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Night Sky Photography Tips

Star Trails

jiDue to the Earth’s rotation about its axis, it seems that the light from stars moves in circles around the celestial pole. These movements are detectable after about 5 to 10 minutes, and can be traced by your camera in the form of a streak. To photograph this magical effect, you need a sturdy tripod and lots of patience. Focus the lens to infinity and set the camera’s mode at Manual or Bulb shooting mode. With the use of a cable release you will capture the stars moving across the sky. These exposures can be a few minutes to several hours long. If you keep few things in mind, such as the timing, composition, and power of the battery, you can make photographing star trails simpler for you.

Find the Right Location

The best place to view and photograph the night sky is in the rural countryside because cities have artificial lights which cause a phenomenon known as light pollution. You need to get away from artificial lights in order to see the stars well. A truly dark sky is preferred, but artificial lights keep the night sky from being truly dark. Many beginners aim at capturing the longest star trails by keeping the shutter open for long periods of time. However, they tend to underestimate the impact generated by ambient light in the sky, which can be hard to notice at times. In addition, residual light (such as moonlight) can have a devastating impact on long shutter speed photos. This is because when you keep the shutter open for say, nearly 20 minutes, an hour after the sunset, the camera may perceive it as a day shot. Similarly, a full moon night photo with an exposure time of around 10 minutes could also look like a day shot. Therefore, it is best to attempt such a picture with either a new moon, or well before the moonrise or after the moonset. The light emerging from the stars would be more evident at this time and the picture would be perfect.

Use Long Shutter Speeds

When photographing the night sky with a long exposure, exposures of 15 minutes or longer will show the rotation of the Earth. You’ll need a wide-angle lens and a sturdy tripod, of course. You’ll want to use a cable release to eliminate camera shake of any kind, as it will RUIN your photo. Focus the lens to infinity and set the camera to B “Bulb” shooting mode. Set your aperture between f/2.8 and f/4 for optimal results, and depress the remote to open the shutter. You should keep your ISO at 100 to keep the digital noise at a minimum, because the sky is so dark and less prone to producing digital noise when the exposure is above 15 seconds. To complete the photo after your desired elapsed time, depress the remote again, and release the shutter.

Auroras and Polar Lights

Photographing the atmospheric phenomenon of aurora borealis is a challenge for photographers. This difficulty is due to frequent spectacular changes in the brightness of the light. The charged solar particles move very fast and sometimes get hidden making it impossible to shoot them. However, if you follow these tips, you will be able to get the best aurora borealis photos. Anchor your camera on a strong tripod to keep it steady for longer exposures. Set the ISO at the range of 100 to 400. Shutter speed can be as long as 30 seconds depending on the amount of light available. Do not rely on the built-in light meter, which is better left for day time use. Although any kind of lens will do for aurora borealis photography, you should choose a wide-angle and faster lens.

Cloudy Skies

As the light begins to fall, look at the cloudy skies. Watch the colors and how they merge though the cloud. Even though it is dark, you should try using an 80A blue cooling filter to enhance the blue cast of the sky and to reduce the yellow cast from the artifical lights. Use a wide-angle lens and opt for longer exposures. You can first try a few test shots, and then assess them carefully on your digital camera. You should be able to decide on the best range of exposures to capture some good photographs of an overcast sky.

The Perks of Switching Camera Systems

The choice of the first camera system is an exciting one. Why would it not be? You get to pick the first camera to buy, the first lens, and you spend so much time reading reviews, forums and asking friends for advice. I know I did – some eight years ago, I was admiring such cameras as the Canon 30D and 40D, and was seriously eyeing the 400D which was then within the budget of a teenager me. Nikon D200 looked out of this world and the then-announced D300 was a camera of dreams. All of these models, now obsolete from a technological standpoint (much like the D700 I now own and love), were as desirable as any current equipment you can think of. Maybe even more so, since the refresh cycle was longer and digital photography in general not as widespread as it is today.

Yes, the choice of the first camera and lens is a very exciting one. But, inevitably and at some point, a different question arises for just about all of us, and one much less pleasant – should you stick with your first decision or is the grass truly greener somewhere else?

The Law of Leapfrogging

One of the main reasons why someone would want to switch from one system to another (besides curiosity) is current technology that the manufacturer-in-question might have. More specifically, it could be the current camera or lens lineup and how it stacks up against competition. No two manufacturers have ever been equal in all areas at the same time, so they tend to be attractive for different reasons. Here is an obvious example: at this time, Nikon is arguably the most capable DSLR manufacturer in terms of sensor performance (and in no small part thanks to Sony’s excellent sensors). Full-frame Nikon cameras seem to deliver the best dynamic range and ISO performance at the highest resolution in the industry. However, Canon is still arguably the leader when it comes to lenses. There are more available choices and the mount itself seems to be more “future-proof” too – it is completely electronic and physically larger, so it has the potential to support lenses Nikon would really struggle with. So a Canon shooter might be tempted by the sheer image quality delivered by the Nikon D810, while a Nikon shooter might crave some of the lenses Canon has on offer, such as the EF 85mm f/1.2L or perhaps the lightweight super telephoto options such as the EF 400mm f/5.6L

