soon as someone that’s unbiased steps in and tells them what’s what, they get pretty upset. I see it all the time. There’s one call The Photography Institute where more people get banned for helpful suggestions that the others report as abusive than actual abusive people!

    I checked out your photos btw, they’re really good! I love the emotions you caught from the band members, and the poses from the bands on the second page (Ricochet Pete?) are fantastic! I might start taking my camera down to some live gigs!

    What camera/lens/settings do you use?

  • Haha, yeah, that’s the same experience I had with TPI when I was a member a couple of years ago. Wound up getting banned because some woman got her knickers in a twist over my feedback on a photo, and kept marking my posts as abusive, even if they weren’t.

    Those photos were taken with my old d5100 and a 35mm f/1.8. New ones coming soon with my new d800 and a 50mm f/1.8. As for settings, I generally keep it pretty loose as band photography is pretty difficult because of bad lighting and people moving around a lot. The first two pages were shot in JPG and the third was RAW, which is what I mainly shoot. I keep WB to auto and ISO compensation to about 1600, then just stick with 1.8 and dial my shutter speed as needed and burst a set of frames to make sure I capture the minute changes. Things change too quickly to worry about changing too many settings on the fly!

    And thanks! I love shooting live music, and especially love it when bands are animated and enjoying themselves. Ricochet Pete were fantastic to shoot!

  • SillySod

    The comments to this picture have been very black and white, a bit like the subject matter.
    I think the photo is worth an award, if only for its uniqueness/cleverness.
    When I first saw this picture I thought, how the hell has he done this. I assumed some photoshop work was involved. So I was very surprised and impressed when it turns out to have been done in a single shot. Great job.

  • Mike

    Great shot and very interesting to read your description.

  • what an amazing photo!!

  • Kimberly

    I LOVE this shot. Inspirational. It’s unique and beautiful. Letting your imagination lead you is wonderful and it’s contagious! Thank you for sharing how you did it and getting me to think outside the box!!

  • ed

    One word…..”Awesome”

  • Saddem Ben Nejma

    Hello every one, for some time i wanted to try photographing with a fisheye lens but i can’t buy an expensive lens. Could you help me find the cheapest fisheye lens there is for a canon body? thank you 🙂

Some Older Comments

  • Kimberly August 16, 2013 01:49 am

    I LOVE this shot. Inspirational. It's unique and beautiful. Letting your imagination lead you is wonderful and it's contagious! Thank you for sharing how you did it and getting me to think outside the box!!

  • stacie July 23, 2013 11:50 am

    what an amazing photo!!

  • Mike July 22, 2013 06:31 pm

    Great shot and very interesting to read your description.

  • SillySod July 22, 2013 05:30 pm

    The comments to this picture have been very black and white, a bit like the subject matter.
    I think the photo is worth an award, if only for its uniqueness/cleverness.
    When I first saw this picture I thought, how the hell has he done this. I assumed some photoshop work was involved. So I was very surprised and impressed when it turns out to have been done in a single shot. Great job.

  • Blake July 22, 2013 11:10 am

    Haha, yeah, that's the same experience I had with TPI when I was a member a couple of years ago. Wound up getting banned because some woman got her knickers in a twist over my feedback on a photo, and kept marking my posts as abusive, even if they weren't.

    Those photos were taken with my old d5100 and a 35mm f/1.8. New ones coming soon with my new d800 and a 50mm f/1.8. As for settings, I generally keep it pretty loose as band photography is pretty difficult because of bad lighting and people moving around a lot. The first two pages were shot in JPG and the third was RAW, which is what I mainly shoot. I keep WB to auto and ISO compensation to about 1600, then just stick with 1.8 and dial my shutter speed as needed and burst a set of frames to make sure I capture the minute changes. Things change too quickly to worry about changing too many settings on the fly!

    And thanks! I love shooting live music, and especially love it when bands are animated and enjoying themselves. Ricochet Pete were fantastic to shoot!

  • Melissa July 22, 2013 09:38 am

    @Blake - No problem! I know exactly how you feel! The problem with most photogs is that they spend so much time hearing from friends and family that they're the most amazing thing ever, so as soon as someone that's unbiased steps in and tells them what's what, they get pretty upset. I see it all the time. There's one call The Photography Institute where more people get banned for helpful suggestions that the others report as abusive than actual abusive people!

