Category Archives: Basics

Cable Releases – Demystified

Overview

A cable release is one of the most essential pieces of equipment to use for astrophotography. There are several types of devices which you can use. These devices include Cable Release, Intervalometer, wireless triggers and homemade solutions. This article will focus on some of the types of cable releases.

Why is it important?

You would use the remote camera trigger to trigger your shutter without you touching the camera (avoiding camera shake), and to control the exposure time (ranging from a couple of seconds to a couple of hours). All these solutions allow you to remotely trigger the camera’s shutter in BULB mode.

Types of Devices

Intervalomter
Remote Release
Intervalometers allow you to set the duration, ISO, Shutter Speed and Aperture for the camera on the device
Wireless remote device to trigger the shutter. You can connect this via the camera’s Infrared or WIFI connection
Cable Release
App from PlayStore or Apple Store
Device which is connected to the camera via a wire to trigger the shutter
Example:
If you camera have WIFI then I would suggest trying different APP’s to trigger your camera

 

What do you do if you’ve forgotten it?

TIP: If you’ve forgotten your remote trigger or cable release then you can do one of three things:
1.       Put your finger on the shutter for one hour – ouch
2.       Take an elastic band and an eraser (rubber) and rig the eraser on top of the shutter button
3.   Take masking tape and a small round rock and rig it on top of the shutter button

How do you do: Light Painting

I would recommend to perform light-painting on one of your photographs. Light painting is the technique where you control the amount of light entering the camera which are emanating from an external source like a flashlight.

The major benefits is light painting is that you can add depth and control the shadows in ypur photographs. You control as well where in your scene the light must be pointed and what must be illuminated in your scene  that you have an photograph in which the foreground is perfectly exposed. If you do not use light painting thn your foreground will look black with no details, and if you overdo light painiting then everything comes out white, the trick is to practice to get te right amount of light.

1.1.1          Technique

I would suggest to carefully lighting the scene. You can do this by diffusing the light by standing far away from your subject, and flashing the light over the subject from different angles. Be careful of using too much or too little light. If you use too much light then your scene will be too white and harsh and when you use too little light your foreground scene will be too dark. Be careful of using too much light from the back of your camera as this will create a too harsh scene with too much light, but rather try and light your scene from the sides, and other angles.  Use matches as well to create a warmer feeling to your photograph, and do not stand too close to your subject, rather stand further away. Do not use a too bright light as this will easily cause overexposure. Be careful not to shine light from both sides as this will create fuzzy shadows. Use a white and red light for effects.

Direction
Painting Time
Keep Moving:
45 degrees to left OR right side do NOT shine light head on.
Paint no more than 10 seconds in 30 seconds photo.
Keep your lights moving like a paintbrush over the scene
Test Test Test
Indirect lighting:
Distance
Always take test photo and evaluate exposure
Shine through hand, matches or from sides. Bounce light off other surfaces
Not too close, around 10 meters behind scene
Don’t Overexpose
Not on Lens
Speed
Don’t shine the light source too long on your scene.
Don’t shine the light on your lens as this will cause flares.
Paint light slowly over scene (no longer than 2 second illumination at a time).

1.1.2          Light Painting Sources

Flashlight
Matches
Hand
You can use a torch to highlight your foreground landscape when you start taking your photograph.
Strike matches every 5-10 seconds in a 30 second photo to create a warm looking photo
Shine a light through your hand to diffuse some of the harsh light onto your scene

Light Pollution and Low Light Photography

Overview

Light pollution is one of the biggest drawbacks of taking Star-Trail photographs. Light pollution is one of the biggest drawbacks of taking low light photography. Light pollution comes from cities, street lamps, moon and sun. There are other sources of light pollution as well, but I will be focusing on the primary sources in this article.
 

Types of Light Pollution

Light pollution is one of the biggest drawbacks of taking Star-Trail photographs. Light pollution comes from cities (Street Lamps) lights which are on at night, the moon (especially full moon) the sun (glow of the sun after sunset on the horizon). Thus to counter light pollution you have to seek the darkest skies, when there is a new moon (or 60 minutes after moonset), away from the city, be 90 minutes after sunset and a few clouds (clouds can reflect sunlight as well, and Winter is usually best for this kind of photography due to there not being a lot of clouds).

