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Backpacker Magazine – August 2012

Master Class: Take Better Night-Sky Photos

You’ve found the ideal starry sky. Now, shoot the sparkling display—without investing in a new camera. Use these composition and setting tips from award-winning photographer Ben Canales.

by: Ray Fox

Photo by Ben Canales
Photo by Ben Canales
Photo by Tim Seaver
Photo by Tim Seaver
Photo by Ben Canales
Photo by Ben Canales

2. NEXT LEVEL
Take Test Photos
Shoot overexposed sample shots to gather landscape detail and improve composition.

1) Situate and orient. Point your tripod-mounted camera away from artificial light sources like distant cities or roads.
2) Set your camera to capture extra light. Open the aperture wide (low f-stop numbers represent larger apertures), and select the highest ISO (1600 or above). Use a shutter speed that allows your camera to catch excess light (30 seconds).
3) Shoot a few overexposed pictures. Many areas may appear white, but quality doesn’t matter, it’s composition that counts. Examine these shots for desirable elements like rocks or trees—or for distractions like an angled horizon, bright spots caused by light pollution, or clouds. Note the focus of stars and foreground objects.
4) Adjust composition and focus. Turn and pan the camera to frame your desired scene; tilt it to level the horizon. Refocus if necessary.
5) Fine-tune. Repeat steps 3 and 4 until you’ve framed the desired shot. Then, based on conditions and content (see chart below), adjust ISO, aperture, and shutter speed to expose properly.

Shoot RAW images.
Plan to print? RAW files are like negatives, and allow more editing flexibility. Save storage space: Shoot in RAW, but delete test shots.

Celestial Fireworks
Use these exposure settings and composition tips to enhance night pictures.

Photo by Ben Canales
Star trails Exposure time
32m
Aperture (f-stop)
f/16
Sensor speed (ISO)
400

Key adjustment
Experiment with exposure times lasting from several minutes to several hours. Longer times will show longer trails.
 
To capture arcs of light like these (left), shoot long exposures on clear nights (clouds obscure the stars). For vortex-like circles, center your frame on the North Star.

 
Photo by Ben Canales
Stars Exposure time
+ 8s
Aperture (f-stop)
f/2.8
Sensor speed (ISO)
+ 1600

Key adjustment
Use a high ISO (higher than 1600 if possible) so the camera sensor registers low-light despite exposure times short enough to freeze stars.
 
Aiming at the Milky Way? It’s brightest in the southern sky; go south of cities and orient south. For the aurora, go north of cities, and point north.

 
Photo by Tim Seaver
Moon Exposure time
1/250s
Aperture (f-stop)
f/11
Sensor speed (ISO)
100

Key adjustment
The moon is bright (and tracks quickly across the sky), so use a fast shutter speed to capture its surface details without overexposing them.
 
Zoom in with your longest lens and focus on the moon’s surface features. Crop shots with photo editing software at home (to enlarge the moon’s relative size).

 
Photo by Ben Canales
Moonlit landscape Exposure time
2m
Aperture (f-stop)
f/16
Sensor speed (ISO)
1600

Key adjustment
Use a small f-stop to give your image greater depth of field so you can focus both near and far elements at the same time.
 
A quarter moon can cast enough light to brighten a scene. On cloudy nights, expect shadowless images. On clear nights, shadows may be harsh.

 
Pack More Juice Long exposures and cold temps zap battery power. Bring at least one extra set, or a charger like the Joos Orange ($150; 1 lb. 8 oz.; solarjoos.com).

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READERS COMMENTS

Star Star Star Star Star
Daniel
Dec 15, 2013

What suggestions would you have when using a GoPro Hero 3 Black. This is my primary camera when in the back country as its very small, lightweight and takes amazing photos and video.
Thanks and great post!

p.s. to fredtherabbit there is a print option on this page

Star
fredtherabbit
Jul 03, 2013

would give it a 5 if it was all on one page, or if you gave a 'print' option.

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