The night sky

November was probably slightly outside the optimal season for astrophotography in the northern hemisphere but nevertheless finding myself in a dark sky area on a clear(-ish) night it would have been rude not to have a go.

Newton in Bowland

This was the first time I’d tried the Nikon D800E for this type of photography but it handled well and combined with the Nikon 14-24 I was very happy with how it worked. The only problem came when I dropped and broke my torch meaning I had to use the light on my phone to check and change settings which was very fiddly with gloved fingers.

Looking at the EXIF data this was a 30 second exposure at ISO 800.  Now at 14mm this should have meant that the stars did not visibly start to “trail” which causes them to appear as short dashes rather than dots in the image.  This is based on the commonly used 500 Rule: 500 divided by the focal length of your lens = the longest exposure (in seconds) before stars start to trail.  In theory I had 36 seconds to play with but looking closely I think 20 seconds would have been better even though I would have needed to increase ISO to 1600.

Capturing the core of the Milky Way has become the “in” thing in astrophotography in recent years, driven in no small measure by improvements in DSLR technologies and greater availability of accessibly-priced cameras to the enthusiast.  One pre-requisite though is a reasonably clear sky along with an absence of light pollution. A Dark Sky site is ideal and the nearest to where I live is in the Forest of Bowland.  Choosing when to make the attempt it is useful to understand a little about the geometry of the Galaxy, and I found an excellent guide at Andrew Rhode’s website.  About half-way down the page is a really handy diagram which really makes it easy to understand when the best time to be out is and what time of the day/night is best. The explanations are clear and straightforward and I can recommend spending some time perusing Andrew’s site.



Chasing the light

OK, not the most original title ever but it has the benefit of accuracy.

© Dave Whenham

As I’ve already mentioned in an earlier post today I “mis-timed” my departure this morning; or to put it another way overslept. I had checked and knew sunrise was 6.58am so, allowing for a twenty minute drive and ten minutes to set two tripods up and get cameras in place I calculated that I’d need to be out of bed at 5.45 to give me time to dress, make a flask of coffee and get the gear into the car. I awoke at 6.28 and although I moved quickly I was already past my ideal set-off time when my feet touched the bedroom floor.

Despite driving within the legal limits, of course, I was still five minutes from my intended destination, and still fifteen minutes behind schedule, when, glancing in my rear view mirror, I saw that the sun was just about to pop its head over the horizon.  Luckily the road up on the moors was quiet at 6.57am so I managed to pull over and grab the camera (Nikon D800E with my trusty Nikkor 24-70) for a couple of shots including the 10-frame panorama I posted when I got home.  I had no time to do anything other than grab the camera and shoot handheld with whatever lens happened to be on it; I would have preferred the 70-200.  Nor was there time to add ND graduated filters so I bracketed and hoped that the dynamic range of the camera and some judicious post-processing would come to my rescue.

© Dave Whenham
Handheld panorama (6 frames)

Still hoping that I’d get something at my chosen location I jumped back in the car. In the end, despite visiting two alternative shooting spots, the conditions just five minutes down the road were nowhere near as photogenic. I debated sitting with the flask and just waiting but realised that there was a totally clear sky above the scene and by the time the sun illuminated my view it would also be very harsh.

I decided to go back and chase the light and the rapidly dispersing mist back down the valley.

© Dave Whenham

I stopped just over the brow of the hill, swapped the 24-70 for the 70-200 and knowing that I had an image in the bag already took the time to get the tripod out.  The light in the upper part of the sky was much brighter than the foreground but with the sun almost bald in the sky creating huge variances within that upper area of the frame no amount of graduated ND filters were going to make much difference. I therefore bracketed by five stops but in the end only used a single frame choosing to crop the sun out on the computer.

A tiny bit of post-production manipulation here. I applied a warm filter to the sky and a cooling filter to the landscape. The end result is closer to what I perceived at the time.
Taken at the same time as the panoramas, this is a single frame.


I stopped three times driving back managing a few nice images including the tree above which sits just above the M62 motorway. The third stop, at the reservoir, yielded nothing unfortunately. Just as I got the tripod out of the boot, the geese, which had roosted overnight on the water and were my intended subject, suddenly rose and disappeared before I could even extend a single tripod leg.

However, I was not going to complain. I had chased the rapidly dispersing mist down the valley and captured a few nice images so all in all a good start to the day.  It was a shame my intended location wasn’t “doing it” for me this morning but as I’ve said before nothing beats knowing your patch and it was that knowledge that was my friend this morning.

Sunrise (1 image)

© Dave WhenhamI mistimed my departure this morning so was still five minutes from my intended destination when the sun peeked up over the horizon. Luckily the road up on the moors was quiet so I managed to pull over and grab the camera (Nikon D800E w/Nikkor 24-70) for a couple of shots including this 10-frame panorama. Had no time to get tripod out so handheld (again) nor add filters so have lost a little bit at the top of the frame but all in all a good start to the day especially as my intended location wasn’t working for me at all this morning!

You might need to click on this to see it larger!

An Autumn Conundrum

I took a walk earlier this week along the local canal, my favourite haunt as those of you who’ve read more than one post of mine will know.

But when it came to grab a camera, remember I use the first that comes to hand, I had a conundrum. The nearest was the Nikon D800E but I have really been enjoying the Fuji X100T recently and would have chosen to take that. In the end I compromised by removing the 70-200 f2.8 from the Nikon and replacing it with a 35mm DX lens. It puts the full-frame Nikon into crop-mode but reduces the weight considerably.

© Dave Whenham

Railway Bridge and ferns – Nikon D800E

Now, you are probably thinking that what comes next is that epiphany when I finally renounce my big DSLR in favour of the flavour-of-the-month Fuji. Well, sorry to disappoint but no. I still love using the Nikon despite its relative weight simply because it handles so well.  The 35mm DX lens didn’t perform as well as I’d have liked, the 36mp sensor is very unforgiving, and if I’m honest it was a compromise I am unlikely to make again.

Back at home I found that the in-camera JPEGs did not have the same instant appeal as the Fuji’s but as ever the RAW files provided everything that I could possibly want. I suspect that if I took the time to tweak the in-camera JPEG settings I could get a much better final image but to be honest I don’t use the D800E for instant results so it’s unlikely  that I will do so.

© Dave Whenham
Zac – Nikon D800Eand 35mm DX lens wide open

So rather than reaching that “ditch-the-DSLR” moment I am even more convinced after this outing that there is room in my photography for both systems so for the moment I am going to forget about comparing and contrasting the two systems with a view to picking one and just enjoy using both and getting even better acquainted with the Fuji X-series.

Incidentally I took the Fuji X-100T with me on the same work the following day -a few sample images in the next post.