Milky way over Durdle Door

With the time, I came to realise that I don’t like landscape photography. Let me be more precise, while I like the idea to take beautiful photos of landscapes that I may print and hang on my walls, I realised that landscape photography just stresses me out. While composing photos is not a major problem for me any more, technically speaking this kind of photography is quite exhausting. Multi bracketing for perfect light balancing through luminosity masks, various heads to use according the kind of photo to take, ND filters or multi exposure to take long expositions, right lens to use as landscape can be taken with ultra wide, tele or normal lenses in case we want to compose a fantastic panorama. And if this is not enough we need to find and get to the right location, at the right time with the right weather conditions. Practice is also very important, one needs to get really confident with the camera and techniques in order to not miss that really short time frame when the sky is just perfect while trying to understand why the stupid camera remote control is not working right.

It’s just too damn stressful especially for who, like me, has very high standards and expectations.

All that said, I don’t easily give up. It was a long time I wanted to take a photo of the Durdle Door in Dorset during night time. I was planning it for several months, but since I had no clue about what I could expect, I was literally scared to drive for hours for nothing. Eventually though I just went and, although the conditions were not optimal, had a really good time and almost stress free results!

Here is what I have learned:

  • For months, I was waiting a moonless sky. However it’s not needed to wait for a new moon. The moon sets every night at very erratic times, but once is gone, is gone and you can take your damn photo. Buy the application Sun Surveyor (available for android), it doesn’t just tell you when the sun and moon rise and set, but also tells you when the “photography opportunities” to shoot the milky way are.
  • Pentax K1 may be the best camera out there to take photos of stars. It’s not just because its noise is very reduced at high ISO, but also because the Astrotracer build in function allows to take pin point stars at extreme conditions.
  • When it’s dark, it’s dark! And when it’s dark there is no light at all that will illuminate your foreground. So there is no way photos of beautiful skies, full of stars, behind beautiful well lit foreground, are not just composite exercises. That’s why buying a good torch is a good investment. I will talk about it in a bit.
  • I was told that I would not be alone at the Durdle Door. Well that was damn true. There were at least other 7 people, between photographers and star gazers, with me around midnight. Many probably stayed until sunrise.
  • Contrary to what I was initially thinking, it’s very simple to get to the beach of Durdle Door without paying a penny.

Let’s get to the details now:

I planned to write a post in future about all my gear and when I use it, but for Durdle Door I took with me: My tripod (doesn’t need to be an expensive one, as long as it is sturdy), my now oldish Triopo ball head (never had a problem with it), a remote release similar to this one and a torch. Obviously I had with me my Pentax K1 and the fantastic lens that the Irix 15mm is. It comes without saying that you shouldn’t forget the rest of the things you may need during a night out on a beach that is not camera related.

Now that you have found your perfect position and set up your tripod for a good composition, you need just to wait that the moon sets. Even if you think there isn’t much light on the sky, there is actually a lot until it’s pitch dark. That’s why light pollution is a big problem. Luckily Durdle door, even if is not the best, is not affected much by light pollution.

You can check the light pollution in your area using the map:

The milky way is not always visible in its full splendour, with the best period being between June and September. Although I don’t know much about it, according to what I can see from the application Stellarium (available for free on PC and Android), the brightest part of the milky way is, in the best case, just above the horizon in the UK. That’s not too bad anyway, is still possible to take great photos.

In my case, I didn’t choose the best time. According Sun Surveyor, the day I decided to take the photo there wasn’t a photography opportunity. This is because the best part of the milky way wouldn’t have been visible. Well, that’s not too bad, now that I know it’s not so complicated to go get a picture of the milky way, I could surely get back to the Durdle Door again. By the way, in case you decide to do the same, that’s where you should leave your car, if you don’t want to pass the night at the holiday park (which is always full during the summer):

It’s about 20 minutes to get from the public road to the Durdle door by feet. It’s true that there is a much closer car park beyond the holiday park, but it closes at 10pm and you need to stay later than that if you want to get good photos.

