The night sky (old/new tricks)

Photographing animals and landscapes usually involves situations with plenty of light. But sometimes we don’t want all that light (such as when we use 10-stop ND filters for landscape photography) and sometimes (e.g. at night) don’t have our usual source of sunlight handy. I’ve been doing some work recently with the state government on a project to record the endangered Leadbeater’s Possum, which is nocturnal. To obtain images without disturbing the animals we use infrared spotlights and infrared-sensitive cameras. But that’s fairly specialised and specific.

Most of us don’t have that opportunity, but landscapes and “skyscapes” are a lot more accessible. Here’s a post-dusk photo of the Moon and Venus (made near the Chobe River in Botswana) where the constant diffuse dust in the air produces a wonderful sunset glow (you can of course click on the image for a larger view).

Chobe sunset

For many people this is about as far as they go photographing into the night. Sometimes they go so far as trying to photograph a full moon, although that has its own challenges of magnification, overexposure, and movement. But when the moon’s not there we actually have more options for interesting photos. With a tripod and a fast enough wide-angle lens (and a dark-enough environment) we can capture features such as the Milky Way. In this shot the foreground grass is being lit by the lights in our camp near the Okavango Delta in Botswana.


On some of my multi-day workshops we’ve had evening opportunities to experiment with star trails, where we take advantage of the Earth’s rotation to make pretty patterns with long exposures:

Castle Rock startrails

That’s about 4.5 hours of movement, and the South Celestial Pole is quite obvious. It was taken near Chamber’s Pillar in central Australia. If you point the camera in different directions and use different lenses you’ll obviously get different patterns. In the following image (taken near the Savute Channel in Botswana) the camera is pointing West: I was restricted in where I could safely set up the camera and leave it overnight where I wouldn’t be exposed to predators and the camera wouldn’t be exposed to elephants.


That’s about 6 hours. The constant dust cloud towards the horizon even shows up at night!

There are many technical details behind this nocturnal photography of course, including things like timer controllers, batteries, and managing dew. Because of the length of the exposures, some nights result in just a single photo (which was hopefully a good one). So it’s definitely a “long game”.

I’ve been doing star trails and many other styles of nocturnal photography for many years, and they still fascinate me when I get the opportunity. Another type I’ve been working on recently is “wide-field” astrophotography, using lenses from wide-angle up to telephoto to shoot the stars. It has a new set of technical challenges (the first of which is countering the Earth’s rotation with an “equatorial mount”). I’m slowly refining my gear for this, including experimenting with different lenses. The image below is in the area of Scorpio’s tail, and includes the prettily-named Butterfly Cluster in blue on the right. The orange is interstellar dust clouds.

Scorpio's tail and the Butterfly Cluster

The following image is part of Sagittarius. These were both taken with an infrared-modified EOS M2 and an 85mm lens. There are technical flaws with both of them, which is a combination of gear and technique issues. Next time I actually plan to use my macro lens to photograph objects billions of kilometres away!

The Archer

Anyway, I thought I’d just show you some of my recent experiments. I’m sure there’ll be more!

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