Night Owl Photography Part Two: Mistakes, Myths and Methods of Night Sky Photography

January 07, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

Before we left for Witsand I did a little prepping for the kind of photos I was hoping to get while there. As with most other things you want to learn about in life, Youtube is filled with how-to videos on time lapse, star trails, light painting and other tricks of the trade when photographing dark skies.  So I'm not going to bore you here with the technical details here, I'll just explain how I got the pics.

Star Trail - WitsandStar Trail - WitsandGenerated by Star Trails (Mac OS X) with 57 images

I played around with tripod locations, and different camera settings for a good hour or more before I was ready to start taking the individual photos that would make up the star trail image you see above. I had a vague idea about where to point the camera to get the circle effect, but since I'm a astronomy dummy it was really a wild guess more than anything else. I had my Canon 5D MkIII set up on a Manfrotto tripod with a Sigma 15mm fisheye lens, hooked up with a TriggerTrap dongle to my iPhone sitting in a holder strapped to one leg of the tripod.  I set the TriggerTrap to take 104 photo with a 20 second exposure, at ISO 1600 and F4, and started it around 3.40am. Now I had an hour or so to kill while the camera was busy taking those hundred-odd images. How did I while away the time?

I went back to the bungalow to make myself a cup of coffee. The camera was set up about 50m from where it was located among the camel thorn trees. Having lights, a bathroom, a kitchen and camera equipment so close by was a MAJOR plus and a soft introduction to what I can imagine can be a very rough photographic outing.

Then, I played around with Star Walk 2 on the iPad. It's an amazing astronomy app I used to determine the phases of the sun and moon when I planned the outing. It shows a live view of the sky above, and for the first time stars started making a bit more sense to me. For the first time I can now point out Orion's belt and the Southern Cross, all because I had an hour to kill waiting for the star trail photos to finish.

With the 104 photos in the bag, I was dog-tired and ready for bed. Except that Adeline had awoken all chirpy, made coffee, and was ready to start the day as the sun had just appeared above the horizon. So no sleep for me. There was a long, long day lying ahead.

When we returned home from Witsand I reviewed the series of night time pics and realised that the initial ones were way too dark to use straight out of the camera - the twenty second exposure had been too short - while the last ones were taken at 4.45am, just before sunrise when the sky was almost daylight and showed virtually no stars. The 90 minutes or so between the moon setting and the sun rising was simple too short too get one hundred pics that showed more or less even lighting. In the end I used the first 57 photos of the 104, and used Lightroom to lifted the exposure in them to a level where the Milky Way was clearly visible and the lighting more or less even. Other than that, I did no post-processing. I was too much in a hurry to see the final product.

Next I put the 57 photographs into Star Stax, a free star trail program for the Mac. It's a bit buggy but worked OK. Just for comparisonI bought the $5.99 Star Trails, which is simpler with less knobs to twiddle than Star Stax, but produces a slightly better quality star trail image. I took the star trail image back into Lightroom, did a slight contrast and clarity adjustment, and voila, there you have it. That wasn't rock science, was it?

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But it was really with the second star trail image where I started getting the hang of it.

Witsand - Star TrailWitsand - Star Trail

On the following night I set up the camera and tripod at more or less the same spot, but this time I decided to photograph while the almost-full moon was hovering right above me. It illuminated the gravel road well, but of course dimmed to Milky Way to about half of what I saw on the previous, dark night.

I was more careful this time and experimented more with shutter time and other settings. The final settings were a 1 minute 50 second exposure at F4, and ISO 200. At these settings the surrounding bush and gravel road was almost as clear as daylight, yet there were still a reasonable amount of stars visible in the moonlit sky, which looked more like the sky at dusk than in the middle of the night.

In all cases I set the camera white balance to Auto. While I read a few very complex explanations on how to set the camera white balance for night photography, I found it easier just to adjust it in Lightroom afterwards. 

So at 9.40pm the shutter starting clicking away on the 40-odd photos the camera would be taking over the course of the next ninety minutes. At least this was a more civilised time, so Adeline and I sat on the bungalow verandah watching the animal nightlife come and go. The star of the night - no pun intended - was a porcupine that casually sauntered by, sniffed around the camp and then disappeared into the dark again. 

Checking on the camera with about ten photos left I started getting worried about the level of the iPhone battery. TriggerTrap keeps the iPhone screen on permanently while it's doing it's job, all the time draining the battery. Note to self: Carry extra iPhone battery next time. Because I had a battery grip on the Canon, power never became an issue there.

Back home I processed it exactly the same way as the first photo, but did no adjusting on the photos before popping them into Star Trails. Once the star trail image had been produced I took it into Lightroom for contrast and clarity adjustment, and I also lifted the shadows on the bushes. I'd accidentally stepped into the line of sight of the camera which left a few ghostly marks, which I removed in Photoshop. 

And there you have it - not the same crazy amount of star trails as in the first image, but nice and clean circles.  I learnt that, contrary to expert opinion, you don't need a moonless night. In fact, moonlight lit up the environment and produced nice tree shadows.

In short, what did I learn, and what would I do differently?

  • I did the right thing and got out of the city to a remote location.
  • I used a fisheye lens which produced a really nice, wide perspective. I tried the 17-40mm lens I had with me but liked the fisheye more.
  • Glad I spent the money on the TriggerTrap. Apart from using it for the star trail photos I also had lots of fun setting it up at a wildlife drinking spot, set to fire the shutter when it detected movement, which is how I capture this pic...

TipTolTipTol

  • The first night was about 50% cloudy. Nice for taking spooky pics of the moon but disastrous for star trails, so I didn't do much. I've seen one or two sharp photographers make use of the clouds to produce interesting star trail images but you need to be very, very sharp about exposure, and even then you're in the hands of the cloudiness gods.

I would take much stronger torches next time, and perhaps even coloured strobes. I only had one wimpy headlamp and a teeny LED solar torch, which was much too underpowered to paint. I would, for instance, have played around with lighting up the bushes next to the road in creative ways. Despite that, Adeline and I had great fun doing a little ghostly light painting here...

Ghostly Wagon - WitsandGhostly Wagon - Witsand

For a first-time star trail photographer I think the images I got were quite good. I was surprised at how easy it was to make reasonable images of star trails with a fairly basic camera setup, reasonable picture taking skills and a bit of post-production know-how and a good piece of star trail software. It won't win prizes, but it'll got lots of likes on Facebook.

So what's the next step, how to take better pics that'll make GEO Magazine and win the six figure photography prizes?

Location - If you can get a star trail pic against the foreground of an ice bear sitting on a ice float in the Bering Strait, well, that'll make the picture editors sit up. The more original your star trail setting is, the better the pic will be. Witsand has reasonably interesting surroundings, but the really good ones - unspoilt sand dunes - are difficult to get to, and I simply didn't have the time to go seek out the really good spots.  I may go scouting around the Cederberg for an interesting rock location next time I'm in Cape Town, or perhaps somewhere in Namibia, which has stunning landscapes that'll night photography alkive. Or get a tame lion to sit on top of a rock in the Magaliesberg. Who knows what the year will bring...

Composition and lighting - I've seen some stunning star trail related pics where the surroundings had been lit superbly by guys who know all about strobes, flashes, gels and the esoterics of creative lighting. A star trail sky is a backdrop that, if combined with good composition and lighting, makes a winning photo. 

Equipment - I don't think I need much more than what I had to get a better photo. Perhaps a dolly would be nice, but then you move into the realm of video, which isn't really my thing.

Oh yes, and make yourself a flask of coffee to take along. In case you're not photographing right next to your bungalow!

 


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