If you're at all familiar with shooting in low light, you might know that it can be frustrating and difficult to get an image that holds visual interest and maintains technical quality. I'm going to share with you the experiences I've had and the lessons I've learned on my journey to becoming a better astrophotographer and all around better lowlight photographer as well as provide some tehchnical details for how different camera settings and gear can affect your image.
Northern Lights over Lake Superior in Marquette, Michigan.
Just as it takes patience and persistance to become acquainted with your camera during the day for all other types of photography, even my few years of shooting experience prior to my astrophotography work didn't prepare me for how much relearning I had to do to try to capture the beautiful scenery that can be seen thanks to the absence of sunlight. Here are a few pointers that will help you get started before we dig into the bigger topics.
Get Away From the City
I'm not saying this because I'm telling you thay you can't find a good composition in the city, I'm saying this because it's generally the number one rule to shooting the night sky: Find your way out of the light pollution. Light pollution is not something non-astrophotographers think about and as such, has become a serious problem for finding good sites to photograph the night sky from. Even in my small town of a few thousand, I am entrenched in light pollution that, while still possible, makes it difficult to see the densely populated starry sky in its most natural form. I have to make my way a couple miles away from the sources of light that do the most damage (street lights, heavy traffic, bright house lights). Individually, these lights don't ruin your chances at seeing the stars, but when they're all on at the same time and packed into a relatively small proximity, it creates a blanketing effect over the entire area that diminishes our ability to see the night sky and the real, enormous amount of stars in it. The farther away from this light you can get, the better. I use www.lightpollutionmap.info to help me make decisions about where I might want to travel to get the darkest skies I can find and then I use Google's custom maps to mark pinpoints and save them to be able to refer to them when I have an opportunity to get out and explore.
Use Your Tripod
Never underestimate camera shake. Even with higher shutter speeds, slight camera movement in many scenarios can cause varying degrees of bluriness and ultimately can become the sole cause of why you might not be getting tack-sharp images. This may not be the case for everyone, but when it comes to shooting the sky at night, you need to extend your shutter speeds to absorb more light and make a well exposed image. During those longer shutter speeds, it is imperative that your camera be absolutely still because if it's moved at all during the shutter's exposure, you'll get an image that's blurry and distorted. While it might look interesting on an abstract level, and this is something you can certainly experiment with, this is not at all preferable for astrophotography. The stars can be very hard to focus on (more on that later) and because they are so small, any minute movement can ruin a good picture of the stars.
The Foreground is Important too
As with other types of photography, it is critical to stay aware of all the visual elements with your composition. Some of my bigger mistakes early on in my journey consisted of thinking too much about the sky and not enough about where I was shooting it from. In the image above, you'll notice I chose to incorporate three standout elements in the foreground as something amazing was happening in the background. I'm proud of this shot because it's a perfect example of staying focused and remaining vigilant about composition even in the dead of night when it's hard to see your surroundings, making composition visualization difficult. Of course, as an art form, photography and the resulting quality will always remain subjective in nature, but there are technical keypoints that are important to remember when making an image and they remain valid when you're out at night looking for a composition below the stars.
It is always important to be as prepared as you can for adventures out in the night, but that can be difficult when you don't know exactly what to expect. Here's a list of good things to consider for your night time adventures.
1. Headlamp - This is my number one item. You will thank yourself when you've relieved your hands from having to hold and direct your light while you're already carrying your heavy gear.
2. Tripod - I know, I mentioned this above already, but the quality of tripods can really vary and I've fallen victim to naivety when it comes to the thought that all tripods are created equal. They are not. Do your research. Know how much your camera setup will weigh. Maybe think about getting sandbags to hold down the center. There are a lot of considerations to make when tripod shopping, but if you're just starting out, get your hands on what you can to get you going.
3. Shutter Release Remote - This isn't absolutely necessary, but will provide you some peace of mind for low cost. There are very simple remotes that do the bare bones of just releasing your shutter that you can get to ensure you don't accidentally shake the camera immediately after pressing down your shutter. Of course, you could also set a delay to accomplish the same thing, but a remote shutter can really come in handy when you'd rather not wait longer than you have to.