    I checked out your photos btw, they're really good! I love the emotions you caught from the band members, and the poses from the bands on the second page (Ricochet Pete?) are fantastic! I might start taking my camera down to some live gigs!

    What camera/lens/settings do you use?

  • Blake July 22, 2013 12:58 am

    Hey Melissa, thanks for your reply. You hit the nail on the head, and I'm sorry that I wasn't able to articulate it better. You're right, though - I hate the way that so many photographers aelf-aggrandise themselves, I really should learn to just keep my mouth shut around them rather than try and remind them that they're not immune to criticisms, and that not everything they do is gold. I get this everywhere I go, and I do the same thing with my politics as well, and it never ends well for me.

    I'm glad someone else sees what I see, though. Thanks again for your input!

  • Todd July 22, 2013 12:29 am

    @Blake Do I feel like a big man? No. No need to do some basic googling to find out what I need to know about you. All your info is right there with your name, just as you mentioned. And I'm not your "mate" either but I guess I shouldn't have any expectations considering where you are from.

    Ok. So you mention that your work is not the best you can do. Fair enough for being honest. How is your primary target difficult to shoot at best? Sure you're in a bar. Lighting is crap. Subject keeps moving around. Space is tight. But if you have the right equipment or you know how to use it, you can get some pretty great shots regardless of your subject matter. Learn more about composition, lighting, angles etc and maybe you can produce some better quality work. Those same shots you took could have turned out much better had you taken the time to really think about what you are shooting. But hey, who am I to criticize right? To each it's own.

    And I wasn't by any means trying to be big and tough. I was being honest. Just like you tore apart Neil's photo. Now the same is being done to you. If you can take criticism and be open to learning a few things, then your work will improve. If you're going to be all defensive and put down others work to feed your ego then you will never learn.

  • Melissa July 21, 2013 04:09 pm

    At the risk of being chewed out I'm going to have to side with Blake on this one. While I appreciate the concept and artistic intent behind the photo, artistic intent doesn't always make for a good result. He could have Photoshopped it in or stuck with an easier idea, and I like that Neil decided to try something different. My only issue is that the experiment resulted in a rather unattractive final result excluding the really nice stars in the middle, which look fantastic, by the way. I'd love to get into star photography.

    In the end, all the artistic intentions in the world don't make a photo great and I think Blake is right in that respect. I also agree that making something artisticly doesn't immediately give it immunity from being criticised.

    At least, that's what I feel Blake was trying to say, and if so, I agree. A bit of advice for you Blake: photographers are very sensitive people. When Todd called you out for your own photography, you look like you didn't take it personally, but others do. For a lot of people, the suggestion that their art isn't good often results in a lot of chewing out for any criticisms even if you're trying to be constructive. I used to be a member of this photography course that had a large Facebook group full of amateurs, and learned very quickly that any feedback was negatively viewed, because almost everyone there felt that their photography was beyond reproach.

    So my advice Blake, is to consider whether you're dealing with people that might take offense to anything and ask yourself if you're really prepared to respond to a dozen people calliing you out, because it sounds to me like you're the kind of guy that hates being wrong when you know you're right, and you can't stop until you change the world. Ask yourself if it's worth the trouble. :)

  • Abhishek July 21, 2013 02:22 pm

    @Blake Good one mate. You got your 15 mins of fame and even a few visits to your site (which I am not saying that anyone else does not visit). Mission accomplished ;)

    @Kevin "contrast between our Fleeting existence and the timelessness of cosmic splendor."
    well said Sir! When I saw it my first thought was how the hell he managed it and I just didn't think beyond it! Glad that you did and now this photo is so much more!

  • Blake July 21, 2013 01:20 pm

    Hahaha, bless you, Todd. Do you feel like a real big man for doing some basic Googling and finding out my name? I don't exactly hide it, and I actually put my website in every comment. You're not exactly a star hacker, mate.

    As for your comments on my work? No, it's not the best I could do, no, but fairly good considering the environments I work in and the primary target is very difficult to shoot at best.. Atrocious? Not by any means. But I'm sure telling people that makes you feel real big and tough on the internet.

