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The Art of Night – The Photography of Mark Gee

Reaching for the Stars | Photographing the Night Sky

Photographing the night sky can be rewarding, but it’s not simply just a matter of pointing the camera & pressing the shutter button.

I’ve been really getting into shooting the night sky lately, & it’s certainly a rewarding challenge if you can pull it off. Some people think you can just go out there, point the camera & press the shutter button, but it’s not quite as easy as that. A fair amount of time & planning goes into a shoot like this, & factors like weather & location are also very important.

On this particular night, I left home around 8pm, & drove a few hours to a location I had in mind. The initial setting where I wanted to shoot didn’t work out due to fog, so I went to plan B to find another location nearer to the coast where hopefully the skies were clear. Luckily as I got closer to the coast, the fog cleared & I was greeted with a sky sparkling with millions of stars that you would just not see amongst the city lights.

Light pollution – It can certainly look cool in a photo, but it’s not ideal when shooting the night sky

It was a fairly remote place so it was really dark, which is exactly what you need for photographing the night sky. I’m lucky enough in New Zealand that I can just drive a few hours & get totally get away from the light pollution that glows from our city’s lights. Even the smallest amount of light from nearby suburbia will contaminate the frame you are trying to capture, so it’s best to get as far away from civilisation as you can.

I set up & shot a few test shots. This night I went with a 15mm fisheye for a change, but generally I stick with wide lenses unless I’m shooting something like the moon. It’s hard to see anything through the viewfinder, so you need to just point your camera in the general direction you are interested in & shoot a few test shots. After that you can fine tune any composition by moving the camera slightly & shooting again until you are happy with what you’ve got. It usually takes me quite a few of these test shots to get something I’m really happy with, & it’s not unusual for me to shoot over 100 shots in a night’s session.

The real important thing with night time shooting is getting your exposure right. If you shoot even slightly underexposed, chances are you’ll be totally disappointed with your images once you get them on your computer back home. I always expose so that the blacks are lifted a bit. You can always add contrast to a night time image, but it’s pretty much impossible to move the blacks up if you don’t have any information in them, & you’ll just end up with a heap of clipping in the low end. I never rely on the display on the back of my camera when reviewing my night time shots. Even if they look great there, use your the histogram on your camera, & make sure you keep those blacks under control.

 

The Milky Way in all it’s glory

As the night became early morning, the sky became more & more spectacular. The Milky Way was shining so bright that night – it was just awesome to step away from the camera & look up to watch, catching glimpses of the occasional shooting star that shot across the night sky.

It was close to 2am, & the Milky Way was pretty much in an optimal position. It was almost extending from horizon to horizon, so I decided to basically point the camera straight up & shot that. It took two images for me to get total coverage of what I was after, but I ended up stitching them together giving me a spectacular image as seen in the photo above.

After about 3 hours of driving, & another 3 hours of shooting, it was time to head home. I was pretty happy with what I did capture that night, although there is always that drive for me to shoot something better. So I’m sure there will be more of these nights where I head out on a crazy star chasing expedition…it’s totally worth the effort if you can get some nice images from it.

Sometimes a bit of light pollution can add to your photo, like here with the orange glow in the clouds. I think it was a plane flying through the clouds that lit them up like that…maybe it was a UFO!

I’m always happy to share a few tips from my experiences of going out & shooting the night sky, some are technical & some practical, but here they are:

