Night photography encompasses capturing images between dawn and dusk. While some photographers are waiting for the golden hours in the early morning or evening, there are some that wait for darkness to fall so that they can capture what is in the sky. Our guest blogger, Scott Myers, shares his knowledge of capturing images through Scenic Night Photography.
I appreciate the privilege of getting to write this article for the PAC. While I am not a professional, I will gladly share what I have learned on this subject. Just a note, the stars in the photos may not show up very well unless you enlarge the image.
To start, lets talk about camera settings.
When I was first learning, my first inclination was to open up to the widest f-stop I could. I wanted as much light as I could get coming into the camera. My mentor, Mr. Morton, let me know that I should always stop down a little. The reason is that there is normally a little distortion at the edges. Stars can show this more than normal photos. As a rule of thumb, always stop down a little from wide open. With lower quality glass, you may need to stop down more. You may also find on some lenses there may always be a little distortion at the edges; this is something you will need to watch for.
When shooting scenic star photos, you are using longer exposures. There are limits on how long you can expose the image before you start seeing trails. The formula is 600 divided by the “Effective” focal length. I stress “effective.” If you are shooting with a cropped sensor camera body, then you can’t use the lens’ focal length. For example, my camera is a 1.5 crop. So my 100mm lens is effectively a 150mm lens. If I am using it for a scenic photo my max time is 4 seconds, not 6.
There is another consideration. The North Star is the “Celestial Pole” which means the stars will appear to rotate around it. The closer to the “Pole,” the slower the stars rotate. However, at the “Celestial Equator” the stars will appear to move faster. You need to keep this in mind when you shoot, as you may need to make adjustments.
My personal preference is to not hit the “Maximum” time. For example, if I am shooting at 50mm (Effective), while my max is 12 seconds, I tend to shoot 10 seconds or shorter.
There is another factor that comes into play is the mirror. As the mirror moves out of the way it can cause camera shake. This may not seem like much, but it can cause your stars to blur. I use the “hat trick”:
- I first remove the lens cap and hold it right in front of the lens to block the light.
- Using my remote release, I open the shutter, move the lens cap out of the way and count my exposure.
- At the end of the exposure, I move the cap in front of the lens then let the shutter close.
If your camera has the ability to lock up the mirror, you have a reduced chance of “Mirror Shake” and you may be able to get by without using the hat trick. This is something you will need to judge for yourself, as each camera and photographer is different.
Lastly, remember: the longer the exposure, the more stars you will see. If you want to photograph a constellation, then use a shorter exposure. With the increase in stars in a longer exposure, constellations tend to get “Lost”. In the image, the constellation Orion is almost lost in the other stars.
In star photography, ISO plays a big role. If you have a slower lens, you will need to use higher ISO’s to get more stars in the photo. Be careful about going too high. If a camera starts showing noise at ISO 3200, I advise staying below that. Noise will make the stars appear less sharp in the image. Noise reduction can add to this and lesson the quality of the image.
Remember: if you are using scenery in the foreground, or just want a constellation, use ISO’s closer to 400 to avoid getting an image with the scenery over exposed, or a star field that obscures the constellation.
Focusing on stars can seem very difficult (OK for me and my old eyes, it is difficult). Unlike older film cameras with the split-ring focus in the prism, newer cameras are a little tougher to manually focus. There are a few tricks that can help:
- Allow your eyes to “Dark adapt”. It takes about 20 minutes for your eyes to get used to the lower light.
- Don’t use white lights at all. I carry a headlamp with a red light on it. This allows me to see and make adjustments without causing my eyes to lose the light sensitivity. Seeing dimmer objects will allow you to focus easier.
- Focus on a light on the horizon. This may be a slightly larger light than a star and may help make your focus a little better.
- If your camera has “Live view” you can center on a bright star and focus. My camera will let me zoom in using live view, this also can help.
Once the focus is set, try not to touch it. I do recommend you check your focus from time to time throughout the night.
Ambient lighting can make or break a scenic star photo. These light sources can come from vehicles, city lights, or even the moon.
