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How do you photograph the night sky, star trails and the Milky Way



Hillary Grigonis / Digital Trends

You don't have to spend arm and leg to take great photos of the night sky. Yes, you get cleaner and sharper images with the best mirrorlers cameras & DSLRs, but you don't need professional equipment to get good results ̵

1; oh well, even some phones can take astrophotography. Whatever camera you use, learning to photograph stars is all about technology, and it's not only difficult to change a few settings in your camera.

But since cameras are at their worst in the dark, shooting the night sky requires some patience and practice. Autofocus, although sometimes possible, is best avoided while a tripod is a must. The best star photos also require quite a bit of post-production work to make them stand out, but there are some simple adjustments that make your photos stand out. From setup to editing, here's how to photograph the night sky, from capturing dreamy star paths to revealing details in the Milky Way.

Step 1: Get the Gear

Star photography does not require a $ 5,000 camera body that NASA uses, but there are a few things that are a must when it comes to the night sky, starting with a tripod. A tripod stabilizes your camera so that you do not get a blurred image during a recording with a long exposure time (more on this later). Even a small table tripod can do it, although a full-size model offers more flexibility.

Although the camera you are using is not the most important part of the comparison, cameras with larger sensors have more potential. The best full-frame cameras are known for their high signal-to-noise ratios and great low-light performance, allowing cleaner images to be captured in any dark environment, including star photography. There are even cameras specially designed for astrophotography. Your lens also plays a role in which lenses with a large aperture collect more light for cleaner results – Nikon & # 39; s $ 8,000 Nikkor Z 58 mm Noct lens, with its huge aperture of f / 0.95, is built with star photography in mind .

But even if you have an entry-level model, crop sensor DSLR with a kit lens, you can still make it work.

Because you are shooting in the dark, make sure your phone is charged to use it as light, or grab an LED flashlight so that you can see your camera while you are adjusting. It is also a good idea to make sure that you are familiar with the camera controls before you go out. A camera remote control is also useful, but not necessary (most modern cameras can also be remotely controlled via a smartphone app; consult your camera's manual for details).

Step 2: Plan around the weather

Maybe it is without saying, but you cannot photograph stars with a cloudy sky. A less obvious thing, however, is the moon phase. The light of the full moon can drown out the stars. For the best result, plan around the new moon, or simply shoot in the opposite direction of the moon to allow the darkest part of the sky.

If you imagine a specific monument with the Milky Way galaxy in the background, then I also have to plan the shoot where those stars are at a certain moment. This is not necessary if you have a location with good visibility in every direction (for example, the examples shown here were all the result of taking a few test shots and then finding the largest concentration of stars to find the Milky Way). But if you come up with a recording for which the Milky Way must be perfectly aligned, an app like PhotoPills can save a lot of hassle.

Step 3: Get Out of the City

Slight pollution from populated areas will destroy star photography. In dense cities, you may not be able to see the stars at night, and that means your camera won't see that either. Also watch out for street lighting in the countryside; if you are too close, the light they shed may appear on your photo.

Below you can see an example of light pollution that affects the visibility of stars along the horizon.

Step 4: not only look at the sky

You can photograph nothing but the night sky, but including the surrounding landscape creates a sense of how vast and impressive that sky is. Look for elements that ground your shot. Everything from a tree in the foreground to a distant mountain gives a sense of place and makes the photo more intriguing.

There are two different ways to include the landscape in your shot. You can leave the ground as it is and expose yourself to the sky, which turns everything into a silhouette. Or you can use a flashlight or other continuous light source to paint some light on those foreground elements so that they appear in color with the sky. Again, this is a creative choice, so there is no right or wrong answer, although light painting may be harder to control.

Step 5: Set your exposure

First, if you use a camera that can take RAW images, make sure it is set to RAW. A RAW file will be much easier to work with when compared to a JPEG when we come to the editing step later. If you are unfamiliar with manual settings and the exposure triangle, this is a good time to familiarize yourself with the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. You need to know how to adjust these settings for the best results.

Night sky photography is photography with a long exposure time, but only to a certain extent. As the stars move through the night sky, too long an exposure time will cause them to fade. Hold the shutter speed for no longer than 20 seconds to freeze the stars as bright spots. Use a large aperture to let in as much light as possible and then only raise your ISO as far as necessary. This is probably in the range of ISO 1,600 to ISO 6,400, depending on your lens.

To reveal details in the Milky Way, it's important that your shutter speed stays at or below those 20 seconds. Go much longer and you get too much blur.

  Photo of the Milky Way with a tree in the foreground

But that is not the only way to represent the stars. Photographing star trails, deliberately blurring the stars to see the trails they follow across the sky, is another option – and this is where your patience really comes to play. If you thought waiting for a 20-second exposure was difficult, try waiting 20 minutes. The better the exposure time, the better. You can get away within 15 minutes, but if you really want to see how the stars move in the sky, set your camera to "bulb" mode and leave the shutter open for a few hours (it helps to have a remote control for this) otherwise you must physically hold the shutter release button for the entire duration of the exposure). Please note that some entry level cameras may not have this function.

  Star exposure with long exposure
An exposure of 15 minutes in the direction of the North Star. Longer exposures ensure longer star trails. Daven Mathies / Digital Trends

Another option is to merge multiple shorter exposures to create the effect of the star tracks. This is an option even if you don't have a bulb mode on your camera, but it requires serious work in Photoshop or another program for compiling images.

Step 6: Set your focus

For the best results, set your camera to manual focus. The stars are very far away, making it easier to focus manually. Start by turning the focus knob all the way to infinity and then tune from there. On a mirrorless camera or a DSLR in live view mode, you can enlarge the preview image while focusing. Focuspeaking can also be useful, so if your camera model offers that function, switch it on and experiment. You can also take a number of test photos with a higher ISO and a faster shutter speed to save time, view them for critical focus, and then reset your ISO and shutter speed to the desired settings before you take the actual photo.

Step 7: Use the self-timer or camera remote control to take pictures

Touching the camera during prolonged exposure can sometimes add camera shake, even with a tripod. With the composition, lighting and focus set you are ready to take pictures, but you take pictures hands-free for the best results. If you have a remote control or a Wi-Fi camera with a smartphone app, use it, but if you don't have a remote control available, you can use the self-timer to delay the recording a few seconds, sufficient time

Step 8: View and adjust

After you have waited for that long exposure to be completed, check the photo on the LCD before continuing to the next one. Make sure the focus is sharp by zooming in. If the image is too dark, try making the shutter speed a bit slower or increasing the ISO. Check the composition for possible improvements – sometimes it is easier to see the image with the most stars after taking a few shots.

Step 9: Edit

The truth about a great night sky that you have & # 39; I have seen that there was a lot of post-processing. What the camera captures is often much more boring than the appearance we want, and that is where editing comes in. There are many apps available for photo editing, but for best results we recommend using a desktop-based RAW processor, such as Adobe Lightroom, Capture One or Skylum Luminar.

Start fine-tuning the exposure to make the stars brighter, but do not become too extreme or you will notice much more noise. White balance can also be useful when editing star photos. You may want the sky to look bluer or even purple, more than black or gray, and white balance is the easiest way to do that.

Contrast can also help those stars to pop a little more, but instead of just the contrast slider, adjust the highlights individually, white, shadows and blacks. In general, you want to raise the highlights and reduce the shadows, and if you do this in this way, you get much more grainy control than what you get with just the contrast slider.


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