Photographers who have enjoyed a long hot summer, complete with endless hours of sunny days and golden sunsets, may be letting out an extended sigh at the prospect of it now being dark by dinner time. However, while it may pose challenges to photographers, the night sky presents wonderful opportunities to capture celestial phenomenon and get creative with mother nature.
Accessibility to fast-aperture lenses at more reasonable prices and advancements in sensor technology means your camera can capture everything from auroras to star trails with greater quality than ever before. What’s more, raw files containing more tonal information will also enable you to enhance your after-dark images so you no longer have to fight a constant battle with digital grain.
To show you just how accessible astrophotography can be, we’re taking on three celestial projects to explain the technique needed to produce a stunning photo, along with the equipment to make the shoot easier, and some processing tips to add that final polish.
How to shoot auroras
With an aurora shoot you are at the mercy of a number of factors. So let’s start by explaining what causes the aurora borealis, also known as the Northern Lights.
The amazing lights start their journey at the sun, and are produced when solar storms send gusts of charged particles towards the earth’s atmosphere. When the particles react with the earth’s magnetic field, light is created (typically green, but also red, blue and violet) and these displays can last from a few seconds to over an hour.
Even if there is strong solar activity, other factors play a role when it comes to getting the best possible results. A clear night sky is required, and it’s important to find shooting locations with low levels of light pollution. In addition, a high latitude is advantageous. While you can shoot the aurora in the UK as far south as Lincolnshire, travelling to Northern-Lights hotspots like Iceland or Norway’s Arctic Circle area will reward you with more impressive displays. Nonetheless, there’s still more you can do to better plan your aurora adventure.
A smartphone can be a useful accessory when hunting down the lights, with the aurora season running roughly between September and April. Weather apps will forecast cloud cover while dedicated aurora apps will do their best to predict the strength and timings of any displays using solar storm data. While there’s a wealth of apps available, I use AuroraWatch UK for UK-centric information and My Aurora Forecast while shooting further north in Norway and the Faroe Islands. One common mistake photographers make is to pick a location and hope the aurora drifts into view. If you have transport available, I find that searching out the light in different locations can be a better approach.
With the camera on a sturdy tripod, the best approach is to switch your lens to manual focus (MF) and use live view to zoom in and focus precisely. Remember to switch off any image stabilisation as this can be counter-productive with the camera on a tripod.
Connect a remote release or a radio trigger to avoid touching the camera during the exposure. Select the raw file format to give you more tolerance when editing the image. Your exposure will depend on the ambient light and how strong the aurora is.
A good starting point is to select an ISO of around 1000, an aperture between f/2.8 and f/4, and a shutter speed below 15 seconds to avoid any movement of the stars in the frame. Take a test shot and adjust the exposure settings if your image is too light or dark.
Star-trail photography has become increasingly popular in recent years owing to a number of factors. First up is the accessibility to reasonably priced, fast-aperture lenses and cameras that can perform at increased ISO levels. Second, photography is often trend-led, and image-sharing sites have seen no end of inspiring star trails plastered over social media and image-sharing websites such as Flickr and 500px. in short, star-trail photography is cool.