SHOOTING STARS
Photography week|September 02, 2021
Expert Josh Dury shows an astrophotography enthusiast how to capture the Milky Way above neolithic ruins

THE PRO JOSH DURY

CAMERA: NIKON D7500

Josh is an astrophotographer, filmmaker, and night sky conservationist. His interest in astronomy started at the tender age of seven, and he’s since traveled far and wide to witness celestial events.

He uses photography and film-making as a way to promote conservation and highlight the effects of light pollution. To see Josh’s work visit: https://bit.ly/3COq6Oi

THE APPRENTICE

BRIAN JOHNS

CAMERA: NIKON D7500

Brian is an engineering designer with a keen interest in astrophotography – so much so that he bought a van in which he can sleep when traveling to visit the UK’s dark-sky sites.

He recently invested in a Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer star tracker, and he’s hoping that Josh can help him put it to good use, and help further his understanding of the night sky.

TECHNIQUE ASSESSMENT

Josh showed Brian how to set up his Nikon D7500 to capture stellar images of the night sky

INCREASE THE ISO

Josh says… You need full control of your camera, so Manual mode is a must, and shooting wide open will allow you to get as much light into the body as possible – we started at ISO800 and topped out at ISO5000 as the night got darker. The shutter speed must be fast enough to prevent star trails.

FOCUS ON THE STARS

Josh says… Manual focus is the best way to focus on the stars. It doesn’t matter what star you focus on, but it’s best to zoom into Live View and find a bright example to work with. The infinity marker is a good starting point, but trial and error is often needed to find each lens’s sweet spot.

REMOTE CONTROL

Josh says… The slightest movement when shooting at long shutter speeds can render stars blurry. I always use a sturdy tripod that’s heavy enough not to accidentally move, and either a remote shutter release or a two-second self-timer to mitigate any movement caused by pressing the shutter button.

HOT SHOT #1

When Josh and Brian met amongst the neolithic standing stones at Avebury in Wiltshire, UK – the largest stone circle in Europe – the hardest part of their Astro photo shoot was already over. Careful planning (and a strategic postponement) had rewarded them with clear skies and a new moon – ideal conditions for shooting the Milky Way.

But the weather isn’t the only consideration astrophotographers have to make when planning a shoot. Light pollution can have a huge impact on the visibility of the night sky, and while human expansion continues to overlook the effects, a growing number of the world’s dark skies are at risk.

“Avebury is such a great place to shoot,” explained Josh. “The standing stones make ideal foreground subject matter, and while we’ll have to deal with a small amount of light pollution, the area boasts some really good dark skies too.”

The ancient landmark comprises two small stone circles surrounded by a large outer circle. Having arrived before sunset to scout out the best locations, the photographers headed to the southern inner circle first.

Core techniques

Josh pointed at a passing car: “The road that passes right through the middle of Avebury makes for a more challenging photo opportunity. Obviously the later you shoot the less busy it is, but we’ll definitely encounter a few headlights.”

The pair started setting up their gear and chatted, as civil twilight gave way to nautical twilight as the sun dipped well below the horizon, and stars began to clearly populate the sky. However, it would still be a while before the Milky Way was clearly visible.

Josh pulled a smartphone from his pocket and opened PhotoPills. Using the phone’s camera to display a live view of the area, the app’s Night AR function overlaid an image of the Milky Way exactly where it was positioned in the sky. “Augmented Reality has really changed the way many of us approach astrophotography,” explained the pro, “but you can also use an asterism called the ‘Summer Triangle’ to locate the Milky Way.”

He pocketed his smartphone and pointed at the night sky. “It comprises these three stars: Vega, Deneb, and Altair. The Milky Way appears to pass right through the triangle formation.”

With a good idea of the Milky Way’s position, Brian adjusted his framing using Live View, before zooming into his Nikon D7500’s rear LCD and used the D-pad to find a bright star. He then manually focused by carefully turning the focus ring. “That’s perfectly sharp,” said Josh, “and it’s great that you’re using Live View, I wouldn’t recommend focusing on a star through a DSLR’s viewfinder.”

The pro noted it didn’t matter what star was used, but identified the astronomical object as Antares. “Now you’ve focused on the night sky, you can adjust your ball head to recompose the image.”

The next step was to capture a test shot using a wide-open aperture and a super-high ISO. “Obviously it’s far too overexposed and noisy to actually use, but it shows very clearly the current composition,” explained Josh. The test shot revealed the nearest standing stone was slightly cropped out, so Brian adjusted his framing accordingly.

Brian had started shooting at ISO800, but as the light diminished further Josh suggested he push the camera’s sensitivity setting to ISO3200 and opened the aperture to gather as much light as possible. This resulted in a 20-second shutter speed. “That’s good,” said the pro. “Anything above 20 seconds and you’ll start to get star trails as the stars blur due to the Earth’s rotation.”

Brian kept shooting, timing his shots between the headlights of passing vehicles. When Josh was satisfied that they’d landed enough images of the Milky Way, he turned their attention to the standing stones in the foreground.

He walked right up to the nearest stone and shone a bright white light on it, which gave Brian a reference point in which to focus. When they reviewed the shot in Playback Josh pointed to the standing stone. “Notice our shadows cast on its surface? The culprit is the light outside the Red Lion pub, it’s pointing directly at us.”

The solution was for Brian to fire the shutter and for the pair of photographers to walk in a large circle for the duration of the exposure. “That’s done it,” said Josh. “By moving during the long exposure we’ve simply blurred out our shadows.”

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