Perched high in the mountains of the Sierra de los Filabres range in Almería, Spain, is the Calar Alto Observatory. Far from light pollution, this is the largest astronomical complex in continental Europe – and the perfect viewpoint to capture the majesty of the night sky.
Photographer Fergus Kennedy has shot the stars from locations around the globe, including in South Africa with photographer Gergo Kazsimer, so was excited to be the first pro to shoot with Canon's innovative astrophotography camera, the Canon EOS Ra.
A specialised version of the Canon EOS R, the Canon EOS Ra is a full-frame mirrorless camera for photographers eager to capture high-quality images of everything from distant galaxies to dazzling star trails. "I've done wide-angle astrophotography – landscape shots of the Milky Way – for a number of years," says Fergus. "Canon EOS Ra brings it to the next level."
As well as offering opportunities for stunning wide-angle landscape shots, this shoot allowed Fergus to try his hand at deep sky astrophotography: photographing galaxies and nebulae in impressive detail. "It was the first time I'd done that, and it was really exciting," he says. "You can use a telescope, but you can get amazing shots of objects in the deep sky with a standard telephoto lens."
The Canon EOS Ra is built for astrophotography, with a modified optical low-pass filter optimised for the infrared end of the spectrum. "This helps particularly with deep sky photography because it lets through wavelengths of light that a conventional camera won't," says Fergus. "You're seeing brighter colours, particularly in nebulae, than you would with a standard camera." When photographing deep sky nebulae that emit hydrogen-alpha (Hα) light, this filter ensures red hues are rendered with exceptional richness.
One of Fergus's most memorable moments was photographing Andromeda for the first time. "The galaxy appears as a faint, slightly blurry star, but it's huge – we just can't see it very well [with the naked eye]," he says. "With a Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III USM lens and a 30-second or minute-long exposure with the telescope, we got an amazingly detailed picture – a colourful, spectacular image of the Andromeda galaxy. The moment that appears on the screen, you just go 'Wow, that's amazing!' It's the biggest and furthest thing I've ever photographed."
The camera's latest DIGIC 8 chip provides fast processing and improved noise reduction, while its responsive AF system is class leading. For Fergus, the new 30x focus magnification option was especially useful. "When you're doing this type of photography and looking at the image on the LCD screen, you're usually manually focusing, and sometimes you need to zoom in on an area to check your focus. The new 30x focus magnification option allows finer focus adjustment on the stars."
When photographing night scenes set against your surroundings, Fergus says the basics of good composition apply and suggests adding a person to your shots to add context. There's a lot you can be doing to prepare before you venture out at night too. "During the day you can be out composing your image with a nice rock formation or lighthouse and work out where the Milky Way will be in your frame," he says. "That way you've composed your image before it's even dark."
Photographing the night sky set against a landscape like this requires a delicate balance of light. Here Fergus found that the Canon EOS Ra's full-frame 30.3 megapixel Dual Pixel CMOS AF sensor came into its own in low light. "It's the most light sensitive and highest-resolution astrophotography camera Canon has made," he says. "It's a big step up from the Canon EOS 60Da.
"The biggest challenge with astrophotography is light sensitivity and getting enough light onto the sensor. The Canon EOS Ra has a bigger sensor and it is full-frame, meaning that each photo site on the full-frame sensor is bigger and can gather more light."
The camera's sensitivity range extends to ISO40000, offering impressive flexibility and resolution, but Fergus was happy working at ISO3200 or 6400, which gave him "workable" shutter speeds.
"On a fairly moonless night I can be pretty confident that for a wide angle Milky Way shot, the best exposure for the sky will be somewhere around 25 seconds at f/2.8 and ISO3200," he explains. "I can either have dark or silhouetted foreground features, or if I want to light them, I will use either use a very low power setting flash from a Speedlite or do some very brief light-painting with a constant light, like a head torch or a small panel light. If there's a bit of moon, perhaps a half-moon or less, you can often achieve good foreground lighting from the natural moonlight, but a full moon will tend to obliterate the delicate light from the stars."
The Canon EOS Ra can be attached to a telescope using a third-party adapter or mounted with a lens onto an equatorial mount, which aligns the telescope and lens, allowing the camera to efficiently track everything in the night sky. "This motorised tripod head compensates for the rotation of the Earth, effectively keeping the lens or the telescope pointing at exactly the same area of the sky," says Fergus. "You can then leave the shutter open for a minute or two, or even five minutes, without the stars becoming blurred or streaked."
Like all Canon EOS R System cameras, the Canon EOS Ra can be used with the full range of RF lenses or the extensive EF and EF-S families of lenses, with a Canon Mount Adapter EF-EOS R. So what lenses does Fergus recommend for astrophotography?
"Definitely the Canon RF 15-35MM F2.8L IS USM lens or the Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM lens for wide-angle shots," he says. "In astrophotography you want to go for fast lenses, so choose those that have a wide maximum aperture of f/2.8 or faster to let as much light in as possible. The Canon RF 15-35MM F2.8L IS USM lens is very wide, but it's rectilinear, so straight lines stay straight."
To photograph the deep sky, he relied on telephoto lenses including the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM, the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM and the Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III USM lens. For a time-lapse, the "special effect" Canon EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM lens gave Fergus what he needed.
When it comes to astrophotography, the internet is overflowing with images of galaxies and nebulae, but nothing beats being out there making those shots yourself, says Fergus. "You get a real sense that it's all out there – huge galaxies millions of light years away. I'm a scientist by background and I love learning about things. You get out at night and it's a bit of an adventure. It's fascinating and there's something magical about it too."
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