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Avoid rookie mistakes: Photographing stars correctly

During a daytime photo tour, the hours and minutes can fly by, and all of the sudden it is dark. This seems like a great opportunity for a few night shots with a sky full of twinkling stars. For successful shots of stars or the Milky Way, however, a few things have to be considered.

We will explain to you how to capture an impressive night sky effectively and which mistakes to avoid.

Mistake no. 1: Looking out of the window to get a weather forecast

Almost every passionate amateur photographer is tempted to go outside with their camera when the weather is good. But while nice weather during the day makes for good photos, other factors play an important role in star photography. The moon phase has a decisive influence, since during a full moon, many stars are over-illuminated by the light of the moon. Consequently, the four days before and after new moon are best suited for impressive night shots. You can find out the moon phases by looking at the lunar calendar, which you can find on numerous web pages and apps.

Furthermore, you get a better shot of stars in cold air than in warm air, as it is clearer. After rain, which also provides clear air, there is also a particularly good chance of photographing a beautiful night sky. If, however, cold, clear air is added to a snow-covered area, this can become a problem. The white snow reflects light and the stars in your photo will be hard to see. The months of March to May and September to October are particularly suitable for nocturnal photo tours.

Mistake no. 2: Mysterious astronomy

As already mentioned, it requires some background knowledge about the moon and its phases to catch good conditions for star photography. Knowledge about the constellations and the Milky Way is also very helpful for an impressive image composition. That’s why it’s always useful to bring a star map with you. The most practical way to do so is using an app on a smartphone. For example, the free app SkyView® (iOS / Android) shows both the locations of different constellations and the locations of the sun, moon, planets and even satellites. In addition, this app has a search function that leads you to the specific position of a constellation or another celestial body.

Screenshots der App Sky View: Startbild, Live-View-Modus und Such-Funktion

The image shows the live view mode and the search area of the SkyView® app. The two images in the middle show the current position of the moon and a nearby constellation.

Another very useful app is called PhotoPills (iOS / Android). This app is not free of charge, but offers a lot of helpful functionalities. It gives you exact information about the course of the sun, the moon and the milky way at your specific location, which you can view in Live View mode. The app also shows you the phases of the moon and sun as well as the golden and blue hour. To plan individual photo sessions, you can use a planner that shows you precisely in which hours it is particularly worthwhile to take pictures outside.

Independent of star photography, this app offers a large selection of cameras, so that you can adapt the uses specifically to your own camera. With the help of this tuning, the app can give you numerous tips for different settings options with regards to exposure, depth of field, object distance and much more. For better understanding, the app provides operating instructions and YouTube tutorials.

Screenshots der App PhotoPills: Übersicht der Anwendungen, Live-View-Modus der Milchstrasse, Planer und Startbild

This image shows a short overview of some different uses as well as the course of the Milky Way in Live View mode and the planner in the PhotoPills app.

Mistake no. 3: There are stars everywhere

The statement “There are stars everywhere” is technically true and yet they cannot be admired from everywhere. Especially in big cities there is a lot of light pollution due to the many lanterns, traffic and also the illuminated advertisements of countless shops. This means that it never really gets dark. That is why you should go to a place far away from the city to photograph stars. The less ambient light, the better the conditions for a successful shooting at night. On top of that, a higher point, such as a hill, a mountain or a starting point, helps to get a clear view.

Mistake no. 4: Taking pictures with Autofocus

Before we start with the settings, some questions regarding the equipment have to be answered. Full-format cameras offer the best conditions for taking pictures of the night sky because of their large sensor, which has fewer problems with noise behaviour at high ISO values. However, this doesn’t mean that a good shot cannot also be taken with a camera with a smaller sensor, such as an APS-C sensor.

But the body of the camera does not do the work all by itself. The lens plays a significant role. Above all, the lens should be as wide-angled and powerful as possible and allow an aperture of four or less. Autofocus does not play a role when choosing the lens for star photography, since the focus in star photography is set manually anyway.

Photographs of the night sky are always taken with an open aperture. This means that the smallest aperture available is chosen to capture as much light as possible. The most complicated step is to focus on infinity. With some lenses, the infinity sign is shown directly on the focus ring, which makes the adjustment much easier. If this image is not available, it is possible to focus on a very distant object during the day in order to then place a mark on the lens yourself. This is only possible with lenses that let you rotate the lens ring infinitely, though.

The Live View mode can be useful to check the focus. Since this can be magnified tenfold, it is easier to see whether the point has actually been focused. If this is not the case, you can readjust the focus in a few small steps.

Eine Strasse und ein See bei Nacht. Der dunkle Himmel zeigt die Milchstrasse.

This collage shows two pictures taken at night, in which the Milky Way is perfectly staged. These two photos were taken with a Sony Alpha 7 II and a 24-70 mm Zeiss lens. The following settings were used to take the pictures: Focus on infinity, ISO value between 4000 and 8000, aperture 4, exposure time 25 seconds. ©Andreas Franke – www.andysign-fotografie.de

The ISO value in photography should ideally be kept rather low to avoid noise in the image. When photographing stars, however, you should use quite high values in order to get the best image effect. Depending on the camera model, ISO values between 1600 and 8000 are used. Therefore, it is even more important to shoot in clear air as this reduces noise considerably.

Once all settings have been adjusted, the image can be captured with an exposure time of 15 to 30 seconds. However, do not expose for more than 30 seconds, as the circular stars will turn into stripes. Due to the long exposure time, using a tripod is recommended. In addition, a remote shutter release can be a great help to prevent shaking caused by releasing the shutter.

