Astrophotography In Barbados - Kirk Watkins

Astro Photography In Barbados

Septemper 21, 2015

Barbados parliament with a star trail vortex

A few days ago I read a post on a social media site asking for advice on shooting the milky way in Barbados. As I've done it a few times I tried to offer a brief summary of things to look for and to be wary of.

What You Need

Dark Skies

You might think that a small island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean would be an ideal place for astrophotography but, as it turns out, this isn't the case at all. The image on the right is a satellite image taken of Barbados at night. Notice how bright the entire island is? Well, that's a problem. Frankly, it's a big problem. One would naturally assume the best places to shoot would be those few tiny dark patches in the north, and if your interest is purely celestial and you plan to point your camera directly up then you'd be right. However if you hope to have any foreground elements in your image then you'll quickly find out you have a problem. But first let's have a quick look at the hows, whens, wheres and whats of astrophotography in Barbados.

High-End Point And Shoot, DSLR Or Mirrorless Camera Body

Other than your lens, your choice of camera body will have the most significant impact on your results. Because the stars are constantly moving on their path across the sky it severely limits the length of our exposures. As a result we're usually required to bump the ISO a lot higher than you may be accustomed to. Better bodies usually generate much less high ISO noise which is a big benefit in post production. That said, any body that allows you to manually control your exposure settings can work.

A Fast Wide Angle Lens

The other important piece of equipment is the lens you attach to your camera. Generally speaking we tend to use wide and ultra-wide lenses for milky way and star trail shots. The faster the lens the lower the ISO you'll have to use. Lower ISO, less noise, happier editing.

A Sturdy Tripod

A good tripod is often overlooked and many of the areas on the island you'll be shooting will be pretty breezy. I personally use an aluminium Manfrotto tripod and ballhead. It's tall, it's heavy and it's rock solid. Even so I still bring along a set of weights and strap to hang from the underside. This adds a significant amount of stiffness to my setup. You could also hang your camera bag from the tripod as well, assuming it's heavy enough. One thing to note is not to let your weights hang freely or they could sway slightly in the wind and introduce small movements in the tripod. I always let the weights touch the ground while still maintaining tension on the strap.

Intervalometers And Remotes (Optional)

Remotes are always handy for long exposure photography, and an intervalometer will make things a whole lot easier if you decide to try your luck with star trails. It's important to keep the time between exposures as short as possible and when you're taking hundreds of exposures it only takes one lapse in concentration to create a gap in your final image. An intervalometer will allow you to set it and forget it.

Smartphone With Astronomy Software (Optional)

Full disclosure here, I don't use Apple products so can't recommend any specific apps for those platforms. My experience is Windows and Android based, but nowadays very few apps are platform specific so there's a good chance that they are all available on both.

There are some great apps available for planning your astro-photography excursion. I use TPE (The Photographer's Ephemeris) to plan my locations, get sunrise/sunset times, moonrise and set times, etc. It's a brilliant tool, and the web based version is free! There's also an Android version which is very reasonable and highly recommended.

I also use Stellarium to get precise location and time info for things like the milky way or constellations. The Windows app is free and the Android version is also very reasonably priced.

Other helpful sites and apps include Google Sky Map (web based and Android app) and Windguru (web based and Android app) for checking weather and cloud cover.

Planning A Shoot

Although the milky way can be seen all year round it's at its brightest in Barbados towards the southeast during the summer months.

My first order of business when I start planning a shoot is to scout for locations. Most of the time the search starts on Google Earth and any potential sites are then checked out in person during daylight hours.

Once I've settled on a location I then start my research to plan my schedule. Most of the time I'll narrow it down to the next new moon, or a few days either side (TPE is great for this). Moonlight is generally bad for astro-photography!

Next I'll head over to Stellarium to check where in the sky the brightest part of the milky way will be, and at what time. This allows me to calculate when I'll need to arrive on site and start setting up.

Finally, once I'm within a few days of the shoot I'll check Windguru for the cloud cover forecast. I usually try to go the first opportunity that presents itself because there's always a good chance the weather won't cooperate and I'll have to return another night.

On the night of the shoot I'll pack my gear along with a few additional items and creature comforts: folding chair, jacket, tablet to read/game/watch movies, personal security items (whatever is the most effective legal option) and a cooler.

