This is the time of the year that my thoughts usually turn away from photography and temporarily onto other things. The snow is very dirty right now. It’s a conglomerate of ice, dust, dirt and sand. Nothing like the delicate, frosty flakes that we get early in the winter.
Spring? On the prairies the grasses start to green during the first week of May and the trees in the sun heated north sides of valleys might start to leaf by mid May. It isn’t until the second week of June that things start to look lush. Well, as lush as you can get on the prairie.
Instead of looking at the ground and the horizon, lately, I’ve been looking up during the night. After photographing the old Brush Hills Church a few weeks ago my curiosity was piqued. If you are interested in anything, your favorite search engine can be your best friend so I queried “astrophotography” and my journey began. And it is a journey.
I know how to take photos. I’ve been doing it for a living on and off for over thirty years. Some things remain the same whether you are photographing people or still life. Composition, aesthetics, etc. are all the same no matter what the subject. Where it differs is in how to take the photograph and how to process it. For me the easiest thing in the world is to get someone or something in the studio, get the lights the way I want and it all comes together. In the studio the photographer has control of almost everything. Almost, because when working with people you are a partner in the shoot not the captain of the ship. Some people can’t or won’t smile. Some people aren’t very photogenic but they’re all problems that are easily solved.
I am always learning. When I’m shooting landscapes, everyday presents a different situation. There is always something different happening or something new to try. Progress is not measured in huge differences but instead in subtleties.
Last night I was outdoors trying to learn more about shooting nightscapes. Before I went out, I Googled that subject to view and read as much as I could on the subject. Of course I found many “professional” hobbyists willing to have me pay for their tutorials or take their online courses. I really am coming to dislike those who would rather not share what they know unless there is a dollar value attached to it. There is plenty to read out there and read I did.
The night sky and the stars are not always the same. From hour to hour or season to season the sky changes. Some of the stars that we see in the winter are not visible to us in the summer. I was interested in the Milky Way. Where it is in the night sky depends on the hour and the day. Where you live is also important to where it is seen. Last night just after sunset it was in the north west sky. Early this morning just before the sun rise it was over the south eastern horizon. It arcs across the northern sky before setting in the east. I used a free program called Stellarium to show me where it would be. You can put in the time of the day or year and your location and it will display the appropriate night sky. It’s available for Mac or pc.
If the moon is above the horizon I found out from reading, that the dimmer stars will be diminished or disappear. Last night there was no moon visible. Shooting near the bright lights of the city will interfere with seeing the dimmer stars. Last night it worked for me to drive north of the city where I could see the milky way and not be shooting toward the bright lights of Edmonton.
It’s difficult to focus on anything when it’s dark out. A little trick that I read about was to use the live view feature on my camera, zoom it all the way in and point it to a bright star, light on the distant horizon or a planet and focus. You know what? It works. My stars turned out crisp.
Oh yeah, crisp stars? Well if your shutter speed is too long you will start to get star trails or arcs of light. Google the rule of 600 to find the best shutter speed for focal length of lens that you are using. The shorter the lens, the longer the shutter speed you can use.
Exposure? I also Googled that to get a starting point. That is a work in progress. Finding the best combination of high ISO and low noise to get the least grainy but sharpest images. That I am still figuring out. Last night I used ISO 6400 and F2 at 8 seconds. I could have used F1.4 but chose to stop the lens down a bit for a little better quality. That too is an experiment right now.
And then there comes the processing. My RAW image looks nothing like the final. I am still trying to figure my way through processing night skies. After using Photoshop at work for over twenty years I am finding new ways to use that program that I hadn’t before.
The result above is not a work of art but a work in progress. It is a matter of taking little steps and learning something new every time out. Once I think that I have the mechanical part down where I don’t have to think about it then I’ll start on getting creative. It’s a whole new world for me to photograph and I look forward to that journey.
Standing still is never a good thing. Twenty years from now if I am still alive and taking photos I hope to still be learning. There’s nothing as annoying as a know it all and right now I feel like I know very little. It’s a great feeling.