IF YOU’RE LUCKY enough to live in an area where there are dark skies then you have a fantastic photo opportunity every time there’s a clear night. For those of us who might be townies the opportunities are less frequent perhaps, but if you happen to be travelling to somewhere away from the light pollution that inevitably exists around our big cities don’t miss the opportunity to look up and to experience something of the sheer vastness of the universe that’s revealed when you find yourself in a place that’s away from the incessant glow of street lighting.
You might imagine that you need to be sourcing the longest telephoto lens you can find to get into astro photography, but often it’s the complete opposite. Pictures of the Northern Lights, for example, are inevitably shot with ultra-wide lenses to
reveal the full scale of the display, while you can also shoot what are known as nightscapes, where an iconic building or landscape is shown at twilight or carefully painted in by hand-held lighting, while behind the dramatic full spectacle of the Milky Way is revealing itself.
If you’ve been following this series you’ll know the ground rules by now. We’re running Pro Academy in tandem with the excellent Nikon School and overall we’ve set a total of six testing challenges to see what you can do. You’re cordially invited to enter just one or to go the whole hog and to take part in all six.
We’re inviting you to send across your best single shot from the assignment to our expert team at Professional Photo and, if you’ve met the required standard, we’ll send you back an e-certificate to prove the fact. Successfully complete all six assignments and you’ll receive a further e-certificate to confirm that you really are an excellent all-round operator! It’s not a competition, there are no prizes to be won but you’ll have the ultimate satisfaction of knowing that your skills have been recognised and it’s a chance to dip into some fresh genres.
How to Take Part
You don’t need to be a professional photographer or a Nikon user to take part in Pro Academy, and don’t feel shy about sending in the best shot you’ve been able to achieve, even if it’s perhaps not up to the high standards of the work you can see here. It’s all about learning and rest assured we will be making allowances for newbies! Enter your photo below by clicking on the green submission box.
Challenge number Six
WHILE WE CAN ALL marvel at the quality of shots sent back from the likes of the Hubble Telescope, clearly there is no way that anyone earth bound can hope to match them. That said, there are highly proficient amateur astronomers who have managed to produce stunning images of distant galaxies using gear that would be accessible to many of us, but you can also look to join in by shooting more straightforward subjects, such as the Moon, which can be equally photogenic.
Also look at techniques such as star trails, which Neil is explaining in his technical tips this month, while those who can find a patch of dark sky – and there should be somewhere within striking distance, even if you live in the middle of town – can look to shoot pictures that reveal the staggering beauty of a night sky.
Technical Tips with Neil Freeman
WHILE HAVING STARS becoming elongated streaks rather than point light sources will be something generally to avoid, you can actually look to make an eyecatching feature out of the movement of the stars, creating a dynamic circular light trail if you set your exposure for long enough.
“You need to find a suitable patch of sky for this technique to work well,” says Neil. “Ideally it will be an area of dark sky, though you can get good results nearer to towns so long as the light pollution isn’t too bad. You should also avoid such things as a street lamp or flight path, and you could get caught out by satellites or even the ISS heading across the sky during your exposure. These will create straight lines across your circle if included.”
The camera needs to be mounted on the steadiest tripod you can find, ideally made even more secure with some extra weight attached to the legs. Then you need to fit a wide and fast lens – the Nikkor 14mm f/2.8D ED or Z Series 14-30mm f/4 S lens would be perfect – and set an ISO of between 1600-2000. Don’t let your lens focus on infinity because it will tend to go beyond that, meaning the result will be soft. Choose manual focusing and focus instead on a point light source around 100 feet away, and then you should be covered.
“You need to locate the North Star, known as Polaris,” says Neil, “and centre your composition on this. Aim for an overall exposure of around three to four hours, and during this time you’ll need to shoot a succession of 30-second exposures at one-second intervals. It can be done by hand but of course this would be tedious, and most advanced cameras will feature an interval timer in their shooting menu. If it gets cold overnight, you’ll have to wrap a USB-powered lens warmer around your lens to prevent condensation from forming.
