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.
Mogens Johansen’s practical tips for astro photography
- Full-frame DSLR and mirror-less cameras are best for astro photography but cameras with APSC and Micro Four Thirds will also do the job.
- Arrive early to set up and frame your shot. Think about your composition and make sure you leave plenty of space for the sky. If your wide angle is not wide enough, try shooting vertically rather than horizontally.
- Try to find a granite outcrop, a single tree or an old farm shed that can be used as foreground and anchor point to help give the big view of the night sky some scale.
- Be prepared, know your camera and what settings you want to use so you are not fumbling around in the dark trying to sort it out.
- A sturdy tripod is essential; you will be shooting at 15-30 second shutter speeds so the sturdier the better. If your tripod is lightweight you can try to anchor it down with your camera bag. Most tripods have a hook under the centre column for that purpose.
- It is dark out there so bring a good torch and a head torch with red light so you don’t lose your night vision while shooting.
- Set all your settings to manual — focus, exposure, ISO white balance should all be set to manual.
- A high ISO setting, a wide-angle lens with a large aperture like f/2.8 or faster is preferable but you can get away with slightly slower lenses as well — it just requires you to boost the ISO to really high levels.
- Set your camera to shoot RAW rather than JPEG; the RAW files contain more data than the JPEG files and give you more flexibility in post processing.
- Use the camera’s self-timer or a smartphone app to set it off to avoid any camera movement.
- Getting the point of focus right is perhaps the hardest part of astro photography. If possible, check your focus point or points before it gets totally dark. The focus point is critical because you are shooting with the lens wide open which means you have a shallow depth of field. Try to focus on the brightest star or the part of the foreground you use to give your shot scale and depth. A good powerful torch will help to find the exact focus point in the foreground.
- Take a few test shots and check them on the LCD display to make sure you have the focus spot-on. Mark or tape the lens so you don’t accidentally move it later.
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