Milky Way Photography Adventures

Milky Way Photography Adventures

Despite the fact that Arkansas’ River Valley has had a dry year, it seemed that every time I planned a star photography outing – there were clouds.

 

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On this night, the clouds parted over Shores Lake just for a few minutes, and just enough to see the Milky Way.

 

And, this trend included our Night Photography Workshop in August.  We tried 3 times, before we finally had a marvelously clear night to see and photograph the Milky Way.

 

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Same location – Shores Lake – but no significant clouds!  🙂  To add a little foreground interest, I set up my film camera to photograph the stars streaking across the sky, aka “star trails.”

 

If you live in an area with little light pollution, you may wonder what’s the big deal.  However, for those of us who live in an urban area, it is a rare treat!  Some of the photographers in our workshop had not seen the Milky Way since childhood.  Seeing it and making photographs was very exciting!

Would you like to photograph the Milky Way?  Here are 5 things I think you need:

  • A DSLR camera, because shooting in manual exposure mode and manual focus mode, and at a high ISO is necessary.  Very few compact cameras have all those functions.
  • A wide angle lens.  How wide?  My preference is a 24mm for a “full-frame” sensor, but up to a 35mm will work.  If you have an APS-C sensor, sometimes called a “crop-sensor,” 18mm to 24mm is the equivalent.  That does not mean that we cannot use even wider!  Many photographers use a 14mm, 16mm or an 18mm, and sometimes a fish-eye.
  • A Good tripod.  Shutter speeds will be measured in seconds, and no one I know can hold a camera steady for that long.  Your tripod will need to be solid, and easy to adjust in the dark.  I recommend a carbon fiber or aluminum tripod, with a ball head.
  • A remote control for firing your camera.  Pressing the shutter button will cause your camera to move, so use a remote cable or wireless remote.
  • A headlamp or flashlight with a red lens.  Without the red lens, your night vision will be compromised each time you turn on the light.

Also helpful:  an app on your phone.  “Photo Pills” and “The Photographers’ Ephemeris” will provide photographers where and when information – I like and use both.  I also like “Star Guide” which does just what it says – displays on screen where and when the stars are.

Once you have the equipment, the techniques we use are different from most other types of photography:

  • Locate an area with a probable good view of the Milky Way.  Helpful web sites:  www.cleardarksky.com, www.darksitefinder.com, and Google Maps www.google.com/maps.
  • Check the moon phases – a full moon is so bright you cannot see the Milky Way.  A crescent moon is also bright enough to interfere, although if it sets early, the light – coming from the opposite direction of the Milky Way – can be helpful by lighting up the foreground.

    moon-composite

    Nearly a full moon means no visible Milky Way.  When the moon went behind the clouds, there was still enough light to photograph Shores Lake with a 10-second exposure.

  • Camera settings:  Start at ISO 3200, a shutter speed of 15 seconds, and your aperture at its widest.  Make a test shot, check your image exposure, and adjust as necessary.  It is not uncommon to set ISO at 4000 or higher.  (Note:  to calculate the longest usable shutter speed, divide 500 by your lens focal length.  Example:  with a 24mm lens, 500 divided by 24 = 20.83, so you would keep your shutter open no longer than 20 seconds.)  A too-long shutter speed results in trailing stars, not points of light.
  • Focusing can be difficult.  We tried to use autofocus before dark, then switched to manual focus.  We also applied gaffer tape to the focus ring to avoid accidentally bumping and moving it.  If you need to focus after dark, try using “live view” and magnify the display.  (Practice this before dark!)  The good thing about digital photography, of course, is we can see what we shot, then adjust and reshoot if necessary.

The end result can be very rewarding photos.  And, watching the Milky Way – and other stars and constellations – begin to appear after the sun goes down is exciting and breathtaking!  Especially the first time…

 

Milky Way at the Fire Tower

This photo is from a shoot with just Gayle and myself, when preparing for the workshop.  Rich Mountain Fire Tower, Talimena Scenic Drive, near Arkansas’ Queen Wilhelmena State Park.  Sony A7R, 24mm lens, f/2.8-15 seconds-ISO 5000

 

The “season” is about done for this year; during the winter months, the Milky Way is not visible.  When it is most visible is late spring to late summer.  (I can hardly wait!)  The apps I referenced earlier are great for helping us plan.  Feel free to contact me if you have questions – or search the internet for more information.

Wishing you good light!

Favorites for 2014

It is the end of another year!  Although it seems that I did not do as much photography as the previous year, when I reviewed our libraries, it was difficult to narrow down to a reasonable number of favorites.  But with no further to-do, here are my dozen choices for the past year, in chronological order.  Note:  click on the image if you want to view a larger version…

During the winter, it seemed we had an unusually high number of goldfinches at our backyard feeders.  They are fun to watch!  In February, while snow was falling, a number of them would pause on the same branch, and wait – impatiently – for their turn at the seeds…

Goldfinch in falling snow

Goldfinch in falling snow

1/750 sec at f/5.6, ISO 400  Sony Alpha 77, Tamron 200-500mm, Manfrotto tripod, Really Right Stuff ballhead.

