One of the best parts about joining a local photography group is the opportunity to try new photography techniques never before explored. I had one such opportunity recently: stars.
While I have seen some spectacular shots and have been mildly interested in trying it out, I could never bring myself to abandon wonderful, beautiful sunlight… and delve into the underworld of nighttime photography. Low light has long been my bane, but I am working to improve my skills in this underdeveloped area. Therefore, I welcomed the chance to work directly with other photographers who had done these types of shots before.
I had always assumed that without a motorized mount to keep the night sky “still,” you’re limited to star trails when it comes to astrophotography. I figured the only way to see the tiny spots of light was to leave the shutter open for hours, necessitating the artistic streaks. However, this experiment taught me you can also take still shots with a faster shutter speed so long as you keep your ISO high enough and your aperture wide enough. I did also play with trails, but that’s a story for another day..
With my first honest attempt at star shots, I certainly made mistakes. Here are the biggest ones; be sure to not repeat them yourself.
Longer exposures aren’t always better
A post on my favorite blog uses the “500 rule” to keep stars crisp. This would have been very useful to have in my arsenal going into the trip.
The longer exposure provided a great effect with the campfire (this was after our drunk campmates stumbled their way back to their tents), but I would have loved to have gotten more from the sky. Bumping my ISO and shutter speed up would have resulted in a better balanced shot, with brighter, clearer stars.
Biased by my preconception that stars required long exposures, I stuck with 45- to 60-second exposures the entire night. I was informed later that this was far too long, and the resulting pictures concur in their judgement from their blurred pixels forevermore. However, I still like the shots.. provided you don’t look too closely..
This campsite east of Mt. Hood was a wonderfully hidden secret. It’s ordinarily not very populated (though we had company this time around), and it has an unobstructed view of the surrounding valley. It also has a unique vantage of the hundreds of wind turbines that sprinkle the plains east of The Gorge. The line of red along the horizon that looks like fire is actually lights on each turbine, all flashing in perfect synchronization.
It’s better to overexpose
In the middle of the night, when it’s super dark, the tiny LCD screen appears quite bright, with all of your stars in their magnificent, illuminant glory. However, once you get them back to your computer and view them under normal human conditions (i.e.: with far more light around), you’ll realize they’d look so much better if they weren’t so dark. As it was, I wound up pulling up the exposure on nearly every shot in post-production. Given you’re taking a picture of the night sky, it’s nearly impossible to overexpose an image; crank that puppy up and give your stars the center stage!
In this and many other pictures, Aaron is always such a great sport, posing wherever I ask him to! I find having a subject to provide a focal point can add to the overall composition of the shot. The effect here would be greatly improved with a higher ISO to really bring out the colors of the Milky Way.
Do whatever you can to stabilize
If you’re doing any sort of low-light photography, your primary focus (see what I did there?) should be getting your images to be “tack-sharp.” There are many resources for tips on how to accomplish this. This is one such resource on the topic. In particular, while I used a tripod (a MUST) and a timer, I really wish I had locked my camera’s mirror. That small motion with every click was detrimental to my shots, particularly with such a long exposure. There are some who say mirror lockup (MLU) can actually cause more blur, but it’s still something I’ll try next time.
We used some glow sticks to light our way along the campground, and it proved to be a unique foreground illuminator. While I love silhouettes, it’s nice to bring some life back into the foreground when possible.
Now, this isn’t exactly a mistake, but it warrants a mention anyway!
Don’t let a new experiment get you down if it doesn’t work out the way you plan. I’m overall disappointed in my nighttime shots, but I know precisely what I did wrong, and I endeavor to correct those mistakes on my next attempt. I can’t wait to try again, and I’ll be sure to post again with my improved star shots.
Being at this beautiful location, I couldn’t leave in the morning without capturing the sunrise. While these aren’t astrophotography, I wanted to include some successes from the trip as well, leaving things on a happy note!