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We are really excited about heading out on this season’s first astrophotography event in the Alabama Hills in the Eastern Sierra. Timing, location, and clear skies are what it’s all about when you plan one of these events. Don’t forget a bit of luck as well. Night sky photography is everywhere. Being in the landscape photography field for over 20 years I’ve seen many changes. Long gone are the days of using film and being happy about capturing long exposure star trails alone.
These days, with the advent of high ISO digital cameras, we have the pleasure of spectacular photographs of the Milky Way and many more terrestrial bodies. From highly mysterious light painted backgrounds and perhaps meteor showers, night photography has taken on a life of its own and many photographers have become exclusive to this form of photography as well.
I see many leaving daylight photography altogether, seeking more elaborate compositions every day (or every night I should say).
Getting up to speed and learning astrophotography can be as simple or as complex, as you want it to be as far as technology and ways of editing images. I favor the simple approach of anyone new to the art form.
Simply because you’ll be working in a moonless environment, for the most part, you will need to simplify your actions with camera gear adjustments. Also, have a physical awareness of the natural surroundings so you have a fun, successful, and creative experience. Then you will get the images you need for successful editing in Lightroom or Photoshop.
The basics of astrophotography start with fast aperture lenses. That would be a lens with a wide opening anywhere from f-1.2 to f-2.8 is best, or an f-4 will do. It’s essential to have the ability to capture as much light as possible with an exposure spanning 15 seconds for a fast 1.2, 24 mm lens. Up to 30 seconds for a 2.8 14mm or 16mm lens. The wider your lens, the longer your exposure will be for sharper pinpoint stars. Conversely the more telephoto the faster. Then starting at ISO’s of 3200 down to 1600. You may need to adjust these settings a bit depending on what type of camera you own. But this is a good baseline to start from.
This will produce the sharpest stars, in the best of atmospheric conditions in the late evening or early predawn. There was a time early on when digital captures of the stars and the Milky Way alone where striking enough. Now the bar has been raised to a new high, where foregrounds in night photography are required to be just as interesting as daytime landscape photography to gather any attention.
This brings me back to the Alabama Hills here in California. One of the main reasons we offer landscape photography workshops in the Eastern Sierra Nevada is the clear skies away from city light noise. I spent many years exploring and climbing around its mysterious sandstone formations and know them very well.
I always get asked about its odd name. It’s certainly not in the State of Alabama! During the civil war, this wonderful landscape was named after the USS Alabama warship, most likely by confederate patriots that lived in the area at the time. Once a place used almost extensively by the movie industry to shoot early westerns, it’s now open for us to use, as Jansen Photo Expeditions is specially permitted by the Bureau of Land Managment to roam its areas of mazes of lumped sandstone spires, arches, and hollows. These formations provide us with a multitude of specially pre-scouted locations we can escort our clients to safely.
This place also looms in the shadow of Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the continental United States. All this provides us with some pretty amazing nighttime landscapes. The trick is to know what to do and where and when to position yourself in this alien wonderland. We feel this location is a prime spot to build wonderful nighttime landscapes with plenty of striking foreground elements, all set off by starry nights.
Once arriving at an unknown location, such as the Alabama Hills, it’s essential that you take a day to explore your options during the daylight hours. You don’t want to be running around in complete darkness without a solid lay of the land. Any competent guide you hire will have done it this way in advance of your arrival. As far as creating that special Astro Photography Landscape, the simplest approach when working in darkness for the first time is always the best approach, a good guide. If you hire a qualified landscape photography guide, you will be made aware of your surrounding composition options well in advance, as you will want to be focused on your camera settings.
Working in the dark has its challenges, but it’s simple once you understand a few of the following simple basics. This form of photography can be exciting, as the night sky opens up and shows its astounding beauty!
Astrophotography and How to Create a Stunning Night Sky Photographs
To start with, you’ll soon realize that the best astrophotographs are created during a new moon (moonless nights). Creating landscapes requires some interesting foregrounds. Certainly, silhouetted foregrounds can be dynamic against Milky Way skies. But when you have some recognizable foreground elements in your nighttime landscape photographs, they really begin to hold more interest. In order to pull this off, it’s essential that you have some light source.
