author: Becky Chapman
There is nothing more peaceful than standing out in the middle of the desert at night with nothing other than the whispers of wildlife around you . When there is no visible moon, and you are out of the scope of the city lights, it is even that much more calming. I have kids who are still afraid of the dark. I seek it out. I crave it. I LOVE it. I have been known to pack up my car and head out into the dark of night to be with just my camera and nature.
Shooting the stars can be somewhat intimidating if you have never done it before. Settings may be a mystery. How the heck do you focus in the dark anyway? Once these basic principles are understood and implemented, the resulting images can make a night owl out of anyone. The first successful shoot you go on will make you a night addict, as it did for me. I first got started shooting at night by chasing down and capturing lightning storms (more on that in another blog). As I improved at focusing in the dark and became comfortable with nighttime photography, I started shooting for the stars, and am I glad I did!
My first, and slightly unsuccessful, attempt at a star trail was in Arches National Park in 1994 (back in the film days). I was planning on hiking out to Double Arch, about a 2.5 mile jaunt, and I was going to shoot a star trail through the arches. I had the picture in my head as to what it would look like and it was going to be stunning! Unfortunately, a partially collapsed arch closed part of the trail, so I was forced to take a detour. The detour was not well marked, and with it being night time, I got lost. I was indeed hiking with someone, but we were not well prepared for a poorly marked trail. Fortunately there was a full moon that allowed us to find the trail again and get back to where we started. No star trail was even shot no images at all.
You may have read that last part and thought “wait, there was a full moon? How do you shoot a star trail with a full moon?” Simple answer is, you can’t. Not with film. I didn’t really think about that, so even if I did make it out to the Double Arch, the images would have been way overexposed and unusable. It would be possible now with digital imaging and stacking, but not back then with film. I guess the detour saved me from some photographic disappointment.
As I got more interested in shooting at night, I started to really research how to do it properly. It is always best to try and shoot stars with no visible moon in the sky. It is much darker and you will be able to see significantly more stars. With digital imaging, one can indeed shoot a star trail with a full moon visible, but the trails of stars will appear much sparser than an image taken without a visible moon because with a full moon, you have to decrease your exposure time so you don’t blow out your image. This makes the dimmer stars not show up in the image, so you only see the brightest of the stars in the trail. Below is an example of a star trail taken during a full moon. The one after that was taken during a new moon when it is not visible.
Focusing is always a challenge at night. You cannot typically rely on autofocus because autofocus works with contrast differences and there is so little light coming into the camera that it will not be able to find any areas of contrast. Time to switch to manual and do it yourself.
The easiest way to focus at night is to focus on the moon, but we just learned that shooting stars is best done with no moon. So now what? The best way to focus is to go into live view and aim at some city lights in the distance, or the brightest thing you can find in your area. Zoom in on live view to that bright spot and spin the focus ring back and forth until that bright spot is as small as it can get to arrive at a pinpoint. That indicates it is in focus and you are now focused to infinity. It is best to use some gaffers tape to tape down the focus ring, because if you are anything like me, you will accidentally bump the ring, or try to focus again and knock your focus off. With your camera now in focus, and handily taped there, you can now recompose and your image should be sharp. Shoot one off and zoom in to one of the brighter stars to see if it looks like a pinpoint. If not, adjust the focus again until you attain a clear pinpoint. Sometimes it takes a couple of tries, but keep going. It is worth it.
One thing I can tell you that you should NOT do if you are using a zoom lens is zoom in all the way, focusing and then zooming out again. It doesn’t work. Your focus will change with the focal length and you will not have a sharp image. The other thing you cannot rely on is the infinity sign in the lens window. Even if you line up perfectly with that line, it will likely not be focused to infinity. I am not sure why that is the case, but I have yet to have a lens that had an accurate infinity line.
Another technique for getting your camera focused to infinity is to go out during the day while it is still bright and focus on something WAY off in the distance. Switch the lens to manual focus and tape the ring down tight so it doesn’t change in the camera bag. Gaffers tape is the best to use because it is strong and will not leave any residue behind. When you get to your location, all you have to worry about is getting your composition set up.
Lens choice is fairly important when shooting the stars. The best lenses tend to be fixed focal length Zoom lenses will work, but the fixed focal length lenses tend to be a bit sharper and also usually have bigger apertures. The faster the lens (meaning the smaller the f-stop number) then the more light you will be able to capture. You want to be able to capture as much light as possible since it is so dark. My lens of choice for shooting stars is my 24mm f2.8 Nikon lens. I shoot Nikon, but all DSLR’s should have an equivalent lens. I also have an 8mm fisheye that I have used, but my results with that have not produced what I wanted. I do know a lot of people who shoot super wide lenses and love what they get.
Choosing your exposure is your next challenge. Every camera is different and your choice will be based upon the quality of image you get at the higher ISO’s. I shoot Nikon and my D610 looks pretty good at 6400, but I will typically try to shoot at 4000 so the noise isn’t quite as bad. The heat in the desert also makes a difference because the hotter the sensor gets, the noisier the images will be. There is a lot of good software out there to try and manage noise but the less allowed at the start, the better. I begin with a fully opened lens (f2.8 with my 24mm) and I start exposures at 15-20 seconds. You can get an idea of what you will have to work with by looking at the LCD. Checking the histogram to be sure you are not completely spiked to the left is a good idea. You can adjust shutter speeds from there.
The best part of shooting starts now. You should bring a chair if you are shooting in the same spot for a long time as star trails require about an hour of continuous shooting, so sit back and enjoy the quiet darkness. Listen to the wildlife milling about on the desert floor, or have a great conversation with the friends you brought with you. This is my absolute favorite time when I am shooting. Take your time, and enjoy the images you bring home! Now to get that telescope… maybe after I sleep in.
Becky is a trip leader with Arizona Highways Photo Workshops.