Photographing the Night Sky

I have been trying my hand at photographing the night sky recently. Not in any elaborate way by using a telescope with a camera adapter or anything like that – no, I’m very much a non-astronomer and my efforts fall far short of being worthy of the name “astrophotography”.  This post is very much a record of my first tentative steps into the whole area and is most certainly not an authoritative guide. It may be useful however to others thinking of experimenting.

The Milky Way from The Galtee Mountains

Milky Way over The Galtees

The Northern Sky from The Galtees

2012-November-Galtee-Astro-3

The biggest problem in photographing the night sky in Ireland is the weather. We don’t often get clear skies on a moonless night. (A moonless night – or a new or crescent moon – is necessary as a full, quarter or gibbous moon would make the sky too bright.) Then there is the problem of finding somewhere with minimal noise pollution from towns, cities, factories and the like. It is almost impossible to find a location with none. Not that all such light is unwelcome – on the contrary, I have seen some excellent astrophotography shots that creatively used earthly light sources. Also, some photographers have used torches to illuminate old buildings, dolmens and so forth in the foreground and this can be very effective.

I use the Sundroid app on my Android phone to keep track of the phases of the moon and when it rises and sets. There are several such available – The Photographer’s Ephemeris is another very good one.

Equipment-wise, I use a Canon 5D Mark 11 and the widest angle lens I have which is the Canon 15mm f/2.8. Unless you want to capture star-trails the maximum shutter speed to use is 30 seconds – longer than that and the stars will start to trail i.e. they will appear as streaks instead of points of light.

Use the widest aperture of your wide-angle lens – in my case f/2.8 – and set the ISO. Experiment with the ISO to see which gives the best results but it will invariably be in the 1600 to 6400 range. 3200 works best for me. I find it extraordinary that modern DSLRs produce so little noise at such high ISOs. Back in the day, we were pushing the envelope when using 400 ISO!

Naturally, a tripod and remote trigger is required. Don’t be tempted to manually press the shutter button. And ideally employ mirror lock-up as well to further minimise camera shake.

Focusing can be a problem – especially with the 5D Mark 11 which is not renowned for auto-focusing in low light. If you can’t get a fix on a bright planet, manually focus at infinity and check the results as the infinity mark on lenses isn’t always accurate.

Another essential piece of kit is a torch – preferably a head-torch (I use a Petzl Tikka plus 2) so that you can keep your hands free to operate the camera. Not merely will it allow you to see what you’re doing with the camera and lens it will help you find your way back to your car when you are finished. And don’t do as I do and go wandering off into the mountains on your own at night as it could be dangerous. At least make sure you tell someone where you’re going.

And shoot in RAW, of course. This will allow you to set the colour balance in Photoshop and I find I get the most pleasing results when I use the tungsten light setting.

As I say, I am only finding my feet in this whole area and any tips that people may have will be greatly appreciated.

Galley Head at Night

Galley-Head-Stars

Galley Head Lighthouse (West Cork) is on the right, the light on the left is from some private houses. A couple of light streaks from jets passing over head are also visible.

Apart from the photography, heading out into the countryside and staring up at the majesty of the night sky is an awesome experience. It is worth it for that alone. If you come back with some usable images so much the better.

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