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Portfolio ~ AstroScapes (Night Sky)

A collection of digital imagery by Ashley Corr Photography ~ Click a thumbnail to view the corresponding gallery
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ASTROSCAPES 1
(32 Images)

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ASTROSCAPES 2
(29 Images)

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ASTROSCAPES 3
(29 Images)

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ASTROSCAPES 4
(32 Images)

ASTROSCAPES 10
(00 Images)

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ASTROSCAPES 5
(31 Images)

ASTROSCAPES 6
(30 Images)

ASTROSCAPES 7
(27 Images)

ASTROSCAPES 8
(14 Images)

Section Index

Section Index

Discovering The Night Sky

Prominent Features
Milky Way


 

Terminology

 

 

There are some basic terms that should be defined to help you know which time of night is best to photograph different subjects, such as the Milky Way. Generally speaking, night is between sunset and sunrise, but of course it does not get suddenly darker like a light switch! There are some transition periods between day and night that are good to know. This transitional period is known as twilight, and can be dawn (morning) or dusk (evening). Most photographers are familiar with the phrases “golden hour” and “blue hour”. They are rather broad terms without any real scientific measurement, but they are the coveted times of day with beautiful light before, during, and after sunset or sunrise. I’ll try to define them a bit more accurately, as we progress. FIirst, let’s look at the scientific terms.

 

Twilight is defined in three distinct phases, and is based on the elevation of the sun: civil, nautical, and astronomical. Sunset and sunrise are when the sun is at 0°elevation on the horizon. To see the sun at this measured time you would have be at sea level and observe the sun rising or setting over the ocean with no obstructions. If you are higher, on a mountain, you will see sunrise earlier. If you are in a valley, you will see it later of course. For example: Suffolk's coastline is the first part of Britain to see the sunrise and Ness Point, a small peninsula near Lowestoft, is the country's most easterly point. 

 

Twilight Phases

 

 

 

twilight phases.png

Civil twilight is when the sun is between 0°and -6° below the horizon. Nautical twilight is -6° to -12°, and astronomical twilight is -12° to -18°. Twilight at dusk or evening begins with civil twilight at sunset, dims through nautical twilight, and ends after astronomic twilight when the sun is -18° below the horizon. At this time the night sky is as dark as it will be for the rest of the night until dawn when the process will reverse with astronomic twilight beginning when the sun reaches -18° below the horizon, climbs through nautical twilight, and ends after civil twilight at sunrise. Blue hour and golden hour overlap some of these twilight phases and definitions of them vary, but you could consider golden hour to be when the sun is 6°above the horizon to -4° below the horizon, and blue hour from -4° to -6°. This website is a great resource to bookmark for more details.

 

The Milky Way is best photographed during the darkest period of night between the end of astronomical dusk and the beginning of astronomical dawn, particularly during a new moon in an area with no  

light pollution and during the seasons where the photogenic galactic core is still visible above the horizon. More on that subject later. The brightest stars and a few planets are prominent during the darkest period of blue hour and nautical twilight. This is my favorite time to either start a star trails timelapse, or end one, with some rich dark blue colors in the sky. To translate these twilight terms into specific times for our geological location we have to use apps and almanacs. Two of my favourite mobile apps for this on both iOS and Android are Photopills and PlanIt! for Photographers. Both are powerful all-in-one programs that I’ve found no equal for and every photographer should own, but there are several other programs you can jump between to get some of the same information. Stellarium is free for Windows, Mac, and Linux and a great tool for looking at constellations, planets, sun, moon, and Milky Way positions for a specific location and date.

Light Pollution

 

 

 

With the advent of electricity, increasingly brighter and more efficient lighting like LEDs, and people moving into densely-populated places like large cities, artificial light pollution has become a very real problem. A century ago almost anyone could look up and see billions of stars with the naked eye, but today there are millions of people who have never seen the Milky Way.

 

There are organizations like the International Dark-Sky Association that are working to educate others and help preserve our night skies. For photographers, this means we have to find an area away from artificial light pollution to photograph the night sky. In 2001, astronomer John E. Bortle created the Bortle Scale to measure the brightness of the night sky. It ranges from Class 1 to Class 9, with Classes 1 through 3 being ideal for Milky Way and night sky photography.

