The early bird… (in the snow)

It has been a bit quiet on this Blog this year. My apologies for that. I have taken a lot of photographs this last month, but not much that I considered worth sharing. Yesterday, however, was a day full of snow. Snow! Last year we got a little sprinkle in Januari, and that was it. This year it’s a full 20 cm in the garden, and the cold weather is expected to last for at least another 6 days. The word iceskating is on everybody’s lips. The Elfstedentocht has been cancelled in advance because of Corona, but the expectations are rising. I could not resist this opportunity and went into the city centre yesterday to document the wintery landscape.

I was looking for a mix of snow, ice and lamplight to give it a bit more ambience than just a white blanket over the streets. Therefore I had to get there early. The added advantage is that you are mostly the first at the scene and are not hindered by large groups of people or snow that is already disturbed. As I couldn’t sleep I was even earlier than the alarm clock and I was out of the front door at 5:15. The main roads had been cleaned somewhat and I had no problems navigating the snow with my bike.

[Geartalk] In my enthusiasm I may have brought a bit too much gear. In addition to my main camera these days, the Fujifilm X-H1, and 2 weather sealed lenses (16-55, 50-140 mm) I brought a wide angle 12 mm lens. Because I really like how the lens renders nightscapes I also brought the Voigtlander 15 mm f/4.5 Heliar in a last minute decision. I also took along the Fujifilm X-T2 as a second body, and to top it all of the Leica M9 and Fujifilm X100 just for fun. It turned out that because it was snowing (and blowing) the entire time, I did not use the non weather sealed lenses. I did end up using the non weather sealed 15 mm Voigtlander. A lot! It worked magically!

First stop: the Leidse Sterrenwacht, or Leiden Observatory. To render the lights in the photographs as ‘sunstars’ I wanted to photograph at a smaller aperture. The voigtlander has the most beautiful stars of any lens I ever come across (one of the main reasons for me to take it along). Because of the hard wind and snow I ended up changing lenses as little as possible, with the 16-55 and 50-140 on the X-H1, and the Voigtlander stuck to my X-T2. I took several shots at the observatory at f/16, ISO200 and a shutter speed of 2 minutes. This long shutter speed also caused the water to ‘glaze over’. A visage not dissimilar to ice, although a more thorough glance would probably fool nobody.

The Leidse Sterrenwacht. f/16, ISO 200, shutter speed 2 minutes. Notice the water and the sunstars in the lamps.

The next stop was a small alley off the singel with a lot of old houses and traditional lamps. A very nice spot, but with the hard wind and horizontal snow, the 16-55 soon got issues with water on the front lens that even the most thorough wiping could not remove. It was also a bit useless to clean the lens if 2 seconds later it would be wet again by new snow. Photographing at larger apertures was useless at this stage, as the flare on these droplets was horrible. The voigtlander curiously appeared unaffected by the snow. I switched to a larger aperture on the X-H1 and zooms, but kept the small aperture and sunstars on the X-T2.

A picturesque side canal of the Singel, also with the Voigtlander. f/16, ISO 200, shutter speed 2 minutes.

The Rapenburg, one of the famous canals of Leiden, was only a few minutes walk away, but there the winds were funnelled through the streets and even my 50-140 mm with its massive lens hood managed to get its front lens wet in seconds. I did capture a good example of the snowdrifts through the canal though.

Showing the hard wind and snow combination. The 50-140 mm could not be kept dry in this kind of weather.

My main aim of the trip was the Burcht and Hooglandse Kerk, a medieval fortification and church on the other side of the city centre. I hoped to arrive there around dawn, so that the light would be better, but the streetlights were still on to give me the ambience I was looking for. Planning this was a bit tricky, as my watch was hidden under 4 layers of clothing and my phone did not work through two layers of gloves, so my only indication of time were the church-bells that rung every half hour. Very old fashioned! En route to the Burcht I came across a few other interesting locations: the Pieterskerk, het Gerecht, de Breestraat and the Koornbrug.

By the time I reached the Pieterskerk it was becoming obvious that it was getting closer to a time a regular guy gets out of bed, as a group of students almost managed to position themselves for a selfie in the middle of my photograph. I offered to take the selfie for them if they could just wait 40 seconds until my photo was done, and continued on to the Breestraat. This usually busy shopping street was white and deserted at what I’m guessing was around 7:30 AM. A very surreal view!

A photo at the Pieterskerk and het Gerecht. It is getting lighter, almost Blue Hour at this stage. f/16, ISO 200, 2 minutes.

