Deepscapes: Leave the Wide-Angle Lens at Home

Use a Telelphoto Lens with Astro Landscapes to Create Deepscapes

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A cosmic triangle created by the Pleiades star cluster, Venus, and our Moon. Captured at 175mm using the Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8.

Landscape astrophotography, or a nightscape, is simply the inclusion of the night sky with the landscape. Since the inception of digital photography, this photographic approach has increased in popularity. It’s more accessible and easier than ever, resulting in a plethora of images captured with a wide-angle lens that almost always depicts the Milky Way’s galactic center above a landscape element. On social media, another genre has been emerging out of technological advancement and post-processing prowess: the “Dreamscape.” These are combinations of the landscape and unrelated Deep Sky Objects (or DSO’s). Usually, the result is a combination of Hubble style images with stock or landscape photography. It was in this space that I, Scott Aspinall, took my first photograph of the night sky and eventually moved into Deepscape landscape astrophotography, or nightscapes captured with a telephoto lens.

A selfie taken under the spring night sky. Captured with a Tamron 15-30mm, f/2.8.

In the Beginning…

I purchased my first DSLR back in 2016 and captured my first ever night photograph a few months later. After many hours scouring the web for anything that would tell me how to photograph the night sky, I ventured out one cool June night and captured the first of what would be many images of the night sky. And, as many of you can relate, once I saw that first one on the back of my camera’s LCD, I was addicted, spending the next three months photographing the Milky Way.

A Milky Way panorama depicting the Summer Galactic Core arcing over the Saskatchewan landscape.

Once my first Milky Way season ended and the core set for the winter, I put the landscape astrophotography on the backburner to focus on other things as I anticipated the following summer’s Milky Way season. So, when March 2017 arrived, I lost more hours of sleep but managed to gain more Milky Way photography under my belt. But, after that initial high at the beginning of the season, uncertainty began to weigh in my mind. Was this it? Even though the landscape was different every time, the compositions looked the same. Was I really satisfied with taking the same picture again and again for years to come? Was I okay with producing the same formulaic photos that now countless others were: foreground element, subject, and Milky Way behind it?

I bought a star tracker in hopes that the new challenge would re-invigorate me and rekindle the love I once had for being under the night sky, camera in hand. While that helped initially, I was ultimately left unsatisfied once again. So once fall brought with it the end of another Milky Way season, I felt relief. Thankfully, that feeling of relief alerted me enough to try something new so, instead of putting the camera away, I spent the winter of 2018/2019 photographing winter constellations and the side of the Milky Way that is visible during winter months.

A 180 degree panorama of the galactic center arcing over a frozen Saskatchewan tree. Pictured here is Orion, Pleiades, Andromeda, and the Wirtanen Comet to name a few.

At the end of my first winter Milky Way season, I felt reinvigorated and ready for another summer milky way photography season. However, that feeling didn’t last long, and I soon became tired of the status quo. I was still proud of the work I was producing, and it was well-received, but I had lost my connection with the night sky and desperately needed to find a way back. It was then that I had the idea for a Deepscape photograph. 

The First Deepscape

The idea came in September 2018 as I was photographing a 50mm panorama of the galactic core. When I turned my camera to shoot the section of the night sky that includes the Rho Ophiuchi Cloud Complex, I noticed a grain bin in the distance on my LCD screen. The Rho Ophiuchi Cloud Complex was bigger than the grain bin! By photographing at a longer focal length, I had unwittingly given a sense of the true scale and majesty of the night sky in a way that a wide-angle photograph could never do. My thoughts turned immediately to trying something with my 85mm lens during the remaining nights of the summer Milky Way season. Unfortunately, though, I never had the time or conditions to shoot again with September being the final month we in Saskatchewan, Canada, see the Rho Ophiuchi Cloud Complex above the horizon. So instead, I began to plan for my first real attempt at photographing what would become known as a Deepscape, the following spring.

Fast forward to November of 2018. As I was scrolling Facebook, a photograph of the Andromeda galaxy above the landscape showed up in my news feed. My initial reaction was one of disgust at the thought of yet another dreamscape. But upon further inspection, my disgust transformed into a pleasant surprise. It was real. It was an actual photo of the Andromeda galaxy as it aligned with a notable mountain in Southern Colorado, captured with a telephoto lens by Paul Schmit. I knew then that my idea of combining the Rho Ophiuchi Cloud Complex with the landscape that upcoming spring might not be crazy. I also knew then that there might be other possible conjunctions of different sky objects and the land beyond the single Deepscape I had planned. That was confirmed again in February of 2019 when Nicolas Tabbush shared his 180mm version of Orion captured at the CASLEO astronomical observatory in San Juan, Argentina. 

A two-panel panorama of the Rho Ophiuchi Cloud Complex over a small grouping of trees. Captured with the Tamron 70-200mm, f/2.8 @ 122mm (w/ additional cropping).

In early April 2019, I captured this rendition of the Rho Ophiuchi Cloud Complex as it crept above the Saskatchewan horizon. With a focal length of 122mm (I had purchased the Tamron 70-200 2.8 G2 months earlier), and two stitched panoramic panels, I was beyond elated that I had captured my first Deepscape. Though, as it was still a very new approach to landscape astrophotography, I was unsure about what the reception would be. Generally, it was overwhelmingly positive. But there was, of course, some negativity and cries of fakery that originate from years of conditioning after witnessing the inundation of dreamscapes and other unscientific approaches to landscape astrophotography over the past half-decade. I knew it was going to take time and more of these Deepscapes to shift popular opinion.

