Photographing the Night Sky

Essential tools to ensure 'spectacular photos'

Story and photography by Corbet Deary. Those wishing to photograph lightning should be aware of the dangers that go along with this particular style of photography and should not take any chances that might lead to danger or even death.

Story and photography by Corbet Deary.
Those wishing to photograph lightning should be aware of the dangers that go along with this particular style of photography and should not take any chances that might lead to danger or even death.

Digital cameras have taken a lot of the guesswork out of photographing the night sky. Although digital photography has lessened the rough calculations that come along with this particular style of photography, there are still a few tools and tricks of the trade that are essential in ensuring crisp and spectacular photos.

I suppose the first tool would be a little knowledge of camera settings. Shutter speeds will vary noticeably, as the subject matter and effect one intends to capture will determine how long the shutter curtain will remain open. And we’ll wade a little deeper into this segment of the technique later in the article.

Let’s first talk about aperture and ISO. Of course, the brightness of the light source in the sky will dictate one’s exact settings. But I almost always begin with ISO 400 and an aperture of F8. Seldom am I forced to change my ISO setting. And although one’s aperture is apt to change on occasion, F8 is a good starting point.

Now let’s go back and talk about shutter speed. The length of time the shutter will remain opened is not remotely as precise as the two other previously mentioned settings.

In lieu of allowing the camera to determine when the shutter curtain should be closed, simply adjust the camera to the bulb setting, which allows one to gather light for extended periods by holding the shutter button down.

One can add an element of interest to a night sky photo by painting the foreground with a flashlight. The light caught the reflection of a bat flying in front of the camera in this particular shot.

One can add an element of interest to a night sky photo by painting the foreground with a flashlight. The light caught the reflection of a bat flying in front of the camera in this particular shot.

Now for a couple of the aforementioned tools. A tripod is a must, as no human is capable of holding a camera completely still during long exposures. And what are the results of camera shake? You got it — blurry pictures.

Tripods are also not immune to being shaken, especially when the photographer is manually holding the shutter button down for extended periods of time. But fear not. A shutter release cable goes a long way in eliminating this issue as it is  controlled via a button on a cord’s end.

So how does one determine the time period a shutter curtain should remain open? Well, there are a couple of techniques I use, which are obviously dictated by the brightness of the subject matter.

Let’s start with shooting the stars. To avoid star trails while photographing the Milky Way, one can use the “500 Rule.” It’s actually pretty simple — 500 divided by the focal length of your lens will give you the longest possible exposure prior to the stars beginning to trail. For example; if you’re using a 24 mm lens on a full frame lens, you can divide 500 by 24, which equals 21 seconds.

This method is actually effective. However, I simply maintain my shutter speeds at about 18 seconds, which is also very effective and lends to less calculating.

So how about those occasions when the photographer is looking for star trails, namely those that make a complete circle? Well, that’s also pretty easy. The trick is placing the north star in the very center of the viewfinder, but this time, one’s exposure is going to drastically exceed 18 seconds. In fact, begin with exposures lasting 45 minutes to an hour and adjust your settings to fit the look you desire.

Those who are fluent with post processing programs can also get the same effect by taking sequential images and stacking them. However, I strongly suggest that it is much more rewarding to do your work out in the field and make as few adjustments as possible while perched behind the computer.

Lightning adds an element of excitement to night sky photos.

Lightning adds an element of excitement to night sky photos.

While taking long exposures of the night sky, one might also consider painting the foreground with a flashlight. It takes a little practice, but the results can be astonishing.

Now let’s talk a little about lightning photography. I’ll begin by reminding you that there are significant dangers in this technique. And one should use extreme caution and avoid putting themselves in harm’s way; it is so serious it could even lead to one’s demise. Always remember that no photo is worth one’s well-being
or life.

While setting up to photograph lightning, I start off with the setting mentioned above. Using a shutter release cable, there are times when I simply push the button immediately upon seeing an illuminated sky. But it is most effective to lock the shutter open on the bulb setting and cover the front of the lens with a piece of black construction paper or mat board.

Simply move the obstruction from in front of the lens during every strike. In turn, the photographer will have the luxury of getting multiple exposures on a single frame.

Photographing the night sky can prove somewhat tricky. But with a little practice and a lot of persistence, the photographer will eventually walk away with pieces that he or she will cherish for the remainder of their lives.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *