From the Sand to the Stars: Anatomy of a Desert Night Shot

From the Sand to the Stars: Anatomy of a Desert Night Shot

Recently I came back from my first astrophotography-centric tour. It was a 10-day trip to the Middle Eastern country of Jordan with renowned landscape astrophotographer Benjamin Barakat. We spent 3 nights in the justifiably famous ancient city of Petra before moving to the far south for 7 nights of photography in the austerely beautiful Wadi Rum desert.

Benjamin specializes in creating striking wide-field compositions with the Milky Way rising over surreal landscapes. I too shoot wide-field Milky Way images with landscapes. However, in the past my modus operandi has been to go to a given location – usually Utah’s West Desert or somewhere in the Southwest – campout and set up cameras at that location to shoot all night. What we did in the Wadi Rum was a bit different. We would typically head out to a location for sunset shots then maybe move to another location that had strong foreground interest like a mushroom rock, narrow canyon, or arch, shoot that at blue hour/twilight and then (maybe) move again to shoot the Milky Way as it rose during the night. We would often be back at our desert tent camp/hotel somewhere around midnight or 1 am and would set up to shoot more Milky Way images or perhaps star trails. Long nights they were!

The blue hour shots were our foreground images and as such were usually single images up to 30 seconds in duration and at low ISO. For the Milky Way images the camera was mounted on a star tracker that moves with the rotation of the earth and if properly setup will result in pinpoint star images. The goal is to reduce the signal-to-noise ratio by stacking as many images as feasible. Some of us were also using nebula boasting filters and/or astro-modified cameras (that boost the light from nebulae), which meant that our Milky Way shooting time was multiplied by the number of different filters we were using. As well, in the first half of the evening – say 9 pm to 1 am – the Milky Way was at a left-leaning angle as it slowly rose and moved from east to south. By about 3 am the Milky Way was finally fully straight-up. That meant that if you wanted a so-called Milky Way arch you shot it early in the evening. If you also wanted the straight-up Milky Way, you needed to stay up until 3 am! Of necessity that meant that you shot your foreground often miles from where you did your Milky Way work. In the end, the goal was to blend a foreground image with a stacked Milky Way image, though they were rarely shot in the same location. Though the locations may have been miles apart the composition has to ring true for me. This means that the focal length for both the Milky Way and the foreground images must be the same. As well, I paid strict attention to shooting the foreground in the same direction as the Milky Way would be shot. With that as background, let’s move to my Camels by Night image [figure 1].

The Wadi Rum is not known for its sand dunes, but there is one long, relatively low-lying one and we arranged for a camel herder with two of his camels for a series of sunset shots. These were a success and the camels’ work finished, they just hung-out near where our dinner was being prepared. I took the opportunity to photograph the camels as a foreground shot more on a whim and wasn’t sure if I would use it. Because of awkward positioning I would often forego using a tripod for the blue hour shots and I did that with a series of around 50 images shot low to the ground at around 8:10 in the evening. The one I ended up using had the prone camel with his head up and looking at me (curious animals they are!) and the standing camel in profile but with its mouth open. The camera I used is an unmodified Sony A7IV with a Rokinon SP 14mm f/2.4 Lens, one of the better lens for wide-field astrophotography. The settings were f2.4, 3200 ISO, and 1/13 second. During dinner the wind came up, so we returned to our tent camp to shoot Milky Way images, which worked out well as the wind died down by the time we arrived there.

The Milky Way images were captured with the same camera and lens and are comprised of 2 sets of 6 images each. First, between around 1:40 and 1:55am I captured six 2-minute exposures with no filter (RGB). The settings were 800 ISO and f 2.4. Then, using an IDAS NB12 filter (a dual band filter with one 12nm narrowband centered on the hydrogen-alpha emission line that creates the bright red glow from various galactic nebulae) and starting around 2 am I began capturing the next set of six exposures but at four minutes each. Settings were f2.4 and ISO 3200. That was it for my fieldwork.

At the computer I selected which camel/landscape shot I wanted to use. Since it was shot at 3200 ISO I ran Lightroom’s A.I. Denoise, straightened the horizon a bit, adjusted various levels and exported to Photoshop where I cleaned up some camel dung and footprints with the Generative Fill tool. I also applied Topaz Sharpen AI. I then extended the sky again with Generative Fill to accommodate the full Milky Way image. [figure 2]

The Milky Way shots were “a bit” more work. First, in Lightroom I ran the A.I. Denoise tool on all 12 images. I then exported them as TIFF files. These I then imported into an astrophotography package called AstroPixelProcessor. This is wonderful software to stack images. I use it for my telescope images as it is very good also for running calibration files which remove noise from those deep-sky objects images. APP outputs a FITS file which is the standard astronomical data format endorsed and used by NASA. In this case, since I had both RGB and Hydrogen-alpha data, two FITS files were created and then brought into PixInsight, the heavy-weight slugger of astrophotography applications. I won’t go into the details about what I did in that application (though you can message me if you want those details!), but you can see the result of that work here [figure 3]. Once I had one finished Milky Way image, back in Photoshop I simply selected the Sky Replacement tool and substituted my Milky Way image for the twilight sky in the blue hour shot. A few more final Lightroom adjustments and et voila: Camels by Night!

More Wadi Rum images can be seen here.