Photographing the stars at night has for some reason always been the white elephant in the room I have avoided for some reason or another. Much like diving into portrait work. Granted shooting the Milky Way turns out to be much easier than I expected. In fact, shooting the stars were not even remotely in my plans during the 4-5 shooting trip. The plan was to drive to a relatively nearby location (with 2 hours) and safely photograph the Rim Fire near/in Yosemite National Park.
Here are the three biggest challenges in this type of photography: focusing, composition, and camera settings. Wait! That sounds like everything! And now that I have typed it on the screen, I may have to agree. Yet, once you have gone through this exercise once, it is really the composition that is difficult and is that not always the case with photography in any situation?
- Distance Scale? – Not very difficult if your camera has a distance scale on the barrel of the lens. If manual focus fails, set the scale to the infinity hash and you are ready. But distance scales are not as common on today’s lenses. The high end lenses tend to still have the scales, but what if this is not an options for you?
- Auto-focus? – If you are used to auto-focus, as I am, this is where focus become tricky. You are likely not going to be able to use auto-focus. The stars are not bright enough for the camera to focus on. Maybe auto-focus on a distant light. With this photograph, I tracked approaching car headlights about a mile away. Luckily, that method worked. If the moon is available, use that as your focal point, but shooting the stars is somewhat ineffective when the moon is out.
- Live View? – Most mid-range and certainly professional cameras are equipped with Live View, the ability to see the image on the back LCD before the image is shot. Many have the ability to zoom in 10x and focus using a single focal point. The great thing here is that you can zoom in to focus using Live View without having to physically zoom in with the lens and affect the composition. Perhaps auto-focus could work in this situation.
- Manual focus. – When all else fails, manual focus is the solution. In some other shots, I used a combination of Live View x10 on the brightest star and manual focusing to achieve sharpness. For those photogs that prefer manual focus, all of this is second nature to them.
Everything is going to look rather dark through the viewfinder. Luckily in this shot, the silhouetted ridge provided a bit of assistance. I could move the camera and see when the ridge disappeared off the frame and adjust accordingly. If worse came to worst, I could take test shots and adjust accordingly. Also keep in mind, the longer your eyes adjust to the darkness, you can see much more through the viewfinder. So avoid using flashlights (unless covered with red gel/film) and try not to bring up anything bright on your viewfinder.
Remember, your camera’s metering is likely to be ineffective. The goal is to figure out what settings work for you camera and use that as your baseline to adjust from in the future.
- Shutter speed – Keep it under 30 seconds if you want pinpoint stars. Preferably, 15-20 seconds. This means having your aperture wide open (low f/ value) and boosting your ISO.
- Aperture – Open it as wide as possible unless you’re also including nearby elements in the foreground. In this photo, the ridge was in the foreground, but not close enough where I was worried it would be too far out of the depth of field. So my lens could be opened up to f/3.5 and that is where I set it. If I had nearby foreground elements, I would need to “stop down” the aperture (higher f/ number) to and start boosting the ISO to compensate.
- ISO – This is the camera sensor setting in digital cameras and (film sensitivity in film cameras). I set mine to ISO6400 and fired away. In retrospect, I might have boosted the ISO even further as I could have picked up more of the Milky Way, but you have to know at what point on your camera the digital grain from high ISO outweighs what can be capture. Of course, I would advocate using Long Exposure Noise Reduction (NR) if your camera has it. The camera takes one shot with the shutter closed and compares and removes the noise from your actual shot. The only drawback is that each shot now takes twice the amount of time and it does eat into battery life.
EXIF data: Nikon D7000, center weighted metering mode, ISO 6400, 18mm, f/3.5, 20 sec
New Melones Lake (CA), Milky Way, Ridge Silhouette. New Melones Lake Vista Point, California. August 24, 2013. © Copyright Steven Tze – all rights reserved.