Winter is the perfect time to practice nighttime photography. I took advantage of the long nights during my Christmas holiday to make some photographs with a friend who hadn’t done nighttime work before, and the tips I shared with her will help you get started making stunning star pictures, too. I don’t mean this to be a comprehensive tutorial on astro photography, but these tips will get you past the frustrations of shooting at night.
Most of the terms I mention are universal, but you may need to consult your camera’s manual for specifics on your model.
Bring the Right Tools
Plan on using a wide angle lens, something like 28mm or less. It’s a given, but it’ll be dark when you’re shooting, so bring a flashlight to see the camera controls; bring a red one if you have it to save your night vision (my phone has often doubled as my flashlight). You’ll definitely need a tripod or the rail or a fence, or the hood of your car (just don’t sit in the car or open the doors or jostle the vehicle while shooting). Use a sweatshirt or a zip-lock bag full of rice or beans as a platform. Remove any filters from the front of your lens, as well; these reduce contrast, and you’ll potentially have issues with ghosting. Be sure to dress warmer than you think is necessary, and especially bring gloves–it gets cold standing around for thirty seconds waiting for your picture. I like to use a cable release, too, but the camera timer works well. More on this under the Star Trails section below.
Shoot in the Dark
You’ll be amazed at what your camera will show you even in the city, but you’ll get the best results if you can get to a dark place, and if you shoot on a night without a moon. I made these pictures on the Oregon Coast at Fort Stevens State Park, and it’s pretty far from the city (lights on the horizon are ships at sea). If you can see the Milky Way (the dense band of stars across the sky in the image above) then it’s dark enough to make some stunning images. I used the PhotoPills app to know when the moon would rise, and it even shows me where the Milky Way will be in the sky. I highly recommend the app.
Wherever you shoot, make sure there is no light shining across your lens–like your neighbor’s porch light, or the lamp in the parking lot at the beach. That light will reduce the contrast of the image and make it appear foggy.
Focus at Infinity
Your camera will have a very difficult time focussing in the dark. You’ll get the best results if you look at the top of the lens at the little window showing focus distance and set the marker on the infinity symbol. Test it in the daytime by focussing on the horizon and note where the mark falls, then line it up there at night. Switch to manual focus so it doesn’t change when you press the shutter. Using a wide angle lens will help ensure everything in the frame is in focus, even foreground elements.
Compose the Frame
Personally, I prefer nighttime photographs that include some kind of foreground element. Stars alone can be pretty, too, but an earthbound object helps show the enormity of the universe. In these images, I used the wreck of the Peter Iredale that crashed on the coast in 1906. Whatever you place in the foreground, it’s tough to get it framed in the dark.
In order to see the composition, set the ISO to it’s highest value (25600 on my camera), open the aperture to it’s maximum (f/5.6, or maybe even f/1.4 if you’ve got it) and set the shutter speed to about 8 seconds. (We’ll be working exclusively in Manual Mode) Fire the shutter, and the image you make should show the details of your picture so you can make adjustments. Mine shows the outline of the ship and the horizon. I can then adjust to place the horizon in the lower third and make it more level. If your camera has an artificial horizon built in, you’ll want to use it. Due to the ultra high ISO, this test image is really noisy, but it’s useful.
Set the Exposure and White Balance
In Manual Mode, set the shutter speed to thirty seconds (it’ll read 30″), set the aperture to f/4, and set the ISO to 3200. I like to use Fluorescent for the white balance because it gives some color to the sky, but you can use this as an effect and adjust it however you like. I’d recommend shooting RAW to minimize noise and give yourself the most options for white balance and exposure adjustments. Also, set the camera to the most Neutral picture style to reduce contrast enhancements. If you’re shooting RAW, you’ll want to turn off the automatic shadow recovery your camera has (Nikon calls it ‘Auto D Lighting’) since this will make your picture look brighter than the RAW image will be on the computer. Wit These settings, double check that your haven’t bumped the focus ring, and fire away!
Remember, you’re shooting the night skyit’s supposed to be dark. You can adjust the brightness by changing the ISO (but remember, the higher you go, the noisier it gets, which can mostly be compensated for in Lightroom). You could also use a wider aperture, but most lenses become less sharp at wider apertures, and you’ll learn what settings you can personally tolerate as you practice and view the images on the computer.
