If you’ve ever wanted to point your camera up to the night sky and capture the majestic Milky Way, you’ll surely pick up some pointers from our interview with Daniel Stein.
“Astrophotography has never been easier to get into than ever before!” New Jersey-based photographer Daniel Stein rightly reminds all of us in our recent chat with him. True enough, many of today’s cameras are powerful enough to capture the grandeur of the night sky which is typically hidden in plain sight. Some of you may remember him for his impressive astro snaps on Polaroid, an unbelievable feat given that the medium is something you won’t expect photographers would be using to shoot star trails and Milky Way photos. But those are just a few of the tricks he has in his sleeve. As an astrophotographer who shoots in both film and digital, Daniel is in a great position to inspire and encourage us to give the craft a try with whatever camera we have.
So, we recently got in touch with him to know more about his work — his passion for photographing celestial bodies, some tips about the craft, his astrophotography essentials, and some common misconceptions about the genre, to name a few. Daniel obliged with some insightful and in-depth answers, so if you’ve ever been curious about photographing the night sky and are eager to get into it as well, we’re sure you’ll have a lot to pick up from our interview!
Phoblographer: Hello Daniel! We’ve written a bunch of features about your work, but we really haven’t asked, can you tell us more about yourself and what you do?
Daniel Stein: I am 26 years old living in northern NJ. I work full-time and just do astrophotography on the side. I have a Corgi named Mick who does not come on these adventures with me, but he is absolutely precious.
Oddly enough, my full-time job has nothing to do with photography! I am an Owner/Operator of my family-owned commercial plumbing company. We have been in business since 1961, and I am proud to be the next generation brought into the field to continue our legacy. We currently build retail stores and restaurants in malls and shopping centers throughout NJ.
Phoblographer: When did you begin you begin your photography journey? How did you develop a passion for astrophotography specifically?
Stein: I first picked up a camera when I was 10 years old back in summer camp. It was a Canon AE-1P, and I can remember precisely developing my first ever picture with the help of my counselors that summer in a typical red-light darkroom.
Fast forward to my first semester in college, where I have gone through many film cameras and digital point and shoots throughout the years. I owned my very first DSLR in my senior year of high school. When I made it to college, I took a class that very first semester which took place in my school’s very own Planetarium. Interestingly enough, this class was also taught by the Planetarium director himself. We had an assignment mid-semester to draw the moon phases. I asked if I could photograph them instead with my camera and basic telephoto to which my professor obliged. While my photos were nothing staggering, my professor was impressed and thus offered me a job photographing the many activities and services the Planetarium hosts.
Post finals that year semester, the Planetarium hosted a “Star Party” at a location further from campus which was much darker than the city. I was asked to come and take pictures, and it was that very cold night in December 2012 where I took my very first photos of a real dark sky. Since then, I fell in love with the hobby.
Phoblographer: How do you choose a location for shooting your beautiful Milky Way photos? Do you have a favorite spot? Are there must-haves when it comes to shooting locations for astrophotography?
Stein: An absolute must for any type of Milky Way shooting is a dark sky. Unfortunately, a true dark sky is getting harder and harder to come by as light pollution weasels its way into even some of the most remote locations. Here on the East Coast USA, this is particularly true, but fortunately, there are still a handful of locations that are dark enough for Milky Way shots.
I use a nifty little tool called the Light Pollution Map, which can be accessed from darksitefinder.com. This cool free map visually places all the light pollution data from around the world sorted by color. The brighter the color, the more light pollution there is, so white would be correlated to a place like New York City. Likewise, black would be found in a place like the Outback in Australia. My rule of thumb is “blue and below and you will get results to show.” Any spot located in a blue zone (scientifically speaking that is classified as a Bortle 4) has a sky with the Milky Way clearly visible to the naked eye. If your eyes can see it, then the camera can see it better.
You can get decent results in a green zone which is a smidge brighter, but light pollution on the horizon will be more abundant. Additionally, the Milky Way will appear much fainter to the naked eye. However for some, particularly in Europe, green is often as good as it will get, and thanks to long exposures you can still pull good shots at this light pollution level. Once you get into a yellow zone however, the Milky Way can barely be captured but you can still get a decent amount of stars in the shot—much more than any city. It is still wise to travel the extra distance if you can to get into at least a Green zone which will yield much more detailed images.
Once I have established where I will be shooting is dark enough, then the rest will boil down to last-minute planning decisions to ensure a clear and calm night out under the stars. Where I shoot most is known to be quite cloudy, so once a year I try to escape to the skies out west which are darker and clearer—not to mention have some of the best landscapes I have ever seen. My favorite spot is easily the Adirondacks, NY, thanks to a plethora of jaw-dropping mountainous landscapes at which I can hike to, as well as skies well within my range of “darkness rating” for beautifully detailed Milky Way images and landscapes all captured in the same frame. They are also located just a 5-hour drive each way from my house making them accessible enough for weekend trips upstate.
