Have you ever seen those stunning shots of the Milky Way and wondered how it’s done? If you’re like me, then your efforts more often end up as just a pin-pricks of light and a lot of uninspiring blackness!
Knowing that Renato is a dab-hand at this, we grabbed him in between trips and picked his brain for some tips and advice:
What’s the most important thing to consider when photographing the night sky?
Location is very important. I was lucky growing up in Sardinia where we had dark, clear skies and it’s very easy to get away from any light pollution so the stars were easy to see. My father used to tell me stories about the constellations and what they represented in the ancient world, and this brings the night sky to life for me. It’s more than just the stars; it’s myths, legends, stories and the ancient beliefs of our ancestors.
Why we don’t see the Milky Way in the UK?
Mainly it’s due to cloud cover, light pollution and a hazy atmosphere, but it is there if you know what to look for. There are several apps for your phone that can help you locate it, and once you get a sense of where it is then it’s easier to spot, even if it’s not a spectacular as it can be in other parts of the world. You’ll be surprised how much the position of the stars and the Milky Way change with the degree of latitude, very high in the sky at lower latitudes and low on the horizon as you move towards the poles. But you don’t necessarily have to have the Milky Way in your photos, if you can make the most of the stars that are on show then you can still get an interesting night sky for your images, and you can get creative with slow shutter speed and include some star trails too. There are a lot of opportunities for using the night sky in your images.
Can you talk us through a typical night-sky shot?
Yes, of course. Let’s use the shot below of a Masai warrior in Kenya as an example. There was a complete lack of light pollution and the skies were very clear so I just knew I had to take advantage these great conditions. I carefully planned my shot to include the Milky Way and a Masai warrior with his spear up in the sky to create some dynamism. I positioned my mini tripod on the ground and pointed my lens up. With a very wide angle I could include the vast sky behind and my main subject in the foreground, a local Masai who offered to pose for my picture. I didn’t want to use a flashgun as I was too close to him, and it would have burnt out the highlights. Instead I chose a technique called “light painting”, using a soft light torch to illuminate the warrior for a few seconds. A large aperture at f2.8 and a 30 second exposure allowed enough light to expose for the Milky Way.
Can you give some more advice on settings and equipment?
As mentioned, a wide aperture and slow shutter speed are necessary. While I used 30 seconds on the Masai warrior image, this does mean that the stars may begin to trail (they move across the sky a little bit during the time your shutter is open). Generally 15-20 seconds will help you get slightly crisper stars. If your lens has vibration reduction you’ll need to switch it off when camera is on tripod and use a remote control shutter release. You are likely to need to increase the ISO a little – I generally go up to 1600. An important note on focus. If you manage to autofocus on the stars then great, if not then you’ll need to do that manually. Remember to set your lens to manual focus so the camera doesn’t re-adjust in between shots!
If you’d like to practice astro photography in the UK then we recommend a visit to the Dark sky park in the Brecon Beacons in Wales. You’ll certainly find that there is little light pollution, but of course the weather and cloud cover can be an issue so you’ll need to plan carefully.
A number of our photography tours have particularly good opportunities for astrophotography including Sardinia: Land of Fairies and Giants, both our Morocco tours – Souks and And Dunes and Magical Morocco, the Silk Road cities and Nomads tour through Central Asia and our Norway Northern Lights Photography Adventure.