Paul Timpa Photography Blog Photography Tutorials and Tips from Paul Timpa Photography

19Aug/15Off

How to Photograph the Milky Way

Photographing the Milky Way

Milky Way

Milky Way

When you photograph the Milky Way, you can produce some of the most spectacular night sky images you can create. It’s also fun and relatively easy. The Milky Way is visible with the naked eye all through summer in both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. The hardest part is not actually the photography, but finding a great location to shoot that is dark enough to see the stars!

Let’s start with the basics. For equipment, all you’ll need is a D-SLR that has good low-light performance, a wide-angle lens, and a tripod. If your D-SLR goes to at least ISO 3200 or higher, you should be able to try this technique. If you have a shutter release remote control you can use that as well.

Location

As mentioned above, the hardest part about photographing the Milky Way is simply finding a place that’s far enough from city lights to have a dark sky that shows off the stars, and to choose a night where the moon is not shining at the time of your photo shoot.

If you live in a more rural area, it may be easy to find a location near a farm or field or on a less-traveled road where you’re far from city lights. If you live closer to a city, you can always plan your photoshoot for when you’re away on vacation somewhere farther away from a big city. I like shooting out in the American West by the National Parks. Caribbean islands and beaches are also great places for photographing the stars.

It’s easy to pick a night when the moon won’t interfere with your shoot. Just Google the name of the place where you’ll be photographing with the words "moonrise time". For example, for Jackson, Wyoming just Google "jackson wy moonrise time" and you’ll see plenty of webpages which will show you the moonrise time for the days of that month. Pick a day when the moon will rise after you’re done with your shoot. You can also choose a day when there is a "new moon" -- no moon shining at all. Be sure to watch the weather forecast so you can photograph on a day predicted to have clear skies with no clouds.

The Photo Shoot

On the night you’re planning your photography, remember to bring your camera, tripod, a flashlight, and warm clothes depending on the weather.

Once at your location, let your eyes adjust to the darkness for a least a few minutes. You may want to set up your tripod and camera with your flashlight before you let your eyes adjust.

If you’re shooting on a clear night in the summer you should be able to see the Milky Way with the naked eye. If you’d like some assistance locating the Milky Way, a star viewing app for your smartphone such as Stellarium can be very helpful. With Stellarium, you actually hold your phone up to the sky and the app shows you what you’re looking at as you move your phone around. It’s fantastic.

When you’ve located the Milky Way and you’re ready to photograph, it’s time to set the camera.

Use RAW, set the camera to manual exposure mode and start with an ISO around 3200. Set the widest aperture (preferably F2.8 or wider) on your widest angle lens. Lenses in the 16-24mm range (full-frame equivalent) work best. The wider the angle on your lens, the less you’ll see movement and blurring of the stars from the rotation of the earth.

Set the shutter speed to between 20 and 30 seconds.

For focus, use Manual Focus. Autofocus won’t work in the dark. If your camera has a Live View LCD, use it and manually focus on the brightest star you see, in magnification mode if available. If your camera doesn’t have Live View, set the focus to infinity. While not ideal, setting to infinity will get you close. You can always review the test shots and tweak focus as needed.

When the exposure and focus are set, aim the camera toward the Milky Way and take a test photo. If there are foreground elements in the photo, make sure they are level and look how you envision. Adjust the ISO and shutter speed as necessary, ensuring that the shutter speed doesn’t get so long as to blur the stars into little streaks.

Enjoy!

That's all there is to it.  Experiment with a variety of exposures, foreground elements, and compositions.  In your photo editing software, you can adjust brightness and color temperature to finalize your amazing night sky. Most importantly, when you're done with the photography, don't forget to just relax and enjoy the beautiful stars.


For those looking to improve your photography, I've also created an app for iPhone / iPad / Android which teaches photography and how to get photos like these while you're out taking pictures. It's perfect for when you're traveling. Click here:

Photography Trainer for iOS and Android

 
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Thanks for reading, and best regards,
Paul

 
If you'd like to purchase prints or stock photography licenses for my photos (for advertising and editorial use), please visit:

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Copyright 2014, Paul Timpa

http://www.timpaphotography.com/

14Apr/09Off

Night Photography / Low-light Photography — Tips for Night Photos

Star Trails, Costa Rica

Star Trails, Costa Rica

The allure of the night shot. The sparkling lights of a city skyline, the moonlit seascape, neon signs, and star trails to traffic trails... For some (including myself) the night shot represents the epitome of fascinating, enthralling photography. Looking at these photos in awe, we cannot help but say “wow”.

