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Seven days, my Sony a7s and a southern sky...

April 15, 2017

I have always wondered what the southern night sky looked like in reality. As my first time in the southern hemisphere, follow the recap of my one-week journey along Malawian roads with nothing but my Sony a7s, some batteries and an indescribable dose of excitement...
 

 

As I was accompanying a group of students from Odsherred Efterskole, Denmark on a trip to Malawi for a week, I took advantage of the little time off I had to take some pictures. In cooperation with Francis Botha, local citizen and employed at NGO Danish Church Aid, we toured the African country from South to North, helping me find diverse locations and scenes to best capture what I had in mind.



Malawi is the fourth poorest and among the least-developed countries in the world, relying almost exclusively on agriculture. As the latter is dependent of the capricious and sensitive climate, the land regularly suffers from extremes: droughts or floods. In spite of the sadening conditions, Malawi has by far the most welcoming and warm-hearted people on Earth, hence their motto: ‘The warm heart of Africa’. No matter where we ended up, we would be acclaimed with vibrant and transcending chants. Local communities opened their hearts, their homes and shared the little food they had with us, while we remorsefully reminisced about the selfishness of western countries.

 



The south-east African country has everything to offer, from its wildlife to its beautiful landscapes. However it has one thing that beats all and that made the subject of my shots: its skies. ‘THAMBO’, the title of my short film means ‘sky, clouds’ in Chichewa (central region and official language of Malawi). Malawi can now be renowned for its virtually pollution-free and dark skies, and possesses some incredible sky phenomena that can be witnessed year-round. From its orange sunsets or sunrise to its thunderstorms and incredible cloud formations over Lake Malawi, the country counts among the darkest places I have ever seen to observe the milky way and the night sky. Even downtown Lilongwe (the capital) and the moon cannot wash out the milky way entirely! Some of the shots were taken when we were in town, and you can see a bit of haze from light pollution, but that would never be possible in Europe or in the LA valley!

 

 

From all the places, I clearly preferred shooting nightscapes around the remote villages where the skies were pitch black and pristine clear! They are constituted of small communities peppered with thatched-roof houses (actually their kitchens or bathrooms!) that gave me the real African mood I was looking for. The moon also enabled me to get all the details, which I would have missed part of if I was going to shoot the milky way. The houses were surrounded by semi-arid savannah, bush and improvised agricultural patches designed to feed locals. The staple crop is clearly corn with which they prepare 'Nshima', a flour and water based dough that thickens so that a bowl can be dipped into other things like beef, goat stew, beans or greens. The recurrent rain also gave me the opportunity to spot loads of wild flowers, subject of some of my shots. I literally loved shooting day-time scenes on the shores of Lake Malawi. The humidity rose from it during the night and built thunderstorms, leftovers of which gave tremendous tropical sunrises resembling Hawaii's!
 

 

The films wasn’t that easy to put together either as I had to deal with a series of technical difficulties.

 
1) The muggy and wet season for starters. March marks the end of the rain season in the country but it has unusually sustained throughout April, which gives regular showers and condensation, which aren’t a photographer’s best friend.

2) The moon was between 50 and 95% full during the week, giving me only a few hours window to shoot at night, when the clouds weren’t showing of course! On the other hand, it enabled me to take cool moonlit scenes in the countryside.

3) Spare time: The goal of the trip was of course to accompany young Danish students on a charity trip, and it was a full-time job. I sacrificed a lot of precious healing hours of sleep to come to this result, as our schedule did not allow a lot of free time.

4) Battery and electricity: I brought a lot of batteries with me, but it wasn't rare to spend 2-3 days without access to power, resulting in shorter time-lapse sequences with narrow intervals.

5) Wildlife: I only had a knife to defend myself in the Malawian night, so I didn’t stray too far from villages, where hyenas and other predators were roaming! Even half-wild dogs were aggressive and howling at me!

6) Flickering: most of the flickering in the video comes from distant thunderstorms or moths flying by the lens, which was extremely hard to remove without losing quality. 
 

 

My main interest was of course to get beautiful shots of the southern sky full of new objects and setups. I was able to capture the large Magellanic clouds in the moonlight (I couldn't produce a time-lapse of it though, which I regret!), some cool shooting stars, rainbows, staggering details in the core of the milky way (even on time-lapse!), moon halo, the Carina nebula... Now my camera choice was extremely limited from the get-go, as I didn't want to bring my most expensive or precious cams, such as the Sony a7rII or modded 6D. I brought my 'less-valuable' Sony a7s instead (for me anyway, because it is not my primary camera, and I got it cheap!). The challenge was double: improve the quality of my night sequences using a camera that counts less pixels in its sensor, and use this camera from start to finish without any filter or fancy accessories. Travel light, right? Especially in a country where security is more of an issue than in our country (on a side, I want to underline that I have in no way felt threatened or scared for myself or my camera during the whole trip, which doesn't mean I couldn't have gotten mugged or kidnapped, but let's be honest, so can you in western countries...).
I feel like I have more than reached my goal. I will let you be the judge of that of course. The a7s's performances shone through the entire trip, whether during the day or night. The nice dynamic range, sharpness and effective pixels permitted me to get professional quality shots throughout the day. At night, I have never gotten so much detail and true colors in the milky way. The optimal ISO setting is definitely 3200 (the one that gives the widest dynamic range without overstaturating stars). Even after noise removal, my milky way remained so clean! (even for time-lapse). Bottom line, the small Sony a7s is such a guru for most sub-fields of astrophotography (single, stack, time-lapse, film...) and is a go-to camera for night time-lapse. At no point I felt like the small 12 megapixels sensor was a liability... on the contrary (more effective pixels, resulting is few pixel value error (noise)). I am attaching a little gallery of some of the last shots of my trip.