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  • Writer's pictureCelestial Events SA

Capturing Photons from Outer Space!

Earlier this month, Celestial Events SA hosted a night photography workshop at the delightful Tomjachu Bush Retreat in Nelspruit. We would like to thank all those who attended, and for being so flexible with the date based on the Lowveld’s recent spate of cloudy weather!

The intrepid photographers arrived late afternoon to take advantage of the pristine bushveld surroundings and compare equipment, whilst enjoying a complimentary glass of bubbly. There were a wide variety of cameras and lenses on display, which made things interesting as people searched for specific settings in the endless menus of possibilities contained within modern cameras! Nikon, Canon, Olympus and Sony were all represented, with an equal spilt of DSLRs and Mirrorless models.

Welcome Drinks at Tomjachu Bush Retreat

The first port of the call was to bring everyone up to speed on the theoretical basics of capturing distant photons, such as settings, composition, focusing and recommended equipment. Many people are afraid to shoot on manual but this is essential when photographing the stars. Despite the ‘intelligence’ of today’s cameras, it is sometimes important to take matters into your own hands! The very clever people who make these items do not always anticipate that they will be pointed skyward in the darkest area possible after all!

Preparing for the Off!

After a crash course in night photography, the group tucked into a fabulous spread laid on by Tomjachu’s kitchen as they discussed settings, ideas and past experiences. Golden hour was now fading and merging with the inky darkness that would be the backdrop against which the rest of the evening would unfold. After washing down a hearty meal, we climbed in the game viewer and headed to the first of 2 spots to image the stars.

Thanks to today’s modern technology, I was able to scout a few areas in the lead up the event and work out exactly where the Milky Way would be situated. This allowed me to pick the ideal foreground location to accentuate the backdrop of the night sky – knowledge of these details is essential when planning a night shoot!

© Elise Ferreira

© Charlene de Bruyn

A gnarled old Marula on an incline made for the perfect starting point. Our low shooting position ensured that would get a full silhouette of the tree against the starry sky, and we also experimented with some techniques including light painting, to bring a little life to the foreground. After an hour or so we moved on the second location. South Dam is full to the brim thanks to the recent bountiful rains and its old jetty gave us an interesting object to compose. The still water also offered a great opportunity to capture the sky’s reflection in its placid surface.

South Dam Jetty © Celestial Events SA

Moonrise © Elise Ferreira

Whilst the group was busy playing with different focal lengths and settings and even nominating one of the members to stand on the jetty for some perspective, I was busy setting up our Meade 10” GPS telescope. Not only was this workshop a chance to teach people about photographic techniques, it was also a great chance to educate people in some of the fascinating objects above that elude naked eye observations. Not only that, but those with compatible cameras even got a chance to shoot a couple of deep space objects like star clusters and nebulae through our telescope! Lens envy will never be the same again!!

Astro-Photography with our 10" Meade

Lens Envy!

Imaging Deep Space!

Unfortunately, the clouds began to roll in and spoil the party around 10.30pm, but since this coincided with moonrise, the disruption was not too disappointing! Especially considering the recent run of inclement weather that we have been experiencing since Tropical Storm Eloise passed through the area the month before. Even with the clouds building, we enjoyed the moonrise over the dam and discussed some of the deep-rooted history and mythology of some of the more prominent constellations and lapped up the ambiance of the African night.

Southern Cross © Charlene de Bruyn

Alas, all good things come to an end and eventually we had to get everyone back to the lodge so that they could return home, their minds still buzzing from the experience. It is a unique feeling to sit in the African bushveld under the cloak of darkness with only the stars watching over you. It is a pathway to another world, both physically and metaphorically. There is something in space for all of us, no matter what you are searching for, and evenings like these really open your eyes, and senses, to world of possibility and imagination, the latter being something that is woefully unapparent in modern society.

Soaking up the Ambiance

The experience was not complete however. Capturing those distant photons is one thing, but there is so much information hidden with the data collected by the camera, that it needs to be teased out through post processing techniques. Included in the package was an online post-processing workshop on Photoshop and a few days later, we all reconvened in an online setting to work through the editing workflow based on what was captured. It is amazing how powerful today’s technology is and everyone was blown away by how much work can be done to night photos to really make them pop! We discussed stacking techniques to reduce noise, the use of layers, layer masks and selective editing to bring out detail and contrast in the Milky Way, as well as discussing additional software and plug-ins specifically designed for astro work.

Despite it being a little early for Milky Way season, there were some great images captured, as I am sure you can see from the accompanying photos! Night photography is not difficult, but it is time consuming and requires a lot of planning to achieve the best shot. As astro-tourism continues to rise, so does the stock of night photography and, thanks to the success and interest generated during this event, we will definitely be offering more in the coming months! Please keep an eye on our website and social media feeds for more information!

Packing Up :(

All that remains is for me for thank all those that joined us, and Tomjachu and their wonderfully attentive staff, especially the GM, Jay Dean, who watched over us all night ensuring that wanted for nothing!! From all of us at Celestial Events SA, we hope you enjoyed the evening and that we will see you again for more courses and experiences in the future!!

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