Night Sky Photography
The Milky Way – Colorado

Recently, I’ve been shooting at night to create unique images for my conservation photography project. My evening excursions have reminded me that pursuing night sky photography requires patience and an open mind with the reward of witnessing the natural world in a way that many people don’t.

A clear dark night as close to a New Moon as possible will provide you with optimum conditions to create stunning images. It can be difficult to find dark enough skies to create images without light pollution, so I use Dark Sky Finder when planning my evening excursions. But don’t let light pollution, including the moon, always discourage you from going out, as it can often help to create unexpected and interesting images.

Night Sky Photography
Spruce and Stars – Colorado

Along with finding out the darkness of the skies, I use the free Star Chart app to help me identify celestial bodies, constellations and the location of the Milky Way. To create successful images, the key is to balance your lens’ aperture and shutter speed with a higher ISO to create digital files that you’ll be able to work with during post processing – where the images become incredible.

 

Essentials
Before heading out into the field here is a list of the essentials:

  • DSLR Camera capable of shutter speeds up to 30 seconds and BULB setting
  • Wide angle lens, 10-24mm
  • Tripod
  • Cable release
  • Stopwatch app

It’s also helpful to bring along your headlamp to make in field camera adjustments – especially if it has a red light setting so that your eyes can remain somewhat adjusted to the dark. The light from your phone can work, too.

Let’s use the following scenario as an example: I want to create images of the night sky and represent the stars as I’d see naturally as points of light – like the images in this post – using a 20mm fixed focal length lens with a maximum aperture of 1.4. I’ll be shooting RAW images and use Adobe Lightroom for post processing.

Camera Settings
Shooting RAW files I’ll set the White Balance to Auto and adjust the color balance later during post processing. I’ll choose a higher ISO, like 1600, as a starting point and make adjustments as I’m shooting. My Nikon has a High ISO Noise Reduction setting, so I’ll be sure to turn it on as well.

Aperture and Shutter Speed
Next I’ll set my aperture to its largest setting, F1.4, to allow the maximum amount of light to enter the lens. I’ll then determine my shutter speed range using the focal length of my lens (in our example 20mm) and the 500/600 Rules –  divide 500 by 20 to get 25, then divide 600 by 20 to get 30. This tells me that, to represent the stars as points of light, I’ll need to set my shutter speed between 25-30 seconds. In this example, any shutter speeds longer than 30 seconds will capture the rotation of the Earth and begin to represent the stars as trails and not points of light.

Focus
Determining the sharpest focus can be a frustrating step in this process, so be patient. My Nikon has Live View Mode, which I’ve found to be the most accurate way to manually focus my lens. After switching my camera from AutoFocus to Manual, I’ll go into Live View Mode. I zoom in on a spot in the sky to magnify the stars, then I rotate the focus ring until the stars become fine points of light on the LCD and then exit out of Live View Mode. If you do not not have Live View or similar capabilities, the next best thing is to rotate your focus ring to the Infinity setting, take a test shot, zoom in to see if your focus is sharp or if it needs adjusting.

Night Sky Photography
Ursa Major Over the Eagle River – Colorado

Shooting
Now that you’ve set up your camera, you’re ready to start creating images. You can trip the shutter by using an electronic shutter release cable or, if your shutter speeds are less than 30 seconds as in our example, you can use your camera’s shutter release timer. Once the image has been processed by the camera’s High ISO Noise Reduction, you can check out what was captured on the LCD and make minor adjustments to the ISO, aperture and composition.

Using your headlamp, try illuminating a tree or a rock while the shutter is open. If you’ve got a speedlight, fire it off while the shutter is open to illuminate an object or the foreground. Play around, experiment, take notes so you remember what techniques worked and didn’t work. Also, if I wanted to capture star trails, I’d need to use my camera’s BULB setting, an electronic shutter release and a stopwatch app so I know when to close the shutter.

Post Processing
Fifteen years ago, I was only shooting film and loved working in the darkroom. Watching the latent image slowly appear in the developing trays was such a trip. Post processing night sky images reminds me of my film days because the post processing adjustments you make reveal even more of what you captured in the field. I use Lightroom to process my RAW digital files, but the types of adjustments that need to be made in LR can be done using Aperture as well. Each image will need to be manipulated individually.

Night Sky Photography
Edge of the Milky Way – Colorado

I adjust each file’s white balance, exposure, highlights, shadows and sharpness. Chances are if you’re using LR or Aperture you’ve got a pretty good handle on your software’s adjustment capabilities. This process is what really makes your night sky images come to life. Just like making minor adjustments to your camera’s settings in the field, you’ll need to play around with your post processing software to make the images appear the way you want.

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