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“…I found it really hard to even get out of bed; I’d just turn off my alarm and go back to sleep”, says Trevor Dobson when talking about his initial nights doing astrophotography. A self-confessed hobbyist photographer, he meticulously plans his astro trips, as he’s often on the road for many hours. Combine that with the time spent doing post-production, and you begin to realize how much effort Dobson puts in to create his stunning photographs.
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I totally empathize with Trevor’s initial struggles to wake up on time and get out to capture that elusive next image. It’s something I’ve struggled and still struggle with. The snooze button on your alarm is something that robs you of precious time. Have you ever snoozed your alarm and woken up fresh? I didn’t think so. But Trevor does touch upon an important point – the commitment to getting the shot at all (safe) costs. I’ve often found that my most popular and well-received images were the ones that I forced myself to get out of my comfort zone for (as in lost sleep). Just when you think that getting out there at that unearthly hour is pointless, the result pays off.
Step out of your comfort zone today. It doesn’t matter if you come back with something you’re displeased with; it’s a step in the right direction. Take that step again – you’ll see some improvement the next time. And as you can see in Trevor’s case, each time he’s done that, the stars (literally) align to produce stunners.
The Essential Photo Gear Used by Trevor Dobson
Trevor told us:
Both the 50mm and 85mm lenses have Hoya Starscape filters attached to them. These are didymium filters which enhance reds and also filter out the orange/yellow part of the spectrum from 575-600nm, the range of sodium vapour lamps often used as street lighting, so they help mitigate the effects of light pollution. I have a standard ball head tripod and an iOptron SkyTracker mount which follows the motion of the stars and allows for much longer exposures. I use an infrared remote shutter and for star trail photography and I have an external battery pack that lasts through an entire night.
The Phoblographer: Please tell us about yourself and how you got into photography. What made you want to become a specialist in astro photography?
Trevor Dobson: I’m from Perth, Australia, and I’m not actually a professional photographer; it’s a hobby. When I’m not out in the middle of nowhere at ungodly hours, I work for my state government in an IT role. I got into photography after traveling quite extensively around Japan, an incredibly photogenic country. I had a point-and-shoot on my first trip and wanted to get to the next level, so I purchased an entry-level DSLR (Nikon D5100) for my second trip back in 2012. After that trip, the camera pretty much just sat at home, not being used at all. I’ve always had an interest in the stars, cosmology in particular; I’m fascinated at how the universe works and how we all got here, so I guess the seed was always there; it just needed a bit of water.
I’d seen my share of nightscape images online though I never seriously thought about getting into it even though I now owned a DSLR and had all the tools at my disposal. That all changed one clear August night in 2013. I pulled into my driveway, and as I got out of my car, I looked up at the night sky and could clearly see the band of the Milky Way, unusual as I live in the middle suburbs of a city of 2 million people, proper Bortle 6 or 7 skies. Just out of curiosity, I grabbed my camera. I didn’t even have a tripod at this point, took a guess at what settings I’d need and sat it on its back on my driveway, pointing in the general direction of the core. I snapped a couple of photos, not really expecting much, and went back inside. What I saw on my screen amazed me, and from that moment I was hooked.
I began searching for tutorials online and did quite a bit of experimentation in my backyard, testing what settings worked, learning what ISO, aperture and shutter speed all meant, stuff like that. Not long after, I took my first trip outside of the city to a dark sky location and, again, was amazed at what I was able to capture. I’ve been at it ever since, taking any opportunity to get out driving around my home state of Western Australia, capturing the Milky Way.
The Phoblographer: Tell us more about the gear you use for these images.
Trevor Dobson: Using longer focal length lenses in conjunction with a star tracker allows me to capture the night sky in much greater detail, clarity & color. The downside is the length of time it takes to capture each image, which can often require upwards of 150 individual shots for a 180-degree panorama and take a couple of hours to shoot. I like to make the most of my time at these remote locations as they can be 2-3 hours drive away, so given how long it takes to shoot just one image, I can be out from sunset to sunrise and come home with just a half dozen images.
