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Under the sky of Tenerife: behind the scenes of a time-lapse journey to the stars

April 30, 2018

Here's my journey into capturing some of the world's most detailed time-lapse shots of the milky way and into continuing to pave the way for innovative astrolapse techniques.

 

 

Before going deep into the details and technical stuff, you should probably take a watch at the movie if you haven't done it yet: 

 

 

If you have been following my work over the past few years you would know that I found a field of astronomy and astrophotography that I've gotten extremely passionate about: ASTROLAPSE - the art of timelasping the night sky. I know this sounds completely nerdy but it can produce some of the most stunning views and helps show the gems of our universe in a very unique and visual way. Now astrolapse is not brand new (but still young!) and ever since the dawn of digital photography people have started shooting night scapes and producing stunning time-lapses of wide-angle scenes of the milky way moving against a foreground. The photographic gear has gotten better since and now we can get crisper films but to me astrolapse had never really evolved...until now! While the whole span of our home galaxy is still impressive to gaze at, it was time for me to show something else and to create some variation. There are three ways of doing so since we are stuck on Earth: changing your focal length, changing your perspective from which you are shooting, changing your shooting technique. It has been long journey of learning, investing, making sacrifices and experimenting (for more details on these new techniques I invite you to read my article: click here). After the success (but also challenges) experimenting in La Palma last November to get stunning views of the winter milky way, I was more than eager to apply these new skills (and avoid past mistakes) to the most photographed and famous part of the galaxy: the core! So it could seem like traveling to Tenerife would be a nice relaxing vacation as it was originally meant to be, but why not do both: enjoy the island's beauties and activities while creeping my way up the volcano at night like an astro vampire thirsty for the night sky?
 

 

Located at the heart of the Canary islands- around 200km off the shore of Morocco and Western Sahara, Africa, Tenerife is a volcanic island full of wonders. It belongs to Spain and harbors the country’s highest peak, Pico Del Teide culminating at 3718 meters above sea level. The island benefits from a wide variety of climates due to the different levels of altitudes and air currents. Lower altitudes generally get a layer of low rolling clouds produced by the vicinity of sea water. The north of the island often gets rain and therefore a more temperate sub-tropical climate whereas the southern tip is very mediterranean, desert-like even, with lots of cacti due to the low amount of annual precipitation. The higher you climb the slopes of the crater the drier the soil and vegetation get and the more barren it becomes. This area is called ‘Corona Forestal’, meaning the forest crown, and is mainly populated by pine trees. The El Teide national parc is delimited by the primary crater mountain ridge which offers peculiar conditions for a scares and very endemic fauna and flora to survive. You really get a feeling of emptiness and mystery in that very lunar landscape. The primary goal of this short film was of course to showcase this unique variety and biodiversity (did you see the bunny and the lizards?), but also the extremely unique mood of the crater, which only brings us closer to the heavens!

 

 

This short’s timeline is built around one fictional day. It starts with the beautiful sunrises above the sea of clouds. Then embark on a journey around the island, visiting the Cacti of the south or the humid forests of the north. As the day unfolds we progressively climb the volcano to witness the magic of sunsets from the crater. There you can experience many twilight phenomena. For one the sun hanging right above the ‘Calima’- this cloud of dust and sand from the Sahara, giving beautiful colors. You can also appreciate the extremely fast twilight with Venus and the thin-crescent moon in the Earthshine setting on the western shore in the zodiacal lights, this strange pyramidal column of light coming from the sunlight being refracted into tiny interplanetary dust particles. From this moment when colors and light are fading away you are in for quite a show! 

 

 

WHY TENERIFE TO PHOTOGRAPH THE CORE?

 

I stayed on the island two years ago at the exact same period of the year and I was just beginning my astrolapse journey. Back then I was stunned by how well you could see the stars and how beautiful my milky way pictures looked. I even compiled a short film about the island: 

 

 

Notice what I called the movie back at the time: 'The darkest crater'. It's partly true and partly erroneous and this will bring me to my point. After progressively getting better and learning so much about how to improve astrophotos, I realized back then that my shots weren't so sharp, had tons of coma and chromatic aberration, were too noisy and had too much light pollution in them. I was in shock because I had read so many times that Tenerife was one of the best places in the world to photograph the milky way and my pictures still looked gorgeous (at least to the novice Adrien). As you get more and more into astrophotography and even more so astrolapse (where you want to optimize your shooting conditions as you can only take a series of single exposures), you start getting picky… After my astro trip to La Palma (another of those Canary islands even more famous for its dark skies) last November I got excellent footage but I was also able to draw some compelling conclusions that the skies there were not THE absolute best in the world. For starters Tenerife’s light pollution (LP) is far from being insignificant when you do single picture astrophotography. It’s as if you were shooting in a rural area and you still get the yellow glow almost all around the island, although mostly around the southern tip and Santa Cruz in the North. Climbing up the crater makes it a bit better but you still cannot avoid it. I had to use a square light pollution filter to counter that. Look at the LP map (Red, Orange, yellow, even green is bad!):

 

The following photos have been taken without a light pollution filter to give you an idea: 

 

Some areas are a bit better (you can get the milky way between zones with LP, especially if you stand in the northern part of the crater as the third photo suggests) but you can easily see that most of the picture will be affected by it. Nevertheless LP appears dimmer (I would say about 30%) when there is a blanket of lower clouds and that happens quite often so that's good news. LP affects your astrophotos in several ways. Firstly it drowns everything in an annoying glow that is hard (impossible even) to suppress. It cancels out the little contrasts there are from the light of the milky way and instead of the landscape being illuminated only by stars, you get a flatter distribution of light. Then LP produces one more obstacle by reflecting in dust particles and humidity in the air. You will consequently have to apply more noise reduction also because you're going to want to increase your contrasts more in post-production.  

 

One other challenge to shoot timelapse up there was the multiple noise-enhancing factors like dust, sand and airglow, and you can barely do anything about them. On the last night the 'Calima' was raging on! Another big issue was the wind. The regular gusts made it very difficult when I was tracking the shots to get better sharpness and exposure, but also when I was using motion control. I got a lot of shakes and even if daytime scenes were easily corrected in post-processing, I had to throw away 20% of the night time sequences because too many shakes on a long exposure sequence cannot be corrected. One last challenge is that I had to deal with was fatigue. As I never know what I'm gonna get, I wanted to make the most of every moment on the island and shoot as muc