Basic Tips for Night Photography

  Most people assume that you need special cameras and lots of expensive equipment to take good photos of the night sky. If your goal is to photograph distant deep space galaxies and star clusters, then you will need a telescope with a mount capable of tracking the stars for long periods of time with great accuracy. This will require you to invest some dollars, and time, to get the photos you're after.
   But you can take some amazing photos with some very basic equipment that you may already own. Most of the photos you see on SkyChasers were shot with average 35mm cameras with film that is widely available and inexpensive. The cost of the film, developing, and printing or scanning to disc is usually under $20 per roll. Not bad for an evening of fun.

The Essentials: 

                                                 The Camera:    

     There are three things you must have for night photography. The first   thing is
   that  your camera must have a "B" setting or manual time exposure setting. This 
   is necessary to be able to take the long exposures needed for capturing images 
   at night.
      The second thing you must have is a tripod to mount the camera on. It is
   impossible to hold a camera in your hand and keep it steady enough to be able to
   take time exposures without blurring, so don't even try. The tripod does not
   need to be fancy, as long as it is stable. You can even build a simple one yourself.
      The third essential item you need is a cable release to operate your camera's
   shutter. Once again, no one can hold down the shutter button with their finger for
   several seconds without jiggling the camera a little. Even the slightest vibrations 
   will blur your photo.
       If your camera has these three essential items, your are ready to begin
   shooting photos at night.



    Today's photographers have a much better choice of films for night use than
   ever before. There is no need for any special films or processes to capture some
   great shots of the night sky. We have tried many different films, and fortunately
   have found some of our favorites to be the most common and widely available.
     Film is now available in much faster speeds and finer grains than it was just a
   few years ago. It also has a much larger range of exposure times that will yield
   good results, making night photography something anyone can do.
     For Aurora, try Kodak Max 400, Kodak Royal Gold 400, Fuji Superia or Super
   HG, 400 or 800 speed. Fuji 1600 is also good for capturing fast moving auroras
   and finer detail in shorter exposures.


    Star Fields and Constellations:

    One of the first things you may want to try photographing is Constellations or the
  stars of the Milky Way. Be sure your camera is set to the "B" setting and set the
  lens to it's lowest F stop number. This opens the lens all the way and lets it the in
  the maximum amount of light. Most 28 to 50mm lenses have an F number of 1.7 to
  2.8 for their fastest setting.
   When you have the area you want to photograph centered, focus your camera on
  a star to where it appears the smallest and sharpest. You can shoot up to 30
  second exposures with a 50mm lens before stars will start to show trails due to 
  the Earths rotation. Be sure not to jiggle the tripod or camera during the exposure or
  your photo will blur and all your stars will be doubles.
    Use a fast film like Fuji 800 or 1600 or try Konica 3200 if you can find it. It is
  amazingly fast but is somewhat grainy. This photo of Cygnus setting in the Arizona
  desert was shot on Fuji 1600 speed with a 30 second exposure using a 50mm lens
  at F 1.7



    The best advise for shooting aurora is to "bracket" your photos, meaning shoot
  photos at several different exposure lengths. Most of our auroras are shot on 400 or
  800 speed film with exposures of 15 to 30 seconds. Try shooting several in a row and
  vary the exposures by about 5 seconds. This will give you a good chance of capturing
  a perfect one. Try to get a little horizon, or silhouette of a tree or building against the
  sky. This will give your photo some frame of reference for size and distance. The 
  camera will capture colors that your eye can barely see and even faint aurora yield  
  surprising results. This photo was shot on Fuji 800 film with a 28mm lens at F 2.8 with
  a 20 second  long exposure. 


                                                 Tracker Platforms: 

     You can take longer exposures of several minutes by building your own tracking
  platform. The platform is hinged on one end and has a threaded bolt at a given distance
  away. The hinge is aligned to point at the celestial pole. The threaded bolt is turned at 
  1 rpm by hand and causes the upper half of the platform to rotate in the same direction
  and at the same rate as the Earth. A well aligned platform and a steady hand can let 
  you take photos with up to 20 minute exposures. Be sure to take notes on what you 
  do. It is very helpful later on unless your memory is photographic too.


                                                 Piggy Backing:

    You can also take long exposures by attaching your camera on top of a telescope
  equipped to track the stars. The camera is using its own lenses and is just piggy
  backing a ride on the telescope. The more magnification that is used, the greater the
  need for accuracy in tracking. This 10 minute exposure of the North American Nebula
  in Cygnus was taken while riding on top of a C-8 telescope. The lens was a telephoto
  zoom lens set at 200mm at F 4.5 on Fuji 800 film.



                                                 Through a Telescope:  

   Taking pictures through a telescope starts to enter the world of the advanced
  astrophotographer. Long, high powered exposures need precise tracking and guiding,
  and usually quite a bit of time is invested in getting one good shot. 
    However, some good pictures of the moon and sun are possible using a simple 
  method with any type of telescope. Focus the telescope first, then move your tripod 
  and camera up to the eyepiece of the telescope and focus the camera lens and shoot. 
  Be sure to get the camera as close and squarely to the telescope eyepiece as possible. 
  Use a 50mm lens on the camera and let the telescope do all the magnification. Never  
  attempt to photograph the sun without using proper filters! 
   This auto exposed shot was taken on Kodak 400 with the telescope at 50 power.


   Developing, Prints and Scans:

     Once you have taken some night photos, the next thing to do is have them developed. We have taken film to the local
  grocery store for over night processing and have gotten some very good results. And we have gotten some that were 
  not so good. 
     Most places offering overnight service ship the film to large photo labs for developing. This is good in one sense 
  because these labs have modern equipment and change their chemicals often. But all film is treated the same and your 
  night shots will be developed and printed the same way as any other film. Occasionally negatives may be cut in the wrong
  places because they are not familiar with night shots, and can't locate the edge of the frame. Or prints may look washed out, 
  or faded, because they are printed at the same levels as average daylight photos. 
     The best thing to do is call some of your local photo developers and ask them if they are familiar with developing and
  printing night photos. Letting them know what you have before developing and printing will give you much better results.
  Local photo processors will often put a little extra effort into your photos, because your doing something they don't see
  everyday. Some simple adjustment of brightness and contrast can greatly enhance night photos. 
     Having photos custom printed, and adjusted in the darkroom by someone familiar with night photography, is always the
  best way you can go. Custom printing is an art, and is time consuming, so expect to pay a good deal extra for it. 
     In recent years, another option has become available. You can have your negatives scanned onto a CD and view them 
  on your computer. Computers and photo editing software have given us the ability to have our own digital darkrooms. 
  There is no limit to what you can do to a photo on a computer. Deleting dust and scratches is a snap and you can make
  adjustments to the brightness, contrast, and colors. But be careful not to go to far. It is easy to make your photo look
  unnatural and overdone. You can save any changes you make and print them yourself, or copy them back to disc and
  take them back to a photo store for printing. 

More photo tips by Joe Klein

   We hope you find some of our tips helpful and we have convinced you that you can do it too. So grab your camera  and your excitement and head out into the night. The next great night shot could be right above you. And be sure to send your pictures to SkyChasers!