4. Batteries - Of course bring batteries; why would you not? Well, the long exposures you have to do to capture the night sky sometimes will result in your batteries draining faster than normal, especially in extreme temperature conditions. Here in Michigan, if I'm out shooting at night in the middle of winter, I've got 3 or 4 spares on me to keep me going through the night.
5. Boots - You never know where you may end up going to get that perfect shot. I have been so appreciative that I paid extra for some really sturdy, water proof winter boots. Some of my travels would have been uncomfortable or wouldn't have even happened had I not brought my boots to keep me going over the terrain I need to traverse in some situations. In my case, I use the Columbia Bugaboot Plus III Omni Cold-Weather Boot. I bought them from a local outdoor lifestyle shop here in Marquette and they've provided me with excellent comfort and durability. I'm not here to advertise for Columbia, but I do have to recommend them wholeheartedly.
I'm not about to start a debate about brands. The truth is, your digital camera, whatever it is, almost certainly has the ability to take whatever kinds of pictures you want to take with varying degrees of functionality and practicality. I personally use a Nikon D5300, but am soon looking to upgrade to a full frame body because their sensors handle lowlight situations much better than APS-C sensors do.
Now, as far as the specifics go, you're going to want to shoot in Manual mode. Every situation is different and a big factor in what settings to use is determined by the capability of your lenses. For astrophotography, it is preferred that you have a wide angle lens. I use the Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 DX II to get the job done. The maximum aperture of f/2.8 allows me to grab more light as it is recommended to shoot with your aperture (f-stop) wide open to avoid having to max out your ISO ruining your shot with the intense amount of noise that comes with that.
When you're shooting at the stars, you have to keep in mind that since the earth is always rotating, the movement of those stars must be taken into account when you calculate how long you want to expose for. Wider lenses, like mine pulled back to 11mm, don't have to worry about unwanted star trails as much as longer lenses do. Fortunately, the kit lenses that come with most cameras usually are able to pull back to a wide enough focal length that you can expose for 10-20 seconds without catching star trails. A popular rule to help you with that is the 500 rule. You divide 500 by your focal length and the resulting number is how many seconds you can expose for before you start to see trailing (multiply by 1.5 if you have a crop sensor camera like me). I always try to stay open for a shorter duration of that number just to be extra safe. Once you have your exposure time set, take a test shot starting somewhere between ISO 800 and ISO 1600 and increase until you have a well exposed image. Make sure your LCD screen's brightness is turned down all the way so it doesn't look more exposed than it really is.
Now, the last thing to take care of before you really start shooting is to focus to infinity. You cannot rely on the manufactured mark of your lens to tell you where infinity is. It is almost always off by just a bit. Some photographers like to mark where that particular lens' real inifinty point is, but I haven't had the guts to permanently mark one on my Tokina yet. There are a couple different ways to be absolutely sure your focus is right on, and for me, I use the tried-and-true method of trial and error. My LCD cannot display stars in liveview well enough for me to use that to focus like some Canon and Sony systems can and using the viewfinder won't help you all that much either. I simply put my lens to where I most remember true infinity was the last time I shot and make very slight adjustments over the course of five or six shots, checking the shots thereafter and zooming in to one bright star until I'm confident that I'm as sharp as I'm gonna get.
If you want a more secure way to focus to inifinity, LonelySpeck.com offers a unique tool called the Sharpstar to help with this, but I have not used it and cannot offer any personal experiences with it, but I'd like to own one to test it out myself some day.
And That's it!
This should set you up nicely to start shooting the stars yourself. I may not have the best, most expensive gear, and I may not travel to the darkest, most exotic corners of the earth, but I can offer you a personal experience on my humble journey as I travel around Michigan finding good spots to photograph the night sky for all it's worth. I hope you enjoyed this post and I would encourage you to visit my social media platforms to stay up-to-date with all my most recent activities that include not just astrophotography, but also general landscape, portraiture, and even timelapse videos. Thanks for reading!