From oil paint to color film, it’s inevitable in every art form that technological advancement leads to new modes of creative expression. In the case of nature photography, the advent of cameras capable of producing ultra-low-noise images at extremely high ISOs made possible a view of the heavens that photographers literally had never seen before—one that’s so much better than human eyes are able to resolve. Pinpoint stars and the discernible Milky Way replaced abstract star trails, and a new genre of landscape photography, astrophotography, with the power to see into the far reaches of the galaxy, was born.
Adam Woodworth is a master of the art of landscape astrophotography, and although he travels inland to photograph the night sky, as well as traditional daytime landscapes, his focus is centered on the seacoast of Maine. It’s where he was raised, and where since 2010 he has been drawn after dark to make images of auroras and the Milky Way, star-filled skies and moonlit landscapes. Here, in his own words, Woodworth explains the painstaking process behind the creation of a stunning astral landscape, using his image “Galactic Cave” as a guide. And he touches on the larger question of why the night sky holds such a special appeal for photographers and viewers alike.—William Sawalich
The night sky definitely evokes a lot of mystery and awe. As humans, we were originally evolving way back when there was no light at all, only firelight. You could just hang out and look up at the stars. Maybe that’s how our ancestors spent their evenings. And, nowadays, I think the fact that we don’t get to see it could be a huge part of its appeal. Even people I meet who live in very dark areas, they’re still excited about seeing it. I’ve met a lot of people who live in those areas and have never seen the Northern Lights or the Milky Way, because they live in a brightly lit house. The average person, even in really dark areas, isn’t as familiar with the night sky as we would have been 100 years ago.
The first time I remember seeing it in such amazing clarity was up at the end of the Maine coast. Once you get above Acadia National Park, the population really thins out. I remember seeing for the first time, with my naked eye, the Milky Way reflected in the ocean. I could see the light from the galactic center of the Milky Way causing a reflection that was just a bright spot on the water’s surface.
The image I call “Galactic Cave” was taken at a place in Acadia National Park that’s no longer on the official maps. They took down the signs and railings in order to protect the area and to protect people. But there’s nothing off-limits in Acadia; it’s a well-known spot just because it’s such a cool view.
In order to get in and out of this [area] safely, you’ve got to know how to navigate wet rocks, and you’ve also got to go down at low tide and come out before the tide comes up too high. Otherwise, you’re either swimming out of the cave or you’re just stuck. I imagine the cave fills up with water to the point that there’s nowhere to stand. You’d be in trouble if you were there.
I’d had this plan for two years or so. I was hoping to get this photo, and I just never got it until last winter, the dead of winter. A bunch of things needed to come together. You have to have clear skies, obviously, and no moon. The tide needs to be the right level so you can get in and out, and it needs to be the right level during the time when the Milky Way will be visible when looking out of the cave. So there’s a lot of timing and planning that go into it to make sure everything lines up right. You look at tide charts, and once inside, from experience of being in the cave I know if it’s mid-tide or close to low tide, if I’m still safe or not.
As for the stars, there are smartphone apps you can use to pinpoint from any spot where the galactic center of the Milky Way will be. Those help you as far as they can, but only if you know the angle where you’ll be standing exactly.
There’s an app called PhotoPills I like. They give you a 2D satellite view, basically a Google Earth map, and you can move around anywhere and pick a spot where you want to stand. It will then show you the angle of where the galactic center of the Milky Way will be, and which way it will be arcing through the sky. Before these apps, it was looking at star charts.
You can also use Augmented Reality, where you hold the phone up and it shows you an overlay of the sky and how it will look at a certain time of night. If you stand there in the middle of the day, you can get a good idea of where things will line up.
But, for this, looking at the satellite map with the app, it was unclear which exact point was the cave entrance. I knew roughly where it was, but it’s not labeled on the map and you can’t tell it’s a cave because you’re looking at it from above. So I took the information from PhotoPills that told me on this night what the angle would be of the Milky Way, how far south it would be, and I took a regular old compass and went down to the spot during the day and checked the angles from inside the cave. That way, I could figure out if it would line up, and how it would line up, as much as I could in advance. And then when you’re doing that, you have to remember to take into account magnetic declination because the information the maps give you is on true north, but the compass is magnetic north, and if you don’t remember to do this calculation, you’re going to overshoot or undershoot.
The Night of the Shoot
We were lucky, I guess, because we had an enormous amount of snow, and it was incredibly cold for long periods, and places on the coast would get encased in snow like this. That doesn’t happen every year. It was around 0˚, and I had hand warmers. I went to scout it out during the day, and I had to break trail down through the woods to the top of the shore, and you’re basically walking above the cave and all the rocks, on top of the cliffs. And then you slide down this little ice chute and walk across the rocks to get in. I did that during the day so that I knew how to get there and back, and then I had to come back at night an
d do it all in the dark. I had snowshoes on initially to get down through all the deep snow to the top of the cave, and then I took the snowshoes off and put microspikes on and slid down, and then with the microspikes on so I didn’t slip on all the slippery rocks, I walked across to the opening of the cave and went in.
Safety is a concern, but I don’t think about it as much as maybe I should because I grew up on the coast and I’m used to wandering around on wet rocks all the time. I’ve actually fallen down in this cave, the first time I went to shoot the sunrise. But I was with a friend, and I was just scratched up. I only broke a trekking pole. So it’s not a place to screw around with, but at the same time, I just do it. It’s what I do.
All these things had to come together and they did come together, other than the slight clouds there. They were clearing out. It’s totally what happens on the seacoast of Maine: The forecast tells you it’s totally fine, and then you get there and there’s a wall of clouds they didn’t predict.
