Night Sky Imaging

Night Sky Photography – A Brief Introduction

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I really get a massive buzz from photographing the night sky – PROPERLY.

By properly I mean using your equipment to the best of its ability, and using correct techniques in terms of both ‘shooting’ and post processing.

The majority of images within the vast plethora of night sky images on Google etc, and methods described, are to be frank PANTS!

Those 800 pixel long-edge jpegs hide a multitude of shooting and processing sins – such as HUGE amounts of sensor noise and the biggest sin of all – elongated stars.

Top quality full resolution imagery of the night sky demands pin-prick stars, not trails that look like blown out sausages – unless of course, you are wanting them for visual effect.

Pin sharp stars require extremely precise MANUAL FOCUS in conjunction with a shutter speed that is short enough to arrest the perceived movement of the night sky across the cameras field of view.

They also demand that the lens is ‘shot’ pretty much wide open in terms of aperture – this allows the sensor to ‘see and gather’ as many photons of light from each point-source (star) in the night sky.

So we are in the situation where we have to use manual focus and exposure with f2.8 as an approximate working aperture – and high ISO values, because of the demand for a relatively fast shutter speed.

And when it comes to our shutter speed the much-vaunted ‘500 Rule’ needs to be consigned to the waste bin – it’s just not a good enough standard to work to, especially considering modern high megapixel count sensors such as Nikon’s D800E/D810/D810A and Canons 5DS.

Leaving the shutter open for just 10 seconds using a 14mm lens will elongate stars EVER SO SLIGHTLY – so the ‘500 Rule’ speed of 500/14 = 35.71 seconds is just going to make a total hash of things.

In the shot below; a crop from the image top left; I’ve used a 10 second exposure, but in preference I’ll use 5 seconds if I can get away with it:

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Nikon D800E,14-24 f2.8@14mm,10 seconds exposure,f2.8,ISO 6400
RAW, Unprocessed, Full Resolution Crop

WOW….look at all that noise…well, it’s not going to be there for long folks; and NO, I won’t make it vanish with any Noise Reduction functions or plugins either!

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5 consecutive frames put through Starry Landscape Stacker – now we have something we can work with!

Download Starry Landscape Stacker from the App Store:
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Huge amounts of ‘noise’ can be eradicated using Median Stacking within Photoshop, but Mac users can circumnavigate the ‘agro’ of layer alignment and layer masking by using this great ‘app’ Starry Landscape Stacker – which does all the ‘heavy lifting’ for you.  Click the link above to download it from the App Store.  Just ignore any daft iTunes pop-ups and click ‘View in Mac App Store’!

I have a demonstration of Median Stacking on my YouTube channel:

This video is best viewed on YouTube in full screen mode.

In a manner of speaking, the ‘shooting aspect’ of Milky Way/Night Sky/Wide-field Astro is pretty straight forward.  You are working in between some very hard constraints with little margin for error.

  • The Earths rotation makes the stars track across our frame – so this dictates our shutter speed for any given focal length of lens – shorter focal length = longer shutter speed.
  • Sensor Megapixel count – more megs = shorter shutter speed.
  • We NEED to shoot with a ‘wide open’ aperture, so our ISO speed takes over as our general exposure control.
  • Focusing – this always seems to be the big ‘sticking point’ for most folk – and despite what you read to the contrary, you can’t reliably use the ‘hyperfocal’ method with wide open apertures – it especially will not work with wide-angle zoom lenses!
  • The Earths ‘seasonal tilt’ dictates what we can and can’t see from a particular latitude; and in conjunction with time of day, dictates the direction and orientation of a particular astral object such as the Milky Way.
  • Light pollution can mask even the cameras ability to record all the stars, and it effects the overall scene luminance level.
  • The position and phase of the moon – a full moon frequently throws far too much light into the entire sky – my advice is to stay at home!
  • A moon in between its last quarter and new moon is frequently diagonally opposite the Milky Way, and can be useful for illuminating your foreground.

And there are quite a few other considerations to take into account, like dew point and relative humidity – and of course, the bloody clouds!

The point I’m trying to make is that these shots take PLANNING.

Using applications and utilities like Stellarium and Photographers Ephemeris in conjunction with Google Earth has always been a great way of planning shots.  But for me, the best planning aid is Photopills – especially because of its augmented reality feature.  This allows you to pre-visualise your shot from your current location, and it will compute the dates and times that the shot is ‘on’.

Download Photopills from the App Store:

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But it won’t stop the clouds from rolling in!

Even with the very best planning the weather conditions can ruin the whole thing!

I’m hoping that before the end of the year I’ll have a full training video finished about shooting perfect ‘wide field astro’ images – it’ll cover planning as well as BOTH shooting AND processing.

I will show you how to:

  • Effectively use Google Earth in conjunction with Stellarium and Photopills for forward planning.
  • The easiest way to ensure perfect focus on those stars – every time.
  • How to shoot for improved foreground.
  • When, and when NOT to deploy LONG EXPOSURE noise reduction in camera – black frame shooting.
  • How to process RAW files in Lightroom for correct colour balance.
  • How to properly use both Median Stacking in Photoshop and Starry Landscape Stacker to reduce ISO noise.
  • And much more!

One really useful FREE facility on the net is the Light Pollution Map website – I suggest using the latest 2015 VIIRIS overlay and the Bing Map Hybrid mode in order to get a rough idea of your foreground and the background light pollution effecting your chosen location.

Don’t forget – if you shoot vertical (portrait?) with a 14mm lens, the top part of the frame can be slightly behind you!