Photographing the Night Sky

April 09, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

Like most people, the majority of my photography takes part in daylight hours, be that in the stark sunlight in the middle of the day, at dawn or at dusk.  For me, light is probably more important than structure or composition, although they of course combine to make the good shot.  I love reflections and the variations that light affords.  And after all, photo means light in Greek!


Probably like most people, my experience of night photography is limited.  It requires a good understanding of the scope of the camera, invariably a tripod and if the photographer has any sense, a cable release to prevent camera shake which is so unforgiving with a slow shutter speed.  During my training at Stevenson College, we were in and out of the darkroom as we learned to open film rolls in pitch black, and later, to print the developed films.  All good practice for fumbling with equipment in the dark.


I have been privileged to see the Northern Lights, three times in one week in 1988, appropriately enough in Old Aberdeen before photography played such a large part in my life, and again in 2010 as we left Eastern Greenland.  They weren't as vibrant as those in Aberdeen, but I did have a camera to hand, albeit without a tripod or cable release, and we were on a ship in calm waters.  Ships and long exposures don't mix, so I fired the ISO up to 6400 and shot at 1 second exposures.  On the viewfinder, everything looked wonderful, but it's always on the computer back home where the flaws present themselves.  Although the shots quite clearly show the green swirls of the Aurora Borealis, they are a little too blurred to post on here.  I did though learn that when you look out of a porthole at 1am and see white clouds in an otherwise clear sky, taking a photograph of them can turn them into green Aurora Borealis!


2012 was supposed to be a great year for the Aurora and I signed up to the website run by the University of Lancaster which e-mails red or amber warnings of anticipated Aurora activity.  Alas, every single time I received one of these, the Aurora was busy showing itself anywhere except cloud-covered Edinburgh.  In fairness, their anticipation related more to Northern Scotland, but it still wasn't happening in my area.  2013 is also supposed to be having good Aurora sightings.  I would be delighted to step out of my front door and find them not so far from the big smoke, but I am also planning to raise my chances of seeing and photographing them on another tour in Alaska later this year.


In order to make best use of my time over there, I have been out a few times with a friend who has a telescope and knows much more about astronomy than me, and his knowledge about what stars are where certainly enhances the experience.  We have located a great spot in East Lothian with minimal light pollution and whilst he sets about getting his telescope to track planets such as Jupiter and Saturn which have both been visible in the skies lately, I've been experimenting with different settings to learn more about my camera's capabilities at night.

I've posted seven new pictures here:  All were taken with a Canon 7D and a 24 mm prime lens - one of my favourites.  The first three are all taken at ISO 400, f2.8 for 30 seconds; the fourth is the same but for 15 seconds, and the last three are taken at ISO 6400, with the first at f3.5 and 15 seconds and the last two at f4 and 30 seconds.  The third and fourth pictures have Jupiter showing just above the horizon in the middle of each picture; the fifth and sixth are taken in the opposite direction over the Lammermuir Hills where Saturn is rising - it is the bright "star" just centre left of the picture, and in the final picture, there is a satellite passing over, showing as a streak in the top left of the image.  All shots were taken between 1am and 2am in the clearest sky possible with no moon and -3C in temperature.  Once I'd finished my photography, I got a rug from the car and lay on the ground with a beanbag under my head and just watched the sky whilst my friend continued working with the telescope; I saw the International Space Station pass by, Andromeda, a comet and even the Milky Way.  Sometimes it's good just to put down the camera and absorb the surroundings without a viewfinder.

If one can get clear of the light pollution, the time and patience put into night photography is definitely worth the effort.  I continue to learn.


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