Looking back on my first year of astrophotography, it’s crazy to think that it all started with a GoPro. I bought the GoPro to get some video of myself and a few friends hiking the The Narrows in Zion National Park. Great hike, beautiful place and if you go in the middle of the week, first thing in the morning in the middle of December you just might have the whole place to yourself. Had fun with the GoPro too. made a short little video.
After I got home from Zion I explored more of the options on the Gopro and noticed a Night Lapse option. What’s this? As I discovered, the small and mighty GoPro takes pictures of the night sky. Not the best pictures of stars but good enough that in the right conditions it will capture the Milky Way.
So that night I headed out to a local hike in Cupertino and tried it out. It was so much fun being out in nature in the dark and it sparked an passion for astrophotography.
What could I do with the GoPro quickly became boring compared with the images I saw online. I couldn’t believe the range of color and features represented by astrophotographers with consumer grade equipment.
Reading blogs, guides, reviews I decided I needed a real camera that could capture the Milky Way. Wondering if this was going to be a short term hobby or a long term hobby I purchased a Sony RX100 IV.
With this camera, the sensor is great, the video options are great and because it’s a travel camera, if astrophotography didn’t hold my interest, the camera would for sure be used in everything else I do. Turns out astrophotography is still holding my interest.
First time I captured the Milky Way was in April 2016. I had spent the previous month playing around with the RX100 IV.
By April I was super curious about the difference between the RX100 IV and a full frame camera, so I rented a Sony a7s to see for myself. April 7th is my birthday as well as the exact date for the new moon that month. The stars were aligned for a Milky Way adventure.
I had three nights of shooting planned.
First the Mojave National Preserve: didn’t know anything about photography and shot pretty much the whole night in jpg rather than RAW. Seeing the core of the Milky Way pop on your screen for the first time is amazing. I was elated, thrilled, relieved and curious about what else I could do. For the 3 months prior, this is what I had wanted to capture and I did it. That night I also caught a quick time-lapse of the Milky Way and watched as the light of the rising Sun, still below the horizon, ended my first night capturing the Milk Way.
#1 – The Milky Way from Mojave National Preserve, April 6th 2016
It was a successful first night under the stars and this image, even with so many things are technically wrong, is wonderful. Shooting the stars really pushes the current slate of digital cameras to the limits.
What I learned:
- Astrophotography is fun
- The Milky Way is gorgeous
- It doesn’t need to be perfect to be awesome
- A good travel camera is enough, a full frame is better
- I’m gonna have fun being under the stars
- Cloudy skies make beautiful astro images
The next night I went to Shark Fin Cove near Davenport, CA where there are some old train tracks over which the Milky Way Core passes. It’s a popular spot for astrophotography and I met my first fellow star chases that night.
#2 – The Milky Way from Davenport, CA, April 7th 2016
After this night I learned a few more things:
- Framing makes the shot interesting and unique
- There are endless numbers of ways to be frame the Milky Way uniquely and beautifully
- You might meet other astrophotographers under the stars
The next night I went down to Big Sur to explore some truly dark skies. Around the Bay Area, Big Sur has the darkest skies. Seeing the Milky Way down there with your own eyes is a sight to behold.
Big Sur is also a frustrating place to go as the weather can be unpredictable. The coastal fog can roll in and change the scene pretty quick. And as I would find out one evening, fire’s can start and ruin much more than clear skies. My goal each night was to make at least one picture that I liked, and to try something new, something different and in that way learn while having fun.
#3 – The Galactic Core of the Milky Way, May 2016
One night I wanted to go to Big Sur but the weather report wasn’t good: mostly cloud cover. I went anyways to see what I could see. Once on the Big Sur coastline I saw the weather was as advertised. No visibility of the stars. So I went up a road above the coastline till I got above the cloud cover and set up my gear. I captured this image above this which is the core of the Milky Way.
Things I learned this night:
- Stacking with decent gear makes excellent images
- Poor conditions can work out beautifully
- A fast lens makes a huge difference
Starting to get the hang of things by making mistake after mistake, I began searching for my own style. Initially I wanted to take pictures that I couldn’t find elsewhere. The more pictures I took, the more specific my ideas became on how to do images that I liked, images that were mine.
#4 – The Milky Way over Half Dome, Yosemite, CA, June 2016
For this shot of Half Dome I used a 28mm lens and collected a set of images to stack together in Photoshop to reduce the noise. Even though the images were underexposed, I stacked them together with Starry Landscape Stacker and the final product came out beautifully even if it’s a bit noisy.