I encourage you to practice this at home before you go to Arches National Park to make nightscapes through Delicate Arch. Because of the cold and the long time required to make each frame, it can be very frustrating. You’ll want to have it down pat before you go on the once in a lifetime trip.
Get Sharp(ish) Stars
When shooting stars, you may notice that the stars are not perfectly sharp pinpoints of light. That’s because the earth continues moving while you have the shutter open and the stars blur. Personally, as an amateur star photographer, the minuscule blur I get doesn’t bother me–it’s invisible when viewing the whole image. If you want to view a corner of the picture at 100% magnification and get sharp stars, then there is a common formula to calculate the longest exposure you can make without blur for a give focal length. Divide 600 by the focal length, and that number should be the longest exposure you can make without getting blur. So, if I had an 18mm lens, 33 seconds or less should yield sharp stars. I’ve had some success with this, but I think it also depends on what part of the sky your photograph. Like I say, people still say, “Wow!” when they see my images, even though the stars aren’t sharp when viewed with a magnifying glass.
Shoot Star Trails
Since the earth continues moving while you shoot, you can easily show that movement with a longer exposure. The good news is, you also get to use a low ISO, so you’ll end up with less noise. Again, the PhotoPills app is really useful when calculating star trails. My image was made for 20 minutes. Had I left it longer, the trails would be longer, and I think it would look better (but it was cold!). My image also includes the north star, which is stationary in the northern hemisphere, so the stars appear to revolve around it.
Once you’ve got a good brightness for your picture, you can calculate the exposure for a longer time. Let’s suppose that the exposure I gave you above was just right: f/4, 30seconds, ISO 3200. I’d start by dropping my ISO very low, like 100. The great thing about your camera is that the exposure adjustments are equal to each other. If I move the ISO one click of the wheel, then I could move the shutter speed one click and it would be the same brightness. That’s why we talk about stops. One stop of light is doubling or halving any of the settings. Going from f/5.6 to f/8 (closing the lens one stop) is letting half as much light through the lens. Going from ISO 3200 to ISO 1600 is one stop. Going from 30 seconds to one minute is one stop.
So, let’s count stops as we change ISO so we can also change shutter speed the same amount.
- 3200 to 1600: one
- 1600 to 800: two
- 800 to 400: three
- 400 to 200: four
- 200 to 100: five
So I’m changing the ISO five stops. Let’s do the same with shutter speed.
- 30 seconds to 1 minute: one
- 1min to 2min: two
- 2min to 4min: three
- 4min to 8min: four
- 8min to 16min: five
That means that a 16 minute exposure at ISO 100 will make the same brightness of image as 30 seconds at ISO 3200.
Above I mentioned that 20 minutes wasn’t long enough. To get a longer exposure at the same brightness, I could adjust the aperture. Let’s say I want the trails to be three times longer, that would take 60 minutes.
- f/4 to f/5.6: 32 minutes
- f/5.6 to f/8: 64 minutes
So, I could stop down to f/8 and leave the exposure for 64 minutes and get the same brightness of picture with longer trails. Here’s the thing, the longer the exposure, the less effect a few minutes has. If I left it for 70 minutes, it wouldn’t be noticeably brighter. If I did it for 60 minutes, it would be fine, too. At sixty minutes, leaving it open for 20 minutes more only makes it a third of a stop brighter.
So how do you leave the shutter open longer than 30 seconds? Go one click past 30″ on your camera and you’ll see it says “bulb”. At this setting, the shutter will stay open as long you hold down the shutter button. I use the cable release to lock the shutter open without bumping the camera. You’ll get good results with a remote control, too. On the cameras I’ve used, the shutter opens when you click the remote, and it closes when you click again (I’ve seen remotes for as little as $12). Just set a timer on your phone, go make some cookies and hot chocolate, and come back when the timer goes off.
These are the things I’ve learned about shooting the stars, and they’ve helped me. There are many other techniques you’ll find as you study, and we haven’t even touched on finishing the images in Lightroom and Photoshop. Get out and try it, and I think you’ll have a fun time adding this technique to your quiver of skills.
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