Photographing the Night Sky

by Bhaskar Bhowmik
August 28, 2016

Moonlit prairie by Bhaskar Bowmik ©

A) Moonlit Prairie – I captured this image the night before the full moon. I wanted to capture a few of the brightest stars and the brighter parts of the milkyway as well. The moon light made it possible to record the prairie behind the house in great detail but it washed out most of the stars in the clear sky. Nikon D750, 14-24f2.8 @ 14 mm f2.8, ISO 4000 15 seconds

Photographing the night sky is pure joy. But night photography does not have to be just about the starry sky; there are endless possibilities for beautiful images.

I would like to share my night photography experience with the readers. I shoot with a Nikon D750 and use either 14-24mm, 20mm or the 24-70mm lens at night depending on the scene. The AF switch on the camera and the mode dial are turned to manual for night photography and I also switch the lens to manual as I do not like to turn the focus ring when it is at AF-M even though it is okay to do so. To adjust the focus to infinity, I use live view to zoom to a bright star or a light source at a distance and adjust the focus ring on the lens. If stars are in the scene, I use the 500 rule to determine the maximum exposure time for the focal length as I want them to be pinpoints. And I always shoot in RAW format day or night.

simple life on the prairie night photo by Bhaskar Bhowmik ©

B) Simple Life on the Prairie – The same prairie home (Image A) but closer to the new moon. Double the exposure of (image A). All other camera settings are the same. I used a flash light to illuminate the home and the foreground. Nikon D750, 14-24f2.8 @ 14 mm f2.8, ISO 4000 30 seconds.

I do not use the in-camera long exposure noise reduction (it is turned off in the menu settings). I take advantage of the good low noise capabilities of the D750 and shoot at the highest ISO possible without affecting the sharpness and introducing noise.  This allows room for other variables to be adjusted as necessary for the light condition. My objective is to get proper exposure without hitting the max limits of the variables at my disposal (i.e. maximum exposure time, maximum ISO without compromising quality, largest aperture of the lens etc). Under exposed images are noisy, so I check the histogram for exposure and the JPEG for composition, I like the graph to be as much as possible to the middle (not quite ETTR) but certainly away from the far left.

Moonlit River by Bhaskar Bhowmick ©

C) Moonlit River – North Saskatchewan River flooded by moon light. I did not care much about the stars and opted for a longer exposure to smoothen the ripples in the river. I used a lower ISO and the bulb mode for exposure. Nikon D750, 14-24f2.8 @ 14 mm f2.8, ISO 640 104 seconds

Crop duster at night by Bhaskar Bowmik ©

D) Crop Duster – This image was made possible by Anita Erdmann (of the “Lone Tree at Yellowstone NP” fame). Last summer, she drove a bunch of Calgary Camera Club members around to her favourite locations. We were at this airstrip at midnight, she made a phone call and this crop duster was pulled out of the hanger for us to photograph. I have learnt so much from her in the last few years. Illuminating the foreground subject helps to properly expose the image in detail. Nikon D750, 14-24f2.8 @ 20 mm f2.8, ISO 4000 25 seconds

Abandoned Truck at night by Bhaskar Bhowmik ©

E) Abandoned Truck – This image is from a workshop. There is airglow visible in the sky. The foreground is illuminated. Nikon D750, 14-24f2.8 @ 18 mm f2.8, ISO 4000 25 seconds. Nikon D750, 14-24f2.8 @ 18 mm f2.8, ISO 4000 25 seconds.

Iridum flare by Bhaskar Bhowmik ©

F) Iridium Flare – This composite image has light from every imaginable source. The main image provided the mikyway, the iridium flare, the airglow, the light pollution from the city, the light inside the barn. I used the second image for the details of the exterior of the barn and the foreground as it was better illuminated with a flash light. Nikon D750, 14-24f2.8 @ 14 mm f3.2, ISO 4000 27 seconds.

Perseid meteor shower by Bhaskar Bhowmik ©

G) Perseid Meteor Shower – This image is of the Perseid shower. But I missed the peak by 2 days as it was cloudy in Southern Alberta. I only witnessed about a dozen very faint meteors and three bright ones in about 3 hours. In this image we can see one of the brighter meteors. I am pointed at the radiant and was shooting at ISO 5000 to try to capture the meteors. When I came home, I wanted to see what all I can recognize in the sky, I was pleased to see the double cluster, the Pleiades, Capella and was extremely delighted and surprised to see the Andromeda Galaxy (the bright disc at the top edge directly above the windmill with a bright core). Shooting at ISO 5000 captured the spiral of the galaxy. Nikon D750, 14-24f2.8 @ 14 mm f2.8, ISO 5000 30 seconds.

Meteor over barn by Bhaskar Bhowmik ©

H) Lone Perseid Meteor over a barn – This is the 2nd of the 3 bright meteors that I witnessed two days after the peak when we finally had clear sky in Southern Alberta. I used a flash light to illuminate the barn and the foreground. But you will notice that ISO 5000 is not as crisp as ISO 4000. I generally top off the ISO at 4000. For me, anything shot above ISO 4000 are images with something more of interest and not just for the sake of creating a pretty composition. Nikon D750, 14-24f2.8 @ 14 mm f2.8, ISO 5000 30 seconds.

I) Midnight Thunder – I slept through the Canada Day fireworks but my wife woke me up to have a look at the thunder storm that just rolled in. This is a composite made of three images; the main image has the centre of the lightning flash and all of the rest of the image. I captured the left and right flank of the lightning flash in subsequent shots within a few minutes of each other to show the band of cloud. I needed the ISO to be high enough to capture the lightning flash in a very short exposure; but also needed to avoid clipping of the light pollution at the bottom of the sky as I was pointed NE looking into the lights of Calgary. Nikon D750, 24-70f2.8 @ 24 mm f7.1, ISO 2000 4 seconds.

For D750, ISO 4000 is the magic number for night photography; the image quality is great up till ISO 4000, going any higher starts to compromise on sharpness and detail. So you need to experiment and find the maximum ISO on your camera where sharpness, detail and noise levels are satisfactory. Set the ISO to that number and allow the camera to capture as much light as possible within the limits of the maximum exposure time with the largest aperture you have (some lens may not be sharp at the largest aperture).

*** Very important to remember to get the ISO back down to 100 and undo any other settings specifically changed for night photography, otherwise you will ruin your photographs the next day.


Authors Biography & Contact Information

Bhaskar Bhowmik portrait Bhaskar Bhowmik I live, work and play in Calgary, AB. I travel when time, money and opportunity permits. I first learnt of aperture, exposure and depth-of-field from my father when he explained to me how to take photos with his Twin-Lens reflex SUNFLEX camera. My father had bought that used SUNFLEX TLR camera when I was born. I took many photos with that camera in my teen years but never quite got interested in photography. As the 120 film of the TLR got harder to find, the family resorted to various cheap brands of 35mm film cameras. I enjoy photographing landscapes, nature, abandoned buildings and night sky are my favourites. An occasional critter, fireworks and cityscape may also sometimes end up in my camera’s memory card.


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