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Manfrotto Befree Compact Tripod Review

Shooting seascapes with the Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 17-40 and the Manfrotto Befree

The Manfrotto Befree Compact tripod is an affordable tripod catering for people not looking to break the bank with yet another photography accessory or for those looking for something light on their next trip. Coming in at[amazon_link asins=’B00COLBNTK’ template=’PriceLink’ store=’alexwisephot-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’ b4541cc8-ffea-11e6-b74f-1b8225fab6ab’], the Manfrotto is lightweight (2.4kg/5.3), easy to carry and can support a reasonable camera load.

Manfrotto Befree Compact Tripod
Manfrotto Befree Compact Tripod in all its glory

The Manfrotto Befree tripod was my first entry into the compact tripod range so I was keen to write a review with the positives and negatives for anyone else looking to add something more portable to their gear. 

What makes a good travel tripod?

I’m the first to admit it – I treat my tripods terribly and I’m constantly reminding myself (and ignoring my own advice) that I need to take better care of my tripods rather than let them erode away from salt water. Over the last 10~ years I’ve worked through 3 tripods which have succumbed to death by salt water (not too bad I thought?) which has given me a reasonable understanding of what makes a good tripod (and how to waste money…)

So what makes a good travel tripod? I’ve touched on this in detail in a post where I compared some of the best travel tripods on the market before I purchased the Manfrotto Befree tripod but some of the key call outs from this post:

  1. Manfrotto befree travel bag
    Included with the Manfrotto Befree is this travel bag which you can conveniently sling over your shoulder

    Portability – A good travel tripod should be portable in both its size and weight. Generally you want something that’s no bigger than 20-24 inches when folded or more than 2.5kg in weight. The reason being is that you want something you can quickly store away in your carry baggage or strap to your bag. With normal tripods, some of these can be quite bulky which makes strapping to your bag quite difficult and awkward

  2. The Manfrotto Befree is tiny (ignore my pasty arms..!)

    Extend to a reasonable height – While not a deal breaker for me as I prefer to shoot from lower angles, your tripod should be able to extend to a reasonable height (good for when you’re stuck behind a viewing platform where there is a high fence blocking the view). Generally being able to extend to at least 50 inches without needing to extend the centre column is a good height. I prefer not to extend the centre column when I can avoid it as it’s not as stable in windy conditions.

  3. Ability to hold a reasonable load – You want something that can handle itself for different conditions whether that be supporting your camera with a lightweight wide angle lens all the way to a versatile zoom lens like the Canon 70-200. As an example, if you were to hold the Canon 5D Mark III and Canon 70-200 2.8 IS, this works out to be around 2.4kg. Most compact travel tripods are able to handle this load but just something worth noting and considering when looking at travel tripods as this is one area where they can really vary. 

With these items in mind, how does the Manfrotto tripod fare? To be honest, actually really well considering the price.

Manfrotto Befree Compact Travel Tripod


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[su_note note_color=”#2aa92e” text_color=”#ffffff” radius=”5″]Pros[/su_note]

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  • Weighing in at 2.4kg or 5.3 pounds you barely know this is in your bag.
  • Coming in at[amazon_link asins=’B00COLBNTK’ template=’PriceLink’ store=’alexwisephot-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’ 20554f82-008d-11e7-baf1-b3ee293d6cb5′], Manfrotto branded tripods don’t come much cheaper than the Befree range. This is great value for the money.
  • Holds a reasonable weight of 4kg making it more than up for the job of holding a heavy setup like the Canon 5D Mark III and Canon 70-200 which comes in at 2.4kg
  • Included travel case is useful for when travelling and on the move. Being able to store the tripod in a bag and put over your shoulder is handy as this thing is tiny. For comparison sake, have a look at the size difference compared to my shoe.
  • Centre column can be inverted for macro photography or to get low for unique angles


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[su_note note_color=”#d5132e” text_color=”#ffffff” radius=”5″]Cons[/su_note]

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  • Stability issues when the centre column is fully extended
  • Time consuming to pack away into travel bag
  • Ballhead is limited for panoramic photography. As a travel tripod you will be no doubt wanting to capture the occasional panoramic of a scene. Generally a 3 way tripod head (like this [amazon_textlink asin=’B014Q0RGK6′ text=’Manfrotto 3 way head’ template=’ProductLink’ store=’alexwisephot-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’ 945bd8ed-008f-11e7-9969-71848c336c93′]) works better for panoramic photos where you’re able to fine tune the movements of the photo. 
  • No hook on the centre column to add weight to balance it in strong winds. With past tripods I would clip my camera bag to the tripod to add some additional support. Unfortunately this isn’t possible with the Manfrotto Befree but if you get creative I’m sure there’s DIY ways of adding a hook to make it more stable.



 [amazon box=”B00COLBNTK” title=”Manfrotto Befree Compact Tripod” rating=”4″ reviews=”1″]

The Manfrotto Befree compact is a great tripod for the money. With some of the cons listed above, these are only natural trade offs that come with choosing to purchase a compact sized tripod. For some, having a tripod that is lightweight and portable will be enough to outweigh being constrained when it comes to panorama photography. 

Shooting seascapes with the Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 17-40 and the Manfrotto Befree
Shooting seascapes with the Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 17-40 and the Manfrotto Befree

After using the tripod a few times in different conditions from a windy afternoon at Cape Schanck (a seascape location) to walking around Melbourne on dusk taking long exposures, I’ve found the tripod to be a good all rounder and I’m glad I made the purchase. I’ve noticed when the tripod is fully extended with the centre column out, this can make the tripod feel slightly unstable and not something I’d be keen to leave the camera on unattended on in windy conditions.

Manfrotto befree ballhead
The included ballhead which comes with the Manfrotto Befree while good… Does have its limitations.

