Usually, I hate being photobombed by something in a capture. Usually it’s someone’s head or leg, or a bird, or sometimes the branch of a tree or something else I didn’t notice when looking through the viewfinder. But this time I didn’t mind the photobomb at all, because what photobombed this shot was the Andromeda Galaxy.
See that fuzzy patch just to the top-left of the stone cross? That’s it, and it’s a whopping 2.5 million light years away. This means that the light left that galaxy 2.5 million years ago! What’s more, that small fuzzy blob is home to a trillion stars (that’s 1,000,000,000,000).
I think that the fact that the light traveled all that distance – and over all those years – before being caught by my camera is pretty awesome.
The Andromeda Galaxy is also quite big. If it were brighter we’d see that it is in fact about six times wider than the moon.
I took this shot while on Bardsey Island, a small island off the tip of the Llŷn Peninsula, the island where 20,000 saints are reputed to be buried, along with, according to some legends, King Arthur himself. It’s a truly magical place, steeped in history and mythology, and with everyone else tucked up in bed on the island, I had the whole place to myself.
Two of the hardest things about taking night shots are focus and composition. I will cover these in a separate post, but I take my time over these because they’re key. There’s no way to correct for an out of focus shot in Photoshop or Lightroom, and the only way to fix a bad composition is to crop, and that means losing precious pixels, which I try to avoid whenever possible.
Then it’s a matter of locking the shutter release cable, and sitting back and let the camera do what it does best. Since clouds are constantly moving I like to stay in the same spot for at least 15 minutes so as to give me a good range of pictures to choose from (if I’m shooting 30 second exposures then 15 minutes of shooting will give me 60 shots). In the summer months insect repellent is a must because without it they’ll home in on your sweat and breath and drive you mad in no time at all! Fifteen minutes is an eternity when you’re being feated on by bugs.
Since there was a fair bit of orange airglow in this shot I decided to process it as a black and white, and I’m pretty pleased by the results. Since you don’t see many astro shots processed into black and white images, I think it’s a little different.
This is one of my all-time favourite shots, but it’s also one of the easiest I’ve taken, and one that needed only a minimal amount of post-processing. I basically turned up, opened the shutter and let Mother Nature do what she does best. It’s one of those situations where you’re rewarded for basically making the effort to turn up.
And boy, did Mother Nature put on a show. Not only did she put on an amazing show of lights that we haven’t seen here in over a decade, but the skies were crystal clear and the air still. Perfect conditions. What a privilege. I needed to make the most of it. No pressure then.
The biggest pressure was time. Auroras are as fickle as Mother Nature herself, and they can last all night, or a few minutes. Mess around and this magnificent sight could be gone.
One of the things that made this shot so easy – other than the amazingness of an auroral display this far south in the UK – was the fact that I’d chosen to use my Zeiss 21mm lens. Not only does this lens capture images that are sharp enough to cut glass, but it features what’s called a hard-stop at infinity for the focus. This means that I don’t have to mess around in the dark – and wind – perfecting the focus. I just flip the aperture to F2.8, turn the focus ring until it hits the hard stop at infinity and start shooting.
Since this is a manual focus lens I didn’t have to worry about switching off autofocus.
There’s a lot, lot more to photography than the kit, but sometimes kit makes it a lot easier to get the capture you want.
Before setting my camera to F2.8/ISO 5000/15 sec to take the shots I racked up the ISO on the camera to over 100,000 and took a few 1 second shots just to get the composition right. I do this for two reasons. First, I do it to save time as I don’t want to take a whole bunch of long exposures just to get the composition right, and secondly, I can tell my test shots apart from my real shots because of the crazily high ISO once I get them into Lightroom. Sure, they’re grainy, but I’m only using them to adjust the composition using Live View.
I played with a lot of different compositions, vertical, horizontal, and even shooting a few panoramas, but I quickly realize that horizontal works best. I’m not capturing the whole sky, but I am getting plenty of drama.
Once I’d got my settings and composition dialed in I could relax a little and take my shots while drinking in the amazing display. And what a display it was.
At an ISO of 5000 there was a little bit of noise in this shot, especially in the dark areas, and while I usually just use Lightroom to handle noise, for this shot I used DxO Optics 9 which has an excellent noise-reduction feature (more on this in a future post). The only downside of this is that it takes several minutes for it to process each image, but the final results are stunning.
I also had to correct a little distortion in the shot, and I did this using Lightroom 5’s lens correction feature. While I was in Lightroom I also toned down the colors in the sky a little bit and make the stars pop a little more.