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How I got the shot - Astro Adventure

There are not many pieces of rock in the UK that are better known than Durdle Door; it is impressive piece of geology, a landscaper photographers’ favourite and even the location for some interesting night manoeuvres.

I have quite the passion for Milky Way shooting as well as landscapes and seascapes. In 2019 I had been using my M.Zuiko Digital ED 7‑14mm F2.8 PRO & 12‑40mm F2.8 PRO lenses with a star tracker but hadn’t enjoyed the set-up as much due to the fiddley process of aligning the tracker with the North Star. I was looking at getting a faster lens for my E-M1 Mark III to combine with another method of Astro photography that utilises a collection of photos which are then stacked together to reduce noise and increase the detail. The M.Zuiko Digital ED 17mm F1.2 PRO caught my eye and I decided to try it out. At 17mm it is a little tighter than I would normally shoot the Milky Way but I was very interested to see how I got on.

In May 2020, as the first lockdown was being eased in England, I could get out and about around the Jurassic Coast again. I had been out for a local night test session with the lens in April 2020 but I was itching for something a little more dramatic and where would be better than a trip to Durdle Door.

May is usually a good time for a Milky Way shoot on the south coast of England. At the right time of the month the Milky Way core is at its best around 00:30-02:00 which means it’s nice and quiet everywhere…or so I thought. As I parked up at Durdle Door at around 23:00 the number of cars around was surprising but this part of England was seeing an influx of visitors post-lockdown, so I thought nothing more of it. I took my normal hiking route which drops me onto the top of a place called Swyre Head just west of the location and gives you an excellent high vantage point looking east to Durdle Door.

I settled down into the side of the hill and I could see the tell tail signs of multiple photographers down on the beach below; the occasional blink of a screen, a flash of a red light as someone checks their kit bag and a few attempts at light painting the arch. As I set up, I noticed a boat head up from the east, it was close to the shoreline and looked large based on its lights. I assumed it was a fishing boat of some sort, it eventually stopped and went dark just out to sea to not far from Durdle Door itself.

I fired off a few wider shots, but the composition wasn’t fantastic and the boat was turning its lights on and off and moving. So, my shooting companion and I decided to head down to the cliff to get a tighter angle and hopefully remove the boat from the composition.

As we reached the cliff above the beach the activity of the boat increased. One of the photographers on the beach was obviously getting annoyed and decided to shine a very bright torch at the boat a few times. After the 3rd or 4th time the boat also got angry and the flashing blue lights came in much closer, flooding the entire beach with light. It was almost like daylight down there it was so bright.

After a few minutes a 4x4 vehicle with flashing blue lights appeared and a few people in yellow jackets and bright torches headed down to the beach, I assume to have talk to the people down there. After a while it all settled down and it later turned out that the boat was part of the UK Customs Patrol on a night exercise along the south coast. They obviously didn’t like having bright torches shone at them and I am pretty sure the photographers down on the beach regretted it too!

Thankfully during all this I managed to get a few shots (never miss an opportunity hey). The evening was quite unnerving at times and I must admit if I was alone I probably would have left earlier. I did get to try out the 17mm F1.2 Pro paired with my E-M1 Mark III and utilising the Starry AF mode. I shot 40 Images of the Milky way using the built in interval shooting mode at 13 seconds | f/1.2 | ISO 2500 (plus 6 dark frames). I later stacked these in Sequator software and blended the output in Photoshop with a capture I took as the patrol boat was illuminating the beach to create a unique image.

Despite the problems of that evening it did make me want to return and try and get a shot back down on the beach. In April 2021 I headed back, this time straight to the beach and I was pleased that there were just 5 people that night (my group were 3 of them) and thankfully no boats out at sea! I was once again armed with the E-M1 Mark III and the 17 mm F1.2 Pro and it all went without any issues. This time I did a stack from 50 Shots (Interval shooting | 1 second gap | Starry AF | 8 Seconds | f/1.2 | ISO 3200), stacked in Sequator again and blended with a single foreground shot of the rock taken as the morning twilight was just starting to show.

The E-M1 Mark III and the 17 mm F1.2 has now become my Astro setup of choice and I am thoroughly enjoying the tighter field of view that I was originally worried about. Despite 2021 being as challenging as 2020 was for photography, it is always on hand ready for when the Milky Way core visibility and clear skies align!

Featured products:

M.Zuiko Digital ED 7‑14mm F2.8 PRO

M.Zuiko Digital ED 12‑40mm F2.8 PRO

M.Zuiko Digital ED 17mm F1.2 PRO

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