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Night Sky Photography: A Shot In The Dark:

Updated: Dec 8, 2021

I'm very fortunate to have some very generous family members who own a wonderful lake house in upstate New York and were kind enough to offer us the use of the house over this past holiday weekend. So naturally we hopped into the car and drove up from DC to partake in a quiet getaway and enjoy the peacefulness of the lakeside home; away from work, politics, the pandemic, and the rigors of everyday life.

Now, I was excited to get there for a number of reasons. Aside from the beautiful home on the water, family and scenery, I had also recently ordered the new Canon EOS R5 camera, and received it just the week prior to our trip; thinking I wouldn't receive until after the trip. So naturally I was anxious to get outside and try some photography with the new camera.

I don't normally venture out specifically to do astrophotography much, but given the lakeside location was far from any light pollution I thought I'd was a perfect opportunity and I gave it a whirl. Now, I have done it once or twice before, but struggled to get the settings, focus and composition just right - all while in a location with some light pollution. Capturing the Milky Way galaxy, something the naked eye struggles to see in the dark of night, is no easy task. But with a little know-how and some patience it can be done.

I highly recommend downloading the PhotoPills app for iPhones and Android to plan your shot, as it can show you where the Milky Way will appear in the night sky at any specific time. Knowing this allowed me to determine what time was best for me to get the composition I was hoping to get before venturing out into the dark. I also regularly use Clear Outside, another mobile app which gives me a great read on the local weather forecast, cloud layers, and even the predicted cloud densities per hour. Getting a clear night sky is absolutely key for this kind of shot. Clear Outside gave me the best night to venture out based on weather forecasts, and PhotoPills indicated the Milky Way would appear directly over the lake house itself prior to midnight that night; virtually rising right behind it and up into the sky above. Though I initially thought it would be nice to capture the galaxy core over the lake, the house actually provided a stronger anchor point and foreground interest, and that was really my only choice due to where the galaxy would appear, so I was good with using the house instead.

So the first night at the lake house proved to be the best chance to capture the shot I was after. I patiently waited for the darkness to set in, gathered my gear and camera, and headed out into the darkness of the back garden along the lake shore and began setting up my gear.

Here's what I brought along with me to try to capture the sho:

  • The high resolution camera body

  • A 15mm f2.8 wide angle lens

  • A steady tripod with a ball head

  • My phone to access the much needed PhotoPills app

  • A flashlight

  • And a fleece (as it was chilly that night)

Once I was set up and the camera was pointed in the general vicinity of the angle I wanted, I turned on the power to the camera. Working through the viewfinder in the dark is virtually impossible. So immediately switched to the Live View mode on the back screen to get a sense of the scene I had right off the bat, then made adjustments as needed to get the framing I was after.

Here are the settings I dialed into the camera, and why:

  • Turned the camera to manual mode (I wanted full control over every settings, so the manual mode is the only way to go.)

  • Set the lens aperture to f2.8 (Open up the aperture as wide as possible per the lens's lowest f-stop to collect the most light.)

  • Set the shutter speed to 15 seconds (This takes some trial and error, depending on the camera and scene. But anything over 25 to 30 seconds will begin showing movement in the stars and cause "star trails.")

  • Set the ISO to 3200 (This will depend on the camera sensor's performance and how much noise it produces at certain ISO values. Try starting at 3200, then increase as needed.)

  • Turned off the autofocus and in-body image stabilization (IBIS) (Turning these off will stop the camera from causing any movements/vibrations of any built-in internal auto functions.)

  • Set the self-timer to a 10 second delay (Either use the self-timer or a cable release to minimize any residual camera shake being introduced by otherwise pushing the shutter button by hand at the start of the exposure.)

  • Manually adjust focus by zooming in using Live View (Use the Live View mode on the rear screen, then zoom in as much as you can on a bright star and rotate the focus ring until the star is as small and sharp on screen as possible. Without Live View, set the lens to "infinity," or farthest focusing distance available via the focus ring, then back off a touch.)

Once I fired off the first shot and checked it on the rear screen, I proceeded to make some minor compositional changes and fiddled with a couple more shots at varying ISO settings to determine which resulted in the better capture. For my camera, ISO 3200 was enough sensitivity without adding much noise at higher values. I wanted to get the cleanest image I could and minimize the noise I introduced into the photo. Interestingly enough, the new, large 45 megapixel sensor for Canon seemed to handle noise artifacting very well at higher ISOs (which was not always the case in the past with Canon).

The above photo is the final shot of the Milky Way over the lake house that night. I didn't initially notice the low-level clouds moving into my field of view while out there that night, given how dark it was. I had other exposures from earlier without the clouds, but frankly I ended up preferring this one as it added another element of visual interest to the overall scene. Some photographers will introduce light painting to illuminate their foreground elements, but there were enough small lights around the house to help illuminate it and the surrounding trees sufficiently that any further light painting would have made it appear more manufactured and less natural.

Half the work was now done. How I edited the photo in post-processing ultimately determined whether I ended up with a scene from Guardians of the Galaxy or a natural looking shot night sky shot. I think I managed the latter... but Milky Way photography is always a very subjective form of photography, with renderings varying greatly from one photographer to another.

But if you take your time, follow the basic setup rules listed above, and get a little creative you'll undoubtedly come away with a wonderful photo of the Milky Way and the stars as I managed. Just remember to bring a flashlight, some hand-warmers and your patience. Enjoy being outdoors and let the camera do the work for you. Just be sure not to let your imagination get the best of you while out in the dark!

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