Night Sky Photography

Star Trails, Milky Way, and Dark Sky Locations

Night Sky photography can be a lot of fun. I have compiled some information for reference and a couple helpful links to some free software programs to convert your star trail images. I hope this helps you get started!

 Dark Sky Locations in Southern Ontario

The Lennox Addington Dark Sky Viewing Area between Peterborough and Ottawa is one of the best dark sky locations in Southern Ontario. The area between Owen Sound and Tobermory is another great dark sky location. Looking north, you can take pictures from almost anywhere, but we have limited options to the southern sky in our area. There is too much light pollution to the south.

However, just get outside the local towns and cities and you will get some amazing shots. You can use Google Maps (or the dark sky maps) to see where the nearest cities and towns are just try to make sure they are behind you when shooting.

Dark Sky Maps

JShine Dark Sky – Google Map Overlay

Lennox Addington (South Eastern Ontario)

Aurora (Northern Lights) Forecasting

It is a good idea to learn more about aurora forecasting and when the northern lights may appear if you have an interest in this. I have compiled a list of web sites that will help you with this. Best bet on this one; head north...

Space Weather

Ham Radio Solar Forecasting

Star Trails - Tips and Techniques

I have found the following is a great starting point to try out star trails and night photography:

Aperture: As wide open as possible (F2.8 or lower).

Focal Length: Widest\shortest focal length (i.e., 10 to 17mm lens).

Shutter Speeds: Start at 30 Seconds and work down (faster speed) if needed. Star trails work great at 30Sec. See the 500/600 Rule for other night sky photography.

ISO Settings: I start my testing and setup at ISO 3200. It depends on your equipment what the best ISO setting might be. If I use a wide open aperture and a 30 second shutter speed, I then lower my ISO as my final tweak to get the right exposure.

Manual White Balance: Set it in the 3500K-4000K range. You can shoot in RAW and adjust this later for Milky Way shots.

Long Exposure Noise Reduction (NR): Use it on other night photography, but NOT with multiple shots used to create star trails (motion). Long Exposure NR will take a second picture at the same exposure and shutter speed as the original shot before allowing you to take the next picture. Your star trails will end up looking more like Morse Code than continuous trails.

Helpful Hints and Materials

  • A tripod is required. The sturdier the better and lock it down when ready.
  • Make sure your batteries are fully charged before leaving home.
  • Bring water, tea/coffee, snacks and bug spray in the summer.
  • Please do NOT spray the bug repellent on you anywhere near your camera equipment or lens.
  • Get a small flashlight/LED Light with a red hood/colour to maintain your night vision (Princess Auto?).
  •  Make sure you dress accordingly. Even in the summer it can drop to 10-13C at night.
  • A cloudless, windless, low humidity night, with a new moon or close to it, will be a good night for star trails.
  • Bring a chair, book (E-Reader), and any other portable comforts within reason as Gabe suggested.

The first time out; you really have no idea if your camera and/or intervalometer are doing what you want; so please be patient with yourself and let the camera do its thing. You will hear/see the rhythm of the camera as it uses the intervalometer and continues to take pictures. I take a few test shots before starting to make sure my exposure is correct, verify that I see what I want in the picture, and then start the intervalometer sequence.

I like to get onsite early and setup while there is still some light. It also gives time for your camera/lens to acclimatize to the different temperature/humidity when you go outdoors.

Warnings and Cautionary Tales

  • Make sure you have permission to be where you are.
  • Make sure you will not get a parking ticket or towed!
  • Bring a cell phone.
  • Bring some other people with you to share the experience. It is a great time to relax, talk, and hang out with friends, family, and other camera/astronomy people and ensure your own safety too.

You will likely experience dew and lens fogging and frost in winter. You can purchase some heaters and lens tubes as used in astronomy. You can also buy some of those hand warmers you stick inside of your gloves and attach 1-2 around your lens hood with an elastic band shortly after you arrive onsite (don’t wait until the lens is fogged up ... it is too late). The lens only needs a bit of warming and these hand warmers are supposedly good for 4-6hrs. Take off any lens filters as these can fog up a lens quicker.

You can cover the camera body to prevent it from collecting dew. A simple small dishtowel can do the trick. This will also block light from going in the view finder. You can use that tab that came with your camera for this purpose, but good luck finding it in the dark if you drop it.

Star Trails use longer exposures (25-30 seconds) as you are looking for motion. But with the Milky Way or other night sky photography, look up the 500 Rule or the 600 Rule (variations of the same thing):

p.s. – have a look at Greg’s work (capturingthenight) – he is amazing!!!

Framing the Shot

When searching out a location, observe the local landscape and try to keep this in the picture. Hills, trees, rocks, mountains, or abandoned buildings in the foreground can make your image more interesting. Be wary of street lights, highways, and train tracks as these can add unwanted light. Also be careful of setting up your camera pointing in the direction of a major airport flight path (i.e., Toronto International Airport). These planes can start lining up 50-100km from the airport and go on all night.

 Satellite or Meteor?

There are far more satellites and meteors up there than we think. The International Space Station (ISS) is very obvious as it passes overhead. But smaller satellites and meteors are more interesting. I am not an expert, but; a meteor passes very quickly and lights up the sky for only a few seconds. So you would likely only see this streak in one picture. A satellite moves much more slowly and can take a few minutes to cross the sky. I saw the ISS go by and it showed up in five different pictures and was visible in the sky for about 2.5 minutes. The Stellarium software listed at the bottom includes satellite tracking too.

Dark Frame Exposure (It is easier than it sounds)

Take one dark frame (dark exposure) picture at the end of each star trail sequence to help reduce noise when combining your shots. A dark frame shot is easy; you take one final shot using the same exposure settings you used to take the star trails and just put your lens cap back ON the lens for this one last shot!. It is also makes for a great bookmark (separator) in your different sequences of pictures.

Creating Star Trails - Software

I was recommended some software programs that will stack 100s of your images in a very brief period of time. These are free. Obviously they do not include every imaginable RAW format as input, but can create star trails quite nicely.

 StarTrails Software - I have created a few star trails in this software and I like it. I export to TIFF and post-process in Camera RAW and PS. It works amazing for a free software package!

StarStaX - is freeware star trails software. It can import JPG, TIFF, PNG, BMP files and looks like it has a few more options than StarTrails. I have downloaded and installed it and will be making a comparison ... stay tuned.

 Night Sky Software

If you have any interest in the night sky or astronomy; I was recommended a software called Stellarium, which is an open source (free) platform and widely used by many amateur astronomers and photographers. Not the easiest to use, but it is a great astronomy program. It looks like it has different versions for Windows 32bit/64bit, MAC, Linux, etc.

 I have only documented my own experiences and things I have learned. Please do your own research as there are many authors, sites, and blogs dedicated to night sky photography.

 © Copyright 2013

Don H aka Zeroth Productions

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