Tools for the stars

If someone likes my photos (or if anyone likes anyone’s photos), they usually comment on them thusly:

You must have an expensive camera!

Sure, it’s a harmless little statement which, I hope, is meant to serve as a compliment. But have you ever complimented a chef on the oven they use or a painter’s brush?

I use the tools depicted on the picture below. The body is Canon EOS 70D and all the lenses and gadgets are nicely numbered and lined up the way everyone always does it.

Yes, it’s in Finnish, I know. I am aware. I forgot to change it and now I don’t feel like it. I’m but a man! You’ll get it.

kamerat.jpg

Side note: I’ve got more lenses but these are the ones I use most of the time.

But what does it matter which lens you use? Just point and shoot, right? Exactly.

The trick is how you take the photo. Which angle you use, what do you include and what you leave out. Is the subject in the middle of the frame or in the corner? Is the entire photo in focus or just the subject? The kit lens might not always provide a wide enough angle. Or maybe you’d like more zoom to get closer t the subject. There are always options and limitations.

An ideal situation would be using a single lens all the time. But as it turns out, often times it’s not possible. I mean, sometimes it is but more often than not, the squirrel already went on its way and you didn’t have the lens you wanted in hand. Which is why I like to have an every-day lens along, something like the Sigma 17-50mm f2.8 (most kit lenses have the same millimeters but the aperture is something like 3,5 to 5,6).

Every lens has its strengths and weaknesses but honestly, the gear doesn’t really matter. Unless you want to talk about the far end of the spectrum. Which, coincidentally, I do. In addition to just showing off my tools, I’d like to talk about capturing galaxies aka taking photos of stars.

What do you need?

A camera. Obviously. One that has a lens that allows a large aperture and also allows manual access to focus, shutter speed, sensitivity and such. You can just as easily use the camera on your cellphone as long as you can adjust the settings manually. It helps if it’s a wide angle lens.

A lot of people will tell you the next thing is a tripod. But technically you could just place the camera on its back on the ground, lens facing the sky. But for the sake of the arguments, let’s say tripod. A sturdy one.

When we’re talking about Finland, you also need it to be Spring, Autumn or Winter and clear skies. The sun doesn’t like to set in Summer, so…

That’s it. But like in most things, there’s a bit more to it than that.

Camera settings

I thought for a long time that since stars are balls of gas burning billions of miles away, the focus should also cover as much ground as possible (which is to say aperture should be as small as possible). But no. Aperture needs to be big, so as much light as possible has access to the sensor. Focus needs to be set, and I know this sounds silly, slightly below infinity.

Every camera that has manual settings , has the option to focus to infinity but if you do that, them stars will be blurry. I urge you to try where the “star spot” is in your lens. Trial and error, you know. I’ve heard some people even use a marker to… mark it. That or a small piece of tape.

The other thing I always thought to be the opposite, was sensitivity or ISO. It made sense in my head that it should be low, like 100-400 but depending on light pollution, it should be 2000-6400, at least according to my comprehensive studies. It will create noise in the photo but that’s part of it. You can usually take care of that in post production.

So, back to aperture. It should be at around 2.8 to 3.5. I’ve found it works best. If you’re using a lens that has a zoom feature, use the wider end. You don’t have to to get good results, but it helps.

What about shutter speed? I personally like to use a setting anywhere between 6 and 15 seconds. Again, it depends on the light pollution. Mostly you can’t go wrong with 30 seconds but since this Earth of ours spins, you might end up with light trails. I like to increase ISO when this happens so I can use faster shutter speed. And again, post production works wonders.

Speaking of which, I might write a separate blog post about post production at some point. I mean, if you want. I won’t if you hate the idea!

Epilogue

Oh! And if you want the whole photos to be in focus, you need to take two separate pictures and combine them. I don’t do this often but if you were wondering how it’s done…that’s how. Sometimes photography is confused with photo manipulation and even though people create beautiful and literally unbelievable results with it, it’s a sub genre of its own. I always try to keep the photo true to the original scenery/subject. I like to focus more on revitalizing the image rather than reconstructing it.

Did you find this helpful? Did a year’s worth of confusion finally clear away or was this just obvious blah blah to you? I know I felt good typing this! If you want to know more, go ahead and ask!

//Heikki

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