Make and Edit Pictures of the Milky Way

Lonely Speck

Photographing the Milky Way was the motivation for me to finally get deeper into the art of photography. In preparation for a trip to Albuquerque, New Mexico, I had already bought a new camera. The next step was to learn how to make the best use of my equipment – and in particular, how to get the best out of the pictures afterwards, at home on my computer. What helped me the most in all of this was the YouTube channel “Lonely Speck” by Ian Norman, which I will introduce here.

Milky Way over New Mexico
Milky Way over New Mexico

PREPARATION

PLANNING

I spent about a week in Albuquerque, including a few open evenings. While looking for tips where and how to best see the Milky Way, I came across Astronomy Adventures. Peter has a dark site on a ranch up in the mountains between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, at about 7,800 ft. elevation, where he offers guided tours through the night sky with his telescope. Together with a couple of friends, we had the great luck to catch a clear night at new moon – perfect conditions. Peter’s explanations of the history of astronomy, while pointing out interesting stellar formations with his telescope, made for an unforgettable experience.

Back home, in a densely populated region such as Germany’s Rhein-Main area, catching a view of the Milky Way is not so easy. In order to see a decent amount of stars around here, one would have to go to the northern Black Forest, or to the coast of the Baltic Sea. The web site www.lightpollutionmap.info provides a very detailed overview on light pollution levels; check it out for dark places near where you live.

Full Moon Rising
Full Moon Rising

A natural form of light pollution is the moon. In a full moon night, there isn’t much else to see in the sky. There is a number of web sites and apps that help you out with what phase to moon is in, or when it and the sun set and rise respectively. A good recommendation is The Photograhper’s Ephemeris, which can be used for free on any desktop computer. Then of course the weather has to be right as well – the fewer clouds, the less humid and the colder it is, the better. And last but not least, the Milky Way or whatever constellation you are interested it, has to be visible on the sky. There are plenty of web site and apps for this as well; personally, I use Sky Guide for iOS.

EQUIPMENT

This topic can be quickly summarized. You’ll need:

  • A camera (the bigger the sensor, the better – however, even with a Micro Four Thirds camera you can take great pictures. With your cell phone… not so much)
  • A lens. That should fulfil the following requirements:
    • Widest possible angle, to capture much of the sky
    • Widest possible aperture (i.e., low aperture number, so that as much light as possible reaches the sensor)
    • For APS-C DSLRs, I recommend the Tokina 11-20mm ƒ/2.8 DX, which is what I am using
    • For other camera systems, I gladly pass on Stephan Wiesner’s recommendations: for mirrorless APS-C cameras, the Samyang 12mm ƒ/2.0; and for full-frame cameras, the Tamron 15-30mm ƒ/2.8.
    • However, expensive gear isn’t mandatory: even with your kit lens you can take great pictures, as will be shown below
  • Sturdy tripod
  • Optional: remote shutter release (if you don’t have one, you can use your camera’ two second delay shutter)

In addition: warm clothing (even in summer, clear nights tend to get cold), food, drinks, and a book. Also quite helpful: a flash light with a “night vision mode” (red lamp), so you can check or search something without blinding you or others in the dark.

TAKING PICTURES

Once everything is in place, line up your camera with the section of sky you’re interested in, and off you go. The most challenging feat is focusing correctly. In the dark, you have to focus manually, and simply turning the lens to “infinity” rarely does the trick. I usually look for a star that is bright enough to appear in Live View on the LCD screen, use the 10x magnification on it, and turn the focus ring until the star appears as small as possible. I take a few test shots in addition, zoom in, and then fine-tune as needed until the stars have become tiny pinpoints.

I typically start out with these settings:  11mm | ƒ/2.8 | ISO 1.600 | 25 Sec.

If you do not want to capture star trails on purpose, you cannot keep the shutter open for as long as you want – the earth rotates faster than you might think. Here is a rule of thumb for the maximum exposure time so that the stars still appear as dots: (500 divided by (focal length * crop factor)). The crop factor defined the relative size of your camera’s sensor compared to a full-frame camera. It needs to be taken into account because smaller cameras usually also have smaller pixels, hence are more sensitive to the movement of the stars. For a Canon APS-C camera like mine, the crop factor is 1.6 (it’s 1.5 for Nikon, and 2 for Micro Four-Thirds). So, with my camera and the Tokina 11-20mm, I can keep the shutter open for a maximum of (500 / (11* 1.6)) = 28.4 (rounded down: 25) seconds. Please keep in mind: this is a rule of thumbs. Check your images; you may find that you can keep your shutter open longer, or not as long, to get the desired results.