    I love how the best thing that all you people can do is to tell me that I don't understand art, or remind me that I'm just an amateur in response to any criticsms on another photographer's work. Christ, you people didn't actually even read my full comment and just leapt on the 'slam the criticiser' bandwagon with the only negative bits you chose to read.

    You people really are some unique kind of special.

  • Todd July 21, 2013 02:36 am

    So the only commenter here that has something negative to say about Neil and his photo, which was taken as a part of a group lesson and just for fun, is this guy named Blake Lewis. He goes on to rip apart his photo saying how bad it is, not artistic, poor lighting, bad setup, etc etc. If anyone cares to see just how "great" his work really is, go on and have a look at his blog:

    www.nerd-fury.com

    The title says it all. The pictures aren't even worth mentioning or talking about.

    @blake I mean really? I think you need to learn to pick your battles and go learn a thing or two about photography before you go and slam a well known and accomplished photographer who obviously has a body of work that is worthy of being seen. Your work is atrocious, to put it mildly. When you want to swim with the big boys and criticize someone's work, make sure you first have a portfolio that is even worthy of looking at. Until then, please do take the time to learn about photography. It would do you some good.

  • Todd July 21, 2013 02:14 am

    @blake if you're really a photographer, maybe you need to take the time to go learn something about the art of the craft and stop getting so hung up on technical details. You obviously have no clue whatsoever what art is. You defending yourself and calling other people stupid just goes to show your maturity level and lack of knowledge as a photographer. But you said it clearly yourself..that you're an amateur. Can't really expect much intelligence or skill level out of a person that resorts to the nasty comments. Please go join another forum with the beginners where you will fit right in.

  • Kevin July 20, 2013 11:46 pm

    My first thoughts after viewing your photo,
    Magical... And I need to pick up my camera Now!
    Never dawned on me (until After reading the comments) to dissect your Art.
    I think the need to scrutinize and critique often stems from Jealousy, or perhaps one feeling superior to another.

    I'm surprised the obvious solution to getting the " PERFECT" photo wasn't suggested by your critics...
    make a Wax likeness of all the students (like the ones in the museums) arranged around the camera.
    But I suppose you would then lose the Human element,and the contrast between our Fleeting existence and the timelessness of cosmic splendor.

    Art often goes hand-in-hand with controversy, follow your vision?
    Opinions are free, ignoring them is acceptable!

  • Neil Creek July 20, 2013 11:35 am

    Thank you everyone very much for your kind words and support. I'm thrilled that you enjoyed the photo.

    @Rod A flash would have worked to create a sharper image of the people, but to get the even lighting I needed I would have had to use a light modifier like an OmniBounce to send the light in all directions evenly. I didn't have anything like that on hand, but if I ever try a shot like this again I'll try to use that technique. This would still have a possible problem with black 'halos' or stars showing through the people as they may move throughout the rest of the exposure. It's a challenging shot to get in one photo.

    @George You're probably right that the WB could be cooled a bit, it's such a hard call to make after you've been looking at a photo for a long time while processing it! I was trying not to take the WB too far from the natural colour of the Milky Way which is quite warm. I may have set the WB of the light to be too warm. Having said that, now that this photo has been awarded, I don't want to make any changes to it. Next time!

    @pkaye That's a very interesting suggestion, and could make for an interesting photo, but I can see a couple of problems with trying that: Getting the exposure right would be challenging because you can't perfectly replicate the same coverage of light with each shot while testing; a torch would still be a narrow beam so only the faces would be lit and the bodies would be in silhouette; finally,the lens is a 180 degree fisheye, so the torch itself would have appeared in the photo as a very bright point/smear of light, even if held low to the ground.

    @norm If the people had moved after a flash but before the shutter closed, the light from the stars and sky would have exposed that part of the photo, making them look see-through. That's not the look I was after for this shot, so they would have needed to stand there regardless.

    @Blake Rarely have I seen such breathtaking arrogance. Not only do you say that people with a different opinion are "stupid", not only do you compare my work to "shit on a canvas", not only do you shame others for slamming you when you slammed me first, but you have the temerity to define for everyone else what does and does not constitute art! Could my photo have been taken in a way that minimised some of the technical 'flaws'? Yes. Would that change the context or emotional content - which is what I, others here, and indeed the competition judge thought made the photo noteworthy? I think not. I have nothing more to say to you.