Light Pollution Source
Description
Image
SUN
The sun is obviously one of the biggest sources of light-pollution in your photographs. Even after the sun is setting can the glow of the sun affect your photograph, even after sunset.
TIP: Star shooting at least 90 minutes after sunset
Moon
The moon causes a massive amount of glow in the sky, especially when it is full moon, and will definitely block most of your visible stars in your photographs.
TIP 1: Photograph on a new moon
TIP 2: Photograph 60 minutes after moonset
 
 
Street Lights
Street lights or any sharp lights can interfere greatly with your photograph, and reduce the amount of stars you can see. But you can incorporate it into your photograph as part of the composition, or use the appropriate settings to minimize the effect of the glow from street lights.
 
TIP 1: Be as far away as possible from Street Lights
TIP 2: If not possible use the correct settings for Time-Lapse Star trails and make it a feature of your photograph.
City Glow
Glow from a city will as well reduce the amount of stars you can see.
TIP: Seek the darkest skies for taking Astro-photos

 

How to Compensate for Light Pollution

Increase your aperture

The mid-range f-stops are ideal for shooting photos at night in light polluted skies. The lower numbered f-stops produces too much light, the upper numbered f-stops produced too little light and too little star details. Use ISO 6400 (drawback is too much noise in photograph) and tungsten white balance for all the photos. The ideal range thus for colours in relation to star details were between f/8 and f/13 as seen in the next composition.

Exposure to the Right (ETTR)

Overview

Exposure to the right (ETTR) is a method whereby you overexpose your photograph in light polluted skies and then modify the exposure in a software program to reduce the over exposure to normal levels. By using the correct settings you will be able to capture more star details in your photographs.

How to do it

Make sure you photograph in RAW mode for this method. Set your Camera’s EV to +2 (2 stops brighter), ISO to 1600 and shutter speed to 30 seconds. This will cause the photo to be overexposed. Open the photograph in Light Room and start modifying the exposure to be more darker (back to normal EV 0 level), can modify the contrast as well to try and remove the overexposed bits in your photograph.

I personally do not use this method: as I like to use the photographs as natural as possible with as little editing as possible, but you are welcome to try it. 

Conclusion

Do not be perturbed if you cannot take stunning photographs in Light polluted skies. As indicated in this article: there are many ways in which you can overcome light pollution by using the correct settings with regards to ISO, Aperture and ETTR methodology.

Happy Shooting!

Required Gear/equipment for Low Light Photography

I re-looked at this article – because I realised there were some equipment or suggested equipment missing from my original list. I wanted to expand as well on some of the equipment needed. (Plus I got a little bit side-tracked, and included a different subject as well into the original article. 

1.1       Overview

The following article will show you: what is the essential and required equipment to take photographs of the night time sky. This article focuses on DSLR required equipment and not telescopes..

1.2       Essential Equipment

The first step in taking great astrophotography photographs is to obtain the correct gear and software. The following table indicates the required gear and software with a short description of each: 

1.3       Required Gear

The first step in taking great lightning photographs is to obtain the correct gear and software. The following indicates the required gear and software with a short description of each:

1.3.1         A DSLR Camera

You will need a DSLR camera with Manual capability.

Manual capability will allow you to set the ISO, shutter speed and aperture. Ensure that your camera can operate in low light, and that it has adequate noise filters and ability to handle high ISO values. I personally prefer using Canon cameras. 

You must be able to set the following on your digital camera:
·         ISO,
·         Aperture,
·         Shutter speed,
·         Noise Reduction,
·         White Balance,
·         Delay, and
·         Continuous shooting 

1.3.2         A Wide angle Lens

You will require as well a good lens with the ability to set it to manual focus. Manual focus is required because the camera will not have the ability to focus automatically, and you would use manual focus to focus your star to pinpoint sharpness. It would be good if your lens has the ability to have fast-aperture wide-angle lens (ideally in the f/1.4 – f/2.8 max aperture range). I like to shoot in the 18mm range, and any lower mm range would be brilliant, as you would like to shoot as much as possible of the stars.

Obviously if you want greater quality photos then you should use a prime lens. I have two which I use with great success: 24 mm pancake lens and a 50mm nifty fifty lens. The reason why I use a lot my 18mm lens it to show the audience that low-light photography can be done with any kind of lens.

A lot of people believe that you should take low-light photography with a wide aperture (low f for example f/1.8) but in my articles I’ve demonstrated as well that if you find your “sweet spot” in the middle ranges then you still can have awesome photos.  

1.3.3         A Sturdy Tripod

You would require a sturdy tripod due to you shooting long exposures. Ensure as well that your tripod which will not shake when there is some wind.

Ensure as well that your tri-pod’s head can rotate horizontal and vertical. This will enable you to take landscape or portrait photographs.

