Shooting the night sky

One photography skill I’ve learnt in the last 12 months is how to do astrophotography. I’ve not had a huge chance to go out and shoot the stars, but it is something fun to do when I get the chance.

I recently had the opportunity to visit Iceland and we were lucky enough to see the Northern Lights. Knowing how to setup my camera and having the right gear let me take this photo.

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Gear needed

Tripod - these photos take 15 seconds or more to take so you will need a tripod. It is always good for longer exposures to have a sturdy tripod, as if it is windy you don’t want the camera to move too much. A lot of the better tripods have hooks to add weight, like your camera bag or a sandbag, to make it more stable (for this picture I was literally holding the tripod to the ground due to the wind).

A camera with adjustable settings (shutter speed, aperture, iso etc..) - This used to be the domain of DSLRs, but these days as technology gets better and mirrorless cameras are more popular there are lots of camera options available.

Optional Gear

This gear will make your images easier and better, but they aren’t necessary.

Wide-angle lenses - The wider the lenses the more sky you can get into one picture.

Remote trigger - great for reducing movement on the camera when taking a picture. If you don’t have one of these you can always set your camera up to have a delay. I usually set mine to 2 seconds for long exposures, this will give the camera time to settle before the shutter is released for a nice clean image.

Settings

It is important when shooting the night sky that you set your camera so that you are gathering as much light as possible, but still balance those settings to reduce noise or movement. There is proper maths to get the “right” settings for the “perfect” shot, but maths is hard so here are some general rules instead.

Generally for shooting stars use something along the lines of:

iso - 1600 - 3200 - it depends on how bright the sky is. If you have plenty of light you can have a lower iso, which will mean less noise and a cleaner looking image.

Shutter speed - 15 - 30secs - same as iso, if you have lots of light, then a quicker shot is better. If you are taking pictures of the northern lights then 15 seconds is heaps (I’ve read since my visit that 5 - 8 seconds is optimal).

Aperture - As low as possible, on my wide angle lens its f4

White balance - Incandescent or something similar.

Manual Focus - Autofocus just won’t pick up the stars well enough. Take your time and do some test pictures to ensure your focus is sharp, a tip given to me was to put some tape on your focus ring once you get it right so it doesn’t move and all your pictures stay sharp.

Editing

I’m a big fan of editing my photos. I like to play with the settings to get an image that I enjoy and it can really help to draw out the colour and the light that your camera has captured than you may not have realised. So I would highly recommend shooting in raw format and edit using a program like Lightroom or Photoshop to really bring the best out of your images, but I think I’ll leave editing to another blog(s).

Advanced

To take things to the next level there are lots of other options (none of these images are mine).

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Panorama/Stitching (source)- 1 photo really won’t capture the whole night sky, so it is best to stitch multiple photos together. This can be as easy as 2 or 3 photos, or it could be 20-30 pictures . This takes time and planning to get right, but once you start taking pictures you can’t stop until the last one or the stars will move.

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Timelapse (source) - These can look incredible, and actually take advantage of the fact that stars do move through the sky. But be prepared for a big night, as even a short clip could take several hours of photography of the same location.

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Star Trails (source) - The great thing about star trails is you can use the same photos as your timelapse, just using different software, but the effect is quite striking.

Last Tips

Foreground elements - these can really make an image and create perspective for your starfield. Simple things like trees, houses or lakes make great foreground elements, the ocean in particular can look spectacular as long exposure + ocean waves is a great effect.

Check the weather - clouds can really change the photo you are taking, fully overcast will mean no stars, but if it is scattered clouds they can actually create some cool effects as they move through your image (see the timelapse above).

Check the Moon - it’s big and it’s bright and that light will make it hard to capture the stars, for the best results take your photos when the moon is down (unless you want to take pictures of the moon, then take pictures when it is up).

Get away from town - Towns give off lots of light pollution and can block the stars. In my photo of the northern lights you can see on the left of the image the light reflecting off of the clouds from Reykjavik. You can use light pollution to create interesting photos, I quite like the orange/green contrast in my picture, but if you want a clean picture of the stars then it is best to get a long way from the city.

Have fun - The clichéd advice, but still true! Create an image you enjoy and enjoy looking at the stars in a new way.

Cristy HoughtonComment