Spectacular images of the heavens grace many a travel brochure and website, and as a result, star photography is often misconceived as being a realm reserved solely for the professional photographer. This is far from the truth however.
The Southern Stars in particular are renowned for their brilliance, and the African bushveld is as good a place as any to make your first foray into this particular aspect of photography; you are far from any major light pollution, certain months of the year offer completely clear, haze-free nights, and the distant (or not-so-distant!) roar of a lion can add immeasurably to the experience.
Although summer is traditionally not the best time to photograph the stars, we do still get many clear nights during the season, and the different constellations of this time of year can make for wonderful variety in your stellar portfolio.
To get started, there are few essential items that you need to be in possession of:
- A Tripod.
Photographing the stars requires the camera to be absolutely still; the slightest movement can ruin your picture, so a solid mount is necessary. The sturdier the tripod the better, as even a slight breeze can cause a lighter tripod to sway, spoiling the image.
One can get away with a beanbag if you absolutely have no other option, but then you need somewhere decent to mount it, and you lose the ability to make small and easy adjustments to your camera angle.
- A Camera with Manual Mode
Manual mode gives you complete control over your ISO, aperture and shutter speed settings, all of which combine to give you the correct exposure.
- Wide Angle Lens with Wide Aperture
In order to capture the magnificence of the night skies, you need a lens that has as wide a field of view as possible. Using a telephoto lens might be useful to photograph the moon, but to include as many constellations as you can, you need to be right down in the 20mm range, or even less.
Ideally your lens should have an aperture of 2.8 or less. This means that the lens can open wider, which means more light can be captured in a shorter space of time. Although our eyes can see the stars clearly, cameras struggle, which is why equipment is important.
- An Intervalometer/Camera Timer
This piece of gear isn’t 100% necessary, as most cameras will take an exposure of up to 30s without a timer, but if you want to start shooting at longer exposures, you’ll need one.
Now that you have all your equipment set up, let’s imagine we want to take a photo of the Milky Way, the densest band of stars visible at Londolozi.
The first thing to do is get your camera focused. A couple of test shots will usually be necessary to get this right, but the best way to start is to turn your lens’ focusing ring all the way until the infinity sign (that looks like an 8 on its side), then twist it fractionally back. Since the stars are an incredible distance from earth, just before infinity will be a good focusing point to start, but as mentioned, a couple of test exposures are often necessary to get it right.
The type of photograph you want to capture will dictate what settings you use, but here is a good jumping off point:
- Manual Mode
- RAW Image Format
- F-Stop/Aperture – As wide as possible to allow for maximum light uptake. Anything wider than 2.8 and you will struggle to get a decent image without having to crank up your ISO, which will create a lot of noise.
Lenses that go down to 1.8 or even 1.4 are ideal for capturing as much light as possible, but it can be a bit of a struggle to focus them at night.
- Focal Length should be between 10-24mm ideally.
- Exposure Time should be between 10-40s depending on the lens you are using. Remember that longer exposure times may get the stars to smudge slightly, as despite being stationary to the naked eye, they are in fact moving constantly, which will quickly become evident on your camera.
A commonly used rule is to take the number 500 and divide it by your focal length to get the maximum time you can leave an exposure before getting star trails. For example, a focal length of 20mm allows for a 25s exposure. Note: If your camera has a crop sensor, this will affect the calculation.
- ISO settings are a tricky one, as greater ISO means the camera is more sensitive to light, and the stars will be more visible, but it also creates more noise. Ultimately your camera itself will often determine what ISO settings to use, as some models are better in low light. Some tutorials recommend ISOs of between 2500-6400, but I generally try to stay lower than this.
Once you have set up and got your settings dialed in, start shooting. Simply getting out there and giving it a go is the obviously the first step to take.
One last recommendation I would make is to set your shutter delay to 2 seconds. This means that once you push the shutter button to take the photo, the camera has 2 seconds in which to stop moving, which it will have done no matter how gently you pressed it.
Any questions, please add them in the comments section below.