Thanks to modern camera gear, the time has never been better for capturing night sky images, or “astrophotography”. It takes a little more than just pointing your lens upward, however. There are a few tricks to creating an unforgettable night under the stars. Here are the night photography tips you need to get started.
Landscape Astrophotography Defined
Landscape astrophotography is an exciting genre where Earth’s landscapes are incorporated into night sky compositions. Landscape astrophotography differs a little from just astrophotography, which features “all sky” imagery that also includes advanced work capturing planets, suns, moons, and more with telescopes.
Landscape astro images are “grounded” by the landscape. They give the viewer a strong sense of where the picture was taken and the photographer deliberately shows the connection between Earth and space in a particular location on the planet.
For example, a photographer can show the apparent rotation of the stars in the sky over a gnarled 3,000 year old Bristlecone Pine tree in California’s white mountains or the center of the Milky Way over Lake Tahoe. Landscape astrophotographers must combine their landscape photography skills with an understanding of the motion, position, and character of celestial bodies with a knowledge of special camera/imaging techniques to successfully make photographs of both earth and sky.
With modern DSLR cameras, fast lenses, and a basic knowledge of digital post-processing techniques, it has never been easier to create landscape astro images; we are in an exciting new era in which technology has progressed to the point where even novice photographers create compelling night photos.
If you think your gear is not up to the task, think again. Anyone with an SLR, a tripod, and a reasonably fast lens can travel to a location with dark skies and, with planning and a little luck with the weather, make incredible landscape astro images.
Researching and Planning
Good landscape astro images are the result of good planning and this used to be a cumbersome task involving learning the movements of the sun, moon, and Earth in relation to one another throughout the year using tables and data. Now, thanks to affordable and easy apps, like The Photographer’s Ephemeris and Photo Pills (my two favorites), it’s easy to figure out when the sun and moon rise, what phase the moon is in (which determines how much light you can expect and on what parts of the landscapes you hope to shoot), and when the Milky Way is visible in the sky for any location on this planet.
Envisioning an image of the galactic core of the Milky Way over someone SCUBA diving in Lake Tahoe? Great! Fire up The Photographer’s Ephemeris and you can determine exactly when in the year you should try and make the image you see in your mind’s eye.
Weather info can easily be obtained from sites like Weather Underground or NOAA (for the United States). On NOAA’s forecast.weather.gov pages, use the embedded map for a point forecast. I look to the “Digital Weather Graphs” as well as the radar and satellite images on the bottom right for information such as sky cover percentage, which is a great “go/no-go” planning tool.
For locations, seek out interesting landscape elements that you think would make for good night photos, with a bias towards locations that have clear, dark skies located away from cities and their light pollution.
Gear to Use
Landscape astrophotography is one of those areas of photography where gear can make a big difference. I always tell my students that no one goes into a fancy restaurant and asks the chef what kind of oven they are using; so why does the camera you use matter? But in the world of landscape astrophotography, “cooking up” the image you see in your head might require employing RAW files created with a full frame, low-noise sensor combined with a fast f/1.8 wide angle lens to suck in as much light as possible from the Milky Way to capture that mysterious green airglow.
Yes, full frame cameras are your friend when shooting in the dark. Entry level “kit” cameras, like the Canon Rebel T3i, are great for learning but eventually you will be disappointed with the results and will want to move to a full frame platform. Furthermore, full frame cameras with low noise at high ISOs, such as the Sony a7SII (largest sensor pixels on the market as of this writing), the Nikon D810, and the Canon 5Ds R are excellent choices. If you’re renting a camera, check its sensor crop factor and its maximum ISO range. While not full frame, the night sky-specific Canon 60Da features a modified filter that increases infrared sensitivity to allow for crisp, clear images of red, diffuse subjects like nebulae.
Fast lenses (f/2.8 or wider) are hugely important in creating landscape astro images. Knowing each of your lenses’ infinity focus point is also very handy. To find this, use Live View and focus on a star, the moon, or your headlamp hung from a far away tree branch and focus your lens manually until the Live View point is green, meaning the object is in focus. While many lenses have infinity markers on the barrel, it is always wise to check your infinity focus point yourself between compositions.