I’d say my most under-appreciated piece of equipment is a 5mW laser pointer. I used to really struggle with polar alignment when I first bought my star tracker. A tracker needs to be aligned with either the North or South Celestial Pole. In the Northern Hemisphere, it’s much easier to locate; just look for Polaris – it’s nice and bright, but for us down under, the star we need to look for (Sigma Octantis) is much fainter and barely perceptible with the naked eye even in the darkest of skies. The laser pointer lets me point the tracker close enough to the star that I’m almost always able to see it through the magnified scope and then adjust from there. It’s taken the process from what was taking upwards of 30 minutes to under 5 minutes. It’s become invaluable.
The Phoblographer: Have you modded your D5500 in any way, or is it a stock DSLR?
Trevor Dobson: No, I use a stock model. I do plan to eventually get my camera modded, I don’t trust myself to do it, even though there are ample tutorials online, so I’d need to send it away to get modded. It would be a full spectrum mod that allows me to capture h-alpha-emitting nebulae. I’m always impressed at the added detail and nebulosity I see when I view other photographer’s night sky images that have been shot on modded DSLRs, so it’s definitely on the bucket list.
Software wise, I process RAW images in Lightroom, just basic adjustments such as white balance, highlights etc. It’s easier to make these adjustments here as it can be done in batches much easier than in Photoshop. I’ll then throw those images into Microsoft Image Composite Editor (MS ICE) which is a free panorama stitching application. It’s generally pretty good at stitching medium to large panoramas but it can struggle with really huge panoramas. In this case I use PT GUI which is a much more hands on, manual type of stitching application. It allows the user to manually set control points, which are matching points on overlapping images, and generally gives you a lot more control over the entire process. It’s really time consuming though so if I can get away with using just MS ICE I’ll do that. The output image can be massive, often several gigabytes in size and even with a fairly powerful PC certain processes can take a long time to finish. Everything else is done in Photoshop, from cropping, straightening horizons, merging foregrounds with the sky etc.
The Phoblographer: What are some of the natural factors that could affect the outcome of an astro photo? Does humidity tend to be a dampener for the sharpness of your images in Australia?
Trevor Dobson: I’ve had a few trips cut short and one or two ruined completely by unexpected cloud cover, so conditions need to be close to perfect before I even think of heading out. As I’ve said, it can often require hours of driving just to get to a location, so I want to ensure that the skies are going to be clear and that winds aren’t howling. I’ll spend most of the day intermittently checking satellite images, working out where the cloud is tracking etc. If there’s a decent chance of cloud I’ll cancel my plans. The same applies to the wind; generally anything above about 25-30kph makes long exposure photography nearly impossible, so I’m also looking at wind radars and wind speeds at locations close to where I’m shooting.
Unfortunately, not all locations have constantly updated data, so it’s not nearly as easy to predict wind conditions like it is with clouds. I’ve had a few trips cut short by some crazy winds. We also get quite a bit of prescribed burning here to mitigate against bush fires, so smoke can play havoc on plans too, but again, that’s something that can be tracked via satellite imagery. I live in a very dry part of the world, so humidity levels are usually pretty low, but dew can be a problem, especially near coastal locations.
I’ve had plenty of shots affected by fogged-up lenses, so the dew point is another thing I look out for, but luckily it’s pretty rare. One advantage of both foggy lenses and non-opaque cloud cover is it tends to act as a natural fog filter, diffusing the light from brighter stars to make them stand out more. The number one factor though is the moon. If it’s more than about 5% illuminated, its ambient light can wash out a lot of the stars, and a full moon will have a drastic impact on nightscape photography, washing out all but the brightest stars. All my planning is based around the moon’s cycles, so it plays a huge part.
The Phoblographer: Have you done deep sky astro photography? What additional equipment and workflow changes would you need to make for these images?
Trevor Dobson: I have a 300mm lens, but it’s not so fast at just f/3.5, so not really suitable for serious deep-sky astrophotography. I’ve used it a few times to capture common targets such as Orion & Carina, but that’s the extent of my foray into that subset of astro. I don’t really have plans to delve deeper (pardon the pun) as I believe the processing methods can be quite different, so I’d have to allocate a lot of time to learn those and, as you suggest, I’d have to invest in some more suitable equipment. So maybe not just yet…
Given how much detail I capture, many more fainter stars are made prominent in a panorama and this can be overwhelming and take away from the image. So I like to run a star reduction process on all of my photos, which essentially ‘mutes’ the brightness of smaller stars and makes the image look much cleaner. Lastly, I have an add-on for Photoshop called StarSpikes which allows me to selectively increase the size of brighter stars in an image, much like a fog filter, so constellations become easier to see but also to give the final image a more dramatic look and feel.
