How to Photograph Stars to get Beautiful Milkyway Images - Hannah Walker Photographics

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How to Photograph Stars to get Beautiful Milkyway Images - Night Photography Tutorial

Star Photography - Milky way Tutorial

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1. What - DSL camera, wide lens, tripod

The newer the camera, typically the more sensitive to light your sensor will be, allowing for a photo with less noise, but even smaller DSLR’s will be able to get killer star shots with a few simple parameters. 

Lenses are important. The wider the angle of your lens (I typically shoot at 18mm) the more of the sky you’ll be able to fit in frame. And if you have a lens with an aperture of f2.8 or lower, use it. You want to let all the light possible onto your sensor.

A solid tripod, or in the absence of this, any rock, bench, pole etc that you can set your camera firmly on. I've used all sorts of contraptions and odds and ends to get the angle I need when I haven't been carrying a tripod.


2. Where - Manage light sources

Firstly, you need some stars. You don’t have to be in the wilderness but the farther you can get from a city, the better. Go for a drive somewhere. Look for places that are sheltered from light pollution, although sometimes you can use ambient light to your advantage. For example, the two images below use available light to cast some exposure onto the subject (me ;)) and give the photograph extra depth. But if you can climb around the other side of the hill, get behind some forest, put something in between you and the light pollution, it will help control the light. If you're away from large cities, sometimes the competing light sources (a small town, camping lights etc) can even add to your picture. Experiment and see what works best in your particular environment.


3. How - Long exposure settings and manual focus

Shoot in RAW. Even if you don’t have industry standard post programs like Lightroom, there are plenty of free ones out there, and most computers will come with some inbuilt program capable of managing Raw files. Secondly, get past the focus dilemma. This is perhaps the most frustrating element of astro photography for everyone I speak to.

I’ll tell you an infuriatingly simple hack. Take a torch (even your phone can come in use here) and either ask your mate you’ve dragged along to stand around in the dark watching you fiddle with your camera all night, or if you’re like me, do some leg work to get the torch as far from the camera as possible and use this bright light source to focus. Fifty metres is plenty. If you can’t do this, 25m is going to work too. One you’ve focused, very carefully flick your focus latch on the lens from auto to manual, and don’t touch your lens again. If you’re reframing, you’ll obviously need to repeat this step to refocus. If you are near some civilisation, use the most distant strong light point to focus on. Just make sure the torch is off before you open the shutter. For hardcore fussy types, you’ll likely still be slightly out of focus though, so zoom in to your images on playback and check for colour fringe. If the stars are slightly pink, touch the focus a little more into the distance, if they’re slightly green, bring the focus a touch closer. These are almost insignificant nuances however, unless you’re going to blow them up big.


4. When - Time of year, weather and time of night

Check before you head out the weather forecast, but also moonrise and set times and movement of the stars within your sky at the particular time of year.


5. Execute - Framing and shutter release

Very important is how you manage your tripod and shutter release. I’m just passing on my personal technique, other photographers will use remote shutter releases etc, but I use a simple 2 second shutter delay. Make sure your tripod is super duper stable, then put a short timer on and let the camera release the shutter itself. This will reduce the risk of camera shake due to your hand accidentally moving the camera when you press your shutter button. Sixth, the time is crucial. I generally shoot all star images at 30 seconds. At f2.8 this almost always lets in enough light without star trails. Experiment though. If you have lenses with smaller apertures you might want to use bulb on your camera and take it up to 60 seconds.


Post Production - Finish the Job

Now that you have some brilliantly creative frames of stars, postproduction plays a key role in accessing the information your camera has recorded for you. The idea of post is to bring an image closer to what our eyes were able to see in any given situation. We often take for granted the incredible power of the naked eye, the fact that we don’t need to adjust exposure, that we can see in very low light, that shadows, highlights and focus points are instantly adjusted without us even having to think about it. What you see on your playback viewfinder is not the whole story. Open them into whatever program you have available, and finish the job you started when you first went trekking around in the dark.

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