Many photographers would love to add images of skies filled with star streaks and full galaxies to their portfolios, but fear that obtaining these images is extremely difficult.
Many try and wonder why they can't capture what others have done so well, even when using equivalent equipment and settings. Well I'm here to present to you a short guide to getting the most from your astrophotography.
You may be surprised to find that your settings and equipment may be the least important factor in shooting the stars. Not to undermine quality technique, but the best night photographers in the world would be unable to capture the night sky if the conditions are not right. First and foremost, you must have the right location. The lower the light pollution (artificial ambient light) of an area, the more your camera will be able to see the stars without drawing in surrounding artificial light. You can search for a light pollution map specific to your area, and determine where the best locations are nearby.
Now that you have a location, you are going to want to take a look at the lunar schedule. The moon is the most powerful light source at night, and the less it shows, the more the stars light the sky instead. While a quarter moon or less will give you great star visibility, a new moon (no visible moon) will give you the darkest sky possible. If you want to see the lunar schedule, check out www.moonconnection.com.
The last thing to look for, but can vary based on what type of images you are hoping to achieve, is a clear forecast. However, combining spotty clouds with star photography can lead to phenomenal results as well. Now that you know about location and timing, lets discuss what you need to pack for great shots. The following is what I would highly suggest being in every gear bag.
Camera + Lenses
A sturdy tripod
Shutter release remote (with bulb function)
Extra batteries (Long exposures drain batteries more quickly)
Flashlight (for safe travel and potential light painting)
Keeping your camera very steady on a tripod and firing with a remote will ensure maximum stability and keep those night skies very crisp. In some instances you may want to exceed 30 second exposures, which is where a bulb mode compatible remote will come in handy. Lastly, a flashlight can allow you paint light on foreground subjects and give you more control over the surrounding landscape.
The rule of 600 is perhaps the most helpful tip when you get out there for controlling the look of the stars. Essentially, when you divide 600 by the focal length of your composition, you are left with the amount of seconds before stars will begin to streak in the image (due to the constant rotation of the earth). So if you are shooting at 30mm, you will have approximately 20 seconds (600 / 30 = 20) before the streaking takes place. For APS-C users, remember that your true 35mm focal length is actually 1.5-1.6 times the lens focal length. You can either convert the focal length before applying the formula, or simply use 400 in place of 600.
If you are attempting to get long circular streaks in your images, remember that one extremely long exposure is not the answer. The longer the exposure, the more faint the streaks will appear. Those images are typically created by merging many short streak photos in post.
I hope these tips help you find and capture the night sky in a whole new light!
Robert Hall is a freelance photographer in Southeast Michigan. His work primarily consists of weddings, commercial and editorial. He is constantly improving his skills through trading of techniques and critique with fellow photographers. Robert is always looking for new connections on social networks!