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Lesson 5B: Shooting at Night, Stars and Beyond

October 14th, 2010 · 1 Comment

For Part B of this lesson, I’d like to take it to the next level and get into some beginning star trail techniques and general night shooting.  I say “beginning” but this will be geared towards photographers that know their gear and can shoot in manual mode.

Star Trails are very interesting to look at but it’s amazing to hear people’s comments as they view my star trail images at shows.  Many people think they are meteors (really?) and others know they’re star trails but have trouble fathoming just how fast we are moving.  When I say “we”, I mean Earth.  The concept of capturing the trails is actually quite easy; leave the shutter open for a given period of time and you will see the trails form in the end result.  While that sounds easy, there is more to it.

The camera rig for night-scapes is very similar to the moon night rig with one exception.  Replace the long telephoto lens with a short wide angle lens.  I still prefer a good sturdy tripod and a remote with a shutter lock.  When choosing a lens, I prefer something between 18 & 35mm (depending on your desired composition).

If you’re lucky there will be an infinity mark on your lens as it’s a good place to start.  This will ensure your stars will be in focus.  Trust me, the stars are hard to see and depending on your rig, the camera will most likely have trouble auto-focusing.  When looking at the top of the lens, look for an infinity mark on the focus graph.  That is where you want to set the focus to begin.

When it comes to Night Photography, composition is everything.  A sky full of star trails with nothing else will be nice, but boring over all.  When looking at my Sedona Nightscape above, you will notice a lot of attention went into to what’s in the foreground.  To start, however, practice on star trails alone to get the technique down and then move on to capturing more creative night shots that will drop people’s jaws.  Once your rig is set up, you need to know where to point it.  The first step is to find the North Star.  The easiest way to do this is by first finding the Big Dipper.  Take note of the 2 stars that make up the right side of the ladle.  Make a line using those 2 stars and follow that line up and to the right until it runs into the North Star (last star in the handle of the little dipper). 

The North Star is close to the position of the North Pole so as a pole star, it’s always in the same position.  This makes for a creative point that make the stars appear as if they are rotating around a single point.  After you’ve found the star, place it where it looks best in your frame and then tighten your rig down.

As far as exposure, given this is a type of landscape many people assume they need to stop down to f13 or even further.  If you’ve ever taken night shots and they’re all dark, that is typically the reason (or your shutter speed is too fast!)  Choose an aperture of wide open or close to it.  For most wide angle lenses this will be between f2.8 & f4.  This allows the camera to gather lots of light which is necessary at night.  Set the ISO at around 400.  This will make the cameras sensor more sensitive for the lack of light present.  For shutter speed, instead of a given amount of time, choose BULB.  This is why a remote with a shutter lock is necessary.  BULB means that when you push the shutter release down and hold/lock it, the shutter will stay open until you physically release it.  Locking the shutter via the remote is really the only way of doing this without shaking the camera.  In theory, you could leave the shutter open indefinitely but for our purpose, start with 3-5 minutes.  This will capture some star movement and give you an idea of the length of time needed for the star trail image that’s in your head.  Don’t forget you can also go with shorter lengths of time (20-30sec depending on focal length of lens) to create nightscapes with stars as points of light instead of trails.  The sky is the limit!

I typically use a timer on my iPhone to remind me when the time is up and then release the shutter to review my results.  For longer trails, leave the BULB open longer but be warned there is a lot of flight traffic at night that will be captured if they fly through your frame.  Typically the skies are void of most planes early in the morning (2-4am) so if you’re willing, that can be a better time to shoot.  Review your shots, adjust the length of time your shutter is open and continue from there.

As far as some known problems, I’ve already hit on the Airplane issue.  One other big one is atmospheric light from cities, traffic, etc.  The later you shoot the better but if you’re near even a small town, there will be lights that stay on all night.  Get out of town as far as you can or keep your long exposures shorter.  If the exposure is too long, all you’ll see are snippets of star trails behind a bright wash of light.

This obviously only scratches the surface but should be a good place to begin.  The techniques I used to photograph the Sedona Nightscape near the beginning of this lesson are much more involved.  To learn about this technique or take it to the next level, contact me for an Advanced Lesson or search your local library for books on night photography.

Let’s go over the “TOP 5″ summary points to take away from this lesson:
     1) A sturdy platform is an absolute must (good tripod)
     2) Use a wired remote with shutter lock to cut down on camera shake
     3) Shoot in Manual mode and use BULB exposures
     4) Use a higher ISO (400-600) to make the sensor more sensitive    
     5) Be patient, have fun, and share your images with others!

Stay tuned for “Lesson 5C: Shooting at Night, Lightning” where we’ll look at an easy but advanced technique of shooting lightning.  Easy and hard????  Stay tuned to learn why!!!

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