In the landscape, the sun is down and the afterglow has passed, so your first thought is to put your camera to rest and return to where you can get set for a good night sleep. That is good, more so if there is a scheduled sunrise shot. However, you may be missing the opportunity to make some stunning night photographs, shooting up the sky. At the expense of some shut-eye time, try it, you will love it. And it is easier than you may think at first.
There are three main types of star photography: “static” stars, star trails and time-lapse. I will concentrate here on well-rounded “static” stars.
Stars without trails
CHOOSING A LENS
One should choose a wide or super wide angle lens. Why? Because if you have a foreground you want it to be in acceptable focus and you also want to cover as much as possible sky with the stars in perfect focus. The 14-24mm f/2.8G AF-S Nikkor is an ideal lens for this kind of work.
As fast as possible. f/2.8 is preferable over slower lenses. The reason is because you want to be able to shoot at acceptable ISO speeds, to reduce noise, even if you have an extended ISO range available in your camera. A lens with a maximum aperture of f/3.5 is still acceptable, but with f/4 it starts to be not recommendable. A slow lens will need higher ISO. More on this later when we touch the 500 Rule and its effects.
CHOOSING A CAMERA
An FX format camera is preferable. With a DX the effective focal length will be increased by its crop factor. 1.5 for Nikon. Nevertheless, a DX format camera will work well for the purpose if the chosen lens effective focal length is 35mm or less.
High ISO Performance
To shoot into the darkness of the sky at night, you may very well need to shoot at ISO 3200 and you need as much image quality as feasible. So you need a camera that performs well at ISO 3200 or a little higher.
CHOOSING A TRIPOD
Mislead by some newcomer manufacturers and sellers of tripods, buyers tend to think of “load capacity” as the most important variable to consider when selecting one. Magnification and vibration dampening are more important.
When shooting stars magnification is not an issue, but, since you will need long shutter speeds, typically between 15 and 30 seconds, the presence of the slightest wind may ruin your shots with the wrong tripod. All of the images shown here were made on a Gitzo Series 3 tripod with a very capable ball head.
CHOSING A LOCATION AND THE BEST TIME TO SHOOT IT
If you are at liberty to select the location, the date and time, start by choosing a location where there is no light pollution from nearby towns, or worst, cities, at least in the direction you would be shooting.
The best time to shoot is when there will be clear dark skies and a not too bright moon. There are a large number of apps that tell you about the location of stars. For stars and constellations identification I have SkyView, SkyMap and several others.
For the weather and more, one app that is preferred and frequently mentioned in the forums by many landscape Nikonians is The Photographer’s Ephemeris. It will tell sunrise and sunset times. As a map-centric sun and moon calculator, it also shows how the light will fall on the land, day or night, for any location on earth. Most apps are now available for both iOS and Android phones.
A cable or remote release, used in combination with the camera’s Mirror Lock Up (MLU). If your camera doesn’t have MLU, at least use the Exposure Delay menu setting, to dampen the mirror slap vibration.
A loupe to review your images in the rear LCD and check on your focus.
A good lamp or flashlight to paint the foreground.
A headlamp to see where are you stepping in the darkness, with a red filter to avoid bothering others or ruining their shots.
Shoot RAW. This increases your chances to make adequate corrections to your NEF file in post-processing.
Exposure Mode: Manual.
White Balance: 4500° gives me true colors, as true as possible. Of course there is nothing wrong with getting creative via changes to the white balance in post-processing.
Focus: at infinity, then take it back a bit closer to you.
Lens aperture: f/2.8 or the largest your lens has (f/3.5, f/4)
ISO at 3200 to start experimenting. Make another shot at 1600 to compare.
Shutter speed: follow The 500 Rule.
THE 500 RULE
Getting the maximum shutter speed duration gets tricky because everything is moving, even if we don’t feel it.
The Earth rotates, our solar system moves, the constellations move, the galaxy moves. The numbers are very high. So I went very seriously (unnecessarily complicating things) to work on how fast were the visible stars in relation to my camera on earth. Although irrelevant, I even took into account my distance from the equator to find my relative rotational speed around earth’s axis. However I had to face two major issues: not having even remotely the privileged mind of Srinivasa Ramanujan (The Man Who Knew Infinity) to solve the equations, and the limitations of film speed at that time. I discovered that shorter focal lengths were better for this, but all my images of stars had trails, even when using night surveillance film.
It was not until the advent of digital SLRs and high ISO image quality that shooting into a starry night sky with round stars became possible for us, without a motorized computer controlled telescope. By the time I got interested and had a DSLR, all about vector theory was completely forgotten so I just went to our local planetarium and asked how they photographed stars. The answer was: “Amateur astronomers developed empirically a simple yet effective rule: The 600 Rule, where 600 is mm-seconds. When you divide 600 mm-secs over the focal length of your lens in mm, you get the maximum seconds time length to have well-rounded stars, without trails.” Ah!
Later it was found out that 600 was too large a number for prints above 8x10 inches and so the 600 Rule became the 500 Rule.
Below a shutter speeds table:
And you may want be more conservative and make your own 450 Rule, provided you have a good very high ISO performance camera.
How forgiving is this 500 Rule? Not much. My own image at Death Valley still looks acceptable on an 8X10 print, but not so hot on an 11x14 or larger.
As the table shows, the mistake was exceeding the 500 Rule shooting at 30 seconds with 24mm focal length. For that focal length I should have used 20 seconds, or zoom back to 16mm focal length.
Just remember that your only variable for exposure will be ISO. Aperture is the widest open and the shutter speed is fixed, governed by the 500 Rule.
In closing, I would like to show you the stunning photographs made by two of my dearest friends and mentors, Ernesto Santos (esantos) and Larry Anderson (mnbuilder49). These images they made while traveling together to Needles, Custer State Park, in the Black Hills, South Dakota.
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