 

https://www.lightpollutionmap.info is one of the best online maps to chart the Bortle Scale and light pollution around the world. There are a number of overlays you can choose from for data, including local SQM/SQC reports if any have been made by other users.

 

You can measure your own location with Dark Sky Meter (iPhone only). Two of my favourite mobile apps for light pollution are Dark Sky Finder and PlanIt! for Photographers

 

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Tide & Weather

 

 

With the advent of electricity, increasingly brighter and more efficient lighting like LEDs, and people moving into densely-populated places like large cities, artificial light pollution has become a very real problem. A century ago almost anyone could look up and see billions of stars with the naked eye, but today there are millions of people who have never seen the Milky Way.

 

There are organizations like the International Dark-Sky Association that are working to educate others and help preserve our night skies. For photographers, this means we have to find an area away from artificial light pollution to photograph the night sky. In 2001, astronomer John E. Bortle created the Bortle Scale to measure the brightness of the night sky. It ranges from Class 1 to Class 9, with Classes 1 through 3 being ideal for Milky Way and night sky photography.

 

https://www.lightpollutionmap.info is one of the best online maps to chart the Bortle Scale and light pollution around the world. There are a number of overlays you can choose from for data, including local SQM/SQC reports if any have been made by other users.

 

You can measure your own location with Dark Sky Meter (iPhone only). Two of my favourite mobile apps for light pollution are Dark Sky Finder and PlanIt! for Photographers

 

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Astronomical Events

 

Moon Phase

One important consideration for good Milky Way photography is the moon phase. It is best to shoot during a new moon, as the brightness of a quarter moon or more will wash out the Milky Way, and it is impossible to capture the Milky Way during the weeks the moon is sitting in the middle of the galactic core. This is easily predicted with software like PhotoPills and Stellarium though. Often the week before and after a new moon can still be useful for Milky Way photos as the moon rises or sets during the night and still leaves a few hours of shooting. Also, moon rises and moon sets are beautiful for timelapses, and a quarter moon or less behind you makes for some great foreground lighting. A quarter moon or more will give very strong foreground lighting and interesting shadows for timelapses. With the correct white balance it can look like a daytime photo, but still have several stars in the sky. The sky will be quite blue like nautical twilight, and timelapses or star trails can be very beautiful with fewer stars and brighter foregrounds.It is very difficult to shoot a proper exposure of the moon and a landscape after golden hour and blue hour; the dynamic range is too great for current sensor technology, and even with HDR it is difficult to process and make it look natural. It’s usually better to have the moon at your back after nautical dusk. If shooting the moon with a telephoto lens and no

 

landscape you’ll find the craters have more details around half moon when they are side lit from the sun with more contrast.

 

The moon moves very fast though, so you’ll need a quick enough shutter speed at long focal lengths to get a sharp photo, preferably from a tripod to avoid camera shake. Xavier Jubier made a pretty nifty online Moon Exposure Calculator for calculating the brightness of 

the moon during different moon phases, with suggested shutter speeds for specific camera sensors -http://xjubier.free.fr/en/site_pages/astronomy/MoonExposureCalculator.html

PhotoPills has a great article on shooting the full moon: https://www.photopills.com/articles/how-plan-next-full-moon

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Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights)

Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) and Aurora Australis (Southern Lights), like the Milky Way, are best seen during a new moon with little artificial light pollution, although I have seen them strong enough to photograph during a full moon (that is rare where I live). Both take place over the polar regions and the closer you get to the equator the less visible they are. The Northern Lights are more popular due to more geographical land masses to view them from, but the Southern Lights are no less intense or beautiful. Similar to the weather, they are not predictable very far out in the future (a week at most really, and only accurately to a few hours). This is mostly because the intensity of the lights are heavily dependent on Earth’s magnetic field, which fluctuates unpredictably. There are three measurements used for aurora reporting: Kp, G-scale, and Bz. Kp is an index from 0 to 9 and measures the intensity or strength of the aurora and how far the oval reaches on the globe, with higher numbers being further distances from the poles.


