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Camera Equipment

Camera Body:    Almost any cameraeither digital or filmwill work for photographing the night sky, as long as you can adjust it manually take time exposures of 10 seconds or longer (an all-automatic camera probably won't work well for nighttime sky photos, I'm afraid).  

For film, an older mechanical camera body―one that doesn't use batteries to open the shutter―will usually work best. That doesn't mean that your automatic or semi-automatic camera won't work.  It's just that long exposures tend to sap battery strength, and you may find yourself changing batteries more frequently than you'd prefer. Always carry with you plenty of spare batteries and a battery charger. 

Digital cameras can do a great job if you can set them for a fast ISO (200 or 400), and don't need to take exposures longer than about 30 seconds or so.  And don't worry about using a light meter; it'll work only for your daytime photos!

[Dennis' Recommendation:  For film, a mechanical, all-manual camera body is best; many digital cameras also work well.]

Lenses:    Nearly any kind of lens will work for shooting the night sky, but normal or wide-angle lenses are the best choice for most shots.  You may even find telephoto lenses useful at times.  Most important is that the lens be as 'fast' as possible (i.e., have a small f/ratio like f/2.8 or smaller).  Zoom lenses also work, but they're not usually very 'fast'. Typically lenses don't provide sharp images when used 'wide open', so if your lens is extremely fast, it's always a good idea to stop down by 1/2 or one stop.  

[Dennis' Recommendation:  Use as fast (f/2.8 or lower) and as wide-angle lens as possible for most shots.]


Filters:    Most people believe that keeping a relatively inexpensive filter (such as a UV- or skylight filter) on a lens will protect their more expensive lens from harm.  Anyone who's ever bumped their lens and had the filter glass scratch the front surface of the lens knows this is worse than no protection at all.   In addition, keeping an inexpensive filter on a lens forces light to pass through  a low-quality piece of glass before it ever enters your much more expensive and higher quality lens.  In other words, the image is doomed to mediocrity before it's even been captured by the camera.  

Only use a filter that will help produce the image you needfor example a polarizer, a diffusion filter, star filter, ND gradient filter, etc. and then make sure it's the best quality filter possible.  If you want to protect your lens, keep the lens cap on.  That's what it's for!

[Dennis' Recommendation:  Never use a filter unless it will help create the image you want.  Then remove it, and replace the lens cap.

Tripod:   This is not the time to use a flimsy tripod.  It should be strong enough to hold the camera steady for long exposures. If you've got more than one camera but have only one tripod, you'll spend lots of time removing your camera and replacing it, and you'll miss some great shots. Either take along one tripod for every camera you've got or extra "quick-release plates" attached to each camera, but don't overdo it. Two should be more than enough. If you want to beef up a lighter tripod, hang your camera bag from the tripod's center post.  

[Dennis' Recommendation:  Always use a sturdy tripod.]
Cable Release/Remote Control:   A quality remote―whether for film or digital cameras―costs a bit more but will work much more reliably than an inexpensive one.  It should be the kind that locks, keeping the shutter open for long time exposures.  If you can, have at least one spare since cable releases can break, and their batteries can wear out during long exposures.  

[Dennis' Recommendation:  Have at least two quality locking cable releases or electronic remote control devices.]
Batteries:   Few things sap the strength of batteries better than long exposures.  Keep at least one or two sets of spare batteries handy;  if you see the power level of the batteries dropping, replace them with fresh ones―before they die.  And make sure you have spare batteries for everything you'll be using―camera, remote controls, digital storage units, etc, and a charger.  

[Dennis' Recommendation:   have spare batteries (and a charger) for every electronic device you have.]
Film:   The key to night sky photography is fast film. This is represented by a high ISO number: ISO 200 to 400 work great. Various film types respond differently to the light from the night sky; which you use is a matter of preference―you'll get as many opinions as there are night sky photographers.  My preference is for shooting slides, and I always recommend this for beginners.  My films of choice are Kodak E-200 Professional and Fuji 400-F Professional, and both are available as "consumer grade" films (which are considerably less expensive):  Kodak EliteChrome 200 and Fuji Sensia 400.  These films can be found in most quality photo stores and online.   Since I tend to bracket a lot, I plan on using 2 or so rolls per night; your numbers may vary.   

