There is little that is more fun than night photography. Given a little extra time, the camera sees images and settings in far different ways than the eye - which is, after all, nearly blind in the dark. Colors, textures, dimensions emerge. They may be far different from what one has imagined or planned for. The experience of capturing such images can be an inspiring solitude, or raucously social. However it is undertaken, it is always revelatory and satisfying.
I recently had a chance to do some night sky photography at Lassen Volcanic national park. For three nights in a row, I stationed myself in the middle of a vast open field, with the lights of Drakesbad a dim presence several hundred yards away, and no other illumination for miles in any direction.
It was the new moon, so the Milky Way was clearly visible to the naked eye, though not so clearly or colorfully as it would emerge in photos. And in trying to capture this sky at its most wonderful, I learned a few things.
First, have the right equipment. Obviously, a tripod, for long exposures. A headlamp is a useful light, since it leaves the hands free. I complemented it with a tiny spotlight to adjust camera settings. A good quality flashlight would be useful for light painting. And I used a wide angle lens - 16mm for almost every shot.
Second, know the rules. Or at least, one key rule - the rule of 600. The focal length of your lens, divided into 600, yields the maximum number of exposure seconds before the stars begin to move and blur. It is one thing if you are hoping for star trails and planning on very long exposures. If you want a crisp shot of the sky, the rule of 600 . . . . rules.
Third, take lots of test shots. In the dark, it can be very difficult to compose your shot. Plan on taking lots of test shots of shorter duration, simply to see what is in the picture. My 16mm focal length meant that branches I'd thought were plenty far away had a habit of wandering into the edges of my image.
Fourth, be aware: infinity may not be as absolute a setting on your camera as you would wish. I started with my lens set in the dead center of that lazy eight, but made slight adjustments and then magnified to see what kind of crispness I was really getting. Don't take infinity for granted - I am here to testify that many shots that seem as crisp as could be in that little LCD on the back of the camera are disappointingly fuzzy on the big computer screen. Experiment to find the sweet spot for you.
Fifth and finally, be sure to recheck all your camera settings before you go out again. There are the obvious changes. Your 4000 ISO for night shooting may not work so well in the daytime. Your lens and camera, set to manual for the night, may need to be returned to auto for daytime shooting. But the biggest issue is the changes you may have made unawares. In the deep darkness, it is easy to change settings you never intended to touch.
Did I get some terrific sky images? You tell me - click here to see my night sky and other images from Lassen. All I can say is - I was enthralled with this new moon night shooting experience, and I can't wait to do it again.