Phoblographer: How do you usually prepare for your astrophotography shoots? What never goes missing from your gear and other tools?
Stein: I try to keep my hiking bag always fully packed and ready to go should the next astrophotography occasion arise within moments notice. This means having all the gear, clothing, and other kits that go into making my shots possible placed in the perfect spots of my bag for good weight distribution. Food and water are obviously packed last minute, but because the forecast is always changing especially in the Northeast, sometimes I do not know if I will head out until hours before. I want to ensure there is nothing else I need to worry about when picking up my bag, so I find it easiest just to keep it stuffed. When I come home after each shoot, I try to re-coop my gear and all of the other good stuff so it is ready for the next round.
I always have with me in my astro/hiking bag my Nikon Z6 camera, which has been modified specifically for astrophotography to make the h-alpha nebulae more prominent. With that comes my iOptron Skyguider Pro star tracker to which the camera is mounted to when shooting, as well as several Sigma ART series lenses which I have found to be exceptional for astrophotography. Of course, all of this is only useful with the right tripod, which is why my Gitzo Traveler is always by my side. When hiking, weight saving is crucial, and I found this to be a good balance between payload capacity, sturdiness, and overall weight.
Other accessories include of course spare batteries and memory cards, as well as “astro related” tools such as my wireless remote trigger, dew heater, RRS Pano head, and headlight with red safelight for working in the dark. I always try to carry some munchies if I get hungry (packed responsibly, of course), a multitool should any gear need some adjustments, tons of extra layers including base, insulating, and shell, a satellite GPS with SOS function, first aid kit, a bluetooth speaker for when I am out shooting alone to keep away the “creatures,” and last but not least, a huge amount of water.
Phoblographer: What do you find to be the common misconception/s about astrophotography? How do you address those in your work?
Stein: I think the question I get asked most about my work is “Can you really see the Milky Way with the naked eye?” My answer is always a resounding “no.” But with that response, I always clarify why that is. Cameras simply capture light far differently than we as humans see. We see “in the moment,” whereas cameras need time to accumulate photons of light over time. For that reason, cameras must use long exposures to capture the stars, but when this technique is applied much more detail and color of the night sky is captured by the camera.
In order to bridge the gap between expectation and reality when viewing one of my pieces, oftentimes I will tack on a “human edit” of a photo that I have processed to more accurately represent how we would see the Milky Way in person. While the edit can never be a perfect depiction, it helps a lot of folks understand just how powerful cameras are versus the human eye. I also make it clear how looking at an image of mine on your computer, phone, or even in print is nothing like experiencing a starry sky in person, and it is worth it to get out there even just for a few hours if possible.
Another common misconception is the cost to enter the hobby. Many folks will tell you that you need a good full frame camera, fast lenses, and other items which can be rather costly. This is simply untrue. Technology today is so advanced that there are so many ways to create a fantastic photo even with older or more entry-level cameras. Chief among which is a technique known as image stacking, which relies on cheap or free software to take a series of images acquired by the photographer in the field—say about 10 or so—which further superimposes them atop each other to average out and inevitably reduce image noise. This technique, if done properly, will far exceed a single exposure taken on a higher-end piece of gear.
There are few other odds and ends mixed in, but most misconceptions usually tie into technique over gear. In other words, people thinking you need to have good kit to get solid images, but in reality, it boils down to having a good technique to translate whatever gear you have into a solid final product. Without the technique, the gear is only going to do so much to help you.
Phoblographer: What’s the most important piece of advice you had when you were still starting out photographing the night sky?
Stein: I would say never stop shooting. My family, friends, and of course planetarium director were always encouraging me to get out under the stars with every opportunity I could. The best way I learned how to take better pictures is by taking bad ones. Every single night spent in the dark with my setup was a night of learning. Even if I got no usable images from a shoot, I absolutely learned a thing or two from that experience. I understood more about my equipment, how to use certain functions, how to shoot a stack sequence, and of course how to find stars, constellations, and other celestial objects in the night sky.
With each trip out I came back with a new set of images to further practice post-production. Never stop getting out under the stars, never stop shooting them. No two shots are the same, so if the weather is good and the Moon phase is ideal why not get out and shoot?
Phoblographer: Apart from Milky Way photos, what else does your astrophotography involve? Do you take photos of other celestial objects? How different, advanced, or complicated is it?