Always shoot wide open, to gather as much light as possible. Concerning the ISO setting, I usually start at 1,600. At least for my 760D, that is a good compromise between the amount of light gathered and the image quality. Once you’re all set, start taking pictures. And never take only one image of a particular target area; always take a series of pictures. I usually take 16 frames or more. This does take a while, but it drastically increases your post-processing options afterwards.

Milky Way and Andromeda Galaxy
Milky Way and Andromeda Galaxy

In closing, there is one important point to consider: when doing night sky photography for the first time, you’ll get easily tempted to make the pictures too dark. They’ll look great when you look at them on your camera’s bright LCD screen in the dark of night, but back home at your computer, you’ll be greatly disappointed. Make the pictures so that they actually look too bright at first! If your camera offers a histogram, use it. Of course, no parts of the pictures should be blown out (completely white), but there definitely should be information on the right hand side (lights) of your histogram. The more light there is in the image, the more information is available for post-processing – which brings us to the actual topic.

POST-PROCESSING

Ian Norman is a photographer living in California who specializes in astrophotography. Consequently, his YouTube-Channel offers a lot of information on this topic; in particular on post-processing the images. His tutorials explain the steps to be taken in Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop very well and in an easy to follow manner. When I edited my first night sky images, I always had my iPad running the video tutorial at hand. I paused, scrolled back and forth, and followed each step carefully. By now, I can do most of it without having to ‘cheat’.

EDIT SINGLE IMAGES IN LIGHTROOM

The big challenge is in achieving good contrast and bringing out all the details, so that the image still looks natural and not overloaded. You will notice that the camera sees a lot more stars than the naked eye does. However when manipulating the night sky, and in particular the colors in the Milky Way, there always is some artistic leeway of course.

I want to point out two of Ian’s videos in particular. In the first one, he explains how you can capture the Milky Way even under very difficult lighting conditions:

This also explains very well why it is better to make the images appear too bright in camera and then reduce brightness in post, than the other way around.

The second video walks you through the usual editing steps for night sky images in Adobe Lightroom. This also proves that you can take impressive pictures even with a slower lens, if you take some considerations into account:

Both videos describe the editing of single images. The advanced method is to merge several frames in Photoshop into a single image – but for this, the images are initially edited in Lightroom as well, before bringing them into Photoshop.

MERGING SEVERAL IMAGES IN PHOTOSHOP

Due to the physical limitations imposed on aperture and shutter time, it is inevitable to raise the ISO setting to 1,600 or even 3,200 when taking pictures of the night sky. This results in a visible amount of noise in the image, especially when zooming in. Using the default noise reduction algorithms included in most photo editing tools will result in losing a lot of details, such as smaller stars.

Now it comes in handy if you have taken several shots of the same area of the sky. The more, the merrier. In short, the trick is to stack and exactly align the images, and then to compute the average value for each pixel. As the stars will always be in the same places in all images after correct alignment, they are not affected. The image noise, however, is random and thus cancels out when calculating the median. If you combine four images taken at ISO 3,200 this way, the remaining noise will be comparable to a shot taken at ISO 800. For the Milky Way pictures you can see in this post, I have stacked more than 20 images each.

This video offers the detailed instructions for how to achieve this:

The particular challenge is the correct alignment of the images. If that does not match exactly, not only the image noise will vanish when calculating the media, but the stars as well, at least in parts of the image. As long as the pictures offer enough contrast, Photoshop’s auto-alignment will work very well. However, I had a number of occasions where the automatic alignment failed. This is no reason for despair, though, as there is a manual workaround:

What remains is the artistic design of the night sky. Ian explains how to best bring out the colors and details in the sky in this video:

This works not only for Orion, of course, but for every section of the sky that has to offer similar features.

Ian’s channel offers numerous other tutorials as well, which are all very helpful. If you have taken enough shots of a particular area, you might for instance consider turning them into a time-lapse video. Using the knowledge from these videos, I have taken quite a number of pictures of the night sky so far, and I am increasingly happy with the results. As with all other kinds of photography, practice makes perfect. So, then: wait for the next clear night around a new moon, and then take your camera out! Especially now during the long winter nights with their clear, cold air, the conditions are ideal…


CONCLUSION

Recommendation: Absolutely watch, then go out and try!

What I’ve learned: The knowledge what to consider when taking the pictures, and how to post-process them, is a lot more important than the equipment. Thorough preparation is important, as well as the necessary patience while capturing the images. The results in the end will be well worth the effort!


