Ahmed Sajjad Zaidi

Entrepreneur, trekker, and photographer based in Pakistan
Posts Tagged ‘canon ef 16-35mm ii usm’

Photographing the Milky Way

Last weekend we had planned to camp at the hilltop lake and meadow known as Paye (the second and more impressive part of the Siri Paaye area). Located in the Kaghan Valley, Siri Pae lies above the hilltop resort of Shogran and under the shadow of Makra Peak (about 3,600 meters/12,000 feet above sea level).

Milky Way light painting

Shot at 16mm, 30 seconds, f/3.5, ISO 3200

My biggest motivation for this trip was being able to shoot the Milky Way which isn’t normally possible from urban areas. Here are some things I did to get my shots:


One of the main requirements for Milky Way photography is being far away from artificial lighting of any kind. City lights, as well as light from small towns and villages, cause all but the brightest stars to be invisible, both to the naked eye, as well as to the camera sensor. Air pollution also reduces visibility so being up on a mountain, in the middle of nowhere, is almost a must. This is the reason observatories are built in such places.

Weather reports had said there would be clear skies. However, I had neglected to check where the moon would be. Though not a full moon, it was enough to ruin my plans. Moonlight is good for general night photography, but makes milky way photography almost impossible due to it “drowning out” the light from other heavenly bodies. Luckily, I had installed the Solar and Moon Calculator Android app some time back and it told me the exact time the moon would eventually set (somewhere past midnight).


After trying out a few moonlit shots once the sun had set, I took a nap and woke up again around 2am. It was pretty cold at this altitude, my friends were all asleep and there were strange howling sounds coming up from the valley next to our tents, but the view really was impressive, even to the naked eye. I had never seen the Milky Way this clear before. The campfire had gone out, but I was glad it did. Else, any stray light from it could have ruined my shots. In some cases, the reflected campfire light off of trees and other structures could add an interesting effect, but I didn’t want to risk it here.

Tent light Milky Way

Shot at 17mm, 30 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 800

It really was good timing since within a couple of hours, a light cloud cover started to roll in and blot out the milky way. The clouds also dashed my chances of getting some long exposure, star trail photos.

Focal Length

So I got my gear ready, dialed in the basic settings that I had memorized and took a shot. Amazingly, they came up really good on the first try. There are some basic rules to follow when shooting the Milky Way. The most important one is to use the 600/focal length, or 500/focal length, rule to prevent stars turning into trails or ovals (I shot at 16mm, so 500/16 allowed me about 30 seconds of exposure). If you have good equipment, you can also try 450/focal length to get even better results.


A limited exposure time also means that you’ll need to have a wide aperture and shoot at a high ISO to get a good exposure. This is where my investment in the Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8 II USM lens and the Canon EOS 5D Mark III paid off. The 16-35mm is just 1mm wider than the much cheaper 17-40mm and they are both excellent lenses. However, the f/2.8 aperture really came in handy as opposed to the 17-40mm’s f/4. And the 5D Mark III’s ultra low noise at high ISOs made it perfect for the job.

Unless you have a lens with an aspherical element (like the 16-35mm) you may experience coma or comatic aberration in the stars. That’s another thing to consider when selecting a lens for this.

Off course, a tripod is a must since you’re shooting with several seconds of exposure. I have a cheap ball head tripod from some Asian company that can’t really replace a branded one such as Manfrotto, Gitzo or Benro. However, it is really stable and surprisingly light. Weight is important since as in my case, you may have to drag it up a few thousand feet along with the rest of your gear.

Other things I did included stabilizing the tripod by attaching some weight to the hook at the end, using a remote release (intervalometer) and covering up the eyepiece with the provided rubber. This last step ensures that no stray light from your torch entering the viewfinder ruins the shot.

Milky Way tent light painting

Shot at 16mm, 30 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 800


I took several shots, some at f/2.8, others stopped down to f/3.5 just to see the difference, though there wasn’t much in the final shots and I suggest just shooting at f/2.8 (or whatever maximum you can achieve). I also had Long Exposure Noise Reduction (LENR) turned on to reduce noise buildup.

I keep the white balance set to “Cloudy” for most shots, though star light is usually around the same temperature as the sun so it was later changed to “Sunny”. A custom white balance can be a pain (especially for Canon users), though if your camera supports shooting in RAW format, the white balance and other parameters can be fine-tuned later on.


First of all, auto focus is pretty much useless here. Unless you and your camera can find a really bright star or another high contrast object that is visible in the tiny viewfinder, the camera will keep trying to auto focus without success. So manual focus is a must here.

Ever since I discovered live view focusing, my shots have been a lot better focused and sharper. For astrophotography however, it may be too dark to see much on the screen. You can either focus using the focus scale set to around “infinity” or try to locate a bright star on the LCD, zoom in and turn the focus ring until you get a clear, sharp dot.

Failing that, the only option left is the tedious trial and error method. That is, take a shot, slightly change focus, take another shot and compare it to the last one. Repeat until you have sharp exposure.

Though it couldn’t be used for focusing, the viewfinder was very useful for composing the shot. So best thing to do would be to use live view to focus and then look through the eyepiece to compose and frame the shot.