Another useful thing to know is your lens’ “closest focus distance at wide open”. You may remember from Photography 101 that lenses offer the least depth of field when wide open. So, if we need to use our lens’ widest aperture to shoot at night, how do we get both the sky and the landscape in focus in the same frame? The answer is to move your camera far enough back from the strongest elements of your composition so that both the landscape and stars appear sharp.
For example, if you wanted to shoot a night photo of stars “trailing” around the North Star in the sky above fluorescent minerals at a mine, it’s handy to know how far away from your camera the rocks would need to be at f/2.8 to get both the rocks and the stars sharp in one frame.
While you can use trial and error (shoot/review and repeat) to determine this, I found it easier to go out in my backyard with a tape measure in the daytime to determine the distance for each of my lenses. For my Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 L II lens, the distance is about six feet. If I want two things to be in focus at once at f/2.8, they will need to be both at least six feet away from me.
How do you compose in the dark or even have any idea what settings to use? Each landscape astro image is different so I like to use a technique I call the “shoot/review” cycle. While shooting at night, it’s nearly impossible to use your camera’s exposure metering because there simply isn’t enough light to allow the camera to simulate the results of long exposures. Instead, make an educated guess and review. Make adjustments and shoot again. Shoot, review, adjust, shoot, review, etc. For star trails, start with a high ISO, wide aperture, and a slow shutter speed (whole minutes). Speed up your shutter for shots where you don’t want streaky stars, such as the Milky Way. 30 seconds is a great starting place.
Good landscape astro images are made with compositional strategies that achieve a carefully orchestrated balance between earth and sky, with the majority of the composition going to whichever of the two happens to be the more important part of the “story” of that particular location.
When shooting, take a careful look at the scene and try to make a call one way or another as to whether your images will be stronger if there is more sky or more landscape. Maybe both are equally important and you might choose to break the Rule of Thirds and do a 50/50 split.
The above shooting techniques will set you up for successful landscape astro images but it’s important to plan for post-processing these as well. You should be shooting in RAW, so you will need to develop your images in software such as Adobe Lightroom and/or Photoshop.
White Balance is tricky at night, so shoot in RAW and don’t pay too much attention to what you see on the back of your camera. Often different color temperatures are needed for the sky versus the earth in different parts of a composition. Use the graduated filter tool in Lightroom to overcome this. Milky Way core images in particular are challenging so I like to finish these in Photoshop with layer masks and color balance adjustment layers. Remember to keep things in adjustment layers to make your editing non-destructive. You can also remove light pollution color casts this way.
If you are a stickler for reality, look to NASA Hubble images for accurate, realistic color representations of the Milky Way core. Hint: it’s not purple or blue. Look to the term “Milky” for a clue.
Here are a couple of scenarios to help get you started:
Galactic Core of the Milky Way Over Landscape
If: Some moonlight on landscape (preferably moon opposite Milky way in sky)
- 16mm or wider lens on full frame body
- f/2.8 or more
- 25 seconds
- ISO 2500+
- WB: Auto
If: Silhouettes of landscape against sky
- 16mm or wider lens on full frame body
- 15-20 seconds
- ISO 1600+
Full Moonlit Landscape with Star Trails
If: Stacking many frames
- 16 or 24mm lens on full frame body
- 200-300 seconds (~3-5 minutes in bulb mode)
- ISO 200-400
- Layer all frames in Photoshop with “screen” blending mode
If: One single frame
- 16 or 24mm lens on full frame body
- 15-20 minute exposure
- Use long exposure noise reduction or subtract it yourself in Photoshop
Remember to shoot/review and experiment, as each night will have different conditions.
With a little knowledge, the right gear, and the right location you can add elements of the landscape into your compositions and dive into the exhilarating world of landscape astrophotography. There’s nothing quite like imagining a beautiful photograph of the splendor of the night sky above one of your favorite landscapes and watching it magically appear on the back of your camera. Don’t be afraid of the dark – give it a try!
If you have questions, leave a comment below or shoot me an email and I will be happy to try and answer it. Join me in my Shooting the West landscape astrophotography class next month, at Sierra College in Truckee, or in a small group/private workshop in beautiful Lake Tahoe.
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