There is a G scale of five levels indicating storm levels with G0 being none at all and G5 being an extreme storm. G1 through G5 equate to KP5 through KP9, and you’ll find either number reported with various

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Souter Lighthouse, Marsden, Tyne & Wear, UK - March (9:20 pm)

apps and websites. Finally, there is the Bz, which is the strength of the Earth’s magnetic field in the north-south direction. Positive numbers are northward, and negative numbers are southward. For the northern hemisphere, this means that a positive Bz will deflect most solar activity before it has a chance to interact with our upper

atmosphere, resulting in a weak Aurora Borealis. A low Bz in the negative numbers means a weaker magnetic field on the northern pole, and thus much stronger northern lights. Many aurora apps only report the Kp or G-scale, which is not very useful without the Bz. In fact, I find the Bz to be more important for my area than the Kp. I’ve seen strong Kp7 and higher with a positive Bz that resulted in no observable aurora with my camera, and I’ve seen very weak Kp2 or Kp3 with a very negative Bz that resulted in beautiful blue and red spikes in the camera!

 

The camera captures a lot more than the naked eye can see. The human eye does not see a lot of color at night. We see green aurora the best, but it looks faint white. Red and blue really can’t be seen at all, although the camera will capture it. So you really have to take some test shots with your camera to see what’s out there and don’t rely on just your vision. A good friend and fellow night photographer, Mike Taylor, wrote an excellent article on this topic that I recommend reading:

http://earthsky.org/earth/will-you-see-colors-in-an-aurora

Camera settings vary wildly depending on the moon phase and brightness/speed of the aurora. When it is moving rapidly, you need a very wide aperture and shorter shutter speeds of 5 seconds or less. A prime lens of f/1.4 or f/1.8 is best in those circumstances. When the aurora is moving slowly you can get away with f/2.8 to f/4 and longer shutter speeds. ISO will range from 400 to 6400 depending on all the rest. It’s a good idea to experiment and try several exposure combinations as the brightness and speed of the aurora will likely vary while you are shooting.

For more information on the Kp index, G-scale, and latitudes they reach, check out these sources:

 

https://www.spaceweatherlive.com/en/help/the-kp-index

http://darksitefinder.com/reading-aurora-charts

 

Here are some good resources for aurora reporting and predictions:
 
http://www.softservenews.com
http://www.solarham.net

 

And my favorite mobile app for alerts (screenshot):
Northern Lights Aurora Alerts

Aurora Ferecast Photo.jpg

Airglow

Airglow is similar to aurora and often confused for it, but instead of forming in a ring or oval around the magnetic poles it is uniform across the entire sky, often in large, sweeping bands. It is also less structured without spikes and moves much more slowly because it is not caused by solar wind. It is too dim to be seen by the naked eye, but can appear in ripples of alternating green and purple in a long timelapse. You’ll often capture it in typical Milky Way exposures during a new moon.

Here is a good article detailing the differences between airglow and aurora:

https://www.realclearscience.com/articles/

Meteor Showers

There are several notable and predictable meteor showers every year, and they are a lot of fun to observe and photograph! Some years are better than others with the moon phase, and of course the weather is always a factor. PhotoPills has an excellent guide and calendar that they update every year so I recommend starting there : https://www.photopills.com/articles/meteor-guide

Meteor Shower Guide (iPhone only) is a great app for looking up meteor shower dates, intensity, and conflicting moon phases. 

PlanIt! for Photographers also has a great meteor showers planner.

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Solar & Lunar Eclipses

PhotoPills has a solar and lunar eclipse module that can help you plan the best time and location. Since they already have detailed articles on the subjects, I’d recommend starting there:
https://www.photopills.com/articles/lunar-eclipse-guide
https://www.photopills.com/articles/solar-eclipse-guide

Discovering The Night Sky

Here are a few prominent features of the night sky, to help you orient yourself during any season and find the Milky Way. The galactic center is not always visible during every hour of the night or every season of the year, as we shall soon see. These constellations will help you identify the direction and location of the Milky Way in the northern hemisphere, even if you don't have a compass, GPS, or smart phone with you.