On Site

It's always nice when the timing allows me to get in place before it gets dark but sadly that is seldom the case. I start by unpacking and setting up my gear, then I make sure I'm happy with my composition. Getting the right focus is much easier if your camera has a live view function but if not it shouldn't take too much trial and error once you start at your lens's infinity mark.

Milky Way

Assuming you've used some of the apps listed above you should have a decent idea where you need to point your camera to get a shot of the milky way. As a rule of thumb I start shooting wide open at ISO 1600 with a 15 second exposure and go from there, but that can go up to ISO 3200 at 30 seconds. If you run a search for "rule of 600" you'll be able to work out your maximum exposure before you start getting star trails. I've found that to be an OK guide for online use but not sharp enough for high res printing so I prefer the rule of 500.

The milky way over a shooting swamp in St. Lucy

The world famous Morgan Lewis mill under the milky way

Star Trails

There are a couple of ways to shoot star trails. The most obvious is to point at the sky and use a long exposure. While this is fine it does introduce a few problems. The longer your camera sensor is exposed to light the warmer it gets, and heat is a major cause of noise in images. If you do prefer to use this method be sure to turn on in-camera noise reduction. Bare in mind that this will take the same amount of time as your original exposure so if your photo took 30 minutes then you have another 30 to wait before you're done. Because of this battery power may become an issue.

I prefer to use the stacking method, and while not quite as "pure" is every bit as effective and has a number of advantages. It does help if you use an intervalometer to keep the time between shots as short as possible. Basically instead of exposing for a long duration you take multiple shorter exposures and combine them in post production. For example, while you may require an hour long exposure to see any noticeable trails you could instead expose 60 times for 1 minute each. I won't go into too much detail about the editing process but if you run a search for "star trails software" you should be able to find all the information you need. It can also be done in Photoshop with layer stacks.

In Barbados if you want your trails to form tighter circles then you need to point your camera towards the North Star, or Polaris. The more perpendicular the angle from Polaris the straighter your trails will be. There's no right and wrong, it all come down to what your vision is.

Star trails over Harrismith house

Cove Bay star trails

Where To Go

As I mentioned above Barbados really isn't ideal for most types of astrophotography, but that doesn't mean it's impossible. All the photos in this post were taken in various locations around the island. Some of the locations I've shot include:

     - Harrismith Great House, St. Philip

     - Cove Bay, St. Lucy

     - Crab Hill, St. Lucy,

     - Morgan Lewis, St. Andrew

     - Cattlewash, St. Joseph

     - Bulkeley, St. George

     - Carrington, St. Philip

Potential Problems

There are a few things you should be aware of when planning an astro shoot, and many of these apply both in Barbados and anywhere else.

The first thing you need to monitor is the weather. Obviously rain and fog don't exactly make for clear skies. While fog isn't generally a big issue here, rain can sneak up on you in the blink of an eye. It's always a good idea to bring an umbrella, preferably one big enough to cover both yourself and your camera setup. Longer or heavier showers may require you to abandon your shoot, or at least postpone it.

Clouds in the tropics are an astrophotographer's nightmare. Because of the constant humidity it's not often we have those perfectly cloud free nights you might experience in drier climates. I can't tell you how many hours I've spent cloning out clouds in Photoshop and rebuilding patches of sky. And unfortunately there's not a thing you can do about it. Either accept that you'll have to deal with it in post production or wait until the clouds are as sparse as possible.

Personal security is always important, and as much as Barbados is considered to be safe, you'll often find yourself in desolate areas in the search for the darkest skies. You should equip yourself with whatever makes you comfortable, and carrying a friend is always a good idea.

As I mentioned earlier, light pollution is probably going to be your biggest headache. All the images below have been affected by it somehow, or, at the very least, could have been much better without.

Round Rock, Cattlewash and the milky way

An old sugar factory and the milky way

An oil "donkey" works under the stars

Conclusion

I've barely scratched the surface of astrophotography in this post but there's a ton of information if you run a quick search. You can take it as far as buying tracking mounts and dedicated camera bodies, telescopes and lenses, and as far as post processing is concerned you can learn about taking darks, flats and bias images to use for stacking.

Barbados is never going to be the perfect destination for astrophotography but there's nothing wrong with going out and giving it your best shot. Grab a friend, pack a few beers and your worst case scenario will be a great social night.

If you have any questions leave them in the comments below and I'll try to answer them as best as possible.


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