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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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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Simplifying Travel with a 35mm Lens – Part 2: Vancouver, BC

When getting ready for a work trip to Vancouver last week I must have re-packed my camera bag at least 5 times before settling on the Sigma 35mm f/1.4. Vancouver is a city with big views and as much as I wanted to simplify the travel kit I knew that there would be many occasion where a wide field of view would be needed. In the end I stuck with the 35 for its simplicity and beautiful optics and thankfully I had no regrets.

In the woods I shot at f/1.4 and ISO 1600. For epic landscapes I shot panoramas at tiny apertures. Again the focal length was perfect for capturing scenes just as I saw them.

All below are D700 + Sigma 35mm f/1.4. Some here are of my co-worker, Connor, trying to capture the perfect selfie. Others are of Clevelend Dam, English Bay and downtown Vancouver, Lynn Canyon, TRIUMF, and Granville Island.

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Simplifying Travel with a 35mm Lens – Part 1: Toulouse, France

I recently travelled to Toulouse for work and naturally had a tough time deciding what lenses to bring for my time off. Wide + tele came to mind and is something I’ve done in the past with the AF-S 18-35/3.5-4.5 and AF-S 85/1.8. Or just the wide, or maybe a 50/1.4. In the end I chose the Sigma 35/1.4 as the sole lens for 6 days.

35mm has a nice, natural field of view for travel and often captures a scene similarly to how we remember it. It’s not so wide that the framing becomes difficult and not so tight that information is left out. In the cases where a wider field of view is needed it’s not a big deal to snap off a quick panorama and stitch later at home. The Sigma version has excellent sharpness and contrast, even at f/1.4, and has snappy and accurate autofocus – something equally as important as image quality i situations where you need to capture fleeting moments.

Here are a few shots from the trip with the D700. The weather was absolutely outstanding and the city had just decorated for Christmas.

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