  • NickyJae July 20, 2013 10:00 am

    JVW Right on. Art is an expression in the eye of the beholder. Sometimes the best art is that which breaks away from conformity and goes againat all rules.

  • JvW July 20, 2013 05:20 am

    You're right, if you crap on a canvas it isn't art. But if Picasso had done it, it would be. See, it's that easy; there are no rules. Even peanut butter can be art: http://www.geekosystem.com/peanut-butter-platform/ probably because it looks like crap and Wim T. Schippers created it, not you.
    In the same way there is no "this constitutes good photography", whatever you claim to think. That would imply that there's a formula, or protocol for good photography, a check list, Lego blocks and paint-by-numbers. And plugins.
    The first time I saw the above photo I immediately though of Salvador Dali. Don't ask me why, because I dont think Dali did anything that resembles the photo, but that's what happened. It did something to me, and that alone makes it a good photo. That's why all the tack sharp, rule of thirds, golden triangle, clipped highs, etc. etc. bull dung that you worship mean nothing in this case: the photo works. For me and obviously many others, including the judge.
    So go ahead, dislike the photo, but I would cut the bull about 'knowing what constitutes good photography', because it might make you look as stupid as you say everyone else is.

  • David Wagstaffe July 20, 2013 04:52 am

    @Blake I can see what you are saying - in normal circumstances you would expect the people in an award winning photograph to be well lit and perfectly in focus. This however isn't normal circumstances. You aren't going to photograph people over a 30 second exposure (which was the minimum required for one shot as the OP said) and get everyone to keep perfectly still and maintain a perfect pose it's just not possible (unless maybe you are shooting corpses :) )

    I think it's a great shot btw and thanks for the tutorial.

    PS was it really ISO8000 or is it meant to read 800?

  • Blake July 20, 2013 01:47 am

    There's way too many stupid comments to respond to, but here goes. I never claimed to be a perfect photographer - it seems it's a pretty common response to criticism for people to start shouting "BUT YOU'RE NOT PERFECT EITHER!" or "BUT IT'S ART - YOU CAN'T CRITICISE ART!" at the criticiser as if it's a valid defense. It's especially invalid as I never actually claimed - or do claim - to be anything more than an amateur myself.

    What you people seem to forget while you're busy furiously circle-jerking each other over your mutual slamming the Big Bad Criticiser is that there is a difference between art and technical skill, but you can't call something artistic if it lacks technical or artistic merit. I can shit on a canvas - does that make it art? No. Managing to take a photo of the stars and include his photography group in a circle might show a certain level of technical knowledge, sure, and I'm all for experimenting, but just because it has a certain level of experimentation involved doesn't make it art.

    This is not, in my opinion, worthy of praise because it is an ugly photo. Were it just the stars, then I would call it a lovely shot. If it were of the people being nicely exposed and the stars behind them? Lovely shot. But this is ugly. The people are overexposed, they're squashed around and stretched out, they're blurry, you can barely see any details. The concept, while interesting, wasn't pulled off very well and resulted in an otherwise nice star shot being marred.

  • wolf July 19, 2013 08:45 am

    I would disregard Blake and Sarah's comments. Any muppet can photoshop/blend multiple images and exposures. I'm impressed at how you managed to adequately expose people in the same shot as the night sky. The video light was ingenius.

  • marty July 19, 2013 07:35 am

    While Blake & Sarah's comments may be technically correct, I think they miss the point of capturing the moment (while completely posed, the entire evening was the group's moment, & very little is spontaneous in night photography) in a unique way. Certainly its deficiencies may dictate that it is not "award winning" in some contests, but others (those damn, pesky judges keep having their own tastes), will find the intent & general impact are quite positive.

  • Norm July 19, 2013 06:44 am

    I love this picture.. and hearing the thoughts and ideas that made it possible. :o)

    You set me thinking when you called out the guy who criticized you and challenged him to think of a better way to take it. What if.. you'd used a flash to light the people (nobody allowed to wear black) then have them all run away and leave the camera on it's back in darkness to capture the stars?

    I wonder if that would give the same pic, but with pin-sharp people?

