The Night Sky

The night sky is near and dear to my heart. Looking at the night sky is what got me started with photography. When I go on a photo trip I almost always take star shots, at least one. When people see the shots they always ask “how did you do that”. The answer is pretty simple, just point the camera up and let the exposure go as long as you want. There are a lot of different ways to take a shot of the sky; longer exposures for star trails, short exposures for nice pin point stars, moon lit starscapes or even astro-photography where the camera is on a tracking mount that allows you to follow the stars. I do all of these and I thought I would share a variety of night shots taken under a variety of conditions from the pitch black skies of Hawaii’s big Island and Death Valley to Moonlit Yosemite and Artificially lit camp sites. I have included my camera type and exposure settings for each shot to give anyone that wants to give night photography a try a place to start with their cameras.

Monument Valley / Nikon D70, 18mm, f/3.5, ISO800, 6 minutesRitz Carlton in Colorado / Nikon D70, 10.5mm, f/3.5, ISO800, 2.5 minutesDeath Valley, Zabriski Point with Zodiacal Light / Nikon D200, 17mm, f/2.8, ISO800, 10 minutesMauna Kea, Big Island, Hawaii / Nikon D3, 28mm, f/5, ISO 25,600, 30 secondsHilo (L) and Puu Oo Volcano (R), Big Island, Hawaii / Nikon D3, 28mm, f/4, ISO3200, 50 secondsEl Capitan by Moonlight, Yosemite National Park / Nikon D3, 28mm, f/8, ISO400, 7 minutesEureka Sand Dunes in Death Valley with Venus and Jupiter on the left. / Nikon D3, 17mm, f/4.5, ISO400, 30 secondsRacetrack Playa, Death Valley / Nikon D3, 14mm, f/4, ISO3200, 10 minutesAlabama Arch and Mt. Whitney / Nikon D3, 28mm, f/4, ISO800, 20 minutesCamping in Sequioa National Park / Nikon D3, 24mm, f/5, ISO400, 4 minutesRedwoods and star trails / Nikon D3, 24mm, f/6.3, ISO400, 30 minutesMilky Way over Santa Barbara / Nikon D3, 28mm, f/4.5, ISO3200, 30 seconds

Moon over Mt. Whitney / Nikon D3, 24mm, f/5.6, ISO800, 30 secondsCamping in Joshua Tree National Park / Nikon D200, 17mm, f/7.1, ISO100, 10 minutesEl Capitan and the Merced River / Nikon D3, 28mm, f/6.3, ISO1600, 2 minutes

My settings for each photography vary wildly depending on all kinds of factors such as ambient light, sky conditions, foreground subjects, type of stars I am looking to get in the photo or how patient I am. The last one comes into play a lot, especially on cold nights. Night shots can take a lot of time. With the dark frame long exposure noise reduction turned on in the camera, a 20 minute shots turns into a 40 minute waiting game as the camera takes a dark frame of equal length as the light frame. If I am in a hurry and really not looking for star trails but a more static shot, my ISO goes up and my f/stop goes wide open to get as much light into the scene as possible. When I have a landscape scene that has foreground objects or is moonlit I will stop down the aperture to make sure everything stays sharp, but not far enough down to limit how much star light gets in the shot. There are lots of trade offs depending on the conditions. I have figured them at by trial and error and I encourage everyone else to do the same. Night shots are fun and most of the time extremely rewarding. I will leave this post with one last shot showing what is possible when the camera is on a mount that tracks the stars allowing for really long exposures without the trailing stars.

The constellation Cygnus in the Summer Milky Way / Nikon D70, 50mm, f/2.8, ISO400, 20 minutes