If being able to have the tripod extended to its maximum in windy conditions is important to you then perhaps a more sturdier and heavier tripod is more for you. But with that said though, I can’t think of how often I ever shoot with the tripod fully extended and I’m sure this is similar for most people.

So all in all, this is a great tripod and worth the purchase price for anyone looking for a lightweight tripod to take away on their next trip. 

By purchasing the [amazon_textlink asin=’B00COLBNTK’ text=’Manfrotto Befree through Amazon’ template=’ProductLink’ store=’alexwisephot-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’ 1a12d0b2-0133-11e7-b715-d538e5bb178f’] not only provides you with Amazon’s competitive pricing but also supports my blog at the same time (costing you nothing :)). A big thank you if you do decide to purchase through my affiliate link.

If you have any questions about the tripod feel free to drop a message as I’d be more than happy to help.

Thanks for reading,


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Long Exposure Filters Buying Guide

Neutral density filters are a great way to get creative and explore long exposure photography. With most manipulation to a photograph happening during post processing, it’s a refreshing change being able to get creative in camera with the various effects of long exposure photography.  The purpose of this article is to give you an overview of long exposure filters, how they work and what’s best based on your budget. 

Personally I recommend the NiSi long exposure kit paired with the NiSi’s circular polariser for anyone looking for the perfect long exposure filter kit. Whilst a bit on the pricey side, you are getting high quality filters that won’t affect your image quality which can be an issue with colour cast issues which comes with other brands like Cokin or Hitech. 

What is Long Exposure Photography?

An example of where a neutral density filter was used to slow down a moving object while keeping surrounding objects sharp

Before we start talking about the pros and cons of different neutral density filters, let’s get back to the basics for a moment. Long exposure photography or slow shutter photography, is where your camera uses a slower shutter speed to blur moving objects in your shot while keeping other parts of your image sharp and in focus.

Let’s look at this with a real world example of a long exposure image from Flinders Street Station. By using a slower shutter speed, I’ve been able to blur the passing traffic while the rest of the frame is sharp and in focus. This is just one of  the various styles of long exposures you can capture. My long exposure photography ideas has many more styles for you to explore from waterfalls to dark starry night skies, long exposures can be used at any time during the day with or without filters. 

What is a Neutral Density Filter?

Circular or Rectangle? 

Example of a rectangle neutral density filter setup

If you asked me this question 2-3 years ago when the Lee Big Stopper and NiSi rectangular circular polariser didn’t exist, I would have suggested stacking a mix of both circular 10 stop neutral density filter like the B+W 110 10 stopper and a rectangle graduated neutral density filter like the Cokin Z-Pro .9 filter on top of one another.

It was a painful process where you would screw your strong B+W 10 stop filter on first, then screw the filter holder adapter, mount the filter holder on top of this and then finally, slide your graduated filter through the filter holder. Fortunately things have come a long way with neutral density filters and circular polariser filters coming in rectangle form which leads to left stuffing around.

The reason I personally prefer going rectangle is that it makes changing filters a breeze and your process isn’t slowed having to screw/unscrew filters to setup for a shot (not so much when your fingers are frozen!). Instead you’re able to just slide your filters in or out of the filter holder and you’re away (literally a 2-3 second job). Much better. But the old way still works with that said 🙂

Example of a circular neutral density filter

Quick and Easy to Change

But this isn’t just about me being a princess and feeling the cold, having the ability to quickly change and remove filters is great when shooting with the more stronger neutral density filters (like the 15 stop Lee Big Stopper). 

Due to the filter being so dark, you’re unable to look through the viewfinder and compose your image when the filter is attached. This leads you having to take off the filter to compose and focus your photo and then re-attach. There’s been many times when I’ve accidentally left the autofocus on after screwing my B+W 10 stop and Cokin graduated neutral density filters on and then lost my focus as the camera can’t find a focus point (due to the strength of the filter). This can be especially frustrating when using a rectangle graduated neutral density filter on top of a circular screw filter as you not only have to remove the circular screw filter but also the lens screw adapter and rectangle filter holder. Instead if you were using just a rectangular system, there’s no unscrewing to recompose your image but just sliding your filters in or out. Much more convenient if you ask me! 

Greater Control

Another issue with circular screw on filters is controlling the location of the GND transition. As the transition isn’t as pronounced it can sometimes be difficult to get the GND exactly how you want it especially in low light conditions like sunrise or sunset. For this reason, I much prefer using rectangle filters where the graduation is more pronounced and can be easier to slot into place regardless of light conditions.

What Strength Level?

For this image I used a graduated neutral density filter to darken the sky

Neutral density filters come in all levels of strengths from blocking out 1 stop of light all the way up to blocking out 15 stops with the Lee Big Stopper. Deciding on what strength neutral density filter to use depends on your scene in terms of light conditions and what you are trying to achieve. 

If you are simply looking to balance the sunset sky against the land then the strength of your neutral density filter will depend on the light conditions at the time. If you’re shooting at the start of the sunset when there is still strong light, this is when you would look to apply a stronger strength neutral density filter. Towards the end of the sunset is when you would look to pull out a weaker strength neutral density filter as the light starts to fade. 

From personal experience – I’ll generally use my 10 stop filter for the first 15-30 minutes of the sunset but will put it away as the light starts to fade. I find as the light rapidly fades the filter really struggles to capture enough light and you’re left having to increase your ISO to accomodate the low light conditions which introduces unwanted noise. At this point I’ll either use a 6 stop neutral density filter or just shoot wide (F22~) at the lowest ISO possible (ISO 50) to get the slow long exposure times I’m after.

