May 5, 2019

Night sky photography!

This was a 7 image, long exposure, panoramic,
shot at one of the Moulton Barns in the GTNP in June
that Mike then stitched together in Lightroom.  (I told you, he is experienced!)
Another photographer happened to be shooting at the same time
and he was using a bank of LED lights to light up the barn a bit.
ISO 3200, 17mm, f2.8, 25 seconds (7 shots, stitched)

Last January we had planned a night photography meetup/shoot at Joshua Tree National Park on a dark skies weekend (a New Moon).  We were pretty bummed that, because of the National Park shutdown, it didn't happen.  But since then, we have been asked several times if we have any tips on how to shoot a night sky.  We do!  Mike is very experienced in shooting the night sky...the Milky Way, stars and star well as long exposure, where some of the same variables occur.  (He took this beautiful photo in the Grand Teton National Park a few years ago.)

The basics, your equipment, the things you'll need/want -

  • a camera you can shoot in RAW and also in manual mode, preferably one that can shoot at high ISO's (3200-6400 range) We are loyal Nikon users, always have been, but there are plenty of other great cameras you can use to achieve night shots.
  • a good, sturdy tripod (you can certainly try to secure your camera on a sturdy table or other surface but you likely won't be able to shoot up at the stars very well!)
  • a fast lens...meaning, it is capable of shooting a large/wide aperture of f2.8 or larger (and a nice wide angle lens captures more of the sky, we like those in the 14-24mm range)

Plan ahead -

  • Choose a night when there is no or little moonlight.  That's an easy one, just look at a moon table to find a New Moon.  (It's possible to shoot a night sky when there is a moon, if you aren't shooting in the direction of the moon, it's just that the stars will appear dimmer.)
  • Remember, you need a cloudless, for that, cross your fingers and toes!
  • You also need a sky with little or no light go out to the boondocks!  Some areas are now considered Dark Sky cities...meaning they don't have neon lights or street lights creating a ton of light pollution. 
So, now you have your cool camera with a great lens and nice tripod...and you've picked a night with no bright moon in the sky, in an area with minimal light pollution...  While you pray for no clouds, scout your might be looking for a great foreground or just a simple horizon.  Ansel Adams used the word "previsualization"...and this is particularly important with a night sky shoot as you likely won't be able to see what you are shooting towards on a dark night!  

This Joshua Tree is a good example of that previsualization.  We wandered around for a bit in JTNP, during the evening, looking specifically for an isolated, nicely shaped Joshua Tree with a minimally intrusive horizon line.  (We also had to be sure not to shoot when cars went by as there were several small roads in this area.)  

We also experimented with light painting in this picture. 
I stood off to the side (in the dark, dark where creepy things live!)
and when Mike said go
I flashed a flashlight on the tree
for just a second of his 25 second exposure.
ISO 3200, 17mm, f2.8, 25 seconds

Once you've chosen your location, you will have some time while you're waiting for the sun to set and the sky to completely darken!  Enjoy the sunset!  Have a snack!  Take beautiful photos!  Take a nap! 

This is an example of the "blue hour"'s not exactly light and not yet dark. 
Waiting for a nice dark sky doesn't have to be time wasted!  

One of the hardest things about shooting in the dark is FOCUS!  There are lots of techniques you can use to help you with focus, but our favorite, perhaps the easiest, is this...


What you are looking for is the focal point on your lens that is close to infinity...and every lens is slightly different.  When you find that spot on your lens, mark it, with a piece of tape or with a marker...that is the spot that you will set as your focus when you are in the dark and it should give you nice crisp stars.  (In theory!  Honestly, the first time we did this it didn't work...and then it did...and then it didn't!  It's a little bit of a guessing game as every lens is slightly different, every atmospheric condition is different it seems, but it should work!)

Another way to find your focus at night is to put your camera on live view, if you have it...and zoom (not with your lens, but on live view) to find a bright star or a planet and manually (because your focus has to be set to manual) focus on it!

