How to Capture Star Trails

By Megan P Galope
Twitter = @megangalope

At the end of January, I attended the AHPW Advanced Star Trails workshop taught by Beth Ruggiero-York. We learned how to take many photos over the span of a couple hours and stack them together to create incredible photos of star trails. The shape of the star trails depends on the direction you are pointing your camera. If you point east, your trails will arc across the sky:

If you prefer the classic circle, you will need to point towards Polaris (the north star):

Ever since the workshop, I’ve been excited to try this again. For the best results, however, you will need dark skies—meaning you need to get away from the city. I finally had an opportunity to try again when I traveled to Rocky Point, Mexico. The timing wasn’t the greatest as it had just recently been a full moon (it is better to do this closer to a new moon so that the moonlight doesn’t interfere). Luckily, the moon didn’t rise until a few hours after sunset, so that gave me a little time to take some star trails.

The first night I chose to point my camera south towards the ocean. Around sunset, I set up my camera for the composition that I wanted and determined the hyperfocal distance using my handy Depth of Field app on my phone. After getting the proper focus, I set my camera to manual focus and taped down the lens to avoid accidentally bumping it. Towards the end of astronomical twilight (about an hour and a half after sunset), I took some images of the foreground. Once it was fully dark, I took my high ISO test shot to determine the settings I would need to use for my images. I ended up setting my intervalometer to take 3.5-minute exposures at ISO 800 and f/4. I took a couple test shots to make sure everything looked okay, and then let it run. I had time for 36 images before the moon rose. I then took my 2 dark frames (same settings with the lens cap on). Using Lightroom, StarStax, and Photoshop, I was able to combine all of my images to create the final product:

The next night, I decided to try pointing towards Polaris for the circle effect. This would be a bit more difficult as it would mean pointing towards the houses and more light pollution. I determined that I would need to take 4-minute exposures at ISO 800 and f/4, plugged it into my intervalometer and let it run. Unfortunately, I decided to skip the test shots (I blame the wine), and instead of setting the intervalometer for 4-minute exposures, I accidentally set it for 4-hour exposures. Three and a half hours later, I found a very overheated camera with a dead battery and one unusable image:

It pays to follow all the steps!

If you’d like to learn more about creating star trails, come to our Symposium on November 4-5, 2017, where Beth will host a session on shooting and stacking star trails.

Revisit Your Old Photos

Author Beth Ruggiero-York

While culling images last week, I began to see potential in some of my older images that I had discounted long ago but never deleted. So I started looking at the old images with a new eye, an eye that has evolved and grown over the years.

I encourage you to do this exercise – go back over your mages by year or subject, depending on how you organize your catalog. Flag photos that strike you as having potential with reprocessing. Put all the ‘potential’ images in a collection or folder, reset any edits you may have made back to the beginning, and start over with the editing process.

There may be many images you don’t even remember taking, and some you remember but had already discredited. No matter how many years later you are looking at these images, you have learned new processing techniques and skills, as well as new software or plug-ins. In addition, your understanding of composition will have grown, and your own aesthetic preferences will have evolved.

So take the time to give some of those old photos a second chance, and I promise you will find a few hidden gems!

Here are a few that I resurrected and reprocessed.


  Whether you crop differently, convert to black and white, enhance the colors or clouds, or try different presets in Lightroom or another program, give it a try if you see some potential in an image. 

Beth Ruggiero-York teaches workshops for Arizona Highways Photo Workshops.

How to Shoot the Perseids Meteor Shower

Author:  Beth Ruggiero-York

It’s almost time for what can be an epic meteor shower every year – the Perseids Meteor Shower. This year it will peak on Friday, August 12, but if you’re truly determined to capture the most meteor shots as possible, plan to shoot the night before and the night after as well. To take full advantage, you need to plan to shoot through the night as the hours before twilight in the early morning are often the best. This year’s Perseids is predicted to yield up to 200 meteors per shower at its peak this year.

