Milky Way over Toe Head, Isle of Harris

September 20, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

Milky Way Over Toe Head, Isle of HarrisThe street lights of Northton on the left, the Milky Way stretches over Toe Head on the Isle of Harris in Scotland.

 

I was on the Isle of Harris to photograph the incredible beaches found in the south of the island but found myself mesmerised by the night sky. I’m quite inexperienced at night photography but I knew I’d need to gather as much light as possible to stand any chance in such a dark location.

I set up my tripod, attached my trusty Nikon D3 and 17-35mm f/2.8 lens and encountered my first problem. The sky was far too dark to use auto focus. I switched into manual focus mode and focused to infinity then back just a tiny amount. I knew I would probably have to finesse this but it would get me pretty close to sharp focus on the night sky.

I wanted to make a picture that included some land and sea for context. Water reflects light and would help lift the image so I knew I wanted to include it in the lower part of the frame. From experience I knew where Toe Head was (a small peninsula to the west) but I couldn’t see it.  It was seriously dark even if the heavens were twinkling above. I took the lens to it’s widest focal setting at 17mm and decided to make a best guess at composition, again, knowing I could finesse after the first frame.

I made a best guess at exposure; I set my ISO to 3200, Aperture wide open at f/2.8 and my shutter speed to 20 seconds. I used all of the weapons at my disposal to make the cleanest image possible: self timer set to 2 seconds, Exposure delay mode ON, Long Exposure Noise Reduction ON, a sturdy tripod and crossed fingers.

My first image was too dark and a bit soft. I finessed the focus another tiny amount and took the shutter speed to 30 seconds to let more light into the camera. I made a small adjustment to the composition and made another frame. The next frame was sharp but I felt it was still too dark. I had forgotten my cable release so I was stuck with the D3’s maximum exposure time of 30 seconds. The only thing I could adjust was the ISO so I took that to 6400 and made the image above.

An educated guess got me in the ballpark but it was the instant digital feedback that allowed me to make small adjustments and fine tune composition, exposure and focus in a challenging and very dark environment. It was a hip-flask of the local tipple that allowed me to endure the freezing cold. No hardship really  : )


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