Outdoor photography is a growing hobby and art form that more and more people are able to get into as the cost of good equipment gets more affordable. From waterfall photography to photos of the star to stunning sunset vistas, outdoor photography is almost always beautiful and awfully hard to fail at. But there a few photography tips that set you up to succeed.
Today we are going to talk about Astrophotography in North Georgia. Astrophotography is photography that is focused on the night sky and can include photography of stars, star trails, lunar stages and the Milky Way.
To begin, let’s talk about the most important aspect of astrophotography. It may be an old cliche, but “LOCATION LOCATION!!!”. To photograph a nightscape first escape the cities and urban areas as best as possible. 80% of North American residences can not see the Milky Way due to light pollution from major cities and Georgia is no exception.
This is a map of the North Georgia area from Dark Site Finder. The areas in the shades of green are the areas you are looking for, the darker the green the better. I mainly shoot the Milky Way from is the Fort Mountain State Park and Northern Murray county due to proximity for me. Even though these areas are in a light green the Milky Way can still be seen quite well on clear moonless nights.
Another part of the location equation is weather. Here in the Southeast, steamy, humid, summer nights play a big roll in photographing the night sky. Low level moisture and high humidity can and will diffract light pollution and make viewing almost impossible. August through early November are the best times due to clear nights and low humidity.
The second part is the easiest but you have to find a good unobstructed view of the southern sky. Look for the constellation of Scorpio. It will precede the galactic center or what’s called “Down Town” by roughly 4 degrees. There are some great apps for your smartphone that will help you identify the constellations if you are new to identifying constellations. Stellarium is my go to app for nightscapes on both desktop and mobile.
Another way to find the Galactic center is to find the constellation of Cygnus. Cygnus is what some refer to as the northern cross and is a better marker for finding the galactic center due to its higher position in the sky. The length of the cross runs through and along the Milky Way, draw a line through the cross and continue straight to the southern horizon that will be the position of the galactic center.
Add it all together and you will have the optimal viewing area for you location of choice.
TIPS FOR NIGHT VIEWING AND PHOTOGRAPHY
Allow enough time for your eyes to adjust. The average person needs 45 minutes or longer to reach optimal night sight.
Use only red LED lighting otherwise you have to wait till night blindness goes away.
This is as simple or as difficult as you want to make it. A good sturdy tripod, a camera that can shoot in manual mode and a lens is really all you need. All DSLRs are going to be roughly the same as it’s practice that makes the shot. Just don’t shoot in scene or auto mode. A good fast wide lens is what you want. The shot above was taken with a Sony A7r with a 20 year old Minolta manual 24mm f2.8 lens. Even some new auto lenses have quit a bit of coma aberration.
Some of the newer point and shoots work wonderful for nightscapes. Research your camera, watch videos of it on YouTube, Google it, and take it out and play with the settings. It will only take you about 15 minutes of research to get a basic understanding. The rest will come with practice and your passion for the craft. But you can take a good photo with nothing but a basic tutorial and a decent camera.
You will need to be able to take a photo without touching the camera. One way is to set the drive/timer, 2 seconds is the most common time on your camera of choice. A shutter release or a intervalometer can be attached wired or wirelessly to some cameras.
This was taken with a Canon T3/1100d and a 18-55mm f3.5 kit lens. This shows almost any DSLR/mirrorless camera can get the job done.
SETTINGS ARE JUST SETTINGS – WRONG!
The number one rule for any good photography is to always use manual mode . . . always! Never let the camera decide what your exposure, white balance, ISO or F stop should be.
The first thing I do is set my exposure for maximum light reception without star trails this can be done with the 500 rule. The 500 rule is formula to determine the length of time the shutter can stay open before trailing. For example, if I am shooting with my Rokinon 14mm f2.8 lens on my A7r I will take 500 and divide that by 14 (500/14=35.7). 35.7 is too long of an exposure time for a camera without a shutter release so I will set it at 30 seconds and adjust accordingly. For a cropped sensor camera the formula is 500 divided by 14, divided by crop factor (500/14/sony crop factor of 1.5=23.8). The 500 rule help determine how high to set the ISO as well.
Next is ISO. I try to shoot as low an ISO as possible. I tend to stay in a 2000 to 3200 range to keep noise level low. A side note to ISO is the warmer the weather the more noise in the photo. White balance with my photos is a standard 3500k, I try to keep my photos on the blue side of the spectrum. It also helps with the way light pollution that inevitably appears in photos unless you are in a true dark sky zone. Aperture is simple . . . as wide open as the lens will allow.
Getting out and seeing the night sky is awe inspiring experience. Experimenting with different lenses, settings, and foreground subjects is a great way to learn more about your camera. It can bring you closer to the ones you love or give you peace and solitude to clear your head from a hectic day.
A big thanks to the Wander North Georgia crew for letting me put this how to together and in hope it will get folks out to shoot the night sky.