Okay, so now you are in your spot, ready to go...  With your camera secured onto your tripod and your lens out to a nice wide angle, pointed in the direction of the image you previsualized, take a few quick snaps with a super high ISO before you begin with your long exposures to figure out the tweaks in your composition.  What do I mean by that?  Well, at this point you aren't worried about perfect exposures, you are looking strictly at the horizon line straight, if you want it that way?  Is the tree or shack or trailer where you want it to be in the photo?  This is your opportunity to move the camera or move the tripod in order to compose the photo you've imagined.  Take a photo and look at it in the back of your camera, then adjust accordingly.  It might be that you have to pick up your tripod and move ten feet back and to the left...this is the time to do that.

Suggested camera settings for night photography -

  • MANUAL focus, turn the dial to your preset mark or use live view
  • RAW, or high JPEG
  • remove all filters, even the UV filter 
  • White balance can be set to Auto or you can set it manually to 3650-3900 Kelvin
  • turn off long exposure noise reduction (if you have it)
  • turn off image stabilization or vibration reduction (if you have it)
  • if you have a curtain that covers your eyepiece, close it (incidental light)
  • APERTURE WIDE OPEN, the largest aperture you have (2.8 or higher is preferable)
  • ISO set to 6400, to begin with, adjust down accordingly
  • focal length as wide as you have 
  • exposure time set between 15-30 seconds, depending on your focal length 
I know all of this is "depending" and "adjusting accordingly" and "if you have it"...but this is where night photography is tricky, because it is not an exact science!  There are so many variables, including your camera equipment, including how dark it really is...and, are you shooting the Milky that my stomach rumbling or was that a bear and was that a big hairy spider crawling up my leg?  (I just wanted to see if you were paying attention!)

Here are several examples, including the metadata for each so that you can begin to see the patterns emerge.

This was shot at ISO 6400, with a 17mm focal length, the aperture was set at f2.8, for 25 seconds.

ISO 6400, 19mm, f2.8, 25 seconds
The lights you see on El Cap are climbers spending the night!

ISO 5000, 17mm, f2.8, 25 seconds

ISO 640, 24mm, f2.8, 15 seconds
This one was shot with a half moon behind Mike, lighting up the mountain.
You can see how much that moonlight changes the settings required!

ISO 6400, 17mm, f2.8, 20 seconds
This one was shot at Quartzsite with some ambient light/noise pollution
coming from somewhere north, Parker Dam area maybe, or other RV'ers. 
We had tiny little Luci lights inside the trailer, pointed down
and Mike flipped on and off the Christmas lights for about one second. 
If we had kept the string of lights on for the whole 20 seconds
it would've just blown out (over-exposed) the whole trailer!
ISO 5000, 17mm, f2.8, 25 seconds

If you wanna get really crazy...

ISO 6400, 17mm, f2.8, 20 25 second intervals
This was my very first attempt at star trails! 
(Beginner's luck!)

This kind of image is called Star Trails.  It is a series of images, taken with a built-in Interval Timer, stacked (layered) in a program, we used, called StarStaX.  Crazy, huh!

For this sequence, I located the North Star and composed my image with it just off center so that I could capture the rotation of the stars around it...then, I set my camera up, took a few test shots...and set the Interval Timer on my camera to take one picture every 25 seconds for an hour.  (Remember, the images are 20 second exposures so I had to give my camera a moment to breathe in between!)  Then, I took one image with the lights on and the rest of the images were dark!  I was seriously so excited when we emerged from our darkened trailer to collect our cameras and I flipped through the images like a kid with a flip book!  So fun!

In summary, night photography is not an exact science because there are so many variables, is kind of magical to create photos from the dark!  If you have any questions, leave us a comment, email us or DM us on Instagram @4000Rivets!

The Milky Way over our favorite rock!

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