Using a 10 stop neutral density filter allowed me to capture this 5 minute exposure during the day

If you are looking to get creative with your photography and capture long exposures during the day (we’re talking exposure times of a few minutes) then this is when you will pull out the stronger 10+ stop neutral density filters like the Lee Big Stopper or NiSi 10 stopper.

By using these filters which block out a significant amount of light, you won’t be able to see through the viewfinder when the filter is applied due to the strength of the filter which can make composing a bit tricky. 

What is a Graduated Neutral Density Filter?

How soft, hard and reverse graduated neutral density filters are best applied.
How soft, hard and reverse graduated neutral density filters are best applied.

The difference between a graduated neutral density filter and a solid neutral density filter is that part of the filter will be neutral density (dark) and then transition into transparent (clear). The transition from dark to clear comes in different variations including soft edge, hard edge and reverse graduated neutral density filters which I briefly describe below:

Soft Edge GND

NiSi Soft Edge Graduated Neutral Density Filter

The top part of the filter is 100% neutral density and gradually lowers in strength to 0%.

This is my preferred type of filter and is best applied where your horizon level is uneven and you may have objects appearing above the horizon level. Generally if there are objects above the horizon which become darkened by the soft GND, you can generally dodge (brighten) this back in Lightroom/Photoshop to bring back the detail.

Pros: Great for scenes where you have objects sitting above the horizon as you can position the filter at 90° to avoid the object on the horizon
Cons: The gradual transition can be soft so occasionally you will need to stack multiple soft edge filters to get your desired effect

Hard Edge GND

NiSi Hard Edge Neutral Density Filter

The top half of the filter is neutral density and does not gradually transition to clear like the soft edge graduated neutral density filter. Hard edge graduated neutral density filters are best used in seascape photography when balancing the exposure from the sky to the land.

An example of how not to use GND filters. Notice how the filter has darkened the cliff? A big no no!

For best results, I only use hard edge graduated neutral density filters when there isn’t any objects on the horizon (i.e. surrounding cliffs). The reason being is that any objects on or above the horizon will darken which will lead to a loss in dynamic range to your final shot which can be difficult to recover in Lightroom/Photoshop.

Pros: Works great when there are only clouds above the horizon to darken the clouds nicely
Cons: The sharp transition from dark to clear makes these limited to scenes where there are no objects (i.e. cliffs) above your horizon

Reverse Level GND 

NiSi Reverse Graduated Neutral Density Filter

The reverse level graduated neutral density filter goes from clear at the top, to dark in the middle and then to clear again.

Think of a reverse level graduated neutral density filter as the ideal filter for when the sun is just about to pop on the horizon.  These aren’t as common as other graduated neutral density filters but can be handy when trying to capture the sunburst effect as the sun dips below the horizon.

Pros: Best used for sunset or sunrise photography when the sun is sitting on the horizon
Cons: Only effective when there is a sun bursting on the horizon so they become quite a specialised filter for the price

Are Neutral Density Filters Still Relevant as Technology Advances?

Most definitely!

There are some effects like day time long exposures or shooting directly into the sun on sunset which is only made possible by using neutral density filters like the Lee Big Stopper or NiSi graduated neutral density filter kit. Sure, you can imitate some of these effects in Photoshop with lots of image stacking but it’s not quite the same as capturing the image in camera. 

As technology has advanced I must admit that I’ve found myself using my graduated neutral density filters less as camera sensors have become more forgiving and post processing techniques have evolved with exposure stacking. Not only are sensors coming with higher megapixels but also with greater highlight and shadow recovery which means that you can sometimes get by without needing to use graduated neutral density filters.

A before and after with the easy to use Graduated Filter in Lightroom

Quite often I’ll apply the same effect in post using Lightroom’s graduated neutral density filter. Sure, this won’t work for every situation (i.e. when you’re shooting directly into harsh sunlight) however for other situations where you’re simply looking to emphasize the colour of a sunset sky, Lightroom’s graduated neutral density tool works great allowing you to decrease the brightness of the sky as you would with a normal graduated neutral density filter. 

Can the a digital workflow fully replace physical neutral density filters? I’ll leave that to another post but in my opinion, no, not at the moment anyway. 

Choosing Neutral Density Filters

Which Filter is Best for You?

Using a graduated neutral density filter allowed me to properly capture the light bursting on the horizon

Anyone who is serious about landscape photography needs a graduated neutral density filter and at least one strong neutral density filter in their bag. There’s a couple of reasons to why I recommend this:

  1. Flexibility in quickly changing light conditions – Having a strong neutral density filter in your kit allows you to continue taking long exposures in the later stage of a sunrise or early stage of a sunset. I’m not sure about you but there’s been many a times when I’ve photographed a sunrise and stuffed around in the dark for too long and only found a good spot to photograph as the light started to become stronger. At this point of the sunrise, it becomes harder to take a long exposure due to the amount of light hitting your camera meter. By having a strong neutral density filter available, I’m able to put this on my camera and still obtain the effect I’m after like the nice blurry movement of waves crashing against a rock
  2. Balancing harsh light in a scene – We’ve all been there, the sun is beginning to set and you want to capture an image just before the sun dips below the horizon to capture that burst of the suns last light. Unfortunately your camera has other ideas and will struggle to expose the image. This is where a graduated neutral density filter comes in handy and helps you balance the exposure of the harsh sunlight against the land
  3. Creativity – We can’t all be blessed with great light against jaw dropping locations so sometimes it takes a bit more to get that shot. In these situations sometimes I’ll experiment with a strong neutral density filter to capture a long exposure to add a bit extra to the image, whether that be the blur of passing clouds or the movement of the water. 

Neutral Density Filter Buying Guide

Showing the difference a strong neutral density filter like the Lee Big Stopper can do to your scene with this long exposure image

So taking these reasons to why I love neutral density filters, here are some of my favourite neutral density filters available at the time of writing. Unfortunately neutral density filters don’t come cheap but I’ve tried to make all attempts to include a range in different price brackets.