    Whatever! I'm just thinking out loud! Your pic is brilliant! :o)

  • PKaye July 19, 2013 05:54 am

    Neil excellent explanation and equally a clever solution to the challenge you had. To minimise the need to be perfectly still, would it have been possible to use a light painting technique. The camera could be placed as is and a person outside the circle laying on the ground could use your light source and putting their hand through someones legs, 'brush the light' in a circle to light the people. Naturally you would need to have a snoot arrangement on the light source to minimize lens flare bleeding into the picture.

  • Tad July 19, 2013 04:34 am

    What an amazing photograph, Neil. This takes all the basic elements of pure photography and delivers something eye catching. You have an idea, you think, you plan, you test. You take your technical knowledge to the limit. And you get the co-operation of your models. Who cares that there are some overexposed bits, rules are made to be broken.

    T

  • George Edwards July 19, 2013 04:33 am

    Blake and Sarah make some technical observations but seem to have forgotten the creative license of the photographer as artist. I imagine they look at the time exposed shots of waterfalls that are so beautiful and say "But they are blurry". To get all this in one shot is quite an accomplishment, I challenge them to better it using the same parameters. Fisheye lens, circle of people, Milky Way in the backround. I doubt if they could even get the milky way, 9 out of 10 locations it would not be possible, Personally I have not seen the Milky Way in years. It is a wonder of the universe. Great shot, Neil. If it were me, maybe I would do some more, although the fact that people have to hold still for 30 seconds puts a big limitation on what is possible. I doubt if any other photographer could get people to hold that still. On the other hand, you might try flash for the people, get that exposure right, have them leave, and continue the exposure for the stars. Or maybe if you are lucky your camera will make a double or triple exposure. My D5200 does (I just found out yesterday), but each exposure may have to have the same settings, but you can move the camera. For instance I could do a triple exsposure at 10 seconds each, if the flash goes off in the first exposure, the people are lit, but they leave for the second 2 exposures, if the flash goes off it won't affect the Milky Way. I just realized that would you would see stars through them....oh well. Hey, Great shot! Actually, maybe a cooler light, my first thought was it was too yellow, if you fixed just that, it would improve 50%.

  • Kathy July 19, 2013 03:21 am

    Great photo!! I'm just starting in night time photography and I'm hooked. This is a great shot and fun for those students with you.

    I don't normally sound off on posts but @Blake and Sarah in case you didn't read the post it was a photo to depict people and sky and I think Neil captured a very cool image. Just because you don't like it doesn't mean he can't be proud he won an award for it and call it award winning!! He did. End of story. It wasn't posted for critique, it was posted for us who are learning and/or love photography.

    Well done Neil. I think it's an awesome photo and deserves the award you won!!

  • Rod Schall July 19, 2013 03:17 am

    I really like the photo and composition. Not very often you see people used for framing. I would have done one thing different. I don't have a laser light, so I would have used an electronic flash face down as you did instead. This way it would not matter if expressions on the faces changed, they would be sharp. A little bit of movement of the body would not matter as much, as in your photo. Good job!

  • Todd July 19, 2013 01:05 am

    Neil great photo and well written tutorial. I can see why this was chosen as a winner. It's unique and not something you see everyday. Well done.

    @Blake funny how you are the only person here who didn't bother to read the post. And your comments makes you pretty much look like an amateur who doesn't know what they are talking about. Your comment, "I’d have just shot a group photo like any other group photo" goes to clearly show your skill level and lack of creativity. Sure anyone can take a group photo, just like thousands of photographers have shot the same milky way from the very same angles. But how many have included a different element in it such as what Neil did?

    As a professional photographer, coming up with different ideas and angles is what breaks the monotony of just taking a normal shot. I'm sure that he took plenty of milky way photos but as it was a group class he wanted something different to remember it by, not to be judged for trying to be creative and coming up with something new. That's what being a photographer is all about. And so a person should assume that every single one of your shots are 100% technically correct and that your creativity is off the charts so that everyone else's idea pales in comparison to what you can create?

  • JvW July 19, 2013 01:01 am

    @Blake & Sarah, there's nothing wrong with having an opinion but lets hear opinions about the same thing, okay? Read the article: this is about photography, a photography course for people who enjoy photography and each other's company. If you prefer mouse-clicking Photoshop to shutter-clicking photography, that's your choice.
    Believe it or not, great art or a great photo is not always technically perfect, and the judge in the competition knew that: "It is also a significantly difficult feat to record a good picture of a dozen faces and the Milky Way in one exposure..." as you could read if you clicked on the awards link. "One exposure" also precludes your composite photo.
    And to be honest, if you think your critique is the only correct, you do indeed even after all these years not know what constitutes good photography or any other kind of art. 'Not your taste' doesn't make it bad.
    Relax, kids, and try to enjoy photography. Anyone can (mouse-)click soulless snapshots.