Prominent Features

Cassiopeia.jpg
Big-dipper.jpg
orions-belt-3.jpg

Milky Way

The Milky Way changes orientation and elevation throughout the year as the earth pivots on its axis during our seasons. Here in New England, the galactic core rises from the horizon around 132° on the compass dial in the early morning hours before astronomic dawn in the spring, and the Milky Way forms a nice low panorama in the sky. By summer it is visible for much of the shorter nights but is oriented up and down and passes directly overhead around midnight or a little later, about 165° to 212° on the compass dial.

 

In the fall the galactic center is visible right after astronomic dusk and sets below the horizon very quickly, still standing straight up and down and passing directly overhead, from 206° to 228°. In the winter, the dimmer portion of the Milky Way (one of the spirals we live in), passes directly overhead and settles into a very wide arch around 180° of the horizon. Quite often light pollution on the horizon prevents you from getting a very good panorama of it though. It’s easier to see this by changing dates and times in Stellarium or PhotoPills than capturing it in a photo, but here are two examples...

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Lodore Jetty, Derwent Water, Lake District, UK - April (1:05 am)

Pepperpot-Milky-Way.jpg

St. Catherine's Oratory, Isle Of Wight, UK

September (9:10 pm)

In The Field

Camera Equipment & Settings

Photographing the night sky is not difficult, but it is one field of photography where the right equipment absolutely makes all the difference. Getting sharp photos of dim moving objects like stars and the Milky Way is a lot more demanding than well-lit subjects during the day or with artificial light. A good baseline exposure for the Milky Way on a full frame sensor with dark skies is 14mm, f/2.8, ISO 4000, 25 seconds, and then tweak your settings from there.

Full Frame Sensor

Sensor technology continues to improve with every new generation, getting more sensitive with less noise at high ISOs. Generally, full frame cameras have an advantage over crop sized and smaller sensors due to the size of each pixel being larger and able to capture more photons in the same time frame. Sensor size, pixel density (number of megapixels), and in-camera processing all determine the quality of image at high ISO. You want a camera that can shoot cleanly to ISO 2500 at least, and preferably ISO 3200 to 6400 for very dark skies. Some newer mirrorless and crop sensor cameras are quite capable of this, particularly by Sony and Fuji.

Focal Length / 500 Rule

Wide angle lenses let you use longer exposures at night without stars streaking. A frequently used rule of thumb is to divide 500 by your focal length for the maximum number of seconds you can use for an exposure and still get acceptably sharp stars. It’s a relative figure—stars don’t appear to move as fast near the north star, but the further away from Polaris and the closer to the equator you get, the faster the stars appear to move. If you don’t have a 35mm full frame sensor, divide again by the crop factor (1.6 for Canon crop sensor DSLRs, 1.5 for Nikon crop sensor DSLRs, and 2 for some mirrorless cameras). 14mm to 35mm on a full frame sensor is best for Milky Way photography. 50mm and higher usually need a tracker to avoid streaking at long enough shutter speeds.

 

Here are some examples:

 

500 ÷ 14mm on a full frame sensor = 35 seconds
500 ÷ 24mm = 20 seconds
500 ÷ 18mm ÷ 1.6 for a Canon crop sensor = 17 seconds
500 ÷ 50mm ÷ 2 for a mirrorless sensor = 5 seconds

 

 

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Sycamore Gap, Hadrian's Wall, Northumberland, UK

 

I often subtract another 5 to 10 seconds from these estimates to ensure sharp stars when shooting along the horizon, especially when printing larger than 12" x 18" from a high resolution sensor. For time lapse and star trails a small amount of streaking won’t matter.

