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Chasing the Milky Way

An eventful stargazing journey of Atish Waghwase and his tryst with the Milky Way

This guy is me - Atish Waghwase, a design student at IDC, IIT Bombay and a photographer. I’m 20, and I live a health conscious life, and only give up sleep for a starry night. I work out so that I can lug my heavy camera gear all the way up mountains on an impromptu trip that I might want to make anytime. Read my story of how I have been chasing the milky way for a few years.


Naive attempts

The year was 2016 and I was on my terrace at 4 am on a cold December night pointing my camera towards the sky, because I saw somewhere on the internet that that’s the time you get pictures of the faint wispy structures in the sky. I had read a few blog articles about the camera settings and what kind of camera to use, and I also had a DSLR. I was clearly all set to be an astrophotographer, right? This was the kind of shot I got -

“Now this isn’t the milky way”, I thought. There’s barely any stars here, let alone a magical rift across the sky of which I had seen surreal pictures on the internet. I was clearly doing something wrong.


Research

Let me be honest, after my initial attempt on my terrace, I felt a little dumb. Soon as I Googled “how to take pictures of the milky way”, the first step was to go to a sufficiently dark place; city nights are not at all considered dark. I learnt that there is a Bortle scale that measures the brightness levels of the night sky of a particular location, and that most cities are at least a 7, whereas ideally you want it to be closer to 0. I learnt to use an online light pollution map called www.lightpollutionmap.info to figure out the luminance levels of specific points on a map. This is where I had tried to click a photo from -

I also learnt to use an app called Stellarium to simulate astronomical alignments and to figure out what latitude I need to be at and the exact time I need to be there in order to get the view of the milky way I want. February through September is the ‘Milky Way season’, because that’s when nighttime on earth faces the direction of the galactic core, which is the brightest and most spectacular part of our spiral galaxy. You also need a moonless night to see the galactic core at its brightest, or the moon washes the view out (think about a car’s headlights flashing straight into your eyes while you try to see who’s standing behind the car).


First proper attempt

Now I had to wait for March to get a chance clicking my first photo of the galactic core. I have a farm on the outskirts of my city, Aurangabad that lies roughly in a level 5 light pollution zone.

I chose 27th March to stay over at my farm; it was a new moon night during the Milky Way season. Everything was looking great, I packed my camera gear in the car and left for a sleepover at the farm with my parents. We got to the farm and had dinner and I got my camera gear and waited until it was dark enough to see stars. I mounted my camera on my flimsy tripod, pointed it South-East, dialled in the settings, struggled with the manual focus for a while until I thought I got it right, and released the shutter. I eagerly waited for the camera to process the long exposure and it showed me the image! Nothing. Just a few specks of stars against a bland, black background. The sky wasn’t even black, it was yellowish, indicating I had dialled in the wrong white balance, and when you zoomed out on the tiny LCD screen, you could only see a handful of stars. Incredibly disappointing. After having planned this for 3 months, I was massively disheartened. I still held on to the hopes of getting a shot in the morning, hopes that were diminishing with each shot as I tried pointing the camera to a few more directions that night.


Now I’m not a person who gives up this easy. I was in the 11th grade then, and had barely had any life outside of home and JEE coaching. I had googled ‘Best stargazing sites in India’ and had had my eye on a place called Nubra Valley in Kashmir. I returned to my parents with my gear with a very pitiful demeanor and told them I have no hopes of getting any shot here, and that I wanted to go to Kashmir after my JEE exam. That was a long long way ahead, so they agreed too. We slept with this thought.


The buzzer in my digital watch woke me up at 4:30, I woke up and looked around and, well, still no milky way. Still, we decided to take one last chance and drive to a place that’s sort of a valley, so we presumed it would be darker because the surrounding hills would block the city lights. It’s a 30 minutes drive from our farm. After getting there, I only had about 30 minutes before the sun would rise and ruin any chance to get my shot. I blindly pointed my camera in the direction that Stellarium said, held my breath and fired a shot. At this point, I was just clinging to the hopes of the camera capturing what I couldn’t see. The camera finished processing the long exposure and I saw this-

This might not look like a lot, but let me zoom out and put it against a black background to show you what I saw on my camera’s LCD screen -

That small, extremely dim wispy patch at the bottom centre was one of my greatest achievements till date. I kid you not, this made my jump in excitement, followed by hysterical laughter. I looked in the exact direction of my camera and there it was! Hiding in plain sight, a faint glow that would certainly look like some cloud or puff of smoke to the untrained eye, but if you look closely you could see that it had some definite structure. Once I knew what to look for, I could almost trace the entire galactic core all the way to the top!


