Bridge to the Galaxy!

Location: Natural Bridges State Beach, Santa Cruz
Time: Wee Hours of the morning
EXIF: Canon EOS 7D | EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM | 22mm | f/2.8 | 15s | ISO 4000

Milky Way Season is well underway here in the Northern Hemisphere and I’ve gone out to shoot the Milky Way every opportunity I got. Some successful outing and others turned out to be complete failures. The first Milky Way outing to Shark Fin cove turned out to a failure. Based on weather predictions, the sky was supposed to be clear in the Santa Cruz coast to shoot the Milky Way. What we heard was that even if there are clouds, it can be easily ‘avoided’. So, one of my photography buddies came to my place around 2:00 in the morning. We then headed to pick up another friend of ours on the way to Shark Fin.

One of the problems with shooting Milky Way early in the season is that the core rises in the wee hours of the morning. Your sleep that night is basically gone as you’ll have to be out of the door around 1:00 and be back only around 6:00 or 7:00. Anyways, when we got to Shark Fin, we realized clouds completely covered the Milky Way. We waited for about 20 minutes to see if it clears but it didn’t get any better. We decided to drive north to see if the clouds can be ‘avoided’ but it didn’t work. We couldn’t see the Milky Way at all. I came back home empty handed.

I went on a couple of other Milky Way trips since then and I was able to get a couple of great shots but still so much learn. Hence the decision to go out every opportunity I get so I can come back with at least 1 shot after every trip. A few of us decided to head to Natural Bridges to shoot the Milky Way and from there also head to Shark Fin and hit two locations. I knew it was possible to do that. I got the Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 L USM lens, which I wanted to try shooting the Milky Way. So, I was looking forward to the outing. Also, I learned about stacking photos to reduce noise so I wanted to give that a shot as well.

One of my friends picked me up and we headed to Natural Bridges. Two others were meeting us there. We got there early and waited for the other two to arrive. Once we were all there, we went down to the beach. The Milky Way didn’t quite line up with the Natural Bridge or the arch rock to be specific. But, we knew that we could kind of align it if we moved to the corner of the beach.

I manually focused on one of the bright stars and started firing away. The checked the shots and it seemed to be sharp. So, I started stacking my shots. I moved around quite a bit but since I was on manual focus, I didn’t bother to change my focus or zoom at 100% on the LCD to see if the shots were sharp. Looking at the LCD, I knew the Milky Way was sharp on several of the shots. I wasn’t so sure about the Foreground.

The next morning, I started processing my photos and tried several stacks to see if I can come up with a clean shot. Somehow, many of the stacked shots individually were good but when merged, were either misaligned or out of focus. I kept at it for several hours but nothing really solid came up. I really need to figure out a way to stack images properly.

Anyways, after several hours of trying, I decided to process a single raw image to see what I can do with it. To my surprise, that actually yielded much better results compared to my stacking efforts. This is a single shot processed in Lightroom primarily. I didn’t do much (if anything) in Photoshop with this photo.

Not the sharpest or the cleanest of shots but a good try. Since this outing, I have learnt a lot about planning, shooting, and processing the Milky Way. All theoretical. I now need to use what I’ve learned on my next Milky Way outing. I need to come up with at least 2 or 3 clean Milky Way shots in May.

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