Photographing meteors is like shooting lightning – you never know when they will appear, so you need to have your shutter open as much as possible to capture these fleeting fireballs. While some of you may use a lightning trigger for your lightning shots, I prefer to set my camera on continuous 20-second shots by attaching my remote shutter release and locking it down for lightning, and I do the same for meteors. You can also set the specific number of shots you want using an intervalometer. In this way, your shutter is open for 20 seconds at a time, and during that time, there may be one meteor, no meteors, or two or three meteors in your image. After 20 seconds, the camera closes the shutter and immediately opens it again for another 20 seconds, and so on through the night. This allows you to sit in your reclining chair and enjoy the show! Back home on the computer, you can select the best individual images, or you can create a composite of several to show multiple meteors in one image. Alternatively, you can also create a short time-lapse video.

So, what do you need and how do you get it all set up? I will walk you through the steps below.

First, equipment:

  • A DSLR or mirrorless camera
  • A sturdy tripod
  • Your widest, fastest lens – 14mm-24mm is ideal because it will include the largest possible area of the sky, and more sky means more chances of capturing more meteors. Equally important is the aperture – f/1.4 is ideal, f/2.8 is okay. The wider the aperture (f/1.4), the more light that is reaching the camera sensor, so the more meteors that will be detectable in the images. Remember that f/1.4 is 2 stops faster (wider) than f/2.8, so it will pick up even the dimmest meteors that f/2.8 may not be able to. That’s a big difference.
  • Remote shutter release or intervalometer
  • Gaffer tape to secure the lens focus ring after you have focused
  • Extra charged batteries
  • Large enough memory card, or extra memory cards
  • Flashlight
  • Comfortable chair
  • Snacks

Okay, now that you have your gear ready to go:

  1. LOCATION AND TIME: Head out to the site where you will shoot. You will have already scouted this site during the day for compositions, accessibility, safety, and obstructions. Ideally, plan to arrive before it’s fully dark. You can shoot sunset and then the Blue Hour into darkness, when you will switch to meteor photography settings. Sunset on August 12 is at 7:15pm, so depending on your latitude, full darkness (end of astronomical twilight) will be around 10:00pm, plus or minus.
  2. COMPOSITION: Decide on your composition. Ideally, you will have an interesting foreground to complement the sky, but the sky needs to be the majority of your image because that’s where the action is.When deciding this, the most important consideration for this is the direction you face. Ideally, you want to point the lens either side of the meteor shower radiant. The radiant is the emanation point of the meteors. This is the Perseids shower, named after the constellation Perseus in the northeast sky. That means that the meteors will emanate from Perseus. But that doesn’t mean you should point directly at Perseus; rather, plan on pointing about 30-45 degrees to either side of Perseus. Keep this in mind as you plan your composition.
  1. SETUP AND FOCUS: Now that you have decided on your composition, set up your tripod and camera. Attach the remote shutter release or intervalometer. Now it’s time to focus. For those of you who have taken my night workshops or have read my book, Fun in the Dark, you know just what to do. If not, here is the routine for night photography focusing:
    1. The goal is to establish ‘infinity focus’. Infinity means that your subject of focus is beyond the hyperfocal distance, which depends on your focal length and aperture. Don’t worry too much about this if you’re not familiar, just make sure that your composition does not include anything closer than, say, 30 feet. That’s a good ballpark figure. If there is a tree or a bush closer than that, chances are it will be out of focus. Beyond that distance, however, is infinity, and that will all be sharp. Most important is that the stars are sharp!
    2. If you have arrived at your site and are setting up in daylight, you can use autofocus to establish infinity focus. Simply autofocus on a distant subject – a mountain, tree, etc. – and then – very important – switch to manual focus. If you don’t, when you half press the shutter release the next time, your lens will attempt to refocus.
    3. Take a short piece of gaffer tape (1-2 inches) and gently place it on the lens where the focus ring meets the fixed barrel of the lens. This will secure it from tiny movements due to temperature change, brushing up against the lens accidentally, etc. Remember this – you don’t need to refocus unless you change your focal length (e.g., 20mm to 24mm). Even if you recompose, if you stay at the same focal length, your focus is still good.
    4. If you are establishing focus after dark, you are in luck on August 12 because the moon will already be up. You can use autofocus to focus on the moon, then switch to manual focus, tape down, and you’re good to go! It doesn’t matter that the moon may not (preferably not) be in your composition, because infinity is infinity, no matter what direction you are facing.
  2. WHITE BALANCE: I recommend a Kelvin setting of about 3500 for this type of night photography. Most DSLRs allow you to set the temperature manually. Check your User Manual if you don’t know how. As a last resort, use the “Daylight” setting. If you are shooting RAW images (and you should be), this is easily adjusted in post-processing.
  3. SHOOT: Once full darkness has arrived, it’s time to start shooting. At your widest aperture (e.g., f/1.4, f/2.8), set your shutter speed at 20 seconds and your ISO at 100. Take a test shot. It will probably be way too dark (remember to check the histogram for the most accurate information). This is where the ISO plays its role – increase to 1200 and take another test shot. Too dark? Keep increasing the ISO until you get a good exposure. It may have to go as high as 3200 or 6400.

