Shooting for the stars

Photo of Mogens Johansen

MOGENS JOHANSEN is always looking skywards. And here he gives practical tips on capturing that scene, at night.

Yes, yes there is such a thing as “astro tourism”. And because of Western Australia’s vast open spaces with little or no light pollution, it is one of the best places in the world to observe and photograph the brilliance of the beautiful Milky Way in the night sky.

The popularity of astro photography has taken off in recent years, partly thanks to new camera sensors that perform much better in low light, making it easier to capture the night sky.

Astro photography is not rocket science. All you need is your camera, a good tripod and nice dark scene without any light pollution from city lights.

I’m spending the evening with passionate stargazer Carol Redford at the Yarragadee Geodetic Observatory near Mingenew. Ms Redford is one of the driving forces behind getting astro tourism off the ground in Western Australia and she has a wealth of knowledge and experience in both stargazing and astro photography.

We are getting ourselves organised to get some nice pictures of the observatory’s giant dish and powerful laser beam against the night sky. The plan is to use the dish and the laser as a point of interest and as an anchor point to give some scale to the scene. I use the rule of thirds composition and make sure I leave plenty of space in the frame for the sky. In my experience, the foreground needs to be at least 100m away to give you the required depth of field needed to get the stars sharp as well.

We have our cameras set on sturdy tripods, my camera settings are ISO 1600, f/2.8 and a 30 second exposure. I use a powerful torch to help me get the point of focus spot-on. In this case it is relatively easy thanks to the white dish but it is critical to get it right because of the shallow depth of field the wide open aperture gives me.

The 30-second shutter speed is long enough for the camera sensor to capture the lights from the night sky without any movement. Longer exposures will result in star trails so, unless that is what you are trying to achieve, you will need to adjust your ISO or aperture accordingly.

I manage to capture nice images of the Milky Way and the observatory dish and some unusual ones of their piercing green laser beam as it searches for satellites in the night sky.

Finding interesting places for astro photography is limited only by your imagination but check out this link to find some of the best spots in WA. Or, if you are travelling overseas, here.

Mogens Johansen’s practical tips for astro photography


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