Photographing the stars is something that sounds cool but that I rarely actually get round to doing. I think it’s the amount of effort required. I usually only mange it when i’m away from home anyway, away from the lure of a warm sofa and a big TV.
It requires a few important things to be worthwhile,
- A camera up to the task (decent high ISO performance and a nice wide lens).
- A decent tripod.
- Some warm clothes.
- The motivation to put your warm clothes on.
- The motivation to go stand out in the cold in your warm clothes.
- Some darkness.
The last point is rather obvious, but it’s not until you start shooting that you realise quite how far away from civilisation you have to get to have a clear sky at night.
So, on a recent trip to the lake district I saw a clear night as a chance to see if I could capture some images of the Milky Way. I’ve done enough night time photography to understand the basics, so I set my D800 to manual exposure and dialled in 20 seconds of exposure with the lens at it’s shortest focal length (16mm) and widest aperture (f4). The aim being to let as much light in as possible while avoiding the stars turning into streaks.
After framing the shot it was a case of gradually cranking up the ISO sensitivity until the Milky Way became visible over the general background stars. The Milky Way appears as a sort of linear cloud of stars tracing a line across the sky as you look through the plane of our galaxy.
There was some low cloud and dust that caught the light pollution from the nearby town but at ISO 1600 I was seeing through this and picking out the stars behind. You can see from the image above how bright even the dimly lit buildings become at that kind of exposure, but I was pretty pleased that with some pushing and pulling in Lightroom you can clearly see the something of the Milky Way running vertically through the image, although it lacks any of intricate structure or colours you can see on the kind of images on the Wikipedia page for the Milky Way.
Looking directly upwards shows a bit more of the pattern with the characteristic dark and light cloudy patchiness visible against the more uniform background stars. It’s not a masterpiece but it’s the first time I’ve actually managed to capture an image of it myself, which is pretty special.
There are a lot of stars out there if you take the time to look.
Searching for some more interesting foreground I shot the next image on the lake shore, again a 20 second exposure but this time with some trees in the foreground to lend some scale to the image.
This image doesn’t really show the Milky Way (a feint register cutting top left to bottom right maybe?) but there are a few separate dense clusters of stars that are probably something interesting. My galactic geography isn’t up to identifying them, although the internet suggests that the bright point it Jupiter and the cluster just to the top right of it is Pleiades, and the fainter cluster just bottom left of it is Hyades.
In fact, cropping to 100% from the image above, that is actually a pretty good rendering of Pleiades, or the Seven Sisters as it is also known. Not bad for something that is over 400 light years away*. Each of the bigger stars in the cluster cover about 70 pixels in the image so even shooting with an extreme wideangle lens i’m getting enough resolution to clearly pick variations in apparent star sizes. 36 megapixels FTW.
I will return to this subject (especially as it’s pretty much fully dark outside of working hours right now) as even this quick experiment exposed some interesting features of the night sky. I just need to find somewhere even more remote – I feel a road trip to the highlands coming on.
*Google directly answered a search of ‘pleiades distance’ with ‘424 light years’. Magic.