2016 Road Trip – Astrophotography

As you may have guessed by my other posts and this blog as a whole, I have always been interested in photography.  My goal was always to try and capture images from my trips while not consuming the whole experience – that is to say, I wanted to live in the moment rather than focus on getting a perfect shot.  This was also the case during my road trip, but I wanted to take advantage of the dark Western skies while I had “extra” time at night.  After finding some cool images on the web, I decided this could be spent trying my hand at astrophotography (aka star pictures).  The results aren’t perfect, but for my first ever attempts with a less than ideal setup I am satisfied.

Here was an attempt from my first night ever trying this while camping at Devils Tower in South Dakota:

devilstower-edit1-02030-4

And here are two more from my last nights in the mountains near Weed/Sacramento in New Mexico:

newmexico-edit1-02963

newmexico-edit1-02968

NERD ALERT: Tech Talk Below!

I separated this out so the people who don’t care about tech details don’t fall asleep.

What gear did I use?

All of the other photos posted thus far have been taken with my iPhone 6S which does a fine job for a mobile device.  There were also a few with my old iPhone 5 which are not bad for simply posting to the web.  However, neither can capture stars, and since I knew this may be a once-in-a-lifetime trip I picked up a Sony Alpha a5000 mirrorless camera from Craigslist for $300 (retail at the time was about $500).  A luxury to be sure, but something I still consider more of an investment than an impulse item.  The camera came with a CaseLogic MSEC-4 molded case which protected it well from damage.

Why did I go with this model?  The price was right, the kit lens it came with was acceptable (3.5-5.6,16-50mm), and compact weight/size for easy carrying.  I am also a camera newbie, and from what I read I needed a low F number which at 3.5 this camera is decently acceptable.

I also purchased a Sony RMSPR1 remote shutter control so I could do the long manual exposures.  A simple item, but very necessary to get clear images.  The Wasabi Power kit including 2 extra batteries and charger that worked on 12V in the car was also very useful so I never ran out of juice on the road.  I already had a lightweight Ravelli APLT2 tripod, and again in this case it worked well enough without breaking the bank.

For perspective, grand total of all the new gear cost me less than $400.  Could you do it for less?  Probably, if you know more about cameras and what to shop for than I did.

How did I learn how to do this?

After much searching, the most simple and user-friendly tutorials I found were from LonelySpeck.  I’m an amateur when it comes to camera settings, but they have a nice guide here on the 101-level basics to take these photos which makes it quite simple after some practice.  After getting back home and spending some quality time on the PC, I used their editing tutorial for tweaking in Adobe Lightroom so they look more representative of what my naked eyes actually saw.

What did I learn?

For starters, the lens that came with my camera isn’t ideal for this type of photography,  I still wouldn’t claim to be an expert, but after more research I really could have used something with a lower F number (below 3) and the ability to manually set the focus (my lens was auto only).  Keep in mind these were my only 3 successful images out of maybe 100 tries.  The rest came out too blurry because the auto focus didn’t stay where I needed it by the time I pressed the shutter.  If I continue in this hobby, a lens upgrade is a must.

My biggest regret of the whole trip is the weather didn’t cooperate and allow me to get more photos.  Many nights it was heavily overcast, and both the start & ends of the trip featured a full moon which kills starlight.  I wish I would have had better chances but I am not disappointed.  You can clearly make out the Milky Way in my photos even though alignment isn’t perfect, and on that front I feel like I succeeded in my goals.

Lat = 42.5659409 , Long = -87.8452148 -- Show at Google Maps

Leave a Reply