This is where light painting comes to mind. Lighting up night landscape foregrounds have historically been the best way to expand interest in Astro Landscape photography photographs. In the early days, before LED lights, we used large incandescent spotlights and flashlights to light up our foregrounds. Today’s LEDs provide a wide array of small lightweight powerful options. Using them successfully takes some time, but once mastered, they become essential for interesting captures.
The simplest way to approach your first astrophotography experience, once you’re all set on your location with the perfect moonless night, is to secure your camera on a solid tripod. This is the most important thing I can tell you.
If you don’t have a solid, fully adjustable tripod, it will be impossible for your camera to remain steady for 15-30 seconds. This goes the same for a good ball head. Stay away from pan heads with levers. These are meant for filmmaking, not still photography.
Lenses for Astro Photography
Most lenses will provide you with focus f-stop marks on the body. On one end, you’ll notice an infinity (∞) Symbol. This will help you set your focus. When working in the dark, your camera will not be able to lock focus. You will first need to set your camera on single point focus (•). Then, with your widest angle lens, (14 to 28 mm on a full frame DSLR, lens sizes can vary on an APS or micro 4/3rds sensors). Set its f-Stop or aperture to f-1.2, 1.4. 1.8 or 2.8 or 4. Then focus on the most distant object you can see through your camera’s viewfinder. This would be in the dark, focusing on a distant light or star. Once focus is set, turn off your lens’ focus (small button on the lens body on most models). Another way to focus is to turn your lens all the way to infinity ∞ then turn it back slightly. Theoretically, your most distant object will be in focus at this point. I like to mark this position with a small piece of white sticky bandage tape.
How and what to focus on?
Now that you have your distant focus set, it’s time to create your composition. First, you’ll want to set your camera body to (M) Manual. You will then begin to seek and build an interesting composition. Remember your rule of thirds here, your instructor or guide will assist you greatly, especially if your location has been pre-scouted well in advance. Once you have secured a pleasing composition, and you have determined the dark sky position you like, pointed toward the Milky Way or perhaps a meteor shower. Since you have already pre-focused and know your sharpest distant point is tack sharp, you can now determine exposure time. This time frame would allow enough exposure time without causing noticeable star blur. My rule is between 15 and 30 seconds. Most digital SLRs and Mirrorless cameras have a maximum shutter time of 30 seconds maximum. Take a few sample shots and check your results.
Exposing for a great foreground!
Now that you have that great starry night exposed and tack sharp. You now want to expose your nighttime foreground. Unfortunately, you can’t get it all in one shot, unless you’re happy with a beautiful foreground silhouette.
This is where light painting does the trick, especially if you have a competent and skilled photography workshop guide that has a few tricks up his sleeve in the fine art of painting with light. Astrophotography is a bit more difficult on your own. Once you have determined your foreground and you have your night sky secured, have your guide flash a beam of light on your composition’s foreground. Then lock focus on that point with your camera’s autofocus turned on.
When the autofocus is locked, switch it off. Then you or your guide will lightly brush various intensities of LED light over and around your compositions foreground. Remember, you’ll want to vary your exposure times between 15 and 30 seconds. It’s also essential that use a cable release along with that rock steady tripod. Once you have a pleasing foreground exposure, you will now have 2 sharp exposed photographs. Both were exposed with the same open aperture,. f- 1.2, 1.4. 1.8 or 2.8 or 4. You will then create a layer mask in photoshop and carefully conceal the foreground or background in Photoshop or Lightroom, revealing an amazing Astro Photography Landscape photograph.
I hope you enjoyed my simple step by step overview on how to capture the night skies. You may have other ways of capturing the stars, that’s great, but these simple to follow steps have never failed me.
If you would like to join us and learn more about Astro Photography, come with us as we explore this and much more in the amazing and mysterious Alabama Hills this summer on our Astro Photography Workshop!