  • If you can, shoot with a full frame camera. The more info you can capture onto that sensor the better. For interests sake I shoot most of my night time stuff now with a Canon 5d MkIII
  • Use a fast lens & shoot wide open – Ideally f/2.8 & below. You want to allow as much light through that lens as possible. I generally use wider lenses unless I’m shooting the moon.
  • Shoot with a high ISO. It’s true, cameras these days can see better in the dark than us.
  • Be critical about your exposure setting and use your histogram when reviewing images to determine this. I always expose up a bit so my blacks get lifted to try & avoid clipping in the low end.
  • Always shoot with manual focus. Auto focus is pretty much useless when shooting the night sky. You will want to be shooting pretty close to infinity anyway.
  • A sturdy tripod is a must!
  • Use camera shutter release cable or remote, or if you don’t have one, use the shutter timer function on your camera. Avoiding the extra camera movement by manually pressing the shutter button can make the difference between a sharp & not so sharp image, even when using a tripod. I also shoot with mirror lock up to avoid that extra vibration cause by the mirror flipping up inside your camera when you press the shutter button.
  • Proper planning of when, where & what you’re going to shoot goes a long way. Personally I couldn’t do without this iphone/ipad app called Star Walk. It gives you a real time map of the night sky just by tilting your iphone/ipad upwards & in the direction you want to shoot. It also has a heap of handy other information like sun/moon/planet rise & set times.
  • Since you’ll be shooting in pretty much complete darkness, a good quality torch or head lamp is super helpful…works much better than trying to use the light from the screen of your mobile phone!
  • You’ll usually be going to fairly remote places & spending a few hours there when shooting, so it’s a good idea to bring along a supply of food & water.
  • Dress for the occasion. In warmer climates you mightn’t have to rug up, but in colder climates you are definitely exposed to the elements, so make sure you have plenty of warm clothes & layer up.
  • In humid or cold climates, lenses tend to get condensation on them especially when shooting at night. There are commercial solutions available for this like the DitoGear DryEye, but I’ve also had success with wrapping reusable hand warmers in an old t-shirt & wrapping that around the lens.
  • Whilst going solo to shoot the night sky can be a nice thing to do sometimes, it tends to be a lot more fun to be able to share the experience with someone. Team up with another photographer(s) or someone crazy enough to go off into the night chasing the stars until the small hours of the morning. You’ll probably get a lot more out of it that way, even if it’s just company to keep you awake on the way home…

Well that’s pretty much it for now. If you have any comments or questions, feel free to leave them in the comments below, or just contact me via email here.

And if you want to check out some more of my night sky images and star chasing adventures, you can find them here: http://markg.com.au/category/photos-nature/photos-the-night-sky/

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10 Responses to “Reaching for the Stars | Photographing the Night Sky”

  1. Susan Booth says:

    Thank you so much for the technical info :-). I’m very keen to have a wee go myself :-). Your work is so inspiring!!

  2. Sally says:

    Thanks Mark. Like Susan, I’ve been looking for this info. However, I don’t have an SLR but my digital camera does have a manual setting. When you are talking about exposure and looking at the histogram what exactly should I be looking for? Regards, Sally

    • markg says:

      Hey Sally, manual settings is a good start, but to capture images like this, you will probably need to go to a DLSR, as they have larger sensors than point and shoots and are able to capture more image information on those sensors.

      Not all point and shoot cameras have histograms, but if you look in the manual, you might find your one does. The histogram is a graphical representation of the distribution of tones of your image, and it will be displayed on your cameras lcd display. This website has a fairly good explanation on the use of histograms in digital photography: http://www.luminous-landscape.com/tutorials/understanding-series/understanding-histograms.shtml

  3. Tavin says:

    Mark, these photos are amazing! About using a high ISO though, how high exactly? I constantly worry about having too much noise in my photographs, so I try to keep it at about 1600 max. Do you shoot higher?

    • markg says:

      Thanks Tavin. I usually keep my ISO at 3200 for these star shots. Any higher and you are starting to fight noise. I do shoot with an Canon 5d MkIII now and find I can push it to 6400 if I had to, but 3200 is usually my baseline when it comes to stars.

      • Tavin says:

        I’m very jealous of the 5dmkii and iii’s internal noise reduction, the enthusiast’s 60d just isn’t quite the same. Thanks for the reply :D

        • markg says:

          Yes unfortunately high ISO’s tend to get noisy on the 60d. I don’t use the internal noise reduction on the 5d’s but do use Lightroom’s noise reduction instead. Hopefully one day you might find yourself with a 5dMkII or III :)

  4. Leonardo Valente says:

    Mark, awesome star photography, you are one of the greatest i have ever seen. Just a help, how you calculate for how long the shutter will be open? I have a 5dmkiii but i always stuck on 30″. It is just a matter of trial? Or do you have any stuff to calculate? Congratulations and keep up the fantastic work!

    • markg says:

      Hi Leonardo, it depends on a few factors and that is focal length and lighting conditions. The main lens I use for star photography is a 14mm and in a dark sky, I pretty much always shoot with a 30 sec exposure. If I shoot with say a 50mm, I have to reduce the exposure time down to around 10-15 seconds to avoid star trails. If shooting in a brighter environment like stars above a city etc, you will need to experiment with exposure time to get a good balance between the sky and city lights below, but I usually drop my exposures down to 10-15 sec when using the 14mm.

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