5 easy tips to take outstanding nighttime pictures: There are a certain number of things you need to know when you shoot astrophotography. At night, you need to gather a maximum of the low amount of light there is while optimizing contrasts and details. Here are some easy steps you can take to make your astrophotos stand out from the rest.
Adopt ‘manual’ mode
Night photography is a totally different realm than any field of daytime photography. At night, most of the so abundant light that shone during the day is gone and you will have to compensate for this loss if you want to reveal the beauty of the night. Abandon the ‘automatic’ mode of your camera and set it on ‘manual’ mode. It might scare you, but it’s actually not that complicated. ‘M’ mode lets you adjust the three key settings controlling the amount of light entering the camera yourself: the exposure time, the ISO and the aperture. Without getting into too much detail, and because you can already take gorgeous pictures with only very basic knowledge, you want those three settings to be optimized to gather as much light as possible. These three pillars are work in sync though, and if you touch one setting, you will have to compensate with the two others. However the first two settings we will detail should remain fixed once determined, leaving only the third one to adjust.
The first is the ISO. It’s basically an amplification of the light that comes in, so you want to boost it. Be cautious however: if you amplify a bad signal (e.g. an underexposed picture), the result will be too grainy. We usually recommend to use between ISO 800 and 3200, depending on your camera’s performances (you can make some tests). The aperture is the ‘hole’ of the lens through which the light hits the sensor, much like the pupil of your eyes. The more open, the more light comes in and the better the result. Therefore you should set the aperture as wide open as possible. It’s often called f-stop or f-number and goes like 1.8, 2.8, 4…, Set this number as low as possible, meaning the aperture opens wide. Lastly, the exposure time (ET) or shutter speed usually is the one you want to play around with since the last two remain fixed throughout your shoot. The longer the shutter is open, the more photons of light it will collect, and the better it will be for your final photo. The catch here is you have to limit the ET according to your focal length (how wide you shoot). Indeed, after a while you start seeing the effect of the rotation of the Earth when the stars on your pictures start trailing. That’s why we recommend to shoot as wide as possible and use the 500-rule to determine the maximum exposure time (500/focal length = maximum ET). Even if you don’t have a fancy camera, you can get absolutely crazy beautiful results by following these simple rules.
Since your camera shutter is open for a long time, the risk of getting blurry pictures also increases. The slightest vibration during this time will cause the picture to be unusable. To avoid jitter at all costs, follow these simple steps. Mount your camera onto a sturdy tripod, preferably in a windless location. Temporarily remove the strap attached to it, which usually catches the wind and adds extra motion blur. Set your camera on delay mode so that when you press the shutter, there goes a delay and you don’t introduce any extra vibration. You can also use a remote shutter. Avoid touching the tripod or stomping the ground around your setup. Wait 2-3 seconds after the photo is taken as some sensors sometimes take time to completely shut.
Timing and location are key!
In astrophotography, good timing and knowledge about the location are more than relevant. They usually make the difference between an ‘okay’ photo and a ‘wow’ photo. Depending on the subject you are shooting, there are a number of helping tools you can use to determine the best time and coordinates. No matter what you shoot, the worse enemies of astrophotographers are bad weather and light pollution. The first one will literally block your view or even damage your equipment, so time your sortie accordingly. Even the slightest cirrus clouds usually prevent you from getting the expected results, so opt for a clear, dry night. Moreover light pollution will be your worst nightmare. You need to get as far away from is as possible. Even a single nearby outdoor light can easily ruin a shot! You can help find the nearest dark location using the Light pollution map: https://www.lightpollutionmap.info/#zoom=4&lat=5759860&lon=1619364&layers=B0FFFFFTFFFFF
The moon also usually plays a big role in whether you are going to see objects like aurorae or milky way. So unless you are shooting the moon or with the moon, you will need it to be under the horizon and you can easily check the moon calendar for the location at: https://www.timeanddate.com/moon/
Anticipation and preparation save time and energy…
A good preparation of your shot will save you tons of time and will get you better results more easily. It’s important to scout a preferred location during the day to find a nice subject to shoot but also to spot the potential dangers that lie in the environment (root, branches, cliffs, rocks, ravine…). Once you found a good location, you can use some apps to help you plan your shot according to the night sky (Star Walk, Sky Guide, Photopills, Stellarium…). They will tell you the position of any night sky objects according to the location and orientation. When all is planned, come back on a dry, clear moonless night and set up your camera (plan a headlamp, as well as loads of food, drinks and warm clothes). Whether you are shooting in landscape or portrait orientation, always choose a proportion that pleases the eye, like 1/3 landscape-2/3 sky, or the opposite. Also, take multiple pictures of the same, using different shutter speeds, but also with the same ones. Sometimes some unexpected things happen! For example, a lightning bolt, a shooting star streaking across the frame or even unpredicted aurora can show up at anytime and can turn your usual photo into a money shot!
If you only want out-of-the-cam pictures without post-process, you should shoot in JPEG (default on most cameras). However if you like to enhance your pictures a bit, set your camera to ‘RAW’ shooting (=lossless format that retains all the information). Since you want to be in control of your result and not to let the camera intervene, you might as well turn off ‘built-in noise reduction’ in your menu. Back on your computer, process your file with parsimony. At the end of the day, you’re the one producing art according to your own tastes but a lot of enhancements can actually destroy the quality of your shot. Thus refrain from pulling those contrast, sharpness or saturation sliders of the software too much! Finally, export your picture in both TIFF (to retain the best quality) and JPEG for quick viewing and posting on social media. Voila, now you’re all set to conquer the night sky!