Wednesday, May 29, 2013

NightScape Photo Recipe

Milky Way over String Lake, Grand Teton NP. Canon 5DM2 • 15mm f/2.8 Fisheye • 30" @ f/2.8 • ISO 6400 ~ © Royce Bair

I am constantly asked to supply a simplified, step-by-step list of "ingredients" necessary to create my style of astro-landscapes (NightScapes), so here goes:

Your best photos of the Milky Way are taken without the moon present, and between 2 hours after sunset and 2 hours before sunrise.
1. Set your camera on a tripod.
2. If you have a remote release, use it. Otherwise, you can use your self-timer to set off the shutter (set it for the 2 seconds delay instead of the normal 10 seconds).
3. Turn your lens to manual focus, or shut auto focus off (otherwise the camera goes crazy trying to focus in the dark).
4. Set your focus manually to infinity. Check the accuracy by auto focusing on an infinity subject in the daytime, marking the position on the lens barrel, and returning the lens to manual focus (you can tape the position down as a precaution). You can also use your camera's "live view" function to manually focus at night on the brightest stars (enlarge the image on the LCD monitor for accuracy). Note: your camera has a one to two seconds video feedback delay (depending on the brand and model), so fine-tune the focus slowly.
5. Set your camera mode to manual (usually "M" on most cameras).
6. Select the highest ISO you have (but no higher than 6400).
7. If you have a prime wide-angle lens with a fast aperture, use it. Otherwise, zoom to the widest angle of view.
8. Set your shutter speed to 30 seconds. This is the longest exposure most cameras will give you without going to "B" for "bulb" ("B" does require a remote release).
9. Set your lens aperture ("F" stop) to the widest aperture (smallest number), which is usually f/3.5 (f/2.8 is better, but f/4 is acceptable). Here are good starting point combinations:
          f/2.8 - 30" - ISO 6400
          f/2.0 - 30" - ISO 3200
          f/1.4 - 30" - ISO 1600
          f/3.5 - 30" - ISO 6400 (-0.5 EV)*
          f/4.0 - 30" - ISO 6400 (-1.0 EV)*
          f/3.5 - 30" - ISO 3200 (-1.5 EV)*
          f/3.5 - 30" - ISO 1600 (-2.5 EV)*
*These underexposures are not optimum, but are usable by compensating in post production.
10. Set your White Balance (WB) to Tungsten or Incandescent (on most cameras this is the symbol of a light bulb, also called "indoor"). If you prefer a numeric Kelvin setting, use 3500K, 3200K or 3000K (the lower numbers will give your sky a cooler or bluer color). My favorite numeric Kelvin setting is 4000K. I believe this produces a more natural sky that is still cool, but not quite as blue. This also works well when mixed with 3200K light painted foregrounds. Some people prefer an Auto or Average (AWB) white balance setting if they have a lot of post processing experience. Auto or Average will give you a dark gray colored sky (you can change this to a more colorful sky in post production using Photoshop, Adobe Elements, or Lightroom).
11. Frame the Milky Way or several interesting star constellations, (try to silhouette an interesting foreground subject) and take your shot. Light painting the foreground can add even more interest to the composition.
12. Composing in the dark can be difficult. If you have an ISO higher than 6400, use it to shorten your exposure times so you can review your composition on the LCD monitor much quicker. Be sure to return to the lower ISOs (6400 or lower) for your final exposures.
13. Fine tuning your exposure: The more light pollution (from artificial lights or the moon), the more you can reduce your exposure by lowering the ISO (one stop or more).
14. Fine tuning your image: You'll notice that 30-second exposures will have some star trailing (blurring) when the images are enlarged, unless you are using an ultra-wide angle lens (i.e. 114º or wider). You can eliminate this slight blurring by reducing your exposure time to 15 seconds (and compensate with wider apertures or higher ISOs). This technique is a simplified version of the "600" or "450" rule.
For hands-on instruction, visit my workshop page on

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  1. Thank you for taking so much time to craft this information for all of us. It is greatly appreciated.
    Happy sky watching!
    Linda Paquin

  2. Thank you, Royce

  3. Very helpfull, thanks
    Mary Lue

  4. Can you recommend something like Photo Pills for Android? I forgot to ask that question during your excellent presentation at the Tacoma Mountaineer's Club on Friday night.