“Once you’ve finished your exposure, you’ll need to upload your files – and there could be 300-400 of them – to your computer and crunch them together. There’s a free-to-download software package called StarStax that will do the job for you and you can achieve some fantastic results this way.”
Learn with the Nikon School
WITH MANY OF its courses now online, training via the Nikon School really is open to everyone, with a wide range of well-priced learning available to photographers at all levels and using any brand of equipment – although Nikon users will get particular value from the content. Head to the Nikon School website to take a look at what’s on offer and to see what you could sign up for, with everything from lighting technique through to running a digital darkroom, mastering as particular piece of Nikon gear, filmmaking and even one-to-one tuition all available, along with location courses and experience days in the UK and overseas
Submit your photograph here.
Göran Strand Astro Specialist
Each month, we’ll feature a top professional from the genre we’re covering to get some idea about what they find so compelling about their chosen speciality.
A long-time Nikon user, Göran started out with a D70 and, after being a DSLR user for a number of years, he’s now working with the D850, Nikon’s astro optimised camera the D810A and the Z 6II, and he’s now become a Z Creator. Favourite lenses for astro photography are his Nikon Z 14-24mm f/2,8 S, 24-70mm f/2,8 S and 70-200mm f/2.8 VR S, while he’s using a Leofoto Mr. Q LQ-284C tripod with a LH-30 ballhead and a Leofoto LM-323C with a NB-40 ballhead to ensure stability. He also carries a motorised mount and tracker, the Sky-Watcher AZ-EQ5 GT Pro mount and iOptron SkyGuider Pro.
GÖRAN HAS BEEN working full time as a photographer for a decade now, and he was lured behind the camera through his love of astronomy. It was natural for him to want to record some of the spectacular sights he was seeing through his telescope, and it led to him buying his first DSLR, a Nikon D70. Working with a digital camera was very much a step forward from film days, since it meant he could now see his results live in the field.
Another big plus point for Göran is the fact that he has the good fortune to live in a country, Sweden, that has relatively little light pollution and the potential for observing one of the greatest astral phenomena of them all, namely the glorious Northern Lights.
“In Östersund, where I live, we experience really dark skies with no or little light pollution,” he says. “That is a huge advantage when doing astro photography since you get much cleaner images and better data to process. And living up north is really good for the Northern Lights: even a night with really low activity can still be visible when you’re at our latitude.
“Because of this I have a wide portfolio of shots of the aurora borealis, and I’ve been able to hone my technique through having the subject on my doorstep. To increase your chance of a good viewing you need to travel to a location with a latitude higher than 60 degrees. Also, you need to be working with a very sturdy tripod and, because strong and active Northern Lights are really huge in the sky – sometimes covering 180-degrees – you should look to work with a wide angle or even a fisheye lens.
“As for the exposure time required, it all depends on your location and the brightness of the Lights, but usually an exposure time of around 5-15 seconds and an ISO of 800-1600 will be a good start. Take some test exposures at the start of your shoot and then adjust your settings depending on the situation.”
Astro photography is a genre where you’ll get a lot more out of the experience as you explore your subject, and Göran recommends reading up on the object or phenomenon you’re aiming to photograph since it makes it much more fun knowing what you’re looking at. “It also makes sense to follow astronomical news,” he says, “since you can get a heads up on upcoming events in the sky. As an example, a couple of years ago I read that a very distant quasar was visible, and I eventually got a picture of it. Not such a beautiful photo – just a bright dot – but the light I captured had been traveling for eight billion years before it reached my camera, which was crazy trying to get my head around.
“To achieve great astro imagery I would say that patience is the most important thing required. I often see photographers giving up because they don’t achieve the results they want or expect. Using a motorised mount and a telescope takes some time to master, but stick with it and eventually you’ll be rewarded.”
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