Now that we have arrived at the location, have all our equipment with us, we are (almost)ready to start shooting. As indicated earlier, a sturdy tripod is as essential as a good camera. For taking long exposures the camera has to be perfectly still. Even the mirror opening and closing inside the camera when taking the photo can be enough to blur the photo. Some cameras have the capability to raise the mirror so that it doesn’t open and close wham taking the photo. Check your camera out to see if that is the case. On the two nights that I was taking the photos for this series it was quite windy and the camera was being buffeted by the wind making it very difficult. You can see in the image below that I have attached the camera bag which was quite heavy (with lenses etc) to the centre pole of the tripod to try to make it even more steady.
Camera and tripod weighed down with camera bag
Since we are going to be shooting in almost complete darkness it is going to be difficult to get a level horizon. See if your camera has the ability to display how level it is on the screen to help you with this as it can be quite difficult in the dark.
For this type of photography you are going to have to forget about using automatic settings and are going to have to experiment in full manual mode. Note the settings in the shot below – 30 seconds exposure with F4 aperture and 3200 ISO. You are going to have to maximise your camera’s settings to pick up any available light at all. You can see that the camera is also storing the images in both RAW and jpeg formats. RAW will give us the ability to work more with the images in post-processing later as it captures far more detail. JPEGS are good in this instance for a quick examination of the photos on the low end laptop that I was travelling with.
The camera is also set to remote release of the shutter.
In the next post I will cover taking the photos.
Before we get to taking photos at night, it is really helpful to start to understand light and the effects that it will have on your images. Take for example, the sun at different times of the day. In the middle of the day the sunlight is very harsh and the colours in your photos will be quite different from early in the morning or in the late afternoon where there can be a deep richness in those images. Take for example the following two photos. The first was shot in the middle of the day and the second was shot as the sun was starting to set. Both photos are straight out of the camera with no post processing and you can see just how different the light was and its impact on the images.
Old cottages shot in the middle of the day
old cottage shot in late afternoon sunlight
Here are two images of distant ranges, again one is taken in the middle of the day and the other is taken at sunset. Note the sharp differences in the colours of the mountains.
Mountain range shot in the middle of the day
Mountain range shot at sunset
Sunset and immediately after offer a time where some extraordinary colours can be seen in the sky. It is a great time for taking silhouettes too.
Sunset image of bore
The colours of sunset
There are a number of essential pieces of equipment that you are going to need if you want to take good photos of the night sky. The first of course is a camera. Ideally it should have a wide angle lens with a large aperture setting (the larger the aperture, the more light that can fall on the sensor of the camera). I use a Canon DSLR with a 17-40mm wide angle lens. The lens has a largest aperture of F4. A larger aperture e.g. F2.8 would be great however such lenses can be very expensive. Camera settings etc will be explored in another post as this post is simply listing the equipment that you will need. Along with the camera I use a remote to take the photos as this reduces the amount of movement that the camera is exposed to. I use a very simple remote but there are others available which can do all sorts of complex functions such as time lapses etc.
Canon DSLR (5d Mk III) with 17-40mm wide angle lens
Perhaps as important as the camera for taking photos of the night sky is the tripod. It is simply not possible to take good handheld photos of the stars as you are going to be taking 20-30 second exposures (or more) and holding a camera perfectly still for that length of time would be well, quite impossible. Manfrotto seem to have the biggest and best reputation and you are going to need a very sturdy tripod for the types of long exposures you are taking. You will need to consider the total weight of your camera and lenses when selecting the tripod too. It is worth investing in a good tripod upfront as you will be coming back for a more expensive one if you are disappointed. I use a [Pro]Master XC525 which is a bit smaller than the high-end Manfrottos etc. What I like about this tripod is that it is extremely well made, is lightweight, folds down to a very small size for travelling, and can also be used as a monopod. It is a very versatile tripod and I am very happy with it.
[Pro]Master XC525 Tripod
Lastly, since you are going to be shooting at night and on very dark nights, you will need a torch. Torches can be used not just to find your way and see what you are doing, but also as a very creative light source for your photos. I will explore ‘light-painting’ in a later blog post. The torch I use is a Nightcore SRT 7. Again, this is a very versatile torch that can be used for a number of different scenarios. It is a powerful flashlight which has variable output from extremely low to very high (i.e. like a dimmer on your light switches at home). It also has three low-powered LEDs that can change colours from red to green to blue which are great for light-painting.
Nightcore SRT 7 torch
If you have any suggestions for equipment that you use when taking photos of the night sky please let me know in the comments below.
Photography is all about capturing light. Light falls onto the (digital) camera’s sensor and is recorded. In this series I am going to look at taking photos of the night sky and in particular, stars. Taking photos of starry nights requires some different techniques to daytime or landscape photography and also a lot of patience and dedication. For a start most of us live in cities or urban areas that are quite well lit up at night. The light from towns and cities greatly diminishes our views of the stars. Even on clear nights in major cities we are lucky if we can see just a few starts. The first thing we need to do to take great photos of stars is to get away from this ‘light pollution’ that is around us. This means travelling literally hundreds of kilometres away from major urban areas. Astronomical societies and forums on the web provide maps of light pollution for your area. These give you a great idea about how far you need to travel if you really want to get away to clear skies. Getting into the country or outback areas alone may not be enough as we also need to take into account the weather conditions and the type of moonlight that we will encounter. Obviously for stars we want to avoid cloudy nights so the sky has to be perfectly clear. In addition, the light from the moon is also a major source of light pollution so it is best to avoid any nights where the moon is ‘lighting’ up the sky. Using websites such as moonconnection.com can help you plan for days/nights where there will be little or no moonlight.
Please note that this video runs for some time and is a time-lapse that is meant to convey both the distance and time investment that it will take to travel to a location free of light pollution where stars can best be photographed.