A personal adventure and a few tips on taking photos of the sky at night.

 

I don’t usually do photography at night. I like my sleep and a good photograph usually needs great light! But one evening on a journey in New Zealand the host at my farm B&B suggested I take my camera  across the field and into the woods to see the glow worms.

Glow worms? They are little gnat larvae that catch flies by emitting bio-luminescent light that look like stars in the night sky, drawing their prey into their sticky traps. This I had to see!

Little gnat larvae glowing in the dark.  f3.4,  6 sec.,  12,800 ISO
Same manual settings but this time I shone a little red light on the scene.
After an hour or so of shooting various angles and exposures in the chilly darkness, I folded up my tripod, turned on my headlamp and headed back to the B&B. But I was in for another surprise: as soon as I stepped out of the woods into the field I was stopped in my tracks by a starry sky like I had never seen before. 
So many stars above when I step out of the trees!  f2.8,  8 sec.,  12,800 ISO
WOW! It was one of the moments you never forget. It seemed there were more stars than space between them. And the Milky Way – our home in the universe – was clearer than I’d ever seen it. For awhile I just lay back in in the damp grass to soak it all in. Then I wondered, “Can I capture this awesome astral display with my camera”?

I put my camera back on the tripod, set the dial to ‘Manual’, the lens to wide-angle and pointed the camera straight up. The first thing I noticed was that my camera wasn’t capturing the scale of the view until I included some of the horizon in my composition. The milky-ness of the Milky Way didn’t appear on my display screen until I increased the ISO or sensor-sensitivity setting. I tried increasing the time of the exposures but beyond 20 seconds but then the stars started to streak due to the Earth’s rotation. 

 

My 24mm wide angle view from the middle of the field!  f2.8,  20 sec.,  3,200 ISO

Another choice that made a big difference was using the exposure-delay setting of 2 seconds. Normally we use this function set at 10 seconds so we can jump into a group picture with our friends. The 2 second setting is handy for eliminating the vibration caused by pressing the shutter button – a crucial factor in night photography.

I’ll add a couple of photos of celestial events that I captured with my camera – a Lumix FZ1000  at the end of this post. But I’ll finish with a check list of things to remember when you stay up after dark to capture the wonders of the night sky above.

    • A moonless, clear night is essential for successful astrophotography.
    • The darker the location the better. There are places called Dark Sky Preserves where light from urban sources is minimized.
    • Dress warmly and bring a warm drink. It gets cold sitting still outside at night. Bring a blanket to lie back on.
    • Use a tripod with a ball-head, so you can point your camera straight up.
    • The better your camera, the better your results. Cellphone won’t do. A DSLR with a large sensor is best. Larger sensors allow higher ISO settings and shorter time exposures without too much graininess in you image.
    • Bring along a good zoom lens, or a variety of prime lenses, so you can shoot everything from wide-angle for the whole sky to close-up for details like a comet. 
    • Share your best photos of the sky at night with us @focusonnatureca. Happy shooting!

The Blood Moon of January 2019.
f4,  1/5 sec.,  3,200 ISO

Comet NEOWISE in July 2020.
f4,  10 sec.,  3,200 ISO

Share