LINKS

FURTHER INFORMATION

Picture credits: Title image: YouTube Screenshot; Milky Way and Moonrise: own images

My Gear: Canon 760D (Rebel T6s)

Canon 760D

Since August 2015, I’ve been out and about a lot with my Canon 760D. Read below why I made the decision to buy that camera, and whether I would make the same decision again today. But first, let’s start with a short history of my photography experience.

CAMERA RETROSPECT

COMPACT CAMERAS

My first camera was an Olympus C-700 UZ. In retrospect, what sold me at the time probably was the 10x optical zoom (the full-frame equivalent of 38-380mm). With 2 megapixels I started into the world of digital photography in the summer of 2001. All in all, I was quite happy with the camera, and consequently, in 2004 I upgraded to one of its successors – the Olympus C-750 UZ, now with 4 megapixels and several other improvements.

The two cameras went through a number of vacation trips with me, and were also used quite often at the local Railway Museum. This is also where the biggest disadvantage became obvious: the zoom was motorised and too slow to keep up with moving objects like an approaching train. In combination with the rather sluggish autofocus, I resented quite a number of missed shots. This led to the obvious conclusion: I need something with a bit more punch.

THE FIRST DSLR

Olympus E-510
Olympus E-510

Since I was happy with the cameras in general (look-and-feel, handling, reliability) and the images as well, I saw no reason to switch brands. So in 2008, I got myself an Olympus E-510, in a set with the two kit lenses: 14-42mm ƒ/3.5-5.6 and 40-150mm ƒ/4.0-5.6. With a full-frame equivalent of 28-300mm, I again had a ~10x optical zoom.

In summary, I was very happy with the E-510 over the years. She was a reliable companion on many journeys and rendered plenty of really nice images. I have to admit, though, that I mostly stayed with the automatic settings and never really occupied myself with the basic principles of photography. I never fully exploited the capabilities of the camera, but I realised one thing: in low-light conditions – at night, or inside the gloomy roundhouse at the railway museum – the E-510 with its kit lenses quickly reached its limits.

Though Olympus did offer “pro lenses” for the E-series at the time, I never pursued that upgrade. Mostly there never was a big event where I had the feeling I actually missed something due to the camera’s limitations. However, exactly that changed last year – which brings me to the current…

CAMERA SELECTION

In the fall of 2015, I had the unique opportunity to travel to Albuquerque, New Mexico. That provided the opportunity to take pictures of two major sights: the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta with about 550 hot-air balloons, and the night sky free of light pollution. Up in the mountains away from Albuquerque, in the clear, dry desert air and at an elevation of almost 8,000 ft., the view of the Milky Way was nothing less than breath-taking. I asked myself: How do I photograph this right? And what else do I want to take pictures of? So I wrote myself a list:

  • Mostly interested in (“must have”): Landscapes / cityscapes (including twilight and night shots), macros, night skies and moon, interiors, also with difficult lighting conditions (e.g. railway museum roundhouse)
  • Somewhat interested in (“nice to have”): Events (group pictures), taking videos
  • Not interested in (not relevant for decision): portraits, sports, action, wildlife

I fired up the internet, and I felt immediately clobbered over the head with the sheer amount of information. One of the things I learned to value as an information source at the time was YouTube. My initial suspicion that my trusted old E-510 wouldn’t get me very far with what I had in mind was quickly confirmed. Hence, I drafted the selection criteria for my new camera:

  • Wide choice of Lenses
  • Easy handling
  • Large display
  • Good image quality, even in low-light conditions
  • Range of available accessories, including third-party vendors
  • Affordability – my available budget at the time was 1,500 €

APS-C OR FULL-FRAME

The first decision I had to make was for the camera system. Considering the last item on my list, full frame seemed out of reach to me at the time. To be flexible, I wanted to be able to afford more than one lens from the start. So I decided in favour of the smaller (and less expensive) APS-C format, which I have not regretted since. Would I have preferred a Canon 6D after all, if I had had more time for the decision (and to save more money)? Hard to say, but then, the situations where a full-frame camera can really show its strengths compared to APS-C – in the dark, or when separating subjects from background – only occur in a small share of my images.

CANON OR NIKON (OR SONY)

I looked at Sony mostly because of the famed low-light performance. In particular the A7S made a lot of headlines on this subject at the time. However, its price point was way beyond my financial horizon. The smaller models, on the other hand, didn’t convince me in terms of handling and accessories (choice of lenses). That has improved in the meantime, and I do admit that the A6500 is a very interesting camera – not only for its in-body image stabilisation (which my old E-510 had as well). But a launch price of 1,700 €?