Finally around 8:00 AM I reached my final destination, the Burcht. By now dawn was fully here, but with the snow still falling the light was filtered and still not fully there. I took several photographs from my favourite location outside the Burcht, then headed in for some more shots. By this time people were starting to appear who had the same idea, and I had to manage my shots carefully to avoid disturbance. Mind you, the 1 minute shutter speed with the Voigtlander helped in this regard. As long as people would not stand still, they would still not appear in the final image. When I descended the stairs to the plaza below the street lights cut out, and I could congratulate myself with timing it well, and look forward to getting home, getting warm and getting coffee.*

The main prize: the Hooglandse Kerk from the Burcht. The streetlights add ambience to the photo in my view.
Compare the two shots: while I like the second for its composition, it certainly doesn’t have the warmth of the first image. White balance is also in play, of course, but the lack of lights is clear!

I hope you have enjoyed the photographs and story. For me it was a great morning, albeit a cold one!

*The bike ride back along paths not cleaned was a workout..

Startrails in the city center

In my memory these past few weeks have been grey and dreary. Sure, there have probably been a few dry, nice and even sometimes sunny days as well, but on the whole, my impression has not been good. The forecast for the next week and Christmas is just as bad, I’m afraid. However, when my girlfriend took out the garbage on Friday night, she casually mentioned that the skies were clear, and she could see a lot of stars. She didn’t know what she started, but as I hadn’t seen a clear night sky in a long time, I was on my bike to the city center to execute a photography plan I’ve had for some time (fortunately the latest in Corona measures did not include a curfew).

Smack in the middle of the city center of Leiden is ‘The Burcht’. It’s an old medieval castle, and one of the main attractions of the city. I’ve been wanting to capture a milky way shot over this castle, or, if unsuccessful, startrails. However, the weather was threatening to disrupt my plans right from the start. I wasn’t even five minutes out before noticing threatening clouds on the horizon. A quick check of the wind confirmed my suspicions: they were moving my way. I would have to be quick!

On location I quickly fired off a few test shots. Unfortunately, these confirmed my expectations that a milky way shot was not in the cards. The spotlights illuminating the Burcht were so bright, that I would not be able to illuminate the night sky enough to capture a milky way without over exposing the building. Plan B then: Startrails. I had brought both the 9 mm Laowa and the 12 mm Samyang but decide to stick to the 9 mm to capture as much sky as possible. After quickly deciding on a composition, I put the camera on continuous shooting, plugged in my remote shutter release, and the appropriate exposure settings (in this case: f/2.8 and 30 seconds, at ISO200) and started the exposures.

And then we wait…

In my experience, a total exposure of an hour is a good length for startrails. 90 minutes would be better, but I almost never can get myself to wait that long. Fortunately, I brought a second body (the X-Pro1) and could entertain myself shooting in the vicinity while my main camera (the X-T2) was busy with the startrails. The clouds I had seen moving in arrived after about 10 minutes, but were thin and disappeared quickly, giving me a total exposure time of an hour before I decided to pack up, go home and go to sleep.

The next morning, I started to process the photographs. Because one photograph exposed for one hour would have been hugely overexposed the building of the Burcht itself because of the bright spotlights, I chose to take 120 separate exposures of 30 seconds and combine those in photoshop. There is an easy way to place the images into a stack, convert them into a smart image, and merge them with only the brightest parts (the trails) of an image showing in the final photograph. All it takes is patience and a large hard drive. Because of white balance differences between the lighting on the Burcht and the surrounding area, I also merged a photograph of the Burcht with a different (correct) white balance to the combined startrail image and got my final result.

I was a bit sad to see that Plan A could not succeed, but from the start I had feared as much. I’m happy Plan B did succeed, and the weather did not sabotage my plans. The final image is what I had expected and I’m happy with it. The only thing I think I could have done better in hindsight is setting the lens to a smaller aperture. This would have had 2 advantages: the image quality would have improved (the Laowa is not at its best at f/2.8), and two: the shutter speed would have increased. This is an advantage because with a longer shutter speed less photographs would have been needed to fill an hour, leading to less processing time in photoshop. A lesson for next time. You never stop learning.

So what’s the fuss al about? See below..

The final image: startrails over The Burcht. A total of one hour of exposures with the Fujifilm X-T2 and the Laowa 9 mm f/2.8 @ f/2.8.

The milky way over the Wadden Sea

This image was taken with the X-T4 and the Laowa 9 mm. The sky was a 4 minute exposure using the iOptron Skytracker Pro at 800 ISO, the foreground a 20 seconds exposure at ISO6400 without the tracker.