NFP Rule For Sharp Stars

There is a much more complicated and accurate exposure rule for those that are interested called the NPF Rule. As sensors get more dense with more megapixels, or larger such as medium format, the “500 Rule” falls short. This is why I often subtract 5 to 10 seconds from the result. A more accurate formula would be: (35 x aperture + 30 x pixel pitch) ÷ focal length = shutter speed in seconds. To figure out the pixel pitch of your camera, divide the sensor’s physical width in millimeters by the number of pixels in width, and multiply by 1000 to measure it in microns. For example, a Nikon D810 is 35.9 x 24mm and 7360 x 4912 pixels. 35.9 ÷ 7360 x 1000 = 4.88 μm (rounding up).

Therefore, a 20mm f/1.8 lens on a 36MP D810 would equal about 10.5 seconds: (35 x 1.8 + 30 x 4.88) ÷ 20 = 10.47 (rounding up)

 

The 500 Rule would say 500 ÷ 20 = 25 seconds, which has significant streaking in the corners on a 36MP camera if you zoom in or print large. You could probably get away with 15 seconds though and look acceptably sharp. Don’t forget your “order of operations” from high school math class for the above formula: solve the multiplication before the addition or you won’t get the correct results!

Aperture

A wide aperture of at least f/4 is best for Milky Way photography, preferably f/2.8 unless your camera is capable of extremely high ISOs. Not every lens is sharp at f/2.8, and many f/1.4 and f/1.8 primes are not sharp enough until stopped down to at least f/2. Many lenses produce oblong and pear shaped stars in the corners at wide apertures, this is known as coma and is not easily fixed in post-production. Distortion and vignetting are much easier to fix. A few notable lenses are exceptional at wide apertures with very little coma, particularly the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8, Tamron 15-30mm f/2.8 VC, Rokinon 14mm f/2.4 SP (manual focus), and Tokina 11-20mm f/2.8 Pro DX (for crop sensors). Generally speaking, lenses with an aspherical lens element have better coma control.

ISO

As mentioned previously, ISO 2500 to 6400 is a good ISO range for the Milky Way with dark skies. Conventional wisdom would dictate using as low an ISO as possible for less noise, but night photography is very different. Unless you are using a tracker or stacking images for longer exposures, we have to use very high ISOs to capture enough detail of the Milky Way. Ideally you are aiming for -6 to -7 EV exposures for good Milky Way details with no light pollution or moonlight.

http://photonstophotos.net/Charts/PDR.htm is a good resource for suggested low light ISOs of various cameras. 

 

Ian Norman has an excellent article on finding the best ISO to use for your camera too:
http://www.lonelyspeck.com/how-to-find-the-best-iso-for-astrophotography-dynamic-range-and-noise

 

Many Nikon and Sony cameras are highly ISO invariant, where the ISO doesn't really matter very much. You can adjust exposure in post-production and get about the same amount of noise as adjusting the ISO in camera, at the expense of dynamic range. Here is an article by Spencer Cox on that topic: 

https://photographylife.com/iso-invariance-explained

White Balance

White balance won’t affect RAW files, just JPEGs, TIFFs, and the preview image on the camera’s rear LCD display. I find a proper white balance is useful when shooting in the field though to get a better preview of my image and exposure, since the histogram won’t be of much use for really dark scenes. A manual white balance of somewhere between 3000° and 4000°K is best for the Milky Way. I’m usually around 3450° or 3570°K on my Nikon. It doesn’t have to be precisely accurate, you can change it in Lightroom or Camera RAW later. If shooting timelapses and editing using LRTimelapse, a manual white balance is preferred for consistency over auto white balance.

LCD Brightness

The brightness of the rear LCD on your camera will probably be way too bright for reviewing images at night. It will fool you into thinking your photos are exposed brighter than they really are, and it will annoy others shooting near you! I dial it down until I can barely see the difference in shade between the two darkest colors (black and dark gray) in the sample palette, about -2 to -3 on a Nikon.

Viewfinder Cover

It’s a good idea to cover your viewfinder or close the curtain to it for long exposures at night. During the day stray light through the viewfinder usually only affects your meter reading and not the image itself, but during long exposures at night it can show up on the edges of your frame, particularly if you have a light source behind you or a headlamp or flashlight hits the back of your camera. Many cameras ship with a little plastic cover (that soon gets misplaced), sometimes on the camera strap. You can also cover your camera with a hat, coat, etc.

