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How to photograph the night sky, the star trails and the Milky Way



Hillary Grigonis / Digital Trends

You do not have to spend an arm or a leg to take great pictures of the night sky. Yes, the best SLRs or DSLRs will give you cleaner and sharper images, but you do not need professional equipment for good results. Even some phones can take astrophotography. Regardless of which camera you use, learning to photograph stars depends on the technique. Apart from changing some settings in your camera, it's not too difficult.

However, since cameras are the worst in the dark, they take pictures of the night sky requiring patience and practice. Autofocus is sometimes possible, but is best avoided while a tripod is a must. The best star photos also require some post-production work to really highlight them, but there are a few simple adjustments that will help your photos burst. From decor to editing, you'll learn how to photograph the night sky, from capturing dreamy star trails to revealing details in the Milky Way.

Step 1
: Get the Equipment This NASA uses, but there are a few things that are essential for the night sky, starting with a tripod. A tripod stabilizes your camera so that you do not get a blurry image during a long exposure (more on this later). Even a small table tripod can do the trick, though a full-size model offers more flexibility.

While the camera you use is not the most important part of the equation, cameras with larger sensors have more potential. The best full-color cameras are known for their high signal-to-noise ratio and excellent low-light performance, which helps capture clean images in dark environments, including the photography of stars. There are even cameras specially developed for astrophotography. Your lens also plays a role, as lenses with large iris collect more light for cleaner results – Nikon's $ 8,000 Nikkor Z 58mm Noct lens with a massive aperture of 1: 0.95 was specially designed for star photography.

But even if you have a DSLR camera with crop sensor and kit lens as an entry-level model, you can still get it up and running with a LED flashlight so you can see your camera set up. It's also a good idea to familiarize yourself with the controls on the camera before going out. A camera remote control is also helpful, but not required (most modern cameras can also be remotely controlled via a smartphone app, see your camera's manual for details.)

Step 2: Plan for the Weather

Maybe it works say it without synonymous, but you can not shoot stars with a cloudy sky. Less obvious, however, is the moon phase. The light of the full moon can drown the stars. For best results, plan around the new moon or just shoot in the opposite direction of the moon to capture the darkest part of the sky.

If you imagine a particular Milky Way landmark in the background, you do so. In addition, the rotation must be planned where those stars are at a particular point in time. This is not necessary if you have a location with good visibility in all directions (for example, the examples shown here are all the result of some test shots and finding the largest concentration of stars to find the Milky Way). But if you dream up a shot where the Milky Way needs to be perfectly aligned, an app like PhotoPills can save a lot of trouble.

Step 3: Leave the city.

Light pollution from populated areas has devastating effects on star photography. In dense cities you may not be able to see the stars at night, and that means your camera will not. Look for things like street lamps in rural areas too. If you are too close, the light you cast could appear on your photo.

Below is an example of light pollution that affects the visibility of stars along the horizon.

Step 4: Do not just look up at the sky

You can only photograph the night sky, but if you include the surrounding landscape, you get a sense of how big and impressive this sky is. Inquire about elements that will ground your shot at your location. Everything from a tree in the foreground to a distant mountain gives the photo a sense of place and fascination.

There are two ways to include the landscape in your image. You can leave the ground as it is, and expose yourself to the sky that transforms everything into a silhouette. You can also use a flashlight or other continuous light source to paint light on these foreground elements so that they appear in color with the sky. Again, this is a creative choice, so there is no right or wrong answer, though painting with light may be harder to master.

Step 5: Set your exposure.

First, if you use a camera with this setting you can take RAW images. Make sure RAW is set. A RAW file is much easier to edit than a JPEG file when we come to the editing step later. If you are not familiar with manual settings and the exposure triangle, you should now familiarize yourself with the aperture, shutter speed and ISO. You need to know how to adjust these settings for best results.

The photography in the night sky is a long-exposure photography – but only up to a point. When the stars move across the night sky, they are blurred by too long a shutter speed. To freeze the stars as points of light, you should limit the shutter speed to a maximum of 20 seconds. Use a large aperture to let in as much light as possible, and increase the ISO sensitivity only as much as necessary. This is probably in the range of ISO 1,600 to ISO 6,400, depending on your lens.