So where were we? We have the camera on our tripod, the stars are now well visible with naked eyes. However you will never be able to see as far as your camera will, this because the camera sensor will be able to capture much more light than your eyes. Without an astrotracer, the best thing is to put your camera at ISO 3200, 20seconds, F 3.5 or less. My Irix 15mm is already razor sharp at f2.8 and since it’s mounted on a full frame, I can guess I could push to slightly more than 20 seconds and still see stars without trails. There is actually a “rule” to compute the theoretical value of the exposure time, it’s called 500 rule. If you are interested, google it.

Be sure that your camera is very firm as even the minor vibration could ruin your photo. I actually use a wired remote shutter so I won’t even need to touch the camera. I didn’t use it, but if you are very obsessed, you can shoot in Live mode with the electronic shutter on to minimize the shutter vibration too.

Now remember, what the camera see is not what your eye see. This is approximately what your naked eye should expect to see:

this what the camera sees:

Obviously this photo is not good enough. What’s the point to put in the composition a foreground if eventually it’s just black? That’s why you should buy a good torch like the Coast HP7 I got. This mother can blast its light up to 211 meters away. Being the Door approximately 60 meters away, I actually had to use the lower settings to not burn the image highlights.

This is the result:

Let’s talk about even more technical details now. Let’s start with the focusing aspect. There is no way you can see what you are focus on. You may focus at infinity, but even if Irix is an incredible lens, with an aperture of 2.8 there is the risk that the foreground is not in focus. How to solve the issue then? It’s simple, hyper focal comes to the rescue. First we need to know how distant is our subject. Since I didn’t want to swim, I used google map:

google map says there are around 60 meters. Knowing that, I use a Hyperfocal calculator to know what distance I have to focus at. The Hyperfocal distance is the focus distance given to be sure that from that point on, everything will be in focus up to infinity. The parameter needed to calculate the Hyperfocal distance are the sensor size, the focal length and the aperture. According the calculator I used (there are hundreds available), everything beyond 3 meters is in focus. I probably didn’t really need to know the distance to the Durdle Door in the first place :D.

It’s finally time to shoot and according my experience, you won’t get bored, especially with the Pentax K1 and its Astrotracer functionality. I am usually not comfortable to try new technology on the field, I don’t want to waste time to understand how something works. Luckily with the smartphones nowadays is not necessary to carry a manual with you and I was very curious about this “too good to be true” feature. Apparently the Pentax K1 is able to connect to a satellite to lock its position and, paired with the sensors inside the camera, predict the movement of the stars in front of it. The sensor is then able to shift to compensate the change of position and remove trails up to five minutes! To be honest I didn’t believe this would ever worked. I never even tried the GPS functionality before! Once I activated the GPS the camera asked me to calibrate the sensors inside. This is similar to when a smartphone asks for the same, you need to rotate the camera by 180 degrees around every axis. This operation is similar and works all the times. Once the satellite is locked, a green icon appears to the LCD screen, showing a satellite and the signal power.

The astro tracer works only in Bulb mode and the camera is clear about it, so don’t try to use M mode. Bulb mode usually assumes that you have a remote shutter with you, as you must click once to start the exposure and another time to stop it, but luckily Pentax engineers are smart and there is also an option to set the time up to five minutes so the exposure will end on its own!

I have to say, astro tracer works wonders! However because the sensor shifts, everything that doesn’t move will look blurry, so if you want to use the astro tracer, you must compose two images, although I think that up to 60 seconds, there wouldn’t be much blur.

Astrotracer is on! Stars are pin point, but the Durdle Door is blurred 180 sec
Astrotracer is off, stars are so blurry! 164 sec

So what are the best settings? I am not sure yet, however I would probably stick with ISO 1600 and 60 seconds with astrotracer on. I also think that my photos would have benefited by even longer exposures, as while on the camera monitor the results look great, we don’t have to forget that we are seeing the monitor while is very dark and so we should keep an eye on the histogram. Most of my photos were a tad underexposed, so it would have been better to take better photos than fix them later with Lightroom.

However post production is still essential for night photography, as straight out of the camera the photos will look washed. We need to increase clarity to make the Milky way pop out! After several retouches, this is my final result:

and soon I will print it for my wall 🙂

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