Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Photographing Nightscapes

Valley of the Gods Utah
Sony A7r II Voigtlander 12mm f/ 5.6 25-seconds ISO 400
Near Tucson AZ
Sony A7rII Mitakon 50mm f/0.95 15-seconds ISO 1000
“Nightscape Photography” is the combination of landscape photography and the capturing of dark skies, sometimes with or without the Milky Way.
Near Tucson AZ
Sony A7rII Mitakon 50mm f/0.95 5-seconds ISO 1250
The past couple of months have been spent attempting to photograph nightscape images incorporating the Milky Way using various cameras at our disposal as well as different mounting and lenses.  Here’s what we’ve found so far…
Milky Way over Mexican Hat Rock NM
Sony A7rII Voigtlander 21mm f/1.8 10-seconds ISO 4000
Light painting near Tucson AZ
Sony A7rII Voigtlander 21mm f/1.8 10-seconds ISO 1250
First, your sleep pattern is blown to hell.  You need to be out at dusk in order to setup and then you wait.  If there are too many clouds in the sky you may as well pack in; likewise the moon.  If the moon is too bright you won’t be able to capture the dark skies as there aren’t any. You also need to be aware of the time the sun and moon set.  Recently we were in Shiprock NM and the moon was at 17% brightness which can be very bright if you’re trying to see a dark sky.  The good news was that it set 8 PM which allowed for several hours of darkness. 
Navajo Nation
Sony A7rII FE16-35 f/4 30-seconds ISO 2000
Milky Way over Shiprock NM
Sony A7rII FE24-70GM f/2.8 10-seconds ISO 2000
Milky Way over Mexican Hat Rock NM
Same file B&W or color
Another issue is light pollution. Light pollution from neighboring towns can become a real problem.  Mexican Hat Utah is a very small community yet has a lot of lights.  The good news is that just about all the lights go out shortly after 11PM.  Unlike Shiprock NM which is much larger and much brighter.  We waited well past 1AM and it was just as bright as earlier.
Milky Way over Shiprock NM with light pollution
Sony A7rII Voigtlander 21mm 30-seconds ISO 4000
shot using the iOptron SkyTracker

Milky Way over Shiprock NM with light pollution

Sony A7rII Voigtlander 21mm 20-seconds ISO 3200

shot using the iOptron SkyTracker


So what do you need equipment wise?  This is what we’ve learned so far.

A sturdy tripod along with a cable release so you aren’t touching the camera and introducing unwanted movements. 

You need or maybe a better way to express this, is want a wide lens.  Sandy has experimented using a 16-35 as well as a 24-70.  Both worked well enough however the next issue is how fast the lens is.  Both of these lenses are Sony, and the “fastest” setting is f/4.  That is until Sony released the new and vastly improved 24-70 GM f/2.8.  Sandy still has the 16-35 however she now has and loves the newer much faster 24-70 GM lens. 

The marriage of ISO (film speed) and lens coupled with shutter speed. 

When we began our quest Sandy had the older slower lenses.  The slower the lens the longer the shutter speed and the higher the ISO.  This combination brings problems.  The slower the shutter speed the more star movements.  The higher the ISO the more chance of noise.  Sandy captured a beautiful image of the Milky Way behind a windmill however it could have been much better with a faster lens that she now has.  This is how we learn.

Don on the other hand has been trying another method.

Attaching a camera on top of a telescope and allowing the built-in tracking to keep the camera orientated in the sky.  The first attempt using the medium format Phase One XF, 80-megapixel IQ180 digital back met with limited success; that success was so limited we’ve decided to abandon any further testing.

Next came the use of “star-trackers”.  These are instruments that are placed on top of a tripod with a camera attached.  These use the star Polaris to lock in your alignment.  The camera can be moved to any spot in the sky afterwards so long as you don’t move the tracker.  The trackers with proper alignment allows for much longer shutter speeds without the introduction of movements in the stars.

After trying and failing to capture nightscapes with medium format Don went back to using his Sony A7rII however with much faster lenses. So far he’s used a Voigtlander 21mm f/1.8 as well as the super-fast 50mm Mitakon f/0.95.

Setting up at Mexican Hat Rock NM
Using Vixen Optics Polarie-Star Tracker

Phase One XF/IQ180 and 35LS
on top of a 6" telescope
Using fast lenses allows for lower shutter speeds (as slow as 5-seconds) while using medium to higher ISO as low as ISO 500 to as high as 5000 without the introduction of noise.
Night sky over Mexican Hat NM
Sony A7rII Voigtlander 21mm f/1.8 13-seconds ISO 4000 
Milky Way over Mexican Hat NM
Sony A7rII, FE 24-70GM f/2.8 13-seconds ISO 2500
What we’ve also found that in using super-fast lenses is we don’t need to use a star tracker as we don’t normally exceed 20-seconds.  It seems 20-seconds is the threshold of star-movements.  Sandy will likely begin using a star tracker as the current fastest lens she has is f/2.8.
Equipment used to date. 
Really Right Stuff tripods one with a RRS Ballhead while the other doesn't need a ballhead. 
We have 2-trackers that we like.  The first one used is a Vixen Optics Polarie-Star Tracker that supports up to 4.4 lbs. (2 kg).  It operates on 2 AA batteries and is about the size of a large paperback book.
Our newest tracker is an iOptron SkyTracker which like the Vixen Optics operates on 2 AA batteries yet has a 7.7 pound (3.5 kg) payload.  This device is just as easy to setup and use as the Vixen Optics however it is slightly larger since the tripod attachment is built-in. 
Here are more sample images.
Milky Way over Mexican Hat Rock
Sony A7rII Voigtlander 21mm f/1.8 13-seconds ISO 2500
 Busy Sky over Valley of the Gods NM
Sony A7rII FE16-35 30-seconds ISO 2000
This is the first of a series on photographing nightscapes so stay tuned for more.
As always, thank you for allowing us to share.
Sandy & Don