Now that you have figured out your settings and set them, take a couple of test shots. Make any necessary adjustments, and then lock down the remote shutter release (push the button forward where it will stay).

  1. HAVE A SEAT AND ENJOY THE SHOW!

Beth Ruggiero-York is author of Fun in the Dark: A Guide to Successful Night Photography, and a photo workshop instructor for Arizona Highways Photo Workshops. You can purchase her book here. You can see details of her upcoming workshops at http://www.ahpw.org/workshops/.

Zodiacal Light – Now is the Time!

Author: Beth Ruggiero-York

Just after full twilight has passed about 90 minutes after sunset, look to the west in a dark place in the Northern Hemisphere, and you will see a glowing pyramid of white light rising from the horizon. You may dismiss it as city light pollution, but don’t turn your back on it! It’s time to start shooting.

zodiacal_light

This is what is called the zodiacal light, only visible for about an hour after the end of astronomical twilight (about 90 minutes after sunset) during February, March, and April in the mid-northern latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere. In the Southern Hemisphere at this time of year, you can see it before sunrise. The pattern reverses itself in August through October.

So what is this mysterious “zodiacal” light? Simply put, it is sunlight reflecting off of dust particles in the atmosphere along what is called the ‘zodiac’. The origin of the horoscope you may think of, the zodiac is the circle of 12 divisions (the signs of the horoscope) that roughly defines the path of the Sun in our galaxy through the year. The dust creates a disc-like cloud in the Solar System, which is called the ‘zodiacal cloud’. So, at these times of the year, the dust, the Sun, the Earth, and the zodiac all line up to produce the amazing zodiacal light.

To photograph this remarkable and beautiful phenomenon, you need to be in a dark sky location free from much light pollution in the mid-northern latitudes as I mentioned above. Then, mount your fastest wide lens on your camera, and mount your camera on a sturdy tripod. Establish infinity focus, compose the shot, and start shooting! If you have not done night photography before, an easy rule of thumb.

To learn more about night photography, check out my book, Fun in the Dark: A Guide to Successful Night Photography, available for purchase at www.funinthedark.net.

Beth Ruggiero-York is a photography instructor for Arizona Highways Photo Workshops.  You can see her bio and more of her work at www.ruggiero.images.com.

 

That Strange Green Glow

Author: Beth Ruggiero-York

Have you ever noticed a green or sometimes purplish glow in the sky of your night images? I’m not talking about the Northern Lights. It’s a bit less distinct than that. What I’m talking about is “airglow,” a natural phenomenon caused by various processes and chemical reactions in our upper atmosphere and prevents the night skies from being completely dark, even with all other light pollution (including stars) removed! Airglow is an aurora-like phenomenon, but it is rare to see with the naked eye. Longer night exposures, though, will reveal it in your photos. Without explaining the science behind airglow, what you need to know is how it affects your night images, and whether to embrace it or try to eliminate it.

