The milky way over the Wadden Sea

This image was taken with the X-T4 and the Laowa 9 mm. The sky was a 4 minute exposure using the iOptron Skytracker Pro at 800 ISO, the foreground a 20 seconds exposure at ISO6400 without the tracker.

As an avid sailor, I try to make it a habit to make a sailing trip to the Wadden Sea, a tidal sea in the north of the Netherlands, at least once a year. Naturally I try to combine this with taking photographs, and as it offers a stunning landscape with its mudflats and wide horizons, usually I come back with a crop of images that I’m really happy with. However, one image has been eluding me for the past 4 years. I had in mind to photograph our flat bottomed ship (a Vollenhovense Bol, for those interested in such things), high and dry on the mudflats, with the milky way in the background (astrophotography being another genre which really interests me). This is not as easy as it sounds, however. The area of the Wadden Sea is generally one of the darkest in the Netherlands, so no problem there. The problem is in the tides, and the weather of course. Apart from having to be granted a clear night sky, a feat by no means a given with the weather patterns in the Netherlands, the timing with the tides must be exactly right. The ship must be on dry land somewhere between 11 PM and 1 AM, there should me no moon, and the ship should also be floating again at a not too ungodly hour to continue what is in the first place a holiday.

In april we managed to grab a weeks sailing, and on the final day I was granted a clear night sky. However, the moon was up and ruined any chance of a good milky way shot. In addition, the bottom of that part of the sea where we had parked for the night was not solid sand, but a sort of sludgy ooze. Not the best ground for a tripod. As one of our shipmates was an astronomer, we banded together with our photography and astronomy apps, and concluded that the best chance to get a nice holiday and good weather, and make my dream photograph, was August 13th. As it happened, we could rent the ship again that week and we booked it on the spot (helped also by the fact that this was a holiday that was solidly Coronoa-proof, something quite uncertain for other holidays at that time). 

So, last week was that week. How did it go? Well, the 13th of August was cloudy, so no joy. Fortunately, we saw that coming and made the most of the few nights preceding the 13th for some attempts. The best opportunity came on the 9th. We had beached our ship on the mudflats just northeast of the little harbour of Noordpolderzijl, Groningen. We knew that between 10 PM and 1 AM we would probably be dry on the flats, and hoped for solid sand. Our wish was granted, and apart from the light pollution of the large city of Groningen to the south, the conditions were perfect.

Usually I only bring my small travel tripod on holiday, but as there was so much photography at the core of this holiday, I decided to bring my large and heavy tripod. To protect it from the sand and the residual salt water the bottom part of the legs were wrapped with garbage bags and ductape. I also decided to bring my iOptron startracker, as this tripod was sturdy enough for its weight. As camera I was a bit torn between the Fujifilm X-T4 and the Fujifilm X-T2, the X-T4 winning in the end by a narrow margin (although in hindsight I think I would have preferred the X-T2, there were some weird issues with unsharp images on the tripod, but this might have been due to shifting sands). The 9 mm Laowa and 12 mm Samyang completed the kit.

Between 10:45 and 0:45 I played around on the sand next to the ship, as my shipmates were stargazing in the dark. After some preliminary shots of the milky way and deciding which angles were best for the ship – milky way combination, I tried some extra shots with the star tracker. As at 0:30 the moon rose (also a magical sight) and the water started to rise again, I got back on board. Trying to edit a milky way photo on an iPhone really doesn’t do it justice, and the tracked images could not be edited anyway (as the foreground was blurred due to the motion of the star tracker), so really checking the files had to wait until we got home. 

For the final figures I cannot admit to few edits. The best files were obviously the ones where I had used the tracker (at ISO 800, in order to keep the shutter speeds at a manageable level), but these files had to be combined with the other images which had a sharp foreground. No problem for the mostly straight horizon, but not so easy for the ship, which I had to manually remove the background from using a wacom tablet and pen. Combining the cleaned up forgrounds with the milky was was then easy, although I might take a few more tries to really clean up the files. 

‘it has been a dream photography project that has come to fruition after several years’

I hope I haven’t bored you with my ‘little’ story above, but as I said, it has been a dream photography project that has come to fruition after several years of – not exactly failure – but lack of opportunity. I’m pleased with the result, and one of the images has already been bought by the major sailing magazine of the Netherlands as its opening spread (parly financing my holiday, which is nice). I hope you like the result as well!

For those interested in some technical stuff: I used the iOptron Skytracker Pro for the sky section of these images. At ISO800 I was looking at 4 minutes exposures. In hindsight I think I could also have gotten away with 8 minute exposures, but Wadden Sea sand is not the greatest of supports for the tripod, so at that time I didn’t risk it. I was also limited in my time on the sand as the water and the moon would rise shortly after 0:30. The 12 mm Samyang was used at f/2, its brightest possible aperture, while the Laowa 9 mm was used mostly at f/2.8, and once at f/4, as the Laowa has some horrible vignetting that is most visible at f/2.8. Shutter speeds for exposures without star tracker were 15 seconds for the 12 mm and 20 seconds for the 9 mm (its wider field of view allowing for a slightly longer shutter speed).

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