Learn to Shoot at Night – 2

 
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This is the second post in our four part series on night photography! Make sure you read the introductory post here to familiarize yourself with the basics, and come back to check out the next two! 

This month’s night sky post will cover a few things to consider before heading out to shoot, and some ideas for trouble shooting common problems.


CONSIDERING THE WEATHER

There are quite a few things to consider before heading out to shoot at night, and the weather (including temperature!) are two of the most important! In the summer we have to consider that it will usually start out warm and get progressively colder throughout the night, so you’ll need to keep a lens cloth handy to wipe away any condensation that forms over time.

In the winter or on other very cold nights, keep a large zip lock bag nearby- the gallon size works great for us! When you’re ready to take your camera back to the warmth (either into your car or in the house), stick the camera in the bag and seal it to prevent condensation from forming on the inside of your camera. The bag will allow your gear to acclimate to the new temperature more slowly. On our recent trip to Oregon, we camped in the snow on a very cold night, and our camera and lens froze over during a time lapse a few hours long. The air tight bag trick kept the camera functioning and free of condensation!

The cold night at Trillium Lake where our lens and camera froze over!

The cold night at Trillium Lake where our lens and camera froze over!

Especially when you’re shooting in the cold, keep extra batteries with you. Cold weather kills batteries quickly, so keep the spares close to your body to keep them warm. Of course, dress as warmly as possible so you don’t have to call it quits early!


GETTING OUT THERE

Shooting in the summer (in the Northern Hemisphere at least) allows for the best opportunities to see the beautiful Milky Way galaxy. When shooting the Milky Way, later is usually better. We generally start shooting the Milky Way around 11 pm in the summer and have gotten some of our favorite shots around 3 and 4 am. The darker the skies are, the more stars your camera (and eyes) will see. Websites like http://darksitefinder.com/maps/world.html can help you locate dark places, and darkening the area around you by turning off all indoor and outdoor lights will help as well. Installing outdoor lights that point directly down and using motion detectors can help darken the sky for others’ viewing pleasure as well, and cuts back on light pollution!

The moon plays a huge role in night sky photography. Consider this: do you want to use the moon to light something up or are you trying to shoot the Milky Way? A full moon can provide incredible lighting opportunities, but to best photograph the Milky Way you will need to shoot when the moon is not in the sky. New moons are great for this, or you can just pick a time before or after the moon rises. We have been using an amazing app called “The Photographer’s Ephemeris” http://photoephemeris.com/ to figure out sun/moon rise and set times. This will also give you the angle of those events which are awesome for planning images (tons of other info too). This has a free desktop application that is super helpful!


COMMON ISSUES WHILE SHOOTING AT NIGHT

One of the first obstacles you will usually encounter is focus. The autofocus system on your camera will be essentially useless at night, so getting a sharp photo can see impossible! Most of the time, if you set the lens to infinity focus you will be all set. However, if you are trying to ensure a foreground object is the main focal point of the image, or your lens does not have the infinity focus capability, this can get a little tricky. Keep a flashlight handy for these situations – shine the light on the object of interest and manually focus where the light is shining (having a friend nearby makes this MUCH easier). The camera’s autofocus system may also work again now that there is some light for it to work with. You can also turn live view on so you see your image on your LCD screen and try to focus this way. Using live view, you can also zoom in on stars and manually focus your lens until the stars or object of interest is in focus.

Lighting a tree with a flashlight to focus on that point.

Lighting a tree with a flashlight to focus on that point.

Below is a list of other issues you may come across on your journeys:

Photo really orange or blue? Change your white balance to correct for this. If you shoot RAW images, this can always be corrected in post processing


Stars don’t look sharp? Try zooming in on your LCD screen and manually focusing. Keep your exposure time short enough for your particular lens and camera combination (remember the 500 rule from the 1st post!).


  • Can’t get the moon and stars or the moon and a foreground to expose correctly in the same picture? Don’t worry, nobody can! In almost every situation, you will only be able to take a photo of the moon OR the stars/foreground, not both as the moon is so bright. Any images you see like this are typically two pictures blended into one.
  • Can’t see the Milky Way? You need to make sure you are in a very dark location in order to see and photograph the Milky Way. Check out the Dark Site Finder website to assist in finding the darkest locations http://darksitefinder.com/maps/world.html. It is vital to take pictures when the moon is not out, so either on or close to a new moon, or before or after the moon has risen/set. In the Northern Hemisphere, you should be able to see the Milky Way from February through October. In February the core of the Milky Way becomes visible in the pre-dawn hours. Peak Milky Way star gazing is in June and July around midnight, which is also the most comfortable weather to sit and enjoy the view! The core of the Milky Way will be low in the Southern skies, and the band of the Milky Way should sweep upwards across the Eastern skies in a beautiful arch.
  • Photos look good on your camera’s LCD screen but are very dark on the computer? This happens often, since it is so dark out, your LCD screen can fool you into thinking you have exposed the picture correctly. Be sure to check out the histogram when reviewing images (if your camera has this option). We want to see as close to a bell curve as possible. See my beautiful artwork below for a normal exposure, underexposure (too dark), and overexposure (too bright). With the night sky, it might benefit to “expose to the right” or overexposure the picture just enough to get a little more detail out of the shadows. At this point you haven’t clipped any highlights, but the picture will look a bit brighter on your LCD screen. Post processing will make your photo look spectacular if you can master this technique.
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Nailing a night sky photo that you have envisioned takes some preparation, time, and patience, but is extremely rewarding. You might be able to walk out the door right now and take a beautiful image, but with a little planning you can create a stunning scene.

Now that we have covered some typical issues you will encounter in the field get out and try more shots, and see how you have improved. If you're having trouble and need ideas, feel free to send us an email or a message on Facebook. Be sure to look for the third night sky blog post next month, and check out the Deep Roots Facebook and Instagram pages for the latest night sky shots that we've taken!

Thanks for reading!