Need help with nighttime sky/star pictures!


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Feb 10, 2013
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Hi all!
So we are planning a pretty badass 17 day vacation next week to Montana, South Dakota, Wyoming and Colorado. Clearly all amazing places for a multitude of photo ops :D. Anyhow, I've been doing some serious researching on how to take star pictures, but have been very unsuccessful in achieving anything remotely similar to what I would like. I feel like all my settings are where they should be, I just can't put my finger on what it is I am doing wrong. Here are the details:

Canon Rebel T3 using a 75-300mm zoom lense
Manual settings are:
ISO: 6400
shutter speed: 5" (I tried 30, but I felt the pics turned out blurry due to the constant rotation of the stars)

I've played around with the settings, but it doesn't seem to affect it one way or another. This was taken at our farm, so the sky was crystal clear with no pollution around, on a tripod using a self timer (since I do not have a remote). Does anyone have some tips to share? What am I doing wrong?! I mean, these are downright just terrible..! (The first one the color at top right was from the self timer flashing..uhg)

For reference, here are some of the looks I would really like to achieve. I tried to get the camera to focus on a tree or the barn for some kind of horizon/reference point, but it wouldn't focus because it was too dark. Suggestions there too would be helpful!

Nighttime Imaging | North Western Images - photos by Andrew Porter
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To get the effect you're seeing on that web site you need quite a bit more exposure. Try it at 15-30 seconds and see what happens. Open your aperture as wide as possible, which may require zooming to the widest angle setting.

The web site you pointed to has blurry pictures with massive amounts of noise, but the skies are quite nice in terms of how much stuff is visible. Also note that there's a fair bit of land visible in each frame, which definitely improves the drama.

To really get good quality pictures that look like that you need some gear and/or some software. I think you do "image stacking" to really make it happen.
The amount of time you can leave the shutter open before you notice the stars beginning to elongate and grow "tails" depends on the focal length of the lens.

For example... with my 14mm lens I can leave the shutter open about 45 seconds, get a sharp image, and really no star tails. At 60 seconds I can barely detect that the stars are starting to elongate. At 300mm... about 5 seconds is about all you can expect. With a long lens the camera needs to be tracking the stars. You can piggy-back the camera onto a an equatorial tracking telescope or you can buy a tracking head for the camera tripod.

Astrotrac makes a gadget for this ... but it's expensive.
How funny, I just made my first attempt at this last night and was searching through the forum for tips as not completely happy with my results. Here's one of them: magdalene chapel night 2 (1 of 1) | Flickr - Photo Sharing!

Well you look like you are getting a lot closer than I am! How did you get the chapel to be so in focus and bright? Did you use some sort of flash light or was it the camera flash? Either way, you are definitely on the right track!
I don't see any difference between the stars in your photo and the ones in the link you provided other than the fact that there was obviously some post processing done in some of the ones through your link and the composition was more interesting as it contained more than just stars. In addition, the ones in the link seem more exposed so perhaps increase your exposure time if you're using a tripod. Also, no need for 6400 ISO, just keep your ISO as low as possible and achieve the correct exposure by decreasing shutter speed. If you're after some star trails you can expose for minutes to hours at a time, this is also a cool effect if you're patient enough.
All good advise. Here's something to consider.

1 hour, 15 degrees of arc. 1 minute = .25 degrees arc. Yes longer lens will make the motion more apparent. If you are trying to get a Moonlight shot, you need plenty of Moonlight for fill. The images you linked to were shot with a wide angle lens, f/3.5, 25 seconds and ISO 6400. Roughly you can figure on 30 seconds as a nice starting point .125 degrees of motion in the stars.

From my experience, the longer the shots, more of a chance you'll have hot spots and need to correct for that as well. Among things that you can do for a rock solid tripod, putting the camera on a beanbag, on the ground, is pretty stable! :) Cable release a must, but if you don't have one - Self timer, so the camera isn't wiggling or moving.

Yes you can paint objects or fire a flash, to fill in the trees or anything else. The tent was a nice touch in the linked images. Ambient light can potentially help if it's from behind you.

I've tried some long exposures, a minute or more at a time for meteorite showers. Never had any success. It has to do with making multiple time exposures, for hours and hoping one will have a meteorite in it. Done best after Midnight, maybe 3AM when the activity is highest. Perseids in August is a good one. NE Sky.

Best I can say is, start with, your widest lens, 30 seconds, f/4, ISO 6400 and have fun.
Well you look like you are getting a lot closer than I am! How did you get the chapel to be so in focus and bright? Did you use some sort of flash light or was it the camera flash? Either way, you are definitely on the right track![/QUOTE]

I lit up the chapel with the headlights of my car for a few seconds during the exposure. It was too bright but I toned it down in post.

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