Dark Sky Photography

By Helen Dixon. Posted

Few people can help but marvel at astrophotography – gazing at worlds billions of light years' away, dazzling star and the incredible Milky Way. The good news is that you don’t need fancy telescopes or specialist equipment to capture images of the night's sky yourself. All you need is the right technique and some modest equipment: your camera, a wide-angle lens with a reasonably fast maximum aperture, a very sturdy tripod, a remote release and a torch!

It goes without saying that optimal conditions are required to photograph the Milky Way. You need a clear night with no cloud cover, a New or Crescent Moon – the next of which is due to begin 28 October. And you’ll need an area with low-light pollution. Because the darkest skies are often found in remote areas, take a friend with you for safety and moral support!

Locate the Milky Way

The dusting of the Milky Way can be found in the southern sky (if viewing from the northern hemisphere) near the constellations Sagittarius and Scorpius. During the winter months, it is best viewed between 9pm to 12am.

It may take 15-20 minutes for your eyes to adjust to the darkness, but as they do the brighter the Milky Way will appear. It can help to shield your eyes from bright lights like the camera’s LCD screen as your eyes adjust, too. If you still cannot see Milky Way, point your camera in the right direction using the tutorial below and, as the sensor is far more sensitive than our eyes, you may still be able to capture images of it.

While photographs of the Milky Way alone can be spectacular, you can add impact by including some foreground interest. Objects such as solitary trees or a landmark, such as Lanyon Quoit near Madron in Cornwall used here, are ideal. You could render the object as a silhouette against the night sky, but you may also like to try some light-painting for added interest.

How to photograph the Milky Way

Camera settings

Once you are in position with your scene composed, lock your camera off on a tripod and set it to manual mode. Select your lens’s maximum aperture and choose a shutter speed using the '500 Rule' (see below). Select ISO 3200 as a starting point. Your final ISO will depend on your lens’s maximum aperture – the wider the aperture, the lower the ISO you can get away with.

Step 1

_Set your focus _

Focus on infinity, then set your lens to manual focus. Use a remote release to take a shot and assess the results – you may find you need to adjust your composition at this point. Check the image brightness too and increase the ISO, as required.

Step 1 1

Light-paint your foreground
Before light-painting the surface of your foreground interest with an LED torch, reduce your ISO rating to ISO 400 to keep the image clean of noise and stop your aperture down to around f/5.6. The Milky Way will not be exposed, but this image can then be combined with the Milky Way image in post-production. To do this, you simply adjust the frames' White Balance then overlay the foreground image on to your Milky Way image in Photoshop. By changing the Blend Mode to Screen the images will blend together, allowing you to adjust brightness, contrast and clarity of both.

Step 4

FINAL IMAGE

3 RESOURCES TO HELP YOU TAKE BETTER PICTURES OF THE NIGHT'S SKY

  1. Check nearby locations for light pollution or, better still, head to one of the UK's Dark Sky locations.
  2. Check the next moon phase using The Photographers Ephemeris. Shoot on nights of the New Moon ensures that the moon is not visible in the sky and stars and the Milky Way are as bright as possible.
  3. Learn the 500 Rule: The ‘500 Rule’ is the maximum shutter speed that you can use to capture static stars without star trails for any given focal length – the longer the focal length, the shorter exposure that you can get away with.

To apply the rule, divide your focal length by 500 to give you your exposure length, rounded down. For example, if using a 16mm focal length you’d calculate 16/500=0.032 – therefore you would use a 30-second exposure. To further confuse things, these values change depending on whether you’re using a full-frame or APS-C sensor, so here’s a handy cheat sheet for quick reference.

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