RAW versus JPEG

RAW files store much more data than JPEGs, which is important for good post-processing later of night photos, particularly the Milky Way. If your camera has a choice between 12 or 14-bit RAW files, go with the highest quality and image size possible for better noise reduction and shadow boosting later.

Noise Reduction

There are two types of noise reduction in your camera’s menu: high ISO noise reduction and long exposure noise reduction. High ISO noise reduction doesn’t apply to RAW files, only JPEGs and the embedded preview image, so I leave it disabled to avoid extra processing time by the camera. Long exposure noise reduction applies to all file types and removes hot pixels from sensor heat during long exposures (typically 1 second or longer on most cameras). It doubles your exposure time and shoots the second photo with the shutter curtain closed, then removes any exposed pixels it finds in the second shot from the previous one before saving the file.

 

For a 30 second photo, a minute isn't a long wait, but for a 4 to 8 minute ground exposure, it can feel like eternity! Night photography is a craft that takes a lot of patience to master though, and I usually leave long exposure reduction enabled unless I’m shooting a panorama or timelapse. If you are shooting a panorama or especially a timelapse for star trails, you can’t have a long interval between shots for long exposure noise reduction. Instead, you can shoot a “dark frame” at f/22 with a lens cap on to capture nothing but hot pixels, and then apply it to your light frames later. Pixel Fixer is a great program for this if it supports your camera model because it can work on RAW files. Other programs like Sequator, Starry Landscape Stacker, and StarStaX can also use dark frames as TIFFs. More dark frames make for better analyzing, but not every program can do this. I usually shoot somewhere between 10 and 30 dark frames for every shutter/ISO combination that I used during the night, if I’m not using long exposure noise reduction in camera.

Blackgang-Milky-Way.jpg

Blackgang Chine, Isle Of Wight - August (12:10 am)

Image Stabilization

Disable any image stabilization features your sensor or lens might have. Nikon calls it VR for Vibration Reduction, Canon calls it IS for Image Stabilization, Tamron calls it VC for Vibration Compensation, Sony calls it OSS for Optical Steady Shot, etc. Typically you want this feature turned off when using a tripod, and it won't work with the long exposures we shoot at night anyway. Pentax is the exception as some of their DSLRs have a unique feature for astrophotography called Astrotracer. It couples the SR or Shake Reduction sensor stabilization system with their external GPS unit to rotate the sensor and track the stars during a long exposure. It sounds like a marketing gimmick, but it actually works! I have seen 5 minute exposures that were tack sharp without a tracker. 

IBIS or In-Body Image Stabilization on some new mirrorless cameras might be the exception to this, you'll have to experiment to see if it helps or hinders image sharpness. With the official launch of the Canon EOS R5 and EOS R6, in-body image stabilization, or IBIS, is the question on everyone’s lips. But what is this technology and which cameras have IBIS? The Canon EOS R6 and EOS R5 are impressive cameras indeed, but they are not the first cameras with IBIS. In fact, it was Konica Minolta (which was later acquired by Sony) that first introduced sensor stabilization technology. In 2003, the Minolta DiMAGE A1 was released which introduced Anti-Shake technology that physically shifted its CCD sensor along the X and Y axes to provide image stabilization. So what exactly is in-body image stabilization technology and what does it do? Read on to find out which cameras have IBIS.

IBIS is an acronym for in-body image stabilization. It’s a relatively new technology within cameras that aims to stabilise your sensor to provide both stable, shake-free video footage and sharp still images when shooting handheld at longer shutter speeds. IBIS, also known as sensor shift technology, works by physically moving the sensor inside your camera to compensate for camera movement. Built-in gyroscopes and accelerometers are able to calculate the motion and rotation of your camera and move the sensor accordingly to keep the image stable. Many cameras with IBIS have what is called 5-axis image stabilization. This means that your camera has built-in gyroscopes that provide stabilization along five axes: yaw, pitch, roll, horizontal and vertical. Yaw is when your camera twists left or right on a vertical axis. Rotation on the front-to-back maxi is called roll. Rotation from side to side is called pitch.

