Twilight & Astro Landscape Photography
Everyone likes a nice moody sunset, but great images await those camera operators that start shooting after most folks have started packing their gear away and heading home.
For me, twilight is where the fun starts.
The rock stack lying off the boulder-strewn beach of Porth Saint, Rhoscolyn Head, Anglesey.
The low light levels on a scene once ‘civil daylight’ has ended mean you get awesome light with lower contrast shadows, subtle skies, and nice long shutter speeds for dreamy water effects without needing expensive 10 stop ND filters.
However, that awesome light vanishes very quickly, so you have to be ready! I waited nearly 90 minutes for the shot above.
But that time was spent doing ‘dry runs’ and rehearsals – once the composition was set how I wanted it, the foreground was outside of DoF, so I knew I needed to shoot a focus stack as well as an exposure blend…mmmm….yummy!
Once we have made the long transition from civil daylight end to astronomical daylight end the fun really begins though.
Astro Landscape Photography
The Milky Way over the derelict buildings of Magpie Mine in Derbyshire.
Astro landscape photography, or wide field astro as it’s sometimes known, is not as difficult as a lot of photographers imagine.
But astro landscape photography IS very demanding of your familiarity with your gear, and will require some expenditure on additional bits of kit if disappointment is to be avoided.
Here’s the kit I usually venture out at night with:
Dew Heater Band (A).
An essential bit of kit for astro landscape photography – it’s amazing how rapidly a lot of lenses, especially super-wides like the Nikon 14-24 f2.8 encounter a problem with dew at night. This will in effect fog the front element, starting at its centre and if left unchecked it can spread across the entire face of the lens.
Heating the lens front sufficiently to keep its temperature above the dew point for your current location and time will prevent a ruined session – don’t leave home without one!
This dew heater is powered by a battery (C) via a dew heater controller (D) with is basically a simple rotary rheostat which controls the level of current driving the heater band.
I use mine at about 75% of ‘full chat’ and it seems to work just fine.
A final note on dew heater bands – these are designed for use by those strange folk who spend hours behind telescopes. They tape the bands in place and leave them there. As photographers we need to add or remove them as needed. The bands can prove fragile, need I say more?
Yes, it pays to carry a spare, and it pays to treat them with care and not just throw them in the camera bag – I’m on band number 3 with number 4 in reserve!
You will need to shoot a long exposure of you scene foreground, slightly re-focuused closer to you, at a much lower ISO, and perhaps at a slightly narrower aperture; this shot might well be 20 minutes long or more and with long exposure NR engaged to produce a black subtraction.
Yes, a lockable cable release and the timer on your watch will do the job, hence (F) and (G) in case (B) stops working!
But an intervalometer will make this easier – as long as you’ve read the instructions..doh!
If you want to shoot star trails the external intervalometer is vastly superior to your cameras built in one. That’s because the in-camera intervalometer on nearly all cameras except the Nikon D810A is limited to a 30 second shutter speed.
An hours worth of star rotation is barely enough:
But at 30 seconds shutter speed you will end up with 120 frames at fairly high ISO.
Far better to shoot at ‘bulb’ with a 5 minute exposure and lower ISO – then you’ll only have 12 frames – your computer with thank you for the lower number when it comes to stacking the shots in Photoshop.
There is also another problem, for certain marks of Nikon cameras. The D800E that I use has a stupid cap on continuous shooting. The much touted method of setting the shutter to 30 seconds and putting the camera in continuous low speed shooting mode and locking the cable release button down does NOT work – it only allows you to take 100 frames then the camera just STOPS taking pictures.
But if you use an external intervalometer set to a 30 second exposure, continuous and just drop the camera in BULB and Single Shot then the D800E and its like will sit there and fill your cards up with frames.
Micro fibre cloths, bin liners and gaffer tape (B,I and J).
After a couple of hours of full darkness your gear (and I mean all of it) will most likely be wet with dew, especially here in the UK. Micro fibre cloths are great for getting the majority of this dampness off your camera gear when you put it away for the trip home.
Bin liners are great for keeping any passing rain shower off your camera gear when its set up – just drop one (opened of course) over your camera and tape it to the tripod legs with a bit of gaffer tape. Leave the dew heater ON.
Also, stick the battery supply in one – rain water and 13 volts DC at 4000MAh don’t mix well.
Photopills on your iPhone (G) is incredibly useful for showing you where the Milky Way is during that extended period between civil and astronomical daylight end. Being able to see it in relationship to your scene with the Night Augmented Reality feature cetainly makes shot composition somewhat easier.
Head Lamp (H) – preferably one which has a red light mode. Red light does not kill off your carefully tuned night vision when you need to see some camera setting control lever or button.
Accurate GPS positioner (K). Not entirely an ‘essential’ but it’s mighty useful for all sorts of reasons, especially when forward planning a shot, or getting to a set position in the dark.
The Milky Way towering over the National Coastwatch Institution (NCI) station at Rhoscolyn on Anglesey.
I love taking someone who’s never seen the Milky Way out at night to capture it with their own equipment – the constant stream of ‘WOWS’ makes me all warm ‘n fuzzy! This year has seen me take more folk out than ever; and even though we are going to loose the galactic centre in the next few weeks the opportunities for night photography get better as the nights grow longer.
The Milky Way over the derelict buildings of Magpie Mine in Derbyshire.
So if you want to get out there with me then just give me shout at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Milky Way will still be a prominent feature in the sky until October, and will be in a more westerly position, so lots of great bays on the North Wales & Anglesey coast will come into their own as locations.
The Milky Way over the Afon Glaslyn Valley looking towards Beddgelert and Porthmadog. The patchy green colour of the sky is cause by a large amount of airglow, another natural phenomenon that very few people actually see.
And just look at that star detail:
Over the next few weeks I’m going to be putting together a training video title on processing astro landscape photography images, and if the next new moon phase at the end of this month comes with favourable weather I’m going to try and supplement these with a couple of practical shooting videos – so fingers crossed.