Night sky Photography:
Getting into night photography to capture the Milky Way or make make star trails is a really exciting topic. There are simple ways to get to an amazing shot of the night sky.
A dark, clear sky. Far away from any light pollution sources. That includes the moon. A great app for the phone is called ‘The Photographer’s Ephemeris’. It shows sunrise/sunset, and moonrise/moonset time for any specific locations. It is advisable to make sure to have as little moonlight as possible.
Ensure to choose a calm night. As in most cases it makes sense to include a foreground like trees to make the photo more interesting. Long time exposures will lead to blurry images when the foreground is moving.
Ensure to choose a calm night.
Camera: Get a decent DSLR that can handle high ISO values up to ISO 6400 quite well without creating too much noise.
Lens: Depends on the subject. For most applications to capture the Milky Way or Northern lights, a wide angle lens such as 24mm on a full frame camera, or 16mm on a 1.6 crop camera is recommended. A fast lens of f/3.5 or faster is recommended to capture the little light that’s available while maintaining reasonable ISO values and shutter speeds
Tripod: Depending on the Camera / Lens setup, a really sturdy tripod is recommended.
Remote Shutter: Recommended for star trails (see below)
Flashlight: Needed to see around the location. That will be the only light source available. Ensure to have all lights on, and inside the car turned off.
Ensure to have the tripod set up on sturdy ground so it won’t move. Ensure as well to remove any gadgets from the camera like straps. It’s easy to get tangled up in them in darkness, and if there’s wind it is likely to create camera movement which will result in a blurry image.
Lens: Set the aperture to wide open. If the lens starts to soften the photo at wide open apertures, increase the f/stop a little bit to improve image quality.
Shutter speed: Without auto tracking, a maximum shutter speed of around 16 seconds is recommended to avoid star trails.
ISO: The last variable is the ISO value. With a wide open aperture it shall be possible to shoot around ISO 6400.
It is impossible to use autofocus on stars. Ensure to switch to manual focus mode by selecting MF on the lens. Next, turn on Live View and use the magnification button to 10x. Find a bright star on the LCD screen and use manual focus on the lens to make the star as small and crisp as possible. Turn off Live View.
When in doubt about alignment of the camera, use the integrated electronic level of your camera if that feature is available.
It is important that the camera is absolutely still. Besides a sturdy tripod, the camera should not be touched while capturing the image. Firstly, set mirror lock up to ON to avoid slight movement from the mirror. Next, set the delay to 10 seconds. That will cause the mirror to expose the shutter right away after pressing the shutter button on the camera or remote shutter, and after 10 seconds just the shutter opens to capture the image.
It is common that the photo looks great on the LCD screen of the camera. Due to the environmental conditions looking at the screen in total darkness, the photo may look great, and later on the computer the photo will appear way too dark. For that reason, adjust the LCD brightness to the minimum in order to have it display the image that looks closer to the final outcome
Optional - Lightpainting:
Shoot two frames, the night sky and the foreground separately. That allows more control over the foreground. Most likely the foreground will be fairly dark if shooting one frame only. Depending on the composition that might be ok, but in some cases a brighter foreground may be necessary.
Lightpainting and shooting the second frame (foreground): As the foreground is a static object, it is not necessary to restrict the shutter speed. To get a good shot of the foreground, decrease the shutter speed to 30 seconds, reduce the ISO to around 800 and increase the aperture to a 5.6-8. With those settings a flashlight can be used to light up the foreground. Steady, equal movement over all of the foreground will create a nicely, bright foreground. Depending on the intensity of the light, the camera settings will require some adjustment.
All that’s left is minor adjustments in Adobe Lightroom or photoshop for both frames, and then merging both images together.
In some cases star trails can create great effects. Star Trails are created by the earth rotation. Already with exposures longer than 15 seconds, slight trails of stars are visible on the image. Instead of creating 1 ultra long exposure, several 30-60 seconds are created.
Therefore, it’s good to use a remote shutter that has a locking function for continuous shooting. After shooting a test frame and confirming the stars are exposed correctly, set the remote shutter to mirror lockup, continuous shooting and then leave the camera alone for 45-60 minutes. The camera will capture frame after frame, until it is manually stopped by releasing the remote shutter.
The purpose of shooting multiple frames is to avoid that airplanes and satellites flying through the image are captured.
After all photos are uploaded into the computer, make sure to have JPGs available. Go through all of them and delete all that show trails of airplanes or satellites. No worries, the software we are using has a function to close the gaps of the star trails.
Once complete, download and open the software “StarStax”. Import all photos and watch the star trails grow. Simply do the necessary adjustments to close the gaps of missing images.
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