As an avid sailor, I try to make it a habit to make a sailing trip to the Wadden Sea, a tidal sea in the north of the Netherlands, at least once a year. Naturally I try to combine this with taking photographs, and as it offers a stunning landscape with its mudflats and wide horizons, usually I come back with a crop of images that I’m really happy with. However, one image has been eluding me for the past 4 years. I had in mind to photograph our flat bottomed ship (a Vollenhovense Bol, for those interested in such things), high and dry on the mudflats, with the milky way in the background (astrophotography being another genre which really interests me). This is not as easy as it sounds, however. The area of the Wadden Sea is generally one of the darkest in the Netherlands, so no problem there. The problem is in the tides, and the weather of course. Apart from having to be granted a clear night sky, a feat by no means a given with the weather patterns in the Netherlands, the timing with the tides must be exactly right. The ship must be on dry land somewhere between 11 PM and 1 AM, there should me no moon, and the ship should also be floating again at a not too ungodly hour to continue what is in the first place a holiday.

In april we managed to grab a weeks sailing, and on the final day I was granted a clear night sky. However, the moon was up and ruined any chance of a good milky way shot. In addition, the bottom of that part of the sea where we had parked for the night was not solid sand, but a sort of sludgy ooze. Not the best ground for a tripod. As one of our shipmates was an astronomer, we banded together with our photography and astronomy apps, and concluded that the best chance to get a nice holiday and good weather, and make my dream photograph, was August 13th. As it happened, we could rent the ship again that week and we booked it on the spot (helped also by the fact that this was a holiday that was solidly Coronoa-proof, something quite uncertain for other holidays at that time). 

So, last week was that week. How did it go? Well, the 13th of August was cloudy, so no joy. Fortunately, we saw that coming and made the most of the few nights preceding the 13th for some attempts. The best opportunity came on the 9th. We had beached our ship on the mudflats just northeast of the little harbour of Noordpolderzijl, Groningen. We knew that between 10 PM and 1 AM we would probably be dry on the flats, and hoped for solid sand. Our wish was granted, and apart from the light pollution of the large city of Groningen to the south, the conditions were perfect.

Usually I only bring my small travel tripod on holiday, but as there was so much photography at the core of this holiday, I decided to bring my large and heavy tripod. To protect it from the sand and the residual salt water the bottom part of the legs were wrapped with garbage bags and ductape. I also decided to bring my iOptron startracker, as this tripod was sturdy enough for its weight. As camera I was a bit torn between the Fujifilm X-T4 and the Fujifilm X-T2, the X-T4 winning in the end by a narrow margin (although in hindsight I think I would have preferred the X-T2, there were some weird issues with unsharp images on the tripod, but this might have been due to shifting sands). The 9 mm Laowa and 12 mm Samyang completed the kit.

Between 10:45 and 0:45 I played around on the sand next to the ship, as my shipmates were stargazing in the dark. After some preliminary shots of the milky way and deciding which angles were best for the ship – milky way combination, I tried some extra shots with the star tracker. As at 0:30 the moon rose (also a magical sight) and the water started to rise again, I got back on board. Trying to edit a milky way photo on an iPhone really doesn’t do it justice, and the tracked images could not be edited anyway (as the foreground was blurred due to the motion of the star tracker), so really checking the files had to wait until we got home. 

For the final figures I cannot admit to few edits. The best files were obviously the ones where I had used the tracker (at ISO 800, in order to keep the shutter speeds at a manageable level), but these files had to be combined with the other images which had a sharp foreground. No problem for the mostly straight horizon, but not so easy for the ship, which I had to manually remove the background from using a wacom tablet and pen. Combining the cleaned up forgrounds with the milky was was then easy, although I might take a few more tries to really clean up the files. 

‘it has been a dream photography project that has come to fruition after several years’

I hope I haven’t bored you with my ‘little’ story above, but as I said, it has been a dream photography project that has come to fruition after several years of – not exactly failure – but lack of opportunity. I’m pleased with the result, and one of the images has already been bought by the major sailing magazine of the Netherlands as its opening spread (parly financing my holiday, which is nice). I hope you like the result as well!

For those interested in some technical stuff: I used the iOptron Skytracker Pro for the sky section of these images. At ISO800 I was looking at 4 minutes exposures. In hindsight I think I could also have gotten away with 8 minute exposures, but Wadden Sea sand is not the greatest of supports for the tripod, so at that time I didn’t risk it. I was also limited in my time on the sand as the water and the moon would rise shortly after 0:30. The 12 mm Samyang was used at f/2, its brightest possible aperture, while the Laowa 9 mm was used mostly at f/2.8, and once at f/4, as the Laowa has some horrible vignetting that is most visible at f/2.8. Shutter speeds for exposures without star tracker were 15 seconds for the 12 mm and 20 seconds for the 9 mm (its wider field of view allowing for a slightly longer shutter speed).

