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Capture the Cosmos

A beginner’s guide to sky photography, including tips on how to create TWAN-style images with modest equipment.

Dennis Mammana

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If you can see it, you can photograph it. This rule-of-thumb is one I repeatedly share with people. When someone reports seeing a marvelous halo around the moon, or the majestic constellation Orion rising over a snowy, moonlit hillside, my response to them is usually the same: “Did you take a picture of it?” Often this is met with a puzzled reaction. “I didn’t think I could… I mean, I don’t have any fancy equipment.” The fact is… if you can see it, you can photograph it.

Now it’s true that fancy equipment enables marvelous close-up photos of celestial subjects—star clusters, galaxies, eclipses and more. This is the realm of “astrophotography” and, for this, one must have tremendous time, patience, and heavy-duty hardware—especially a perfectly-tracking telescope.

But to photograph larger celestial sights—haloes, constellations, the Milky Way, or a crescent moon nuzzled up against the brilliant planet Venus—requires nothing more than the most basic of gear. And this is what I call “sky photography.”

Tools of the Trade
Chances are you already have all you need to begin doing sky photography. Of course you’ll need a camera—a single-lens reflex works best, but even a “point-and-shoot” camera works in many cases—a normal or wide-angle lens, film or a digital card, a sturdy tripod, a manual cable release or electronic remote control, and a flashlight with either a red LED or red cellophane covering it (to protect and preserve your night vision). That’s it! That’s all you’ll really need to begin doing remarkable sky photography for yourself.

In addition to the basics, it’s wise to carry a few other things in your camera bag as well. For example, you should have a notepad and pen. While it’s true that many digital cameras record the settings at which photos are taken, it’s always good to keep notes of what you’re doing. When you look at your photos later you’ll be glad you have these notes… they’ll help you climb the sky photography learning curve much more quickly and, when a similar situation presents itself in the future—and it will—you’ll know exactly how to handle it.

Another addition to your gear should be a kneeling pad; on those occasions when you’ve got to kneel to look through the viewfinder on a harsh, rocky surface, you’ll be glad you’ve got it. You might also pick up some reflectorized tape to put at various places on your tripod legs. Trying to find a tripod in the darkness can lead to disaster if you should happen to shine your flashlight into the lens during an exposure or, worse, trip over the very tripod you’re seeking.
Even a small kitchen timer with an audible alarm can make life easier during long exposures. Set the alarm, trip the shutter, and enjoy stargazing while the camera and timer do the work.

And finally, one of the most important tools in my camera bag is gaffer’s tape, found in most art supply stores. This is used to secure anything that can accidentally be moved—focus, zoom, aperture, etc.—without leaving a gummy residue behind. If you think this is one item you can skip, just try a couple of sessions without it; you’ll be amazed at how settings can change in the darkness!

As for film, daylight color film is the best for sky photography, but the subject determines which specific film to use. I always recommend slide film because you’ll be looking at a first-generation image. In other words, the piece of celluloid that captured the light is the piece of celluloid you’ll be looking at. Negative film has some advantages but, overall, there’s too much room for error when it comes to beginning sky photography. Of course, slide film can be printed as is, or scanned for digital processing later and printing later.

Getting Ready
Now that our camera bag is packed, all we need is a celestial subject to photograph. While we could sit around and wait for something to appear—a spectacular rainbow, an Earth-orbiting satellite, a glorious sunset—much of what occurs in the sky is quite predictable. And the more you learn to anticipate the sky and visualize your photos, the more creative you’ll become.

Once you have a shot in mind, you’ll need to decide where and when to haul out your gear. To an astronomer or astrophotographer, clouds, the moon, city lights are all enemies—conspiring to shroud us from our celestial prey. Interestingly, however, a sky photographer values these as great friends. It takes awhile to change our thinking—especially for those who’ve grown up as astronomers—but once you see the results of including theses “nuisances” in your photos you’ll come to love and welcome them as I have.

When you’re ready to head out for a sky photography session, get out there early. If for nighttime photography, get your gear set up while still daylight. This’ll give you a chance to discover any imperfections in the terrain that you might want to be careful of after dark, as well as scout any interesting features such as buildings, vegetation or rock formations that you might fit into your photos.

   



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