This is a common question I get from people regarding Astrophotography. Long story short, you can’t see as much with your naked eye as you do with those beautiful images of the Milky Way and billions of stars. The long exposure of the camera shutter will capture far more light than our eyes are able to take in, even in the darkest of skies. BUT, that’s not to say you can’t see some beautiful sights whilst out at night.
In this post, I’ve taken the same shot, but adjusted my settings to best reflect what I could see ‘live’; what came straight off the camera, and what the scene looks like after processing it back at home. These were all shot with no light pollution from the moon and in one of the darkest spots on earth, Arthur’s Pass, Canterbury, New Zealand (specifically Kura Tawhiti or ‘Castle Hill’).
Naked Eye Shot:
I set the camera up to take a shot that was as close to what I could see with the naked eye as possible. You can still see plenty of detail in the sky – lots of stars and the major structure of the Milky Way, including its core. However, the nature of our eyes means that when you look straight on you get a colour view of the stars, but with far less light – if you look at the Milky Way from your peripheral vision you will get more light in the dark, but far less colour. Most importantly, far fewer smaller stars can be seen when you look straight on, so use your peripheral vision. Still, an amazing place to go at night, especially if you’ve never been to a spot with little or no light pollution.
From the Camera:
A simple shot from my Canon 70D with a Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 DC HSM A lens – shot at 10 seconds, f/1,8, 18mm, ISO3200 – with these settings you can instantly see more ‘punch’ in the Milky Way, far more stars and a lot more colour. You can clearly see the structure of the Milky Way and a little more detail in the foreground, too as the contrast between the rocky tors and the sky is stronger.
After some post-processing:
I went a little over the top here (purposefully) to show how much of a difference you can make to a camera image with a little post-production. This was all done on Lightroom and Photoshop, but you can use your prefered processing package to do the same thing. I started by increasing the exposure as well as changing the colour correction and white balance to bring out the purple colours – I did a little bit of noise reduction in the land as it was looking a little dusty. I applied some lens correction to correct the natural distortion the Sigma 18-35 lens has. You can really go to town, especially if you’re shooting in RAW (and you definitely should be!) but don’t go so far that it completely destroys the image.