My First Milky Way Photography Experience



Taking photos of the Milky Way Galaxy is one of my top photography goals. Astrophotography in general requires some patience, being at the right place, time, and condition, and to some extent, having the proper equipment.




    We basically are in the Milky Way but all we can see (or photograph) from Earth is a portion of it.

    A Spontaneous Milky Way Treat

    For years, I would from time to time imagine myself in a desolated location under the night sky taking photos of the milky way.

    In a Saudi desert with rock formations perhaps, or on a mountain in the Philippines overlooking other mountain ranges, with the milky way as the grand background.

    That's far from reality for now but I'll keep picturing that in my head.

    Just a few nights ago, I had an unplanned and quick roadside attempt to capture the milky way for the first time, thanks to my bladder.



    A view of the Milky Way Galaxy's Galactic Center as seen from outside the small town of Dawadmi, Riyadh Province, KSA.


    Milky Way Photography Basic: Not a Guide


    (And you're better off googling for in-depth guides, if you too are interested.)

    Spotting the 'milky way' is not that easy, let alone photograph it. Certain conditions have to be met to figure out if you will be able to take a photo of the milky way.

    It's been a long time since the last time I read on how to photograph the milky way —I sort of have given up, although still looking forward— but these are the basic criteria/conditions I keep in mind:

    1. A very dark sky. Away from city lights. Even the presence of a moon is a no-no especially when it has gained height. Saudi cities/towns are heavy sources of light pollution, and in the desert, the places we frequent (and stay) are usually towns located not far away enough from brightly lit gas plants and oil wells.

    2. Spotting the location. I have the Sky Map app which can show the real time locations of the stars and other celestial bodies. You only need to know what constellation or stars to look for and you can figure out where the milky way is.

    3. Lens. I can't say that this is mandatory or optional but the best lens to use is a wide one with a big aperture (low number). I can only dream of having a lens with an f/1.4 aperture and as wide as 14mm. The big aperture will allow more light in at a shorter exposure time (thus the term 'fast lens'), and the wide angle will allow you to capture a much bigger picture. The milky way is impressively massive.

    4. Camera settings. ISO, shutter speed, and aperture (as mentioned). Know your camera. Having a full-frame will help but not necessary. Tripod, needless to say, is important as you will deal with long exposure shots.

    5. Companion. Safety first. You will be in a dark place where there could be wild animals (or other kind of hazards). Unrelated: Speaking of, earlier on this same night, we saw a fox and a desert rat (hopping with its hind legs, not on all fours) crossed the dark desert highway. There's simply no one I could do this with and that's one reason I never tried this whether here or in the Philippines. (Also, still looking to the possibility of tagging along with hikers and photograph from the top of a mountain.)


    These are just basic stuff. There are other conditions and preparations needed to be done, and the actual taking of the photograph on location isn't really a quick one. You will have to experiment with the settings and composition, and maybe even wait until the milky way is at its best position (technically, it's the Earth that adjusts).


    Back to How I Took These Crappy Milky Way Photos


    It was close to midnight and we were still on the road. We had come from Jeddah that morning, went to Yanbu, passed by Mahd Al Dhahab, and now, the final leg, en route to Dawadmi.

    The moon had just risen and its orange glow was enticing. I really needed to pee. Besides, my eyes were tired already and I thought a few minute rest would actually be appreciated by the team, especially by the one behind the wheel. It was almost 12 midnight.

    I was trying to resist the urge to ask for a pullover since we were just 30 minutes away from the town but I gave in and we pulled over at safe distance from the road (as we normally would).

    The moment I stepped out of the vehicle, it was not the moon that I actually noticed first but the clarity of the sky and how very visible the stars were.

    I gave the moon one shot and it was shitty! My real sturdy tripod was buried deep within our stuff at the back of the car but I had the (10-year old and already frail) Gorillapod within reach so I ended up with a blurred shot:



    Waning Gibbous.
    0.3 seconds, f/5.6, ISO 125, 135mm
    Canon 60D, EF-S-18-135mm, f/3.5-5.6 IS



    Before I could try to take a second shot at the moon, I looked up again at the stars and noticed something I had not seen before in my life (not exaggerating). I was looking at what seemed to be a haze among a cluster of stars. Almost like a smoke. Then it hit me, that's the 'milky' way galaxy. I never thought it was possible to see it like how I did.



    This almost looks like nothing. This was a long exposure shot and edited (darkened) in an attempt to replicate how the sky looked that night. The amount of visible stars are surprisingly more than usual and there's a faint haze that looked like smoke which is the 'milky' way band itself.
    10.0 seconds, f/3.5, ISO 3200, 18mm
    Canon 60D, EF-S-18-135mm, f/3.5-5.6 IS



    I was excited but I knew it was not a place to stop for a long time. From pulling over, I had 5 minutes to do trials with the settings and composition.

    I was taking photos right next to our parked vehicle and consequently, the red tail lights made the immediate ground look red. I drastically decreased the saturation for the red in the the photo below and made it look more yellow.




    At its widest focal length, seen here is a small portion of the milky way, and with the height of the Gorillapod, it's a hit-and-miss composition. The grains are just too much.
    10.0 seconds, f/3.5, ISO 3200, 18mm
    Canon 60D, EF-S-18-135mm, f/3.5-5.6 IS



    With a short Gorillapod, it lacked height and I had no other options for the composition.

    My lens, an f/3.5, 18-135mm, was not the best to use.




    Not a final output. Playing with the parameters will reveal or hide details and colors of the milky way. This is a first and hopefully there will be more opportunity to try this again.
    10.0 seconds, f/3.5, ISO 3200, 18mm
    Canon 60D, EF-S-18-135mm, f/3.5-5.6 IS




    A light trail made by an aircraft.
    10.0 seconds, f/3.5, ISO 3200, 18mm
    Canon 60D, EF-S-18-135mm, f/3.5-5.6 IS



    The spot is about 20 km away from Dawadmi, and the moon, although big, was still low on the horizon, and there was no to very little light pollution anywhere below the milky band.

    For me, the Milky Way, in an ideal condition, is one of the most amazing natural things you can see in your lifetime. Even watching those demo timelapse videos of the milky way from TVs displayed in an appliance showroom is just as mesmerizing.

    I am grateful and, in fact, wasn't even expecting anything from this spontaneous photo opportunity. It was already a very fortunate experience just to have briefly observed the faint hints of the Milky Way.

    I need to learn more.

    The long travel ended safely and nicely. We found a hotel easily, settled, ready for the early call time the next day.

    -
    Travel Period: July 2019

    1 comment:

    1. Hey Elriz, this is Syed. i'm based in riyadh as well and share a profound interest in astrophotography and planted aquariums like yourself. If you want to collaborate sometime, or meet up, you can contact me on snapchat. Here's my username : syedfarhan93
      It'd be great to have you as a friend.

      ReplyDelete

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