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Photographing the Night Sky

As the days shorten in the northern hemisphere, there are fewer opportunities to shoot in daylight, so I thought I’d share these tips on night photography from the National Geographic.

I’m not expecting to take anything like these beautiful images in the near future, or probably ever, but they make for fantastic inspiration.  I hope you enjoy.


Via Photo Gallery: Photographing the Night Sky | National Geographic.

 Picture of the Milky Way above Arizona Sky Village

Milky Way, Arizona

Photograph by Jim Richardson

Contributing editor Jim Richardson is a photojournalist recognized for his exploration of environmental issues and advocacy for the night sky. His photos appear frequently in National Geographic magazine.

Something wonderful has happened in photography: Ordinary people can now photograph the universe. Standing beneath the Milky Way has always been a beautiful sight, if you were lucky enough to find dark skies on a dark night. But the revelation of recent advances in digital photography is that the dim ribbon of silvery light we see with our naked eyes is actually a glorious, stupendous galaxy. For me the revelation came the first time I took a photograph of that galaxy and realized that just because the visible universe is so far away didn’t mean I needed a big telescope to photograph it. No, what I needed was a wide-angle lens because it is so huge—and we live in the middle of it. When I show young people my first published picture of the Milky Way I like to point out that this is their home. Earth lies about a third of the way out on one of those vast spiral arms of stars and dust clouds. Being able to take a snapshot of that universe is something new under the sun. And it’s great fun too.

Shoot for the Stars

Go for great images of the night sky. We’re living in a golden age of photographic technology. Ten years ago this simple picture would have been impossible. Five years ago it was cutting-edge. Now it is within the reach of any amateur photographer willing to go after it.

But don’t stop at just capturing the moon, a few stars, or the Milky Way. Put our world squarely in the middle of the universe that we can see with our naked eyes (it’s out there every night). Include the landscape—and look for opportunities to capture something unique.

For instance, Arizona Sky Village in Portal, Arizona, is a dark-sky housing development. Every house has a telescope built in, and one of the streets really is named Milky Way, which I wanted to show. A little pop of flash did the trick. I don’t know where else in the world you can get this picture. —Jim Richardson

Picture of Saguaro cacti in Arizona

Saguaro Cacti, Arizona

Photograph by Jim Richardson

Dial Up the ISO

The single greatest photographic advance for shooting the night sky has been the breathtaking advance in camera low-light sensitivity. Seven years ago ISO 1600 was cutting-edge. Today ISO 6400 (and above) is routine.

My standard exposure (the one I keep in the back of my head) for the Milky Way is 60 second, f/2.8, and ISO 6400. It makes the southern Milky Way shine like a brilliant cloud. But that’s with a 14mm lens on a full-frame sensor. You can’t go much longer than that before the stars start streaking visibly. And if you shoot with a shorter lens, the acceptable exposure time goes down.

Note: I hear photographers cringing over the noise you’ll get at ISO 6400. My advice: Use some noise reduction software, a perfectly acceptable tool. —Jim Richardson

Picture of a landscape in American Samoa

Nightscape, American Samoa

Photograph by Jim Richardson

Gear Up, Then Improvise

Gear won’t solve every problem, but there is a threshold for doing night-sky photography. A point-and-shoot camera just won’t get the shot. But most DSLR cameras can pull it off. My best advice is to get an f/2.8 or faster lens. The wider the better, but a 24mm, f/2.8, fixed focal length lens can do worlds of good.

Of course you need a tripod, the solid kind that doesn’t wobble if you touch it. A cable release is good—and pretty much essential if you want to go beyond 30-second exposures. A cable release that comes with a built-in timer is mighty handy.

And then learn to improvise. The night I shot this picture in American Samoa, my tripod was off in the belly of a plane somewhere. So I set my camera on the ledge of my balcony and propped it up with a small pebble. Rock solid, so to speak. —Jim Richardson

Picture of the Golden Gate Bridge looking toward San Francisco

Golden Gate Bridge, California

Photograph by Jim Richardson

Use Astronomy Software to Plan Ahead

You can hope for that lucky night when the moon rises unexpectedly, or you can plan for it. Planning works better. A glorious moon rising over the Golden Gate Bridge with moonlight on the bay was what I wanted to capture—and with the help of an app, I knew when it was going to be there.

There are plenty of apps that will tell you when to expect the event you want to shoot. Head and shoulders above the crowd is the Photographer’s Ephemeris . Odd name, great app. Available for all major platforms, it gives you the time for moonrise and moonset for any date (even years in the future) and from any position on Earth. But it will also lay it out for you on a satellite photo, so you’ll know exactly where to stand when the moon comes up.

