Shooting Astro Landscapes

The other night I went out to photograph star trails. I was far away from city lights, there was a bit of wind but not to much. It was a damp evening. I set up the tripod, found a composition, and using an intervalometer took one minute exposures for approximately an hour.

After that was done, I started scouting the area looking for my second composition. That's when it came rushing toward me. A large skunk with its tail raised running after me as fast as its little legs could carry it. After a startled scream, I went back to the tripod, looked at the lens frosted with mist and decided on my second composition for the evening.

The image to the right is the final shot of that second shoot. Now lets get into some of challenges you will face on this kind of a shoot.

The Challenges

* Lens Fog - Long exposures tend to take...time. During this time moisture tends to accumulate upon glass. Camera lenses are not immune to this.

* Auto Focus - It relies on light, and tends not to work in the.... dark.

* Lighting - Stars are bright, foregrounds are dark. How do you get foreground detail while still having detail in the sky?

The Equipment

* Canon 6d

* Canon 24-70mm f/4L

* Pro-Master Tripod with RC2 headmound and panning base

* Hot shoe level

* Intervalometer (Magic Lantern in this case, though any will do)

* Rubberband with black garbage bag to cover the eyepiece

* Coast HP7 flashlight

Why You Need This Equipment

Briefly let me explain the reaons for each piece of equipment. The Canon 6d is a Full Frame 35mm DSLR with an excellent sensor for low light photography. I knew I was going to shoot star TRAILS, so the Canon 24-70 F/4 was a solid lens that would allow enough light for this task. The Pro-Master Tripod and RC2 ball head with panning base allow for quick recomposition. The hot shoe level allows you to know your camera is level with the horizon, even in pitch darkness. An intervalometer allows for multiple shots taken rapidly for as long as you want. The rubberband with black garbage bag covering the optical viewfinder prevents light leak through the back eyepiece (causing flare and other issues on occasion). The Coast HP7 flashlight is powerful and has a push-pull front focusing bezel, ideal for lightpainting.

Overcoming the Challenges

* Auto Focus - It does not work at night so turn it off. The AF switch for most lenses is on the left side of the lens. To focus, a good starting point is to manual focus on infinity. Look for the symbol on the lens that looks like the letter 8 taking a nap.

To get more precise focus turn on your Coast HP7 and shine it on the most distant object/subject you want to photograph. With the camera securely mounted to the tripod, turn on live view and zoom it to 5x. Now slowly adjust the focus ring till the subject is in focus.

If the lens has Image Stabilization be sure to turn that OFF as well.

* Condensation on the lens - Unless you are in an extremely dry environment this is a problem. After 30 minutes or more the lens will often fog up resulting in soft images. Hand warmers can fix this. Thats right, the kind people use when deer hunting. Take a couple of these, put them in a sock and secure them around the outside of the lens (around the barrel) to keep it warm. This will help prevent condensation on the lens during long exposures.

* Lighting - In order to get more foreground detail, use a flashlight to lightpaint the areas you want to see more detail in. For example, in the shot above I took about twenty five 1 minute exposures using the intervalometer. During one of these shots I used the Coast HP7 to lightpaint the trees to make them pop out more.

Don't Fight Your Environment

The last tip I want to give today is to use your environment. Open youreself up to what the world is trying to show you. I don't like foggy lenses, but on this shoot the lens was fogging up. I didn't have hand warmers with me. I could have gone to the car to dry the lens, but I noticed that with the fog on the glass the lens gave a pleasant soft glow to the image. I knew the stars would become less noticable, so I decided to look for a different composition that used the negative space of the sky and didn't need the stars as the central focus.

I hope you have enjoyed this tutorial. I will be adding more on Astrophotography and the various processing techniques.