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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Studio Cat Portraits

Last weekend I tried using my new background kit (stands + white seamless) to shoot some portraits of our cats, Gracie and Professor Noam Chomsky. For the key light I used an Alien Bee B800 with gridded beauty dish from camera right, somewhat close to the posing stool. A Paul C Buff Brollie Box on a 2nd B800 was the fill light, set back from camera left. Both lights were set to equal output power, so distance controlled the intensity on the cats. The background light was a 3rd B800 with barn doors to control the spill.

“Posing” the cats was an exercise in patience. While Gracie eventually chilled out on the stool and let me get a long series of shots, Chomsky had no interest. The lamb skin helped but I still only had 10 seconds after setting him down before he’d run away to the bedroom.

I shot withe the D700 + AF-S 85mm f/1.8 G on a tripod and cable release, allowing me to shoot from the floor between the camera and cats.

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Uncle George Runs 100,000 Miles

This morning my uncle George, who has been running since 1967, ran his 100,000th mile. That’s a bit over four times around the world! To celebrate he called on all of his running friends to be with him as he hit this amazing milestone.

You can read a great article here.

Naturally, I celebrated by taking a photo.  Below I show two versions of the same scene. The first is with the Nikon AF-S 18-35mm G at 18mm on the D300s. The second is a panorama of 7 shots with the Nikon 135mm f/2 DC on the D700…. a drastically different perspective.

Which do you prefer?

D300s with Nikon AF-S 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5 G at 18mm

D300s with Nikon AF-S 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5 G at 18mm

D700 with Nikon 135mm f/2 DC. 7 shot stitched panorama.

D700 with Nikon 135mm f/2 DC. 7 shot stitched panorama.

Blog Week Day 5 – Farewell to Waterloo Bowling Lanes

Tomorrow night Waterloo’s last bowling alley, Waterloo Bowling Lanes, will close its doors. Soon it will be demolished with a 7 story condo taking its place. I, along with many other Waterloons, are saddened by this. The lanes have been open since 1949 and will be sorely, sorely missed. There’s something special about a run down 5-pin bowling alley. Nostalgic Canadiana, maybe.

Last night, Mitzy and I made light painted composite images of the building to honour its closing. The technique is the same as the one shown here, with 5-10 shots making up each composite.

D300s with Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 PRO DX at 11mm f/11 4s ISO 200

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Blog Week Day 3 – Catlantis

Day Three!

On the weekend I did a little photo shoot with Milosz for our new musical project, Catlantis. This particular photo is a bokeh panorama comprised of a full SEVENTY shots with a wide open Nikon AF-S 85mm f/1.8. My technique for making this kind of image, often known as a Brenizer Method composite, is to set the camera to small JPEG, manual focus, manual exposure and fixed white balance (not AUTO). There’s no need in having a large size JPEG as each shot will only make up a small part of the final. Manual focus, exposure and fixed white balance are important to keep the same look from shot to shot.

I use either Photoshop or Microsoft ICE to do the stitching. ICE seems to handle more complicated stitches better than Photoshop and has a very simple operation where you just drag the series of shots into it and let it run.

So here it is, my biggest Brenizer yet. Shot with the D300s with AF-S 85mm f/1.8G at f/1.8 1/500s ISO 100.

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ObG Thursdays – I Spy a Spider

This week’s oldie-but-goodie comes from the front porch where last summer a spider took residence. I got creative with the lighting here, using a full three strobes. I controlled the strobes with Nikon’s CLS (Creative Lighting System) using the built-in flash as the controller.

The main light was a Nikon SB-900 with 1/4 CTO gel (the one that is supplied with the flash) and a Nikon SB-700 and Metz 48 AF-1 were both used as rim lights, un-gelled. I programmed the CLS settings in the camera as follows:

  • Overall exposure compensation was 0 EV
  • Main light was dialed down to -0.7 EV (on Group A) and had a 1/4 CTO gel
  • Rim lighting was increased to +0.7 EV (both on Group B)

Happily I also had a Mitzy to stand behind the web!

The photo was taken with the D300s with AF-S 60mm f/2.8 G Micro at f/8 1/100s ISO 400.

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And here’s a bonus close up.

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ObG Thursdays – Old Post Office Light Painting Composite

Lighting a large scene with just one flash is something I’d wanted to try for a while and finally got around to it with this shot in today’s Oldie-but-Goodie.

This photo is a composite of six shots, stitched together in Photoshop CS5. In each, I lit a different part of the building using a single SB-900 flash with the standard diffuser cap. I fired the flash using the test button and in most of the shots I fired it multiple times. The camera (Nikon D300s wtih Tokina 11-16mm) was set to manual exposure (f/8 8s ISO 100) and manual focus and set on a tripod in the parking lot. The long exposure allowed the camera to capture the ambient light but also gave me the time for the flash fires.

Here are the shots that went into the composite. In the first four I lit both the concrete and brick walls.

DSC_9339 DSC_9340 DSC_9341 DSC_9342 In the next two I tried to light the smoke stack by zooming the flash in to 200mm. The flash lost a lot of power at that distance and even with multiple fires it was difficult to light the stack.

DSC_9345 DSC_9346At this point the images look like a mess with many points of light and many Owens. However, by choosing which part of each image I wanted to come through using layer masks I could clean this up considerably. Below I show a capture from Photoshop with each of the images and their corresponding layer mask. Notice that for the most part only a small area (the white region of the layer mask) is used in the composite.

ScreenHunter_16 Apr. 11 07.19In the end I did have to remove a few stray flash bursts and Owen limbs here and there using the healing brush and clone tools. Finally, with a curves adjustment to brighten the lower mid-tones, I ended up with this!

DSC_9339-EditAs this was my first ‘light painted’ composite, I did learn a few lessons. Most importantly, it was difficult in a few instances to remove my ghost from the image. Next time around I would use brighter flashes and stand further away from the subject to not catch as much of the reflection. Distance would also help broaden the spot as it falls on the surface. Overall though, I was happy with this first attempt!