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Wanna test your tripod’s stability? Don’t mess around with hanging from it and doing pullups like the sales guys do at trade shows. All you have to do it try to photograph the stars and you’ll see just how wobbly your tripod can be, especially if you use a telephoto lens.

Now, most folks are using wide-angle lenses to photograph all the stars, and most tripods can handle a wide-angle long exposure. But when you use an 800mm lens, everything changes.

Why use a long lens for stars?

Last year I was camping with the fam at high elevation at Seven Devils Lake in Idaho. It’s an incredible place with the craggiest peaks you’ve ever seen, mountain goats, and crystal clear waters. But the most memorable part of the trip was when a neighboring camper set up his telescopes to look at the moon and the stars and invited us to have a look.

Lumix G9, 100-400mm lens, f/9, 0.8s, ISO 400.

I knew I was looking at planets in the sky with my naked eye — they’re brighter and more steady than the surrounding stars. But I peeked into that telescope’s objective lens and just about lost my mind when I saw Saturn and his rings. This wasn’t a fancy telescope, either. In fact, I looked at its specs and realized that my Vanguard spotting scope has more magnification.

Since then, I’ve used my own scope to view Saturn’s rings, and this summer I even saw moons around Jupiter for the first time. Pretty incredible.

The other day I noticed that Saturn and Jupiter are currently pretty close together in the sky and near the horizon at sunset. That means one could photograph them and have a foreground; pictures of stars on their own without foreground are less interesting.

I have Leica’s 100-400mm lens for my Lumix G9, which is the equivalent of a 200-800mm on a full-frame camera. Using a long lens to photograph large planets allows them to appear large in a picture.

Four wheels are better than three legs

I’ve got large, steady tripods that do a great job when I want to photograph the stars. But, they are more complex to use than simply placing the camera on top of the car. The car is huge and steady. Plus, you don’t have to take up room in the car with a big tripod.

I’ve tried using rolled-up sweatshirts, beanbags, backpacks and all manner of things to support the camera on top of the car, but there’s nothing simpler to use than a Platypod. When I put it on the car, I use the silicone pad from the Multi Accessory kit to keep it from sliding (or scratching the car after it gets covered in dust from the dirt road up the mountain).

‘Tis the season

Fall and winter are a terrific time to photograph the stars. The sun sets early so you don’t have to be out really late. Jupiter and Saturn show up shortly after dark so you can include a foreground in the exposure. You’ll get cold, crisp nights with very clear skies, and you can stay warm in the car until your shot lines up. The next time I do it, I’m going to mount my camera directly to the spotting scope and see what I can do. Get out there this season and try some nighttime pictures.