Of course, one thing separates night photography from many other types. It requires a fairly significant amount of “technical” skill to get good results. It’s much easier to wind up with blurry, incorrectly exposed, or out-of-focus photos at night than it is during the day. So how do we fix that? This brief guide will show you how…

Night shots can be spectacular to look at. A properly executed night image can impress even the most jaded viewer. But one thing ruins probably 90% of night shots out there. Blur. Let’s talk about how to take sharp photos at night…

Because light levels are so low at night, longer shutter speeds are required to allow enough light into the camera to expose the image. You’ll often need shutter speeds that last several seconds. Of course any time you’re using longer shutter speeds, you’re introducing the possibility of blurry images due to camera movement. First and foremost, it’s just not possible to handhold a successful night shot. A tripod or other support must be used, even if it’s just a bench, railing, recycling bin, or tree branch. Yes, “technically” you can up the ISO to get a manageable handholding shutter speed, but I don’t recommend it. High ISOs lead to noisy images (multicolored or white speckles all over the image), loss of sharpness, and loss of detail. If you really want to take a powerful night shot, you should keep the ISO at 100, unless for some unusual reason you need ISO 200. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend going over 100.

OK, so you’ve found a great position to take your shot, and you’ve successfully balanced your camera on the back of a sleeping coyote (he’s very still). Now what? Provided the ISO is set to 100, it’s time to set the exposure…

Sunset, Costa Rica

Sunset, Costa Rica

Firstly, set your camera to full-manual mode where you manually set the aperture and shutter speed individually. Your camera’s meter doesn’t work well at night and will only cause problems and inconsistencies from shot to shot, so don’t concern yourself with it. Once in manual mode, it’s time to determine what to set for shutter speed and aperture. If we know that the longer the shutter is open, the more chance there will be of movement (resulting in blur), then we should do whatever we can to get the shortest shutter speed possible. Since we’ve already established that we’re sticking with ISO 100, that means we need to use the widest aperture that will work for the scene. Using a wide aperture (low number), more light enters the camera and you can use a faster shutter speed. Unless you have objects that are both very close to you and very far from you that all need to be in focus (which I find rarely to be the case in night photography), you can get away with fairly wide apertures such as F5.6. I’d recommend starting with an aperture of F5.6 and a shutter speed of 3 seconds. This usually provides me with a good starting point of evaluating how much light is in the scene and often results in a decent starting exposure. Look at the LCD and see if the image appears too dark or too bright. If it’s too bright, set the shutter speed to 1.5 seconds and try again. If it’s too dark, set to 6 seconds. Experiment with various settings until you arrive at a shutter speed that works for the scene. There are three main reasons why you might want to have a smaller aperture (keeping in mind that you will be lengthening the shutter speed and increasing the chance of blur). (#1) – small apertures create that “star” effect on small bright lights – if you want the stars, you’ll need an aperture of at least F8, and more likely F11 and smaller, (#2) if you have objects that are up close and also far away, and all need to be in focus, then you’ll need a small aperture to increase depth of field, and (#3) for creative purposes, for example if you want a longer shutter speed to increase the effect of traffic trails, to create a silky blur of the ocean, or to allow yourself time to do some “painting with light” (using a flashlight to manually illuminate certain areas of a scene), etc., then you may want to use a smaller aperture.

