Astrophotography has long been something that I wanted to get into, and in 2011 I started experimenting. I started without the right knowledge or equipment, then progressed to acquiring the knowledge but not the equipment (my crop-sensor Canon 550D just produced way too much noise at high ISO and my lens just wasn’t fast enough), and now, with my Canon 5D Mk 11 and 17 – 40 mm F4 lens, I finally have the ability to do the job properly (though of course a faster lens will be even better).
On a recent ‘birds and battlefields’ tour of the KwaZulu-Natal battlefields region, we were staying at Fugitive’s Drift, near the famous battle of Isandlwana. The Mountain Aloes were in flower, making for some spectacular scenes by day and by night. It was a perfect opportunity to get out after dark to do some of this kind of photography, so during the day I scoped out my location and over a period of two nights went out for an hour or so, eventually getting the shot that I had visualised. Unfortunately the moon was just starting to become competitive with the stars, so the heavens weren’t at their darkest, but I guess there’s not much one can do about that…
For those of you who aren’t familiar with this type of photography, you will need as fast a lens as possible, wide enough to capture the scene you want. A full-frame camera, or other camera that can handle high ISO is vital, otherwise you just end up with too much digital noise. You’ll of course need a tri-pod, and ideally a remote shutter release (though I didn’t use one on this occasion), as well as a good torch / flashlight, preferably one with different light intensity settings. Then it’s best to scope out your scene by daylight, taking your camera with you so you can compose your shot beforehand. If it’s a secure area you can leave your tripod set up as you want it, and perhaps even leave your camera set up with the exact focus and composition you want. In this case I put markers on the ground of where I wanted the legs of my tripod and made sure I could find my way back to the spot in the dark. Then, when the stars were looking ready, I made my way back out to the site, placed the tripod and set things up. I cranked up the ISO to 3200 and opened up the aperture as wide as it would go (to F4). Focussing in the dark is not so easy, and live view really comes into its own here. I shone a torch / flashlight on the Aloe while using live view, and then zoomed in first 5 times, and manually focused, and then even tweaked it on the 10x zoom. Then I started experimenting, using different exposure times and different amounts of light on the foreground subjects, eventually working out that in terms of the light, less light was better (‘painting’ the two Aloes for a few second each on the dimmest setting worked well). This was the result…
Canon EOS 5D Mk 11.
EF 17 – 40 MM f4/l USM.
44 Second exposure.
Focal length: 17 mm.