There are a variety of techniques that can be used to create dynamic photographs of the night sky, including capturing the stars as pinpoints of light, as star trails and by creating time-lapse movies of the stars as they move across the sky during the course of an evening.
We spoke with three photographers—Pete Saloutos, Deborah Sandidge and Diana Robinson—to find out their techniques for great photos of the night sky. We also asked our in-house movie making guru and senior technical manager, Steve Heiner to give us tips for making great time lapse movies of the stars.
“The subject will often determine if I pursue star trails or pinpoints of light,” explains Deborah. “If a scene has a lot going on in the foreground, stars represented as pinpoints may complement the scene, rather than overwhelm it.”
“Enthusiasts of astrophotography may choose to invest in special equipment for tracking the stars as the earth moves,” explains Deborah. A telescope mount moves the camera/telescope as the earth rotates. This allows for long exposures of the night sky that will pick up the fainter light of the Milky Way for example.
To photograph the stars in the sky as pinpoints of light, start with as wide an f/stop as your lens allows, and shutter speed of about 20 seconds. Any more time than that and the stars will begin to blur. Increase the ISO as needed for a good exposure.
Diana says she’ll often let the foreground be lit by moon light on nights when the moon is bright enough because there is enough detail and light to add to the image. “On dark nights, I only light paint foreground elements when it makes artistic sense,” she says, noting that she tries to make the foreground look as natural as possible in most cases.
There are two techniques Diana uses when photographing the moon and stars in one scene. At times, she will bracket the exposure and composite two frames together, so the final image will have both the moon and the stars properly exposed. Other times she’ll use multiple exposure to expose for the moon and stars separately.
Light up the foreground
Using a wide-angle or fisheye lens, you can also incorporate the foreground into your images. Depending upon the subject, the foreground as a silhouette may enhance the overall image, or the detail in the foreground may complement the night sky. The foreground can also be lit using a variety of techniques.
High Dynamic Range (HDR): One technique is to take multiple shots, bracketing or varying the actual exposure time, and merge them as HDR which you can composite with the final image of the properly exposed sky.
Painting with Light is another technique that can be used if the foreground is close enough. There are two ways to paint with light: using a constant light source such as a flashlight or with a Speedlight.
Constant light source: while the shutter is open, use a constant light source to illuminate the foreground. Move the light around during the entire exposure so you don’t end up with hot spots.
Speedlights: while the shutter is open, press the Speedlight’s Flash button. As with the constant light, move the Speedlight across the scene to allow the flash to illuminate the entire foreground.
And just because there are clouds in the sky doesn’t mean you need to stay indoors. The clouds can add an interesting aspect to night photography when they’re sparsely dotting the sky, allowing the stars to peek through.