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Capture the Cosmos

Dennis Mammana

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After Dark
One of the first types of sky photos people usually shoot—and one of the easiest—is a long exposure showing star trails. These are the result of a fixed camera that captures the stars streaking across the frame as our Earth rotates during the night. And, while digital cameras have made sky photography much easier, long digital exposures tend to create very “noisy” images. Even in this high-tech world in which we live, star trails remain the forte of film cameras.

To get started, load your camera with color daylight film (ISO 200 or 400), aim it skyward, open your lens aperture nearly all the way, focus on infinity, set your timer and trip the shutter.

Stars near the North or South Celestial Poles will produce a concentric pattern of star movement, while those on the opposite side of the sky will appear to streak straight across your frame.

The longer your exposure, the longer the trails—and the brighter your sky—will appear. Things such as city lights, moonlight or the waning light of dusk will brighten the sky enough that the landscape appears in silhouette. In fact, even a perfectly dark rural sky will appear brighter in your long-exposure photos—the result of natural “airglow”. Of course you can also add your own light by firing a strobe or two, using a flashlight to “paint” over your foreground, or shining your car headlights on the scene during your exposure.

This extra light can be a good thing; seeing star trails over a silhouetted or illuminated landscape is far more interesting than just star trails themselves. But, if you expose for more than just a few minutes, even in complete darkness, it’s best to stop your lens down a bit—perhaps to f/5.6 or 8 depending on your sky brightness—to keep the sky from becoming blown out. This requires you to experiment while taking good notes, since it’s impossible to predict how your scene and film will work together.

Shooting Stars
After you become proficient at producing star trails you can use this technique to photograph countless other subjects in your sky. One of the most fun—and challenging—of subjects is any one of the year’s major meteor showers. Two of the most prolific are the Perseids in mid-August and the Geminids in mid-December.

Keep in mind that meteor photography is a crap shoot; no one knows exactly when and where to take the photo. And even if you see a meteor zip through the region you’re shooting, there’s no guarantee your camera will actually record it. To improve your odds of capturing something, aim your camera about 45 degrees from the radiant (the constellation for which the shower is named) and about 45-50 degrees up from the horizon. With a high ISO—800 or 1600, for example—take exposures of four or five minutes long with your lens wide open.

This is a great place to use a digital camera, since you can make sure your exposure is good before shooting as many as you like. Later you can examine each frame for meteor streaks crossing the star trails, and discard all the remaining shots.

A Sky Photographer's Best Friends
Just as astronomers recoil from light of any kind, sky photographers embrace it with passion. In fact, some of the most beautiful and naturally-appearing sky photos are produced with the help of moonlight or twilight.

This is a perfect theater for using a digital camera since moonlight or twilight exposures cannot easily be predicted in advance, and light meters may not work effectively at these times, so you can try out various exposures and keep shooting until you get just what you want.

Perhaps the most exciting time for sky photography is during the hour after sunset (or before sunrise), when the celestial palette can take on a multitude of hues and textures. But during twilight the sky changes quickly so you’ve got to be ready for action. For example, the time around the end (or beginning) of “Civil Twilight”—half an hour or so after sunset (or before sunrise)—the sky achieves an appearance that’s perfect for shooting the crescent moon over an unusual foreground—especially when the moon’s paired with the brilliant planet Venus.

But don’t put your camera away just yet. About an hour after sunset (or before sunrise), we experience the end of “Nautical Twilight.” This is when the heavens take on an even, deep blue color—one of the prettiest you’ll ever see—and the stars just begin to turn on their lights. What a perfect time to photograph constellations, planets among the stars, and Earth-orbiting satellites.

After twilight we can use moonlight to illuminate distant mountains, canyon walls or even just our back yard, while the stars or clouds shine above. Of course there’s always the danger that moonlight will overpower the image, so we must usually shoot away from the moon and continually monitor our exposures.

   



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