The Stones of Joshua


Jeff is an award-winning photographer from California, USA. He has telescopes running at a remote observatory in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Each scope includes a specially designed digital camera cooled to -25°C to help capture images of extremely faint objects, some over a billion light years away.

When I was a child I always wanted to be an astronaut, fascinated by space. I grew up during the period when Star Trek first came out and watched the moon landings. I didn’t do a lot of photography in my teens; I had this rivalry with my brother who really got into photography, which meant in my mind, I couldn’t. What kept me from launching into it was I thought it would be difficult – but I kept seeing this one telescope in the store I thought would be really cool, then I saw a photograph taken through a telescope of Jupiter and I thought, you can do that! That was that, and it’s been a big part of my life ever since.

Astronomy Photographer of the Year, Skyscapes Winner – Luna Dunes. Image taken in Death Valley National Park, California, USA. Sony ILCE-7RM4 camera; Sand and sky: 70mm f/8 lens, ISO 400, Sand: 30-second exposure, Sky: 1-second exposure; Moon: 200mm f/2.8 lens, ISO 100, Moon face: 2.5-second exposure, Moon edge: 1/100-second exposure. © Jeff Lovelace


Wideangle photography, at night with a normal camera and lens, typically with a landscape in the foreground, it’s fairly easy with just a few key settings, some very obvious. Typical exposure times will be from 10-30 seconds, sometimes up to a couple of minutes, so you’re going to need a tripod. A wideangle lens is good, a very fast lens is good, it can be a zoom if it’s a high-quality zoom, F2.8 or faster. You have to know your camera settings and be a reasonably proficient photographer and not have everything on automatic or shutter priority; everything is manual including focusing.


When I go out to do nightscape photography I have two approaches. One is to go to an interesting area, see what I can find and create in the moment. ‘Luna Dunes’ was the other kind. I had planned in advance, I’d been to those dunes before. I had researched the phase of the moon and weather. I’d even sketched out the image that I wanted.

When Beginnings End – a focus-stacked timelapse at night comprising of 57 images. Sony A7R IV, 16mm lens, 30 secs at f/4, ISO 6400. © Jeff Lovelace


I quite often use various apps to find exactly the right spot and time, what angle the moon is going to be at relative to the landscape. The apps that I use are The Photographer’s Ephemeris and The Photographer’s Ephemeris 3D. Together they’re a wonderful tool for planning shots. I might also use PhotoPills and Planets Pro. You can get a star tracker to track the stars as the Earth rotates, or if you’re more analogue you can still use charts!

Rule of 500

Have your lens wide open, and aim it at the Milky Way. There is the rule of 500, which is an old rule anyone can look up – basically you divide the focal point of your lens into 500, and that gives you your exposure time. So, if your full-frame equivalent focal length is 20mm, the 500 rule would suggest that you use a shutter speed of 500 ÷ 20 = 25 seconds.

I use a Sony camera with smaller pixels, so I go with the rule of 250 which is the same thing. The rule of 500 is to avoid exposures that are so long the stars turn into little streaks. You want your stars to be pin-point or close to it, so you don’t want to go beyond the rule of 500 (or 250).
The Red of Night

The Shot

When do you know you’ve got the shot? It can happen when I’m in the field. With ‘Luna Dunes’, I knew it in the moment. That being said, I’ve had many of those moments and then I look at it on a larger screen and go, oh no, that’s not so good. The real moment is when you finally do look at a digital image on your computer screen and you know that’s it.

Landscape photographer Ansel Adams is a perfect example, he said something to the effect that great photographs are made not taken. Every image, because of the limitations of the digital camera, needs to be adjusted, the light values have to be adjusted, the brightness, colour values and saturation levels.


For me the procedure is I put an image on my website first, second Flickr, then Instagram. I output it at different resolutions and see how they do. Flickr is my favourite, its social media but really specifically for photographers. What I’m trying to give them is that Ooh and Aah moment, an experience. I want it to have a touch of mystery, for people to say where is that or what is that little detail… those multi-layer experiences are my favourite.

Web of Wisps. Taken with a FLI ML-16070M, a thermo-electrically-cooled camera operating at -25°C. Lens focal length is 381.6mm at f/3.6. The image comprises 153 exposures at two mins each (RGB filters) and 245 exposures at 10 mins each (narrowband filters). © Jeff Lovelace

We are not alone

I hear things. I wear one of those headlamp torches and I’ll look around and see a pair of eyes looking at me somewhere over there. I don’t know what that is but it’s a little creepy. If I am alone, I deal with it in two ways, I make noise and make sure that whatever creatures are out there know I’m here. I may put on a podcast on my iPhone and set it on a rock and occasionally stomp around.

I often shoot with other people; if you have someone within shouting distance your anxiety reduces by about 90%. A friend of mine was once surrounded by a growling snarling pack of coyotes, another encountered a mountain lion, there have been photographers killed by bears, so it’s something to keep an eye on; I’ve been lucky.


I don’t use filters because I tend to shoot in a very dark location. If you do encounter light pollution, there are a number of brands of light-suppression filters available. Those work or don’t depending on the public lighting or whatever city you’re in. If everything’s lit with LED lights, which are a broad spectrum, they don’t work at all. If you’re in a city with mercury vapour lights or other specific types of light that put out light at a particular frequency, these filters are designed to filter out those so they can work very well.
Strange Occurrences in the Desert

Noises off

With my regular camera I do multiple exposures. I align them and blend them together, and you get exactly the same picture but it reduces the noise. If you can do 8-16 shots and blend them together you end up with a reasonably noise-free image. The longer you shoot the more noise you get; the darker you shoot the noisier your images get.

The problem with aligning is you have sharp stars and a blurry landscape or vice versa. You have to do some work in Photoshop to combine the two, where you take the foreground from one of the shots and make that the steady foreground then take the sky and put it on top of that. That’s a nice easy trick to get rid of noise.
Original Article Written By Peter Dench for Amateur Photographer

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