My first encounter with airglow was the same night as my first encounter with aurora. I don’t think it was a coincidence at all, but in both cases that night at Mono Lake, I had no idea what I was seeing. After photographing the night sky over Mono Lake and seeing a bright red glow showing up in the images, which I dismissed as light pollution from Reno, I turned south to photography the Milky Way rising. As odd as the red glow over the lake was, even odder was the green glow of the Milky Way – a strong green glow. Here is one of the original, unprocessed images from that night.

green glow

At the time, I thought something was wrong with my new Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art lens or my camera body, the Nikon D800e. I “color corrected” the images, and everything looked normal, but I kept the original greenish images.

green glow1

That I was able to correct the color and eliminate most of the green cast (it is still visible close to the horizon) shows that it can be corrected out of your images.

Several years later, though, I am not so sure about eliminating this natural phenomenon from my night images. In fact, the more I learn about it, I have decided to embrace it. After all, would you try to get rid of the colors in the night sky that we know as Northern Lights?

[Check out this amazing image of airglow in Chile less than a month ago:  http://spaceweathergallery.com/indiv_upload.php?upload_id=117043]

For answers to all your questions about night photography, check out my book, Fun in the Dark: A Guide to Successful Night Photography, at www.funinthedark.net

Blog post by Beth Ruggiero-York, photography instructor for AHPW

 

 

Capture Your Moment: Light Painting for Landscapes and Architecture

Beth Ruggiero-York will be presenting two learning sessions at Arizona Highways Photo Workshops’ 30th Anniversary Symposium.  Here’s more about her “Light Painting for Landscapes and Architecture” session.

Light Painting for Landscapes and Architecture

Many of us know what light painting is, but do you know how to use it effectively? In the “Light Painting for Landscapes and Architecture” session, you will learn the subtleties of painting with light that will make your images pop without looking garnished. You will come away from the session understanding the differences between lights, and when to use each one.  Also, so you are equipped to get out in the field right away, you will know the “starting settings.”

For answers to all your questions about night photography, check out my new book, Fun in the Dark: A Guide to Successful Night Photography, at www.funinthedark.net.

Beth Ruggiero-York is a photographer for Arizona Highways Photo Workshops.

For more information and to register for sessions like these, please the AHPW’s 30th Anniversary Symposium website.

A Big Night for the Moon Part II

Author: Beth Ruggiero-York

In my last blog post, I gave you the details and timing of the upcoming lunar eclipse. In this post, I’ll help you get started with the process of photographing a lunar eclipse.

Photographing a lunar eclipse is easy and fun. No special filters or glasses for your eyes are needed as with solar eclipses. It is safe to watch the moon eclipsing with the naked eye. The choice of lens for the lunar eclipse will depend on your composition. If you want an image of just the moon without any landscape/foreground features, then the same technique as shooting the full moon rising applies— use your longest lens, preferably mounted on a crop-sensor camera, with a teleconverter. If you don’t have a crop-sensor camera or a teleconverter, that’s okay. Just use your longest lens.

Lunar eclipse

If you want to shoot the lunar eclipse with a foreground, then a wider lens is needed. The objective of this type of image is to include context with the eclipsing moon, such as an interesting building, cityscape, natural landscape. Start with an ISO of about 400 at your widest aperture and take test shots ranging from 5 to 30 seconds. Of course, the moon will appear as a much smaller element in the image, but it will still stand out depending on placement of the other elements of the composition.

For answers to all your questions about night photography, check out my new book, Fun in the Dark: A Guide to Successful Night Photography.

Beth Ruggiero-York  is an instructor for Arizona Highways Photo Workshops.