Updated: Mar 6
It was a Tuesday, when NASA's Apollo 8 spacecraft was orbiting around the moon.
Astronaut William Anders gazed out of his spacecraft in utter amazement as he became one of the first men ever to witness earth's rise from the moon's horizon.
He had a Hasselblad with him, and he borrowed some color film from his friend and fellow astronaut, Frank Borman.
There, on that day, Anders snapped one of the most influential photographs in the history of mankind, 'Earthrise'.
I apologise for the fact that I cannot post this image on my blog here, as the rights for it are owned by NASA. But a quick google search will get you the image, if you haven't seen it before.
It really struck home the point, that we, mankind, are nothing but tiny, insignificant organisms floating around in an infinite space.
Be it Jeff Bezos, be it a beggar wobbling around in a dank street: we are all inconsequential.
I, in my schooldays and later in graduation, was always an avid admirer of Astrophysics, and its weird, awe inspiring explanations of the day-to-day affairs in our universe. Through my burrowing into different books and magazines, I came across Earthrise many a time in the past ten fifteen years, but it never struck me as something incredible. To me, it was just another photo from space.
It was only after I started photography some two odd years back, that I happened to come across this again while I was going through the National Geographic website. It was then I came to understand the technical difficulties for someone in the 1960s to have captured an image, perfectly sharp, while floating around outside a spacecraft.
I, however, sometimes manage to take blurry images even when my camera is on a tripod.
Talk about futility.
Even when you remove the technicalities, the emotion Earthrise conveys: us looking into the mirror for the first time, truly tingles the spine.
That was the time since when I started looking into astrophotography.
I glossed over a thousand images online, and laid my eyes upon some truly incredible images of the Milky Way galaxy, taken by a ton of amazing photographers all throughout the world. Digging deeper, I came across some very interesting facts, which I will try to note down here, so that someday you, dear reader, may make use of it, if need be.
Full disclosure, this is going to get a little technical.
Our planets location is at the very edge of the milky way. So when you look towards the galactic centre and the black hole, you should be able to see most of the milky way from a side wise perspective.
Everyone is aware of the fact that we cannot see the stars during daytime because the Sun is just simply too bright.
Much the same way, a night with full moon, or a place with lots of ambient light (the correct term would be Light Pollution), will draw a quick close to your Milky Way hunt.
That being said, there are particular times in a year, when certain portions of the planet can look into the galactic centre, when the conditions are perfect.
Early or late summer is probably the best time in India to catch a clear view of the Milky way.
Even in June-July, in a region where there is no light pollution, you can get truly mesmerising views of the colors in the centre of the galaxy.
Now, let's say you have trekked up to Chandratal Lake on a cold, dark winter night, how do you find the milky way?
Well, chances are, such an incredible location with zero light pollution will give you such clear views of the sky, that you will be playing poker with the galaxy in no time at all. For the sake of explanation, let's assume you can't find it.
There are apps in Android as well as iOS (namely Skymap, Photographers Ephemeris) which will help you locate the galaxy at any time of the day and night, with a virtual reality layout, a compass and a gyroscope sensor, all of which are available in most smartphones.
The problem with these, as I have found out in multiple locations, is that some of them won't work without network connectivity. And, if you trek out to a place with zero light pollution, chances are, that you will be miles away from the nearest cell tower. So, how to get across this barrier?
Take note of the date and time when you will be arriving at a particular location. While still in range of proper connectivity, use these apps to move ahead in time and find out where the galactic centre would be located at the point of time when you actually arrive at your location. Once you find out the general direction, even when you don't have connectivity, you can use your compass to find your target.
Coming to camera related limitations, there are a lot.
Firstly, it is not difficult to understand that a milky way shot would have to be a long exposure.
But the problem is that, the longer the time your shutter takes to fall, the more the stars would have moved from their initial position, thus making them blurry and effectively causing star trails.
To remedy this, there is an unwritten rule, called the 500 law.
Your shutter speed should not exceed more than 500 divided by your focal length .
So, if you are on an FX, and shooting at 16mm, your shutter speed should not exceed 31 seconds to avoid star trails. Of course, you should be at your widest aperture.
Galactic images are best taken on an FX sensor and a wide focal length, so that your ISOs stay at bearable limits. On an FX, you can also increase your ISOs quite a lot, as these sensors are truly incredible at handling noise.
On a DX camera, like the D5200 I was shooting with, things become much more challenging.
My Sigma 17-50s effective focal length, on an FX, would be 26-75mm. Even at the widest focal length, I would have to maintain a lowly shutter speed of 19-20 seconds. This would make me crank up my ISOs beyond 1600, which would make a pretty noisy image.
Keeping all these technicalities into view, I have tried multiple times to get a milky way shot in multiple places. Too bad our vacations are not determined by our photographic interests, but by the very limited leaves we can scamper from our workplaces. So, more often than not, the timing was also not perfect.
Two years back, on a very cold winter night in Sikkim, I managed to find a spot with almost nil light pollution, but cloud ruined the image.
On 2018, on my tour through the Silk Route, I happened to to stop at Padamchen for a night or two, as I have mentioned in my previous blog.
Our homestay in Padamchen was at a curve of the road in the middle of no where, with no hotels or houses to be seen around. It was a spot of truly minimal light pollution.
I had already figured out the general direction in which the milky way would lie. At 8pm in the evening I racked up my clothing, packed up my gear and walked into the shivering cold night, hoping this time, maybe I can make it.
Some 500 meters from the homestay, there was a forest through which the road ran. The darkness was overwhelming, and the stories of bears and leopards in the region had me on my toes. Nonetheless, I walked in and looked up. I could not believe my eyes.
It wasn't the galactic centre, but an arm of the milky way was clearly shining through the night sky.
I mounted the tripod and my camera, my gloves making the entire process slow and cumbersome.
There were a few om-mani-padme-hum flags running in the side of the road, I decided to compose an image there only. I lit up the flags with a torch, adjust the settings and snapped a 19 seconds shot at an ISO somewhere above 2k.
It isn't the best image in the world, which is why you won't find it in my Instagram feed. But this holds a very dear place in my heart as it was first time I was able to capture the Milky Way, and I'm incredibly proud of it. Hopefully, this is the first of many to come.
To all the college goers and teenagers struggling to find money in your tiny wallets, in all the years to come, if anyone walks up to you and tells you that astrophotography is not possible on a DX format camera and a cheap lens, direct them to this blog.
I will be happy to change their opinions.