Another Friday already? Man, time goes fast when you’re having fun! This week we have a guide on how to shoot the night sky with your DSLR, something that sounds much harder than it really is.

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So how do you get started? You need to find some dark sky, which can be tricky when you live in or near a city, as cities produce enormous amounts of light pollution. Being based in Wellington makes finding dark areas much easier - a 20 minute drive takes you right out to the countryside. Remember that it will be dark, so it’s a wise idea to take a light source and a warm jacket.

Gear

Most photography people will tell you that you need a super expensive camera and lens to take photos of the night sky, but it’s not necessarily the case - you can get perfectly good shots off your basic DSLR and kit lens. Obviously having better gear helps with clarity, but whatever you shoot with now is a perfect starting place.

The shot above was taken on a Nikon D600 with a Samyang 14mm f/2.8 lens (basically the cheapest wide angle lens you can buy).

A tripod is a requirement, as you probably can’t hold your camera perfectly still for 20 seconds. Any basic tripod will do the trick but be mindful of the wind, as it may cause your shots to turn out blurry.

Remember to make sure you have enough petrol in your car too, as getting stuck in the middle of nowhere at night wouldn't be much fun!

The sky

Here in New Zealand, the Milky Way shines brightest during winter. While this can mean a frustrating wait for the right conditions, when the sky does clear up the cold weather means a beautifully sharp view. When checking the forecast in your area, the main thing to note is cloud cover. If it’s above 30% it can be tricky to find a gap in the clouds to see the Milky Way. Accuweather provide an astronomy forecast which offers a decent gauge of what the sky will be like each evening.

Knowing where the Milky Way will be in the sky is also rather useful, for obvious reasons. You’ll find that it doesn’t stay in one place as the night and the year go on. Just like the sun, it rises in the east and sets in the west. I personally use Sky Guide on my iPhone to plan the evening’s photo trip.

If you can see a glow from the city in the sky, there’s a high chance that it will wash out your stars so try to point your camera away from it. Remember the clouds too - they reflect light off in all sorts of random directions.

Let’s get shooting!

Right, that’s enough background - let’s get into the nitty gritty of shooting star photos! Here’s my checklist when setting up:

  • Secure tripod mount
  • Manual setting on camera
  • Manual focus on lens
  • 20 second exposure time
  • Widest aperture setting
  • 6400 ISO - I drop this if there’s too much light pollution
  • Charged battery and good memory cards
  • Brief shutter delay or remote shutter cable
  • Camera pointing towards the Milky Way

Try to include something in the foreground to keep the shot interesting. Trees, lakes and buildings work well for this - especially if you can get some reflections on the water.

Unless you’re going for star trails, it’s best to avoid exposing your sensor for more than 25 seconds - the earth moves far more than you would expect in that time!

The next stage is a bit of a guessing game - play around with your exposure and ISO till you get the result you desire. It typically takes me around five shots before I get exactly what I was going for. Don’t rely on being able to fix your photos in post either, as the night sky doesn’t have a huge amount of ‘data’ going on. Also, remember that your camera’s LCD generally isn’t very good, so don’t delete any shots til you’ve seen them on your computer.

So go out and give star shots a try - they’re awesome fun! And there’s nothing better than standing out under the night sky watching the magic that’s above us. Next week’s Freebie Friday will be focused on processing your images and may even include a Lightroom preset, so keep your eyes peeled!

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