Wilderness Photography: The Stars

I’ve been passionate about photography for over a decade. And, It was the desire to take photos of nature that pushed me to start hiking and ultimately backpacking. Then, when I moved to the United States and didn’t have any furniture, I was so into nature photography that I spent my first paycheck on a DSL camera, the same one I still use.

One of the things that captivated my eyes the first time I went out backpacking was the sight of the stars. Back then, I was a city boy, and even if the luminous contamination allowed me to see anything in the sky, I wasn’t used to looking up. But then, I can’t describe the feeling of awe I had when I saw the night sky in the middle of nothing. I could see the milky way with my bare eyes. Back then, I had one hiking pole that could double down as a monopod; I plugged my camera in it and attempted my first long exposure shot with the camera supported by my tent and my pole. I tried at least 50 photos before I could get a crisp image.

This post will summarize the technique I use to capture night shots, the equipment I have, and what to consider when attempting these shots. Let’s get cracking!

A view of the night from one of the shores of Yellowstone Lake, Yellowstone National Park.

First, we need to consider the camera body. You don’t need an expensive body but something that allows you to go to full manual mode and control all the basic parameters. The only consideration is whether to go with crop or full-frame. A full-frame camera will capture more of the sky, but a crop frame will do the job if your budget doesn’t allow it.

Second, tripod. The second most essential piece of equipment after the camera body is the tripod to place your camera. Many of the backpacker-friendly tripod options available on Amazon won’t add too much weight to your backpack. The budget-friendly option is a bag of beans.

Third, lenses. For the lens, consider what’s called the ‘aperture’ of the lens or f-stop. Aperture or f-stop is a number that tells how much light the lens can let into the camera. The lower this number, the more light the lens can let in. Thus, an ideal lens for taking night photos would have an f 1.4 or 1.8 – prime lenses have this characteristic. I started taking my night shots with a prime 35mm f1.8. I later upgraded it to a prime 24mm f1.8. One thing I find pretty useful and that’s present on two of my prime lenses is a depth of field indicator. Since we will be using full manual mode (including the focus), knowing where the infinity focus point is, becomes very useful to reduce your setup time.

Now we can focus on the technique. Let’s first quickly refresh the fundamental variables in photography.

  • Aperture or F-stop refers to how much light the lens’s diaphragm can let in.
  • Exposure time, it’s the length of time where the camera captures light from the lens.
  • Finally, ISO is the sensor sensitivity; lower values like 100 or so are suitable for when light is abundant and higher values when light is not.

So, intuitively our night mode will have:

  • A wide aperture (low f value).
  • Long exposure time.
  • High ISO

Additionally, the camera won’t manage to auto-focus, so focus should be manual and set to infinity.

The milky way from the John Muir Trail in California

Let’s now look at the dial-in procedure in your parameters; it might take several attempts until you get a crisp photo of the stars.

  • Find a subject to photograph with the sky as the background. This subject could be a mountain, some trees or a person. You can shoot the sky directly, but I found it challenging to get a good composition with the stars alone.
  • Switch to manual focus mode and move it to infinity. Some lenses have a depth indicator. In my lens, you have to turn it to the left all the way, then back up just a bit. Once you have the other parameters dialed, you can fine-tune your focus.
  • With your camera in full manual mode, set your parameters.
    1. F1.8, or 1.4.
    2. Exposure time 10s
    3. ISO 4000
    4. Use raw capture mode.
  • Begin taking pictures and fine-tune. If it’s too bright, consider reducing the ISO first then the exposure time. If it’s too dark, consider increasing the ISO first and then the exposure time.
  • Once the sky looks with the right light, zoom into your photos and check for focus, make micro-adjustments to it until the stars look sharp.
  • Fine-tune your composition.

Some final considerations:

  • The earth rotates (duh), so the longer your exposure time, the more stars will look like lines instead of dots.
  • Higher ISO values come with a sacrifice in image quality. Therefore, you will have to balance your ISO and exposure time to get your desired image.
  • Wind or other factors like your fingers might shake the camera, tricking you into thinking that the camera is out of focus. Take a few pics before refocusing.

That’s it! Night photography is surprising and satisfying. Even though it requires some in-depth technical knowledge about your camera and some specialized equipment, you might be surprised to learn all the things your eyes cannot observe directly. So have fun, and if you have questions, please write them in the comments below.

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