Mark Janes is an outdoor photographer and educator based in the far north of Scotland, working with clients in travel, tourism and land-management. He has a keen interest in the night-sky and seeks to incorporate this into his work, creating ethereal “nightscapes” that showcase the spectacular Scottish landscape in a new light.
Operating under the name “Scot Land, Sea and Sky”, Mark’s work features in tourism brochures and websites, and he offers classes, workshops and one-to-one sessions for those who wish to develop their landscape photography skills. His prints adorn many homes and high-end vacation properties in the Scottish Highlands.
As darkness blankets north Scotland’s primeval wilds, Mark Janes sets his sights between the heavens and earth to document night sky landscapes in incredible detail
Humankind’s desire to create is seemingly boundless. In a few short centuries, photographic technology has evolved exponentially – and with it, the variety of subjects capable of being documented. Now, the best of mirrorless systems can create stunning scenes of our cosmos with fidelity barely distinguishable from the human eye. We caught up with one such creator, Mark Janes, who has recently been trying out the new GF20-35mmF4 R WR.
Situated north of Inverness, Scotland, Mark is exposed to aurora borealis, unpolluted views of the Milky Way and scenic vistas aplenty. There are few better locations on earth, but arresting results can still be achieved elsewhere, with enough dedication and some expert guidance. First comes the question of where and when.
“Planning is really important with night sky photography, as it is with landscape more broadly,” Mark begins. “I don’t truly think of myself as an astro photographer, though the night sky does play a major part in my images. I often photograph whatever phenomena happens to be present – whether it’s the northern lights, a sparkling Milky Way or noctilucent clouds. People seeking to document one of those especially can plan accordingly, but the location itself is more important to me than the night sky above.”
Northern lights are a rare sight for the majority of Europe, while cascading horizon views of the Milky Way are almost solely reserved for those towards the south. But escape the city far enough and a bounty of celestial delights await wherever you are.
“Go anywhere you can to avoid light pollution,” Mark advises. “A relatively small town over the horizon will show up with the kind of long exposures you’ll be making. Even if you can’t see the light pollution with the naked eye, it will show up in the image.”
Next, there’s the matter of creative tools to consider. Differences between various systems may be slightly less apparent within other photographic pursuits, but detailed astro scenes push the most modern of sensors to their limits.
“The challenge is creating an image with minimal noise in very low-light conditions. Sensitivity of ISO 1600 or above is needed, so a sensor that can create at those higher settings without producing too much digital noise is important. For me, the 50-megapixel FUJIFILM GFX50R sensor is the sweet spot in that respect,” Mark continues. “You’ve got a huge amount of detail, the dynamic range means you can raise shadows without many artefacts, but given it’s a relatively modest resolution for the huge sensor size, you’ve got big pixels and quite low pixel density.”
As ever, lenses are another important choice. Longer focal lengths close in on an uncontextualised section of sky, which will suit the vision of certain creatives beautifully – but as Mark has established, the stars are merely one part of what makes his images special.
“Anything from 24mm down to 16mm, in full-frame equivalent, is where I’m most comfortable. That gives an epic look to night sky photography, but it also means you can get close to some foreground details as well,” he reasons. “I’ve been using FUJINON GF20-35mmF4 R WR, which falls right within that range. The lens’s aperture is also perfect for me, because I view F4 as a minimum limit and it’s very sharp without stopping down.
“Still, someone trying the genre for the first time doesn’t need very much,” Mark assures. “The GFX System sensor is in its own league, but you can get great results from the right crop sensor camera. Any X Series body with a moderately fast wide-angle lens attached will do the job.”
Any subset of astrophotography should not be viewed as inaccessibly technical – though there are some fundamentals to perfect. In the eyes of this creator, there are three distinct factors to manage.
“People expect the stars in a night sky image to be pinpoint sharp,” Mark muses. “That’s what they truly look like when you go out at night, so the image has to reflect that, I feel. To achieve that, you need to avoid star trailing, acquire focus and avoid camera shake.
“Star trailing is caused by the rotation of the earth and is a genre in its own right. The longer the exposure, the more of the Earth’s movement in relation to the stars you document. A good rule of thumb is one we call the ‘500 rule’. If you take the number 500 and divide it by the focal length of your lens in its full-frame equivalent, you get a maximum shutter speed. For example, with GF20-35mm at the wide end of its zoom range, you’d have full-frame equivalent of about 16mm. Divide 500 by 16 for a maximum shutter speed of roughly 31 sec. For certainty, I tend to back off a little bit from that.
“You can forget autofocus for astrophotography,” Mark adds. “There’s not enough light for even the most advanced systems to work reliably. Typically, I’ll find the brightest star in the in the field, hit the Rear Command Dial to magnify the image, then use the manual focus ring to shuttle backwards and forwards until the point of the star is at its smallest. Focus Peaking really helps as well.
“Avoiding camera shake is about having a good, solid tripod. It’s worth the effort of carrying something a bit heavier in my opinion – especially in windy conditions.”
Inevitably, photographers will begin to evolve their images at individual rates, but if years of experience have taught Mark anything, it’s that a sturdy foundation cannot be overstated. Forget enticing compositions and narrative interest until sharp, well-exposed stars are second nature. Eventually, technical proficiency will give way to artistry.
“I actually photograph much less these days and, for me, visualising the images has become extremely important,” Mark states. “I spend quite a bit of time looking at maps or scouting locations during the day, imagining which scene would look best with the Milky Way behind. Then there’s a lot of planning about what’s the optimal time to do that, in terms of time of year and time of day. Don’t be put off by poor weather forecasts. You can always get a break in cloud cover. If you don’t go, you won’t know.
“There are lots of techniques to try for added interest,” Mark reveals, addressing the distinctive features of his own photographs. “I often add light to a scene with light painting. At exposure times up to 20 seconds, you’ve got enough time to illuminate an object in the foreground with a torch. Less is more, so don’t use a particularly bright source, and find the right balance between the foreground object and night sky behind. It’s trial and error, but you want to retain a night-time look, rather than emulate a daylight scene. Larger scenes can only be lit by the moon, which requires planning. The other alternative is silhouetting, if you have something with an interesting shape in the foreground.”
Mark’s closing thoughts turn to a passion that shows no signs of diminishing. The heavens have been a source of human inspiration for millennia. Who can turn their gaze towards the stars without a sense of cosmic awe?
“It is a technical kind of photography,” the image maker concludes, “but never forget the art. Sometimes it’s nice to go out and experience these sights even without the camera. The feeling you get from looking at the skies is important. Ultimately, I try to portray that in the images.”