Like most things in life, it pays to spend and get the best you can afford as this will ensure superior image quality.With the midrange and budget price brackets, the filters aren’t perfect and can introduce colour cast to your image (a purple tinge) when using multiple filters at a time. Part of the reason the high end filters are more expensive is that because they don’t have any colour cast issues like the cheaper filters. 

My recommendation for people looking at the different price brackets and unsure – If you’ve used neutral density filters before and know they will form an essential part of your kit, just buy properly the first time. If you’re sitting on the fence and haven’t used them before, start off with the more affordable range first to see if you get a taste for them before splashing the cash. 

High End

NiSi and Lee are the producers of the best filters in the high end market. For many years, Lee had a firm grip on the market but in recent years, NiSi have started to make a presence with their filters which are slightly more affordable than the Lee range and offer just as good, if not better, quality than the Lee filters. Plus I’m a sucker for Australian based products.

If you want a great set up, I would strongly recommend the NiSi long exposure kit with comes with the required adaptor, a 6 stop and 10 stop neutral density filter. Add a circular polariser and graduated neutral density filter and you will have yourself a very nice kit. 

Yes I agree it is a lot of money to spend on filters but with this setup you will be fully equipped to photograph long exposures during the day, waterfall photography and for sunrise or sunset photography. The perfect kit for a landscape photographer. 

[amazon_link asins=’B01EZ5VCXE,B00MNSS130,B00M24Y6MU,B00KL5PHAC,B00XCHFJMW’ template=’ProductCarousel’ store=’alexwisephot-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’ f80d1787-f75f-11e6-84e7-75c10fbbc909′]


For those that don’t want to break the bank on the premium end of the market or aren’t sure whether neutral density filters are for them, I’d recommend a mix of filters from a strong long exposure like the B+W 110 10 stop neutral density filter (great for capturing daytime long exposures), a Hoya circular polariser for assisting with reducing the glare and getting a longer exposure time for photographing waterfalls and lastly, a set of Cokin Z-Pro graduated neutral density filters

Contrary to what others say, the Cokin Z-Pro filters are actually good bang for buck provided you know the constraints of the filters. As an example, if you stack all three graduated filters at once, you will get some harsh purple colour cast coming through the filters meaning an unwanted purple colour at the top half of the frame which you may or may not want. I’m assuming you may not want… Although I may have cheated a few times and used the colour cast to my advantage for dull sunsets… 

[box type=”info” style=”rounded”]If you really want to experiment with long exposure photography on the cheap why not DIY a neutral density filter with welding glass?[/box]

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Examples of Long Exposure Photography

Examples of different long exposure photographs
Examples of different long exposure photographs

Some of my favourite long exposure photographs are of water (I love the sea if you can’t already tell by expanding the image to the right) but there are plenty more options whether it be long exposures of traffic at night or capturing the movement of clouds at a location over the period of 5-10 minutes (creates a cool effect!).

[box style=”rounded”]Looking for ideas to plan your next shoot? Give my long exposure photography ideas post a read for some ideas and inspiration[/box]

Most of the images in the right image were made possible by having neutral density filters which allowed me to take 5~ minute long exposures during the day. They allowed me to turn an otherwise dull scene into something different and unique from the effect of a long exposure (like the pylons beneath the jetty).


I hope this buying guide for long exposure filters has been useful and answered some questions. Please don’t hesitate to reach out via my contact form if you have any questions as I’d be more than happy to help where I can.

Thanks for reading,



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Before and After – Warburton Cement Creek



Last Thursday I spent the morning watching the weather forecast as a heavy pattern of rain made its way over Victoria and tried to find somewhere new to take photos. I can’t say I’ve ever gone and chased waterfalls during summer on a 35 degree day but I am so glad I did! I eventually decided to take a drive to Warburton and explore the area around East Warburton which is home to Warburton Creek and the beautiful redwood forest which I’ll look to share in a future post. 

Walking around Warburton Creek was stunning even if I did take the wrong turn and walk the wrong way for 30 minutes or so in the scorching heat. Boy was it hot! But with that said, I eventually found some stunning little streams in Warburton to photograph and I was suddenly like a kid on Christmas day. It was the most refreshing feeling standing knee deep in water on a boiling Melbourne day. I just regret not taking some swimmers! 

Without realising I was suddenly caught in the heavy showers I’d been watching in the weather forecasts in the days leading up. The rain was almost torrential at times which led to flash flooding in the area and difficult photography conditions. Unfortunately I didn’t get much of a chance to fire off many photos as the lens would quickly be saturated whenever I aimed in any direction.

Water droplets blurring parts of my image

With the severe weather conditions, this is what led me to photograph and process the image how I have. The plan was to take 3 images to create a vertical panorama which sort of worked. I luckily managed to get a photo off of the bottom half of the scene without any water droplets on the lens but as I slowly moved my camera upwards, a few water droplets made their way onto the camera lens. Easily avoidable if you actually stop to check your lens between shots. Oops!

Getting water drops on your lens isn’t the end of the world and just leads to some blur to parts of your image. In trying to hide the water drops, I looked to create a light burst effect through the trees. It was very much an experiment of a new technique that I’d picked up off a Phlearn video and I’d love to hear your feedback. Is it too much? Doesn’t float your boat? Let me know!


