Taking pictures of the stars has never been so accessible. New technology, higher sensitivity ISO and the ability to easily scout locations make it a wonderful activity for amateurs and pros alike. However, if you are new to the world of astrophotography, there are a few things you might want to plan and prepare for. Slik recently had the opportunity to chat with astro-enthusiast and PNW native John Byrn to discuss his gear and process for shooting the Milky Way.
What drew you to the Milky Way?
I am mesmerized that with just a little bit of driving to darker skies you can see the Milky Way with the human eye. Also, 70% of the world's population live in an area with so much light pollution that seeing the Milky Way Galaxy is impossible.
How long have you been shooting astro?
I have been shooting astro since 2018. Over the last three years, I have grown in my astro photography with hours of practice, online tutorials, renting of different lens zoom focal lengths and brands and many nights of trial and error. During the 2019 Milky Way season, I experienced my biggest growth in astro photography with the renting of high-quality glass. I landed on my lens of choice heading into the 2020 season.
During the 2019 season I would shoot multiple images and then stack them in Photoshop. I noticed that I was not getting the results I wanted in my stars with the stacking process. After seeing a local photographer use the Slik ECH-630 and SMH-250 adjustment mount during an Oregon Coast workshop in 2019, I knew I found the right solution for me. I headed into the 2020 season with the addition of the Astro Tracker to allow for single frame images and reducing the post processing aspect of my workflow.
What is in your bag?
- Canon body and accompanying lenses
- Sturdy Tripod
- Two ballheads (one on main tripod and one on the star tracker)
- Slik Star Tracker ECH-630
- Slik SMH-250 Adjustment Mount
- Lazer Pointer (to align Polaris)
What is the most important piece of gear specific to astro and why?
Outside of high-quality glass, the biggest improvement to my astro images has been the ability to get longer exposures at a lower ISO to reduce noise and improve the quality of my RAW files. Utilizing the Slik ECH-630 Astro Tracker and SMH-250 Adjustment Mount combination over the past few months, I have reduced my post-process workflow while achieving better results. The addition of a green laser pointer has also improved my alignment process to Polaris. I would bundle the Astro tracker and a green laser pointer together as the most important gear to help me capture the night sky.
How do you scout a location?
As a family man with two young kids I have to scout for most of my locations like a lot of us do, through social media. Once I find a place that inspires me, I will identify the best time of the season to be in that location, checking alignment of the galaxy using PhotoPills and the time of the moon phases help ensure, weather permitting, that I am in the right place at the right time of the night.
I recently visited central Oregon and used these apps to discover that the galaxy would be over the Cascade Range nearly due south from my position. I would need to be in the field set up at 2 A.M. Scouting the spot in the daylight allowed me to find the right compositions for a setup in the dark later that evening.
Set up the shot for me:
My first step when shooting Astro photography is to capture all of my foreground images. I like to take my foreground shots without the tracker system on the tripod to quickly move through different foregrounds without the tracker system on the tripod. Once I have captured my foregrounds I will remove the camera from the tripod and install, align and set up the composition for star tracking.
The most critical component of setting up the tracker is its alignment to the North Star, Polaris. The more precise the alignment to Polaris, the longer I can run the tracker. For this, I use a green laser pointer aimed through the alignment hole and use the micro adjustment wedge, SMH-250, to fine tune.
After aligning the tracker system, I manually focus my camera on the brightest star. This takes more trial and error, and in my case a handy pair of spectacles, but once the camera and tracker are aligned to all points of focus, I can move to my settings. I have found that I am setting my aperture at f/2.8 and based on the duration of the exposure, I adjust my ISO.
My goal is to get my ISO as low as possible while allowing the shutter to remain open for longer periods of time, without motion blur from the stars (star trails). Before the tracker this would have required stacking 17 10-second exposures in a software application, and with my experience this was not possible.
Is astrophotography rocket science?
No. After a few nights of practice and a few online tutorials, anyone can capture the night sky. You don’t need the best equipment or years of experience. All you need is dark skies, the understanding that you will be extremely tired the following day, and a camera that can shoot in manual mode! Keep practicing, plan ahead and happy star chasing!
See more of John's work on Instagram: @montyuf.