Stargazing in Leiden

Somewhere this summer I started developing the idea for a new photography project. My attempt to photograph the Perseids in august showed that it was possible to see at least a few stars, despite the light pollution, in Leiden and surrounding area. In addition, a successful attempt to photograph the milky way in Spain also rekindled my interest in astrophotography.

I decided to see if it was possible to photograph the stars in the centre of Leiden city. The location that I wanted to try this was the Leiden Observatory, as this was a beautiful place on its own, but also closely connected to the stars. Photographing the stars at high ISO, large aperture, and long shutter speeds as I had done in Spain to capture the milky way was not possible in Leiden as it would lead to severe overexposure of the observatory in the foreground. Reducing exposure to an amount not overexposing the foreground would lead to loss of stars in the background. I decided the best course of action would be to do startrails.

The question of timing was also important. During summer and autumn sunset was late, which meant having to wait very long until it was completely dark. The warmth also kept a lot of moisture in the air, which often resulted in a haze above the city. Needing a clear and moonless night also added to the problem of finding the right night. However, last week the temperature suddenly dropped drastically and as the sun set at around 16:40 PM, the sky was sufficiently dark at around 17:30 to start with startrails.

My last startrail attempt had been quite a while ago, and I therefore assumed I would make a lot of mistakes and was glad I had a backup attempt the day after (which was also clear and cold, after that the clouds and warmth would start creeping in again). As a one-and-a-half-hour exposure would also lead to over exposure of the observatory, and in addition cause a lot of noise on the image, I decided to take individual 30s exposure images and stack these later in photoshop.

My setup was the XT-1 with Samyang 12 mm f/2.0. This meant manual focus, but as I was working on tripod and only had to focus once, this wasn’t much of a problem. After some test shots, I set the Samyang to f/4.0 and selected a shutter speed of 30 seconds at ISO 200, set the camera to continuous, attached my remote shutter release, locked the shutter button and prepared myself for 90 minutes of waiting in what turned out to be the coldest November night since 1998.

As my feet slowly froze to a state of numbness I started to see more and more stars and decided that my attempt might actually work out well. Until this moment I had seriously considered that light pollution could ruin the entire exercise. It didn’t, but I did start to notice other problems. In my enthusiasm to photograph the observatory I hadn’t really considered in what direction I was pointing the camera, I had just chosen the best viewing angle. By fortunate coincidence the direction I chose was north, meaning that Polaris was in my image and the stars started circling nicely around it. I was saved by the stars, so to speak (note to self: always check a compass). However, as the minutes on the timer creeped by, one problem that I hadn’t considered presented itself: Schiphol Amsterdam Airport is just north of Leiden, and one plane after another started to make its descent right through my frame. After the third plane went straight overhead and curved gracefully to the northwest, I decide that cursing didn’t help much, and resigned myself to an image filled with not just startrails, but planetrails..

One hour and 15 minutes later found my toes non responsive and my fingers numb, despite the double gloves, so I decided to call it a night. Getting home, my toes slowly returned to a normal temperature while I loaded all images first into Lightroom to convert the raw files and then into photoshop to create the startrail. Google was my friend and after checking up the stacking procedure I started to work. It is possible to merge all images at the same time, but this would also include all trails made by airplanes, so instead I opted for the more time and effort consuming course of merging all images manually after removing the airplanetrails. I also chose the best foreground and made sure that during merging all other foregrounds were lost. In the end I created two images: one with the planetrails, and one without. A very time consuming process, which, to be honest, I had to repeat twice to create an image I was satisfied with.

It was very satisfying to finally being able to complete an idea that had been months in the making and then to see it completed well! When I started in the cold, I had no idea if it would work, and even during the recording there is no way of knowing how the image would work out, as all you see are individual 30s exposures. The final result was worth every bit of effort and time however!

