Lava Light Lessons #34…Night Photography

Not about astro or deep sky photography…not my expertise.

More about Milky Way photograph or “sky at night” photography.

Some basics…

No tripod…no shots.

The higher you are on a mountain, the clearer the shot is likely to be…depending on weather. Dress warm and always take a flashlight…real warm.

Planning is the key to Milky Way and night sky photography. You are unlikely to get a good night sky or Milky Way shot if the moon is up or if you are near city lights. Check the weather, moon rise and set and the phase of the moon before you go. Try to shoot when and where it is dark and clear.

Look up also where the Milky Way will be through out the night. For example…in Hawaii the Milky Way arches over the horizon starting in mid February. By June it is above your head and beautiful. You can continue to shoot it in various parts of the sky through about October…sometimes as an arch and sometimes as a dagger…see the shots below.

If you want the sky to be blue, shoot starting at about an hour prior to sunup. Otherwise, the sky is going to be black.

My basic set up is a wide lens…14 to 16mm and the brighter the better. My current favorite is a Canon 14mm f/1.8…it is a beauty. I put that on a Canon 5D Mark 4 or I shoot at 16mm on a Sony a7R4. Those model numbers are about obsolete the moment I hit the “Post” button…but they are fairly high megapixel cameras that have good dynamic range. Just saying…the better the camera, the better the shot…if you set it up right.

I am 100% of the time on a tripod. I also use a cable release so I can not shake the camera when I hit the button and also so I can lock that in to take one photo after another. We do that often to increase our chances of getting a meteor in the shot.

I shoot anywhere from 30 seconds down to 10 seconds, almost always wide open…in the case of my f/1.8 lens I shoot it at 1.8. I shoot at ISOs of 800 to 3200…with most of my best photos coming in the 800 to 1600 ISO range.

I place my remote trigger on two second delay to take out as much shake as possible.

By far the trickiest part is to set your self up with perfect focus. It will be too dark to auto focus, so I chose a foreground element, like a tree or rock, that is maybe 20 feet away..light it up with a flashlight and get perfect focus with either auto or manual focus…and then lock in that focus setting by pulling the little lever back to Manual focus…so I does not change the focus on you. Experiment with that…you want the foreground element in focus but you REALLY want the stars to be in pin point focus. Takes some experimenting.

Some hints that make all the difference…all learned the hard way…

-clean the front glass on your camera often during the night. Water accumulates on it and turns your photos to look out of focus. The wetter the evening, the more you want to clean that front glass.

-look carefully at your image after you took it…blow it up and check out the focus. I do that about every fourth shot. I have whole evenings ruined because I thought I was in focus and I was not. Find out while you are still in the field and adjust as needed.

-there is no perfect set up. Experimenting is the key. I shoot a variety of settings during an evening, just to learn what they will do. Over time you will zero in on a few that work best for your conditions.

-Don’t shoot over 30 second exposures unless you have a fancy set up that follows the star movements. Over 30 seconds and your pin point stars start to look like commas.

-be considerate of others near you. Don’t wave around a laser. Don’t wave around a flashlight or your head lamp. Don’t think your red light will be ok in the shots of others. Do communicate out there “Hey, is anyone currently shooting?”

-Try not to move around much. Where I shoot it is as dark as the inside of a cow. I have seen or caused countless tripods and cameras to crash to the ground…each one an expensive and maddening experience.

-Try to get at least 100 shots for the evening. They will not all be winners. Change the composition from time to time.

-I never use a flash on a night shot…but might strobe or light up a foreground element with a flash light. Take experimentation and coordination with those around you. Try it. The vertical shot below is an example of one I lit up with a flash light and it won me First Place in big contest by Outdoor Photographer Magazine.

-Shots that just show the sky…worthless to a landscape photographer. Have some foreground element in the photo…something that is not going to wave around much if the wind is blowing. Leafy trees…not so good. Dead trees…now we are talking.

I will touch on editing night shots next post. Aloha.

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