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Landscape Astrophotography - Before the Big Night Out (2nd post in the series) by Darryl Van Gaal

So you've decided to try your hand at capturing the night sky.  You have hopes of capturing that "keeper" that you can proudly display on your living room wall.

Here is where I can save you a bit of disappointment.  Disappointment in what you envision as the "perfect" image, and disappointment in your technique.

The first thing I'd like to point out is what your finished product is going to look like.
Many, MANY of the landscape astrophotographs that you see online are composites.  By composites I mean that they are composed of two separate images that are photographed at totally different locations, or that are photographed at the same location, several hours, or even several days or months apart.  The photograph below is an excellent example of this.  The image of the landscape is from a friend of mine, the night sky was taken from one of my photographs.  Although I don't mind, and will occasionally employ this technique, I will take to task any "photographer" that tries (and usually are successful at) misrepresenting it as a single capture.  My personal feeling is that misleading people like that is what has led to the whole "Photoshopped" comments and general distrust of photographers.  It's not that it isn't beautiful, quite often they are stunning works of art.  The question arises around honesty.  I believe that it is important to maintain integrity as a human being and be forthright about your images is part and parcel to that.

Hopefully I've not discouraged your excitement about landscape astrophotography.  The intent is to temper your expectations of what you will achieve as a beginner.

Now that that is out of the way.  We'll get down to it.  Let's get you ready for your big first night out.

I'll attempt to guide your through some steps that will make that "first shoot" more successful than what it would otherwise be.


Your Pre Scout is where you figure out a semi solid plan to your night shot.
This isn't just a matter of driving around and finding something that will look good with the night stars (although that is part of it).  Even before you leave your house you should pay very close attention to certain events here on earth such as the following;

What phase is the moon in -
The moon is nothing more than a huge rock that reflects a TON of light from our sun.  When the moon is beyond a quarter, the light from the moon will drastically affect how many stars you can see.  During a full moon, all but the brightest stars are washed out.  On the other hand, the more full a moon is, the brighter the landscape will be.

Rise and set times of the moon - 
With proper planning you may be able to create a perfect composite on the same night this way.  Lets say that the moon is rising (in the east of course) at around 11:00pm.  You can set up at your location and shoot the night sky at around 10:30pm before the moon rises and then simply wait for the moon to rise and provide nice lighting for the landscape.  This is a "trick" that many composite photographers employ.  I would suggest that, if you decide to use this method, to use a lower ISO for the landscape and thus reducing the noise.

Don't make the same mistake many others have, pay particular attention to the rise and set times.  The reason I say this is because quite often people will look at a chart and it will state the following (just an example).

October 13, 2013 -  Moonrise 3:36 pm - Moonset 1:27 am 

knowing this all powerfull data they head out and set up the shot with intentions to grab a landscape shot prior to moonset and grab the sky a while after.  They will head out at 11:50pm on October 13th and arrive at there location about one hour later thinking "Great, only 27 mins until the moon sets".  They set up the landscape shot and get a good one.  Then they wait for the moon to set.
They look at a watch and think "the moon seems a bit high to be setting in less than a half an hour'....... Sure enough 1:27am passes by and the moon is still relatively high in the sky.  Now the same person thinks "geez, that's the last time I use that website for moonset times"......  In fact, the moon doesn't dip below the horizon until 2:37am.

What Happened?????   Ok, this is where you must pay particular attention and perhaps clear your head.  This can be confusing for some people.

  • Looking at the Moonset time on October 13th we see that the moon was due to set at 1:27am
  • You left your house at 11:59pm on October 13th expecting the moon to set at 1:27am
  • What you forgot to remember is that after Midnight it became October 14th, on the 14th the moon wasn't due to set until 2:37am.
For those making sounds like Homer Simpson, don't feel badly, when I first started out I made the same mistake.

pumpkin field by moonlight

Know Where the Stars are Located -
If you have intentions to photographing the Milky Way, or a particular constellation like Orion ass seen in the lower left of the image above, you should have a basic understanding of things like the direction that you will be photographing and where the stars will be located at a particular time of night.
Don't be discouraged, it isn't a task that requires you to be a member of Mensa.  There are many freeware programs out there that will help you get the information you require.  +Stellarium is a great program that I would suggest to anyone.  I have another post about Stellarium located here.  Stellarium will allow you to set the time of day and where on earth you are.  You can then use the time of day to find out what will be in the sky when you want to shoot, or you can use it to find where the Milky Way will be located on a particular day and a particular time.   Armed with these tools you can give yourself a head start on making a great image.

Find that Perfect Landscape -
Here is where each and everyone will differ.  Some like a simple foreground, some like a single focal point, some like a lake or pond in the landscape and some may like distant mountains.  Whatever your preference is this rule applies to you!  Make sure you find your location in daylight.  Please don't go out looking for that location in the dark.  Many people will injure themselves if you don't follow this simple advise.
At night our vision is obviously not as acute as it is in daylight.  All you need to do is miss your footing by half an inch and you can find youself into a pothole, down a steep hill, into a river, or even off the edge of a sheer cliff.  None of the previous options would be much fun!   The way to be safest (you are never 100% safe) is to know your location.  I will do this by pre scouting a location or even going out before the sun goes down.
When you do your pre scout remember to note the locations of dangerous conditions.
If you are shooting in a wilderness location, or a location that you are unfamiliar with, it might be a good idea to talk to some locals about the type of wildlife you may encounter.

Don't Forget to Overdress -
I don't mean to put on a suit and tie, but I do mean to wear appropriate clothing.  Remember that you will be sitting around doing very little.  When you aren't moving, the body doesn't produce as much heat and you will feel cold much quicker.  Your feet, head and hands are the three areas that I would remember at all costs.  Once one of these three are cold, your night is as good as over.  It is always easier to peel off some clothing than it is to try to keep warm.  If possible, taking a portable chair, a sleeping bag and a thermos of hot liquid (or water) will also help keep you comfortable.
If it's the middle of summer you may want a bug suit or some repellent if you aren't afraid of the adverse effects of the contents.

Letting someone know where you will be is also a good idea, just in case something unfortunate does happen while you are out.

This sums up the pre scout section of  "The Beginners Guide to Astrophotography"

First post in the series located here
Second post in the series located here

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