[Dennis' Recommendation:  Try Kodak E-200 (also EliteChrome 200) or Fuji Provia 400F Professional (Sensia 400)]
Digital "Film":   Just like with analog film, the key to night sky photography is a fast ISO setting for your electronic detector. ISO 200 to 400 both work great for night sky photography but, the higher the ISO number, the more likely there will be "noise" in your images.  Since the color response of digital cameras to star and sky light can be controlled, the white-balance should be set to "daylight", if possible, or altered to produce the colors that are most pleasing to you.  The real advantage of digital imaging is the immediate feedback.  Quality photos with exposures more than a minute or so are just not possible with digital.  For this you will need film.  

[Dennis' Recommendation: Start with ISO 200 and a white-balance set to "daylight", and make changes as you go.]
Digital Memory:   Before capturing digital images, it's important to ask yourself what your final product will be.  If you plan to use the images for a website or e-mail, you need only small, low resolution images.  If you wish to produce prints, larger files with higher resolution will be necessary.  Either way, you'll need a fairly high-capacity memory card for the camera, and at least one or two spares. You can never have enough memory.  To free up your cards and to back up your work, consider having a means for storing captured images, such as a laptop computer or other dedicated storage devices.    

[Dennis' Recommendation:  Have at least one spare memory card and a storage device to which you can download your images.]
What about Video?    Despite how bright and dramatic the night sky can appear to the eye, it's nearly invisible to even low-light video cameras. High-end consumer video cameras might see something, but will also display quite a bit of noise. 

[Dennis' Recommendation:  If you have a video camera, you can certainly try it out... just don't expect much!]



Digital Animation   One way of capturing time-lapse motion pictures of the night sky's movement is through digital animation.  By taking a series of exposures with a digital camera fixed to a tripod, one can use a variety of computer software to assemble an "animated GIF".  While image sequences can be captured by hand―with a timer to assure equal intervals between frames―it's best to use an automatic electronic intervelometer (available only with some high-end digital cameras) to assure precision.  Even though it's only necessary that individual images be relatively small and low-resolution, a large capacity and fast memory card is extremely important.   

[Dennis' Recommendation:  If you're computer-savvy, try animation sequences with a digital camera, intervelometer, and a fast, high-capacity memory card.]

Exposures:   These depend on several factors: what kind of lens you've got, film speed, and what you want to shoot.  To assure that something comes out, plan to 'bracket' your exposures―taking some over and some under what you 'think' is correct.  In other words, plan on three or four exposures for every photograph you want. Better to take too many than not enough. Don't worry about 'wasting' film; film is relatively inexpensive―and digital is free―compared to returning home with nothing!  

[Dennis' Recommendation:  Bracket well and don't be concerned about "wasting" film or digital space.]

Keeping Records:   Many digital cameras record camera settings along with the images but, if you're shooting with film, be sure to keep an accurate log of all important settings for each frame.  That way, when your photos are processed, you'll know what produces the best results for your next outing.  

[Dennis' Recommendation: Log details of all your shots and study these after the shoot to learn what works and what doesn't in various situations.]

Processing and Printing:    If you shoot film, always take your night sky photos to a custom lab.   Most "fast" labs will not know how to print your nighttime negatives.   This is one reason I recommend you shoot slides.  You can tell the processor to leave them un-cut and un-mounted, and you'll then be able to compare your images, the frame numbers and your notes. You can then select the best images, mount them yourself with simple cardboard or plastic mounts, and have them printed or scanned.  

[Dennis' Recommendation: Always use a custom professional lab for processing and printing your night sky photos.]



To enjoy the dark night sky, all you really need is your eyes.  If, however, you wish to photograph the sky, consider using the following items: 

□  Film or digital camera(s)
□  Note pads (or logbook) and pens
□  Fast normal & wide angle lens(es)
□  Tools for minor repairs
□  Fast color film or memory cards
□  Lens cleaning supplies
□  Good cable releases or remotes
□  Flashlight covered with red cellophane
□  Sturdy tripod(s) & quick release plates
□  Spare batteries for everything & charger
□  Equipment manual for everything
□  Laptop or other digital storage device
□  Timer
□  Knee pads for viewing through low tripod
EXTREMELY IMPORTANT:   Learn to operate your equipment before heading out the door.  Be sure to test everything well in advance, and take a spare of everything that could possibly break down.  Remember: "Murphy" is a night sky photography fan too!  


And be sure to visit the SkyScapes Gallery to see the types of photos that are possible with only a simple camera and tripod!

― Dennis Mammana






(c) Dennis L. Mammana.  All rights reserved.