Monday, December 15, 2014

Fine Art Milky Way Photography

My wife and I were in Bellevue Square one day, and I wanted to see what Tall's Camera had in the line of wide angle lenses.  They had a 14-24mm f2.8 Nikkor lens that would fit my Nikon D600.  I asked to see it, and they fastened it on a D610 and handed it to me.  The widest lens I had used before was an 18mm.  I had a 20mm that I had bought in 1997 with my F5.  Before looking through the new zoom, I set it to 20mm.  And on peering through the lens, I saw an ultra-wide frame of reference that I was used to.  Then I went wider, and I couldn't believe how much more area got in the viewfinder.  When I went all the way to 14mm, I had between a third and a half more in my frame than when it was set on 20mm.  I had to have one.  Right then, I got a $200 gift card to Tall's.  Over the next year I stopped by Tall's and visited my lens.  I played with it, and increased my gift card month by month, until I had the full price of the lens.

In that time I Googled the lens, and looked at photographs taken with it.  There were hundreds of them.  A few of them were of the milky way, so I narrowed my search to include that, and came up with hundreds of photographs taken with my lens of the starry night.  

I did some research, and found the exposure to start with for photographs of the milky way was ISO 3200, f2.8 at 30 seconds.  And if I varied the exposure, I could do an HDR (High Dynamic Range) photograph, so I could get foreground also.  Thinking about this, I realized I had the perfect place to experiment with this.  The jetty in Ocean Shores.  

I thought about it a lot.  Remember I had a year to work with.  There was much to cover.  Was there any light pollution?  How about the tungsten light coming from Westport across the bay?  How would the tide look?  Was there any chance of maybe catching the International Space Station in my photograph?

I researched software too.  I knew that I needed the latest Lightroom and Photoshop that there were, and I did a little research on noise reduction and HDR software.  I decided on NIK.  NIK was a company purchased by Google a few months earlier.  I had their Snapseed app on my iPhone, and I liked the way it worked.  

So, I got the lens, and the software.  My wife and I took a week long trip to Ocean shores in July of 2014.  

I went out Monday the 21st at about 10:30 at night, was on the beach by 10:45, and taking photographs by 11:00PM.  It was pitch black, the moon wasn't out....luckily.  I was really hesitant to get too low on the beach, because although I had checked and it was low tide, the waves were a little close for me to be comfortable in total darkness.  The Milky Way was very visible.  It was directly south.  I shot about 30 exposures all at f2.8 at 30 seconds, five or six at a time.  I would set up, estimate the focus, shoot one, recompose, and refocus if necessary, then shoot one at ISO 6400, 3200, 1600, 1200, and 800.  By 11:45 I was back in the car.

I imported them in Lightroom that night.

I messed around with exposures on a couple, let my selections soak in the NIK noise reduction plug-in, and finally dipped them in HDR.

It was a little tricky, I had to first select all the exposures I wanted in the HDR image.  Next, I went over to file, on the menu bar, hovered over Export With Preset, and chose HDR Efex Pro 2.

That brought me to the Ghost reference window.  This chose which image would be used for things that were not alike in all the exposures, stuff that was in motion.  Basically for my milky way photograph, I wanted the image with the best exposure in the sky.

Now I got a list of about 26 different options, like different contrast levels for paper.  I chose Dark, to get that ominous sky.

Then I lowered the color temperature to -20, and raised the saturation to about 30%.  Very similar to toning a black & white photograph.  

Next I set the Graduated Neutral Density filter to -1/2 of a stop for the top of the image, for that deep space look.  It was like printing in the top.

I was done.  I was satisfied.  Really, I was amazed.  

I noticed two diagonal lines in my image.  Right in the center of the Milky Way.  What ever they were, they had traveled quite a ways in thirty seconds.  They were in the perfect spot.  I checked with NASA, who verified they were the International Space Station, and the Progress 54p un-manned resupply ship, on it's way to hook up with the station.  I let that sink in for awhile.  I hadn't checked their website to see if and when it would be visible.  I was just stupid lucky.

I talked to a friend and found out about resizing plug-ins.  He suggested Perfect Resize 8, so I got it and installed it into Photoshop.  Then I made a 20"x30" Canvased Wrapped print.  I thought it was good enough to sell.

So,  we are going to spend a little time traveling the Northwest, maybe go down to Mexico, maybe California, looking for interesting beaches to photograph at night.  I will need 12 to 15 images to make a series.  I'll say this, doing HDRs is the closest thing to being in the darkroom. Fun.

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