Check as we how you mounted your camera onto the Tri-Pod. You may need to change batteries during your photography session, and if the tri-pod mount is situated in front of the battery door then you will have to move the camera’s direction, and trust be you will never get the exact same direction of your camera again. When you mount your camera onto the tri-pod mount: leave space open for you to open the battery door. 

I have 2 tri-pods, I use the first a sturdy tri-pod when shooting close to home, and have a travel-tripod. The travel tripod is lighter so that it does not take too much space in my suitcase – but it is sturdy enough that it does not oscillate in the wind.
 

1.3.4         A remote camera trigger

You would use the remote camera trigger to trigger your shutter without you touching the camera (avoiding camera shake), and to control the exposure time (ranging from a couple of seconds to a couple of hours). There are three devices which you can use:
·         Cable Release,
·         Intervalometer, and
·         McGyver style fix 

1.3.4.1           Forgot it – what now

TIP: If you’ve forgotten your remote trigger or cable release then you can do one of three things:
1.       Put your finger on the shutter for one hour – ouch
2.       Take an elastic band and an eraser (rubber) and rig the eraser on top of the shutter button
3.       Take masking tape and a small round rock and rig it on top of the shutter button
These solutions are not elegant but it works. 

1.3.5         Flashlight

Ensure that you take along a good flashlight and headlamp. You will require the headlamp to see where you are going and to see the back of the camera when setting up. The lamp will as well be used to perform focusing your camera at low-light conditions.

1.3.6         Extra Batteries

Always take extra batteries with you, as taking photos over a long time period will drain your owner, and it will be a pity if you have to stop shooting because you do not have enough power with you. (No – red bull will not give your camera extra power :-))

You can acquire as well a battery pack to assist you, so that you do not have to change batteries yourself. The battery packs usually contain two batteries. 

1.3.7         Extra Memory Cards

Always take along an extra memory card, especially if you shoot in RAW mode. Raw mode always eats up a lot of storage space, so it is better to have extra memory cards in your repository. 

1.3.8         Chair

To have something to sit-on during the process – I would suggest using a light chair which you can carry everywhere. 

1.3.9         Patience

You would require a lot of patience capturing the perfect shot 

1.4       Conclusion

This section showed you what is the required equipment to take photographs of the stars. Some of the equipment can be quite expensive, thus be patient and obtain all these items slowly, and always watch for specials.

 

How to compose for low-light photography

Overview

Compositions are one of the most important parts of shooting a photograph, and thus plan your photograph, and this will make the difference between a good photo and an awesome photograph.

 

Ensure that you include as much as possible sky into your photograph; this will ensure that the primary focus of the photograph is on the star trails. A good rule of thumb is between 30% and 50% of your photo frame must include the sky. Ensure that your foreground is clear, and not too distracting – but add to the value of your photograph. Lastly make double sure that your horizon is straight, off centre photographs does not look nice, and distract the viewer’s attention away from your subject.

How to Compose

Planning for your shot

Planning your photograph is one of the key things of taking the photograph.

PlanIt! Is the best tool that I have in my repository! With it you can run simulated star trails. View your location or any other location on maps based on terrain, road maps etc. There are too many feature the even star discussing it here, thus check it out. I use this application to check first where I want to shoot and secondly in which direction would be the nicest star trails in relation to your foreground.
Item
Description
Site
PlanIt!
Description
AWESOME tool to provide you anything from milky way centre to star trails simulation
URL

 Be sure to include points of interest in your foreground as this will enhance the visual look and feel of your photograph. Some interesting points I like to include is: Trees, houses, old ruins, mountain silhouettes, rocks and sand and still would like to include deserts. 

During the day

I would recommend that you scout your location first during daylight. During the day you can properly plan your photograph, and see the “lay of the land” This will enable to choose the most optimal site with the most effect for your photograph.

Mount your camera as well on the tri-pod and take a test photograph or two to ensure that you got your desired composition correct. Ensure that you place your tri-pod as well on a solid surface – which will ensure that your photograph comes out very sharp. Another tip is to connect a 2 litre water bottle to the bottom of your tri-pod (there is usually a hook onto where you can connect the water bottle) this will assist your tri-pod to become more stable. Connect as well your cable release, as this will ensure that there is no camera movement when you activate your shutter. Camera movement will cause your photos to display blurry, no matter how well you focus on your landscape and stars.