  • Blake July 18, 2013 12:04 pm

    @Sarah - I'm glad someone else sees it - I thought for a moment that I was in the Twilight Zone or something, or maybe I had some rare disease where good things look awful and I've been wrong all these years on what constitutes good photogrtaphy or not!

    Honestly, it would have been better to just take separate photos and Photoshop it in.

  • Sarah July 18, 2013 08:42 am

    @Blake - I thought the same thing. Seemed immediately amateur to me and I was surprised.

  • NikyJae July 18, 2013 05:27 am

    That is a wonderful photo!! Thank you for sharing the process with all of us :)

  • Ramesh July 18, 2013 04:20 am

    I was very impressed with the composition. To get the Milky Way and the group into the same photo is a very technically challenging goal. Your attention to the details planning for this and then sharing your thought process with us is greatly appreciated. Congratulations on the well deserved award for this photo. Finally, when I first saw the photo I was almost certain this would be a tutorial on post processing technique! Boy was I fooled! :)

  • RockinRita July 18, 2013 02:30 am

    Wow Blake! I guess you have never heard "If you don't have anything nice to say, keep it to yourself". Just because you CAN speak, doesn't me you SHOULD!

  • Shannon Wilson July 18, 2013 01:42 am

    Neil, that's a super photo. I love seeing images that are out of the box like this. I thought it was just really cool that the sky is so beautifully exposed and you have the group drawing attention to it. Great group photo. I, personally, don't think I could be perfectly still for the 30 seconds. You all did a great job :)

  • Neil Creek July 17, 2013 11:33 pm

    Blake, perhaps you missed the part where I said we wanted a group photo of the students. I'd like to see a "group photo like any other" taken with the Milky Way in it :) Besides, I like trying to take unique photos. It seems you're the only one who doesn't think that I should.

  • Blake July 17, 2013 11:26 pm

    Well, I'd have just shot the stars as-is without ruining it with people. If you really wanted people in it, I'd have just shot a group photo like any other group photo. Just because you CAN do it doesn't mean you SHOULD.

  • Dan July 17, 2013 10:56 pm

    I think the photo is great! You should have had a chocolate bar prize for the one voted as having held the stillest. (Is that a word?) Thanks for letting us in on how you did it.

  • JvW July 17, 2013 10:17 pm

    Now this is photography, experimenting, painting with light, balancing, composing. That must be a heck of a fun and inspirational workshop, Neil. You got me thinking, thanks.

  • Neil Creek July 17, 2013 08:54 pm

    @Clyde: Thank you. The light level was extremely low. It needed to be to match the exposure of the Milky Way, which as you know from seeing with your own eyes is incredibly faint! I had a hard time getting as little light as possible on the faces.

    @Blake: Thanks for your feedback. May I ask how you would have done it differently? Perhaps some suggestions?

  • Blake July 17, 2013 08:34 pm

    I know that taste accounts for a lot, but I'm not sure I'd call this 'award-winning' or really all that adequate. Other than the stars, which are nicely exposed, the people are overexposed, blurry, distorted, and have entirely unflattering expressions.

  • Mike Salway July 17, 2013 12:25 pm

    Well done Neil, a cracker of a shot and worthy of the win.

  • Stephen July 17, 2013 12:14 pm

    Thank you for the tip on your settings for night time shooting. I have tried multiple settings with not much luck. I shoot in Big Bear California and the light pollution is minimal but my pictures just do not POP like yours did. Next time I am up there I will try those settings and see if I can get better results. My aperture was way different and I think that is why they are not as nice. Thank you for sharing your ideas with us.

  • Clyde July 17, 2013 06:28 am

    That is quite impressive of a shot. Thanks for sharing that. I am a bit surprised that you got that much lighting from a source like you set up . . . gives you an idea of how much light you really need to make things work. Kudos to everyone for standing that still for 30 seconds and having that little movement in the shot. But what makes this photo for me most is the Milky Way.

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