The Phoblographer: Would you say star trail photos are overdone these days, or do they still have an appeal?
Trevor Dobson: No, I don’t think they’re overdone. I think they are evolving as new methods are starting to become more popular. I’ve noticed more and more people employing similar techniques used by Australian photographer Lincoln Harrison which I really like. The amount of star trails images is still dwarfed by the number of Milky Way images, which remain as popular as ever, so I think it will be quite some time before the sentiment towards them changes. They’re also very different in both look and feel to stock standard nightscape images. There’s a real feel of motion, of the Earth spinning on its axis, of the stars’ perennial movement through our skies that you don’t get with other types of astrophotography. Pointing a camera at the celestial pole will create a vortex effect that can be quite hypnotizing as well.
Also, the 100s of images taken in a typical shoot can be used to create time-lapse videos; watching these types of short videos will amaze the average person as it shows just how much is going on in the night sky on any given night, even way out in the middle of nowhere, there’s just so much stuff buzzing around up there from planes, satellites to natural phenomenon like meteors.
The Phoblographer: Despite extensive planning, what happens when things like light leakage from surrounding towns / cities creep in? How do you handle these situations?
Trevor Dobson: I have the Hoya filter, which helps with light pollution to a certain extent though it doesn’t make it disappear completely. The state I live in is huge; it’s the second-largest state/province in the world, so towns and cities are quite spread out, and light pollution presents itself mostly as small bright spots near the horizon, not really an impediment. When I find the light pollution is a bit worse than that, I try to make the most of it and incorporate it into the composition, such as using it as a backlight for the subject I’m working with or using it to silhouette and frame a subject. Even just by itself, it can have a dramatic impact on your image, so many times I’ve had people comment that the light pollution I’ve to capture actually adds to the image, not detracts from it.
The Phoblographer: Does it take an emotional toll on you sometimes – these long drives and late nights being awake to get the shot? What do you to do get yourself refreshed and energised for the next shot?
Trevor Dobson: Yes, both an emotional and physical toll, especially after an all-night shoot. The drive back can be tortuous, and I’m often pulling over for quick naps as I find myself getting too tired to drive. I have my trusty thermal flask filled with coffee to keep me awake, but it’s really the following day that hits me the hardest. I will rarely go out on consecutive nights as I’m just way too tired by early evening the next day and don’t want to risk driving in that state. Emotionally, it’s more about getting motivated to drive all that way and stand out in the freezing cold (Milky Way season is in winter here in Australia) in the middle of the night.
When I first started I found it really hard to even get out of bed; I’d just turn off my alarm and go back to sleep. The next morning, though, I’d always be disappointed that I didn’t go out and have new photos to work on, so I made a decision to just to not think about the drive ahead of me and just robotically get up, get my stuff ready and get in my car and go. No thinking at all! The first time I did that, I ended up with one of the most successful images I’ve ever taken, so that in itself works as motivation now, I guess.
The Phoblographer: Name at least three components of a great astro photography image that you feel are necessary to allure a viewer.
Sure, it’s called ‘astrophotography’, but the foreground subject is at least as important as the night sky itself. I’ve seen so many images that others have taken with amazing foregrounds and pretty average skies that do really well, while others that have amazingly detailed skies but boring foregrounds do poorly. A good combination of both is ideal. Generally speaking, if your foreground subject is interesting enough to stand on its own, if it could work just as well in daylight, then it will work even better for a nightscape photograph with the spectacular Milky Way above it (there may be a hint of bias here).
Composition of course, is hugely important, so following general rules that apply to all kinds of photography. I tend to look for minimalist compositions; I especially like lone trees or dilapidated old farmhouses in empty fields. Sometimes there’s just too much to look at if you’ve got a lot going on in your foregrounds which also takes attention away from the sky. Along with simplicity, I like symmetry and geometry, such as capturing the band of the Milky Way as it aligns perpendicular to the horizon and having my subject right at the intersection of those two elements, it’s something I use quite a lot actually, and some of my most popular images have been based on this type of composition.
