Nature, wildlife, landscapes – my favorite subjects for photography. So – the next logical step (in my mind at least) is to break into astrophotography. However, this has not been the easiest task. From finding the proper equipment to dealing with the weather to not being attacked by animals – it has been a bit of a journey, and one worth sharing.
Finding the Right Equipment
The first step in getting into astrophotography (using my camera and lens – using a telescope is for the future) is finding the right lens(es). After doing a good amount of reading, I came to discover a new company that I hadn’t heard of before: Rokinon (also known as Samyang, same stuff, same company just different branding). They make a wide ranges of lenses for many different mount types. One reason people like their lenses for astrophotography is that they are a great bang for the buck. The lenses I ended up purchasing are fully manual (not just manual focus, but manual aperture ring as well). The upside here is you don’t need autofocus for astrophotography, and because there are no electronics the company puts all their efforts into the glass. There are two lenses that I ended up interested in: the 14 mm f/2.8 and the 24 mm f/1.4. Both have good reviews as astrophotography lenses. I ended up finding deals on both and so somehow I ended up with both. However, acquiring these lenses does have some minor difficulties involved. The 14 mm lens has a bad habit of having bad focus calibration – which can be annoying because ‘infinity’ isn’t infinity. But it can also be a real problem. If the focus calibration is off by enough, it can actually be impossible to focus out to infinity and therefore impossible to focus on the stars. There is a fairly simple fix, as long as you are willing to get your hands a bit dirty. The best video that demonstrates this is not in english, but its not too hard to follow. I ended up doing this with my copy of the lens so that I had some room to adjust focus on ‘either side’ of infinity. As for the 24 mm lens, quality control (at least when the lens was released) was maybe not the best and so quite a few people complained that they had copies with decentering and other image quality issues. Luckily, I got what sure seems to be a perfect copy of the lens straight away from B&H (interestingly the Samyang branded version was $100 less, so that’s what I ordered).
So clouds and weather are obvious the natural enemy of any sort of astrophotography. In Iceland we were lucky enough to have 2 clear nights with high activity, and so I was able to get some great shots of the northern lights. I can’t complain about that, but I did try some other shots since it was nice and dark, but the green glow of the aurora made all the other images look strange. Plus there was the moon to deal with – we lucked out and had cloudless time after astronomical twilight but before the moon rose – and activity of the aurora was high during that time. Honestly the fact that this happened two nights in a row astounded me. Other times – haven’t had as much luck. Thought I would be able to get some good shots while in Africa. It was the end of the dry season and so over the course of three weeks it only rained during the day maybe twice – and even then only briefly. But it rained at night – a lot! It would be clear all day and then clouds would roll in at night. Not sure if this is normal weather behavior there year round or if it had to do with the coming wet season. My most recent attempt in Utah and Colorado also ran into weather related problems. It rained almost every day and was cloudy every night while I was in Utah. And here I thought the southeastern part of the state was ‘desert’. Late spring must be when the area does get some rain, just my luck. Colorado did have some clear skies for me one night – but just as the milky way rose into view some wispy higher level clouds rolled through and seemed to just be between me and the milky way. I guess you can only get lucky with weather so many times in one year.
One thing that I definitely failed to take into account was that if I was somewhere far enough removed from humans to get a good dark night sky, there would be more animal activity. This was the case in Africa. I was able to get some shots one night in camp along the Kazinga Channel in Uganda – however you could hear the hippos down by the water and they were known to walk through the camp at night. Thus you really weren’t supposed to be out of your tent at night. In Serengeti national park had some great dark skies, though clouds did tend to appear at night. However, the night we arrived we saw a large adult male lion walking along the access road to camp and heard him roaring during the night. Buffalo also tended to be active at night and so you had to get an escort from dinner back to your tent. Trying to get some shots with the lanterns out in the pitch black made the guides and camp staff very uneasy (although they did let me try, briefly). In Africa we saw animals at night but we knew they were there. They never snuck up on us. This was not the case in Colorado. While in Rocky Mountain National Park I ran into two other guys
looking to do some astrophotography, and so we all setup off a small access road at a picnic area overlooking one of the lower meadows. There was a camp site nearby but it was nice and dark and felt safe. We had just gotten everything setup and were starting to shoot when they asked me if I heard a noise. I figured it was the nearby campground, but then I heard rustling and turned my flashlight (which had a red filter over it to protect night vision) and saw what I thought was a flashlight moving towards me – and I wondered why someone would be walking down that road. Then I realized it wasn’t a flashlight, it was the reflection of a pair of eyes. And then we heard a loud roar and all promptly dropped everything and jumped in the cars. After my hear rate recovered I jumped in the drivers seat and turned my jeep in the direction of the roar and flicked on the brights. Sure enough there was a large bear less than 100 yards away looking right at us before turning his head and walking back into the darkness. Needless to say we packed everything up hastily and found another area to try (unfortunately it was near to a real road and wasn’t as ideal). You live you learn. In the end I think the moral of the story throughout all of this is PATIENCE. Just gotta have patience.