Sleeping with the Stars

Calvin : If people sat outside and looked at the stars each night, I’ll bet they’d live a lot differently …
Hobbes: How so ?
Calvin : Well, when u look into the infinity of the night, you realize there are far more important things than what people do all day.

 

Once in awhile sleep under the stars, being one with them. It helps to puts things in perspective :) Sleeping with the stars is an experience unto itself. In addition, being away from the city lights takes on a whole new level of fun, when you start taking star pictures. If u have not done it before, give it a try – u won’t be disappointed. Here are some tips to get started …

 

Some Inspirations

If you still need some inspiration to give you the final push  – Check out these amazing portfolios of my friends from Pacific North West. Ben was one the who inspired me into star photography. I am glad to have shot some amazing meteors, along side with Gary. I have not met Brad (GoldPaint Photography), but came across his  amazing work thru his Time-lapse – it definitely is inspirational :)

Ben Canales – http://500px.com/BenCanales
Gary Randall – http://bit.ly/178U4u4
GoldPaint Photography – http://goldpaintphotography.com/2012/07/18/within-two-worlds/

 

Planning

When you see amazing shots of Milky Way like these, it is probably not by coincidence that the photographer ended at the right place (away from the city lights) and at the right day (new moon or moon still below horizon) and the right time (where the milky way aligns with the foreground for a catchy composition) with the right weather. More often than not, these are results of meticulous planning. I share with the you the key steps that go into the planning and setting up of the shots. It might look elaborate, but believe me, once you get in the grove – it will be become second nature to you.

When

I was initially surprised to find out that the prominent and dramatic portion of milky way is not visible the entire year. Here in the northern hemisphere – the best nights to shoot milky way are around spring, summer and fall. If you are in the southern hemisphere then fall, winter and a bit of spring would be ideal times.

You could use a Planisphere to identify the stars visible from your location. Or with the aid of technology it is much easier – just use software like Stellarium (both mobile app and native desktop version) or Google sky map (mobile app).  Stellarium – especially the desktop version is very handy for pre-planning. One can easily see the stars / galaxies that would be prominent for any given coordinates and time. Look SE in the spring a couple hours before sunrise, look South in the summer around midnight, and look SW during the fall an hour after sunset. You can even download landscape for prominent locations or create custom skyline for your particular location. In addition you can also look for specific galaxies, planets, or even check if International Space Station (ISS) would be crossing the frame when you are shooting.

The Phase of the moon would greatly play into the planning too. The full moon would definitely make it impossible to shoot the milky way, while a crescent moon can help light the foreground depending on its position. And do utilize Stellarium to check out the rise / set times of moon and the milky way along with their relative positions.

Account for the local weather as you work to finalize the location and tentative dates. As you get close to the shooting date, check out the Interactive Map from Clear Dark Sky site – this is one of the best comprehensive site providing details on the cloud cover, transparency along with Wind, Temperature etc..

Where

All you need is a clear weather and a dark sky. But given today’s light pollution, it might not be as easy to get access to dark skies. This site Dark Sky Finder – gives a quick look into the potential dark skies near your area (this is only for US, do leave a comment if you are aware of similar service for world over locations). Areas marked dark blue or black would be awesome, but you need a location that is at least green.

I find Google Street view to be very handy, once you finalize the location. Is provides lot of insight into how the side roads are & if you have your set up under a particular tree over the night etc..

 

And How

There are lots of articles – both comprehensive and captivating – on this subject, thanks to Google. So rather than going over the same again, have provided links to some of the best articles out there.

 

Tools of Trade

Below are some of the key tools of trade that I use …

Camera : Canon 7D Any camera with a high ISO capabilities would suffice
Lens : Canon EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 A Wide Angle lens is quiet handy is capturing as much of the sky along with the night sky. Additionally if you have access to a f2.8 or f1.8 , it would provide lot more flexibility while shooting. Though all of the shots listed in this page were shot with this lens at f3.5 or more
Tripod : Manfrotto 190XPROB 3 As you already know, a tripod is a must. One that can go really low helps with some creative compositions.
Red LED Light (Keychain) It takes as much as 15 – 20 mins for your eyes to get accustomed to the dark. This LED light would help changes / confirm setting on the camera in the dark. Any handy red or blue LED light would suffice. Nothing fancy. Do not use your regular torch or the mobile flash at it disrupts your night vision.
Intervalometer You would need this if you are planning to shoot star trails with multiple exposures. If you are shooting Nikon, you might already have this feature in-built.  Canon for some reason has this only on its highest end cameras. Yeah even the Canon 7D does not have this feature :(
But worry not, I have found Magic Lantern to be a very good alternative.
Additionally you can also pseudo simulate this functionality with a combination of a wired remote and continuous shooting :)
Software – Planning Google Sky, Stellarium (Mobile App), Phase of the Moon (Mobile App), Clear Dark Sky, Dark Sky Finder
Software – Post Processing Adobe Lightroom 4, Adobe Photoshop CS6, StarTrails.de, Star Spike Pro (PS plug in), Deep Sky Stacker

 

This article is a prelude.  Look out on this space for a follow up article on Creative Processing of the Star shots !!!

Happy Shooting. Do share links to your shots and experiences below in the comments.

EDIT : Here is the link to the follow up article on Post Processing that I had promised :)

7 Responses to “Sleeping with the Stars”

  1. Thanks for this link. I’m in Western Australia though, do you know of a darks skies app for here?

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