Heaven's BIC

Earlier this summer, I got my first taste of astrophotography.  I attended a three-day workshop in Moab, UT through my membership in a professional organization, North American Nature Photography Association.  I registered for the workshop over a year ago because I wanted to push the boundaries of my knowledge and skills.  I intentionally resist the drift toward stagnancy and routine in all areas of my life.  Photography should be no exception.  I've discovered, capturing the Milky Way and constellations can be addictive.

Here's a link if you want to see this "Heaven's BIC" image and/or other images for your home or office.


Thankfully, this particular addiction is counterweighted with being awake when I'm usually asleep.  And during a Southwest Florida summer, mosquitos and other pesky irritants are popular on a warm humid night.  So, I've only gone out for nightscape photography near my home just twice in the past two months since returning from Utah.  But, it is an awe-inspiring experience for your eyes to adjust to the dark (usually takes 20-30 minutes) and begin to see he Milky Way, the planets and constellations in the heavens.

I know some of you might be interested in some of the more technical parts of astrophotography.  Read on:  

1) Planning:  It takes some planning to pull off this type of photo shoot.  First of all, if you want to shoot the Milky Way, you have to know that it is only visible in the northern hemisphere about six months out of the year.  And, that visibility varies by how far north and how far south you are.  Websites like Dark Site Finder is a place to start.  You can find the time of year it is most visible and the darkest spots where there is the least amount of light pollution. I use an App called Photo Pills to find specifics for specific dates, moon phases and rising and setting times (the less moonlight the better), and even an augmented reality (AR) feature that shows you exactly where the Milky Way is in the sky.  Another major part of the planning process is weather.  Obviously, a cloudless night is better.

2) Equipment:  So much is written about this and I don't have the space to expound much on this topic.  While these are generalities, it is a starting point. Full frame cameras are generally better than crop-sensor cameras to reduce the amount of digital noise that develops during a long exposure.  Wide-angle and wide aperture lenses are better than telephoto and higher aperture lenses because they allow more light into the sensor faster.  There are dozens of websites that will give you lots of information about cameras, lens, star-trackers, and much more.  There is great software available to "stack" images.  I have used Starry Landscape Stacker but it is only available for Mac computers.  Others software is available for PC computers.  Here's a review of some stacker software. 

3) Settings:  There are many variables regarding the settings you should use.  I'm still learning and I do a lot of experimenting. My two instructors at the NANPA astrophotography workshop have great blogs and tutorial videos to help with this.  Check out their websites:  Peter Zelinka and Mike Ince have taught be a lot of what I know.  Both are fabulous nature and  astrophotographers and really nice guys!  I'm so grateful for their help.  Generally, I shoot between shutter speeds of 15-25 seconds in length. I use my Nikon 14-24mm 2.8 lens at wide open at f2.8 aperture.  And, I shoot with my Nikon D750 at an ISO range of 800-6400.  Normally, the all three of these settings make up the "Exposure Triangle" and moving one changes affects the others.  In this case, I leave the aperture always at 2.8 to allow in the maximum amount of light.  I then only adjust the other two to get the exposure I'm looking for. Of course, I had the camera on a solid tripod and I used a remote trigger so as not to jiggle the camera while the shutter is open.

4) Post-Processing:  I only shoot in RAW, so I have the maximum amount of data collected to tweak it in Lightroom.  This "Heaven's Bic" was tweaked in Lightroom.  It is a single exposure taken at 20 sec., f2.8 and ISO 1000.  I adjusted the white balance (also known as Temperature) to make the picture a bit cooler that it was shot in Auto White Balance.  I took the exposure down to -.15, slid the highlights down a bit, brought the shadows up some, adjusted the vibrance, dehaze, clarity and texture settings a tad bit as well.  And finally, I used the brush feature to darken the sky just a little on each side of the Milky Way so it looked closer to what my eyes actually saw.  I may have worked on the photo for about 10 minutes before exporting it into JPEG format.  There are many additional options with Photoshop and other software but I tend to be a minimalist when it comes to digitally developing my photos.

That's a quick overview of one photo shoot and one image.  I hope it inspires you to maybe even just get out in a very dark area on a moonless night (even without a camera) and let the beauty of heavens get imprinted on your mind.  While you can't hang that kind of print on a wall in your home or office, it still will bring you to the humble realization of how small you are and how magnificent your Creator actually is.  I love what Neil deGrasse Tyson wrote:  Our galaxy, the Milky Way, is one of 50 or 100 billion other galaxies in the universe.  And with every step, every window that modern astrophysics has opened to our mind, the person who wants to feel like they're the center of everything ends up shrinking."