I ended up swaying between Canon and Nikon. I think this is mostly a gut decision, because the technical advantages and weaknesses on either side more or less balance out. At times, one is in the lead; then the other. Here, the image sensor seems better; there, it’s the lenses. So I went to a number of stored and looked at the cameras, took them in my hands, played around with them. And came to the conclusion: Canon it is. Simply for the reason that I liked their handling better; it seemed more intuitive to me. In addition, the better video autofocus is a bonus, too.

70D, 700D (Rebel T5i), 750D (Rebel T6i), 760D (Rebel T6s)

Those were the models I had on my short list. The naming is a bit confusing as the entry-level DSLRs have metric names in Europe (700D, 750D…), while they are called “Rebel Tx” in the US. I will stick with the metric names for the rest of this article. The 700D was dropped first. It was good value for money, but all reviews unanimously stated that the leap in quality offered by its successors 750D/760D was significant. The smaller of the two, the 750D, was sorted out next – the additional features offered by the 760D, such as the shoulder display or the second scroll wheel, justified the higher price in my eyes.

This left me with the 70D, and the 760D. They were in the same price range, and offered similar performance. In a number of comparison reviews, the 760D came in first – though close – on the points that interested me most. The choice was made.

And I’m happy with it! It handles well, and offers great functionality with its tilting and turning touch display, or the remote-controlling capabilities via Wi-Fi. Most importantly: I’m more than happy with the image quality! Given the choice at the time, I would make the same decision again today.

In addition, by now I have a collection of lenses that cover my interests as listed above very well. I will write about the particular lenses in future “My Gear” posts.

AND TODAY…?

As far as I’m concerned, there is only one boundary condition that has changed since then, and that is the choice of available cameras. For half a year now, the Canon 80D has been out. Though it comprises the same image sensor as the 760D, it offers drastic improvements in terms of autofocus and overall functionality. Six months after launch, the price of the 80D has dropped by about one third to an acceptable level. An upgrade might be warranted in the future.

WHAT IS THE RIGHT CHOICE FOR YOU?

That’s not easy to answer. Which camera is the best for you depends on what you want do with it. Hence: make lists. Write down what you’re interested in, what you want to photograph – now, and for the next few years. After all, you will have to live with the decision for a while. What is important for you on the camera itself? What budget do you have? Also keep in mind the possibility of buying a used camera. I bought a number of used lenses, and saved a lot of money doing so, without compromising quality.

I have included links to the considerations of several well-known photographers on this matter. Definitely have a look at those, while checking your lists from time to time.


CONCLUSION

Recommendation: Given the choice at the time, I would decide for the Canon 760D again. Today (October 2016), though, I clearly prefer the Canon 80D. If you get along better with Nikon, have a look at the D7200.

What I’ve learned: There is not “the one best camera”. You have to ask yourself: what do I want to take pictures of? There are many cameras that are specialised to excel at certain tasks – however, they are usually quite expensive and often really shine only under those specific conditions, while falling behind in other areas. For the things I do, I prefer an all-rounder.


LINKS

Picture credits: Title image (Canon 760D), Olympus E-510: own images

YouTube Recommendation: DigitalRevTV

DigitalRevTV

The YouTube channel “DigitalRevTV” is with around 1.8 Million subscribers most likely the largest photography show on the internet. It is created by a group of people. For the most part, the videos are presented by Kai and Lok from Hong Kong. They deal with all kinds of photography-related topics, while not taking things too serious. This turns out to be both a blessing and a curse: one the one hand, much of the channel’s attraction comes from the videos being quite entertaining instead of justing enumerating technical facts; on the other hand, they sometimes do not convey as much information as you’d expect, or simply drift off into shenanigans.

They do offer numerous tests and hands-on reviews for cameras and lenses; however, they fall short compared to what many other channels have to offer in that area. Occasionally, I watch them anyway, though mostly for their entertainment value. But there are other categories that are much more worthwhile.

PLAYLIST – RECOMMENDATIONS

  • “How To” Videos: Close to 100 videos can be found here providing all kinds of creative ideas: what can you do while being stuck at home, for instance due to bad weather? How do you best take pictures of smoke? Or water? How can you play with out-of-focus backgrounds, or light painting? Browse through the list, there are some really cool ideas there. I will certainly try some of them myself when I find the time.
  • “Pro Photographer, Cheap Camera”: As the name suggest, a “cheap” camera will be given to a professional photographer, who then has to solve a given task. “Cheap” can mean all kinds of things: it can be a really old camera, or an actual toy – whatever it is, its features are certain to be significantly below the standard average modern cameras have to offer nowadays. All the more astonishing it is to see the marvellous results at the end!

