ASTROPHOTOGRAPHY

Astrophotography in my opinion is one of the most serene and beautiful forms of photography. I am a mountaineer and I love being surrounded by the very atmosphere I like to call my second home. I prefer to go to the off-beat, out-of-the-way places, bearing in mind that commercial destinations are something I would not really call myself a fan of.
In one of these precarious expeditions I had my first encounter with our galaxy, the Milky Way. I had gone to Chaukori, Uttarakhand when I first saw the glowing, colorful center of our galaxy, It left me in absolute awe. It made me realize the vastness of space and how insignificant we are in this entire universe. Its sheer magnanimous beauty filled my body with a feeling of longing; longing to spend more time in this serene place, longing to not let this experience be my last.

An uncle of mine had introduced me to photography and had recently taught me the basics of astrophotography, so I decided to test out my cameras, a Nikon D3100 and a Nikon D5100. This was the first time I was trying this and I have to admit; the whole sky full of stars really does distract you. Looking at the Milky Way spanning over 10000 lightyears across I got to work. As the night was moonless and cloudless I decided to try to capture a segment of astrophotography that has always intrigued me: star trails.

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The way I captured this was keeping my camera on a tripod, attaching a remote shutter release to it and then letting it click over 80-100 pictures each with an exposure over twenty seconds. There are other ways of doing so but I prefer this one. After clicking these I complied them using this software called StarStax. Star trails are basically formed due the relative motion of the stars around the pole star as the Earth rotates.

Two things one must keep in mind while taking trails are that the night should be moonless in order to see the stars properly and there should be minimum clouds entering your frame. The stars are at a great distance hence in order to ensure that they are focus one should adjust the cameras focus to just before infinity. There is a simple trick to do so, put your camera on autofocus and focus on a single light at least 50 meters away from you.

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Doing so will set your cameras focus and you can set to manual focus again. Now in order to get a good exposure ensure that your aperture is completely open, your ISO is set to 1600+ and set an exposure of 20-25 seconds and ensure that your long exposure noise reduction is turned off, else the trails will not form. Remember to take a test shot before you get clicking and try to keep some subject such as a tree in the foreground to make the pictures more interesting and appealing, which is the aim of every photographer.

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These are the general guidelines of astrophotography, but in order to view your subject, the stars and the galaxy, you need to be in some area far away from bright lights. My personal favorite destination for astrophotography is the mountains, places like Leh, Auli and other off-beat trekking/mountaineering areas are perfect, but there are other places where you can click the stars as well. The nearest place to Manipal to click the Milky Way is probably Agumbe.
You might have seen pictures where the Milky Way is rather bright and glowing. This is due to the long exposure used to capture it. In real life it’s rather faint and might not be seen by you unless you know how to locate it. If one is interested in astronomy then you could use your general spotting techniques to locate the constellation Sagittarius, where the center of the galaxy lies. Another problem is that in the northern hemisphere the center of the Milky Way is only visible in summer months. Amateurs can use the help of applications like SkyGuide for iOS and Stellarium for android in spotting the Milky Way.

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The way to click it is the same as mentioned earlier ie, you take one picture instead of 80-100 pictures. I clicked my first Milky Way-scape in Auli, Uttarakhand in the winters of 2015 using a Nikon D750. When I was clicking the pictures the temperature was about -11 degrees Celsius. Astrophotography might be slightly challenging and is definitely a tedious task yet the result is worth it. The entire experience of seeing the vast universe full of stars is something that makes it entirely worth it. [fun fact: when you are observing the stars and the galaxy you are literally looking back into time.]
Now there is one picture which my absolute favorite that I would like to share with all of you, it is a picture of the Milky Way clicked in Hawaii by a National Geographic photographer. This very picture is the reason why I love astrophotography. It brings out the beauty of the universe and highlights the mysteries we are yet to encounter and solve. Now to quote a dialogue from my favorite movie, Interstellar, which has inspired to further my interest in astrophotography:
“We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars. Now we just look down, and worry about our place in the dirt.”
Happy clicking!

Dhruv Verma

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