But the truth is, this situation is very much temporary. Alright, so there is no actual “Leapfrogging Law” as such, I made that up. But if you look back, you’ll notice a pattern – camera and lens makers tend to leapfrog one another every few years. If we take a look at what was happening with these two manufacturers about a decade ago, the situation was quite different. I remember Canon used to have the advantage in both image quality and lenses, while Nikon did not even have a full-frame camera in its lineup! In other words, one system may be lagging behind in one area, but the situation might flip around pretty quickly if one company leads in technology innovation or design. If Canon releases a high-resolution camera with matching dynamic range and ISO performance and Nikon releases more great lenses, differences between the two will diminish even further.

Does it mean that all Canon users should switch to Nikon just because it currently shines in image quality? On the other hand, just because Canon seems to have less issues with its products and a great lens selection, should Nikon users jump over? Of course not. The situation is temporary, and camera industry has become very dynamic over the last five years or so. All it takes is one bright individual to come up with an idea, one innovative bold move, and everything might turn upside down in an instant. Deciding to switch to another system because, at this particular time, it seems to be the “better” one, is at the very least rather hasty. I am not saying you should not switch – if you find yourself thinking about it, there is a chance, however slim (let’s be honest), that you might really be missing something important that another system is able to offer. But the current technology alone is no reason to switch most of the time. Should you decide otherwise, you may find yourself switching systems every two years or so. And this stands true for all camera systems, not just DSLRs

The Excitement

As I have already mentioned, choosing the first camera is exciting. It is the sense of that very same excitement that often gets us thinking (or agonizing) whether we should try a new system, and a sense of our curiosity. It is also, more often than not, something to just shrug off. Don’t get me wrong, excitement is a very important feeling, one that pushes us forward; and I am not the only one to think so. A new camera, and especially one that you are yet to familiarize yourself with invites you to use it. And yet, eventually, that curiosity certainly wears off. It always does. We are excited to move into a new house, drive a new car or visit a beautiful location for the first time. But after weeks and months, that same excitement is no longer there and we simply get used to it.

Instead, search for excitement in the process of photography itself: in learning new things and not in the tools you use. If you are excited about your equipment, great. It can be a powerful engine for your creativity initially. Just don’t rely on it to stay that way for a long time…

Getting Serious About It

So what should be a good reason to switch? To answer that, it is very important to put the curiosity and excitement created by the prospect of owning something new and unfamiliar aside, and look at things objectively. Why we choose a particular system in the first place is not just because of its current technology, but a few other things as well. So, to start with, you need a clear idea of what you are looking for in a camera system and what your priorities are: what lenses and accessories you need, whether size and weight matter, what format are you looking for and so on. Start fresh, as if you don’t yet own a camera, and write it all down. Once you have done that, explore your choices, see which camera manufacturers offer that which you need, or are heading there. Find out which specific cameras would suit your needs the most. Then, see if the equipment you already own falls out of that list, maybe the reason you are considering to switch is in fact curiosity and excitement, and not an actual need? Or perhaps it is not a new system that you need, but merely an update of the tools you already have?

Once you know your potential choices, consider one final factor – comfort. Whenever I am asked by a beginner photographer which road to choose, the first advice I always give is this: hold each camera in your hand and see which one fits – both literally and figuratively – better. Just see which one is more comfortable and natural to handle. We can get used to any tool, true, but that first impression of comfort is a good start, a good indication of what to look more closely at. That is one of the reasons why I ended up with Nikon, even though I prefer some of Canon’s ergonomic choices (ISO button on the top left, Nikon?). Nikon cameras just sit perfectly in my hands.

Finally, we get back to the question of current technology. It could be a good reason, despite what I said, but not because some manufacturer might have progressed in certain areas more than others. If you feel that another manufacturer has the lenses and the cameras that suit your purpose perfectly, and it has been so for a number of years, you may not lose anything by trying your luck. But you will only truly win if your current system is actually not enough for your needs. And not the camera you own, but the whole system, the whole lineup of equipment on offer. For example, a Canon 5D Mark III is significantly better in most respects than my old D700. However, my D700 also happens to be sufficient for my uses at this time. More than that, should I outgrow that camera, the Nikon system I chose has newer and more capable equipment that leaves no reason for me to make a jump to Canon. I would say exactly the same thing if I had chosen Canon eight years ago too – it’s not really about these two specific manufacturers (I merely chose them as the most obvious and easy-to-compare examples), but camera manufacturers in general. So here is an advice: to find out whether you actually need to switch to a different manufacturer, or if the issue is somehow different and requires a different solution, stop reading about new equipment. Go out and use yours. See if there is anything that’s really missing, and not just “missing” because rivals have it.

