As far back as I can remember, the night sky has called my attention. Many nights I’ve stared up watching the ever constant and predictable waltz of stars and planets as they move through the sky. Now and then, a random element would appear. Perhaps a piece of dust from a comet long dead would plunge into the upper atmosphere and produce a brief flash of light as it took its final bow. I’ve read a great deal and follow a number of blogs and RSS feeds related to the night sky and what we can see in it.
Now, with the modern equipment available to me, it’s easier than ever to experiment with night photography. I recently acquired an Asus Nexus 7 Tablet, an Android powered device with a wonderful 7 inch screen, and purchased an app called Helicon Remote (HR). HR gives me complete remote control of my Canon 1D Mark III through the USB connection. Far more portable than a laptop or even a netbook, the tablet offers long battery life, snappy performance and of course the features that I needed to be able to do this type of photography.
Plugging into the camera with a 15 foot USB cord, I opened HR, setup Bulb mode and began testing a range of aperture settings and exposure times until I found a combination that worked reasonably well. While I had to battle some issues with condensation on the lenses as the night air cooled, I was still able to gather a few images during this outing.
The moon was setting rapidly along the western horizon, and while not quite half illuminated, it still supplies enough of a concern while in the sky. So I took the opportunity to grab a few shots of the crescent moon before it left the sky. I’ve spoken of the moon before… particularly on how bright it really is in the night sky. Exposing for the moon itself is sometimes challenging, and the sky around it will fall to a perfect black, making for nice crisp edges along the line of demarcation. In this image, you can see that crisp line and some of the detail showing in the larger craters. This is caused by the angle of sunlight across the lunar landscape, and makes the detail far more noticeable than when the moon is full.
Once the moon had set, I turned my camera to the horizon, looking east from our Location west of Komoka. Looking to the east, it was possible to see the light pollution that exists even around midnight from the city of London. Trees silhouetted against that glow made for an eerie sort of image, particularly when shot with the fisheye lens. The horizon curvature in the image helps to place that single tree against the brighter background, and at the bottom of the curve. There’s a dynamic that I liked in the shot, and the warm glow of the city lights greatly enhanced that effect. Unless you’re able to get away from all civilization – far away! – you’re going to have some light on the horizon no matter how dark the sky is. You can find our more about the best places to find dark skies by using a tool that I use regularly for night sky photography, the Dark Sky Finder website. You can browse Google Maps of the area and see where the light pollution is at the highest and lowest, and find ideal spots for your efforts at night photography.
Finally it was time for the reason for this outing. After a quick check of the gear I repositioned the tripod mounted camera to be as high as I could get it and aimed straight up at the sky looking at an area that held the highest concentration of visible stars. It took a few tries to get the best possible exposure and see some movement, but the results were certainly pretty exciting. In a completely dark area around the time of the new moon, it would be possible to run longer exposures and get more motion, but as it was I was able to pull off a 22 minute exposure. As you can see, there were a few airliners flying along that part of the sky, and while a couple of small meteor tracks were seen they were not long enough or bright enough to be captured on camera.
If you can’t get a tablet and something like Helicon Remote, it’s also possible to get similar results with a watch and a manual release cable that can be locked open in Bulb mode. These are typically available for your specific camera for about $40 – a long way from the $300 worth of equipment that I was using. You can also find remote release cables that have timers built into them… but for about the same price as my tablet system cost me. I’d have to say that I get far more use out of the tablet!
If I’ve caught your curiosity – or have you looking up at the night sky and pondering what you might be able to see – then I’ve done my job! Have fun, dress for cool weather, and take advantage of the crisp skies of fall to catch some excellent night photos. Whether stars, moon, or anything else, explore and experiment and remember to please leave the areas you’re shooting in as you found them.