Night Photography and the Goings Ons / by Justin Fritts

Work has slowed quite a bit over the past few weeks.  That's okay though summer is a busy time for everything, I'd love some work but I'm keeping busy just fine.  Promotions really slow down during the summer because it is year end, just gotta wait for the industry to get back online.  For the time being we've been doing extras, two weeks ago we went down to the Sand Dunes, what a place to take photos!  I've been there a few times before but every time I go I'm a better photographer and see more opportunity. One photo that I grabbed, right before I broke my remote shutter release cord, is below.  We happened to be down there on a very clear night during the new moon.  The stars were absolutely amazing, Alamosa, CO is right near the dunes but they don't have much light pollution, this means some wonderful long exposure, night photos can be taken.

About the cord, it was dark, I set my tripod with my camera down for a second with the cord wrapped over my shoulder.  Well, the tripod was not level, I even did a double check!  About 5 seconds after I put it down the whole thing toppled!  Luckily, there was some twine between posts directing people where to go for grounds recover.  The tripod fell right into one of them, it scraped against the ground (the lens hood did) but it did not hit the ground thankfully.  The cord however stayed around my neck and snapped the connector off in the camera.  A pair of tweezers and $30 later I have a new functional cord but man oh man, scary times.

Back to the photo, it seemed appropriate to post the photo because I saw some serious discussion on reddit.com this week about stars photography and I think a lot of people make it much harder than it is.

I took this photo without any fancy star photography equipment in one shot.  No need for star tracking equipment, no need for $100 filters.  What you need is: little or no moon, little or no city lights, a lens that can get very open (this was shot with an f/2.8 although an f/1.8 would have allowed a lower ISO), and a tripod.  I'd also recommend a remote shutter release or use the camera's timer.

I found that finding your focus before the sun has completely set is the way to go, finding it based on dim stars can be a real challenge, if you focus before the sun goes down on a very distant object and then leave it alone until it is dark it will be beneficial.

Setup:

  • Like I said, focus before it is dark
  • Set the camera to manual, you will want to keep the shutter long but not too long, I'd say 15-20 seconds to reduce the amount of star trails.  This I'm sure has to do with your positioning on the Earth, I've shot 30 seconds in Mexico with  very little trails and in Colorado where 20 seconds creates trails, small ones but they exist.
  • Open the aperture all the way up, we can play with this later.
  • ISO, set to 1600, I know this may be noisy but we gotta see how many starts we're going to get.
  • Take that photo!
  • Depending on your camera and the results you could play with the settings here.  Too dim, try increasing the shutter, push that shutter all the way till you get trails.  Put the ISO higher.  Too light, I'd take the ISO down before I'd shorten the shutter time.
  • Even with this photo, 20 seconds, f/2.8 (which is why I say f/1.8 might be your best bet), and ISO 2000 (thank you Canon 5DmII for those wonderful ISOs), I was too dim.  I post processed and bumped the exposure up 1 stop.

I may keep playing with it as this was my first go but beyond an SLR and a tripod and a really dark sky you don't really need much.  My photo had one small light from a building about 200 feet away, it was enough to really illuminate that tree, I wish I could have walked further out and try again but again, I broke the cord.  Go out and play next new moon, its not going to hurt, just bring a flashlight.

More night photography fun with the Lunar Eclipse here.