To give you more understanding to how this image was post processed I’ve put together this small clip. Hopefully it doesn’t bore you senseless but gives you more of an understanding to how the radial blur and layer masks were applied to the image.  The key post processing made to the image include:

  • Stitching the three images in Photoshop – Quite self explanatory and more comes down to personal preference. I feel that once upon a time 3rd party tools like Ptgui owned the panorama space but now days Lightroom and Photoshop provide great offerings. I used Photoshop to stitch the three images.
  • Removal of distortion and levelling – Shooting with a Canon 17-40 at 17mm on a full frame body leads to some distortion being introduced to the image. I pulled this back by using the lens correction tool.
  • Creating light bursts – This is a mix of using the radial blur tool set to Zoom, quality set to Best and the amount set to 100. By using layer masks, I create a black layer masks (effectively disabling the radial blur) and then started to slowly re-introduce the radial blur (or light bursts) into the frame by painting over the image with the white brush. The key here was to try make the bursts look natural and coming through the trees. Once this was applied, I then looked to apply a light burst technique by Phlearn which added a nice finishing touch.
  • Lens flare – Wow, I haven’t touched this since I picked up Photoshop CS2 many, many years ago and was making crappy logos for my Geocities website. The intent of using the lens flare tool was to create a sense that a warm light was coming through the trees. I applied a warm photo filter over the lens flare to give a golden hour light feel to the image.
  • Luminosity masks – I used to be a sceptic about luminosity masks thinking they would slow my walk flow down and were people who didn’t know how to post process their images (oh how wrong I was on both fronts). Luminosity masks have been around for years and there are some great tutorials by Sean Bagshaw who explains the technique in more detail. In short though, luminosity masks allow you to make very selective changes to your darks, mids and highlights of an image. For this image, I used luminosity masks to make curves, photo filter saturation changes to small parts of the image. I love the granular control that luminosity masks give you over an image. I’m so glad I spent the time to watch Sean’s video’s and would recommend for anyone looking to further grow their post processing skills.

With fiddling back and forward I eventually ended up with the below image – 

Warburton Cement Creek
Warburton Cement Creek

Should you have any feedback on how the image was processed or questions feel free to reach out as I’d love to hear from you. The post processing for this image might not be for everyone’s tastes and was more an experimental edit for me so I’d love to hear your feedback.

Thanks for reading (and hopefully watching),



Posted on

Before and After – Under the Stars

Sitting under the stars in Pimba, South Australia
Sitting under the stars in Pimba, South Australia

In the last few years I’ve been in awe of the work by Michael Shainblum who is just one of the many people  upping the game when it comes to silky clean milky way and star photographs. I have to admit, milky way photography has never been one of my strongest points and I’ll often blame the age of my Canon 5D Mark II being limited in lowlight as an excuse to not get out and shoot milky ways. With a recent trip I was keen to challenge myself with this photograph titled Under the Stars which features me, sitting on a hammock attached to a tree wrapped in fairy lights under the milky way with a fully stoked fire keeping us warm. The end photo required a few shots at varying exposures to bring it all together which I’ll look to walk you through in this post.

Challenging your in camera and post processing techniques

On a drive from Melbourne to Perth (50 hours of driving) I was keen to explore some of the night skies in the middle of nowhere and add a couple of milky way shots to my gallery. Yes, the Canon 5D Mark II struggled at ISO 3200 but unless you’re looking close, it’s not too noticeable (well I think so anyway..!)

[box type=”info” style=”rounded”]My Melbourne to Perth roadtrip post has more photos from this trip where I explored some of the best parts of Australia[/box]

This is one of my favourite photos of the trip and is something that was just a concept I was keen to try. To be honest, I didn’t think I’d be able to pull it off in getting the right exposures and post processing it correctly but I’m pretty happy with the end result. 

The hammock wasn’t just for decoration and was the perfect way to kick back before the sunset

Coming up with a concept that’s outside your comfort zone and giving it a go is the only way to really push your development in hands on photography and post processing. There were other concepts that I toyed with while we were away and you know what? They didn’t come off. But it was fun taking them and giving them a try. Next time you’re planning a photography outing, why not set yourself a lofty goal and see how you go executing it? If you fail, you’ll learn so much on how to do it different next time. If you succeed, you’ll no doubt pick up on things you can do better next time while learning little techniques that you may not normally use in your normal post processing workflow.

[box type=”info” style=”rounded”]I recently bought a new travel tripod and compared the 5 most popular tripods on the market. Give my travel tripod guide a read if you’re looking for a lightweight tripod for your next trip![/box]

About the photograph

Unglamorous camp photo. I couldn’t resist and camped without my tent cover. Sleeping under the stars was something amazing

For this photograph, Under the Stars, we were camping in Pimba, South Australia which is basically in the middle of no where. As we were driving around the area looking for somewhere to set up our tents for the night, we found this secluded part located just off the salt lake and surrounded by this tree you see in the photo. Straight away we knew where we were camping for the night. It was perfect, silence that was almost eerie and skies that were darker than some of my brother’s music tastes in high school (really dark! Sorry Rich 😉 ) 

After shooting the sunset and then shooting the milky way down at the salt lake for a few more hours, we eventually headed back to our tents but were still keen to shoot for a while longer to make the most of the dark skies.

With a hammock already in the tree from some lazy beers in the sun earlier and the fire lit to warm up, we decided to pull the solar powered fairy lights out of the car which we had bought on the first day of our trip and neglected ever since. I knew they would eventually come in handy..!  

[box type=”info” style=”rounded”]Interested in landscape photography? My guide to landscape photography shows you how to get started in this fun part of photography[/box]

Taking the photograph

The final photo was a mix of 4 images with the other 6 very loosely used where required (i.e. detail in the tree or fire)

When experimenting with an image concept I have a habit of going overboard with my image brackets. Throw in the poor performance of the Canon 5D Mark II and you have 10 bracketed images. Ok ok. I probably could have got by with less but better safe than sorry right? 

