Postcard: Photographing A Starry Night I Couldn’t See

Milky Way as seen from Timbavati Africa

Milky Way as seen from Timbavati Africa

It was a pitch black, moonless night in the Timbavati Game Reserve. My fellow photographers, who’d done this before, had determined that we had a short window of 45 minutes on our last night in the bush to capture a vivid, starry sky before the moonrise.

We stopped along the dirt road that led to camp, first checking to see if there were any predators about, and then hopped out of the jeep. A tree that we passed every morning would be in the foreground of the shot. A wonderfully dead tree with the look of a Tim Burton flick and the perfect silhouette for the shot we wanted. The hero of the photo would be the mass of stars in the Milky Way overhead.

We grabbed our tripods and set up.

I’d brought my widest angle lens (Canon 16-35 2.8L) for just such an occasion. I dutifully adjusted my settings as I’d been told: My lens was focused on infinity and opened to its widest frame at 16mm; I had my ISO up to 3200, and my shutter on a 2 second delay and set for 30 seconds.

After fiddling for 10 minutes in the darkest of dark, with only a few flashlights to help us compose the shot, we were ready.

We counted down and simultaneously hit the shutters of our cameras. Then Marlon du Toit, a professional wildlife photographer and our leader on the trip, used a flashlight to slowly trace the trunk and limbs of tree with its light, illuminating it for the camera as the shutter counted down its 30 seconds.

Et voilà!

I was absolutely astonished by how many stars showed up in the photo because with my naked eye I could only see a fraction of the points of light you see above. How extraordinary!

While New York City is the last place I can practice this type of photography—the lights obscure 90% the stars—I can’t wait to try it again!

Have you ever photographed the stars?

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