Brian Peterson: How to photograph the night sky

  • Article by: BRIAN PETERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 18, 2014 - 7:01 PM

Want to capture the sky on a clear winter night? Try these tips for serious photographers.

Thanks to recent advancements in digital camera technology, photographing the night sky has become possible for almost anyone owning a digital camera with manual settings. And lucky for us here in Minnesota, winter is the best time to experiment with capturing the beauty above. Not only does winter provide stargazers with more viewing hours, but the atmosphere is clearer when it’s colder, with less particulates to block the stars.

 

First off, here are the basic ingredients for a successful night of skyward shooting:

Warm clothing

As a staff photographer, I’ve learned to dress for the cold with lots of warm layers. Dressing in layers has often allowed me to shoot comfortably for hours, even in subzero temperatures. Warm boots are a must. I prefer lightweight gloves so I can work the camera controls, but I always keep hand warmers in a muff or pockets.

Tripod

Photographing the night sky often requires exposures of 10 to 30 seconds, making it all the more essential to be on a solid base.

Camera

The ideal camera is a digital SLR with interchangeable lenses, plus manual controls for shutter speed and ISO (to adjust your light sensitivity). Most point-and-shoot digital cameras don’t have fast enough lenses for astrophotography.

Lens

I prefer 24 mm, or even wider, to capture the full scope of the sky above. The faster the lens the better — f2.8 is a minimum, but f1.8 or f1.4 is even better. I shoot wide open, with focus set at infinity.

Trigger

A remote trigger will prevent you from bumping your camera during exposure. If you’re interested in time-lapse photography, consider an intervalometer that will allow you to take multiple exposures over time. Intervalometers are available for about $30 apiece on eBay or Amazon.com.

Location

The darker the better. Much of Minnesota is far enough from city lights for a successful shoot. I prefer a wide open space, located at least 10 to 20 miles from the nearest town, with clear views of the northern horizon (because you might get lucky with those northern lights).

Flashlight

A small flashlight or headlamp will come in handy for seeing your camera controls. It’s also possible to do some light painting on trees or foreground objects during your exposure.

Getting a great shot

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  • Photo gallery: Shooting stars

    Thursday December 26, 2013

    Tips for photographing the night sky.

  • The first step in shooting the night sky is finding a dark location with clear views of the open sky. The shot above was taken west of Cook, Minn., on a clear night when the temperature plunged to 17-below.

  • After finding the right composition and a good exposure for the stars, try using a small flashlight to paint light on the image. In the photograph above, the front of the cabin and trees were all lit with a flashlight. The glow from inside the cabin came from two small candles.

  • Astrophotographay often calls for long exposures, so a sturdy tripod and remote trigger are essentials. A 24mm lens, or even wider, will help capture the full scope of the night sky.

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