photographing the night sky

Shooting the night sky is something that fascinates many photographers. Last year’s Perseid shower, for example, did not disappoint, with clear skies making for perfect conditions for capturing the magical meteor shower. So the big question is, how is it done? Here, Engager Bernard Ward explains his technique.

ESSENTIAL EQUIPMENT

This applies to night photography and, in particular, astrophotography.

Camera Body: Mid – pro level camera with manual mode. Preferably a camera that is capable of good images at high ISO. Crop sensor or APS-C cameras will work but full frame cameras tend to have good higher ISO capabilities for capturing night shots. For these images (above and below) I used a Nikon D750.

Lens: The lens you shoot with is highly important for this type of photography. Preferably you should shoot with a lens that can open up to f/2.8 or more. The wider the aperture can open, the more light floods the sensor, meaning you can capture more of the light from the night sky. The focal length is a personal choice but to capture a wide sky and land a wide angle or ultra wide angle lens is preferred. By definition a wide angle lens is anything wider than 50mm on a 35mm full frame sensor. Ultra wide is anything wider than 24mm on a full frame sensor. For these shots I used a Nikon 16-35mm f/4 lens shot at the 16mm end. I mentioned that you preferably should use a lens at 2.8 or wider. This is preferable, however, if your camera can cope with high ISO images this compensates for the reduction of light.

Tripod: A good sturdy tripod is an essential tool for any landscape photographer and especially for photography in low light. Any type of movement or vibration of the camera can have drastic effects on the end result of your night shots, so the sturdier the tripod the better. For this trip I used a Manfrotto MK294 tripod.

METHOD

So now you have your camera, lens and tripod, the three essential pieces of equipment. You could have other items such as a cable release, torch for finding your equipment in the dark and walking dark landscape terrains etc, but I will not talk about these just now.

First find the spot where you want to shoot. A good clear sky is essential for capturing the stars, Milky Way and shooting stars. On this particular night I had to wait over an hour before the clouds cleared. You should have knowledge of the sky, and where to shoot. Luckily I had a friend with me who had a better knowledge of the sky. A great help. There are many stargazing apps available, just Google them!

Shooting the night sky is great but it makes for a much better image when you have a good foreground interest. In this instance the castle made for a lovely foreground interest. Think about your composition: leading lines into the images, points of interest, framing etc before starting to shoot. OK… so you’re ready to shoot.

SETTINGS USED

  • ISO 6400
  • F/4
  • 16mm
  • 30/secs exposure
  • Switch off any VR (vibration reduction) on camera and body
  • Manual focus

Once the settings were programmed, I needed to get ready to focus and finalise the composition. Focusing in almost pitch black can be very tricky and using autofocus is just impossible, so using manual focus here is a must.

When you are trying this out for yourself you must switch your camera to live view. Zoom in using the LCD controls to a star and rotate the focus ring manually on the lens until you are focused. You are now good to go.

Press the shutter release and after 10 seconds the camera will start the 30 seconds exposure. After the exposure has finished, check your image. Usually it is rare to get this right first time unless you are a seasoned pro, so you may need to make some tweaks to composition and focus.

So there you have it. Give it a go for yourself and have fun. Any questions please feel free to get in touch by emailing info@bernardwardphotography.com. 

Watch this space for an all new astrophotography class on Engage Live in the near future!

photographing the night sky