I try to avoid city lights when shooting scenic photos. I’ve actually shot a picture from 40 miles south of Phoenix pointed North and had the Phoenix lights make it look like sunrise. If you want this extra light in the shot, then use it; otherwise try to get a few miles out and shoot away from town. For example, in the image below, I am utilizing ambient city light to illuminate the ground and still get stars.
A big consideration is the moon. The moon is a great source of light to show off the scenery while still allowing you to capture stars. However, the moon can be very “Vindictive” and get you when you least expect it. It adds more light than you might expect and has ruined many a photo during the learning process.
From our perspective, the first quarter moon may not appear very bright. But, when you take an 8 second exposure, even a first quarter moon can turn the sky blue and cause your stars to disappear. I always advise that you shoot before first quarter moon or after 3rd quarter moon. You can still get good illumination and not wash out the sky as bad.
In the moon effects picture, the moon was just past first quarter and obstructed behind some light clouds, ISO 400, f2, and a 8 second exposure to the sensor. (I use the “Hat trick” method, so the exif data is incorrect). You can see the moon really turned the sky blue and lit up the scenery well. If the exposure had been longer, or if the moon hadn’t been behind the clouds, then the stars may have simply disappeared.
If I take a picture of a beautiful field of stars, it will look pretty. However, I can make the image more dramatic by adding in ground scenery. Cactus, trees, buildings, they will all add character into the image. One gotcha is to watch your focus when using objects if they are close. The stars may look sharp, but if the scenery is too far out of focus, your image may suffer.
Aircraft and Satellites
Let’s face it, living near a major city means lots of aircraft in the air. Nothing ruins a great shot more than an aircraft flying through it. Be patient and wait till there are no aircraft flying where you are about to photograph.
Satellites aren’t something we normally think about when shooting the stars. However in the first couple hours after sunset, they can ruin a good photo. A satellite often looks like a dim slowly moving star. On a photo they will show up as a streak, and unlike aircraft, they won’t show a strobe.
In the images, the first shows an aircraft flying through the constellation Cassiopeia. The second image shows a satellite flying through the Big Dipper (Ursa Major).
Vehicles on the ground can also go a long way towards ruining a shot. Headlights coming up from behind you may “paint” the scenery and ruin it, or vehicles driving around in the image can cause unwanted trails in the image.
Lens reflections and filters
Normally you won’t have to worry about lens reflections on stars. However if you are using the moon, sometimes you do. Just like sun flare, the moon can add odd-looking reflections in the image. Removing filters can help; however, sometimes you simply have to handle the reflection in post.
Don’t forget to make sure your lens is clean before shooting stars. Dirt can cause the light to scatter from stars and can cause them to be blurry in an image.
In astronomy, there is a term called the “Seeing”. This is how turbulent the upper atmosphere is. When you see stars “Twinkling” that is the atmosphere changing and causing the light levels to change slightly. This can cause dramatic differences in what you see through a telescope. However, it can also effect what your camera picks up in an image.
Wind can wreak havoc on star images. Just your camera strap swaying can cause enough movement to make the star images appear to move. You can shoot in windy conditions, (most of the images in this post were shot with gusts of up to 20 mph) make sure you take precautions such as securing your camera strap so it doesn’t sway in the wind. Shield your camera from the wind with your body. Or you may consider moving your camera to a sheltered area. Remember objects in your image such as trees will be impacted by the wind. In the ambient light example above, you can see the motion blur on the tree from the wind.
Clouds can add a dramatic effect in a photo; however, high cirrus clouds may look thin, but they will scatter the light and ruin star photos. Be aware of clouds, so you can use them to your advantage.
The camera is different than your eye
OK, this one sounds pretty silly, we know our cameras are different. But when shooting stars, this difference is even more pronounced. Remember that what your eyes see is a “moment” of light, so the stars may look more like a pinpoint. But, your camera will keep collecting light though the entire exposure. This may make the star appear larger than a pinpoint.
In the end, Scenic Star Photography is like any other type of photography in that there are times you throw the guidelines out the window and make the shot look awesome.
The most important thing is to get out there, have fun, learn, and get one or two pictures you really like.
Thanks for stopping by and giving this a read.