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State of the Art: Shooting Galaxies Far Far Away, and a Bit Closer

By David Schonauer   Thursday June 20, 2019


Outer space is in, photographically speaking.

This spring we were treated to the first images of a dark hole, an astonishing achievement of science that captivated people around the world. Stop to think about the significance of this feat, which was carried out in April 2017 using eight telescopes around the world by a collaborative effort known as the Event Horizon Telescope.

“In the century since Einstein predicted the existence of black holes in his theory of gravity, astrophysicists have turned up overwhelming evidence for the things,” noted Wired. “They’ve observed the push and pull of black holes on the orbits of nearby stars and planets. They’ve heard the vibrations, or gravitational waves, resonating from black holes colliding. But they’d never glimpsed a black hole face to face—until now.”

The image (below) depicts gas swirling around a supermassive black hole at the center of M87, a galaxy 54 million light-years away. “Past the bright lights, though, is the black hole’s telltale feature: its event horizon,” noted Wired. “The event horizon is the edge of the space-time abyss, where gravity is so strong that no light can escape from it.”

Admit it, you also would like to photograph the space-time abyss.

More recently, the Hubble Space Telescope celebrated its 29th anniversary of image-making by taking an astonishing picture of the Southern Crab Nebula (below), a cosmic feature Hubble first photographed in 1999. Good news: As a photographer, Hubble is improving.

“Unlike the first image, which is pixelated and orange, the new image is colorful with a higher resolution,” noted DP Review.

Amateur photographers have also been capturing some amazing images of deep space. PetaPixel reported that a team of five French amateur astrophotographers recently captured a 204-megapixel, 1,060-hour photo of the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy of the Milky Way (about 163,000 light-years away). With a diameter of about 14,000 light-years, the LMC, which is visible as a faint “cloud” in the night sky when viewed from dark sights, is only about 1/100th the size of our galaxy, noted PP.

The image of the LMC (below) is made of up of thousands of photos captured between July 2017 and February 2019 and then stitched together. Go here to download the 14400×14200-pixel, 80.8-megabyte JPEG.

We have recently been noticing a number of posts from photo blogs about photographers taking pictures of our galactic home base, the Milky Way, along with practical advice how to do it. For instance, St. Louis-based photographer Joe Howard blogged a detailed guide to capturing the night sky from the Show-Me State. It’s all about avoiding light pollution: “[I]f you cannot see the Milky Way with your naked eye, your camera will not be able to see it regardless of how maxed out your settings are,” he notes.

“Luckily,” he adds, “there are still some dark spots left in Missouri. South Central Missouri and all of Northern Missouri have some of the darkest skies in all of the state.” Below is Howard’s shot of the Milky Way, taken outside of Fredricktown, MO.

Meanwhile, astrophotographer and YouTuber Milky Way Mike recently offered a tutorial on how to stack Milky Way shots and composite them with any custom foreground you choose. Why would you want to do this? “Sometimes, the scene before you that you want to shoot just doesn’t line up with the sky that you want. Maybe it’s cloudy every night or perhaps the Milky Way just rises and falls on the wrong part of the sky,” noted DIY Photography.

Another tutorial from Milky Way Mike, aka Michael Ver Sprill (below), focused on how to photograph the night sky with some ordinary gear — crop-sensor camera and kit lens — in this case a Nikon D7200 and an 18-55mm lens. You also need a sturdy tripod, a flashlight (you’re working in the dark) and a remote trigger. He also uses stacking software (Starry Landscape Stacker for Mac or Sequator for Windows).

“Out in the field, make sure to start with the lens focused to infinity and take a few test shots until you get the focus right. Mike suggests using manual focus,” noted DIYP.

Meanwhile, in the video below, from  B&H Photo, photographer Gabe Biderman teaches you how to quickly and easily capture star trails.

“With cameras becoming better at handling low ISO noise and having greater pixel density, night photography is becoming less post processing centric and even more accessible to obtain great results with very little after shoot work,” notes Fstoppers.

Want more tips on shooting the Milky Way? CNN Travel recently featured a tutorial from Dutch landscape photographer Albert Dros. (His kit includes a Sony aR7 III, a Sony 12-24mm f/4G lens, and a Sony G-Master 100-400mm.)

Meanwhile, PetaPixel featured tips on shooting a Milky Way moonrise from an airplane seat, courtesy of Jan Jasinski, an aviation, landscape, and real estate photographer based in Gatineau, Quebec.

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