Hello there. My name is Chris and my idea of having fun is to be out in the cold, in the middle of the night taking photos of the stars! The Moon, the planets, the constellations and the Milky Way are not only favorite photographic targets but also source of pure inspiration!
The beauty and the magic of the night sky is taken to a new level when properly combined with a beautiful landscape.
In the past few years I was fortunate enough to capture some photos that have something to say. After all, this is the important part. The photographers are story tellers and the story of the twinkling stars is perhaps the most exciting!
The first photo tells us the story of a new astrophotographer trying to catch Earth’s celestial companion aligned with one of the most important monuments of the ancient world, the temple of Poseidon. My equipment was humble, a cheap 70 euro telescope coupled with a mid range DSLR tied with a rope(!) to a small tripod. Today, my equipment is better but this photo remains my favorite.
The second photo is a story of a cataclysmic storm that took place a few hours during the total lunar eclipse at June 15 2011. Lightning, stars and the eclipsed Moon in one nearly unbelievable shot.
The third photo is a story of one day! 24 hours, 500 startrail shots, 35 captures of the Sun and 25 landscape shots in one image!
In a series of tutorials I will try to cover all the aspects of night sky photography. Let’s start with some basic tips, tricks and guidelines.
1 Find the place. Typically you will be shooting in nice sceneries away from the city lights that cover the most of the star light (if not all!).
2 Use a sturdy tripod. Night sky photography requires long exposures. Especially if you want to shoot startrails, the camera must be completely still for hours.
3 Use a DSLR and a wide field lens. DSLRs perform better than point and shoot cameras and they give you much more flexibility. I use a crop 1,6 camera (canon 550D) and most of the time I take photos with a 15mm fisheye lens. Have in mind that at night sky photography most of the action takes place at the sky, therefore you should have a wide field of view to include the foreground and a large part of the sky.
4 Prime lenses in my opinion are better. They don’t have the flexibility of a zoom lens but they are generally sharper and faster than zoom lenses. You need a fast lens to capture these nice constellations and the Milky Way.
5 Focus the camera on a distant light, or the Moon and then lock the focus indicator to ‘Manual focus’. If there is no Moon or distant lights you could try to focus on a bright star. This may be tricky. If your camera has a live view, use it. It really helps. If it doesn’t, set the focus manually close to infinity (strangely at DSLR cameras stars do not focus perfectly at infinity…) and then do some try and error attempts adjusting the focus and inspecting the photo until the stars are sharp dots.
6 Adjust the camera settings. One word here. MANUAL! Set everything manually. The typical settings I use are the following:
• Exposure: 20 – 40 seconds. Anything more than 40 seconds introduces star trailing because of the Earth’s rotation. This is fine if you want to shoot startrails but if you intent to take a photo that show relatively round stars you are limited to 30 seconds or even less depending on your focal length. Some indications:
50 mm Lens
|0 degrees (on the celestial equator)||8.5 seconds|
|30 degrees (60 degrees from the celestial pole)||12.5 seconds|
|60 degrees (30 degrees from the celestial pole)||25 seconds|
24 mm Lens
|0 degrees (on the celestial equator)||17 seconds|
|30 degrees (60 degrees from the celestial pole)||25 seconds|
|60 degrees (30 degrees from the celestial pole)||50 seconds|
• ISO 800 or 1600 is a reasonable choice. High ISO introduces digital noise. If you have a low noise full frame DSLR camera you could try even more. With my Canon 550D which is a mid range DSLR most of the time I use ISO 1600. In a light polluted area or in a moonlit scene you will probably use a lower ISO like 200 or 400.
• Aperture. Set it wide open to capture as much photons as you can in the short period of time before trailing start to show. You may want to close it at one stop to get sharper results. So if you have an f/2.8 lens, one stop closed is at f/4.
• White balance. I use Daylight. It doesn’t really mattter if you shoot in RAW format.
7 Use an intervalometer or a cable shutter release. The intervalometer is a better option as it allows you to program continuous shots.
8 SHOOT IN RAW FORMAT! This will give you great flexibility at post processing.
9 Charge the batteries. If you plan to shoot startrails have in mind that your camera should operate continuously for hours. In order to create a startrail photo you have to stack a series of images. Also during startrails shooting the camera must remain completely still. If you move the camera even slightly to review a photo or to change a battery your photos will be misaligned and the final result blurry and inaccurate. Using a battery grip that holds two batteries doubles your exposure time. If you want to go further and shoot for hours consider an AC Power Adapter or a big external 12V battery coupled with an adapter cable.
10 Get 2-3 high capacity memory cards. A series of images especially at RAW format can fill your card fast.
12 Enjoy shooting!