The Huckberry Guide to Night Sky Photography

Fall's cooler temperatures don't only call for evenings in front of the fire. It's the season to grab your camera bag and head outside
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Oct 6, 2015 | By Zachary Shenal

t's fall. The leaves are changing, the days are getting shorter, and the skies are becoming increasingly clear. While many of you are finding yourselves heading indoors earlier to your warm living rooms next to a crackling fire, hot cider in hand, others are wrapping up, packing their camera bags, charging their flashlights, and heading outside. The air might be a little too chilly for a swim, but it's perfect for night sky photography.

Night sky photography, or astro-photography, is photographing any of the heavenly bodies. For this guide, we're going to focus on astro-landscapes — night landscape images that prominently feature the stars and night sky. Grab your camera bags, everyone. It's time to head outside. 

Here are a few key tools to get you started. (Caution: photo jargon ahead.)

A digital camera with manual controls
I shoot Sony, so I use an A99, but any camera with manual controls will work. The bigger sensor you have, the better. Keep in mind that I've done this with entry-level cameras before, and with some photos I'll set my camera to 10 megapixel APS-C crop; if you're doing this with an older camera or beginner's DSLR or mirrorless, you'll still be fine.

A solid tripod
This is the single most important factor in determining the sharpness of your shots. I know it seems crazy to spend a few hundred dollars on a tripod, but if you do, you'll see your images noticeably improve. A good inexpensive maker of legs is Induro, which is what I use. They also make reasonably-priced ball heads, the tool you place on top of a tripod that attaches to the camera and makes it easy to move it around. I personally use an Acratech ball head, which is expensive but also the most stable, well-made ball head I've ever worked with.

A wide, large aperture lens
The wider your lens, the more stars you can fit in your frame; the larger the aperture, the easier you can can see them. Lenses from the big manufactures are very expensive, so I suggest Rokinon's wide angle primes. I use their 14mm 2.8, and it is amazingly sharp, corner to corner. Unlike the name brand, you can pick up one of these for about 300 dollars, and I got mine for about 200 used. If you're still using a kit lens, this may be the thing you want to consider upgrading first. A small aperture will make night landscapes very difficult.

A remote release
This will allow you to trip the shutter without shaking the camera, and let you make exposures longer than thirty seconds. You can pick up a basic third party one for about ten bucks on Amazon.

A headlamp
It gets dark outside, and you're going to need a light to see what you're doing, as well as to make sure you don't leave anything behind. I suggest the Petzl Tikka.

Planit! For Photographers App
This one is optional, but it essentially lets you view a topographical map that includes the weather and angle of the sun and moon, as well as rise and set times. If you decide to do star trails, you can also use it to generate a simulation of your exposure settings. 

There are a few very important factors to keep in mind when you're planning to take photographs outdoors.

When planning star photos, the weather is of utmost importance. You want low humidity, clear skies, and low wind. This will ensure a stray cloud doesn't wonder overhead and into your shot, and also so you don't have to walk back home in the dark and rain.

Moon Phase
In astro-photography, the moon is your sworn enemy. Make sure your shoot takes place right around or on the new moon to ensure clear stars, otherwise you'll have a blown-out mess in the sky.

Plan your shot in advance to have the greatest chance at success. Keep in mind where your nearest cities are, because all of their light pollution will leak into your shot and ruin it. Make sure you know how to get to your chosen site, and try to get there an hour or so before dark.

Packing List
Write down everything you take with you, so that you can be sure to bring it back. There's no worse feeling than getting home and realizing that a lens is missing.

When shooting star trails, you can be out there for a few hours, so make sure you've got a chair or blanket and something to keep you occupied. I usually bring a snack, a hot drink, and my Kindle to occupy my time. Also, it gets chilly at night, so bring a sweater or a down jacket.

When You First Arrive
Before you set up your tripod, take a minute and just look around. Imagine the scene around you at night, and imagine what kind of shot you want to get. After you have an idea of what you want, go ahead and set up. If your tripod legs spread wide, I suggest choosing a fairly wide stance, to increase stability. If there is wind, you can hang your camera bag from the tripod to make it more stable. 

Framing the Shot
Assuming you can still see anything, it should be relatively easy to frame your shot. Make sure you have a good foreground element to provide scale for your shot. Leave plenty of sky in your picture. That's why you're here, after all!

Light the Foreground
When you frame your shot, make sure your foreground subject is well lit. This is easily accomplished by light-painting with your flash or flashlight, but be careful not to overexpose your shot.

Calculate Your Exposure
This step is important if you want to avoid star trails in your image. The first thing you should do is set your shutter speed. The way you figure out your shutter speed is to take the number 500, and to divide it by the focal length of your lens. For example, I shoot with a 14mm lens, so 500 divided by 14mm is 35.7, so that means I can have up to a 35 second exposure before my stars begin to trail. 

Knowing this, I set my my shutter speed and then open my aperture as wide as I can (2.8 in my case). With these two aspects set, I then adjust my ISO until the histogram shows I have a balanced exposure (I usually end up at either ISO 1600 or 3200). 

If you do want star trails, you'll need to do a little math. This time set your ISO to 100, your aperture to 2.8, and use a calculator to determine shutter duration. Depending on available light, it could be anywhere from 20 minutes to several hours.

Congratulations! You've now captured your first astro-landscape photograph. Now you need to edit it.

When it comes to editing your photo, there are many programs you can use. I stick to Lightroom 5 and Capture One Pro 8, mostly. Given the lower cost of Lightroom, that is the program I suggest for first-time users.

Editing photos is a highly subjective thing, and so I'll just give you a general list of things to do, and then leave you to explore on your own. I personally enjoy very dynamic shots, and so I will punch the color and vibrancy and then add some extra color casts. Here's a pretty solid editing checklist you can stick to when editing your night sky photography:

  • Reduce color noise.
  • Adjust contrast levels.
  • Set custom white balance.
  • Use brush to select your foreground, and adjust it's exposure to taste.
  • Sharpen to taste.
  • Print or order print, frame, and hang on your wall.

You will probably need to spend a good bit of time playing with the images, but don't worry — it gets easier every time. Now get out there and get some great shots! [H]

Zachary Joseph Shenal is an adventure photographer based on Delaware's Delmarva Peninsula. 
He takes photos for Outward Bound and can't wait to give ice climbing another shot. 
Follow him on Instagram here.

Images ©: Zachary Shenal