My first photo of the Milky Way

This was my first shot of the Milky Way shot 2 years ago. I only had entry level gear, a flimsy $10 tripod, not much experience shooting with a DSLR and the first time shooting alone in the dark. But, one thing I did really well was planning. I scouted Google Maps for the best location(facing the mountain from N to S), picked the best possible day(weather, moon phase), time(2:30 AM when the Milky Way is almost vertical, this was in March), woke up at 1:30 AM and got the shot I wanted in just a few minutes, thanks to the meticulous planning. I even knew where I’d park the car and put the tripod before I even got there. I’ve taken many more photos and videos of the night skies since, but this is still one of my most favorite images.

I’ve come a long way since with better gear and techniques, but it’s definitely the planning that has helped me stand out - featured on Nat Geo and several leading magazines/news and recently selected to be screened at film festivals. I cannot insist enough on how planning is more important than anything else to get great shots of the night skies. Thanks for reading.

Success and reach of my short films

My short film on light pollution was selected to be screened at the Environmental Film Festival at Yale and the San Francisco Green Film Festival. The film’s reach has been nothing short of amazing - featured on Nat Geo, screened at film festivals highlighting environmental and social issues of our time. So many policymakers, educators, observatories, scout clubs, non profit organizations including the National Park Service have reached out to me to use the film for education and outreach. Hearing from common people changing their lighting choices after watching the film makes me feel very optimistic. To have a special liking for Astronomy and feeling sad that light pollution is ruining it is something. But, to have the world turn back, listen and call for action on the issue is something I never imagined. 

Lost in Light - Behind the scenes

A writeup on how I made the short film on light pollution. 

PLANNING

  • First the idea, followed by scouting for places to shoot at every level of light pollution using http://darksitefinder.com/maps/world.html and http://www.cleardarksky.com/csk/faq/2.html

  • I wanted the film to be less than 3 mins.

  • Detailed planning on Google sheets with various possible locations with the video time for each. I, then, calculated how long I'd have to shoot given approximate exposure times. Once I decided on music that resonated with my thoughts, I started adjusting sequence times to fit the tunes in the music. For example - the jump from level 6 to 5(my favorite)

  • For every location, I spent hours planning the shots/frames on Google Maps Street View, Satellite View and anything else I can find about the location taking out any guess work. I, mostly, look for an interesting foreground.

  • Ironically, finding locations to shoot at higher light polluted areas was more difficult(levels 7,6,5). Most places restrict being there after dark. You'd get a ticket or car get towed.

  • Planned trips to the farther locations around New Moon. I shot between May 29th and August 5th.

  • Stellarium to decide the time of shoot and check on Milky Way’s position

  • Weather - Wunderground, Weather.com, Google Weather - check for cloud cover, wind and sunset time

GEAR

  • 2 Canon 6Ds paired with Rokinon 24mm f1.4 and Rokinon 14mm f2.8. One 6D rented from Borrowlenses. Three $45 Dolica tripods with 5lb dumbbells suspended off the center column hook for stability

SHOOT

  • Try to visit the location during the day to plan

  • Start before it's entirely dark. Focus, compose frame, wait for it to get dark. Ensure all settings are manual(White balance, Bulb mode, RAW, full battery, lots of space on memory card, turn off image review - drains battery)

  • Once it's dark, take test shots. Zoom in to check for focus, stars streaking. 

  • Setup intervalometer - interval = exposure + 5 secs. Set N = infinity 

POST PROCESS

  • Lightroom - Adjust tint, reduce noise

  • Photoshop - S curve

  • Adobe premiere pro for putting together the images and creating the video

  • Music licensed through www.musicbed.com

Last but not the least, a lovely wife that accompanied me to the darkest of locations and supported and motivated me throughout this project :)

I'm glad this film has got so much attention. It has got people talking about light pollution all over the world. I hope it makes a difference. May be one day, we'll start seeing more stars :) Thanks for reading.

Summit of Haleakala NP, Maui

October 24 2015 -

My wife and I drove to the top of Haleakala in Oct 2015. The drive up was dark, winding and steep. I was in awe when I saw the Moon upside down for the first time in my life. The summit is at 10,000 feet and above the clouds. I was there very early to do a time lapse. The first visitors to the Haleakala summit asked me if I worked there because they weren't expecting to see anyone that early. I mistook zodiacal light for light pollution and minutes later when I realized, I wanted to shout, oh my goodness, it's zodiacal light! I used a walkie talkie from the summit to periodically tell my wife that I'm safe. Out in 0C at 10, 000 feet with heavy winds for 3 hours straight, my face shrank considerably and lost a few pounds, making my fitness conscious wife jealous :)

Night skies in Grand Canyon National Park

September 4th 2015 - 

I shot in Grand Canyon as part of a time lapse movie in September 2015. Grand Canyon, being an International Dark Sky site, has extremely dark skies. It was very very dark and windy. I setup my cameras(6D and 70D) right next to each other and stood guard to protect against the mighty winds. It had an eerie feel to it with the darkness, a sky full of stars, the insect sounds and a canyon a mile deep centimeters from me.

A cop stopped by to check if I was spending the night at the lot and felt ashamed that he was actually screwing up my shots. The nice guy, then, wished me luck and told me I could stay as long as I wanted to The respect for night sky photographers wherever I go is unbelievable

Pristine skies in Eureka Dunes, Death Valley

Pristine skies in Eureka Dunes, Death Valley

Aug 5th 2016 - Drove for 24 hours and 1,200 miles in 2 days, last 4 hours of which on steep backcountry dirt roads up the mountains, sweltered in 120F(49 C) desert heat, set up tent in gusting winds with sand from the dunes blowing all over the body, no humans in the near 50 miles, hardly any sleep and energy left, running a fever and the fear of scorpions, venomous spiders and snakes at night...All for one reason - Pristine night skies with absolutely no light pollution at the remote Eureka Dunes in Death Valley. The Milky Way dazzled so bright that it cast shadows. We felt like the only beings on an alien planet; such an ethereal experience, hard to come by these days. I’m grateful to my kind-hearted, lovely wife Priya for being an integral part of this crazy trip.