A few notes for next time: do not forget a flashlight. Do not forget to put a lens hood on the lens (I had forgotten to put it in the bag), as light may reflect on the wide angel lens, causing ugly reflections on the photo’s that are difficult to remove. Check the direction to shoot (north is of course best because you see the stars circle around Polaris). Check the lunar calendar: no moon is best. I had a lot of help planning this shoot from the TPE and PhotoPills apps. Also, wear snowboots. And take something with you to keep you occupied during the long exposure. Check the direction of the wind (windless is of course nice for reflections in water) in connection with the runway direction of Schiphol.
I did go again next day, but the image was not as nice as the first one, which is still my favorite! Less wind however, so better reflections and less airplanes. However, this time I was disturbed by a few boats full of people that sailed every 30 minutes through my frame. It can’t be 100% perfect I guess..

Yes, of course I’m going to show you the images, they’re below!

First day, planes removed
First day, planes removed

First day, with planes
First day, with planes

The second day
The second day


Spelen met sluitertijd: panning


Eén van de belangrijkste ingrediënten bij fotografie is de sluitertijd. Sluitertijd kun je mee spelen: een korte sluitertijd zorgt ervoor dat een bewegend voorwerp stil op de foto komt te staan, terwijl een langere sluitertijd juist voor beweging en dynamiek in de foto kan zorgen doordat je onderwerp beweegt.

Een derde manier om te spelen met sluitertijd is ‘panning’. Het principe van panning is dat je, door een niet te korte sluitertijd te kiezen en je camera mee te bewegen met een bewegend onderwerp, je dit onderwerp stil op de foto zet, terwijl de achtergrond lijkt te bewegen. Hierdoor creëer je de sfeer dat je onderwerp snel beweegt.

Gisteren besloot ik om eens te kijken wat er allemaal bij komt kijken om met deze techniek aan de slag te gaan.

Allereerst is het nodig een sluitertijd te kiezen die lang genoeg is om bij het meebewegen van je camera de achtergrond te laten bewegen, maar kort genoeg is om het hoofdonderwerp niet bewogen te laten zijn. Deze sluitertijd hangt natuurlijk ook af van je onderwerp: een auto beweegt sneller dan een fiets, en behoeft dus een andere sluitertijd.

Ik koos op goed geluk een sluitertijd van 1/30 bij het fotograferen van auto’s.

Bij een sluitertijd van 1/30 seconde komen er echter andere problemen om de hoek kijken. Gisteren was het zonnig. Zelfst met de laagste ISO waarde die mijn camera in RAW kan bereiken (ISO 200) en het kleinste diafragma van mijn 35 mm lens (f/16) was met een sluitertijd van 1/30 seconde de foto nog steeds flink overbelicht.

Gelukkig was ik hier een beetje op voorbereid en had ik een ND4 filter meegenomen, wat het licht met 2 stops vermindert. Op deze manier kon ik nét een opname maken met bovenstaande instellingen.

Na wat pogingen kon ik de onderstaande opnamen maken:

Panning: ISO 200, f/16, 1/20 sec, ND4 filter

Panning: ISO 200, f/16, 1/20 sec, ND4 filter

Voor een eerste keer best goed gelukt, vond ik, maar auto’s zijn redelijk voorspelbaar en nu is het dus zaak op zoek te gaan naar moeilijkere onderwerpen. Mijn ultieme doel is natuurlijk om dit ook te kunnen toepassen op zeilboten, maar dat zal waarschijnlijk een vastere bodem vereisen dan een op de golven dansende rubberboot!

Een aantal punten die verder nog door mijn hoofd schoten:

  • Omdat je ‘beweging’ in je foto wil creëren in de richting van je onderwerp mee, is het belangrijk beweging in alle andere richtingen te voorkomen, omdat anders je onderwerp ook bewogen is. Hoe langer de sluitertijd, hoe moeilijker dit is. Stabilisatie in je lens of camera kan hierbij een belangrijk hulpmiddel zijn. Helaas heb ik nog geen ND filter voor mijn enige lens met stabilisatie.
  • Om het principe van panning toe te passen op een zonnige dag is het noodzakelijk een ND filter te gebruiken. Helemaal omdat ik de opname nu op f/16 moest maken, op welk punt diffractie je scherpte flink verminderd. Het liefst maak je de opname denk ik rond f/8, waarvoor je dus nog een extra stop ND filter nodig hebt. Op zonnige dagen is dus een ND8 filter een must. Bij grijzer weer kan minder wellicht volstaan.
  • Wanneer je onderwerp zich in een rechte horizontale lijn beweegt zou je kunnen overwegen een statief te gebruiken om vertikale bewegingen te voorkomen.
  • Ik heb er nu voor gekozen om van te voren scherp te stellen op een punt waar de auto’s langs zouden komen, zodat ik niet last-minute de autofocus hoefde te gebruiken. Een andere methode zou bijvoorbeeld zijn om de continue focus te gebruiken.