My journey through Astrophotography.

When I think back to my time in New Zealand, it is worth mentioning that I traveled there without knowing that the milky way would be visible in the night sky. Living in the northern hemisphere, I have spent a lot of time researching the conditions for viewing and photographing the milky way up here, but I never considered the fact that the conditions are significantly different in the southern hemisphere. I photographed the milky way for the first time in my life back in August 2015 with my old Nikon D3100. Needless to say, the results were not that good, as I had no idea I was actually photographing the milky way until I looked at the image preview. Of course I was excited though, having stumbled upon the milky way almost by accident, but as soon as I started post-processing the images I quickly lost interest in astro-photography, as the amount of noise made the images very hard to work with.

 
Nikon D3100 + Tamron 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5: 10 mm, 30 sec at f/3.5, ISO-3200.

Nikon D3100 + Tamron 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5: 10 mm, 30 sec at f/3.5, ISO-3200.

 

To be honest, I had no idea what I was doing, and it was not until about half a year later, after upgrading to the Nikon D750, that I really started reading into photographing the night sky. I quickly learned about the 500 rule, the importance of a broad aperture, as well as the time of year and the phase of the moon. A lot of different factors are at play if you want to get a clear shot of the milky way, and the most important factor is probably the amount of light pollution in the surroundings. Living in Copenhagen and not having a car, getting to a good spot is pretty much impossible, so when I went to the west coast of Denmark for a few days in May 2016, I made sure to bring all astrophotography related equipment.

 
Nikon D750 + Nikkor 24mm f/2.8: 24mm, 15 sec at f/2.8, ISO-6400

Nikon D750 + Nikkor 24mm f/2.8: 24mm, 15 sec at f/2.8, ISO-6400

 

I quickly found out that the milky way in the northern hemisphere in May is not visible until the early hours before dawn, and I was too committed to sleeping during the night, Hence, I actually never got to photograph the core of the milky way during my stay. However I was pretty excited with the high ISO performance of my full frame camera versus my old crop frame, but looking back today, I still didn't know a fraction of the things I've learned since when it comes to photographing our surrounding universe.

Fast forward to August 2016: Over the summer, I had put countless hours into researching not only the optimal conditions for shooting the milky way, but also how to properly post process the images. The most notable technique I looked into is the noise reduction by stacking multiple frames on top of each other, a technique that is ridiculously time consuming, as you have to manually align 10 layers in Photoshop due to the rotation of the earth. With all this new knowledge I went out to the country side on August 30 2016: No moon in sight, clear sky during the night and minimal light pollution. I had even acquired a new lens optimal for astro-photography: The Irix Blackstone 15mm f/2.4. I set up camp on some rocks, and started shooting away. First 10 frames with a 25 second shutter speed for the stars, and afterwards a 3 minute exposure to get more detail in the foreground. Biking home afterwards, I was incredibly excited about all the data I had just captured, but post-processing all this would prove to be a tedious process: I spent 3 days editing what would eventually become this one single picture.

 
Nikon D750 + Irix Blackstone 15mm f/2.4: 10 x 25 sec at f/2.4, ISO-6400 + 1 x 180 sec at f/2.4, ISO-6400.

Nikon D750 + Irix Blackstone 15mm f/2.4: 10 x 25 sec at f/2.4, ISO-6400 + 1 x 180 sec at f/2.4, ISO-6400.

 

What is described above is more or less my brief experience regarding photographing our universe in the northern hemisphere. When I traveled to New Zealand I hadn't even considered reading up on it, as I thought winter (being summer in the southern hemisphere) meant no milky way core in the night sky.. But boy was I wrong.

After seeing a milky way picture from New Zealand in my Instagram feed in the beginning of February saying something along the lines of "so glad we are entering milky way season again", I quickly realized that I might have a chance of capturing some southern hemisphere milky way. At this point in my journey I was arriving at Lake Tekapo, which conveniently is in the middle of the Mackenzie dark sky reserve. On my first night there, after the worst night of sleep I have ever had (due to no sleeping bag at 5 degrees Celsius), I went out a 4:30 AM to the Church of the Good Shepherd, the go-to spot for milkyway photography spot in the Tekapo area.

The moon was out however, and on top of that (as I later found out) I was taking photos in the completely wrong direction, only capturing the outskirts of the band of stars. That aside, I remember my sheer excitement seeing those pictures pop up on my screen, even though when I look at them now I just feel embarrassed about my own lack of knowledge.


The next chance I had to do milky way photography was when me and Grant Jiang camped out on Roy's Peak. The moon was still out during the best time (3 AM), but the shot I got around 11 I still quite like, as it really captures how it felt up there in the darkness under the stars. I even tried to shoot a milky way panorama with my 15 mm lens, even though now (to my own embarrassment), I left out the actual core of the milky way galaxy.

 
Nikon D750 + Irix Blackstone 15mm f/2.4: 25 sec at f/2.4, iso6400.

Nikon D750 + Irix Blackstone 15mm f/2.4: 25 sec at f/2.4, iso6400.

 

This is probably one of my best examples of how trial and error leads to improvement in my own photography. I was frustrated about not capturing what I saw on my Instagram feed, so I started reading into it, and determined (with great help of the photographers ephemeris app), that waiting just 7 days would mean that the moon would be absent during the night, allowing me to capture the core.

7 days later, after the most amazing experience in Milford Sound (more on that in another post), we were making our way through the Caitlins, our destination being the Nugget Point Lighthouse. We arrived just in time for sunset, and despite the clouds forming over the ocean, I was determined to go out at night trying to try get my shot. After a few hours of sleep in the car seat (which I had gotten quite used to at this point), I made my way out to the lighthouse, which is a short 20 minute walk from the car park. As I was walking on the path, I could feel the wind getting stronger. It was already pretty cold, so the strong winds meant that I soon lost feeling in my hands, but I carried on. I eventually ended up with this shot, but during my time out in the strong winds I was spending most of the time trying to get the photos to do a milkyway panorama with my 50 mm lens. Something I could not stitch together before being back in Denmark again.

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These 26 shots would eventually become the craziest milkyway shot I've ever gotten. I had never tried anything like this before, and I decided to just give it a go, even thought I had a talk with Paul Wilson, in which he told me that doing such panoramas are pretty much impossible without a panorama-head for your tripod. I am really glad that I did not quit before even trying however, because this is the final result:

 
Nikon D750 + Nikkor 50mm f/1.8: 26 x 13 sec, f/1.8, ISO6400

Nikon D750 + Nikkor 50mm f/1.8: 26 x 13 sec, f/1.8, ISO6400

 

So here you have it, more or less: My journey through astrophotography. If you take a scroll back up to the very first picture, I dare say it has been quite the journey. Sadly I am not able to do a lot of astrophotography at home, living in Copenhagen, but I am very excited about this summer, because I am going a month to the US, driving from Las Vegas to San Francisco, and then having two weeks in Denver living with Frequent. Hopefully I'll get the chance to capture some more of the night sky during these travels.