There is some reasoning to my madness with the need for having 10 different images coming from:

  • Tree and fairy lights –With a light wind around this meant a shorter exposure of the tree and fairy lights was needed to avoid any shake. This had to be a high ISO shot to get a shorter exposure (5 sec)
  • Me sitting in the hammock – Trying to sit still in a hammock with no subtle movements should be an Olympic sport. Either that or I have ants in my pants. With this said, I needed a shorter exposure  (2.5 sec) of me sitting in the hammock to minimise the risk of any subtle movements
  • Exposing for the stars behind the tree – With the plan to make this a two image panoramic (one for the scene you see in most of the frame and another for the milky way sky) it was important to bracket a shot of the stars behind the tree which would allow for a seamless alignment of the two images
  • Positioning the camera further up to capture the milky way – I won’t lie the milky way wasn’t directly above the tree like the photo suggests but it was close! Unfortunately it was hovering just to the right of the tree however by angling the camera up I was able to capture a frame which would later be used above three
  • Short burst for the fire – The plan was to capture the fire looking more natural rather than a blur of orange light. Even at ISO 25600 I wasn’t able to get an exposure short enough to get the fire how I wanted it. At ISO 25600, the Canon 5D Mark II really comes into its own with its amazing handling of noise (sarcasm intended). 
  • Couple of extra frames for good measure – I’ve got nothing. Press the button and hope for the best for a few frames?

Bringing it all together


I’d love to tell you that I processed this with the same level of precision like Marc Adamus in the space of 10 minutes. But in reality of me being sleep deprived after driving 12 hours the day before and not really knowing what I was doing, the edit for this photo took a couple of hours or so of extreme procrastination and trial and error. 

The key elements to processing this image (after we get past the trial and error):

  • Bringing all the concepts together with layer masks – As mentioned earlier in the post, I shot a series of frames at different ISO levels and shutter speeds to minimise noise where possible and capture specific detail (i.e. me in the hammock or the detail of the fairy lights).
  • Cloning out the car – Not sure when composing that I didn’t notice a small part of the car in the frame. Whoops. A quick touch over with the clone stamp tool had it removed.
  • Colour grading – Sorry, that sounds wanky but it also sounds like I know what I’m talking about so let’s run with it. Colour grading was selectively applied to the image using layer masks. The intent here is to control the colour to parts of the scene which may have been affected by noise. Parts of the image where these minor tweaks were applied include adjusting the blue hues in the sky and dialling back the orange glow on the sand.
  • Overlaying the milky way – Dropping the milky way into the shot was either going to make or break the photo. In an effort to make it look as natural as possible, I used the bracketed image with the stars as the base image of the sky. I then used the image which had the milky way with a very subtle transition through the tree using an inverse selection. 
  • Noise reduction – Shooting at ISO 3200 and higher does leave you with some ugly noise in parts (i.e. around the dark parts of the sand where I’ve tried to pull back some detail). Fortunately Nik Collection’s free Dfine tool works wonders for the removal of noise. I don’t apply noise reduction across my whole image and prefer to just apply it selectively to parts of the image most affected. When you are applying noise reduction, you are reducing the sharpness of the image so it’s important to ensure you are only applying it where needed to minimise any loss of sharpness. 
  • Dodging of the scene – As I was using exposures of various dynamic ranges, there wasn’t much needed in the way of dodge and burning of the scene. With only some minor dodging applied to the fairy lights to make them appear brighter and further dodging around the fire to create the flare effect you see in the final image.

To help give you a sense of how the different adjustments were made and effected the image, I’ve put together this short clip which gradually introduces the various layers to reach the final image.

[box type=”info” style=”rounded”]If you enjoyed this post, be sure to give my Before and After series a look for similar posts[/box]

Feel free to use the contact page if you have any comments or questions about this post.

Thanks for reading!


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Finding the Sunset Direction for Photography

The Photographer’s Ephemeris is a fantastic tool that makes planning photographic expeditions a total cinch. No more wasted trips or missed shots due to unsatisfactory lighting or the pesky sun popping up over the horizon in the ‘wrong’ place. I rely on it quite a bit as part of my photography workflow and wanted to share a bit about the app, why its a useful tool to have and how to use it. 

What is the photographer’s ephemeris?

The ephemeris? It’s connected to the thigh bone, surely?

Actually, no. An ephemeris is a chart or collection of data used to help locate the position of “celestial objects”. As far as photographers are concerned, this means the sun (or moon, if you’re of a long-exposing, nocturnal persuasion). In practice then, what The Ephemeris does is let you figure out where the sun or moon will be, at any given hour, on any given date. Don’t worry, it’s quite the mouthful that has stumped many photographers as it’s popped up into conversation with us all having a stab on the pronunciation. Just for the record, I go with ‘ef-eh-meris’ myself! 

While the name and description might make it sound more like an obscure, archaic document that’s spent the last 300 years locked in a dusty university library somewhere, The Photographer’s Ephemeris actually comes in the form of both smartphone app and web-based desktop program. It takes complex astronomical data and visually displays this by means of Google Maps, making it easy to use – even for us halfwit camera-monkey like me. Here I walk you through how and why you should use it, so you don’t need to go bothering the professor for an explanation.

Who needs it?

You, more than likely. Or, at least, any photographer who cares about quality of light. Given that the word photography literally means ‘writing with light’, that’s pretty much any photographer who wants to take good pictures. That is you, right?

The Photographer’s Ephemeris is the perfect tool for capturing that last burst of light and knowing just the right spot to stand

Obviously this will be especially of use to landscape photographers. For example, a successful portrait primarily depends upon the distinctive countenance and charisma of the person portrayed, and the photographer’s ability to create a rapport with that person; meanwhile street photographers are flaneurs, lurking in the urban environment waiting for humanity to collide in quirky and ephemeral juxtapositions that are in some way revealing of our society and its values. These are one-off, fleeting moments that are difficult – if not impossible – to recreate.