How do you do: Light Painting

I would recommend to perform light-painting on one of your photographs – so that you have one photograph in which the foreground is perfectly exposed. You can use a torch to highlight your foreground landscape when you start taking your photograph. I would suggest to carefully lighting the scene. You can do this by diffusing the light by standing far away from your subject, and flashing the light over the subject from different angles. Be careful of using too much or too little light. If you use too much light then your scene will be too white and harsh and when you use too little light your foreground scene will be too dark. Be careful of using too much light from the back of your camera as this will create a too harsh scene with too much light, but rather try and light your scene from the sides, and other angles.  

 

Other lines impacting on Star Trails

There are other elements which have an impact on your star-trails photograph by adding “abnormal” or UFO like lines in your photograph. These include: Satellites, Planes, Helicopters, Drones and real life UFO’s (I would be so lucky). You will easy spot these lines in your photograph as they create unnatural lines in the final photograph. 

Light Pollution

Light pollution is one of the biggest drawbacks of taking Star-Trail photographs. Light pollution comes from cities (Street Lamps) lights which are on at night, the moon (especially full moon) the sun (glow of the sun after sunset on the horizon). Thus to counter light pollution you have to seek the darkest skies, when there is a new moon (or 60 minutes after moonset), away from the city, be 90 minutes after sunset and a few clouds (clouds can reflect sunlight as well, and Winter is usually best for this kind of photography due to there not being a lot of clouds).  

What is the correct Aperture to use in Time-Lapse Star Trails?

Overview

There are many articles out there which “tell” you what the correct aperture is to take star trails, but none of them shows you the difference between the different aperture ranges. I set out to take different low-light photographs with different apertures and ISO ranges with my trusty Canon 760D camera. I compiled then three photos which shows the differences between the different f-stops on the photo, and what the impact is on the colour range and amount of detail captured in the photograph.
The three areas which I covered were:
·         Comparison of f-stops on ISO 6400,
·         Comparison of f-stops on ISO 3200, and
·         Comparison of f-stops on ISO 1600
Note: I used the same image and did NOT use any image manipulation to alter the photo in any way (I just “cut-out” the relevant section of each photograph and transposed it onto one photo). I shot these in jpeg mode to ensure as well that I have one photo of each of the f-stops. These photos were taken of my home in a light polluted environment, but this will give you a good indication of what are the ideal settings to use.
 

Comparison of f-stops on ISO 6400

The mid-range f-stops were closer to my personal preference in colours, and the lower numbered f-stops produced too much light, the upper numbered f-stops produced too little light and too little star details. I used ISO 6400 (drawback is too much noise in photograph) and tungsten white balance for all the photos. The ideal range thus for colours in relation to star details were between f/8 and f/13 as seen in the next composition.

Comparison of f-stops on ISO 3200

The lower to mid-range f-stops were closer to my personal preference in colours, and the lowest numbered f-stops produced too much light, the upper numbered f-stops produced too little light (too dark) and too little star details. I used ISO 3200 and tungsten white balance for all the photos. The ideal range thus for colours in relation to star details were between f/6.3 and f/10 as seen in the next composition. 

Comparison of f-stops on ISO 1600

The lower range f-stops were closer to my personal preference in colours, and the higher numbered f-stops produced too little light and were too dark to see any star details. I used ISO 1600 and tungsten white balance for all the photos. The ideal range thus for colours in relation to star details were between f/4 (or lower) and f/7.1 as seen in the next composition.
 

Conclusion

A lot depends on your own preference for colours and amount of star details in your photographs. But when you perform the comparison between the different composite photographs then you will be able to make up your own mind as to which is better, and what kind of look you are going for in your photograph. I would recommend the following settings though:
·         ISO 6400, White Balance of Tungsten and f-stop between f/8 and f13,
·         ISO 6400, White Balance of Tungsten and f-stop between f/6.3 and f/10. and
·         ISO 6400, White Balance of Tungsten and f-stop between f/4 and f/7.1
 
Happy shooting low light photos with knowledge 🙂

Free Tools to Use in Astrophotography

Overview

One of the biggest challenges for taking astrophotography, including Milky Way, Star Trails, Star Freeze and night time scenes is the use of Software Tools to enhance the photo. The following article will cover some of the free software tools to use. If you have more suggestions then please email me and I will add it to this list.
Some of the Tools discussed here is:
·         Software Tools
o    StarStax
o    Google Nik
o    GIMP
o    Paint.Net
·         Android
o    PlanIt!
o    Compass
o    DSLR Remote
o    Sky Guide
o    Sky Map
·         Website Tools
o    Time and Date
o    Light Pollution Map 

Software to Use

StarStax

I use an application called StarStax to compile your hundreds of Time-Lapse star photos (http://skyclik.blogspot.co.za/2016/02/how-to-do-time-lapse-star-trails.html) into one singular photo, which will show you star-trail beautifully.