Stein: I have tried shooting star trails, simple Moon shots, and deep space objects. Easily the hardest out of the three, in my opinion, is deep space. Where deep space differs so much from Milky Way is the fact that many objects cannot be seen at all with the naked eye. You are relying solely on the technology to get your gear tracking, focusing, and acquiring data on a target so far away that usually requires a telescope to use. With my type of setup, deep space is a little more cumbersome to achieve good results. I have gotten some decent images of bright and large objects such as Orion, Andromeda, Horsehead, and Flame but even these were very difficult for me to grasp over my Milky Way workflow.
I love shooting star trails, but I find that while gorgeous upon completion, they do not carry the same magical band of light as shooting the Milky Way.
Phoblographer: Apart from Polaroids, do you shoot with other film equipment? Can you tell us what that’s like working with those?
Stein: Film is far more difficult for anything in astrophotography. I found Polaroid to be the most taxing above all else, but then again I have not tried it with cameras like a Holga, Diana, Mamiya or other fun things which I think could even be more challenging to capture the stars. What makes Polaroid such a challenge are the dark viewfinders, narrow aperture lenses, and limited max film speed of about 680 ASA.
The easiest film camera I found for astro shooting is my Nikon F3. Not only does it take standard 35mm film so sensitive chemistry like Portra 800 can be used, but it also has modern conveniences like a bulb timer and backlit illuminated top LCD. It feels like shooting on a DSLR but without the instant gratification of knowing what shot I got was perfectly focused, composed, and exposed. This adds a sensation of wonder to the images, but I cannot help but think what happens if each picture on the roll looks like hot garbage when I pick up the roll from my local shop.
While I love shooting on digital simply for how much more powerful and controllable it is on all fronts, there is no escaping the magic of film. When a shot comes out in film it is far more euphoric than on digital.
Phoblographer: What are the challenges that you typically encounter when shooting astrophotography using both film and digital equipment? How do you address them?
Stein: Film is typically more cumbersome than digital. Especially when hiking, if I botch a few shots by accidentally triggering the shutter, etc. I cannot get those back. Since I am hiking in this scenario, there are only so many rolls I want to bring with me up a mountain before it becomes too much. I have to treat every shot with precision and care. As with both, composition is always tough. On the film end, the viewfinder is the only real tool I have to ensure my shot is well framed. This can be frustrating as the viewfinder is dark and hard to get a perfect composition with. It comes to a point I just have to say to myself “alright this as good as I think I can get it, just shoot it.”
With digital, I can take test shots to my heart’s content, but I find myself spending way more time re-composing; trying to get the perfect framing instead of just my educated viewfinder guess method with my composition on the film end. This leads me to another issue for both, which is time.
Each night out poses its own set of challenges for a number of celestial reasons. The Earth is constantly rotating, and thus all objects are constantly rising and setting at different times each night. Often times I get so caught up with just getting one shot that I will lose opportunities for other potential shots as the alignment and angle of the Milky Way has changed so much during the time of me trying to “get that shot.” I find my best workaround for this lately has been to use planning apps such as Photopills and Planit Pro to try and determine potential compositions before they actually happen. This ensures I will spend less time in the field trying to figure out if the shot will work. I will already have “practiced” it on the app.
Phoblographer: Can you tell us about any of your current and upcoming photography projects? What should we be on the lookout for?
Stein: Lately, I am really enjoying shooting the Milky Way at longer focal lengths, such as 50mm+. This strays from most typical Milky Way techniques which point to using a wider lens such 24mm or even 14mm. I feel this captures the more subtle details of our galaxy while also compressing the mountains slightly to really make the Milky Way look like it is towering over the landscape.
I have also been pushing focal lengths of 85mm and even sometimes 135mm and shooting a tracked panorama mosaic of the Milky Way—hence the need for my RRS Pano head in my hiking bag. After stitching several shots, this may yield a composition that will look similar to that of a wide angle, but it is in fact far more detailed than just one wide image. I can even see how much more detailed the Milky Way and surrounding stars look just on the overall image, but zooming in can reveal the extreme detail of our galaxy. I am currently stitching together and processing a pano taken on my 135mm lens from this past summer. As it stands right now, the resolution for this image is nearly 950 megapixels!
Phoblographer: Lastly, what advice or tips would you give to anyone who wants to give astrophotography a try?
Stein: Astrophotography has never been easier to get into than ever before! There are tons of free online guides and videos with all of the best tips and tricks for beginners starting out. Some phones are even unlocking methods to allow you to start tinkering with the genre. My recommendation is if you are itching to give this hobby a whirl, go for it! Even if you can only get to just slightly darker skies from where you live, or better yet are situated in a zone which is less light polluted than most suburban and urban environments—see what you can do with your equipment. Find out for yourself if it is right for you before jumping the gun on new gear or software dedicated to the hobby. Don’t let anyone tell you that you should get this lens or this tracker, etc. before you even attempt your very first shot. Any camera with a manual exposure mode is capable of capturing the stars, so on the next clear, moonless night, get out there and see what you can do!