Even though I rarely put myself in a photo, I find that it can offer great perspective against the backdrop of our vast galaxy and can offer interest where there might not be any otherwise. I arrived at a location one night, expecting to see a nice lone tree in a wheat field, but it had since been cut down. There was nothing but an empty field, so I just threw myself in there instead. It worked quite well. You can use yourself in images to show the scale of your foreground too. Without context, a large sand dune, for example, might not look too imposing by itself, but with a tiny looking human standing on top of it, you get a better sense of its grand scale. And I think people like seeing people in these types of images as they tend to relate to them more. It’s not some fantasy world; it’s actually real.
The Phoblographer: Do you sometimes just lay back at a location and admire the vastness of the universe before you? Is it easy to forget to admire natural beauty for ourselves, when we’re out trying to capture the same on camera?
Trevor Dobson: As much as I would like to, I usually don’t have the time given how huge some of my panoramas are. 95% of my time is spent taking 100s of individual shots then checking each one as a single bad shot can ruin an entire panorama. My shutter speed is almost always set to 30 seconds, so I only get a short window to look up and admire the stars before the next shot. Having said that, in my part of the world, the core of the Milky Way can be seen directly overhead as it makes its way from east to west. At this point, the light from the core is least affected by atmospheric distortion and scattering as it travels through the least amount of Earth’s atmosphere, so viewing conditions are at their absolute peak. It’s at these times where I do find myself standing there and looking above, amazed at how detailed and bright the core looks. Every person should experience this at least once in their life.
The Phoblographer: When it comes to post processing these shots, what goes on in your thoughts? What emotions or feelings affect the colour palette that you might apply to them?
Trevor Dobson: As a hobbyist photographer, most of what I’ve learned has come from experience, testing different methods and finding what works, as well as watching the odd tutorial on youtube. I’m very much a visual person when it comes to post-processing, adjusting settings until it looks right to my eye. I have a fairly set routine now in my post-processing, so there’s not much emotion going on; it’s an almost mechanical, repetitious process. I like to work with the natural colors I capture on any given night, which can vary quite drastically as airglow is always different; it can vary from bright green to shades of red and magenta.
Using trackers and longer focal length lenses not only captures more detail in the Milky Way but also captures much more airglow, so I just work with whatever nature gave me on the night. It also means that I’m forced to shoot foregrounds separate from the sky; otherwise they’ll look blurry due to the constant motion of the tracker. It can be challenging, especially with complex, tree-lined horizons, to merge foregrounds with the sky, and it’s taken me years. But I’ve finally found a technique that works quite well, but again, it’s just a matter of working out what works then repeating that same process each time.
The Phoblographer: If you were to pick one characteristic of your images that you say sets you apart from other astro photographers, what would that be?
Trevor Dobson: Wide field Milky Way photography is a tough field to stand out in because we’re all taking photos of the same thing, the core of our galaxy, so it’s a tricky question. If I could point to anything, I would say the level of detail I capture in the night sky. I create full horizon to horizon panoramas using long focal length lenses. Not everybody has the patience nor the time to create images of this size. Sure, there’s plenty of them around, but the photographers are usually using wider angle lenses, not much longer than around 24mm. I’m using lenses with focal lengths upwards of 85mm on a crop sensor camera, the equivalent of 128mm on a full-frame camera.
The first time I tried a full pano on this lens, I literally ran out of time before the core of the Milky Way moved directly overhead and began to set towards the opposite side of where I was shooting. I had to go back another night to finish it off. I ended up taking close to 400 individual shots across about 5 hours. There are not too many people I’ve seen willing to go to those lengths to capture something they could do in a fraction of the time with a wide-angle lens. The advantage of all this hassle is that my images are rich in detail and full of color; you can zoom in to an image and see stuff you wouldn’t be able to see in an image taken with a wide-angle lens.
The Phoblographer: What’s a memorable, unexpected phenomenon that you might have observed or incident that happened to you while out shooting the stars?
Trevor Dobson: A couple of times, I’ve had meteorites fizzle past quite close to me and once heard one explode in mid-air. I’ve been stalked by kangaroos and had inquisitive foxes come quite close to see what I was up to, but generally, night sky photography is pretty uneventful. Despite being in Australia and traversing some rugged bushland, I’ve never seen a snake, even in summer! About the most dramatic thing that’s happened to me was falling face-first into a dry lake bed covering myself and my equipment in mud, luckily without too much damage. And no, nothing mysterious in the skies either, in case you’re wondering!