In order to visualize details in the Milky Way, it is important to keep the shutter speed at or below this 20 second mark. If you drive much longer, you will notice too many blurs.

  Photo of the Milky Way with tree in the foreground

However, this is not the only way to image the stars. Photographing star trails where you intentionally blur the stars to see the paths they take across the sky is another option – and here your patience really comes into its own. If you thought it was difficult to wait 20 seconds for an exposure, wait 20 minutes. The longer the exposure time, the better. You can get away with 15 minutes, but if you really want to show how the stars move across the sky, put your camera in lamp mode and leave the shutter open for a few hours (it's helpful to have a remote control) (Otherwise, you would have to hold the shutter button down during the entire exposure). Note that some entry-level cameras may not have this feature.

  Long exposure with star trail photo
A 15 minute exposure with a view of the North Star. Longer exposures produce longer star trails. Daven Mathies / Digital Trends

Another option is to mix several shorter exposures to create the star trail effect. This is an option, even if your camera does not have a lamp mode, but some serious work is required in Photoshop or some other image composition program.

Step 6: Adjust the focus.

Set your camera to manual focus. The stars are very far away, which makes it easier to focus manually. Begin by turning the focus switch to infinity and fine-tuning from there. On a mirrorless camera or a DSLR in live view mode, you can magnify the preview image when focusing. Focus peaking can also be helpful. If your camera model offers this feature, turn it on and experiment. You can also take some test photos with a higher ISO value and a faster shutter speed to save time. Check for critical focus, and then reset the ISO value and shutter speed to the desired settings before taking the actual photo.

Step 7: Use the self-timer or camera remote control to shoot

Touching the camera during a slow exposure may sometimes cause camera shake, even with a tripod. Once you have the picture, exposure and focus set, you can record but leave your hands free for the best results. If you have a remote control or Wi-Fi enabled camera with a smartphone app, use it. However, if you do not have a remote control available, you can use the self-timer to delay recording by a few seconds. This is enough time To release the camera:

Step 8: Review and Adjust

After waiting for the long exposure to complete, review the image on the LCD before you start continue with the next one. Zoom in to make sure the focus is focused. If the image is too dark, try increasing the shutter speed slightly or increasing the ISO value. Check the composition for possible improvements. Sometimes it's easier to spot the view with the most stars after taking a few shots.

Step 9: Editing

We've seen a lot of post-processing. What the camera takes is usually much more boring than the desired look, and that's where editing comes into play. There are many apps for editing photos, but for the best results, we recommend using a desktop-based RAW processor, such as Adobe Lightroom, Capture One, or Skylum Luminar.

Adjust the exposure first to make the stars brighter. But do not become too extreme, otherwise you will notice much more noise. White balance may also be useful when editing star shots. You may want the sky to be bluer or even violet than black or gray, and white balance is the easiest way to do it.

The contrast can also help these stars burst a bit more than just the contrast controls: customize the highlights, whites, shades, and blacks individually. In general, you want to increase the highlights while reducing the shadows. This gives you much more control than with the Contrast slider.

On the Milky Way, the clarity and vibration settings can help get the gas and dust out, while the localized white balance settings can change the color to make it stand out more from the night sky. You may also want to deliberately dodge and burn (lighten and darken) areas in the Milky Way to create contrast and pop.

Although not required, experienced astrophotographers will always remove aircraft and satellites from their images. You will see them as stripes of light that extend directly across the sky, in contrast to the circular star trails. Removing these items with a repair brush or clone stamp is very time consuming, but the end result is usually worth the effort.

Learning to photograph stars is not just about great imagery, it's about getting away from it. City lights stay out when most people retire to their beds, and stand under a breathtaking view from almost anywhere on the planet World. The limited light may make it difficult to photograph the stars, but both the experience and the final images make it a challenge that is worth coping with. Even if you are not an experienced photographer, experimenting with astrophotography is fun and a great way to learn more about image manipulation.

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