Ultimate Guide to Landscape Astrophotography
(an ongoing project)
In the Beginning
Since the beginning of time we humans have been enthralled by the night sky.
In those early days we were able to stare in wonderment at the stars above enjoying the (light pollution free) view of the heavens above. We have even seen ancient drawings, religious writings, and historical documentation about the stars and heavens above.
Before the invention of the DSLR, photographing the night skies could be a very, very time consuming and expensive hobby. With the invention and substantial improvements of the DSLR, today we are able to image the night skies without having to “mortgage the farm”. Improvements to the low light (high ISO) performance have made even entry level DSLR cameras capable of capturing amazing images of night sky.
Modern processing techniques have allowed us to combine multiple images to make a perfect image. Something that was very, very hard to achieve in the film era.
The learning curve is still somewhat steep and requires many sessions of trial and error to develop and perfect your own style of landscape astrophotography. I will attempt to help you make the climb up that learning curve somewhat easier to ascend.
What to Expect
What can you expect from deciding to try your hand at Landscape Astrophotography?
This is a really hard question to answer, I’ve found that for each and every photographer, there is something different that they take away from the experience. I can tell you that I’m sure that it’s an experience that you’ll never forget. Many find it “Life Changing”.
There will be times that you will be frustrated, cold, uncomfortable, wet, scared (noises are scarier in the dark), and sometimes you may even get questioned by the police (yes that happened to me, MORE THAN ONCE!!!). What I can tell you is that when you get an image like the one above, it makes it worth every single uncomfortable feeling that you may experience.
Honestly, there is little to fear, so long as you know your surroundings and plan, plan, plan!
This guide is intended to help you get started.
I’ll be covering the subjects that I get asked most often. I’ll touch on DSLR cameras, settings, lenses, tripods, other tools and tricks, and even some post processing.
Basically, everything you need to get started.
I’ll start off on the next few pages, with a summary of the basic equipment that you should have to get started.
Despite what you may have been hoping, I won’t be pushing any product here.
What I will be say is that your choice of camera is a very personal thing.
I will suggest that you do your homework when it comes to buying a camera.
Here are some things that you should keep in mind when purchasing a camera:
* Initial cost
* Availability and cost of glass (lenses), both new and used
* Features Familiarity with the controls
* Weight Weather guarding
* Availability of accessories
* Reviews / Known Problems
No matter what you choose there are some things you should be looking for in a camera. But at the end of the day it really is up to you.
Today you have the luxury of having entry level cameras that perform quite well in low light conditions.
You can spend as little as a few hundred dollars, to several thousands of dollars.
I will state straight up that the more expensive “full frame” cameras will perform better overall for landscape astrophotography, they will perform better with high ISO performance (as a rule).
The above paragraph only holds true if it’s in the hands of a quality photographer.
No stove will make you a better cook, but a chef will perform better with quality equipment.
There are many choices when it comes to lenses. Here is another area where you can spend a little to a small fortune.
The rule here is faster the glass the better. BUT, and this is a big BUT!!! The image quality of the glass has to be workable. You may find a lens that has a 1.8 or even lower, but the chromatic aberrations or “Seagulls” are so bad that it’s virtually unusable.
The key is to find a lens that has a pretty good balance between speed and image quality.
Another rule here is to look for a wider lens (lower number focal length). This again, will allow for longer exposures without getting star trails. It will also let you capture a wider scene with more stars in a single frame.
I know that many of you are wishing that I’d come out and state “you should buy lens x or lens y”, but the truth of the matter is, that you should really do your homework and buy what you can justify, or afford. Obviously many of us would like high quality glass, but few of us have the pocketbook for it.
As with any type of photography, it is better to spend more on the lens than on the camera body. Lenses will work with another camera when you upgrade and will make any camera have crisper, clearer images. A poor lens will always be a poor lens no matter what camera body it is on. The best camera in the world will produce awful images with a poor lens.
Tripods are a must!!!
Without a tripod you will not be photographing stars. Exposures of several seconds to several minutes are the rule with astrophotography. No human that I’ve ever met can hold a camera perfectly steady for that long.
When you select a tripod there are a few things that you should keep in mind. The image on the left was exposed for about 20 seconds. There is no way that I could have obtained the crispness and brightness in the image without a tripod to mount the camera on. Another thing to remember is that you’ll quite often be “Hiking” in to where you are going to photograph.
You will want a sturdy tripod capable of holding a camera perfectly still, but you’ll still want it light enough to carry for a medium distance.
Obviously, the tripod of choice would likely be made from a light weight sturdy composite material.
But if you’re like many, and money IS an object you can get away with an older, quality built (but somewhat heavy) metal tripod.
When I started my camera was mounted on an old school Gitzo R3 head (video head). I have since upgraded to one with leveling options, and allows for fine tuning the compositon.
It is a good idea to get a mount that is easy enough to operate in the dark, and as always, get a mount that well exceeds what your camera and lens weighs.
There are also specialty mounts that will move on the axis of the Earth that allows you to photograph stars for multiple minutes without creating startrails (I will wtite about these later).
My Two Cents
Now that you understand a bit more about the equipment you need you are ready to try your hand at capturing the night sky.
You have hopes of capturing that "keeper" that you can proudly display on your living room wall.
Here is where I may be able to save you a bit of disappointment.
Disappointment in what you envision as the "perfect" image, and disappointment in your technique.
The first thing I'd like to point out is what your finished product is going to look like.
Many, MANY of the landscape astrophotographs that you see online are composites.
