From the Vault: Observing the Milky Way

In the From the Vault series, I feature an older image which hasn’t been seen here before and I talk about the capture and processing and hopefully highlight why this image is special to me.

The feature image in From the Vault this week is titled Observing the Milky Way and I think it’s easy to see why. The image was taken at the South Pacific Star Party in April 2007, and shows our beautiful Milky Way Galaxy rising over the observing field at the star party.

Jupiter is the bright “star” just above the centre, and Antares is the red star at the top centre of the image.

Observing the Milky Way

Observing the Milky Way

Observing the Milky Way

It was a beautiful night at the star party though my astrophotography wasn’t going as planned. Taking this photo was a last minute decision that worked out perfectly.

Please continue reading to see how I captured and processed this image.

I’d only recently bought my 12″ Newt and EQ6 as a combo, second hand from a forum member at IceInSpace, and had taken it along to the star party to capture some images of Saturn and Jupiter. Being new to EQ mounts and not having any clue on how to drift align, and also being my first road trip with the new setup, I had some difficulties setting it up. I ran out of battery juice, had no access to 240v power, and on top of all that, the seeing just wasn’t good enough for long focal length planetary imaging.

So I gave up in frustration and put my 12″ Newt in the back of the car and wondered what to do now. I didn’t have any Deep Space Imaging equipment at the time (such as the ED80) but I had this tracking mount and I had my Canon 350D. My previous long-exposure sky images were all taken using my old EQ platform, before I had my EQ mount and that involved putting my camera on the tripod and putting the tripod on the EQ platform. Certainly very low-tech. So here, at the star party, I had no battery power left and I had nothing to attach my camera to the head of the EQ6!

I ended up using the ball head of my tripod and positioned it in the head in such a way that tightening the screw on the mount head was just enough to hold the ball head in position. And for power, I begged and borrowed a spare battery pack from my friend David Hough. Now, ready to photograph!

I started with a 5-minute exposure with the tracking turned on. There was no autoguiding, no manual guiding, but at the short focal length the alignment was accurate enough that trails weren’t evident. This gave me a beautiful image of the milky way rising, but the foreground was all blurred.

So I turned the tracking off, recomposed and took another 5 minute exposure which gave me the nice sharp foreground with the red lights illuminating the scene, with the sky showing star trails.

To get the static foreground combined with the milky way image, it came down to post-processing. Both images were opened in Photoshop and I went through a pain-staking process of selecting the foreground part of the static foreground image, and then copied that as a new layer on top of the milky way image. Some minor levels and curves adjustment to taste, and the final image was ready!

I had taken several 5 minute exposures of the milky way with the tracking on, which gave me a choice of which one to use with the foreground image. The single 5 minute exposures were taken at ISO800 with my Canon 350D and Sigma 17-70mm lens @ 17mm.

The folks at the ASNSW loved how the image portrays the fantastic dark skies and excellent observing at the South Pacific Star Party, so they now use the image on the SPSP homepage. The next SPSP is on the 22nd-24th May 2009, so it will be very cold but with the Milky Way overhead there’s going to be some fantastic skies and excellent opportunities for photography.

You can see a slightly larger version of this image on my gallery page or at RedBubble.

Thanks for allowing me to share this image with you.

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