Taking Nightscapes to the Next Level

As night sky photography becomes increasingly ubiquitous, so will these accessories and concepts. Bryan Cogdell explains why devices such as Star Adventurer can take your nightscapes to the next level

Nightscape photography has come a long way. With modern cameras, it has nearly reached point-and-shoot ease and offers endless ways to compose the Milky Way. Photographing under a dark sky reveals a new perspective of the landscape – an ancient bristlecone pine underneath the starry belt of the Milky Way or the famous Tufas in Mono Lake cast in moonlight. The possibilities are nearly limitless. As if that was not rewarding enough, there is much more to see in the Milky Way than a belt of stars. Once you see what your camera can do under a starry sky, you will want to discover how far you can take it.

Most nightscape photos are captured with fast, wide-angle lenses such as a Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 or a Rokinon 12mm f/2. As long as you have a decent tripod, this low-power, wide-angle view is not affected by the apparent motion of the sky. With the quick snap of the shutter behind a wide angle lens, even up to several seconds of exposure, your image will look nice and sharp. That’s the beauty of most nightscape pictures; they are essentially landscape pictures under low light.

When a tripod is not enough
You can get away with photographing the sky with a short and fast lens on a tripod because the zoom level is so low. New cameras have outstanding sensitivity to capture nightscapes without the need to take a very long exposure. However, as you decrease the shutter speed, you will eventually see the stars begin to trail across your images. At any zoom level, short or long, those stars will start to drift and change from pinpoints to oblong streaks of light. The longer the lens, the more sensitive this becomes. This is where attaching your camera to a tracking mount comes into play.

Take your nightscapes to the next level
Your camera is capable of seeing far more depth in the sky than you might imagine. Those little knots and wisps of light in your first Milky Way images really consist of expansive objects – nebulae, star clusters, and dark lanes of star-obstructing dust. Tracking the apparent motion of the sky will remove the limitations of exposure and lens size to reveal these details. In some areas of the sky, your camera will be able to see large galaxies as well – uncovering the universe in truly amazing detail. All it takes to unlock this is a longer lens and a tracking mount for your camera.

The tracking capability of Sky-Watcher’s Star Adventurer extends the potential exposure and lens size of your setup. And because it’s designed to fit your existing photo tripod, it maintains the portability and speedy setup that makes nightscape photography so appealing. This is especially true with the Star Adventurer Mini. I can still carry it along with all my camera gear on a day hike to that perfect location.

If we zoom in on the popular summer Milky Way around the constellation Sagittarius (located in the southern sky for those of us in the northern hemisphere), we start to reveal those patches of light. With a lens approaching 200mm, your photos will start clearly pulling out individual objects, such as M8, the massive Lagoon Nebula or M20, the blue and red Trifid Nebula. When it comes to star clusters, like the big open cluster M7 in Sagittarius, your camera will see far more than just a cotton ball of bluish-white light; hundreds of individual stars will paint the image.

Land, sky or both?
Since the sky moves and the landscape does not, you might have run into the dilemma of what to prioritize. Generally a starry background is the most unforgiving when it comes to tracking errors because star points instantly show any drift, whereas foreground objects can sometimes afford to be slightly soft. I favor the single shot or panoramic stitching approach to nightscape photography where the image represents a single passage of time. In other words, in the pursuit of the ‘realistic’ image I do not superimpose different exposures for land and sky. There is no right or wrong here, but know that the less Photoshop you involve, the easier it will be to get your first results.

Without getting into a tutorial on nightscape photography, I want to share my favorite setting on the Star Adventurer. It has a ½ tracking speed setting which I find brilliant. It’s the best compromise to keep the land and sky in your shot while still buying you more exposure time and lens size. Of course, there are other tracking settings to explore, including higher speeds for creative time-lapse or star trail work.

Ultimately, you are graduating to the next level when you add tracking capabilities to your nightscape setup. You open up the potential of your camera and composition skills. Best of all, tracking with a longer lens pushes the envelope beyond your standard Milky Way shots. I favor the versatility of the Star Adventurer and now the Star Adventurer Mini as the key accessory to unlock this potential. As night sky photography becomes increasingly ubiquitous, so will these accessories and concepts.

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