Beyond The Campfire was created to encourage readers to explore the great outdoors and to observe it close up. Get out and take a hike, go fishing or canoeing, or simply stretch out on a blanket under a summer sky...and take your camera along. We'll talk about combining outdoor activities with photography. We'll look at everything from improving your understanding of the basics of photography to more advanced techniques including things like how to see photographically and capturing the light. We'll explore the night sky, location shoots, using off camera speedlights along with nature and landscape. Grab your camera...strap on your hiking boots...and join me. I think you will enjoy the adventure.

F-4 Phantom

F-4 Phantom
F-4 Phantom

Monday, May 14, 2012

Shoot the Stars...

Composite of three horizontal images
stacked vertically
A few months ago I ran across some amazing photographs of the Milky Way…For those of you who live in the city it is that hazy span of cloudy light that stretches across the center of the sky on a clear, moonless, dark night.  Technically it is the edge on view we see looking toward the center of the galaxy from our earthly vantage point located way out on the edge of this massive spiral of stars and interstellar gases known as our home...the Milky Way galaxy.

It is one aspect of photography until recently I had not tried so I read up as much as I could about how to do it and contrary to popular belief it’s not all that difficult to do.  Here’s what you need:

A clear moonless night as far away from the ambient city lights as possible.
A Digital SLR with a wide angle lens…18mm or wider.
A Tripod.
A cable release. 
A willingness to get up very early or stay up very late.  
A little practice.

Checking my calendar and the moon phases I discovered that two days leading up to the weekend following my discovery of this technique was going to be a moonless event and the best time to view the Milky Way was around 4:00 am in our time zone.  So, I scheduled a couple of vacation days and prepared for an early rise.  I’ve been on Shanty Hollow Lake before daylight a number of times and figured that would be as isolated of a location as I could find close by.  The hills surrounding the lake would block much of the ambient light from the city that might filter over that way and the sky above the lake would be quite dark.

Milky Way
The alarm was set for 2:15am…hard to get up, but the canoe was already loaded and all I had to do was head out.  I arrived around 3:15…off loaded and worked my way to the upper end of the lake.  By the time I had pulled out and was setup on top of the dam, it was nearing 4:00am…right on cue.  There was a faint glow from the east that barely outlined the ridge line and the sky was as dark as it could possibly be under the circumstances with thousands of stars spread across the sky. Right on cue…the Milky Way haze hovered almost directly overhead in the darkest part of the sky.

Constellation Scorpius...near the bottom, just above the tree line.
My first attempts were experiments.  Set the camera on the tripod, set the exposure to Manual / Bulb, ISO to 1600…opened the aperture to the maximum…f/3.5 in this case…and zoomed back to 18mm manually focusing on infinity.  I reached into the camera bag looking for my cable release and realized I had left it in the Jeep.  Rats! time to retrieve it so I had to carefully use the on camera shutter release and make sure the camera was locked down as tightly as it could be.

I tilted the camera toward the darkest part of the sky and opened the shutter release…and counted…28, 29…30.  First results were encouraging but not quite what I wanted.  Continued with more experiments…eventually settling in on a 50 second count that seemed to generate an acceptable image.  At that point it was a matter of pointing and shooting.

Constellation Ursa Major...(Big Dipper)

One image was the result of three separate images.  First shot was down low with the horizon near the top of the frame…second shot overlapped the first one vertically by about 20%...third overlapping shot included part of the Milky Way that was nearly overhead.  When the three shots were stitched together, they made one nice composite of the morning sky.

Problems I ran into included post processing issues with the ISO noise.  My camera is not as well suited for this kind of shooting as other higher end cameras are…even so, with a bit of cleaning up using some noise software the results were at least acceptable…better actually than I expected.

Another aspect of stellar photography involves photographing the moon.  Contrary to popular belief, the best time to photograph the moon is not during a full moon. A full moon simply washes all textures out of the craters and mountains.  The best time I believe is during one of the first quarter, half, or last quarter of the moon phases.  It’s during those times that shadows run deep across the moon’s surface and provides for great details.

To photograph the moon, you will need a Tripod, Digital SLR with a large lens…something in the 400 to 500 mm range, but in a pinch a 300mm lens will work…a cable release.  What I’ve done is zoom out a far as the lens will allow…500mm in this case…set the camera’s exposure metering to ISO 200 at f/8.0 and select “Spot Metering” as the metering method then meter off the brightest part of the moon…and lock in the exposure…reposition the moon in the frame to suit your desired composition and fire away.  The moon is quite bright and will generate a fast shutter speed…in this particular case it was 1/250 of second…but can vary depending on the ISO setting you use and aperture selected.  I used f/8.0 because that particular lens tends to be a bit sharper across those middle range aperture settings.  Desired results may require exposure tinkering to bring out the best of the given situation.

The image may also require a bit of cropping…about bring the image to a size where it looks a bit more impressive…great fun to do…and actually quite easy.

So there you have it…shooting the stars and moon is fascinating way to explore photography…much more so than I expected…and the results can be quite stunning…give it a try.


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