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Lanai Lookout Hawaii Milky Way

Hawaii Starscapes II: Lana’i Lookout and Multi-Exposure Milky Way shots

Lana’i Lookout on the Southern East coast of Oahu offers an ideal spot for Honolulu residents to practice astrophotography. Nestled behind Koko Crater and not too far from Hanauma Bay, this scenic lookout is packed with tourists and experienced divers during the day and offers a wide view of a mostly dark sky at night where the Milky Way is strongly visible during the summer months. While the darkness here does not rival Kaena Point or Mokuleia, it is a shorter drive for the majority of the residents on the island. The first time I would ever shoot stars would be here and I would return multiple times with new gear and ideas.

Like many, my first DSLR was an entry level crop (APS-C) body. And as I knew night shots would be an important interest I would skip the kit lens to save up for an ultra wide (11 – 16mm) lens that would make astro shots easier as the wider image minimized star trails. A couple months after getting my first non-point-and-shoot camera, I headed to Lana’i Lookout (via The Bus) in an attempt to capture the Milky Way. This was late in 2012 and at this point I did not know enough about star patterns to realize that the Galactic Core of the Milky Way would not be visible anymore. But I was I able to get an important practice night in.

I arrived there around 9p and Ahnate (also never shot stars at this point) came by about an hour later. He borrowed a tripod from our Psychology lab for the night. He probably returned it later. We also had enough items to try some steel wool spinning. Along with my camera, I brought a sturdy tripod, wireless controller, and a headlamp.

All of my pictures for the night were 11mm, 30s, F2.8, and ISO 1200 – 2000ish. With 11mm, the star trails were not majorly visible until zoomed in very closely.

Lanai Lookout Hawaii Milky Way

Lanai Lookout Hawaii Milky Way

Lanai Lookout Hawaii Milky Way

Lanai Lookout Hawaii Milky Way

Focusing was an issue as can be seen in the diversity of stars, but generally they looked normal enough and ok for the first try. The editing is also all over the place from overly smoothened (increased noise reduction) landscapes to fantastical colors. I would visit Kaena Point a couple months later to capture the Milky Way (again too early for the Core) and also lock down focusing after some trial and error and reading up on Hyperfocal distance as Marshall Humble had used with his gear while on Oahu.

With little luck on capturing the Milky Way, I would stop for a few months knowing early 2013 was not an ideal time. During the summer, I would upgrade to a Full Frame (FF) camera and also get a 24mm lens. While this lens was not as wide as 11 – 16 (17 – 24mm equivalent on a FF camera), it had a wider maximum aperture at F1.4 that allowed 2 stops of extra light to be captured. An advantage of going with wider apertures is that you can drop your ISO if your high ISO shots are not ideal. In terms of light captured, a shot at F2.8 + ISO 3200 would be equivalent to a F2 + ISO 1600 shot. Here, you are increasing (opening) the aperture by 1 stop while decreasing the ISO 1 stop (see stop table). Here you would sacrifice some sharpness (F-value) while increasing detail (ISO). How much depends on the lens quality and the camera’s ISO capabilities. Note that going from F2.8 to F1.4 is a 2 stop increase and lets in 4x as much light with all else being equal.

On my first night at Lana’i Lookout with my FF camera, I would shoot wide open (F1.4), 20 – 25s (with 24mm, 21s is usually the acceptable shutter speed before star trails become intolerable), and ISO 1200 – 2000. Although my FF camera is much better at high ISO shots I wouldn’t play with higher ISO until future trips. For focusing, I was able to autofocus on a bright star then left my camera on manual focus for the rest of the night (never re-focused).

Lanai Lookout Hawaii Milky Way

Lanai Lookout Hawaii Milky Way

Although not highly detailed, the brightness and overall images from this trip were more pleasing than the previous trip with my APS-C camera. As this was towards the end of the summer, I didn’t get to shoot the Core again for a few months.

During Spring break, I headed to Kauai to hike the famous Kalalau trail. I brought my tripod expecting very dark nights and was surprised at how high the Galactic Core already was in March. Here, I practiced taking multiple images for the first time.

For the Milky Way, I was able to get a quality image with 24mm, 20s, F2, and ISO 1600. The image was clean and the extra detail from stopping down to F2 from F1.4 provided a nice boost in detail with tolerable decrease in brightness. But even with extreme settings (30s, F1.4, ISO 6400) it was difficult to get color with the mountain without heavy sacrifice in quality. Here I took a 5min (bulb mode), F2, and ISO 1600 shot where the mountains came out bright and fairly clean. The next 2 images would be combined in Photoshop (basic masking, but see better method).

Kalalau, kauai, Hawaii Milky Way

Kalalau, kauai, Hawaii Milky Way

Kalalau, kauai, Hawaii Milky Way

A month later, mainly looking for new profile picture for Facebook, I returned to Lana’i Lookout to recreate the flashlight attempts from my first night here. This time, I would have better knowledge and experience in shooting stars, better gear, a stronger flashlight, and the Galactic Core would actually be there this time.

Although not a terribly dark spot, I ended up using 3 exposures to create the next shot: one for the sky (20s, F2, ISO 1600), one for me (20s, F1.8, ISO 2000), and one for the ground and water (30s, F2.8, and ISO 2000).

Being able to edit each of those separately gave me more control over the final image. I also attempted a few more multi exposure shots here.

Lanai Lookout Hawaii Milky Way

Lanai Lookout Hawaii Milky Way

Lanai Lookout Hawaii Milky Way

Lanai Lookout Hawaii Milky Way

Lanai Lookout Hawaii Milky Way

Lanai Lookout Hawaii Milky Way

Lanai Lookout Hawaii Milky Way

Lanai Lookout Hawaii Milky Way

Lanai Lookout Hawaii Milky Way

Lanai Lookout Hawaii Milky Way

If you have any questions, please leave them in the comments here.

All photos by Marvin Chandra

Also see: Starscapes [Vol. 1], [Vol. 3]

About Marvin

Endurance hiker and our resident daredevil with a heart of gold. Extreme chocolate raisin eater and master of sensory dominance.

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