Everybody has seen stunning photos of the Milky Way stretched across a horizon, often with interesting objects in the foreground – like an old car, a dead tree or historical building – but have you ever wondered how these images are taken? Fortunately, nightscape astrophotography is becoming more and more accessible to everyone!
What is nightscape astrophotography?
Nightscape astrophotography is a branch of astrophotography, but brought a little more down to Earth. This style of photography focuses on the combination of an interesting foreground object either silhouetted against or faintly illuminated in front of the night sky. While the most common nightscape shots include the core of the Milky Way, there are plenty of others with a focus on other deep sky objects – like the Orion Complex or the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds.
How do you take your own nightscape photos?
Most nightscape astrophotography is shot on a DSLR camera. These cameras allow rapid customisation of imaging settings to make shooting the night sky simple. Before you can start taking photos, you will need to be sure you have the right gear. Most importantly you’ll need a tripod to keep your camera steady, and the widest lens you have available to make sure you’re capturing heaps of the night sky.
Other items that might be useful include:
– A torch for faintly illuminating your foreground
– A manual cable release to keep your hands off the camera
– Spare batteries
– Warm clothes
You’ll also need to be able to get your camera focused. Most nightscape astrophotographers use the live view screen built into their cameras. By aiming your camera at a bright star, you can find focus and make the star as sharp as possible.
The secret to a nightscape photo is a long exposure time. Exposure time is how long a camera opens its shutter before generating an image. During the day exposure times last a fraction of a second, as there is so much light present. At night, on the other hand, there is so little light, that cameras will need to keep their shutters open for many seconds. To grab an image of the Milky Way – or other bright naked eye objects in the night sky for that matter – cameras will need to have exposure times of at least 20 seconds. Increasing exposure times does have downside however. If the exposure is too long, the stars in the your image will appear as streaks instead of points, as the Earth has rotated during your image.
Another aspect to consider when shooting your own nightscape astrophotography is your ISO setting. Altering a camera’s ISO manipulates digital data to enhance apparent brightness. Most cameras will have an ISO range from 100 to 6400, with 100 being the least sensitive to light, and 6400 being the most. A good ISO to start at is 1600. If you’re finding that your exposure times are too long, you can increase the ISO and lower your exposure times. There is a limit to this however, as increasing the ISO too much will result in your image becoming “noisy”. Alternatively, if your image is too “noisy” you may find that lowering your ISO is beneficial.
To get the most out of your photo, it is always a good idea to process your images. The processing stage is where aspects of the image – like contrast, saturation and levels – are edited to make the Milky Way *pop*. Processing nightscapes is a whole other challenge in itself, so check out this blog for some info on how to start.
Most importantly, nightscape astrophotography is an art. There is no perfect way to take your photo. Experiment with different settings, angles, foregrounds and even post processing methods, and find a photo that you are really proud of.
What if I don’t have a DSLR?
If you don’t have a DSLR, there’s no need to worry about missing out! Most modern smartphones have a build in astrophotography mode in their camera settings. While not as customisable as a DSLR, astrophotography mode will allow your smart phone to capture its very own images of the night sky. Just make sure you bring a tripod – or have somewhere to prop the phone up – to keep your phone steady while it snaps its own nightscape astrophotography!
Riley is an experienced astronomy guide who has been working within the astronomy community for several years. He is incredibly passionate about the night sky and holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Science, Math and Education.
Want to learn more about nightscape astrophotography?
Join accomplished WA astrophotographer Roger Groom for a night under world class dark skies and learn all the tips and tricks for taking award winning nighscapes!
We look forward to welcoming you to our friendly community of Stargazers & Astronomy Lovers where we thrive on making learning about the galaxy easy & fun!