UPDATE DECEMBER 2016

End of 2016, both Kai and Lok quit DigitalRevTV within a few days. With the loss of its two main characters – Kai in front of the camera, Lok behind it – none of the original founders remain with the channel. DigitalRevTV continues with new staff; produced by some who already worked with Kai and Lok before, even though more in the background. It will be interesting to see what they come up with.

Kai and Lok continue as well. Kai has his own YouTube channel by now, on which he continues to post entertaining camera reviews. Within the first three weeks he already gathered 200,000 followers. Lok seems to be undecided at the moment; maybe the two will work together again in the future…


CONCLUSION

Recommendation: Very interesting ideas; but all in all, more a site for browsing than a must-see.

What I’ve learned: The actual camera is secondary when it comes to taking impressive pictures. You need the idea, and an eye for the motive. Plenty of inspiration is provided.


LINKS

Title image: YouTube Screenshot

YouTube Recommendation: Marc Levoy – Lectures on Digital Photography

Marc Levoy - Lectures on Digital Photography

When you start looking into the theory of photography, you soon realise that it is quite easy to become lost in detail. The exposure triangle alone just doesn’t do it. How does the image get to the sensor in the first place? How does the camera see colours? How do we see them? Where does image noise come from? You can either search for the answers to any of these questions individually – or you grab the comprehensive package provided by Marc Levoy.

SUMMARY

Marc Levoy is a Professor Emeritus of Computer Science at Stanford and now works for Google. From 2009 to 2014, he taught a University course titled “how cameras work, and how to take good pictures using them”. In the spring of 2016, he gave an adapted version of this course at Google, which thankfully was recorded and made available online. 18 lectures, altogether more than 22 hours of video material. This is the course description given on the homepage:

An introduction to the scientific, artistic, and computing aspects of digital photography. Topics include lenses and optics, light and sensors, optical effects in nature, perspective and depth of field, sampling and noise, the camera as a computing platform, image processing and editing, and computational photography. We will also survey the history of photography, look at the work of famous photographers, and talk about composing strong photographs.

The lectures are easy to follow; the image and audio quality is very good. Even more important, he does not lose himself in gobbledegook, even when going deep into the finer details. He never loses the golden thread, and that is what makes the entire package so interesting.

The lecture’s Homepage does not only provide the links to the 18 YouTube videos, it also runs all applets used in the lectures, including instructions, as well as all of the assignments if you want to give it a try yourself!


CONCLUSION

Recommendation: This is a must-see!

What I’ve learned: A lot 🙂 In particular, it helped me understand a lot of technical background as well as explaining contexts which are easily missed when just looking into individual aspects. Of course you can use the course schedule to pick out the topics you’re most interested it, but I strongly recommend taking the time to watch the entire course over time.


LINKS

Wishing you interesting hours,
– Jochen =8-)

Title image: Screenshot from Homepage

On a personal note: All aboard!

Bitte Einsteigen!

“The problem with getting started with photography is not that you can’t find any information about it – but way too much of it.” – Own experience

At least that was my conclusion when I decided to finally get started with photography “for real”. Until then, all I had done with my first DSLR – an Olympus E-510 – primarily was to take snapshots. I had a rough idea of what I wanted, but things like aperture, depth of field, angle of view etc. always passed me by. I mostly trusted the automatic programs the camera provided. I did manage to get a number of really nice pictures – but admittedly, I often didn’t know why.

In the fall of 2015, I had the unique opportunity to travel to Albuquerque, New Mexico. Not I only could I visit the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, world’s largest host-air balloon event, but I also had the chance to drive up into the mountains and watch the stars – far away from city lights and above any haze. That was the primer: how do you photograph the Milky Way – and how do you do it right? What equipment is needed, which settings, how do you process the images afterwards?

So the odyssey started through the vast spaces of the world wide web. Initially, the sheer amount of information stunned me. Soon, though, I started to get an idea about which websites and video channels are actually useful, and which ones can be quickly discarded.

Now, more than a year later, I have a good feeling for which photographers, homepages, blogs, YouTube channels and software tools help me, and which don’t. Over time, this resulted in a positive list with collected bookmarks – and a negative list as well, of course…

Are you at the same point now? You’re interested in photography but don’t know where to start?

Then let my train of thought take you where you want to be, faster. All aboard!

Enjoy!
– Jochen =8-)

Title Image: Own image, 2012

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