I worked a lot to get the ice to come out. This is obviously a multiple exposure blended together. None of my photos are just straight out of the camera; there’s always some editing. Just like with any digital photography, the raw file is a starting point. Almost all of my night shots are composites of multiple images. Here, I worked hard to balance the light. By the time I was doing some of the foreground exposures, it was twilight so there was a lot more light hitting the ice than earlier in the night. If you don’t really know what you’re looking at, it probably looks fine, but to me, I can tell there are some highlights on the ice that wouldn’t be there in pitch-black night. It’s a mix of things. And I was lucky that all of those icicles were there. It made it kind of cool.
When I’m out giving a talk on this stuff, I often say it’s science fiction at this point: You’re shooting something you can’t even see. That said, I try to make the photos have somewhat naturally accurate colors to them. Sometimes the scientifically correct white balance looks really strange. I try to be as natural there as much as I can.
Adam Woodworth’s Landscape Astrophotography Gear
NIKKOR 14-24mm ƒ/2.8
Gitzo GT2542L tripod
Acratech GP ballhead—inverted for panoramas to use its built-in leveling base and pano head
Acratech Nodal Rail slide for panoramas
Pixel intervalometer—backup unit
Giottos Rocket Blaster air blower
F-Stop Satori EXP backpack with Large ICU
Dew Not DN004 Heater Strip electronic lens heater—fits the NIKKOR 14-24mm, prevents dew on the lens—plus battery and adapter cable
Chemical hand warmer packets to heat the lens and your hands
Velcro® to attach the intervalometer and heater battery to the tripod legs
PhotoPills—iPhone app for planning Milky Way shots, as well as daytime/moon shots
solarham.net, softservenews.com, spaceweather.com—websites for current aurora information
Google Earth—for scouting
Good, old-fashioned magnetic compass—for scouting Milky Way angles at locations that can’t be scouted in Google Earth, in addition to using Augmented Reality in PhotoPills
CrowdMag—iPhone app for calculating the magnetic declination to correct compass readings to true north
Starry Landscape Stacker—Mac-only app for star-stacking images with landscape foregrounds
Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop
Getting the sky white-balanced right is very tricky. There’s a big difference between what the real sky color probably should look like and what looks pleasing. I err on the side of pleasing. I used to err on the side of blue—just always a blue sky. That’s usually completely wrong. Sometimes a blue sky is totally correct because if you’re shooting in astronomical twilight, the sun hasn’t set far enough beyond the horizon to make it dark yet. So even though the sky may look black to your eyes, it may still be blue in the camera.
But when it’s pitch-black out and the sun is way on the other side of the earth, there’s just not a lot of blue in the sky. There’s some, but there’s a lot more air glow, and the stars themselves are what’s kind of lighting up the landscape, if you think about it. Here you can see some orange on the horizon from light pollution.
It all comes down to this: I want to make it look natural, but I also want it to look like what I felt, like what the emotions made me feel while I was there. I have some photos that look over the top, in terms of processing, and they match the emotion I felt, but they don’t look anything like it was supposed to look.
I’m not a photojournalist; I’m an artist. My goal is to make images that I find pretty, compelling and interesting, and if it means that I’m pushing the colors a little bit here and there, then whatever. That’s just the way it is.
To see more of Adam Woodworth’s photography, visit his website at adamwoodworth.com.
A Closer Look At Adam Woodworth’s Landscape Astrophotography Technique
|When Adam Woodworth was using a Nikon D800E, he limited his maximum ISO to 3200; but with his Nikon D810A, he’ll go up to ISO 12,800, as needed.
“The simplest way to do it is to shoot the widest lens you have at the widest aperture,” says Woodworth. “I tend to leave the shutter speed long, but if you can boost the ISO that much, you’ll capture more stars and get a cleaner image with a better exposure. The more light you can let in, the more dim stars you’ll capture.”
Woodworth uses his widest lens—the “gold-standard ultrawide” Nikon 14-24mm zoom. He has found, after much experimentation with the “500 rule” (which states that you take the 35mm equivalent of your focal length and divide it into 500 to determine the maximum shutter speed for minimizing star trails), that he prefers a maximum exposure of 25 seconds. He says of the rule, “It’s a good place to start, but it’s a little too lenient.”
Woodworth also uses a technique called “star stacking,” whereby he’ll shoot 10 exposures of the night sky in quick succession at, say, 10 seconds each. Then he uses Starry Landscape Stacker software to combine these multiple sky exposures into a single, tack-sharp, noise-free image of the nighttime sky. This image will be composited with one or more frames making up the brightly illuminated foreground landscape.
“A lot of people will do a single shot at 25 or 30 seconds,” he says, “and just rely on the shadow slider in Lightroom to brighten the dark spots. But if that’s all you’re doing, you’re going to end up with the foreground being noisy and out of focus, because I’m going to focus for the stars in the star shots, and then pull it in for the landscape.”
Then it’s just a matter of blending, compositing the sky with the foreground. The sky is usually much brighter than the nighttime landscape in a remote area, so Woodworth usually uses multiple foreground exposures.
“You can take them usually at lower ISOs,” he says, “with longer shutter speeds, and you might have to change focus a few times and do focus stacking. You could stop down to ƒ/5.6, ƒ/8 or ƒ/11, and do one really long foreground shot and have everything in focus, and blend that, but you’re talking possibly hours for a single exposure. And if you bump the tripod, you’re screwed.”
“So, yeah,” adds Woodworth, “they take a lot of work.”