Capturing the Stars

By Matt

I made my first attempts at astrophotography nearly two years ago. Landscapes have always been one of my favorite photography subjects. But, I had never tried merging landscapes and astrophotography together. I stumbled across a few photography blogs that gave tutorials on star trail and night sky photography. After reading up on technique and gear, I decided an upcoming group backpacking trip to the Ozark mountains in Arkansas was the perfect opportunity to try it out.

The first night we were blessed with a perfectly clear night sky. Being far away from any major cities or sources of light pollution allowed for a pitch black sky which revealed infinitely numerous and brilliant stars. So far, so good!

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First photo with stars! © Matthew Friesen

I made a few test shots to see what would happen. I read a fair bit about how to photograph the stars before hand, but I ended up doing what I normally do with photography—winging it. Experimentation and learning from mistakes is one of the best ways I have found to improve my photography. Reading alone won’t help much until you put it into practice. You will learn far more from trying and failing, or trying and succeeding.

Looking back at my first few attempts, it is clear that I completely forgot about the whole composition thing. But, I was excited because I had stars in my picture! My wild guess at exposure showed where I needed to make adjustments. I was ready to try for the super-long star trail exposure.

Just before crawling into my 0 degree sleeping bag, I set up the woefully under supported camera on a flexible mini tripod and pointed it towards the tops of the trees and sky. A small piece of bark jammed between the shutter button and a small bungee strap served as a forest version of a remote shutter release. The mirror flipped up and a masterpiece was in the making, so I set an alarm for an hour later to wake up and end the exposure and put the camera away.

As it turned out, my alarm was too quiet because I woke up a while after the planned hour had passed. I rushed to check the camera, only to find it had shut off already. Dead battery. I was too sleepy to worry about blowing my first attempt at star trails I put the camera away and went back to bed.

The next morning I popped in a fresh battery and made two delightful discoveries!

  1. Nikon is brilliant. They made the D700 end the exposure and turn off after saving the picture when the battery died in the middle of the lengthy star trail exposure.
  2. Sleeping past the alarm didn’t ruin the photo, it ended up being exposed quite well. Success!
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Star Trails © Matthew Friesen

I learned so much more by just trying out a new technique and seeing what happened than I ever would have just reading about the technique. Since that first attempt, I have been able to experiment further with much nicer views to compliment the starry skies. Night time landscapes with stars have become one of my favorite subjects to photograph.

The lesson for me from this experience was to just get out there and experiment. There comes a time when you don’t need to read more—you need to take more pictures. You don’t need the fancy new piece of photo gear becuase a chunk of bark and an elastic band might work just as well. If there is a subject you have always wanted to photograph, or a technique you have been meaning to try, go do it!

Photos of the Night Sky:

(Click the image for a bigger view)

One thought on “Capturing the Stars

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