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Photographing the Milky Way - an experience of a lifetime

Posted by Liron on Friday, April 10, 2015
The night sky has always been something that has amazed me. The universe is such an amazing place that we know little about, but the part of it that we see in the night sky is fascinating. Until recently, I have not really been into astrophotography (photographing the night sky), but a unit on astronomy in school taught by my teacher Mr. Procyk (recipient of the Prime Minister's Award for Teaching Excellence) got me inspired.

I have always been blown away by photos I have seen of the Milky Way. It has been a dream of mine to see and photograph it one day, and this dream came true in Joshua Tree National Park in March!

Let's start by talking about what the Milky Way is. Our planet orbits around the sun, which is just one star of a few hundred billion stars in our galaxy, known has the Milky Way. What we see in the night sky that we call the Milky Way is our galaxy's galatic core, the center of the galaxy that appears like bright dust clouds to us do to what is really tons and tons of stars.

The Milky Way is the easiest to observe in the Summer in the northern hemisphere. March, when I would be photographing the Milky Way is harder, because the Milky Way only shows up in the night sky in the early morning. It is still very possible to photograph the Milky Way, but we would have to wake up at 3:30 AM or so.

Prior to leaving my home in British Columbia, Canada, I watched lots of video tutorials on how to photograph and process the Milky Way. I did this until was completely confident I knew what I was doing!

Once in the Palm Springs area, my Dad and I waited for a night with perfect stargazing weather. One night looked really good, so we headed out the day before to do some birding around Joshua Tree National Park, which is home to lots of desert bird species. After lots of birding, we went to campgrounds. The areas of the park that are best for stargazing only have first come first serve campgrounds (no reservations), and unfortunately they were all full. This wasn't a big issue as we ended up staying in a motel just 15 or so minutes away from where we were planning on shooting the Milky Way.

Before going to bed, we drove into the Joshua Tree National Park to get our first glimpse of the dark skies.  I have only seen the night sky free of any light pollution once before. That was in Costa Rica, but I wasn't really focused on the night sky- I was birding, looking for the nocturnal Dusky Nightjar. This time my main focus was on the sky, and I was blown away! Living in Vancouver, I am used to barely being able to see the stars due to extreme light pollution. There was basically no light pollution where we were in Joshua Tree National Park, and the sky was unlike anything I had seen before! I had never seen so many stars! We spent some time photographing the night sky but didn't spend too long, as we would have to get up early the next morning to see the Milky Way! There were a few clouds in the sky at this time (9:00 PM) but it was supposed to totally clear up over the next couple hours.

The constellation Orion in the night sky:

Canon EOS 7D Mark II | Tokina 16.5-135mm f/3.5-5.6 AT-X DX @ 17mm | 10 seconds | ISO 12800 | f/4.5


The Great Nebula in Orion, M42 was visible to the naked eye and could be seen very well with binoculars. This nebula is "only" 1,344 light years away. Here is a closeup of the Great Nebula in Orion and the Running Man Nebula. In the wide photo above, the Orion Nebula is the really bright object that looks like a star in Orion's sword, below the three evenly spaced stars that are Orion's belt. This is a stack of 97 exposures taken with a Canon 7D Mark II and Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM at 1 second, ISO 16,000 and f/5.6. Stacking exposures reduces noise (grain) and brings out a lot of detail that is hard to see with the naked eye.

Orion's Nebula and Running Man Nebula

I also spent some time photographing Andromeda Galaxy, located over 2.5 million light years from Earth. Andromeda is the furthest object from our planet that can be seen with the naked eye, and has about 1 trillion stars, so it is much larger than our own galaxy. In a dark sky it pretty much looks like a star, but binoculars reveal it to be a galaxy. If the Andromeda Galaxy appeared as bright as an object like the moon, it would appear to be about 6 times larger then our moon in the night sky! What can be seen in this and most photos of the Andromeda Galaxy taken from earth is just the center of the galaxy, the brightest area.

This is a stack of 51 photos each taken with a Canon 7D Mark II and Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM lens at 1 second, ISO 16000 and f/5.6.

Andromeda Galaxy

We now went to bed and set our alarms for 3:45 AM!

I was super excited so woke up before the alarm, and we ended up heading out to photograph the Milky Way at 3:30 AM. The sky looked clear from the motel, which was a good sign. We began driving up into Joshua Tree National Park. Even through the windows of the car, I could see the stars getting brighter and brigher. I wasn't sure what to expect when I would get out of the car. What I be able to see the Milky Way with the naked eye, or would I have try to find in in long camera exposures?

I got out of the car, and looked to the southeast. There it was: the Milky Way! It was amazing, a dream come true. There were so many stars out, even more than when we had gone to bed, and there in the sky was the Milky Way! Seeing so many stars and the Milky Way with the naked eye was amazing! I have never seen anything like it before. It was an incredible experience, something I will never forget! We spent the next two hours photographing and staring at the Milky Way. Time flew, and next thing we knew it was starting to get light! Here are some shots of the Milky Way, all taken with a Canon EOS 7D Mark II and Tokina 16.5-135mm f/3.5-5.6 AT-X DX at 17mm, a 13 second shutter speed, ISO 12800 and f/3.5.

The orange light on the horizon in these pictures is light pollution coming from the Palm Springs area.

Milky Way

This one is my personal favorite from the night. I stacked 5 photos for this one to reduce noise.
Milky Way

A picture I took of myself staring at the sky with binoculars in front of the Milky Way

As it began to get light:
Milky Way at first light

It had been an amazing experience, one I will never forget. By dawn we were out birding again. Even though birding is the best, astronomy is pretty darn cool!




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