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Shooting stars: Tips for photographing the night sky

An image of the Acadia National Park coastline in moonlight taken by Howie Motenko of Acadia Photo Safari.
An image of the Acadia National Park coastline in moonlight taken by Howie Motenko of Acadia Photo Safari.Howie Motenko

“Capturing the night sky requires some extra gear and a few techniques,” says photographic artist Howie Motenko of Acadia Photo Safari in Maine. Here are some general tips to get you started in astrophotography.

Gear

  • A camera with manual settings (a DSLR — digital single lens reflex): You’ll get a better result than you will with a smartphone.
  • A wide lens (to capture more of the sky/stars)
  • A fast lens (the larger the aperture, the better)
  • Tripod
  • Cable release (optional)

Camera settings

  • If you’re not using a cable release, turn on two-second shutter delay.
  • Turn on long exposure noise reduction.

Exposure settings (in manual mode)

  • Start with 30 seconds and decrease if there are star trails.
  • Open up your aperture, set to the lowest f-stop.
  • Start with a high ISO, around 3200.

Subject

  • The Milky Way (and galactic center), most often photographed, is in the southern sky.
  • For star trails increase your exposure time — “anything from 10 or 15 minutes to 180 minutes or more, depending on the length of star trails you want in the picture” — and point your camera toward the northern sky for circular patterns.
  • Including a foreground element adds to the overall composition.

Best timing

  • Look for clear, dark skies. Aim for the least amount of light pollution, away from large cities.
  • In New England, wait about 90 minutes after sunset for the sky to become dark enough to photograph the stars.
  • The darkest skies are during a new moon (no moon).

Moon considerations

  • Photograph the moon during its quarter moon phase to accentuate the craters.
  • The full moon rises just as the sun sets, so that’s the time to place the moon in your landscape low on the horizon with a strawberry glow.
  • If you’re feeling adventurous, experiment capturing landscape images illuminated by the full moon.

Handy app

  • The PhotoPills (www.photopills.com) app is a cool tool for understanding sunrise, sunset, Milky Way times and dates, and more. “I think of it as the Swiss Army knife of astrophotography and landscape photography,” Motenko says.



Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at bairwright@gmail.com