When a couple has been married as long as Dave and I, there apparently comes a time at which you look at each other and say: We have very little in common. Except, of course, for family. He’s of a scientific mindset and I’m on the other end of the spectrum in artsy-fartsy land. While searching for things to do together, we met in the middle at photography. He does have an artistic streak and his more technical mind has been a boon for the technical parts of photography, which, I admit, we both need more practice to master. But at least he sort of understands those technical parts, the same which cannot be said of me.
Anyhow, we went out one night a few months ago with the intention of taking some photographs of the night sky. What followed was about 90 minutes of fumbling around with the camera, trying to hold the lens of the camera straight since it was apparently too heavy for our tripod, and some general dipshittery that resulted in a few dozen blurry and generally objectionable shots of the moon and the sky above someone’s house.
So when the National Park Service in our area gave a free program titled Astrophotography, we attended in the hopes of learning a thing or two. Success! The workshop was taught by a local physics professor – Mike Shaw. He has some simply stunning night photographs up on his site. As a skilled instructor, he really knows how to teach information to the clueless, so we very much enjoyed his class. What follows is the highlights of my notes, and a few photographs of ours. The most important info is bolded.
- Summer is when you want to photograph the Milky Way. It’s not visible in winter from our position (Southern California) due to some complicated stuff about the orbits and our place in the galaxy and whatnot. That went over my head, but what you need to know is that you must try for such photos in May, June, or July.
- The Golden Hour occurs one our before sunset, and the Blue Hour is one hour after sunset – the light is great for all kinds of photos during these times. Immediately at sunset occurs the Alpenglow (mountain glow), an array of orange and red colors that lasts no more than five minutes. Take a look of a photograph of the sunset. Do you see a blue band at the horizon? That’s the shadow of the earth.
- In order to accurately obtain a light meter reading of a sunset, take it just to the left or right of the sun itself.
- The phases of the moon are critical to astrophotography.
- If you want shots of the Milky Way, you do not want the light of the moon to interfere, so take your shots the week before the New Moon.
- If you want shots of the Full Moon or of Star Trails, obviously you need to do this during the appropriate time of the month.
- Direction matters. You’ll get different pictures entirely if you’re looking up in the sky from the South or due North.
- Leave your zoom lens at home. Astrophotography is all about wide angle lenses. We’re talking 24mm, 35mm, 14mm, even 50mm. I’ve been wanting an excuse to get a wide angle lens for some time now, and this is apparently it!
- Look for stars about 45 minutes after the official time of sunset. You can start taking photos that are two stops above what you want (overexposed). That way you will be at the appropriate exposure once the sky is really dark.
- Star movement will blur your pictures. Figure out how long your exposure can be by dividing the lens’s focal length by 600. This will give you the number of seconds you have before you’ll get smeared pics.
- Some sort of feature in the foreground makes for nice star photos, like a mountain or structure or something. You can illuminate this with a flashlight or strobe light.
- Light pollution from urban areas is to be avoided for the best photos. Cleardarksky.com is a great reference for figuring out the spots to go to for the least light pollution in your areas.
- Apps and software to make your life easier include: Distant Suns App, Observatory software, Luan software, and Photographer’s Ephemeris (highly recommended). This last helps you plan for a shot. For instance, let’s say you want to take a picture of the full moon behind mountain peaks. You would figure it out with Photographer’s Ephemeris.
- Other sites with great info: Distant Suns, Astropics (Wally Pacholka), and Astronomers without Borders.
- Gear list: sturdy tripod, red flashlight (so you can see what you’re doing without blinding yourself and other photographers), a chair, compass, air blower for condensation on your lens, t-mount adapter for DSLR/telescope, star chart, fresh batteries, and a memory card.
- Do not use autofocus to focus on stars – use manual focus instead. In order to focus, use Live View if your camera has it, turn to Manual, find the brightest thing in the sky and focus, if necessary by magnifying your LCD view. Do not change lens zoom once focused. Set white balance to a fixed value. I can attest to focus problems in the dark when you’re old and half blind. It’s rather tough, lol.
Finally, our shots!