Shooting for the stars

Or my first attempt at shooting the Milky Way.

Shooting the night sky was never among the things I wanted to do with my camera. Sure, I tried it in the past but never seemed to work, even when the location was near perfect. Our trips to Southeast Oregon -also called the “Big Empty” and the most remote area in the contiguous US- would have been perfect candidates for this kind of photography.

But as with everything, the right place is only the beginning. You need the right time too. Dim to no moon, and clear skies. We spent one moonless night near Leslie Gulch, but it was completely cloudy. You could not see a single cloud the night we spent in the Alvord Desert, but there was a huge red full moon. You need to plan this.

There’s more to it though, you need the right equipment and technique. The wider and faster your lens, the better. The bigger your sensor, the better.

Now, I wouldn’t call myself an expert after just one night shooting the night sky with mild success, but I’ll try to offer some advice to anyone trying to do the same as me. I’d love to hear your experience as well!

“Light Pollution” for Android

Find a place with no light pollution

There are websites and apps for this. Needless to say that the farther away you go from a city, the better.

“Sun Surveyor” for Android

Find the Milky Way

Enter Sun Surveyor, one gem of an app for Android. It’s a paid app ($7.99) but worth every single penny. Not only you can find the perfect spot for sunrise/sunset, but it lets you track other things/objects like the Milky Way. I’m sure there are good apps for iOS as well.

Using this info and bearing in mind the light pollution, I thought Parkdale would be a good location. I think it was!

You can use longer lenses, but they need to be fast

Equipment and technique

You’ll need at least a tripod, a camera, and a fast lens. There are some tools like the Milky Way Exposure Calculator that let you see which lens and settings would work the best. But that’s just a starting point, you’ll have to test different settings once you start shooting.

The wider the lens the better, because you can shoot longer exposures. With narrower lenses, it’s more likely you’ll get some star trails and you do not want that.

If you need a narrow lens to get a specific composition, then it will have to be a pretty fast lens. For example, my f/1.7 50mm (pictured above).

You need to know how high the ISO can go in your camera before ruining the photo. I shoot with an A7II and I found the best results were when shooting with ISO1600, although 3200 didn’t look that bad.

For the f/1.7 50mm lens, I used a 6–7 seconds exposure. It’s a manual lens so focusing is much easier (it’s not wired). But at such a big aperture, you have to be very, very precise or everything will be out of focus.

That’s why I got the best results with the kit lens. Its maximum aperture is f/3.5, but it allows for longer exposures (it’s 28mm so I pushed it to around 15 seconds) and that aperture means you don’t have to be that precise with your focus. It’s still very hard though.

Wrapping up

I hope this helps anyone trying to shoot the night sky for the first time. As I said, I’m no expert and the Internet is full of resources about this, but I just wanted to tell my experience.

I know this is much more complex than what I’ve pictured here, some people take multiple exposures to blend them together in post. But for now, I wanted to keep things as simple as I could.

It’s a really fun thing to do, but be warned that you’ll need to do a lot of research about the location, weather, moon phases and Milky Way placement. You cannot control many of those things, but if you can get out and shoot it when everything is aligned, do it!

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