Night Sky Photography in Chile’s Atacama Desert

I’m recently back from a great trip to Northern Chile’s Atacama Desert.  This is one of the best places in the world for observing and photographing the night sky.  That’s why the Atacama has been chosen as the site for several of the World’s most important observatories.  In fact the very largest astronomical project in the world, the ALMA project, is presently being implemented on a high altitude plateau near San Pedro de Atacama.  The high altitude and extreme dryness of the Atacama are major factors why it’s so ideal for stargazing. However, what’s even more important is its location in the Southern Hemisphere which provides for the best view into the actual center of our galaxy.

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Images such as these are relatively easy to achieve with the low light sensitivity of today’s higher end digital cameras.  For all these shots I used a Nikon D600 with a 20mm wide angle lens.  The camera was set on manual for an exposure of 20 seconds at an aperture of F2.8 and the with the ISO set at 5000.  Important: Beforehand I activated the high ISO noise reduction feature which is found buried in the menu settings someplace.  The camera was mounted on a sturdy tripod and I used a remote control to trip the shutter. During the exposure I used an led headlamp to paint the rocks and cactus in the foreground (shined through my sunglasses to warm the blue light of the leds some).

* Tip: I scouted this area out in the daytime first and marked the spot I wanted to shoot.  Stumbling around in the dark on a rocky slope among prickly cactus, it’s best to know where you are going!  Also, one needed to find just the right angle in order capture the best view into the heart of the Milky Way (the center of our galaxy).  In this case looking towards the Southwest. So a compass was useful for that.

The following image was made with the same settings as the previous but, instead of using a headlamp to paint the foreground, I allowed the ambient light at our hotel to illuminate the adobe building.  For this image I needed to find a spot where there were few strong lights directly in the image as those would tend to get blown out.  I had to experiment with several different locations and angles to get everything to come together just right.  BTW: the bright object in the night sky is Venus.

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