The warm weather of the summer months in North America makes this time of year a perfect opportunity to get outside after dark to photograph the night sky. But more than just pleasant temperatures, this time of year also offers a host of interesting astral subjects to be photographed after dark. Here’s a look at three upcoming night sky events and some advice for making the most of your attempts to photograph them.
Every year, the earth passes through a dusty little debris field left behind by comet Swift-Tuttle. While that description doesn’t sound very interesting, in fact, it’s quite so. This annual event appears to those of us in earth’s northern hemisphere as a beautiful nightly meteor shower, better known as the Perseids. The Perseids peak in early August every year and are best seen (and photographed) far from city lights and closer to dawn. This year’s peak is expected the night of August 12 and the morning of August 13, but for a couple of weeks on either side of that peak, the meteor shower will be readily visible after midnight as they appear to pass through the constellation Perseus.
At its peak, more than 60 meteors per hour are visible. To photograph them, start as you would with any nighttime sky photography and put the camera on a tripod and use a cable release or timed exposure. I don’t find the widest apertures to be satisfyingly sharp on any lens, so I usually stop down one to two stops from wide open and adjust the ISO accordingly such that I can create an appropriate exposure with a shutter speed somewhere between 10 and 30 seconds. The streaking meteors only last a second or two, but with a longer exposure, you’re more likely to capture them. And if you’re really lucky, you’ll capture multiple streaks in a single frame. Choose a wide-angle lens (20mm, or a bit wider, is often ideal) aiming the camera toward the darkest part of the sky—often straight up overhead—or if that’s not producing a satisfying composition, frame a scene that incorporates earthly elements as well. This way, your image of a mountain, lake and night sky is already interesting, and the appearance of the Perseids simply puts it over the top.
The Milky Way
Another summer subject that looks and photographs beautifully on dark nights is our very own Milky Way galaxy. Appearing as a long, beautiful band of light, dark and colorful shapes in the sky, the Milky Way begins to appear in early summer but becomes fully viewable in July and August. It takes a very dark sky to see and photograph the milky way, which will be dramatic in the southern sky as soon as the sun goes down—so long as you’re far from light pollution and far from a bright full moon. The new moons are best because the sky is darkest on these nights, and coming up on August 8 and September 7, this year’s new moons and the days around them make the Milky Way an ideal photographic subject.
The milky way can be photographed with a faster shutter speed since it’s ever-present in the night sky and too long of a shutter speed will create motion blur. Try cranking up the ISO to 6,400 or more as needed, and keep the shutter speed at or below 15 seconds to minimize star trails. As with the Perseids, I suggest an aperture just off from wide open—say, ƒ/2.8 on an ƒ/2 lens—to allow in enough light to keep the ISO from getting too high and the shutter speed too long.
With the Milky Way more than most astral subjects, what you’re really trying to accomplish is a beautiful landscape composition that has an interesting sky thanks to the stars themselves. A blank scene, filled only with sky, won’t work nearly as well as a mountain or desert landscape—or especially a scene with water in the foreground that can reflect the light of the night sky and make the frame that much more interesting—as the glow and color of the Milky Way help the scene to shine. If you’re able, you can also explore opportunities to use flash or continuous light sources to illuminate some of the earthbound objects that inhabit your frame. This could be a flash on a tree or headlights on a bluff. However you choose to do it, this augmented lighting can create some truly unique and very interesting images featuring the Milky Way. Just be sure to avoid getting any of that extraneous light into the camera’s lens during the exposure.
The Full Moon
Two full moons are coming up before the end of summer this year, and they’re both ideal opportunities to make photographs of the moon itself, as well as the night landscape illuminated by a big beautiful lunar glow. The third of four full moons in a season is known as the Blue Moon—which doesn’t actually appear blue—and will happen this year as the sun sets on August 22. The full moon that appears closest to the autumnal equinox in September is known as the Harvest Moon, as the bright light, tradition says, made it possible to gather crops all night long. However, for those of us who aren’t farmers, that bright full moon becomes another opportunity to photograph this ideal subject all night long.
This year’s Harvest Moon will rise in the east on September 21 and travel through the sky, brightly illuminated until morning. These full moons can be photographed with a wide-angle lens as any other compositional element in a nighttime landscape or with extreme telephoto lenses or telescopes to reveal the texture and detail on the lunar surface. A telescope is ideal for enlarging power, but short of that, some amazing images can be made with a 600mm telephoto lens or even a 400mm or less in a pinch. But the longer the lens, the more cropping you’ll have to do to fill the frame with the man in the moon.
Because the moon is acting as a light source, you don’t need to worry so much about having enough light, but rather focusing on sharpness and exposure to capture as much detail as possible. Start with a low ISO, such as 50 or 100, to keep noise to a minimum. Then choose a very sharp aperture—such as ƒ/8 or ƒ/11—and finally, dial in the shutter speed (via trial and error) that makes for the correct exposure. Start somewhere in the neighborhood of 1/125th and adjust from there. And even though the shutter speed may suggest otherwise, definitely put the camera on a tripod and be sure to use a self-timer, mirror lockup or cable release to eliminate any camera movement from the shot. Because of the long lens, the smallest vibrations can have a huge impact on sharpness. For the moon, as with each of the other night sky subjects discussed here, be sure to use manual focus to prevent the camera from hunting for sharpness or adjusting between shots. And if you’re having a hard time seeing it through the viewfinder with your naked eye, try using live view on the camera’s LCD and enlarging it greatly to ensure your focus is tack sharp.