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The Light Bulb Moment

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Do you photograph the night sky? Do you know which is the best way to avoid star trails and capture sharp images with good clarity? Carlos Gauna shares his experiences and some advice

In photography, there are many firsts. It is probably safe to say that photographers spend much of their time in pursuit of those firsts. At least this is true to me. These are the instances when that light bulb was turned on in your head and you thought to yourself, “Why haven’t I done this before?” I suppose that’s one of the things we chase on a daily basis. It is the moment you realize that you have expanded your skill set, or at the least opened a new window to doing things. That is an exciting feeling.

It was May 2013 that I ventured out to Joshua Tree National Park, USA to photograph the Milky Way with real intent. Before that I never really thought about it. Mainly due to technological limitations, (high ISO images were not my cup of tea at the time) it never crossed my mind to take photographs of the stars or Milky Way. However, after seeing the result of my first 30 second exposure, I was hooked. I soon concluded that photographing the Milky Way is just plain awesome.

As a landscape photographer I am always searching for that new way to see the landscape. Finding a landscape composition with the Milky Way within it was that new way. That summer I found myself taking numerous 30 second exposures in various locations throughout California and the Southwest. There was one small problem for me though. In the pursuit of pushing the limits I realized that physics created a limit I couldn’t get around with just my camera and tripod. The 500 Rule was actually a rule that couldn’t be bent. At 16mm, I could only go to about 34 seconds before I would get star trailing. There is no way around this fact, at least not organically.

After a couple years of doing this, the search for finding the next level came. That next level involved using a star tracker. And boy did the light bulb go off when I attached my camera to a star tracker. I actually asked myself out loud, “Why haven’t I done this before?” It was like a jolt of energy to my Milky Way nightscapes. I have been using the StarAdventurer by Skywatcher for a while now, and it has really changed my world in more ways than just seeing more stars. It has also challenged me to become a better photographer, technically and artistically.

Technically, I am a photographer that prefers single exposure photography. In my opinion, there is something much more organic and natural to a single exposure. I find them more natural and very gratifying. So, my experience with the star tracking is solely built around tracking and single exposure use. While I understand that composite Milky Way photography is a very popular thing these days, it is not my cup of tea. With that said, nearly everything I have learned with the StarAdventurer, in conjunction with single exposure photography, can serve a resourceful purpose for composite photography, should I choose that route someday. So really, it’s a win-win situation with the StarAdventurer.

I am currently using the StarAdventurer to push the limits of the 500 Rule. I am shooting on a 14mm or 35mm lens for the most part. Without the StarAdventurer I can shoot right about 36 seconds at 14mm and 13 seconds at 35mm. With it, I am easily doubling those times. This has massive benefits on the technical side of things. I can get cleaner and sharper images. As I don’t have to shoot wide open, the sharpness of the images is greatly increased. Not only is the sharpness better, but the noise levels are significantly lower as by doubling the exposure time, I’m able to lower my ISO. It has really changed the way I approach night photography, where sharpness and noise levels are paramount to quality.

The StarAdventurer has also made me think creatively and technically at the same time. By placing my foreground far enough from the camera (this is very important) I am able to remote trigger a flash to illuminate the foreground, thus freezing it in place. The result is a masking of the foreground blur due to the Earth’s rotation. Since, I essentially light paint the foreground with an even burst of light, I am able to hide much of the movement. It took some experimentation and careful planning to get it right, but I have been able to get 2-3 minute exposures with nearly no visible foreground blur due to this method.

Creatively, I have also been able to get a somewhat 3D effect using a single exposure and using a remote flash early in the exposure. The resulting exposure of the foreground movement creates a shadow against the flash illuminated part. It’s actually quite fun to do. Firing the flash early in the exposure or later in the exposure gives you some creative possibilities. Multiple flashes from different angles can also give some interesting results. Regardless, without the star tracking ability of StarAdventurer I would never have discovered both the technical and creative aspects of this.

In retrospect, my Milky Way sessions are now much more dynamic as a result of tracking. It has changed my photography. I am no longer just focused on those 30 second exposures. I now challeng myself to capture creative images made possible by using the StarAdventurer. The best part about it is that I have the option to be as creative as possible, or to just shoot a regular Milky Way exposure with cleaner and sharper results.

Options in photography are a powerful thing. But, that’s not all. There is a monetary aspect to this as well. A star tracker is a much more efficient and effective way to photograph the Milky Way. My current wish list lens for night photography is the Sigma 14mm 1.8 ART lens. But, priced at $1600, that’s a big price to pay for a couple more stops of light. Instead, I can get the same result with a Rokinon 14mm 2.8 and a StarAdventurer for less than half the cost of the ART lens. Now, that is efficiency and reason enough to ask yourself, “Why haven’t I done this before?”

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