There is nothing better than camping under a blanket of stars on a summer night with the Milky Way cutting down the center of the sky. The glow from the fire lights up the campsite and everything just shines under the sparkling night. These scenes used to be almost impossible to capture with film cameras, but digital technology has taken astrophotography to new heights. With a few simple techniques and some common gear we can get out-of-this world photos of the stars and even our own galaxy.
One of the most important things about night photography is getting your camera steady during long exposure (LE) shots. While the tripod is the most effective and versatile way to do this, don't forget that a few well placed rocks, a fallen log, or a backpack can also provide a substitute in a pinch. Make sure to turn off your vibration reduction or image stabilization when using tripods. Use your camera's timer or a separate shutter release to keep your camera from shaking while pressing the button. Also, if you are shooting with a DSLR, set your camera to mirror up mode or shoot in live view to minimize vibration from the internal mirror.
While your settings will always change depending on the situation, there are a few basic principles. First, you'll need to become familiar with shooting in manual mode. The idea is to open your aperture as wide as it goes, turn your ISO to a few thousand, and start experimenting with your exposure times. If you are shooting longer than around 30 seconds you will begin to get trails of the star's lights as the our planet turns. One common setting for a shot with no trails might be something like 25 seconds of exposure with an f/4 aperture and 2000 ISO on a wide angle lens. Wider apertures will allow for shorter shutter speeds and less star trails, or you may opt to reduce your ISO and noise with a wider aperture.
Perhaps the trickiest part to taking good star photos is getting the focus right when shooting in the dark. Sometimes people set this up in the daytime and are careful not to touch the focus ring as it gets dark. If it is already pitch black, light up objects in the distance with a strong flashlight and use auto-focus to reach the infinity mark on your lens. Make sure you turn off the auto focus before trying to take the photo so it doesn't try to re-find infinity. Also, learning how to manually set your lens to infinity is very helpful; each lens has a different sweet spot, so practice is necessary to line up the markers properly. How you do it isn't as important as making sure it stays there by having your auto focus switched off and not accidentally touching the focus ring. Magnify your thumbnails on the camera after your exposure to check the sharpness; it is very common to get back home on your computer to find they were all blurry, but it is hard to tell on most camera's small view screens without zooming in.
Each camera is different when it comes to how high you can crank the ISO without it being too noisy or grainy. On average the pricier models can go to a higher speed and maintain sharpness and clarity. Getting your hands on some noise reducing software such as Photoshop or Noise Ninja can make a big difference. Always shoot in RAW instead of JPEG. One of the best options to reduce noise is to take multiple exposures. The editing technique is time consuming and complicated, but it gives you the best results. This is a great video if you are up to the challenge.
Some people like star trails, and some people don't. Trails can be incredibly time consuming, so it's pretty cool to see them done right. You can stop down a few of your settings such as ISO and aperture, but your exposure might be several hours long for large trails. Find the North Star (Polaris) to get a center star around which all the others spin. The longer your shutter speed, the longer and stronger the circles around the North Star will be.
The galactic center of the Milky Way can be seen from March to October while in the northern hemisphere. For the best photos of the nebulous gasses in the center of our galaxy, you will want to be out from April to the end of July, hopefully in a place low on light pollution. It is getting harder to find darkness these days, even in remote areas, but thankfully the Dark Sky Project is working on spreading awareness and getting active about light pollution and its harms. Check out this map to find the darkest spots in the U.S. Remember, to minimize star trails you'll want to shoot with your widest possible aperture and keep your shutter speed down as low as you can without moving your ISO into noisy ranges.
There are a ton of free apps you can download onto your phone to help you track the moon cycles, location, and when it sets and rises. During a full moon the amount of light reflecting back onto Earth makes it very difficult to see the stars. New moons are an astrophotographer's best friend, but they only come around every few weeks. If you can't wait for one, do your best to get your shots before the moon rises over the horizon or after is has set to help you see the stars better.
One of the best ways to take your night photography to the next level is by using artificial light to paint the surrounding features of the landscape under the sky. As the shutter stays open for the necessary time you can use a light source to accent the various natural features in your scene. This really adds depth to your photos, and while it can take some practice to get the right results it's always better than simply having a blacked-out foreground. In my experience you will want to use warmer lights such as what you find from a halogen bulb compared to the cooler tone of LED lights. People get very creative with colored filters and different diffusers for amazing results. A lot of times landscaping lights or city lights can work in your favor to illuminate your scene without the need to light paint, look for places where lights are pointed upward onto trees or other features for great results.
Note that light painting can impact others in the area who may be searching for a dark night sky experience. People have really taken to light painting in national parks and other public lands, which can be frustrating to many visitors and campers. If you do plan on doing any light painting, be considerate of others in the area. Good photos are fun, but keeping nature natural for those around you is more important. We do share these public lands with everyone.
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