A huge 270hp Case Optum Tractor under the core of the Milkyway. Astrophotograhy by Australian Landscape Photographer Murray Fox
With clear skies at night, not too cold and not too warm, conditions were absolutely perfect to chase some Milky Way photographs. It would mean a couple of late nights as the core only started to rise around 11pm, with peak time 1-2am however it certainly was worth it.
During the off season I’ve been watching a lot of videos and reading up on various techniques used by the best of the best when it comes to night time and astro photography. I had a head full of new ideas, which included changes to how I worked in the field capturing the images, as well as how I post processed the photos back on the computer.
Now I’ll be very up front about this, none of these photographs are a single image. It’s possible to do, however I don’t believe you can get the quality of file, increase of detail and control of noise in a single image, that you can get with multiple exposures. Some people get their knickers in a knot if it isn’t a single photograph, it doesn’t bother me in the slightest. My simple goal was to create an image of the vision in my head, using any tools and methods I could.
I met up with a very good friend and we decided to head south of Ipswich towards the rural farming areas. I knew of a couple of barns and other items that could make for a very interesting foreground, and hopefully would line up with the Milky Way behind them. I simply cannot pick which photograph is my favourite.
First stop was a barn and god was with us as it was full to the brim of bales. The sky here is so dark you can easily see the Milky Way with your eyes and that makes framing a since. I setup my gear, firmly locked down my tripod and focused on the stars (Olympus is amazing in that you can use focus peaking on the stars, just pick a bright one and it’s done). I proceeded to capture 8 photographs at ISO 5000, F/2.8, 15 seconds per exposure, at 12mm (equivalent to 24mm on a full frame camera. The 15 seconds ensures no star movement for pinpoint lights. I really racked up the ISO as I knew I would be stacking in and that will significantly reduce noise.
Once the sky shots were done, the fun began. I switched my camera to Live Composite mode, dropped the ISO to 400 for a lot cleaner file, and let it start. I used a torch to light paint the barn, first from the left side until the exposure was where I wanted it, then added a little fill from the right to soften the shadows.
All of this was stacked, blended, merged etc in Photoshop, there are some great videos on youtube about how to do this. And here is the final result!
Next we moved on down the road to where I had previously seen a tractor. Not knowing it was still there, I was very thankful I had spotlights on my 4wd to help light up the sides of the road, otherwise I may have missed it.
For this photograph the techniques used on the barn would be the same. This time I had to set the camera lower and closer, trying to fill the frame with as much of the tractor as possible, but still allowing room for the Milky Way around it. We could hear a pump running out in the field and before long, the Farmer who owns this land was out on his bike in the dark (stuffed if I know how he didn’t hit something!) checking his sprayers. He dropped over to say G’day (and check what we were doing). He was off to bed for a few hours nap before getting up to check the sprayers again. Life can be gruelling for a farmer, they all have my utmost respect.
Again, I captured 8 images for the sky and one light painted one for the tractor and ground. I always recommend painting from both sides to even out the light a little.
There was one more photograph I had envisaged to capture before heading out this night, and that was of some beautiful crop lights with the Milky Way over them. Unfortunately it looks like I missed out by one day as all the fields had been just harvested. I’ll just have to wait until later in the season to get that photograph. So instead we took a drive back into Peaks Crossing where you have a clear view of Flinders Peak to the east. By this time (2am) the core was at a nice height in the sky. Again I captured 8 images to stack for the sky, and used my torch to paint in the foreground. On a clear night light this, if you are staying in an area with pretty much the same light pollution levels, you rarely need to change your settings, allowing you to spend much more time on the important things like composition and spooking yourself in the dark.
Finally as a bonus, I had headed out the night before this to South Ripley to do a test run of my settings, post techniques etc. I captured this photograph. I think it’s came out a bit dark, ISO used for the sky was 3200, which is why I upped to 5000 for the next night. Practice pays.
As the season progresses, I’ll be doing a lot more astro photography. Thank you for reading.
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