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Astrophotography

ASTROPHOTOGRAPHY

CHERRY SPRINGS STATE PARK

Milky Way Galactic Center
Milky Way Galactic Center

The New Moon or the day the moon is not visible is the best day to see the stars or to try astrophotography. The Milky Way can be seen from about April to November but this year the weather has not cooperated. Finally, no one was working and the weather was perfect. I was not able to make it on the new moon but the day after. We arrived at Cherry Springs State Park in North Central Pennsylvania around 9:30 PM Wednesday, August 19, 2020. Cherry Spring State Park is one of the only black sites on the East coast. The location of the park, 41.6501 degrees north, 77.8164 degrees west, on top of a 2300-foot high mountain in the Susquehannock State Forest. The surrounding location remains mostly undeveloped and shields most of the light pollution you would typically get on the east coast.

The parking lot was full when we arrived at Cherry Springs State Park. Most just opted to set up outside of the vehicle and wait for complete darkness around 10 PM. There is a giant astronomy field right off the parking lot, as well as a campground. The campground is always full around a new moon. The is also another location with concrete pads for rent for those with equatorial mounts, astrophotography gear, and telescopes. I just stick to the fields since all I have is my cameras and tripods. I am a professional photographer but just about anyone should be able to photograph the Milky Way on a nice night. I set up my two Manfrotto tripods, one with a Canon 5D Mark iii and a 35mm F1.4 lens and the other with a Canon 5D Mark iii and a 50mm F1.2 lens. A wider lens would be nice but this is what I own. The key to my setup and exposures are the fast 1.4 and 1.2 lenses. You can only take an exposure for a certain amount of time before the rotation of the earth causes the stars to streak. The 500 rule(500/lens focal length) is a basic calculation you can use to find your max shutter speed. In the case of my 35mm that would be 500 divided by 35 to find my max shutter speed. That comes out to 14 seconds but I have found that 8-10 seconds works better. I would try a variety of exposures around that 14 seconds and see what works for you. My exposure with the 35mm was 6-10 seconds F1.4 and ISO 2000. The fast lens saves me from using a high F-Stop that would result in high ISO. A fixed wide-angle lens with a minimum aperture of 2.8 is a good alternative. Kit Zoom lenses will work but you might have to boost your ISO to compensate. Photograph in RAW for best results. You will be amazed at how much more detail of the Milky Way your camera can capture than what you can see with the naked eye.
The night sky is amazing at Cherry Springs State Park. It is almost like the stars wrap around you and when I saw stars I mean millions of stars. It is difficult for me to find constellations because of the number of stars. A phone app can help in this situation. The Milky Way is easy to find, it looks like fog or clouds way out is space that runs up and over your head. The galactic center is only visible at this latitude around 41.6 until midnight, then it dips below the horizon. Shooting stars were everywhere and you can hear the roar of the crowd if you missed one. I missed a lot because I was tending to my cameras most of the night. My daughter said she had only seen one in her life and saw about 5 or 6 that night. It gets cold at night, I think it was around 52 degrees when we left at midnight. It was 64 degrees in Harrisburg around the same time. I don't mind the temperature and was still wearing a t-shirt, shorts and my Keen sandals. Yes, I wear them year-round.

As for my images, I am not using any fancy astrophotography software such as an image stacker. In Adobe Photoshop you can stack images using smart objects to help reduce noise but I can this effect overpowering. The idea is you align and stack multiple alike images stacking software that can reduce noise. The astrophotography software for this concept works good but the Photoshop workaround softens the image too much. I prefer to just work on a single image in raw and use a minimal amount of noise reduction if needed.

Below I will show you a before and after image. I am adjusting the image first in Adobe Camera Raw (ACR). Make sure you are in 16-bit mode, not 8-bit. All I did was adjust the exposure a bit, open the highlights a lot, add a bit of noise reduction, and remove the vignetting. You can use lens correction which is not called optics but I prefer to do this manually using an adjustment brush. I reduce the flow of the brush to give me more control over what I am doing. I then proceed to open the image into Adobe Photoshop. In Photoshop I made a series of selective layer adjustments to increase the contrast of the Milky Way. I increased the saturation of some colors to a selective area of the image and that was about it. If you have no idea what I am talking about, I will be making a video and posting it below.

beforeafter

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