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Night Sky, Star Photography


I have always had a fascination with taking pictures of the night sky, but wasn't quite sure how to until recently. I remember having bought a Canon PowerShot SX240 HS, (my first camera with any manual controls) and thinking I could shoot the stars. How very naive...I tried on a couple of occasions and failed miserably, but i did nail a shot of the moon courtesy of the massive zoom and a tripod.

The camera simply did not have the low-light performance needed and the pictures looked so "noise infested" they were basically useless. I soon found out that there are loads of things to take into consideration; the weather, the equipment, the location, light "pollution" and most important of all, the camera settings! You can't achieve anything without the correct settings....and a lot of practice!

Having owned much better camera equipment since 2006, I experimented on a few occasions, but either gave up because I lacked the patience, or (as I discovered later), the lens I was using was not appropriate. Using my Canon 7D II and the Canon 18-135mm STM lens, I was able to capture the stars up in the Greek sky:

Unfortunately, the results were lacklustre and I wasn't able to capture enough of the detail required to make the images special.

That was the summer of 2015. I was less than impressed and that made me determined to come back the next year with the right gear for some better images. In order to get better images, I had to read up and also pick up a different type of lens. Yes, photography is one of the pricey hobbies :(

...and the lens shall set you free!

So, whilst many types of lens come at a premium, they really do make a difference. You will often hear a photographer say, "you may have a great/new/expensive camera, but if your lens is sub-par, then so will your pictures". When you invest in a good camera, you do really need to also invest in good lens, (or the right type of lens for the type of pictures you are trying to take).

Having done my homework, I went ahead an invested in a wide angled lens with a decent aperture; the Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 AT-X Pro DX II Lens. This is a fantastic lens for landscape (allows for width) and also low light photography. The 2.8 aperture allows far more light to penetrate through and reach the sensor in contrast to the Canon telephoto 18-135 which has an aperture of F3.5 - a niece piece of kit, but certainly less than ideal for what I wanted to use it for in this case.

photo credit: thedigitalpicture.com

The correct lens, but what about the settings?

That is the big question! The more experienced among you will know, but like me, many will not. It is very important that you get this right or you won't get the shots and waste your time. Trust me, sitting in the dark, in the middle of nowhere, fumbling with your phone torch to get the settings right, is not as fun as you think if the final result is a let-down. Luckily, I was on a Greek island in the middle of summer in a t-shirt and shorts with the temperature sitting at around 25 degrees Celsius - not a bad place to be! But-if I was in bonny Scotland on the one clear night in the last 2 weeks, with the temperature at 5 or below and the photos turned out to be crap, I would feel very, very different :P

 

So, some quick and general tips for night sky, star photography are:

  • (ideally a full frame) DSLR camera but a cropped sensor one can also produce great results

  • a tripod for stability

  • a wide angled lens with as low as possible aperture (f/2.8 is great)

  • lens set to infinity on manual focus

  • a clear starry sky

  • no moon on the night (or city lights close in the background) as noise pollution will ruin the shot

  • around a 25 second exposure time (30 or more will result in star trails!)

In order to get my shots, I made use of this guide from Digital Photography School.

It explains the basics in a simple and easy to read manner, providing a recipe for success. I'm very pleased with the results though some of my pictures weren't as well focused as I would have liked them to be. This may be down to very slight camera shake (due to the wind?) - even so, some quality images for my first real attempt.

Like most types of photography, night sky, star photography requires patience and a lot of practice. You have to be willing to fail and also be determined to succeed at the same time. You need to spend time out there and have a passion for getting the few shots that will make you proud.

If you have any comments, recommendations or simply want to ask a question, please drop me a line.

Thanks for reading,

iangelo


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