The night sky has captivated man for millennia. Sitting outside, the longer you stare into the blackness, the more tiny points of light make themselves apparent. Soon the whole sky becomes an infinitely detailed universe. For a photographer, the urge is to reach for your camera, as few subjects can match the majesty of this display. But before you rush to make your debut as an astrophotographer, here are some tips to help you photograph the starry night sky like a pro.
1. Planning Makes Perfect
As is always the case when working in natural conditions, it pays to prepare. Seasoned night-time pro Stephen Banks tells us that he always familiarizes himself with the area he wants to capture before heading out in the dark. “I’m extremely lucky to be living in Dorset (UK), as there are so many fabulous and well-known locations beneath some of the county’s darkest skies. I regularly visit these locations in the daytime, which is important to get a mental picture of where to walk and what to photograph.” This is particularly crucial if you plan to shoot from an elevated position.
To ensure a clear shot, it’s also worth trying to schedule your trip for a cloudless night. Standard weather forecasts are helpful in this regard, but specialist astronomy websites, such as Clear Outside, offer greater detail.
2. Learn the Timetable and the Local Light
Planning is also helpful in learning astrological patterns and local light conditions, both of which are essential in getting the best night-time shots.
For instance, if you plan to capture our own Milky Way galaxy, which forms a multi-colored stripe of stars across the night sky, you’ll need to avoid bright lights. “When photographing the Milky Way, I learned very quickly to avoid the moon,” Banks recalls. “When the moon is present, too much light is cast out into the sky and this greatly reduces the clarity of the Milky Way.” Easier said than done? Banks recommends the PhotoPills iOS app. “The app’s night-time augmented reality is incredibly useful for knowing where the Milky Way is going to be at any time in the future.”
3. Pack Appropriately
Before setting out, it’s important to consider your kit. A tripod is essential, and a wide-angle lens is ideal for making the most of the spectacular vista. Assuming you have a DSLR with a standard-size (APS-C) sensor, this equates to a lens in the 14-20mm bracket. The faster, the better — a wider aperture is helpful for picking up the faint light.
A self timer is also helpful. This allows you to select the exact length of exposure you require, and take multiple exposures over several hours for star trails (more on that later). Alternatively, there are smartphone apps which can provide similar functionality, such as Triggertrap.
It’s also helpful to have a flashlight on hand, but if you plan to make night-time photography a regular hobby, consider investing in a headlamp. They are inexpensive, and immeasurably more convenient than having to hold a light.
4. Think About Framing
With preparations made, it’s finally time to start thinking about how you want to use the stars in your compositions.
Given that any kind of significant illumination is best avoided, the subject of your image needs to be chosen carefully. A common technique is to use a clearly defined, silhouetted object as foreground interest, with the stars as a background. Trees are often used for this purpose, but it can be anything from a building to a person.
There are other ways to liven up the foreground, though. While light will fade the appearance of any stars, it is possible to blend exposures in post-processing to include traffic trails, or the lights of the city below a star-filled sky. But as Banks points out, “I think you’ve just got to come to terms with the fact that you’re never going to be able to shoot everything at night.”
5. Choose Your Settings
There is far less variation when it comes to the usual camera settings of night-time photography.
For the classic galaxy shot, the key is to employ a wide aperture and a high sensitivity. This allows for a faster shutter speed, which is necessary in order to capture the stars in sharp focus before the earth has a chance to turn. A good starting point is the widest aperture your lens offers, with a sensitivity of ISO 3200 and a shutter speed of 20 seconds. The sharpness and exposure this produces will vary according to the lens you use. Review the result on your camera’s screen — if it is underexposed, increase the sensitivity; if it needs to be sharper, use a faster shutter speed.
Focusing is a relatively simple affair — you need to set your lens to manual focusing, and turn the focus ring to the infinity mark (∞). However, many lenses rotate slightly further than this point, so it is advisable to use Live View, or on older cameras, simply keep reviewing your shots.
6. Utilize Post-Processing for Creative Effect
In most cases, the settings above should produce shots that require only a modest amount of time in the digital darkroom. This usually includes tweaking white balance and making selective adjustments to exposure. But if you’re feeling artistic, there is more you can do, such as creating a star trail image.
Rather than trying to beat the earth’s rotation, this technique relies on the relative movement of the planet to make each star appear as a short, curved light trail. The process involves taking multiple exposures of the same view over several hours (why the remote is a good idea) and blending them together in your image editing program. The composite image can be spectacular.
7. Most Importantly: Persevere
Night-time photography is one of the most technically challenging and exhaustion-inducing niches you could possibly try your hand at. But as with any skill worth acquiring, practice makes perfect. “Persevere. Always go out, even if you don’t necessarily think you’re going to get a good shot,” Banks advises.
The advantage of doing so is that you’ll end up with some great images. “I remember driving through miles of fog on my way to Durdle Door, thinking to myself, ‘Why am I bothering tonight?’ But when I got there, a boat on the horizon was kicking out so much light into the sea mist, it looked like the moon or the sun was rising in the final image I shot.” Banks also points out that the more times you train your camera on the sky, the more likely you are to capture “meteors streaking across the sky, iridium flares, or the International Space Station passing overhead.” After all, who wouldn’t want to photograph a shooting star?
From the stars to the city, check out these photos of NYC at night if you liked this post.
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