Astrophotography Tutorial – How to shoot stars at night

Tutorial – How to shoot stars at night

 

Lake District Landscape Photography Holidays - Astrophotography - How to shoot the sky at night

 

One of the aims to cap off a great day’s shoot on any of my Lake District Landscape Photography Holidays is to go out after the blue hour and shoot some star images, and I’m hoping to do that again soon on my Lake District Landscape Photography Holiday of May 15th to May 18th where we’re taking over a converted farm cottage close to Keswick for 6 persons

So I put this together by way of a little tutorial on how best to get some great star photos with the simplest of equipment and processing. Yes you can of course buy a HUGE telescope and an adaptor to fit your camera to the back of it and shoot constellation clusters in detail, but for most of us simply getting a nice shot at night showing some of the billions of other Suns is enough

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So what equipment do you need…

Camera, lens and a tripod – that’s it 🙂

Type of camera…

Pretty much any camera that can be used (ideally on Manual) for a shutter speed of up to 30 seconds or more; more is usually by using the ‘bulb’ setting, an archaic name for being able to open the shutter with one press of the shutter release and closing it some time later by another press, hence you can do single exposures running into hours if you like

Film works just as well as digital, although you do have a potential for a problem with Reciprocity Failure with film that isn’t an issue with digital; but for this tutorial I’m focusing on digital photography

Lens…

If you’re trying to capture the enormity of space and star trails in particular, then a wideangle lens is probably most useful. So anything like a 17-55mm zoom on a DX (crop) body or a 24-70mm on a FX body will be fine

Tripod…

For me (and for EVERY time I use one) a tripod only has one job to do, and that is to hold the camera/lens combo perfectly still for as long as I need it to. The heavier the tripod the less chance a breath of wind is going to make it wobble and ruin your shot. ALWAYS buy a tripod that will be high enough for you to use it stood up but WITHOUT extending the centre column. An extended centre column is the least stable way to have a tripod set-up, I’ve actually removed mine as they are virtually pointless if you’ve got a good set of tripod legs 🙂

Useful extras…

A remote release of some sort to trigger the camera can be useful with shorter exposures as they reduce camera shake. Remotes can be cable releases, more often now they are electronic and even infra-red or radio ones

Mirror lock-up function can be useful I guess, but mostly for the really anal types who panic too much about camera-shake !!!

Many modern digital cameras have timers in them where you can set how many images you want it to take and how many seconds/minutes apart you want it to take them – its a ‘Time-lapse’ function really; and many remote releases have this time-lapse function built-in too which is useful if your camera doesn’t

If you don’t have such time-lapse ability in your camera or remote release, then you need a stop-watch to set your exposures by (all phones seem to have these built-in now)

An App for your smartphone that tells you what constellation is where can be useful, even if all you want to identify is the North Star (Polaris); failing that, a compass will do just as well really

Flask of tea or coffee! You may be out a long time and it may be cold too, so take a brew and maybe a sarnie or two. Sad note: by the time you’re done its likely the pubs will be shut so there’s little chance of a celebratory pint afterwards

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How I shoot Stars

First, find something interesting as a foreground, otherwise you might as well point your camera straight up and only record dots or streak of light

In this example I used Wind Turbines as my foreground subject, so here’s a few images and how they were captured

1 – Star Trails – a 30 minute exposure combo

Having decided on my composition I did a test shot of 30 seconds at 100 ISO and f2.8, after reviewing this on the rear screen of the camera I made the adjustment to a 5 minute exposure at f5.6, which I then repeated 6x to give me a total exposure time of 30 minutes. I actually wanted the individual dashes to appear as broken lines in the final image, so I waited 30 seconds or thereabouts between each 5 mins exposure, so the whole process took about 34 mins

Back on the computer I processed all 6 images in exactly the same way in Lightroom, exported them as 16-bit PSDs and opened them all in Photoshop. I then stacked them on top of each other and used the ‘Lighten mode’ as the blend mode for each layer = job done

How easy was that !!! 🙂

 

Lake District Landscape Photography Holidays - Astrophotography - How to shoot star trails

2 – the “Other-wordly fluke”

There’s an old saying about being ‘lucky’ that goes something like – the more I try the luckier I become – and this is one such example

I was shooting a 30 sec exposure from the far side of the road that runs alongside these wind turbines when I noticed a car approaching from my left. As it approached I could see the lovely effect it was having rim-lighting the turbine in front of me, but I also realised it would completely blow my image if my shutter didn’t close before the car got to me

I finally decide to just move the camera to avoid the car blowing the image entirely, and that happened to be after 28 seconds of a 30 second exposure

What you see here is the lens flare effect caused by that car, and the red squiggles are the far turbines’ red lights that still recorded as I moved the camera. It had to be cropped to remove the completely blown area of the car and what’s left looks, well, spectacular 🙂

Lake District Landscape Photography Holidays - Astrophotography - How to shoot the sky at night with lens flare3 – 30 secs f2.8 400 ISOLake District Landscape Photography Holidays - Astrophotography - How to shoot the sky at night wind turbines

4 – 30 secs f4 400 ISO

As I saw this car coming from my right I new the headlights wouldn’t be a problem as much as if it approached from the other direction, but I still stopped down a bit to f4 as I wanted to try to not blow the road

The odd thing about this shot is how the car’s taillights have recorded as ‘flashing’, this appears to be caused by them being LEDS which I now know flicker – it was an Audi btw

Lake District Landscape Photography Holidays - Astrophotography - How to shoot the sky at night with passing cars

5 – 30 secs f3.2 400 ISO

Another car but normal lightbulbs hence no flicker

The very bright dot far left is actually Venus

Lake District Landscape Photography Holidays - Astrophotography - How to shoot the sky at night more passing cars

6 – 30 secs f2.8 400 ISOLake District Landscape Photography Holidays - Astrophotography - How to shoot the sky at night wit extreme wideangle

 

7 – 30 secs f5.6 400 ISO

The reason for the increase in aperture to f5.6 is that on of our fellows was leaving and I’d asked him to drive from the left with lights on full beam, but I didn’t want to risk anything blowing so I zoomed in my shot which removed most of the lens flare. There is some flare still evident but its nothing like as much as the ‘fluke’ earlier

Lake District Landscape Photography Holidays - Astrophotography - How to shoot the sky at night wind turbines up close

 

 

 

 

 

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