Astrophotography at Sullivans Rock
Astrophotography is something I had always wanted to do after seeing countless images on Instagram of the Milky Way. With the arrival of a new moon recently I decided to stop thinking about it and start doing, so I planned a trip out to one of my favourite locations in the Perth Hills and started to research.
Google was the first point of call and I found several blogs providing information on shooting the Milky Way (links to the best at the bottom of the page). After a week of researching the best settings & techniques, I needed to know where the Milky Way would be so I could start thinking about what to do when I arrived.
I downloaded the SkySafari app for my phone after seeing it recommended on one the blogs and I can say that it is fantastic for planning a trip. You can select a spot on a map and it will simulate what the sky will look like for a particular point in time. It's entirely interactive so you can zoom around 360 degrees and watch the Milky Way setting using the time adjuster. At only $4.23, it is a vital tool in helping you plan any astrophotography trip.
With the weekend approaching I was all excited to get out there but all week the weather forecast was for thunderstorms on Saturday evening. I decided to pull the plug on a Saturday trip and visited Bold Park instead for an amazing sunset. With thunderstorms still forecast on Sunday I kept an eye on the weather reports and thankfully there was only about a 10-20% chance of cloud cover between 6-9pm on Sunday at Armadale. After a pleasant sunset walk/swim at Mosman Beach under my belt I returned home, rinsed the dog off and loaded up my gear before heading out to Sullivans Rock.
On the drive out there I realised around Armadale that I wasn't going to make it to the car park while it was still light out. It is tricky enough in the daytime to find the turnoff so I kept strict watch on the odometer to make sure I had my eyes ready for 8.5-9km past the Jarrahdale Rd turn-off on Albany Hwy. I found it first time and pulled into the car park ready to shoot some stars. I grabbed all my gear, put the head torch on and crossed Albany Highway to walk the short distance to the rock face.
Due to some prescribed burns that had recently got out of hand the entrance to the trail had been taped off and a warning message present. As I wasn't technically going to be hiking on the Bibbulmun Track I ducked under the tape and navigated my way up Sullivans Rock until I found one of the stone pyramids that mark the way. After setting up my tripod and camera I went to go check my phone for the location of the Milky Way but one look up to the sky and I realised it wasn't necessary. Arching over the landscape from north to south was a faint white path dotted with distant stars.
I set my camera up facing NW towards Mt Vincent and with the required settings (25 sec exposure, right f/number, right ISO), I pressed my remote to open the shutter. When the shutter closed again I waited for the image to pop up in the display and was shocked when it came out bright white. Was my camera not good enough? Did I have the settings wrong? I adjusted the shutter speed down to 10 seconds and the shot came out better but it didn't look anything like what I had seen on the blogs. I waited a while and decided to switch direction to shoot SW towards Jarrahdale and the results were much better. I had a clear shot of the Milky Way so decided to get creative and stick myself in the picture. With my Nikon D5300 allowing me to put a 2 second delay after pressing the remote, I had a little time to adjust my stance and point my head torch up into the sky.
For a first timer I was happy with the results and with plenty of time left before the Milky Way set in the west I played around with spelling different words. My re-enactment of the favourite dance floor number "YMCA" was easy enough so I then planned an adventurous but sappy "LOVE". The "E" was harder to nail as the ground wasn't even and I had to hold the pose for 30 seconds for it to not look blurry. After a few attempts I settled on a shonky looking "E" and went back to photography the Milky Way without me in the picture.
With the light pollution from Perth more prevalent in the NW, I continued to shoot S/SW for a couple of hours in perfect weather. With my camera battery running low after I had switched NR reduction on (adding 30 seconds to each shot) I packed up just after 9pm with a giant smile on my face and a memory card full of images to process. Being on my own the walk back to the car was very brisk and I would be lying if I said my heart didn't jump a little when I heard what I assume was some local wildlife make a sudden movement as I got near my car. I got home around 10pm and was so buzzed that I couldn't sleep so started editing photos right away. All I could dream about that night was taking photos of the stars.
What You Need
DSLR + lens (the standard 18-55mm kit that comes with the camera is sufficient for your first time)
IR Remote or cable release (optional but helps a lot)
Ideal Conditions (close to new moon, away from areas of light pollution & clear skies)
These settings won't be exact for your shoot but provide a good baseline on where to start.
ISO - Start at 3200 and work your way down if the results are too bright on long exposure.
Shutter Speed - Try your first shot at 20-25 seconds and see how you go. Adjust up or down if the shot is too dark or too bright. Ideally the shutter should be open as long as possible without the risk of star trails. 30 seconds is usually the max for an 18-55mm lens kit.
Aperture - As wide as possible so as much light is let in. This means the lowest f/number you can get on your camera.
Zoom - If you have the basic 18-55mm lens kit then shoot everything at 18mm. This means you capture more of the Milky Way but also means you have enough time before you start getting star trails. The more you zoom in, the more the earth rotates relative to the stars in the sky, thus star trails.
Focus - Switch to manual focus as your camera won't be able to auto focus in on the sky. Set it all the way into to infinity and then take it back a tiny amount. If you plan on shooting an object in the foreground that isn't meant to be dark then research the best techniques on Google.
Other Tips - Make sure you cover up the eyepiece with a stopper or tape so the images aren't affected by light behind the lens.
Useful Blogs + Links
Final Thoughts - In just shorts and a T-shirt I sat in 24C temps with the slightest of breezes blowing over the rock face. Occasionally there would be a flash of distant lightning in the far east or a shooting star falling in the night sky. I have to say that the whole experience was beyond amazing and the elated feeling it gave me stretched well into Monday.
Being my first time at astrophotography and only using the lens kit that came with my camera I wasn't sure how the photos would turn out. Having also never used Adobe Lightroom before I was pleased with how the shots turned out. There is still a bit of noise present and my histograms weren't ideal but with a better lens and more practice I'm sure I can produce some better results.
If you are thinking about trying your hand at astrophotography then do some research and start planning a trip. There is plenty of information on the internet to help you out and it's incredibly relaxing just sitting under the stars with your camera for company (or share the experience with someone).
Let me know in the comments section if you tried your hand at capturing the Milky Way and how it went. I would love to hear from you.