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Link to recent News and Updates Link to Geoscience, describing the geoscientific stories behind the landscapes and how they came to be Link to Tutorials with tips and tricks to improve photography skills, image composition and tour planning Link to the photographic gear and star tracking astronomy equipment used Link to the Lightyears photography tours and the behind the scenes view

The photographic gear and star tracking equipment used for Lightyears Photography

Photographic Gear and Star Tracking Equipment

Landscape Photography Equipment

Sharing the breathtaking view of a majestic landscape and communicating the feeling in these wild places 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. High-quality camera equipment and its optimal use at the technical limit of what is feasible are undoubtedly indispensable to reproduce the landscape at the highest quality.

However, the most underestimated, yet most essential, part of photography is the artwork of image composition. The real art of photography is to perfectly proportion and stage the foreground, middle and background of an image. This also applies to diagonal leading lines that guide the eye into the image and the use of the golden ratio or the one-third rule. It is also important to develop a sense of when to break one or more of these rules in order to further increase the arc of suspense. Another extremely underestimated part of photography is dedication, passion and planning. Being at the right place at the right time is far less dependent on luck than one might think. It's about good preparation. In the end, it's all about luck getting the desired light at the right moment, but without planning it will certainly take place without you. If the light didn't work out, just return when the conditions seem favorable. Again and again. This is where dedication and passion come into play. It's also important to free yourself from technical and photographic limitations such as the field of view of a wide-angle lens, the megapixel count of a camera or the dynamic range of the sensor. The camera technology must not prescribe what a photo looks like. On the contrary, it is the landscape itself that defines what the camera should record. All these artistic aspects of photography are covered in detail in the Blog section on Tutorials.

Technically, my present camera equipment consists of the full frame cameras Canon 5DSR with 51 megapixels and its predecessor, the Canon 5DMkII with 21 megapixels, which I use as a backup and time-lapse camera. I also use the Rokinon Samyang 14 mm 1:2.8 lenses and the Canon L lenses 16-35 mm II 1:4, 16-35 mm 1:2.8, 24-105 mm 1:4, 100-400 mm 1:4.5-5.6.

The technical equipment behind Lightyears

An indispensable and essential prerequisite for a good photo is a sturdy tripod. I use the Manfrotto 055B in combination with the Manfrotto 410 geared head. This tripod is way too heavy but therefore extremely stable and hence free of vibrations. This extremely smooth adjustable tripod head allows taking both landscape photographs and operating it with the star tracking device mounted on it. Given its easy star tracking device adjustment on the celestial pole of the northern and southern hemisphere this tripod head is the backbone of all of my photos.

Other key accessories include remote control triggers, wireless remote triggers, multiple batteries or power banks for enough power in the field, an angular viewfinder for shooting extremely close to the ground, rarely a polarization filter to reduce water reflections, an external power supply with a 12 Volt car adapter, and a notebook with external hard drives for data backup. Modern SLR cameras already provide in-camera backups during recording by writing the data to CF and SD cards simultaneously.

Highest raw data quality is the biggest secret for a successful photograph. Therefore, all images are taken in full manual mode as raw data (RAW) on a tripod with shutter pre-release and remote controls to eliminate all possible camera vibrations. Capturing images with maximum depth of field in low light conditions during twilight requires long exposure times, which in most cases significantly exceed several seconds or even minutes.

Since even the most modern cameras cannot cover the dynamic range of many sceneries, there are often image areas that are either too bright or too dark. This can either be avoided by using neutral Lee neutral density filters with two and three f-stops or can be compensated by manual bracketing. In this case, as many images are taken as necessary until the histogram of the image correctly represents the brightest and darkest areas of the image. This series of images are then gradually combined into a single exposure by exchanging too bright and too dark pixels by the correct ones. This technique is called Exposure Fusion and is described in more detail in the Blog section on Tutorials.

Starscape photography with star tracking equipment

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 sophisticated modern cameras continually beyond 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 exposures to capture point-like stars with a wide-angle lens. This results in poor signal-to-noise images with only few stars. Mostly good enough for small images presented in the internet this technique precludes fine art prints in high quality.

It is my deep passion to produce dramatic starry sky panoramic photographs of the Milky Way arc over the night landscapes with outstanding detail and millions of point-like stars with well over 100 megapixels resolution. Due to my technology used, the images no longer have any notable image noise and can therefore be printed in highest quality up to four meters in size. In order to achieve this, I have developed a star tracking technique, which I am continually improving. The backbone is the AstroTrac TT320 star tracking system. This is a mobile astronomical mount that compensates for the Earth's rotation and allows me to take long exposures of usually six minutes without the formation of star trails. Since the camera now rotates with the Earth's rotation, the stars always remain at the same pixel position of the sensor during the long exposure times. Due to the sensor's ability to collect light, even stars not visible to the naked eye are easily detected by the sensor. These photographies are displayed in the gallery Starscapes.

The Astro Tracking System AstroTrac TT320

The AstroTrac TT320 is installed between the tripod head and the camera. The star tracking system is first adjusted to the celestial pole with the help of a pole finder telescope and the smoothly adjustable 3D geared tripod. The Astrotrack can be used on both hemispheres of the planet. The ultra-high-resolution Canon 5DSR camera with its 51 megapixels is set to an exposure time of six minutes and ISO 1600 in manual Bulb mode (continuous exposure) using a programmable remote shutter control. The Samyang Rokinon 14 mm, 1:2.8 wide-angle lens was specifically designed for star photography and delivers point-shaped stars all the way to the image corners. This is not the case with the Canon L lenses, where banana-shaped distortions of the stars occur.

I further developed this technique to cover panoramas of the nighttime landscape with the entire Milky Way arc from horizon to horizon and up to the zenith. The final composite of these raw data creates a 220 degree image of the Milky Way Arc with the nightscape below. About 20 single shots are required, so that the whole night is dedicated to such a photograph. Therefore, weather conditions must permit a cloudless night around the time of the new moon to capture the maximum number of stars possible. Since each individual image already has a native resolution of 51 megapixels, the resulting composite has an unprecedented high resolution and allows printing in superior quality. For more information about using AstroTrac star tracking, see the Blog under Tutorials.

Panoramic star tracking of the Milky Way arc above the New Zealand Alps with green aurora lights

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