Pictures of the night sky seem to hold great allure for us. Perhaps that’s because it’s becoming harder and harder for many people to get a clear look at the stars in a time of increasing light pollution. When I upload a night-sky photo on social media, I always get a disproportional response. People often ask how the picture came to be. But a photo of the starry sky isn’t yet something we can replicate with a smartphone. If you want a successful photo, there are a few things you have to consider. The process begins with equipment, choice of location and subject, the camera settings, and ends in post-production. In this article, I’ll give you a few tips that’ll hopefully amount to a crash course in night sky photography.
There are a few things you can’t do without when photographing the night sky:
You don’t have to be an astronomer to know that the chances of finding a clear night sky, and especially of capturing the Milky Way, in a city with the naked eye are slim to nothing. The buzz phrase is ‘light pollution’, and it’s caused by artificial light sources, whether street lights, car headlights or neon signs. For night-sky photography, we need to get as far away from the light pollution of big cities and towns as possible. For me, coming from Heidelberg, that means getting out of the Rhein-Neckar delta and as deep as possible into the Odenwald or Pfälzer forest. A map (like this one: www.lightpollutionmap.info) can tell you the places with the lowest light pollution near you.
As for the best time, two things are most important to think about:
If we’ve followed the tips until now, we are now sitting with tripod and camera complete with fast lens, on a clear night complete with new moon, in a dark place far away from civilisation. Under these conditions, we are looking up at a magnificent night sky. We can probably even see the course of the Milky Way with the naked eye. But as stunning as the night sky is, just pointing the camera upwards and taking a picture would be a bit boring. Our picture would benefit from an interesting foreground subject to place the starry sky in relief, emphasise the breadth of the universe and lend context to the whole photo. We have any number of options for this: trees, buildings, lakes, mountains. When I’m out and about, I’m often on the lookout for potential subjects. Trees work particularly well, for instance, when they’re standing on their own and make a stark outline above the horizon. But if no suitable subject is to be found, don’t despair: there’s always yourself! Why not take a selfie under the night sky? If you use several seconds’ exposure time, however, make sure the air is still, so that the photo isn’t blurry.
A technique you can use to make more of the details on your foreground subject visible is “light painting”. Use a torch to light up your foreground during a long-exposure photo. You’ll probably have to experiment a bit with the level of light you use and how long you light up your subject so that you get the right amount of light. Personally, I don’t use the technique that often because the effect often looks too unnatural. If you make sure your subject is outlined well against the horizon and the sky, you can then deliberately under-expose and capture a beautiful silhouette.
Which brings us to the next point: camera settings. First of all: shoot in RAW format if possible. You’ll get a kind of digital negative that hasn’t been processed by the camera’s software. This leaves you significantly more leeway during post-processing on the PC.
At night, forget your camera’s automatic exposure settings and go straight into manual mode. It’s best to set the focus manually as well, since autofocus usually doesn’t work in dark conditions. So that the stars come out sharp, set focus to infinity. To do this, I focus on a particularly big and bright star in live view and then magnify it to maximum using the magnification function. Then, turn the focus ring until the star is as small and dot-shaped as possible. That’s when you’ve got it in perfect focus.
Note the following when setting the exposure:
For me, post-processing is indispensable, especially for night-sky photography. Your camera sensor takes in much more information than it seems to when the picture first comes out of the camera. So that you can play with the contrast sliders in your image editing software a bit, try, for instance, lighting up the stars properly. You can often bring out the Milky Way even more with local adjustment.
It’s difficult to give specific recommendations here, because the names for settings are different for each image editing program. Personally, I use Adobe Lightroom, and usually work with the Contrast, Clarity, White Balance and Dehaze. For local adjustments, the Radial Filter or Adjustment Brush are best.
As for colours, there are lots of options – for example, you can adjust the white balance to achieve various effects. As you can easily tell, I’ve developed a bit of a preference for pink and purple tones in my photos. Everyone has to develop their own style when it comes to this – it’s all a matter of taste.
So that covers the most important foundations. Now you can head out and experience the unique charm of night-sky photography yourself!
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