Things I learned:
- Iconic locations make amazing pictures
- Yosemite at night is a whole other Yosemite
- Camera gear makes hikes a bit longer than usual
Processing Astrophotography quickly becomes a pain point. There are many different approaches to processing and editing. Some styles are rooted in a desire to accurately/literally colors and features that were present at a particular time and place. Others are more creative with their color representation and time and place, sometimes merging pictures from different nights, times, focal lengths etc. All approaches are beautiful in their own way.
For myself, I’m looking to represent a place, a location, and reframe the idea of that place by making a picture at night with a recognizable astrological feature, like the Milky Way or a constellation of stars. There is more to this world than meets eye. With a camera and a tripod you can see the ‘more than meets the eye’ in the night sky.
My default approach to astrophotography for now is to use a standard 35mm or 55mm lens and stitch multiple images together to make a panorama. I love the size of the astrological feature against the foreground with these focal lengths. This generally requires a bit more work in the field and a bit more work in post-processing. I’ve fallen in love with the process: the planning, the imagining, the capturing of the data and the post-processing.
Using this approach I took a few more images around the Western United States:
#5 – The Milky Way over Shark Fin Cove, Davenport, CA, June 2016
This night I learned:
- A 60% waxing gibbous moon you can capture the Milky Way quite well even after the moon rises
- Using a standard lens like a 55mm or 35mm to create a panoramic or mosaic image makes for unique and beautiful images
- The California coast is rich with unique potential locations
#6 – The Milky Way reflecting off the Pacific Ocean, Big Sur, CA, September 2016
This night in Big Sur I learned:
- The light from the Milky Way reflects of the ocean in a visible way and the air glow really enlivens a picture
- Airglow is beautiful
- Big Sur with no fog is spectacular
#7 – The Milky Way over Zion Canyon taken from Angels Landing, Zion National Park, October 2016
The Milky Way over Zion Canyon from Angels landing is my favorite image from my first year doing astrophotography. It’s a unique image, the clouds were perfect, and the hike up is it’s own reward. This is a panostitch of images captured with a 55mm lens.
Things I learned:
- Clouds make astrophotos spectacular
- The southwest skies are amazing
- Zion National Park is a place I want to return to
- Higher iso settings are key in some situations – this evening I used 12,800 iso
#8 – The Milky Way over Trona Pinnacles, CA, October 2016
Trona Pinnacles is a great little spot. Many commercials have been filmed there because of the other worldy tufa formations, some of which are higher than 100 feet. Makes for a great foreground.
Things I learned:
- 4×4 cars are better than non-4×4
- Deserts are amazing places
#9 – The Milky Way from Tunnel View, Yosemite National Park, CA, February 2017
This image from Yosemite was captured in early Feb 2017 and which is about the earliest that the core of the Milky Way can be imaged, though it’s not visible here.
Things I learned:
- There is more to the Milky Way than the galactic center
- Cars make for unique features – the light the leads the eye to the waterfall is from the headlights of a car
#10 – The Milky Way over Three Mile Beach, Wilder Ranch State Park, CA March 2017
So many people living in and around cities have never seen the Milky Way with their own eyes. I was one of these…well at least I think so. I do recall going to a star party as a young child, but don’t recall much other than the big telescopes which I thought were awesome at the time. A beautiful part of the natural world is now unavailable to many people unless they drive for a bit, at the right time of month and stay out at night to view the stars.
Things I learned that night:
- Light pollution can make the shot as well as complicate the shot
The online community of astrophotographers is incredibly helpful. If you are looking to get into astrophotography yourself here are some helpful sites and groups:
This site is excellent for the beginner to intermediate astrophotographer. There is a good number of tutorials in written and video form that are easy to digest. They helped me tremendously to capture my first Milky Way shot. I just used the exact settings provided on the site. In time there more advanced tutorials on stacking and processing were very helpful as well. These links were super useful for me early on:
- Astrophotography 101
- How to Find the Milky Way
- How to Photograph the Milky Way
- How to Pick a Lens for Milky Way Photography
Youtube for everything including astrophotography. Here are some great vids:
Tony Hallas’ overview on astrophotography is excellent. Some great tips for photoshopping as well.
The AstroBackyard channel has some great vids on processing and gear setup for different kinds of astro photography.