In high school, Ben Coffman’s father taught him how to take photos on a “Vietnam-era Canon SLR.” Later on, in college, Ben took a college photography class where began playing around with long exposure photography by “waving a flashlight around in front of the camera, shooting the trailing taillights and headlights on cars from an overpass.”
Ben didn’t get serious with photography until about 4 years ago, when he moved to Portland, Oregon and, inspired by the beautiful landscapes he was surrounded by, began hauling his old camera around with him.
Inspired by numerous night photographers (he names quite a few including Babak Tafreshi, Christoph Malin,, Ben Canales, and Jose Miguel Martinez), Ben has worked to separate himself from other astro-landscape photographers by working to get around the limitations of stars moving in the shots and high ISO noise and creating ultra-detailed wide-field Milky Way photos. Ben prefers to capture very small parts of the land and sky with longer focal lengths, longer than the ultra-wide angles that are usually used in landscape astrophotography.
Ben took some time to answer some of my questions about his beautiful work, his best tip for astrophotographers, his gear and his workshops. Read on…
What is the most difficult thing about the type of photography you do? How do you overcome it?
I find night photography to be really, really difficult. The most difficult thing is that landscape astrophotography is so heavily dependent on weather. Nobody hates a misinformed weatherman like a night-sky photographer. There’s really nothing to do if the sky’s totally covered in clouds. There’s no way to not have your time wasted. You can’t take detail shots of tree bark in the middle of a cloudy night, you can’t just convert your photo to black and white to make up for a lack of good light. You have pretty much wasted hours of your time when you could be at home, drinking beer brewed in Oregon and snacking on bacon. (mmmm, bacon)
One aspect that few people think about in regards to landscape astrophotography is just how little the objects in the sky move at night. If you’re trying to photograph a single object in the foreground, say a tree or a bush, and behind it you want the galactic center of the Milky Way, which is a small fraction of the Milky Way, which in turn is a small fraction of the sky, you have already severely limited your compositional possibilities. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve arrived at a location with a particular photograph in mind, only to realize that if I want a shot of THAT tree with THAT part of the night sky in the background, I’d need to stand in a lake.
Talk a little about your favorite project.
I think that my favorite project at this point is my abandoned houses series, which was once tentatively titled “The Hour of Departure” after a Pablo Neruda poem titled, “A Song of Despair.”
The memory of you emerges from the night around me.
The river mingles its stubborn lament with the sea.
Deserted like the wharves at dawn.
It is the hour of departure, oh deserted one!
As I drive the old backroads looking for a different old homesteads to shoot, I’ll often see a huge pile of old wood in a field, and I’ll know that some old house either fell or was pulled down. Keep in mind that a lot of these homes were built by settlers in the late 19th century after the Oregon Homestead Act. Only the best built remain, and even those are in terrible shape. I see them crumbling on a month-by-month basis.
It’s not often that I feel like a documentarian when I go out and take photographs, but when I shoot these houses, coupled with the night sky, I very much feel like these scenes are changing rapidly and that I could be capturing something nobody will be able to photograph again afterward. The way things are going with increasing light pollution, we may very well not have clear views of the Milky Way in 50 years.
Can you give your best tip for astrophotography?
Do not trust the infinity mark on your lens! Even if you’ve tested it in the past, the actual infinity mark can change based on ambient temperature. I’ve seen people lose an entire night’s worth of shooting just because they trusted that symbol or a piece of tape that they put on their lens in their 75-degree house that didn’t accurately mark the infinity point on their lens when they were shooting in 30-degree weather outside.
What gear do you use for your photography?
I’ve shot for the past two years with a Canon 6D. It’s my only camera body. My night-sky kit looks something like this:
- Canon 6D
- Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 lens
- Bower 24mm f/1.4 lens
- Bower 35mm f/1.4 lens
- Canon 50 mm f/1.8 lens
- Benro C2970F tripod
- Assorted flashlights with three different types of bulb (incandescent, LED, xenon)
- A wireless remote and an interval timer
I see that you teach workshops. Describe what happens in these workshops and why should someone invest in one?
My workshops actually begin before the workshop itself. Far in advance I try to make sure that my participants have an idea of what kind of equipment they should be using to make the most of the night. This last year, I experimented with “homework,” in which I sent out a lot of my material a couple of weeks before the workshop, just to give everyone an overview. It seemed to work well, and for the most part, we were able to spend a little less time on the fundamentals and get right into more intermediate and advanced stuff.
After introductions, we move on to best-practices in regard to camera settings, including menu settings. Then I speak a little about strategies for in-field capture. To me, there is a substantial problem-solving component to photography, and so that’s how I approach my workshop. We recognize the limitations of our equipment and environment and then move on to how to make the best possible photographs within these constraints. The bulk of the night is the students exploring and shooting, and I’m there to help them apply some of the concepts we went over earlier or help them work through a particular problem they’re having.
My teaching material is an amalgamation of years of trial and error, research, and little tricks and tips that I’ve come up with on my own. When people work full time or when they have a family it can be really difficult to collect all of that information on your own. These workshops are a good way to go away for a weekend, go through an intensive learning session, and come away not only with photos that you can be proud of, but the knowledge of how to do that again in the future, as time allows.
CREDITS: All photographs by Ben Coffman are copyrighted and have been used with permission for SLR Lounge. Do not copy, modify or re-post this article or images without express permission from SLR Lounge and the artist.