Have you ever wanted to be the photographer that is in the know of the lives of rich and famous stars? Maybe you wanted to break the story about Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck, or simply be around the glitz and glamour of Hollywood.
Well in that case, this article is not for you. I am talking about astrophotography, or leveraging the night to take creative and beautiful shots of the stars and nighttime landscapes. It's one of the most humbling feelings. And it makes a perfect date - to spend the night staring up at the sky cuddling with someone special.
Everyone has felt the beauty and wonder of looking up at the true expanse of the universe; seeing the depth of the sky, the thousands upon millions of stars floating overhead. It's awesome, in the literal sense of the word.
Inevitably, though, everyone has tried to get that perfect shot of the night sky to find a black mess, a bright smudge, or streaks of light where those far off worlds should be. In this article, I will tell you the secrets of capturing the perfect night sky, the milky way, and have some fun with it.
What you need
Capturing the night sky requires a little more equipment than just pointing your phone to the inkiness overhead. You will need:
A plan (more on this later);
A camera capable of manual settings and a delayed release;
A wide-angle lens; This will already be on your camera if you are using a point and shoot.
A tripod or stable surface;
A little company (or at least, it's highly recommended!)
The first and most important step is to create your plan. You're going to need a place with little light pollution, a new moon, a cloudless sky, and the right time when your target is visible over the horizon. To find places near you with little light pollution, you can use the darksitefinder page to find a place the place closest to you.
I've found that any place that is shaded green on the map is dark enough to get some nice shots, but you are unlikely to capture the Milky Way. You will likely still encounter city glow in the distance. For shots of fainter objects, you will need to get to at least a blue area. The map is overlaid over a normal street map, so make sure you can actually reach the area you want to photograph from!
Any weather forecast service should suffice to find a cloudless night; just make sure it gives you hourly forecasts!
And finally, if you want to capture the Milky Way, you can use this webpage to help you find the best times for your location.
The Camera, Lens, & Tripod
For your camera, make sure you can set the following settings yourself:
ISO (if you're using film, make sure you get an extra roll. You should be fine with normal 400 ISO film.)
Shutter release timer.
Your lens will ideally be wide angle - that is anything wider than 24mm (you want lower numbers). This will help you capture a wider scene and more of the sky. Keep in mind that lenses wider than 20mm are likely to introduce significant vignetting on full-frame cameras, so keep that in mind when selecting your lens and planning your shots!
And lastly, I don't really care what anyone says. A tripod is a tripod - they're all as good as the next as long as they won't drop your camera and tighten properly. If you need one, we have one for sale on our Shop page.
I use a Sony a7iii with a f1.8/20mm lens, but if you need any recommendations leave a comment down below!
Now that you have a plan and everything you need, you are ready to begin shooting. The most important thing to keep in mind is that you are trying to capture light. Each of the three settings mentioned above - F-Stop, ISO, and shutter speed - all control the amount of light entering your camera in different ways.
F-Stop (Aperture) - the width of the opening in your lens. The wider the aperture - that is, the lower the number - the more light will enter your camera. A wide aperture reduces the depth of your field of focus, however, so the wider the aperture, the more light will enter your camera, but the more difficult it will be to focus.
ISO - the sensitivity of your light sensor or your film. The higher the ISO - that is, the higher number - the more sensitive your sensor will be to light hitting it. A high ISO needs less light to capture an image, so you can use a faster shutter speed and a more narrow aperture. However, a high ISO results in lower detail, and risks introducing grain in your image.
Shutter speed - how long the shutter stays open to expose the light sensor to the image. The slower the shutter speed - that is, the higher the number - the more light will enter the camera. The tradeoff here is that an object that moves while the shutter is open can cause smudges or ghosts on your image. This can be used to create light art, however, so you can capture really cool images.
You should play around with these numbers to match your surroundings. I highly encourage anyone new to astrophotography to use a digital camera, as you can verify your settings after each shot and settle on the numbers that work for you. A good rule of thumb is to start with a 30s shutter speed and play with the other numbers until you are happy with the output. Longer exposures can show the path of the stars as they move around the earth!
The most important thing, however, is to use your shutter release timer! The movement of your finger pressing on the shutter release will cause blurring with the settings you need to capture the stars.
Now that you are set taking photos of the stars, you can start having some fun! In the picture above, you can see the car lights have left trails in the image. Using a flashlight or a phone, you can release the shutter on a timer and draw with the light in the image. It takes some practice, but you can make some beautiful light art in this way!
Or maybe you want to capture a falling star, the ISS, or some other body in motion:
Whatever your choice, you will be amazed at the things you can achieve using light art.