Night Photography, Stars, and Star Trails

Bliss Dance, Treasure Island, CA
Bliss Dance, Treasure Island, CA

Planning is key here.

And I will start with the thing that I think is of utmost importance: whenever humanly possible, scout your shots in the daylight.  That way, you will know where the hazards are, you will have a chance to pre-visualize the compositions you want, and you’ll generally not have to blunder about like a drunken hippo in the dark.  Albeit a hippo with very fancy electronics.  Cyber-hippo artist, what an odd image THAT makes in my mind.

But enough of that!  We’re here to create art at night after all.  So bring along these:

  • Batteries, batteries, and more batteries. Especially if doing star trails or in cold weather, as both suck batteries like nobody’s business.
  • I sincerely doubt you can hold a camera steady for 30 minutes.  And if you can, go be a surgeon and buy some prints from me.
  • Remote release (cable or infrared). Again, total stability is the key.
  • Timer – this can be stopwatch, wristwatch, smartphone, what have you.
  • Light source. You’ll need it between shots and getting to/from shooting.  Headlamps are great because it keeps both hands free.
  • Some way to amuse yourself during long shots. Deck of cards, smartphone, good company, Chinese finger trap, and so on.

But don’t bother with a lot of filters, especially a polarizer, which usually drops 1 stop of light and therefore means double the exposure time.  20 minutes is long, but 40’s worse.

Once you have the shot set, take a first exposure.  Typically I’ll open the aperture to maximum, crank the ISO into the stratosphere, and set the shutter around 30 seconds.  Then take a shot and see what you get.  From there, dial in the shutter until you get the desired exposure (takes a few shots normally), and then alter the shutter and ISO to get as low an ISO as you want and/or can get.  There is some math here – it’s all about powers of two, doubling and halving things.

So for example is f/4 ISO 3200 and 30s is right, then f/4, ISO 100, and 16 min will be the same exposure.

Yosemite Falls at Night
Yosemite Falls at Night

Bear also in mind, to freeze stars I find it necessary to get speeds under 20 seconds.  Which means get a wide-aperture lens so you don’t have to get a lot of grain from high ISO.

The Milky Way
The Milky Way

Once again, to make the point: safety first.  Tell someone where you’re going and when you’ll be back.  And if you’re going somewhere that has hazards like bears, bison, drug-addled squatters, angry 3 year olds etc. do be extra cautious, and if humanly possible take company along.

And have fun!  But don’t try to make money infringing copyrights, even if it is wicked cool to play with glow sticks.

Your Powers Are Weak, Old Man
Your Powers Are Weak, Old Man

Future posts on this topic are likely to involve details on star trails and light painting.  And a really fun one I took last week while out of town :)Happy shooting!

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