The hardest part of astrophotography is getting out of bed (especially at this time of year with sunrise at 5:30am). I guess there are other hard parts, but this is the first hurdle. Once out of bed, the next big decision is whether to drink coffee. If you are not a coffee drinker, you have no idea how hard it is to go out and about without some coffee, even bad national park hotel coffee. Then, if I do have coffee, I may preclude getting some sleep after the star shoot is done. Such a dilemma!
We are off the Badwater, the lowest point on earth, deep in the heart of Death Valley. It’s about a thirty-minute drive from our hotel with the stars serving as the only ambient light. The drive is followed by a one-mile hike into the valley. Our goal is to find pristine hexagonal shapes to use as a foreground in our image with the Milky Way serving as the backdrop. We scouted this location the day before, finding some hexagons that meet our general requirements. We even recorded the GPS location to make it easy to find in the blackness of night. We bumbled around a bit, never finding the location from yesterday. We decided that wherever we are is perfect. Where is my coffee?
I set up (8 seconds at f/2.8, ISO 8000) and fire my first test shot at 2:11am. Yikes that’s early. I look at display on the back of my camera – the image is black. I know it is dark out, but I do not see any stars, nothing, just blackness. I zoom in, the image is black everywhere. What the heck is going on? Then, I realize the lens cap is still on. Where is my coffee?
Let’s do a quick recap. So far, I was able to get out of bed, drive to Badwater, hike out one mile, and take a black image. Not bad for a man impaired – where is my coffee?
Next on the agenda is to get proper lens focus. It’s so dark that the autofocus on the lens has no chance in working. I start to daydream, maybe if I shine my flashlight into the sky, onto a star, it would be bright enough for the autofocus to work. Stupid idea. Where is my coffee? The only way to get proper focus is to set the lens at approximately infinity, put the camera into live view mode, and zoom in on a star. I try this and cannot get it to work, there is too much noise on the display. I do what any smart man would do, I whine. A lot. For some reason Kathryn does not respond well. Where is her coffee?
After some bickering, knowing full well neither of us have had any coffee, we get our cameras ready. We have proper focus on the stars, all our camera settings are correct, the core of the Milky Way is visible. We need to take about 15 images, one after another. To do this effectively we need to use our intervalometers (a device that plugs into a camera and controls how often, how long and how many shots are taken). I am using my iPhone to communicate with the intervalometer. Each time I initiate a test shot, Kathryn’s camera takes a picture. She is none too pleased with this situation. After some more bickering I realize I should just connect to hers while she connects to mine. Problem solved. It is now after 2:45 and we are ready to go. Who needs coffee? Not master problem solvers such as us.
We will take the 15 images and stack them using a tool called Starry Landscape Stacker to remove a lot of the image noise introduced by the high ISO (remember, we are at ISO 8000. A nice clean image is normally taken using ISO 100). Now we must set up for imaging the foreground, those nice hexagons I mentioned earlier. To get reasonable images we need an exposure of 60 seconds. We change our focus from the stars to the hexagon right in front of us. 15 images and 15 minutes later we are done. It’s 3:45am and I can’t wait to get back to bed.
But Kathryn has other ideas. She wants to redo everything now that the Milky Way is in the “perfect” position. I shoot her a look that could kill. Great thing it’s so dark she couldn’t see my face. I say, “that sounds great, honey. Let’s do it!” The imaging goes quite will and we finish up at 4:00am. The sun will rise in just over an hour. Do we stay for the sunrise or head back for a long nap? The photography genes say yes but our minds say no. I don’t remember whether that was a joint decision or not. We barely made it back to the motel. A few hours later we woke up and had copious amount of coffee. The night sky photo shoot was great. Perhaps it would have been perfect if we chose to drink coffee when we woke up. This is a lesson learned for future astro photo shoots.
Remember, it’s all about the light! And coffee.