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.



Location: Davenport, CA
Time: Wee Hour of the Morning
EXIF: Canon EOS 7D | Sigma 17-50mm | 18mm | f/2.8 | 15s | ISO 4000

Is there anyone who claim not be fascinated by the vast universe we are part of? Is there anyone who doesn’t look up at the night sky and dream? I am sure there are people who aren’t fascinated or who just don’t care but I have a feeling they are few and far inbetween. I have been fascinated by the cosmos for a very long time.

Until recently, I didn’t know I could imagine, plan, and shoot Milky Way pictures. I have seen several photos of the Milky Way online and I have always wondered how difficult it would be to capture the Milky Way.

To be honest, I had no idea where to begin. I read several articles online and watched some tutorials and got a bit familiar with the mechanics of shooting the Milky Way. Luckily, the Core Group of Photographers I shoot with are equally (if not more) fascinated by the Milky Way and they knew lot more about the subject.

One of my first attempts at shooting the Milky Way was with the Core Group at Pinnacles National Park. It was a good experience being out in the middle of the night chasing the MW but I didn’t come back with good MW shots. I didn’t have the right lens; I didn’t have the right focus; and, I didn’t have right technique. Still, looking at the MW arch made the trip worth it.

My next chance came when we planned a trip to Yosemite to shoot MW from Glacier Point. I got a lot of great shots at Yosemite but all were before the sky went dark. I didn’t come up with any usable photos. I had a lens that was pretty fast but I didn’t know where to focus and how to get sharp stars. I did get some decent shots during a meetup at Shark Fin cove but nothing spectacular. I really wanted to get a shot that was sharp, clean, and well composed. Unfortunately, the window to see and photograph the MW was gone.

I waited till the season started again this year, which is Spring time in the Northern Hemisphere. The first opportunity this year came last week and I jumped on it. I woke up at 1:30 AM and got ready to shoot the MW. The sky was supposed to be clear. A friend of mine came home and we carpooled together and went to Shark Fin Cove. We picked up another friend of ours on the way. When we got to Shark Fin Cove, we were very disappointed. We couldn’t even see the MW; clouds completely covered just part of the sky where MW would rise. We waited for about 20 minutes and it didn’t clear. We came home empty handed. It was disappointing but what can you do. No matter how many tools you have to predict nature, it sure is unpredictable.

The next chance came this week when we realized weather was going to be clear. A few of us decided to give it a try and head to Shark Fin Cove. When we got there, we did see clouds moving in but we were hoping it would clear. We got a couple of shots and the clouds covered the MW. We waited for it to clear and luckily it did clear. But we saw lot of light pollution from Santa Cruz. Most of the shots were unusable. We were debating if we should go down to the beach and try some shots. It was high tide so we wouldn’t be able to line up the MW with Shark Fin. After a bit of back & forth, we decided to head to Davenport.

The goal was to get to the beach and use the sea stack as foreground element and shoot the MW. When we got there, the MW was clearly visible. We saw a lone tree so we decided to shoot some shots with the Lone Tree in the FG. We then went down to the beach and started shooting. The first few shots were blurry as the focus wasn’t quite right. I then found the right focus so I was firing away.

We thought we were safe from the waves but we underestimated the high tide. A wave came in and hit all of us. We got wet till our knees. While I was running, I couldn’t really catch my falling tripod with my camera mounted but luckily one of the guys with me caught it. Thank god!

We continued shooting and one of the guys suggested I go stand and ‘light’ the MW with my headlamp. I focused my camera and asked one of my friends to press the shutter. I stood there for several minutes so everyone can get their shots.

When I came home, I had several shots from Davenport that were usable. I liked the composition on this one and how the overall image turned out. A good start to learning MW photography but a long way to go. My goal is to maximize the clear weather and shoot as much MW from as many locations as possible. As a matter of fact, the next shoot is already planned.