Focus

Critical focus is necessary for sharp stars. Infinity is usually not where it is marked on your lens. Autofocus on most cameras will not work on dim stars. The best method is to manually focus on a very bright star using live view on a tripod. If you have good enough eyes, you can roughly center a star in the viewfinder and then switch over to live view. Live view won’t see any stars until at least 5x usually, and then you can pan around a bit until you find it and zoom in again to 10x or higher. Don’t zoom with your lens, most zoom lenses have “focus breathing” where they shift focus slightly as you zoom. Manually adjust your focus until the star in live view is as small a pixel as you can get it with no soft edges or halos around it. Make a note of where this point is on your depth of field scale and tape your lens down for the night with masking tape or anything that won’t leave a sticky residue, unless you are going to do focus stacking later. If you use qDslrDashboard on your smartphone or tablet, there is a live view filter called Canny that can help focus the outline of stars. Make it as small a circle as you can. I find this easier than using the smaller LCD screen on the camera and trying to see a pixel. The best method is to use a Bahtinov Mask filter. It's very fast and easy to set your focus with no guess work. Ian Norman sells them on his website here: http://www.lonelyspeck.com/sharpstar/

Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star ~ RAF Spadeadam, Cumbria, UK

Dew / Frost

Spadeadam-photo.jpg

The bane of night photography: dew and frost! Without getting too scientific, dew forms when an object radiates heat faster than it can absorb it, causing water vapor in the air around the object to condense on it. If the dew point is below freezing, you get frost instead. Practically speaking, the front lens element of a wide angle lens is the perfect candidate! Dew and frost will form on your lens before you see it on anything else and you won’t even notice it until you see your photos starting to get fuzzy and dim later at home.

The best solution is to keep the lens warmer than the ambient air around it so dew can’t form in the first place. Hand warmers rubber-banded to the lens barrel and close to the front lens element are a good solution, as are electric dew heaters like astronomers use. Once dew has formed, it is hard to wipe it off or get the lens warm enough to dry out off with just a hand warmer. Wrap a sock or scarf around the hand warmer to keep the heat close to the front lens element. You will undoubtedly knock your focus out while doing this, so either focus afterward or tape your focus ring down first. Some photographers prefer to use a Dew-Not heater strip (you can get different lengths from Amazon.com) plugged into a DewBuster controller. 

Battery Power

Long exposures will eat up battery life quickly. Don’t be surprised if you get far fewer shots than you would normally get during the day before your battery dies. Cold temperatures make batteries even less efficient. It’s a good idea to carry a couple spares in your pocket or inside a coat near your body to keep them warm. During the winter you can swap out batteries more often and you’ll find an almost dead battery has quite a bit of juice left over after it has warmed up again.

A vertical grip with a second battery makes a big difference at night, particularly when shooting long time lapses. If you want to shoot a single time lapse that is longer than 3 or 4 hours without interruption you will probably need to run off external power.  Canon cameras use a range of batteries for main camera functions and back-up. This info paragraph contains camera battery types and associated information.

Hope it helps if you are looking for a replacement camera battery…

Whilst it may be tempting to buy cheap ‘knock-off’ batteries – just be aware that some can be dangerous or just not work very well. I’ve written up some info on our blog about some of the issues.

  • Sep 2020 – updates for newer cameras

  • Mar 2016 – updated travel info.

  • Feb 2016 – LP-E19 added (1D X Mk2)

  • Oct 2015 – New FAA air travel regs for spare batteries

  • Feb 2015 – New LP-E17 added (750/760D, M3)

  • Sept. 2014 – updates/corrections 7D2 added

  • Oct 2013 LPE6 Advisory

 

Canon uses four types for EOS Digital SLR cameras.

Older camera batteries use nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) technology, whereas new cameras use Li-ion (lithium-ion). Li-ion cells tend to weigh about a third less than NiMH and are completely free from the memory effect. This is one way batteries gradually lose capacity after successive recharge cycles.

Intervalometer

An intervalometer allows you to shoot a photo in regular intervals to speed up later as a video, a.k.a. time lapse. Most Nikon cameras have a built in intervalometer in the menu, but it’s limited to 999 frames on all but the most recent models. That should be plenty for most scenarios.