Mistake no. 5: Only aiming the camera at the sky

The starry night sky and above all the Milky Way are extremely impressive. Nevertheless, a picture that only shows the sky can quickly become boring. The right tension can be created by bringing in other image elements, such as a tree, a street, a building or the silhouette of a landscape.

Silhouette einer Landschaft mit einer Burg unter einem Sternenhimmel und die Silhouette einer Bank unter der sichtbaren Milchstrasse

The photo on the right shows a bench illuminated by the light pollution of a city and the visible Milky Way. This motif shows how the scattered light of a city can be used to design images. ©Andreas Franke – www.andysign-fotografie.de

Conclusion

Photographing the starry night sky involves a number of preparations, but considering them will produce impressive results. So be experimental, play with ISO values and exposure times, and include objects and stray light from streets or cities in your image design. Practice makes perfect.

We would like to take this opportunity to thank Andreas Franke, who not only impressed us with his incredible photos, but also helped us create this article with valuable advice.

Merken

Folders help when sorting out your files

Managing and protecting your photos

Thanks to modern digital cameras and a nearly endless availability of disk space, our computers end up with a lot of photos saved on them. Very often these snapshots are archived and forgotten about while still taking up space on your hard drive. This quickly leads to you losing oversight of all of your photos. With a few simple tricks you can avoid this and you can save your photos from disappearing amongst the chaos. We’ll show you what measures you should take in order to organise and manage your photos in a sensible manner. If you put these tips to good use, you’ll be sure to bring order to the hurly-burly of your photo collection.

Less is more – sorting out unnecessary image files

Your holiday is over and there are countless photos on your camera just waiting to be downloaded to your computer. Thanks to modern advancements in photography and almost limitless storage space, many people tend to photograph the same motif multiple times from different positions and vantage points. Very quickly people end up with a collection of similar photos. But, is it really necessary to save all of them?

Our tip: look at all of your photos closely and decide which ones you really want to keep. Blurry, fuzzy, over-, and underexposed shots can be deleted right from the get-go. You can also immediately delete any photos that just don’t catch your fancy. Deliberate whether the photos might be able to serve a purpose at a later point in time. To go through your photos, you can use a free photo browser such as IrfanView or FastStone Image Viewer. These programs help you save time by showing you thumbnails of your photos with corresponding information and they also allow you to turn your photos around into their correct positions. If you do not wish to install any extra programs, you can also just use the built-in functions of the internal file browser on your computer.

Being organised makes life that much easier – a sensible folder system for your photos

After you’ve sorted through your photos, the next logical step is to save them on your computer. When downloading your photos, make sure to use a detailed file system. This will help both you and others looking at your photos to keep a general overview. Make sure to keep your job-related and personal photos separated. It is also a good idea to create a new folder for photos each year. Collections of photos from a specific event should be sorted into their own subfolder. Here, a combination of dates in year-month-day format and a short description of the photos provide a good title for the subfolder. For instance, for photos from your summer holiday in France in July 2015, you could name the folder something like “201507_Summerholiday-France.” Putting the date in year/month/day format will help keep your photos in chronological order.

If you need to edit your photos at a later point in time, it’s always best to use the raw image files. To keep organised, the raw image files should be kept in a separate folder with a similar folder structure.

A clear and organised file structure for managing your photos

Use names and tags for your photos

You’ll have to decide for yourself if it’s worth your time to rename every single photo. The fact is that this can turn out to be a lot of work when you have a heap of photos to go through. It might be more sensible to use tags. By attaching keywords to your photos, it makes it easy to order photos according to a certain theme. For example, you could tag photos from your holiday in France with the tags “summer holiday” and “France.” If you take photos of some sights, you could add the name of the monument as well as the name of the city where the photo was taken. Tags provide you the advantage of being able to save time by searching through your photo files by just using the corresponding keywords.

Managing your photos – pros and cons of using filing software

Many of the tips and tricks we’ve already mentioned above can be even simpler to implement by using the appropriate software for managing your photos. There are various programs available, either free or for purchase, that can help you. Several worth mentioning are Google’s Picasa, Photoshop Lightroom from Adobe, as well as ACDSee.

The advantage of using this kind of software is that it makes it much easier to keep an overview of your photos. Tagging your photos is made much easier and the integrated search filters provide you with countless ways of searching through your photos. Advanced viewing possibilities allow you to peruse your photos according to the date they were taken or to view them on a calendar. High-quality programmes like Photoshop Lightroom even offer built-in functions to edit your photos. This makes using other photo-editing software unnecessary.

Backing up your photos on an external hard drive, for instance, protects against data loss

Securely store your files – solutions for backing up your photos

Many beautiful memories are attached to our photos. This makes it that much more tragic should some of our photos be forever lost. Photos taken with your smartphone are especially at risk since smartphones can quickly become lost or damaged. In order to avoid losing precious photos, it’s important to think about backing them up. There are numerous ways to do this.

A simple way to backup your photos is to regularly burn them on a DVD and store them in a safe place. With a high number of photos and the constant need to add more photos to your collection, however, this can quickly become a pain and lead to an organisational nightmare. Something else to consider is the fact that fewer and fewer laptops are being manufactured with built-in disk drives, which can make viewing photos saved on a DVD that much more difficult to view in the future.

For these reasons it’s a better idea to backup your photos on an external hard drive which can be kept up to date concurrently with your computer’s files. Yet another possibility for securely backing up your photos is using a cloud. There are many providers that offer free or low-cost online storage space. If you use Picasa from Google, for instance, you can save an unlimited number of photos for free. This kind of method of data backup is one of the most secure and you also have the added benefit of being able to access your photos anywhere an Internet connection is available.

No matter what kind of method you use for backing up your photos, make sure to keep the backed up files up to date. It’s also a good idea to save multiple copies of your most important files. This will help further ensure you don’t lose important data.