For information on the Milky Way you’ll want to get one of the available astronomy software programs or smartphone apps, which are great for trip planning. They can tell you exactly where any celestial object will be in the sky, seen from any point on Earth at any give date and time. Powerful stuff. I likeSkyGazer 4.5, but there are many options available. —Jim Richardson

Picture of a full moon rising over Denver International Airport

Full Moon, Denver

Photograph by Jim Richardson

Learn Your Moon and Star Lore

“The full moon rises at sunset.” Imprint this on your brain. It’s the first (and simplest) rule you need to learn.

Fortunately the moon is just about the most predictable thing in life (after the sun and taxes). Those few minutes of dusk just after it rises are the golden moments for shooting the moon because there is still some light on the landscape that’s nicely balanced with its glow. But even though the moon is predictable, it isn’t always simple to get the right shot. That’s what I discovered at Denver International Airport. I had my 600mm lens set up, waiting, but for all my planning when it peeped over the horizon, I was still a hundred yards out of position. It was all Keystone Kops for a few seconds there, running down the road, but I got it. You only get 13 of these babies a year. Make the best of it. —Jim Richardson

Picture of a wind farm in Kansas

Wind Farm, Kansas

Photograph by Jim Richardson

Moonlight Looks Like Daylight—Sort Of

Moonlight photography—like romance—can be both fun and frustrating. The full moon is actually quite bright (try 20 seconds, f/4, ISO 400 for starters) and many photographers have the same first reaction: this moonlight picture looks like daylight! But dial back the exposure a little bit and include some stars or nightlights (like I did here, photographing a wind farm in Kansas) and suddenly the picture turns dramatic. Be careful when evaluating your pictures: The LCD screen on the camera looks super bright at night. It will fool you into taking pictures that are too dark. Learn how to use the histogram on your camera—then believe the histogram, not your eyes. —Jim Richardson

Picture of a resident of Arizona Sky Villages

Arizona Sky Villages, Arizona

Photograph by Jim Richardson

Work the White Balance for Good Sky Color

Color balance can be a problem. For one, our eyes can’t see color in the night sky. The Milky Way is just a dreamy gray mass to our eyes. So we have no real perception of what color the night sky actually is. Very often on long exposures the color comes out to be something you just don’t expect, often much too warm. Something on the bluer end of the white balance spectrum looks more true to life. Try setting your camera for tungsten white balance instead of daylight. And shoot in RAW mode (not JPG) so that you have maximum control to adjust later.

I was lucky on this morning when Portal, Arizona, resident Jack Newton came out in the early morning; the sky was already turning a faint blue. He was wearing a red light, and I had an assistant light the adobe wall with a flashlight. —Jim Richardson

Picture of the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah

Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah

Photograph by Jim Richardson

Carry a Flashlight

If anybody had been there to see me out on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah the night I took this photo, I might still be locked up today. I looked like a man who had lost his keys—or his marbles. But sweeping the salt ridges with the little flashlight I carry in my bag shed just enough light to make the foreground pop out. I’d start a two-minute exposure and for the first 10 to 15 seconds just glance the light across the salt from way down low, the flashlight just inches off the lakebed. Reviewing the image on the LCD screen, I’d adjust and try another. With a little practice you can light a lot with a very small flashlight. —Jim Richardson

Picture of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis lit at night

Gateway Arch, St. Louis

Photograph by Jim Richardson

Embrace Adversity

Photographing the night sky demands adaptability—and a bit of humility. You’ll have to constantly solve problems, but you’ll feel triumphant when you do.

Sometimes the clouds take center stage, which is when you should go into lemonade mode and make what you can out of what you are given. One night in St. Louis, the Gateway Arch was socked in by clouds when I got there, but that turned out to be a blessing. City lights turned the low clouds a salmon color (which I did nothing to “correct”), and spotlights on the Arch were casting strange shadows and patterns on the cloud base. The ability to turn on your heels and go in another creative direction can rescue many situations. —Jim Richardson

Picture of people sitting around a campfire in Burkina Faso

Campfire, Burkina Faso

Photograph by Jim Richardson

Save the Night

The single best way to get better night-sky pictures is to find a place with really dark skies. Increasingly, in our world awash in urban lighting, that is getting to be difficult. For tens of thousands of years humanity sat under the stars at night (as I did with this family in Burkina Faso in sub-Saharan Africa) and marveled at the wonders of the universe. We shouldn’t let that wonder go out of our lives; this is a problem we can do something about. Many groups, probably some in your area, are working to preserve the beauty of the night by urging cities and municipalities to control night lighting. And the International Dark-Sky Association has a wide range of programs and resources to offer.

We can save wide stretches of our night sky. It’s not only good for us, it’s good for all those critters that depend on darkness to survive. —Jim Richardson

Via Photo Gallery: Photographing the Night Sky | National Geographic.


Thank you National Geographic.

Go here for more tips and inspiration.

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