Level up

Having shot my first picture of the milky way, I came back home at 6am, sitting in the backseat of our car, staring out the window like I was part of a music video. I just couldn’t wait to process my images. I reached, brushed my teeth and got to work. I loaded the photos in lightroom and used literally all my knowledge of editing on that single photo. Here is what it looked like-

Yes. Ew. This has to be one of the worst photos that I have edited, but I promise I have gotten much better (also why I’m comfortable sharing this lol). I completely went ham on making the galactic core pop with all kinds of local adjustments and exposure settings. People told me it looked fake, but I was too proud of this image (still am) to listen, but soon realised that I could have done better.


I started preparing for the next new moon. Same location, one month away. I arrived with my cousin whom I had all hyped up by showing all the wonderful milky way pics on the internet. We did some light painting at night; I didn’t try to get pictures of the milky way at night this time. We woke up at about 4:30 and drove to the same place. This time I shot a panorama (being awe-inspired by Lonely Speck’s video Medium Format Milky Way Panorama on YouTube), and tried to include more of the foreground. Here is the result-

I went to the same place for the next new moon as well, and I also tried out stacking; which massively reduced the noise in my photographs. All this while I was experimenting with astrophotography techniques, watching people on the internet edit their photos, trying to imitate them. I eventually got better gear - a nice aluminum tripod and an intervalometer, but it was always the case that I was shooting in a highly light polluted location. Here are some images that I learnt stacking on-

The Magnum Opus

I was halfway through 12th grade when I was looking at Nubra Valley tour packages; what itinerary was going to give me a few nights of stargazing under those sweet, sweet Bortle level 2 skies when I stumbled upon a trekking organisation called IndiaHikes. Now camping wasn’t something I had done before, and so the thought of doing so got me excited. I had also been cooped up in my house and coaching for the entire year, so I got a little bold and asked my parents to let me go on a trek to the Himalayas. Well, they agreed!


I made plans with my cousin and somewhere along the way, I appeared for UCEED in January and the results came out in February, and I got selected. Now this was the final nail in the head of me completely neglecting my 12th Board and JEE studies and focusing entirely on my trek to Roopkund. By the end of April, I had the entire trek memorised by heart, I knew the entire route on Google Earth, I knew the astronomical twilight and sunrise timings, I knew what direction to face at each campsite, lets just say that I gave it all I had got.


I had this one particular shot in mind - the campsite was called Pathar Nachuni and we were going to be there on 4th and 6th June. The moon was waning, so it was going to be more ideal to shoot on 6th. I had already visualised where I was going to be -

A small distance from the campsite at Pathar Nachuni lies a vantage point that looks over a valley that leads the eye due south east, which also happens to be the direction the galactic core was going to rise from.


I will skip over the details of the trek, because those deserve a blog post of their own. It was the 6th day of the trek, we had made it to the summit and this was our retreat to human civilization. This was also my last night in the mountains. I had to make this one shot count. I step out of the tent roughly at 10:45. My surroundings are pitch black; all the meadows and peaks that were glowing like gold during the sunset a while back were now a patch of pitch black, as opposed to the sky which was brighter than the foreground. The sky was clear, and spangled with an unfathomable number of stars. And tearing this sky in half was the milky way core; you could see every little detail in the dark rift against the glowing mass of stars. It was so clear that you could make out the black of the dark dust clouds against the black of the sky.


I pack my camera gear in my backpack and put on my red headlamp, and set out on the path to the vantage point. I was supposed to have company, but I couldn’t wait for anyone to get ready so… Anyway, it took me about 20 minutes to get to the place. I set my tripod up and mounted my camera, pointed it towards the milky way and set the intervalometer to click 25 photos, each exposing for 13 seconds with an interval of 20 seconds for the camera to process. I was planning to shoot three such sets to later stitch a panorama. My point is, it was going to take me a good 20 minutes of sitting there in the piercing cold.


My cousin and our friend arrived as I was sitting there rubbing my hands to keep warm. I had misplaced one of my gloves, so I had to make do using only one glove. There was a dhaba of which the owner heard us talk, and offered to make us coffee. Now am not a coffee person but I must admit, maybe it was the cold and the lack of one glove, maybe it was the fact that I was looking at one of the grandest views I had ever scene or maybe it was the overwhelming sense of having reached our summit at 15,750 feet, but that has to be the best coffee I have ever had, period. I relished every sip of the total of roughly 5 sips that the puny paper glass could hold. The camera soon stopped shooting and I packed up my gear, and started my descent towards my tent, stumbling occasionally because my eyes were fixated on the galactic core.


I finally came home, sore and tired. I got some coffee to drink while processing the photos, but nah, that moment alive in my memories only. Regardless, I worked on it for hours and finally came up with the photo that embodies one of my best memories -

You can see the little campsite, and also the path on the right ridge which I took to reach this point. I have shot a few pictures after this, but this remains to be my proudest story. Check out a two other shots I have shot hence, and follow me at @atishtic on Instagram to keep up with my journey.


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