Shooting the Milky Way from Dominica

To my mind, one of the ultimate tests of one’s skills as a photographer is capturing the Milky Way in a timelapse sequence.

I know this now, but when I started shooting these timelapse videos less than a month ago, I had no idea. However, my ongoing research led me to this frontier and I was determined to do a damned good job.

My first attempt

Less than a week ago I tried my hand at one of these Milky Way videos. The video was decent, but I would call it a failure as far as capturing the Milky Way was concerned.

A thick layer of clouds persisted during the shoot and although the effect of floating clouds was cool to watch, the stars were mostly obscured.

From that night, I decided two things:

  1. To wait for a night with fewer clouds, and

  2. To find a location with much less light pollution

Being involved in photography has opened up my mind to so many new things, for example, the concept of light pollution. Essentially, light pollution is excessive and inappropriate artificial light, that is, lights from our homes, other buildings, street lamps etc.

I had no clue that this was a ‘thing’ before I started my research into astrophotography, but it happens to be “a serious environmental concern that wastes money and resources while jeopardizing wildlife, our environment, health, and human heritage.” (See this article from Dark Skies Awareness)

About last night

I had no intentions of going to shoot last night. But when I stepped onto my porch around 12:30 AM and saw those twinkling stars, I knew I had to venture out.

Grand Bay definitely was not the first location on my mind, and I took a few test shots in my backyard. The stars were so bright, but the composition was poor and the light pollution was overpowering!

This is the first test shot from my backyard. Note the brilliance of the stars. But everything else was just too bright (light pollution again).

This is the first test shot from my backyard. Note the brilliance of the stars. But everything else was just too bright (light pollution again).

It was already 1:15 AM and I started to brainstorm on potential locations that would afford me a clear view of the sky in a southerly direction… with little or no light in close proximity.

For some reason, the Pierre Charles Boulevard in Grand Bay came to mind, so I packed up my gear and left immediately.

I got to Grand Bay, scouted for the best positions up and down the highway and chose to stick to the recreational area to the east of the street. Initially, I had hoped to use the church’s parking lot, but alas, that area was too well lit.

My first test shot captured only the sky, and while I was happy with the predominance of the stars, I was disappointed that light from the street lamps gave my image such a strong orange color cast.

I also noticed a massive clump of clouds just over the sea. Bad news for me. (At least it wasn’t raining!)

This was my first test shot at Grand Bay. Even though artificial lights were minimal, the few street lights along the boulevard gave my image a bad orange tint. That cluster of colors near the center is our Milky Way galaxy.

This was my first test shot at Grand Bay. Even though artificial lights were minimal, the few street lights along the boulevard gave my image a bad orange tint. That cluster of colors near the center is our Milky Way galaxy.

My mistake… impatience

The cloud formation over the sea seemed to swell every few minutes, and instead of blowing away as normal clouds do, this clump stood its ground.

I decided to forgo the above-the-sea composition, and turned my setup 90 degrees, to face east. The sky was clear and as far as composition of the image goes, there was a decent foreground element in the form of a makeshift stage.

By now it’s already 2:30 AM and I was anxious to get the shot sequence started, so I set up the shot and started the intervalometer. I went back to the vehicle, eased into the seat and settled in for a 2 hour wait.

About 20 minutes into the sequence, I noticed that my original composition (facing south, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean) began to clear up. In fact, the clump of clouds that I’d run away from had almost completely vanished.

Should I stop the current sequence and start all over again? Yes. And that’s exactly what I did.

The new (old) position

I brought the camera and tripod back around and a framed what looked like an almond tree to the bottom left of my screen. I attempted my first ‘light painting’ effort at that time, using my smartphone’s flashlight app to light up the trees for a few exposures.

Final settings

For the timelapse video, I decided to keep focused on the Milky Way and not the trees in the foreground. I used the following settings: 

15 seconds at f/2.8, ISO 2500 at 12 mm

These settings gave me the best balance between lack of noise in the image and tack sharp stars.

A long shutter speed would have shown small star trails. A higher ISO would have rendered a lot more noise in the dark areas of the photograph.

I set my Nikon D7200’s* internal intervalometer to shoot 300 images at an interval of 20 seconds which meant that the sequence would run for 1 hour and 20 minutes. By that time it was almost 3:00 AM, so I returned to the vehicle and settled in for a long way.

The video below shows the sequence of 300 images after been edited for color and sharpness. The movement you see is caused by the Earth’s natural rotation, not because of any tricks during editing!

*I’ve included an affiliate link on this page, which means I may earn some beer money if you make a purchase through my link. There is no extra cost to you, but it helps to keep this little blog afloat. Thank you!