Night Photography with Phase One IQ250 (Part II)

Continued from here. Do not get misled. I am not an expert in night photography. Not at all. There are plenty out there such as Ben Canales, just to name one. I have not taken more than a dozen night shots in my life. And at least ten of them with my iphone when drinking at a friend's stag night. Hence this is not a tutorial for shooting stars. Look at Alister Benn's articles if you want to read a truly good one.

I never photographed in the night simply because Fuji Velvia was not particularly designed for it. Nor my digital backs could handle a higher ISO or a longer exposure well enough. Okay, wait - I did some work with northern lights in Iceland and in Norway. But I would not count it as a proper night photography.

  Capture: Scottish Dubai, Camera: Phase One 645DF+, Lens: Schneider-Kreuznach 45mm, Digital Back: Phase One IQ250, ISO: 100, Speed: 15s, Aperture: f/11, Filters: Lee ND Graduated Hard 0.6

Capture: Scottish Dubai, Camera: Phase One 645DF+, Lens: Schneider-Kreuznach 45mm, Digital Back: Phase One IQ250, ISO: 100, Speed: 15s, Aperture: f/11, Filters: Lee ND Graduated Hard 0.6

Now with the new Phase One IQ250, it all can change. I might be losing my well deserved and badly beloved sleep (not that I'm not losing it just thinking about upgrading to this back...).

That is why I dedicate a separate post to photographing with IQ250 at night.

To summarise, it can now be done easily because of the CMOS sensor that I mentioned in the first part of writing about Phase One IQ250. It produces outstanding quality files at higher ISO and / or with long exposure times that is not necessarily the case of previous generations of Phase Ones. Although I had very good results with P30 when shooting aurora, IQ250 brings the whole new world of possibilities to night photography that no medium format digital device could have even dreamt about before.

I had not thought of shooting in the dark on this trip to Isle of Harris. We could have hoped for some sort of moonlit seascapes that Ota would transform into a black and white beauty. But while we were there, the moon travelled somewhere between the new phase and its first quarter. Not to mention that even if it was shining like the supermoon on August 10, we would not see anything when looking up because of the pouring rain in our eyes and the ever-present thick clouds. So on one of these wet days we concluded it was a good time to move out of beaches and explore if Standing Stones of Callanish are worth the trip when the weather gets better. To our surprise, the sky started to clear out just before sunset.

Callanish Standing Stones

This image is a pure document that I add here so that you and I can look at the beautifully clean order of stones. I did not succeed to fully retrace this position later in the darkest darkness. I moved on to photograph against the clouds while there were still some up there, moving out truly fast. The first photograph in this post as well as the one below is intentionally darkened as the IQ250 captured way too much information in shadow areas than I needed. It was actually contrary to my intention to interpret stones as silhouettes of figures talking to each other. I apparently missed my goal because somebody said later it looks like the photo of skyscrapers in Dubai...

Capture: Silhouettes, Camera: Phase One 645DF+, Lens: Schneider-Kreuznach 45mm, Digital Back: Phase One IQ250, ISO: 100, Speed: 60s, Aperture: f/22, no filters this time... :-)

So under the clean sky and with the sun down, it was a time to think hard because of unusual situation here in Scotland. After lots of consideration, we decided to stay on and wait for the stars to test Phase One IQ250 and Mamiya 67RB with Kodak T-MAX 400 inside. Lovely decision that cost a good deal of sleep, but yielded an invaluable experience of a hair-raising atmosphere round the Stones.

And here's where I started to be charmed with capabilities of IQ250. It was a complete darkness when I set up the camera, having had to use the torch to help focusing. I illuminated the closest stone and focused with live view at 100% enlargement. It worked like a breeze. I then set up ISO to 6400 to fire few test shots, from which I could calculate the approximate exposure time. The idea was to leave the shutter open for at least 30 minutes to capture star trails (and more importantly, to detect how Phase One IQ250 deals with the noise). To my biggest surprise I found out later at home that even the test images carefully run through Capture One (proprietary image processing software by Phase One) bear more than acceptable level of noise (actually unbelievably low for such a high ISO). At the same time, the file has been showing enormous array of detail in the sky as if it captured each tiny star millions light years away from here. I even have a feeling I see Milky Way in the middle of the image, but this likely is just a wishful thinking.

Capture: Stars and Stones, Camera: Phase One 645DF+, Lens: Schneider LS 28mm, Digital Back: Phase One IQ250, ISO: 6400, Speed: 30s, Aperture: f/4.5

Nevertheless, I think it must be some fantastic algorithm within Capture One software that works magic when applied on IQ files. Having had an experience with Capture One for some time now, I am certain it is not only the back itself that produces the outstanding quality of output. Only the combination of the two, the back and the software, fully unlocks the potential of photographing Phase One. The software was also instrumental in achieving astonishing technical quality of my main image below. It is the 28 minutes exposure at ISO 200 and f/4.5 .

Capture: Trails and Stones, Camera: Phase One 645DF+, Lens: Schneider LS 28mm, Digital Back: Phase One IQ250, ISO: 200, Speed: 27m48s, Aperture: f/4.5

Below I show two additional images - the first one is straight from the camera with automatic white balance, the second is the output from Capture One. I significantly altered its white balance, followed by a gentle twisting of curves (as I like to do the main processing in Photoshop). Lastly, I applied the noise reduction feature that really made a difference. I used the 'color' slide, which removed red noise from blues while keeping all the details in star trails. In Photoshop, I played with curves to bring out the darker parts, I lowered the overall brightness, added a little contrast to emphasise the star trails and finally I had to locally desaturate and darken the stones. They have been shining too much. By the way, they got lit artificially by a passing car or two, not by us. We were sitting in the car most of the time during the exposure because it was really chilly.

       Raw images processed in Capture One

     Raw images processed in Capture One

To illustrate the technical quality, I am adding 100% enlargement of the raw image processed by Capture One (i.e. the right image of the two above). You can see it is virtually noise free and packed with details.

I made one major mistake after having exposed for half an hour during truly cold and clear night. It takes the same amount of time while IQ250 writes the image onto the card. I carried the camera to the car to wait until it's done. Then, after having checked that the exposure was correct, we decided to give it another try. Now for one more stop longer (i.e. one hour) and at one stop lower ISO of 100 to see the difference. But after 36 minutes I noticed the back could see nothing through the misted lens so I stopped exposing.

Mist and Stones

I am showing the result just for fun, but the haze actually cleaned the image somewhat and created an interesting rocket-like effect with trails.

To conclude, I can only say that when I become the happy owner of Phase One IQ250 I will take it out for the shoot right at the first night following the day a parcel with it hits my door. Unexpectedly, I achieved nice results on my only night session that there is so much more now I would like to do with this new possibilities.

(Continued here.)