Did you know that the next meteor showers will occur from April 16 through April 30? If you're a fan of the Red Planet, you've probably heard that the Mars Close Approach will occur on October 6th, 2020. That's when Mars will be closest to Earth in orbit. According to NASA, Mars' proximity to Earth allows for breathtaking views only once or twice every 15 or 17 years. That's an event worth waiting for.
If you'd like to capture these brilliant night sky events on camera, we've got you covered. Here are four simple ways to take your night sky photography skills to the next level.
Invest in a Tripod
Is it really possible to get smooth hand-held shots of your favorite night sky events? Camera shake is such a common challenge for photographers that the Internet is awash with DIY blog posts on how to reduce it.
Apart from investing in expensive cameras with image stabilization features, what else can you do to take better pictures? If you've ever tried to take a picture with your camera in hand, odds are the images have been less than crisp. There's a simple reason for this. Your camera shutter isn't staying open long enough. When taking photos in dim lighting, the camera shutter needs to stay open longer to let in more light. For the best results, you'll need an exposure time of at least 25 seconds. If you're holding the camera in your hands and can't use a faster shutter speed due to dim lighting, a tripod will help.
This tool is one of the best investments a night sky photographer can make. By stabilizing your camera with one, you can significantly increase the exposure time without fear of turning out blurry images. This simple change can result in stunningly clear photos, and it'll also let you create some impressive effects. For example, dazzling star trail images — which show the movement of stars across the sky — can be captured by setting up your camera on a tripod and leaving the shutter open for 15 minutes or longer. Essentially, longer exposures result in better-looking images.
Make Sure Your Camera Has Manual Settings
Once you have a tripod to hold your camera steady, you'll need to make sure that your camera comes with a manual mode. Manual settings allow you to control the exposure length by choosing the aperture and shutter speed values. While you definitely don't need to be a professional photographer to get great images, night sky photography requires some technical finesse to get the best results.
There are three things you'll need to consider when choosing your night photography settings: exposure, f-stop, and ISO. If you've never altered your camera's settings before, don't worry. Each of these settings simply has to do with how much light your camera lets in.
The exposure setting determines how long your shutter remains open. For regular night sky photography, you'll want to set the exposure at about 25 to 30 seconds. To capture star trails, you'll want to set it for at least 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, the f-stop setting refers to the size of your shutter opening or aperture. A larger opening allows more light in, which creates a shallower depth of field and by extension, brighter images. For night sky photography, you'll want a large opening — ideally at about f/2.8.
Finally, the ISO indicates how sensitive your camera will be around light. A lower ISO is best for bright situations, while a higher ISO — preferably around 1600 — is best for night photography. It's worth noting that a higher ISO can create a grainier picture. If you're getting a little too much light, try lowering the ISO a bit.
Get Away From City Lights
Even if you have a great tripod and the perfect camera settings, light pollution can still make it a challenge to capture your favorite night sky event. If you're really serious about taking that perfect picture, consider leaving the city and taking a trip to an International Dark Sky Park. These locations, which are certified by the International Dark Sky Association, are dedicated to preserving clear nocturnal skies for nighttime viewing of atmospheric events.
In a world where light pollution is becoming more and more common, dark sky parks are a boon. International Dark Sky Parks exist all over the world with plenty of accessible locations across the United States. These include Arches National Park (Utah), Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona), Big Bend National Park (Texas), and Cherry Springs State Park (Pennsylvania).
If you prefer a location closer to home, take a look at the Light Pollution Map. It'll show you where you can get a better view of the night sky. On the map, look for SQM/SQC readings for your intended destination. SQM (sky quality meters) and SQC (sky quality cameras) are field instruments used by amateur astronomers to measure sky brightness. If the map seems confusing, try the New World Atlas of Artificial Sky Brightness. The brighter the location on the map, the harder it'll be to get a good view of night sky events, so be sure to plan accordingly.
That said, city lights aren't the only obstacles preventing you from getting a clear view of the stars. The moon can also interfere, with its bright light washing out the rest of your photo. If a moon shot is what you're looking for, this won't be a problem. However, if what you really want is a picture of a starry sky, your best bet is to capture images when the moon is less than half-full.
Use a Wide Angle Lens
Although its use is less critical when taking star trail photos, a wide-angle lens is an ideal choice for night sky photography. Wide-angle lenses provide a more expansive field of vision and make the movement of the stars less visible on film. One of the benefits afforded by this type of lens is that you can opt for longer exposure times without capturing star trails caused by the rotation of the Earth. This means your images will be clearer and more striking.
If you're trying to capture points of light rather than star streaks, a helpful trick to be aware of is the Rule of 500. This is a basic mathematical rule that can help you determine the maximum exposure capacity of your lens before it begins capturing trails.
To make use of this rule, divide 500 by the focal length of your lens — the resulting number is how many seconds you can keep your shutter open without the stars beginning to blur. For example, if you have a 14 millimeter lens, you'll want to choose a maximum exposure time of about 35 seconds (500 divided by 14). While the Rule of 500 isn't an exact science, it can serve as a helpful guideline if you're looking to capture the clearest images possible.