As a landscape photographer, however, your subject matter may be considerably less unique.

CreditAnsel Adams

Indeed some of the most successful and well-known landscape photographs are of locations that have been captured time and time again – both by unimpeachable masters and a hundred-thousand cack-handed amateurs alike. What makes Ansel Adams’ vision of Yosemite still stand out today is his mastery of composition and light. The Photographer’s Ephemeris is a tool to help you achieve just such mastery.

In fact, perhaps we should rephrase things: if you’re a landscape photographer then your subject is light. The landscape is just a receptacle for your subject. And if light is your subject then you need to be in control of it.

Credit: Garry Winogrand: Dallas, 1964

With that said, some of the greatest portraits, street shots and other iconic photographs also draw a significant part of their appeal from the succesful use of light: just think of those classic Garry Winogrand images of the aging Texan cowboy stepping onto the sidewalk, or 3 women at the corner of Vine St. They just wouldn’t have the same impact if it wasn’t for the driving beams of sunshine illuminating the concrete canyons of the North American metropolis and throwing the subjects into relief. In fact, we might well ask whether either of these photographs would have made it any further than Winogrand’s contact sheets if instead he’d rolled up 40 minutes later –  shooting the same scene but in total shadow, rather than dramatically backlit as he did.

Given Winogrand’s famously haphazard and frenzied manner of shooting, however, I think we can safely assume that at no point did he ever bother to consult a sun-chart. Nonetheless, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t. Certainly there’s little point in descending upon a potentially rewarding street corner only to discover that the last ray of sunlight disappeared over the rooftops a good half an hour earlier just because that’s what Winogrand might’ve done (he also died leaving behind thousands of undeveloped rolls of film he shot of random women out of his car window, you want to try that too?).

Why should you use the photographer’s ephemeris 

Needless to say, for anyone hoping to capture light at exactly the height and angle they want it, the ability to pick the right time and day to be in a certain location offers an enormous advantage. Instead of repeatedly having to drag yourself out of bed at obscene hours of the morning in the vain hope of encountering that perfect sunrise, you choose your location, check for the auspicious alignment of “celestial bodies”, and set your alarm. Job done.

Catching the golden hour light up Flinders Street which only lasts a few minutes before disappearing between the buildings

And your somewhat less-than-celestial body likely gained an extra half-hour under the bedcovers. I’ve used it for a few photo shoots including one of the light shining up Flinders Street just before it dips beneath the buildings. Knowing the timing of when the light would be at the right level before it dipped was crucial to getting Flinders Street Station lighting up with that golden hour light that we all love.

Alternatively, you can just keep doing it the way you’ve always done: standing in the middle of nowhere for 60 minutes of subzero twilight waiting for the sun to finally drag itself over a mountaintop, only for the light to totally miss the subject of your photograph when his celestial highness finally does rise anyway because you came way too early in the year.

What the photographer’s ephemeris helps you with

When shooting on a salt flat with not much in the way of composition, it’s great to know where the sun is going to set and burst

You’ve found the ultimate location, scouted the perfect vantage point, pre-visualised the composition and selected the right lens. All you need now is the weather and the light. Unless you’re that omnipotent dude with the beard and staff, or happen to be with the CIA, then there’s likely not a great deal you can do to control the former. The light, on the other hand, is largely just a matter of careful planning.

Planning your best sunrise and sunset locations

Got a location in mind for a stunning sunrise or sunset shot but want to check that it really is pointing in the direction you think it is? The Photographer’s Ephemeris will save you from a wasted trip. A great feature of the photographer’s ephemeris is that it also allows you to simulate different dates and times which works well for locations where the sun may be rising or setting at a different angle depending on the earth’s axis.

Chasing that keylight and backlight

When it comes to photography there’s really no right or wrong type of lighting, rather there will just be some qualities of light that are more or less appropriate for the particular shot that you’re trying to achieve.

Waiting for that burst of light up Greville St, Melbourne. Rather than wait all day, I just plugged the location into The Photographers Ephemeris iPhone app and knew what time to arrive

Many, if not all, serious photographers often have a preconceived idea of what they want an image to look like long before they get anywhere near to shooting it. This will frequently include plans regarding lighting. Clearly, if you’re this meticulous about the light in your photographs, and have a set idea in mind, you absolutely do not want to spend time and energy trekking off into some remote wilderness only to discover that nobody called the sun to inform it of your plans ahead of time. For this reason, The Ephemeris can be indispensable.

Indirect light

While missing the light can be a real disappointment, finding a scene speckled with stray sunbeams when you were hoping for a flat, contrast-free location in which to shoot can prove equally frustrating. Indeed, predicting precisely where the sun will hit is one thing, but sometimes you may want to avoid direct sun shining on the subject altogether – but still with a beautiful glow of soft yet directional light reflecting in from the sky.

Getting a soft light is key for waterfall photography

Just waiting for dusk to fall will not produce the same effect, so you’ll need to identify a point at which your location will succumb to the shadows caused by obstructions such as mountains or buildings, yet before the sun goes down. Indeed, The Ephemeris is probably just as valuable for its ability to show which areas of a locality will be without light as it is for indicating those with.

[box type=”info” size=”large” style=”rounded”]Knowing when the light will be dim works wonders for waterfall photography. My guide on waterfall photography goes hand in hand with this guide to capturing the best light[/box]

Using the photographers ephemeris

I know what some of you are thinking: “What do I need this for when I have a compass on my phone and Google Maps clearly shows where north is? The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. Easy!”

