Shoot­ing in the Dark

As­tro pho­tog­ra­pher Adam Wood­worth dis­cusses the art of cap­tur­ing the night sky

Digital Photograper - - Pro Column -

Land­scape as­tropho­tog­ra­phy is one of the most pop­u­lar and fast-grow­ing forms of pho­tog­ra­phy these days, and with to­day’s cam­eras and lenses it’s pretty easy to shoot high-qual­ity images of the night sky. You’ll need a crop or full-frame cam­era, a fast (low f-stop) wide-an­gle lens, a sturdy tri­pod and an in­ter­val­ome­ter or re­mote timer for your cam­era.

Most of the time there sim­ply isn’t enough light to get the land­scape and the sky both well ex­posed in the same shot at night, so shoot­ing land­scapes un­der the stars of­ten re­quires us­ing mul­ti­ple ex­po­sures. You can then blend the photos in Pho­to­shop to cre­ate your fi­nal re­sult. For the sky, the goal is to get a shot where the stars ap­pear as pin­points and not as trails. Shoot­ing at 14mm on a full­frame cam­era, I aim for 20 sec­onds and use an ISO that has a bal­ance of get­ting a brighte­nough ex­po­sure but not a ton of noise. On the Nikon D850, for ex­am­ple, I’ve found that even ISO 12,800 or 25,600 is fine for a sky ex­po­sure, just make sure you aren’t blow­ing out the stars to pure white. The longer the fo­cal length, the shorter an ex­po­sure you will need to re­duce star trails.

For the fore­ground I usu­ally use ISO 1600 and what­ever shut­ter speed is nec­es­sary to cap­ture enough light to see de­tail in the land­scape. This can be as lit­tle as 30 sec­onds when shoot­ing with a lot of am­bi­ent light, or as long as 20 or 30 min­utes. If there’s enough am­bi­ent light I might stop down the lens to f5.6 to get more in fo­cus, but oth­er­wise I usu­ally shoot mul­ti­ple fore­ground shots at f2.8 and at dif­fer­ent fo­cus dis­tances, then stack them with the sky shot in Pho­to­shop.

You might be won­der­ing, how in the world am I sup­posed to fo­cus in the dark? If you aren’t con­cerned with fo­cus stack­ing for the fore­ground, you could go out in the day­time and fo­cus on some­thing very far away to find the in­fin­ity fo­cus spot on your lens. Don’t trust the in­fin­ity mark on your fo­cus ring though; it’s of­ten not ac­cu­rate and hu­mid­ity, tem­per­a­ture and age of the lens can change in­fin­ity fo­cus. When you find in­fin­ity you can tape the fo­cus ring to your lens so it won’t move, and then you should have the stars and dis­tant land­scape ob­jects in fo­cus. Or, use Live View at night and aim your cam­era at a bright star, then man­u­ally fo­cus the lens un­til the star ap­pears as small and sharp as pos­si­ble. This way you can fo­cus for the stars, change fo­cus for the fore­ground, then re­fo­cus for the stars through­out the night.


PRO BIO Adam is a land­scape pho­tog­ra­pher from Kit­tery, Maine. He has had a love of pho­tog­ra­phy for al­most 20 years, and since 2008 he has fo­cused on land­scape pho­tog­ra­phy. His goal is to cre­ate com­pelling images us­ing high-qual­ity tools and...

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