Let’s talk about focusing for a bit. The reality is, cameras really don’t autofocus all that well in the dark. You’re going to have to rely on some skill here. When you attempt to use autofocus in the dark, generally one of two things happens: either the camera focuses on the wrong object or the camera hunts around in the dark for a few seconds, it can’t find anything to focus on, and it prevents you from taking the shot. Neither one is what you want, especially if a spectacular scene is unfolding in front of you. There are really only two options. Firstly, you can set the lens to manual focus and just use your eye to focus as best you can. If you’re focusing on a far away city skyline or landscape, you can just look at the lens barrel and focus at infinity using the infinity marker on the focus ring. The second option, and the one I use most often, is a hybrid of auto and manual focus. Set the camera to use only the center focus point and turn off the other focus points. On most cameras, the center focus point is the most sensitive to light and works best in the dark. Look through the viewfinder and position the center focus point on where you want to focus. If there is a bright light near where you want to focus, use that. The brighter the object, the more easily the camera will find focus. Press the shutter button half-way to try to autofocus. You may need to give it quite a few tries for it to successfully lock on. If you successfully autofocus, immediately switch the lens to manual focus on the lens barrel. Be careful not to touch the focus ring and change focus as you’re doing this! Now compose the shot as you need to, again being careful not to touch the focus ring. Now you can take your shot without worry of the camera focusing on the wrong object, or worse, hunting in the dark unsuccessfully and never taking a shot at all.

Brooklyn Bridge, New York City

Brooklyn Bridge, New York City

If possible, I also recommend using your camera’s mirror lockup function, if it has it. This text on mirror lockup is taken from my Note on “Taking Sharp Photos”:

If your camera has a “mirror lockup” feature, you can also use this. You may know that when you click the shutter, the mirror flips out of the way so that the light can hit the sensor. The flipping of this mirror can cause the camera to shake, which is especially visible when using long lenses. By setting the mirror lockup, you are flipping up the mirror before the actual picture is taken, preventing camera shake and the resulting blur.

My final note on sharpness, and something that is perhaps one of the most common mistakes in night photography: always remember to use the self-timer or a remote control to fire the shutter. Using your finger to press the shutter will result in blurry shots. The sturdiest tripod, the most accurate focus, will not help at all if you touch the camera when trying to take the shot. I recommend getting a remote control for your camera, so you don’t have to wait 10 seconds every time you take a shot as you would if you use the self-timer, and you have more control over when it fires (for instance, if you’re trying to fire it exactly when there are no people walking in front of the camera). Remote controls are relatively inexpensive and small (easy to carry around). The one for Canon cameras is less than $25 and it’s smaller than your thumb.

A few tips on specific types of night shots:

Moon photography: The most common mistake when photographing the moon is overexposure. The moon is reflecting the sun. It is extremely bright. You must use very fast shutter speeds to avoid overexposing the moon. If you don’t see individual craters and shades of gray (meaning it just looks like a bright white circle), the image is overexposed. Set a faster shutter speed and try again.

Traffic Trails: By nature of having the shutter open for several seconds during night shots, you will almost always get traffic trails when there are roads in the photo. Set the shutter speed to longer or shorter as necessary to adjust the length of the trails (and don’t forget to adjust the aperture to match the shutter speed you’ve chosen).

Lightning Strike over East River, New York City

Lightning Strike over East River, New York City

Star Trails: If you keep the shutter open long enough, you can capture star trails. Star trails result from the rotation of the earth. Objects on the ground remain stationary, but since the earth is rotating relative to the stars, long exposures will show this rotation (see the shot at the top of this post). You’ll generally need exposures of at least a half hour to show trails (though you will see small trails in as little as a few minutes). You can either take a single shot for the entire duration (which may result in a noisy image, but is very easy to take), or you can take a few shorter shots and layer them on the computer. Set your camera to Bulb mode, and using a remote control, open the shutter, wait the appropriate amount of time (just use your watch), and close the shutter with the remote. Make sure to have something on the ground in the shot, to add interest and emphasize the motion.

Taking night shots can be incredibly exciting and result in some spectacular images. Good luck and happy shooting.

I've also created an app for iPhone, Android, and iPod Touch which teaches you photography -- more info can be found here:

Photography Trainer for iPhone and Android

Photography Trainer iPhone app

Photography Trainer iPhone app

If you have any questions or comments, please let me know, and feel free to share this tutorial with your Facebook friends:

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Best,
Paul

South Street Seaport, NYC

South Street Seaport, NYC

If you'd like to purchase prints or stock photography licenses for my photos (for advertising and editorial use), please visit:

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To keep up-to-date with the latest photo additions and other topics, you can also become a fan at my Photography Facebook page at:

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I offer one-on-one photography workshops in New York City, including an "Intro to Digital Photography" course.  For more information, please use the link below.

http://www.timpaphotography.com/

Copyright 2009, Paul Timpa