The technical equipment behind Lichtjahre


On Photographic Techniques

Exploring the quietude of the majestic landscapes, experiencing the humility of being surrounded by wildlife, and being awe-struck by the environment's age and formation is nothing short of exhilarating. To communicate the feeling in these wild places to those not fortunate enough to be there calls for the ability of knowing how to write with light.

A camera is a simple yet powerful tool that enables us to first capture and subsequently share a fleeting moment's magic light. Whatís fascinating is the disparity between the viewer's perception and the photographer's actual experience.

What's rarely seen or appreciated by the viewer is the planning and preparation of a shot (e.g. time of day, season, reachability, things to carry), the technical challenge behind a photo (e.g. estimate the equipment necessary and how to place it in the field), the many repeat visits to a location; the strenuous hikes; the exposure to harsh elements; the sleep deprivation; and of course the frustration of enduring these hardships and challenges only to be mocked by disappointing light.

But it is precisely these challenges that make capturing those rare magical moments so intoxicating. Regardless of how meticulously we plan, prepare, forecast and time a shoot, they often amount to naught in the face of the myriad of incalculable events that can thwart our efforts. A cloud bank blocking the view. An absence of clouds to capture the suns dying rays. A gust of wind to ruin a millpond reflection.

There's so much that can go "wrong." Which makes those rare moments where land, light and conditions align all the more exquisite and euphoric. That's why the level of satisfaction with an image is intimately related to the degrees of both effort and luck involved in capturing that shot.

Maximum raw data quality is key to a successful photo. Hence, all images are taken in manual mode as raw files on a sturdy tripod with shutter pre-release and remote controls to exclude camera vibration. Capturing images with maximum depth-of-field at low-light conditions require long exposure times which in most cases exceed several seconds. All images are recorded with the exposure-to-the-right histogram technique with manual bracketing to cover the dynamic range of the scene. Where possible, neutral grey-density filters are applied to control the dynamic range. Manual exposure fusion technique is applied to overcome the limitations of the dynamic range induced by the cameraís sensor.

However, despite these technical aspects, the most underestimated part of photography is the artwork of image composition. The way the fore-, mid- and background of an image is proportioned and how diagonal lines lead the eye from the image edge into the golden ratio of the scene (which is not a mere one-third-rule) contains the art of photography. Moreover, it is essential to feel when to break with such a rule to even increase the arc of suspense.

Visualizing a landscape's view beneath the stars of the Milky Way sets even well-known sceneries into a completely new perspective. Also, this challenge brings even the most modern cameras continually to the limits of what is technically possible. However, most photographers avoid this complex effort in lack of proper equipment and technical knowledge. Instead, they simply push the ISO setting of the camera to maximum values and go for a 20 second exposure to capture point-like stars with a wide-angle lens. This always results in poor signal-to-noise images with only few stars and precludes large prints.

My specialty is to capture striking starscapes of the Milky Way above the nighttime landscape in mind-blowing detail (beyond 50 mega pixels) with millions of pointy stars, negligible image noise (at ISO 1600) and the ability to print these images without signal loss in any size (up to 2.5 m on the long side). To achieve this, I developed a technique that I am continually improving. Backbone is the AstroTrack device, a mobile astronomical mount that compensates the Earth's rotation, and thus allows me to capture long exposures (usually 6 minutes) without the production of star trails. Consequently, the stars remain at the same pixel position of the sensor during the long exposure times. Because of the sensorís ability to collect light, stars not visible to the naked eye are readily captured to produce breath-taking stellar displays.

The Astrotrack sits between the tripod (sturdy, levelled 3D-geared head Manfrotto) and the camera (ultra-high-resolution Canon 5DSR with 51 mega pixels and the Canon 5D Mk II with 21 mega pixels). The Astrotrack is aligned to the celestial pole by aid of a pole-finder telescope and works on both hemispheres of the planet. The camera is operated in manual mode (bulb exposure, exposure time 6 minutes, aperture f2.8 and ISO 1600) using a programmable remote control. The ultra-wide-field lens used is specifically designed for star photography (Samyang-Rokinon 14 mm, f2.8). Tracking this setup results in, what I call the dynamic image, the one where stars remain pointy and the landscape below rotates into blur. Directly after this image is taken, the tracking is stopped and the identical image setup is taken again. This results in the static image, where the stars are trails and the landscape is now fixed. Next, both images are blended into each other at the horizon line. Especially fascinating views result from capturing the stars reflecting in a lake because the stars trails always remain visible there and thus document the rotation of our planet through space.

Newly, I developed this technique further into capturing largely overlapping star field panoramas to cover the entire vault of the Milky Way from horizon to horizon and up to the zenith. The same is done with the underlying landscape. Post-processing yields 180 degree displays of the Milky Way over the nighttime landscape. It requires approximately 48 images to compose such a panorama and hence takes the whole night to shoot it. Therefore a cloud-free night at new moon is required. Because each individual image already has a native resolution ranging between 21 and 51 megapixels the resulting composite image features an unprecedented ultra-high resolution and thus allows printing in overwhelming quality.

Recently, I started exploring time-lapse animation techniques and captured the rotation of the Milky Way over the famous Matterhorn in the Swiss Alps during the night of the Perseid meteor shower. I was able to capture no less than 42 bright shooting stars during that night. It is of great fascination to see this work growing into a video while the Milky Way sweeps across the landscape.