Canon users can try out Magic Lantern firmware, if you are brave and your model is supported. There are also many external remotes that offer an intervalometer feature, too many to list here in detail, from simple to complex.

Promote Control is one of the more popular complex remotes for HDR bracketing, focus stacking, time lapse, and bulb ramping.

Time Lapse

Timelapses are a lengthy discussion and deserve a dedicated article, so this is only a brief introduction with a few resources to check out if you are interested. Timelapses are easy to shoot between astronomic dusk and dawn because the exposure remains consistent. Any intervalometer with manual exposure will work. However, shooting sunset into Milky Way or the opposite into sunrise is considered the holy grail of timelapsing due to the complexity. It usually involves some form of exposure ramping or bulb ramping (shifting ISO/exposure in bulb mode). Here is an article on exposure ramping: http://galleries.aaronpriestphoto.com/Articles/Manual-Exposure-Ramping

DslrDashboard is a good app for “easy” holy grail timelapses and worth investigating, especially if your camera has built-in WiFi. There is also a cheap battery powered wireless router that can be used for cameras without WiFi on that website. LRTimelapse is a powerful program for gradually changing Lightroom/ Camera RAW edits over time (such as white balance or exposure) for both panoramas and timelapses. Ramper Pro is a new, high-end timelapse controller with motion control, interval fairing, light sensor, histogram monitoring, 3D support, and more. Dynamic Perception and eMotimo build some very affordable and easy-to-use sliders and motion control robotic heads.

Northern Lights ~ Souter Lightohuse, Marsden, Tyne & Wear, UK

Star Trails

Star trails are very closely related to time lapses, in that you capture the images with the same process, but instead of playing them back fast for a video you stack them into a single image to see the star movement. You can also use a single long exposure instead of stacking multiple short exposures. There are merits to both methods. I wrote a longer article detailing why I prefer stacking over a single long exposure:
http://galleries.aaronpriestphoto.com/Articles/StarTrails

 

I find that using the same exposure as you’d use for the Milky Way produces too many stars to look good when stacked. It’s better to knock your ISO down 2 or 3 stops. This also means that star trails look good with a little bit of moon light as that also reduces the number of visible stars. I like starting or ending my star trails time lapse during astronomic twilight to get some of the cobalt dark blue color in my skies. I’ll let it overexpose at the beginning or end and choose how many frames I want to use later when stacking to get the brightness I like. A short interval is important to prevent gaps in your star trails. This means disabling long exposure noise reduction.

 

StarStaX is an excellent free program for stacking stars. It supports dark frames and has features for gap filling, comet trails, reverse trails, and more. Currently it cannot export a 16-bit file, only 8-bit, but it does support TIFFs (both import and export).

 

Advanced Stacker Plus is a photoshop plugin, and lives up to it’s name. It’s my preferred method of stacking star trails. I recommend taking Steven Christenson’s online workshop from his website on how to get the most out of it.

 

Photoshop’s stacking modes can also be used natively, but the two programs mentioned are much faster.

Star Tracer (Windows only) is a great program for extending star trails if you didn't shoot enough frames, and also for gap filling.

Sathya Narayanan has made a couple Photoshop scripts that are great for creating vortex star trails and creative effects: http://liketheocean.com/night-photography/scripts-to-make-your-star-trails-awesome/

angel-trails.jpg
sycamore-trails.jpg
Lilburn-Trails.jpg

More Resources (Night Photography)

Antoni Cladera of PhotoPills interviewed several well-known night photographers and put together an excellent resource on shooting the Milky Way : http://www.photopills.com/articles/how-shoot-truly-contagious-milky-way-pictures

 

Two more good articles on using the PhotoPills app to shoot the Milky Way:
http://www.photopills.com/articles/how-plan-milky-way-using-2d-map-centric-planner
http://www.photopills.com/articles/how-plan-milky-way-using-augmented-reality

 

David Kingham has a great eBook on shooting the night sky that I highly recommend:
http://craftandvision.com/products/nightscape

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