Starry Night...

1:24 AM

A few weeks ago I ventured out to two opposite ends of the island of O'ahu where I live to try my hand at photographing the starry night sky.  It wasn't as easy as taking my camera, pointing it to the sky and shooting, however.  There were a few challenges I had to work out so that I could capture the incredibly beautiful night sky.

  • The first of those challenges is light pollution. Any and all lights from the moon, planes, cars, street lights, etc. can cause light pollution that makes it more difficult to see the stars as well as causes light flares in the corners of the frame where the light is closest too.  It definitely decreases the quality of the image so it's wise to find a dark, secluded place to shoot stars from.  Be warned: Dark, secluded places may often mean there is an increase of the criminal element so it's always wise to go with at least one friend because there's safety in numbers. 
  • The second challenge I faced was the sand and wind.  I'm lucky enough to live in one of the most beautiful places on earth, Hawai'i.  With that comes the warm tropical climate, aqua ocean water and white sandy beaches.  The cool breeze that blows gently over the shoreline is often welcome when you're spending the day in the hot sun and water.  When you're trying to shoot photos, it's not as welcome.  The wind blows the sand up and around where you're shooting and if you're not careful, may damage your camera or get stuck in your camera housing or lenses.  It's very important that you practice the utmost caution when shooting at locations where you're exposed to the elements because they can all cause camera wear, tear and breakage.  Getting one of those cheap plastic rain sleeves for your DSLR may be a wise decision because it will help to protect your camera and lens as you snap photos. They run relatively cheap on Amazon, click here to see the DSLR rain sleeves Amazon has available. 
  • The salty sea breeze was the bane to my existence the night I was shooting these photos. I would have a perfectly clean lens one second and in a few minutes, there were specks of salty air and mist covering my lens.  It was quite tedious cleaning it over and over so I suggest getting a good lens pen or cleaning rag so that you can make sure your lens is clean so the shots you get are sharp and there's no decrease in image quality. 

I traveled to three different locations to shoot. The first was at Mokuleia Beach on O'ahu's north shore, the second was Halona Blowhole lookout in O'ahu's southeast shore and the third was between Sandy Beach and Allen Davis on O'ahu's southeast shore.  All three locations had beautiful views of stars and all three had their fair share of challenges but I managed to get a few lovely shots of the twinkling shots of the starry night sky.

Depending on where you shoot, the sky may have a range of purple, red or blue tones. I try to go in the opposite direction of the moon since it's the largest light source that causes light pollution.  If you plan on shooting somewhere that is farther east, you may want to wait until late at night or close to dawn because the moon moves towards the west as it sets.  If you're shooting somewhere closer to the west, shooting right when the sky gets dark may render you the best quality shots because the moon is still rising in the east.  Does this mean west coasters shoot in the early night and east coasters shoot closer to dawn? Not necessarily.  In fact, I live on a small island and depending on the geography where you live and where you plan to shoot, keep in mind where the moon rises and sets in relation to your location so that you can plan accordingly and get the most out of your shots.

Here are a few helpful tips:

  • Use a tripod. It's a MUST have because you need to have a long exposure to capture the full beauty of the starry night sky.  Make sure it's a sturdy one so that if there is wind, it won't fall down and cause your camera to break. 
  • Having a remote (I prefer the kind you plug in), may be quite helpful.  You do not need a remote, however as you can use the timer start so that after you click the shutter and let go there are a few seconds for your camera to stabilize before it takes the shot.  
  • You may want to put your DSLR on mirror lock up mode (if your camera has the option to do so). It further eliminates any possible camera shake that may decrease the quality of your images. 
  • Have a CF or SD card with a lot of memory. I prefer a 16gb or higher card just because these files take a lot of memory and you don't want to be out of memory when the perfect shot presents itself. 
  • Try to wait for any clouds to pass before you snap your shot.  Clouds look like pink or yellow blobs that hide the beautiful starry night sky. In some cases they actually could make a cool effect like it's framing the stars, but I prefer a clear cloudless sky if possible. 
  • Bring a few flashlights.  You may be thinking "ummm I thought you said light pollution ruins the image?" Yeah I said that.  The flashlights can be used to "light paint" any foreground objects/plants, rocks that may look interesting in your shot.  You click the shutter and just take the flashlight or have a friend help you and shine it on the rock or foreground interest and move it to cover any areas you want to show up in your photo.  It can make a really lovely effect if you do it right. 
  • Remember the 600 rule may be helpful to you.  When you're taking photos of the starry night sky you're going to need to have a long exposure to capture the beauty of the stars.  The rule of 600 is basically that whatever focal length your lens is, divide 600 by that length and you have the maximum shutter time for your camera to capture the shot without the stars looking like they're moving and creating star trails. For example, if I'm using a 16-35mm lens at the 16mm end, you will want to take 600/16=37.5 seconds.  This means that the longest I should leave my shutter open is 37.5 seconds. 
  • Depending on your DSLR and it's ISO performance you may need to tweak your settings that work best for your camera.  I have a Canon 5d Mark III that I use for these shots with my 16-35mm f/2.8 L II.  The settings that typically work best for me at 16mm are f/2.8, ISO 1600-2000 depending on the location, and a 30 second shutter speed.  I do this in manual mode but you can also use TV (shutter priority) mode or B (bulb) mode.  

Just go out there, start shooting and tweak your settings as needed.  Youtube is a wealth of information for any photographer, regardless of the skill level.  Google your camera's settings and what other people with your similar camera and lens combo used to get good results.  

Have fun with it and don't get frustrated if you don't strike gold right away.  My images aren't spectacular.  Some caught the tail end of the Milky Way but it's not bad for a first time out.  It's all about trial and error.  The best way to learn is to get out there in the world and start shooting.  It may seem daunting and scary to go out there and take photos when you don't have the knowledge or confidence yet but trust me, practice makes perfect.  All the hours of watching videos online can't compare to getting out there and doing it yourself. Trial and error baby!! 

I hope you all have a lovely weekend and don't forget (if you're in the US) to remember our brave soldiers of today and years past who put their lives on the line for our freedom.  Sunday, November 11th is Veterans Day. Without their sacrifice, we wouldn't live in a free country so let's take a moment to honor them and their families. 


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