Photographing the Milky Way

As much as I loved the D700, and I really did love it, the excellent high ISO of the d750 has opened up some new doors. One of these doors, a completely new one to me,  is night sky astrophotography. Specifically the Milky Way. Although only subtly visible to the naked eye, a long exposure brings out all of the rich texture and hues that can span from horizon to horizon. Southern Ontario for the most part isn’t particularly dark but even a couple of hours north of the 401 corridor the light pollution dies down enough to get a decent shot.

The trick to getting a good capture of the milky way is to keep the signal to noise ratio high, with a wide aperture, long exposure and clean high ISO performance. As with all photos of objects in the night sky, the exposure must be short enough to keep them from being blurred by that the rotation of the earth. Fortunately there is a simple rule of thumb. Divide the number 500 by the lens’ focal length to get the maximum shutter speed to avoid blur. For example, when using an 18mm lens, the longest shutter speed is 28 seconds. This formula applies to full frame cameras. With an APS sensor, divide the shutter speed further by 1.5.

A steady tripod is also critical to getting sharp photos. For focusing, set the camera to live view, manual focus and zoom the display to a bright star or planet. It’s best to shoot with a cable release or at least in self timer mode to minimize camera shake.

Don’t expect an epic photo straight out of the camera, this type of image takes some extreme post processing. Here’s an example before any editing, followed by the finished product. The shot was taken with the D750 and AF-S 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5 G (18mm, f/3.5, 25 seconds, ISO 6400).

f/3.5, 25 seconds ISO 6400 (out of camera)

f/3.5, 25 seconds ISO 6400 (out of camera)

f/3.5, 25 seconds ISO 6400 (after extensive edits)

f/3.5, 25 seconds ISO 6400 (after extensive edits)

There will always be a colour caste in the original image due to light pollution, high ISO noise and white balance settting. After adjusting colour, the image will need some heavy contrast enhancement and careful use of shadow/highlight sliders (if using lightroom) and a good dose of saturation. Careful noise reduction and sharpening is key too.

Now, of course I’m finding some limitations with my equipment (surprise surprise). My brightest wide lens is f/3.5 at 18mm. Nikon makes an outstanding 20mm f/1.8 that’s pretty tempting but I don’t think I can justify getting a new lens just for taking photos of stars!  Anyway, I’ve been getting great results with what I already have in my bag. Here are another few examples, all with the D750 and 18-35mm at 18mm. The first is a panorama of 6 shots.

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A Foggy Saturday

We’ve had a week of fog and unseasonably warm weather here in Southern Ontario. This Saturday I took advantage of the moody atmosphere to grab a few photos. The first two are from a walk at RIM Park with the D750 and AF-S 70-200mm f/2.8 VR (a lens I’ll talk about soon).

The night shots are from the X100s.  Lately I’ve been playing with the X100s in full manual mode (AF, shutter and aperture). It’s slowed down my shooting but I’ve enjoyed having full control and better consistency from shot to shot. My method is to first set exposure for the scene using the LCD in the view finder and then switch to the optical view. To focus, turning the focus ring on the lens activates the virtual split prism, where the centre of the image is magnified and superimposed with a split image generated from the AF phase-detection sensors. Focus is achieved when the split image is aligned.

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Sigma 50mm F1.4 ART

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This past August I had a break-in at my house, and the savvy thief stole most of my camera equipment. Gone were the D300s, D700 and D750. 18-35 f/3.5-4.5, 60 f/2.8 macro, 135 f/2 DC and Sigma 50mm f/1.4 EX. With insurance to the rescue, I set about replacing what I’d lost. The D750, 18-35, 60 and 135 were straightforward to replace directly. The Sigma 50, on the other hand, was tricky.

I’d picked up the 50 EX at BH Photo in Manhattan a few years ago and it was a bit of a mixed bag. Often, but not always, sharp but with incredibly inconsistent metering and AF. It was a beautiful lens on the D700 when it was on its best behaviour but with the higher resolution D750 (and when playing around with the D800 and D810) it just wasn’t that sharp at wide apertures. Now, the EX is no longer produced and couldn’t be found at any stores. The natural substitute was the newer, bigger and heavier ART version. Much bigger and heavier. Like huge for a 50.

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The resolution from this lens is outstanding across the frame at every aperture. Focusing on just the eye gives a great effect for portraits and shooting wide open with a razor-sharp focal plane and creamy bokeh is no problem.

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D750 f/1.4 ISO 720

AF accuracy has been a bit inconsistent but really not bad. Better than the EX but not as rock solid as Sigma’s 35mm f/1.4 ART. Unlike the old EX, exposure accuracy is no worse than the rest of my lenses (not counting the AF-S 85mm f/1.8 G, which tends to overexpose).

I tested the lens against my AF-S 50mm f/1.8 G and found it to be considerably sharper at open apertures. Out-of-focus highlights show less of a cat-eye effect but the overall bokeh isn’t much different. I shot the two lenses back to back using christmas lights as point source highlights. In the second image you can see that the ART is sharper at f/1.4 than the Nikon is at f/1.8.

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Left: ART at f/1.4; Centre: ART at f/1.8; Right: AF-S G at f/1.8

Here are a few more shots:

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f/4

 

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f/1.4

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f/1.4

Photos of the Month – June 2016

Well, I haven’t posted in forever. To get myself back on the path to regularly blogging I’m going to try doing a few ‘Photos of the Month’ posts to recap the best images from the month. Most of these were taken with my pretty new Nikon D750 (I’m sure I’ll be writing about it soon) and the rest were with the X100s.

Enjoy!

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Trip to Arizona Part II – The Grand Canyon

Well, I crossed off another item on the bucket list in April with my visit to the Grand Canyon. I woke up at 5AM at the hotel in Flagstaff and hit the road before the sun rose so that I’d get to the canyon in the early morning light. I probably don’t need to say a lot about the place. It was epic and vast. I was there early enough that I was totally alone in some spots, without a person in site. That all changed a few hours later when it was teeming.

I walked down the Kaibob trail about 1200 feet and experienced a 15-20 degree (Celsius) temperature change compared to the top. The hike down was easy. The hike up was strenuous and parching.

I stayed past dark and parked myself at Lipan Point for the sunset and night sky shots. Unfortunately I ran the batteries out in the D700 but the X100s was up to the task! The night sky shot here is a panorama of X100s shots. Here are my 22 favourites spanning 7AM to 10PM.  D700 and X100s, AF-S 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5G and Sigma 35mm f/1.4, 85mm f/1.8G.

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7 shot panorama with X100s

7 shot panorama with X100s

Trip to Arizona Part I – Everything but The Grand Canyon

In April one of my best friends, Mike, married Laura in Scottsdale, Arizona and I was lucky enough to get to fly down and shoot the wedding. After the wedding I hung around Arizona for another few days and headed north into the desert in a white Corolla. While the highlight of the trip was the Grand Canyon, the drive there and back was awesome as well! Here are my photos of Phoenix, Sedona and Flagstaff plus a few more from along the highway. Shot with the D700 and X100s.

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Kitchener-Waterloo Fujifilm X100 Club Meets

As it turns out, two of my friends also own X100 bodies (Tibra with the original X100 and Carolyn with a brand spankin new X100t). We decided to get together this past weekend for some small body fixed 35mm rangefinder shooting in downtown Kitchener, and so began the Kitchener-Waterloo Fujifilm X100 Club. Here are my highlights from the day, all shot with the X100s except for the first (which was taken with my phone). For the most part these are straight out of camera, with just a few tweaks for brightness and colour.

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