Once you have downloaded StarStax then follow the following guidelines to compile the photo:
1.        Open StarStax
2.        Click on File -> Open Images menu option
3.        Select your folder where all the photos are
4.        Click on Build->Star Trails menu option
5.        Select the radio button “Lighten-Screen-Blend (LSB without gaps, slower) option
6.        Click on OK
7.        This process should take approximately 5-10 minutes – thus go and have a cup of coffee
8.        When done then save your image to your hard drive
9.        Enjoy your photograph J 

Screen Shot of the StarStax Application:

Item
Description
Site
StarStax
Description
I use StarStax to Stack all the Time-Lapse photos into one brilliant photo.
URL

 

Google Nik

Google changed their Photo Editing Add-Ons and Software package for free. Check it out:
Item
Description
Site
NIK
Description
Google Image Editing Suite
URL

 

GIMP

If you want more control over your photograph then I would recommend using GIMP. GIMP is an open source Photo Editing tool, which rivals the bigger photo editing software’s functionality.

Screenshot of GIMP

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Description
Site
GIMP
Description
Open source Photo Editor
URL

 

Paint.Net

Paint.Net has an easy to use software interface which allows you to perform Auto-Level, Brightness/Contract. Curves, Hues/Saturation and a host of other filters. I enjoy Paint.Net to due to its “Live-View” of the adjustments you are making to your photograph.

Screenshot of Paint.Net

 

Item
Description
Site
Paint.Net
Description
Microsoft Advanced Paint Editor
URL

 

Deep Sky Stacker

I recently started to use Deep Sky Stacker, which gives you more functionality than StarStax. Thus if you want advanced stacking functionality then I would suggest Deep Sky Stacker. Deep Sky Stacker is greatly used by Deep Sky Objects (stacking multiple photos of e.g. photographing nebulas)

Item
Description
Site
Deep Sky Stacker
Description
Stacking of Deep Sky objects
URL

 

Android Tools

PlanIt!

This is the best tool that I have in my repository. With it you can find the milky wat, Milky Way centre, run simulated star trails. View your location or any other location on maps based on terrain, road maps etc. There are too many feature the even star discussing it here, thus check it out

Item
Description
Site
PlanIt!
Description
AWESOME tool to provide you anything from milky way centre to star trails simulation
URL

 

Compass

I always use a compass to assist me in providing direction and to have a good indication where is South (Plus sometimes use it to get back to my camp site J )
Item
Description
Site
Compass
Description
Used for providing direction
URL

DSLR Remote

I use DSLR remote when I’ve forgotten my Cable Release at home. If your camera supports remote connection then I would definitely recommend this application as a back-up.
Item
Description
Site
DSLR Remote
Description
Remote Cable release functionality on your phone
URL

 

Sky Guide

I use Sky Guide to have a view of the galaxy based on the direction which you point your phone. This is useful to identify where certain stars, constellations and stars of interest are.
Item
Description
Site
Sky Guide
Description
Shows a view of the galaxy based on the direction which you point your phone
URL

 

Sky Map

I use as well Sky Map to have a view of the galaxy based on the direction which you point your phone. This is useful to identify where certain stars, constellations and stars of interest are. (Sometimes Sky Guide or Sky Map does not pick up all the stars, thus I use both applications)

Item
Description
Site
Sky Map
Description
Shows have a view of the galaxy based on the direction which you point your phone
URL

 

Websites

There are several websites which I regularly use, but I use frequently Time and Date’s website to see the different moon phases, and when are the Moonrise and Moonset times. This enables me to plan accordingly.

Time and Date

Time and Date is an awesome website where you can see the moon phases and the moonrise and moonset calendar.
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Description
Site
Time and Date
Description
Shows the moon phases
URL

 
Item
Description
Site
Time and Date
Description
Moonrise/ Moonset
URL

 
Item
Description
Site
Moon Connection
Description
Moon Connection: This site provides a visual interface on the phases of the moon
URL

 

Light Pollution Map

The light pollution map shows you where there is a lot of glare in the sky from the city lights, and where the ideal “dark-skies” is.
Screenshot of Light Pollution Map:

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Description
Site
You can see the Milky Way
Description
Light Pollution Map
URL