Sure, assuming you only need to gain a rough sense of where the sun will be positioned, your compass or map will do the job just fine. But there are many situations where the success of a shot will depend upon the light hitting a precise feature within the landscape, and at a particular angle. Without even getting into complex shots of incredible natural phenomena, lets just look at a very banal, easy to understand example: someone standing at a window with a nice backlight.

[box type=”info” style=”rounded”]Interested in landscape photography? My complete guide to landscape photography equipment and technique has you covered![/box]

Let’s pretend for a moment it’s April where ever you are in the world when you first spot the location. Inside, the room is exactly what you were looking for. Outside, the view is even better than you’d dreamed of. It’s perfect in every way.

Or at least it would be if it wasn’t for the fact that the building opposite blocks all sunlight from entering the room and illuminating your model, and there’s no sign that this situation will change later in the day.

Getting the right timing as the light pokes through the buildings of Sydney

Checking on the The Photographer’s Ephemeris, however, you can see that it would be worth coming back to shoot in late May, as by then the sun’s path will be sufficiently high to clear the building opposite and beam down through the window for over an hour each morning, allowing you to get the photo you wanted. Conversely, you can see that if you leave it until June before returning to shoot, the sun will already be too high in the sky and only briefly enter a few inches into the room before passing directly overhead.

Now imagine that you’ve seen some spectacular limestone rock formations, with holes in, allowing a view across the plains to a mountain peak. You have the idea to line up the sun, the peak and the holes. But is it possible? The Ephemeris knows.

How Does It Work?

Save and sync your locations between the desktop and mobile apps of The Photographer’s Ephemeris

Begin by choosing a style of map suitable for your subject (i.e. either regular Map, Satellite/Hybrid or Terrain). Now search for a destination you’re interested in shooting and drop a red pin right on your location. This screen gives you the ability to simulate where the sun will be at a given time, objects that may get in the way (i.e. a large rock stack) or even show you the shadow length that an object like a large rock stack may create.

The Photographer’s Ephemeris is a powerful tool and I must profess that I’m only covering off the very basics in this post. The tool is capable of a lot more including a night mode which allows you to track the milky way and integrates with Skyfire which gives you sunrise and sunset forecasts to help you in finding the best location to photograph the sunrise or sunset. How good is that?! Rather than complicate this post, I’m going to cover off the basics with the next few points.

Bookmarking your favourite locations

Locations can be bookmarked, so you can come back to them later: for example, as you’re sitting down for lunch planning your shoot for the afternoon you can quickly recall your saved location and check for the ideal date and time to shoot. If it’s not looking the right light, just keep scrolling through your list until you find somewhere that will be ideal based on the conditions of the day.

Simulating the sun at different times of the year

Finding the right light at Cape Schanck, Victoria
Finding the right light angle at Cape Schanck, Victoria
Golden hour light hitting Cape Schanck
Golden hour light hitting Cape Schanck

Choose a date from the calendar and then scroll across the timeline in order to see the trajectory and angle of light on your location at any particular moment during the day (or indeed night). This feature works well for photographing locations like my photo from Cape Schanck to the right. It was important to get the golden hour light shining on the rocks at the right angle. If I were to have photographed this at other times of the year, I would have had a harsh shadow of myself appearing in the frame. No one wants to see my ugly shadow in the frame 😉

Planning for obstructions that may block your light

Dropping a second, gray, pin displays geodetic data (i.e. info about the shape of the land, elevation etc.). This feature is extremely handy, as it allows you to work out if, say, a mountain or other geographical feature might potentially block the sun from illuminating your location for a further period of time after the sun has already risen and is shining everywhere else.

Once again, if you enjoy shooting in diffused light, The Ephemeris will allow you to plot the ideal time to start or finish work at a shortlisted location, before unwanted rays of strong direct sunlight start creeping into the shot. Move the timeline to see where shadows will fall, and from which angle, at any given time of day.

Simulating what effect the shadows may have on a scene is easy with The Photographer’s Ephemeris

Given the relative difficulty of estimating for yourself just how quickly shadows will grow or begin to disappear, perhaps the most important feature here is the app’s ability to display how long or short shadows will be at any particular moment. For example, if you’re a shooter that is looking to use the shadows to your advantage with a scene then having this feature can be a great one to have. Occasionally I will use it for my photography to help understand when the light will even out and give a flat exposure to my camera.

[box type=”info” size=”large” style=”rounded”]Interested in getting into long exposure photography but stuck for ideas? Give my long exposure photography ideas post a read![/box]

Closing out

The Photographer’s Ephemeris is a great time-saving tool for photographers across the board. While it will be particularly useful for those who shoot landscapes, it can also come in handy for photographers working in many other areas too.

While not a critical tool that every photographer must use, it is definitely one which photographers should know about and have up their sleeve. I’ve found it particularly useful when planning to photograph a location I’ve not visited before and looking to ensure I make the most of my time there. A great example of this was from a recent trip driving from Melbourne to Perth where we were visiting locations for the first time and was looking to ensure we were maximising our sunrise and sunset locations.

Indeed, for anyone planning a complex shot that relies upon precise natural lighting conditions, The Ephemeris will likely prove indispensable. By dropping a pin at your intended location you can quickly establish whether it offers the kind of light you’re looking for when you need it. If not, it’ll either be a case of choosing another date and time, or opting for a different location entirely. Either way, with The Photographer’s Ephemeris you can be sure that there will be no nasty last-minute surprises when planning a shot.

If nothing else, unless you’re a chronic insomniac, an amphetamine addict or a parent of small children (in which case sleep is anyway but a distant memory), you will likely appreciate the ability to set your alarm at a more convenient hour when shooting at sunrise.

Hope this guide has been useful! If you have any queries, please don’t hesitate to reach out and drop a line. Always happy to help!

Visit The Photographer’s Ephemeris to download the desktop or mobile app and learn more.