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Photography Under the Stars

A Guest Post by Phil Hart – author of the Shooting Stars eBook (use the code DPSTARS for a 20% discount).

Neil Creek has previously shared some of my astrophotography work on DPS, in the post Ten Astounding Astrophotos by Phil Hart. But whereas that post featured what I call ‘astrophotography’, with telescopes, tracking equatorial mounts and computers, in this post I want to share the simple joy of photographing the night sky with nothing more complicated than a camera and a tripod.

Photography Under the Stars

Sophisticated and computer controlled cameras and telescopes are a mixed blessing. While the images they are capable of are truly stunning, spending a night staring at and blinded by a laptop screen is not the ideal way to enjoy time under the stars.

So for the last year or so I have been concentrating again on more straightforward night sky photography; searching out dark and interesting locations where the earthly foreground contributes to the final image. And rather than an hour or more that it might take to setup for astrophotography, the other advantage of this approach is that I can be snapping away within minutes, but still capturing a scene on camera that the eye can only barely perceive. Of course the other great advantage is that anybody can do it.

Night Sky Scenes

Most nights, I’ll start with relatively short exposures to capture the night sky scene in front of me. Exposures are usually long enough to record more stars and detail in the sky than the eye can see, but not so long that the movement of the stars becomes obvious. It’s extraordinary how much you can capture in just a 30 second exposure with a modern digital SLR, compared to the grainy old days (and nights) of working with film when recording even a hint of the Milky Way was seen as success. Even entry level DSLRs are capable of capturing remarkable detail in the night sky, as in this example below.

Milky Way

The Milky Way, Canon 1100D (Rebel T3), 15-85mm lens @15mm

Star Trails

Having worked every angle I can on the sky and the foreground from a given location, I’ll often choose the framing that I liked the most from the short exposures and place the camera back there. Then I’ll lock the shutter down with a remote release and walk away, leaving the stars to trail across the image and create striking patterns in the sky for a single exposure that could be anything from five minutes to several hours long. Depending on how close I am to a bed or a glass of wine, I might even leave the camera unattended during that time. Other nights though, I’ll be close by in the car or a tent, waiting patiently and making sure the weather doesn’t suddenly turn for the worse.

Star Trails

Image by Shona Dutton & Phil Hart, Nikon D7000, 10-20mm lens @10mm

The Moon

The Moon

Canon 1100D (Rebel T3), 300mm lens + 1.4x teleconverter

When I’m in astrophotography mode, I don’t have many nice things to say about the Moon. Bright moonlight washes out distant galaxies and nebula making most forms of astrophotography impossible, and leaving just one or two weekends of ‘dark sky’ each month. But for night sky photographers, the Moon may well become your favourite target, one that can be photographed among even the bright lights of the city. And while the image below was shot with a full frame camera, in most cases a cropped sensor camera is actually the tool of choice as you try to get in close to our nearest celestial neighbour.

Moon over Melbourne

Moonrise over Melbourne, Canon 5DMKII, 300mm lens + 1.4x teleconverter

So if you enjoy being out on location capturing images of natural or man-made landscapes with your camera, don’t feel you need to pack up when the sun goes down. Rug up with some extra clothes and stick around to capture your favourite locations in ways you may have never seen them before – under the stars!

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Phil Hart
Phil Hart

is an engineer by day and photographer under the stars by night. He is the author of the eBook Shooting Stars and a free Night Sky Photography Newsletter and runs Workshops in and around Melbourne, Australia.

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