By composites I mean that they are composed of two separate images that are photographed separately. They can be photographed at totally different locations, or at the same location, seconds, minutes, hours, even several days or months apart.
The photograph above is an excellent example of this. The image of the landscape is from a friend of mine, the night sky was taken from one of my photographs. This image was “CREATED” due to a request from that friend.
Although I don't mind, and will occasionally employ this technique, I will take to task any "photographer" that tries (and unfortunately are usually are successful at) misrepresenting it as a single capture.
My personal feeling is that misleading people like that is what has led to comments like “photoshopped” “Fake” and general distrust of photographers.
It's not that it isn't beautiful, quite often they are stunning works of art. The question arises around honesty.
I believe that it is important to maintain integrity as a human being and be forthright about your images is part and parcel to that.
Hopefully I've not discouraged your excitement about landscape astrophotography. The intent is to temper your expectations of what you will achieve as someone starting down the path to landscape astrophotography.
Now that that is out of the way, let's get down to it.
This portion of the post will help you understand the importance of Pre Scouting.
It will improve your knowledge of the night sky.
It should help give you a better understanding of photographic elements like foreground interest, and it will even discuss things like the type of the clothing you should have with you on a shoot.
Pre-Scout Your Shooting Location
The Pre Scout is where you devise a semi solid plan for your night shot.
This isn't just a matter of driving around and finding something that will look good with the night stars (although that is part of it).
Even before you leave your house you should pay very close attention to certain events here on earth.
What Phase is the Moon in -
The moon is nothing more than a huge rock that reflects a TON of light from our sun. When the moon is beyond a quarter, the light from the moon will drastically affect how many stars you can see. During a full moon, all but the brightest stars are washed out. On the other hand, the more full a moon is, the brighter the landscape will be.
Rise and set times of the moon -
With proper planning you may be able to create a perfect composite on the same night this way.
Lets say that the moon is rising (in the east of course) at around 11:00pm.
You can set up at your location and shoot the night sky at around 10:30pm before the moon rises and then simply wait for the moon to rise and provide nice lighting for the landscape.
This is a "trick" that many composite photographers employ. I would suggest that, if you decide to use this method, to use a lower ISO for the landscape and thus reducing the noise.
October 13, 2013 - Moonrise 3:36 pm - Moonset 1:27 am
Knowing this all powerfull information they head out and set up the shot with intentions to grab a landscape shot prior to moonset and grab the sky a while after.
They will head out at 11:50pm on October 13th and arrive at there location about one hour later thinking "Great, only 27 mins until the moon sets".
They set up the landscape shot and get a good one.
Then they wait for the moon to set.
They look at a watch and think "the moon seems a bit high to be setting in less than a half an hour'....... Sure enough 1:27am passes by and the moon is still relatively high in the sky.
Now the same person thinks "geez, that's the last time I use that website for moonset times"...... In fact, the moon doesn't dip below the horizon until 2:37am.
Ok, this is where you must pay particular attention and perhaps clear your head. This can be confusing for some people.
* Looking at the Moonset time on October 13th we see that the moon was due to set at 1:27am
* You left your house at 11:59pm on October 13th expecting the moon to set at 1:27am
* What you forgot to remember is that after Midnight it became October 14th, on the 14th the moon wasn't due to set until 2:37am.
For those making sounds like Homer Simpson, don't feel badly, when I first started out I made the same mistake.
Know Where the Stars are Located -
If you have intentions to photographing the Milky Way, or a particular constellation like Orion, you should have a basic understanding of things like the direction that you will be photographing and where the stars will be located at a particular time of night.
Don't be discouraged, it isn't a task that requires you to be a member of Mensa.
There are many freeware programs out there that will help you get the information you require. Stellarium is a great program that I would suggest to anyone.
I have another post about Stellarium located here. Stellarium will allow you to set the time of day and where on earth you are.
You can then use the time of day to find out what will be in the sky when you want to shoot, or you can use it to find where the Milky Way will be located on a particular day and a particular time.
Armed with these tools you can give yourself a head start on making a great image.
Find that Perfect Landscape -
Here is where each and everyone will differ.
Some like a simple foreground, some like a single focal point, some like a lake or pond in the landscape and some may like distant mountains.
Whatever your preference, this rule applies to you! Make sure you find your location in daylight. Please don't go out looking for that location in the dark. Many people injure themselves by not following this simple advice.
At night our vision is obviously not as acute as it is in daylight. You only need to miss your footing by half an inch and you can find yourself stepping into a pothole, falling down a steep hill, into a river, or even falling off the edge of a sheer cliff.
None of these options would be much fun!
The way to be safest (you are never 100% safe) is to know your location.
I will do this by pre scouting a location or even going out before the sun goes down.
When you pre scout remember to note the locations of dangerous conditions.
If you are shooting in a wilderness location, or a location that you are unfamiliar with, it may also be a good idea to talk to some locals about the type of wildlife you may encounter.
Don't Forget to Overdress -
I don't mean to put on a suit and tie, but I do mean to wear appropriate clothing. Remember that you will be sitting around doing very little. When you aren't moving, the body doesn't produce as much heat and you will feel cold much quicker. Your feet, head and hands are the three areas that I would remember at all costs. Once one of these three are cold, your night is as good as over. It is always easier to peel off some clothing than it is to try to keep warm.
If possible, taking a portable chair, a sleeping bag and a thermos of hot liquid (or water) will also help keep you comfortable.
If it's the middle of summer you may want a bug suit or some repellent if you aren't afraid of the adverse effects of the contents.
Letting someone know where you will be is also a good idea, just in case something unfortunate does happen while you are out.
To be continued......