Astrophotography and what I learnt | The View Finder

As I listen to ‘3 songs to Poems’ by Thomas Hardy' and drink my coffee, I’m looking at the pictures I took last night in my first attempt at astrophotography. This is an aspect of photography that I have been curious in ever since I started, and whenever I viewed an image I always thought to myself, “Wow that looks incredibly fake.” It has been incredibly cloudy in Winnipeg over the past 2 weeks, finally, last night (November 16th) we got a mostly clear night. So after reading how to even attempt astrophotography, I bundled up and headed out.

Winnipeg is by no means a big city, but it is sizable (about 700-800,000 people) with a population density of roughly 1500 people per sq km (Toronto has 4000ish people per sq km). Being that I don’t have a car, I was worried that light pollution would be an issue, and to a degree it was. I am lucky to live in St.Boniface, and there is an industrial park nearby that offers little light pollution once the factories have packed up and gone home. It was not perfect, but my expectations were low, I knew I was not going to get the galactic core.

Before deciding on a composition, I went to an open field, set up my tripod and used the suggestions given to my by the literature I read; Kit Lens at 18mm, Aperture at f/3.5, ISO 1600 and a shutter speed of 20 seconds. The result was a total blowout of my image due to the light pollution (I am pretty sure that these settings are for an area in complete darkness). I then had to resort to some trial and error, I am always happen when I run into these circumstances because it tests me, before I took photography seriously, I would have just settled. Now, I won’t go home until I’m either freezing, hungry or captured the shot I wanted. I played around a bit and found that for all of the light pollution the following settings fit the best:

  • F/4

  • 20mm

  • ISO 500

  • 20 second shutter

This allowed me to have a decently weighted shot without too much noise.

I then set out to find my composition which was an old water tower behind what seemed to be a storage box facility. Easily the scariest place I’ve been for a photography adventure, the wind caused the storage box doors to open and slam shut, I shit myself the first time because I thought I was about to see someone and I really didn’t want to see anyone. I would suggest that if you are going out to take night photos in an industrial park, to bring some sort of personal protection and do some scouting first. I did do some scouting, making sure that there were no footprints in the freshly blown snow, the only footprints that were around, were that of a rabbit. I would have felt safer if I had some sort of protection though, worst case I would use my aluminum tripod as a baseball bat.

I knew that to get some solid stars I should take 3 sequential photos and layer them in an HDR style format. I went about doing that and when looking at the shots on my D5300, I didn’t think there was much hope, I didn’t see any stars and I figured my demise was light pollution. I persevered thinking that hopefully when I upload them to my computer, the better resolution would result in a better image. The rational side of my brain was starting to suggest that I should leave, so I listened and left in a haste.

I noticed that there was a grain elevator that was covered in a veil of darkness, shielded from most of the ambient street light, only receiving a light coat. This to me seemed like another nice composition, and repeated the steps I took at the water-tower. Not thinking that these images were going to amount to anything, I went home with low expectations but with some optimism. After waiting for my camera to warm up from being in -20 weather for an hour, I took out my memory card and looked upon my evenings work.

I was blown away, and so was Sydney (my girlfriend who was sitting behind me) at the quality of the images. It impresses me just how much light the camera is able to see, stars that were hidden behind our own innovations. Even in non-optimal conditions, using non-optimal settings, I was able to capture more than what I pictured in my mind. The subject looks oddly fake, surreal, almost as if they were photoshopped on-top of the night sky. Astrophotography is an otherworldly perspective that makes me feel insignificant and small. I will continue to explore this aspect of photography as the nights get longer and the days get shorter.