Foreground Objects

Shooting the Milky Way alone doesn’t seem very exciting. Adding an object in the foreground gives it some depth and perspective. This is why I included a silhouette of a tree in most shots. Light painting the foreground objects is also a nice way to bring out the shots. Unfortunately, I only had a small LED flashlight which wasn’t very powerful and gave a much whiter effect, compared to the Milky Way’s warmer tone.

Post Production

I’m not much for very fancy post-production or “Photoshopping”. However, you will need to adjust the white balance, exposure and contrast a little to bring out the details. You may also need to use a noise reduction software/plugin, depending on how good your camera handles high ISO noise.

Going Forward

I can’t wait to get another shot at this and try to improve on what I achieved from this trip. There isn’t much I would change, but I would be better prepared for any light painting. Maybe with a more powerful flash lights with varying degrees of temperature. Would also light to get some good star trail pics. Till next time.

Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM

Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L USM II

Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM

If I was asked to pick my favorite type of photography, or range of focal lengths to be precise, I would have to go for the ultra-wide end. The sense of grandeur and surrealism that an ultra-wide lens captures, just isn’t possible at higher focal lengths. Whether it’s mountains, grand buildings or confined spaces, an ultra-wide really delivers.

For my previous camera, the Canon EOS 500D (Rebel T1i), the decision was quite simple. After much reading and contemplation, I found the Tokina 11-16mm f2.8 to be the most suitable for my needs. The narrow focal range and fixed maximum aperture of f/2.8 mean it is equal to a high quality prime. If you can find one, that is.

Since it wasn’t available here in Islamabad and at the time, I had no way of getting it from elsewhere, I settled for the equally great Canon EF-S 10-22mm USM. The only disadvantage was the smaller, f/3.5-4.5 variable aperture. The optics are great and I loved it. One of my favorite shots from this lens is the Salt Stalagmite one.

After moving to full frame, things got more complicated. The EF-S 10-22mm isn’t compatible with non-APS-C sensors and there isn’t one, really inexpensive or really great option. Some friends and online guides suggested I hack it into a 16-20mm, full-frame compatible lens.

Canon EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM

Canon EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM

The hack involves cutting/filing down the EF-S mount into an EF one and forcibly restricting the lens’s focal range so the end closer to the sensor doesn’t hit the SLR’s mirror. However, I didn’t want to risk damaging such an amazing and under-appreciated piece of glass (nor my even dearer camera) so it is still intact, and still up for sale.

It took a couple weeks of searching and reading to settle on the Canon EF 15mm f/2.8 Fisheye. Yes, it’s a fisheye lens, but firstly, it is a very sharp, prime lens. Secondly, the fisheye effect can be removed through photo editors to create a still sharp, super-ultra-wide, 12mm rectilinear image.

Unfortunately, most shops list this as a discontinued lens and a new piece is notoriously difficult to find. It definitely wasn’t available anywhere in Pakistan and I ended up asking a friend to get a used one on his way back from the States. The order was placed, but a well-timed snowstorm delayed the delivery and it got left behind. Even sent via courier, it couldn’t have made it into my hands in time for my upcoming Uzbekistan trip.

Canon EF 15mm f/2.8 Fisheye

Canon EF 15mm f/2.8 Fisheye

I had anticipated such a delay and even before I got the bad news, I had started looking for an alternative. The Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L is a great lens for landscapes and it’s priced very nicely, but the f/4 part bothered me a bit. Although larger/fast apertures aren’t usually required for ultrawide shots, I’m the type of person who’d curse myself whenever I did need it.

Tokina 11-16mm f2.8 for Canon

Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8

Best option optically was the manual focus, all-metal Zeiss 15mm f/2.8 ZE. It’s a prime (I love primes), it’s fast, has very low distortion and is really durable. However, at around $3,000, it’s reserved for those with very deep pockets and is probably impossible to find in Pakistan.

I also considered the Canon EF 14mm f/2.8L II USM, but the reviews weren’t very impressive. At least not impressive enough to justify the price tag. In the end, I went ahead and ordered Canon’s top of the line UW zoom (and also the goto lens for photo journalists). The Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM.

At first glance, it looked a little… well, little. It’s lighter and smaller than the 24-105mm I have been using with the 5D Mark III. However, both the zoom and focus rings are a pleasure to use. Really easy and smooth to turn and unlike the 24-105mm’s sudden jump from 24mm to 35mm, the zoom range is nicely divided.

I have yet to use it for the intended purpose of travel shots and some astrophotography, but over the weekend, I did cover a protest with it. And it wasn’t long before I realized the advantage of having a f/2.8 aperture. The large aperture makes capturing important moments a breeze, even in low light and without bumping up the ISO. It also brightens up the viewfinder for composing those low-light shots.

It’s easily my favorite lens at the moment and I don’t have any complaints about it. One speed bump you may run into is the 82mm filter size. Filters that large are not easily available and are significantly costlier than smaller sizes when you do find them.

So far, I have not found any 82mm UV filter in the Islamabad shops. Such a filter is a must to complete the weather seal of the lens (oh yes, this lens is weather sealed). However, I did manage to get a B+W Variable ND (neutral density) filter. It seems large and I expected quite a lot of vignetting in shots taken at 16mm, but there just wasn’t any. It should come in pretty handy for shots requiring very long exposures.

Well, enough with the long rant. Hoping to post some interesting pics from this lens soon. Stay tuned.