Sentiments Matter

I never thought that tools should be just tools – my perspective has always been that even a slight personal attachment can lead to good things. Even if merely a wish to use the said tools more often. Many of you would disagree, I expect, but here is something that’s quite difficult to argue with: using tools that you actually don’t like (as in, feel something negative towards) will ruin the experience and the process. So sentiments do matter. One of the main reasons I chose Fujifilm (and I am not afraid to admit), was the design. I think the X-Pro1 is a beautiful product, as is the X100S, as is the X-E2; and I learned to appreciate beautifully designed objects. It is far from being the most important aspect of the system for me. Very far from it. And yet it is something that makes me like the gear that bit better, and enjoy using it more than I would otherwise

On a different note, there is a certain brand I would rather not mention (to avoid potentially offending someone) that has released just one camera that I really liked. It has nothing to do with the manufacturer itself or how good and advanced the cameras are. I just never wanted to own one of those tools – they don’t click with me. There is a chance I would come up with as good of a result with this manufacturer’s cameras, since from a purely objective point of view, those are great tools. But I don’t like them, as silly as that may sound. It is not criticism, just a personal sentiment, or lack of one.

In short, focus on equipment you actually like. Don’t make affection more important than it should be – I really don’t think a sports photographer should be using one of Olympus PEN models rather than a DSLR just because they are more stylish. And yet owning and using equipment you really like will only serve as a stimulus to use it more for the purpose you bought it for in the first place, which is always a good thing.

Two Systems Is Not A Bad Thing

Compact camera systems are a breath of fresh air in the camera industry. If before the whole boom of mirrorless cameras you had a choice of different, but essentially very similar DSLR systems (which made owning two DSLR systems rather pointless in many cases), mirrorless cameras from Olympus, Sony, Fujifilm and other manufacturers offer something truly different. Not better, not worse – I don’t believe in such generalizations. But different. Mirrorless cameras have their strengths and weaknesses when compared to DSLRs. More importantly, the two systems seem to complete one another very well. One gives you diminutive size and weight, while the other delivers dependable, uncompromising performance and speed in any situation

Now, if you only own one camera and it is enough for your needs, you’ll have to make the difficult choice – decide not only on the manufacturer, but also on the type of camera you need. So that means you will end up choosing between mirrorless and DSLR at some point. If, however, you need or plan to own two cameras and like your current DSLR system, but also think you could really use a mirrorless camera for, say travel photography, by all means go for it. I now use Fujifilm and Nikon, and I would be hard pressed to say which one is the “main” system – I find Nikon to be safer and more dependable during weddings (although that is merely an unsupported-by-facts feeling), while Fujifilm seems to be more quirky, discreet and fun to use, especially for personal and casual work. And it makes more sense for me to own a Fujifilm and a Nikon, rather than two Nikon DSLR camera bodies.

Are there any real downsides to owning two systems? The main one is the amount of bespoke accessories, batteries and chargers that can’t be interchanged, as well as the potentially increased cost. Post-processing might also be an issue, since different RAW files react differently to the same adjustments.

The Question of Price

It is a general belief that changing a system to another is expensive, and this very belief also serves as the main stop, holding so many photographers from actually doing it. Sometimes, it really is expensive. But I would still call it a myth. Why? The reason why so many tend to label switching camera systems as expensive, is because photographers usually don’t think about buying equipment used, even though the equipment they are selling is.

If you are switching to another system, you end up selling your old equipment. Now, given that your old equipment was indeed “old”, as in – used and not brand new, the logical choice would be to…buy the different system used, too. In other words, exchange used equipment of one manufacturer into used equipment of another. Which, given the same condition, class and generation of equipment, should prove to be very similar in price. It may be a little bit cheaper or a little bit more expensive, but not excessively so. But if you sell the old system and go for brand new tools, you end up spending way more. If you think about it, it is very similar to updating every single piece of gear that you own to a brand new copy. Which, too, would be expensive. Basically, in such a case, one is paying not just for changing their system, which really should not cost all that much and could potentially even refund some of the initial investment – one is also paying for receiving brand new equipment, and that is why you feel the financial impact on your wallet

Mind you, there is a downside to purchasing used equipment. First, you can always get cheated if you are not careful (read our article about buying used cameras and buying used lenses). Second, it may take a while to find each piece of the kit that you need in good condition.

Final Words

Deciding on whether to switch to a different camera system or not is not an easy task. It takes a lot of objectivity to separate real reasons from the often false “grass is greener on the other side” feeling, as well as to tame excitement and curiosity that eventually tends to wear off. Truth be told, such a move is rarely truly necessary. And in most cases, I would simply advise one to go out and shoot. But there are exceptions, of course. If you know your reasons are real and important, regardless whether they are based on the need of better performance or pure sentiment towards a particular brand, don’t hesitate to do it. Just remember, once you have a camera and a lens mounted on it, rivals don’t matter and other systems don’t matter. What you do with the tools you own – that is what’s important. In the end, it is always the same advice: go out, shoot and most importantly learn