What is a Deepscape? 

The North American Nebula captured over a lone Saskatchewan tree at nearly 200mm using a Tamron 70-200mm, f/2.8.

Since then, I have successfully photographed four more Deepscapes. I have photographed Orion, the North American Nebula, the Rho Ophiuchi Cloud Complex (again), and a cosmic triangle (which will be discussed in further detail later in this article). Each was captured at precise locations chosen while using planning software like Stellarium, Google Earth, and PlanIt. Once you know where, when, and which focal length in the telephoto range to use, you simply need to show up at that spot at the right time with a telephoto lens, camera, star tracker, and tripod. 

Deepscape vs. Dreamscape

A clunky definition of a Deepscape is a telephoto landscape astrophotograph of DSOs as they align with a landscape. They are always a mix of exposures to both maximize detail in the night sky and to minimize the noise in the foreground. That said, even if they are a mix of exposures, there is a massive distinction between a Deepscape and a Dreamscape. Great care is taken when planning and while photographing to ensure the accuracy of the final presentation in a Deepscape. The scale and location of all elements in the finished photograph must be accurate to a single point in time. 

Once you arrive and set up in the correct spot, it’s paramount to document the actual location of the DSO as it rises (or sets) into position so you can accurately blend it into its correct position. Then, it’s a matter of photographing your skies with a star tracker as they rise (or set) to the horizon. When you shoot your foreground exposures, you’ll want your tracker turned off. When everything is captured, you simply employ post-processing to blend the elements carefully and accurately, and work to bring out the most detail possible in the night sky.

A minimalist scene dominated by the Rho Ophiuchi Cloud Complex. Captured in Bortle Class 1/2 skies with a Tamron 70-200mm, f/2.8 @ 125mm.

A Cosmic Meeting

The latest Deepscape I attempted was a cosmic triangle created by our Moon, the planet Venus, and the star cluster Pleiades (also known as the Seven Sisters). 

A cosmic triangle created by the Pleiades star cluster, Venus, and our Moon. Captured at 175mm using the Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8.

Back in January 2020, I was exploring Stellarium for potential Deepscapes for the upcoming year. I had a couple of potentials jotted down, and as I progressed to the end of March, I found this opportunity to photograph the Pleiades, Moon, and Venus. It’s not often you can capture the conjunction of two space objects with a telephoto lens and the landscape, so the likelihood of finding a date when you could photograph the conjunction of three space objects with the landscape was minuscule. I quickly jotted March 28th down and worked on finding a foreground that would work. 

The location had to be in a dark sky. I needed to ensure that I gave the Pleiades a chance to shine by finding some Class 1/2 skies where light pollution wasn’t going to hinder that detail, especially considering there was a 19% illuminated moon already washing out detail. After scouring Google Earth, I found this tree in a Class 2 dark sky and planned to check it out before the March date. 

Best Laid Plans

I never got there. Life got busy, and I couldn’t justify the 3 hours of driving to go scouting. As March 28th drew near and the weather forecast turned in my favour with promises of clear skies, I felt unprepared. I thought long and hard of a location that would be better suited, but couldn’t. So on the night of the 28th, I headed to this location, sight unseen. Thankfully, because of tools like PlanIt, I was able to get myself into the right position to photograph this.

I set up around 10:40 PM, setting my focal length to the pre-planned 175mm and photographed the foreground first, using the moonlight to naturally illuminate the landscape when it was higher in the sky. From there, I turned my tracker on and took 36 1-minute exposures for Venus and the Pleiades with an aperture of f4 and an ISO of 800. This exposure time blew out the moon, so I switched my exposure to 30 seconds and f/6.7 (same ISO), switched my tracker mode to lunar, and took another 20 exposures with those settings. 

That was certainly a challenging shoot due to the brightness of the moon and Venus, but I’m happy with what I was able to capture that night. These three astronomical objects wouldn’t be this close together for decades, so I thought that filming some behind the scenes video of the event would be a nice marker, and great to look back on when (or, more accurately, if) I reach the age of 72 and these three space objects get cozy once again. For those planners out there, you’ll want to mark April 3rd, 2060, on your calendars. On that date, we will see the Pleiades, Venus, Moon together again. And, if that isn’t motivation enough, Saturn and Jupiter will join the party, filling a single telephoto frame, for the mother of all Deepscapes. 

Orion’s belt, the Orion Nebula, Flame Nebula, Horsehead Nebula, and Witch’s Head Nebula rise above the Saskatchewan prairie. Captured with a Tamron 70-200mm, f/2.8 @ 105mm.

What Will You Do?

My newfound passion for Deepscape landscape astrophotography was spurred by a falling out of love with wide-angle milky way photography. If you take anything away from this article, let it be this. Explore the entire night sky, do not lose your connection with the land and night sky by being satisfied with the status quo. Space is huge; it’s so much more than a single streak of bright stars and nebula with a bit of space dust. There is so much more, and I encourage you to get out and experience the vastness and majesty of the heavens.

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