A bit later in February, my friend Mike Leonard and I hiked down to the Glory Hole.  There was ice and snow, and frozen waterfalls all around.  I took this photo to illustrate the conditions, and the environment.

The Opening to the Glory Hole, Ozark National Forest

The Entrance to the Glory Hole, Ozark National Forest

1/15 sec. at f/22, ISO 100  Sony Alpha 77, Sony 16-50 f/2.8, Manfrotto tripod, Really Right Stuff ballhead.

In April, as the redbuds and dogwoods began to bloom, and temperatures were rising, I visited the Jack Creek Recreation Area in the Ouachita National Forest.  As the sun rose over the ridge, light danced across the cascade.

Sunlight on Jack Creek at sunrise

Sunlight on Jack Creek at sunrise

 1/2 sec. at f/22, ISO 100  Sony Alpha 77, Sony 16-50 f/2.8, Manfrotto tripod, Really Right Stuff ballhead.

Wildflowers begin to bloom in April, also; Indian Paintbrush is one of the first.  Here are two photos I made at Cherokee Prairie State Natural Area, near Charleston, Arkansas…

Paintbrush Trio Cherokee Prairie near Charleston, Arkansas

Paintbrush Trio
Cherokee Prairie near Charleston, Arkansas

1/20 sec, f/5.6, ISO 100  Sony Alpha 77, Tamron 180 f/3.5 macro lens, Manfrotto tripod, Really Right Stuff ballhead.
Paintbrush Family Cherokee Prairie near Charleston, Arkansas

Paintbrush Family
Cherokee Prairie near Charleston, Arkansas

1/60 sec, f/8, ISO 100  Sony Alpha 77, Tamron 180 f/3.5 macro lens, Manfrotto tripod, Really Right Stuff ballhead.

Who has not ever blown dandelion seeds for fun?  Here are some seed pods that were caught up in a spider web.

Dandelion Seeds, caught in a spider web

Dandelion Seeds, caught in a spider web

1/45 sec, f/3.5, ISO 200  Sony Alpha 77, Tamron 180 f/3.5 macro lens, Manfrotto tripod, Really Right Stuff ball head.

One photograph I continue to try to perfect is of dew drops with a background image refracted in it.  Here is one I photographed in June, at Cherokee Prairie State Natural Area

Dew Drops reflecting Black-eyed Susans Cherokee Prairie near Charleston, Arkansas

Dew Drops reflecting Black-eyed Susans
Cherokee Prairie near Charleston, Arkansas

1/125 sec at f/5.6, ISO 200  Sony Alpha 77, Tamron 180 f/3.5 macro lens, Manfrotto tripod, Really Right Stuff ballhead.

Mid-year, Gayle gave me a new camera:  the Sony Alpha 7R.  A “mirrorless” camera, it carries a full-frame sensor, and has great dynamic range.  I had always wanted to photograph the Milky Way, and after researching for “dark sky” locations, I visited Lake Hinkle near Waldron, Arkansas, for my first attempt.

The Milky Way above Lake Hinkle, near Waldron, Arkansas

The Milky Way above Lake Hinkle, near Waldron, Arkansas

20 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 6400  Sony Alpha 7R, Minolta 24mm f/2.8 lens, Sony LA-E4 lens adapter, Manfrotto tripod, Really Right Stuff ballhead.

In October, we took part in Scott Kelby’s Worldwide Photo Walk.  It rained.  In Van Buren, the city still hosted the “Fall Festival and Craft Show, and I found this umbrella on the street.

Colorful umbrella on the street, Van Buren, Arkansas

Colorful umbrella on the street,
Van Buren, Arkansas

1/250 sec at f/5.6, ISO 400  Sony Alpha 77, Sony 16-50 f/2.8 lens handheld.

October signals the start of fall foliage, although we did not have exceptional color this year.  In Devil’s Den State Park, the canoes were ready for visitors.

Canoes at the ready,  Devil's Den State Park

Canoes at the ready,
Devil’s Den State Park

 1/30 sec at f/11, ISO 200  Sony Alpha 7R, Minolta 50mm f/1.7 lens, Sony LA-E4 lens adapter, Manfrotto tripod, Really Right Stuff ballhead.

In October, near Waldron, Arkansas, this spider web was sagging under the weight of the dew drops, creating a pearl necklace…

Necklace of spider-web and dew drops Near Waldron, Arkansas

Necklace of spider-web and dew drops
Near Waldron, Arkansas

1/30 sec at f/11, ISO 200  Sony Alpha 7R, Minolta 50mm f/1.7 lens, Sony LA-E4 lens adapter, Manfrotto tripod, Really Right Stuff ballhead.

On Christmas morning, I visited the Fort Smith National Cemetery, at sunrise.

Fort Smith (AR) National Cemetery at sunrise Christmas Morning

Fort Smith (AR) National Cemetery at sunrise
Christmas Morning

1/3 sec at f/16, ISO 400  Sony Alpha 7R, Minolta 24mm f/2.8 lens, Sony LA-E4 lens adapter, Manfrotto, tripod, Really Right Stuff ballhead.

A look back, but now we look ahead to 2015.  As always, we hope and expect to make new photographs to enjoy.  Have a Happy New Year!