The north of Scotland has some of the best night skies in all of the UK. The lower population means that there’s less light pollution which makes the skies crystal clear on some evenings. I can genuinely say that I have never seen as many stars as I have since coming up here. It’s given me a rare opportunity to learn a little more about constellations and astronomy. Which led me to my next revelation… Morayshire is so far north that on clear evenings, and under certain conditions, one can actually see the aurora borealis (northern lights)…
Okay so I should probably preface all of this by saying that I am not an astrophotographer. In the past, I’ve taken blurry photos of the moon and tried in vane to get usable shots of an owl at night but that was about as far as I got.
However last week I was able to get out with my camera and finally get some good shots of the northern lights. I’m not sure if everyone knows this already (I certainly didn’t) but unless you’re super far north, the northern lights show as a sort of green haze on the horizon rather than the brilliant purple and green ribbons we see in pictures.
So in order to capture the true colours of the sky we need to look at long exposure images. These are a little tricky and require some understanding before you get the desired results. I think its all too easy to see the images online and think that they are quick “snaps”. As you can see in the above image, you actually need to keep the shutter open for a while to let as much light onto the sensor as possible.
There are a few amazing websites and apps to help with all this but I’ll link these as we go through…
As a little warning, some of this post will get a little dense… you’ve been warned.
Step 1. Kit.
You can do astrophotography on any lens and any camera. However, there are a few bits of kit which are handier than others.
1. Tripod – you need a sturdy base. You’ll have the camera shutter open for quite some time and if the camera moves during that time, you’ll get a blurry image.
2. Wider lenses are better. As we’ll see in the coming steps, a wide, fast lens will make life a lot easier and will make your images higher quality. Anything lower than 50mm is best.
3. A camera with a decent sensor. Although any camera can do astrophotography, cameras with higher sensors can pick up more light. Making your images sharper and brighter. Having said that, I started with a crop sensor camera and got some great results.
Step 2. YouTube. (Or me!)
It wouldn’t be a blog post if I didn’t do a small plug! So if you’re interested in learning all this stuff one on one, then I offer workshops and lessons either in person or online. Just drop me an email or text and we can go from there:
YouTube is your friend. There are so many tutorials and friendly faces out there who know what they’re talking about. There are plenty of great channels but here are a few to get you started:
Step 3. Understand the 500 rule.
In essence, to get sharp starry skies, you need to know about the 500 rule. It sounds complicated but its a simple equation which can calculate the maximum amount of time your shutter can be open for without getting “star trails”.
The 500 rule looks something like this:
Shutter Speed = 500 / (Crop Factor x Focal Length
for example… I shoot on a 14mm f1.8 lens with a full frame camera (crop factor = 1) so…
Shutter Speed = 500 / (1 x 14)
SS = ~35 seconds
Once you’ve worked out your shutter speed, the rest of the settings are trial and error. Generally you want to have your aperture open as wide as possible but this can sometimes lead to distortion in the corner. Likewise ISO settings will vary with cameras so it’s best to learn what settings produce the least noise with your own system.
Step 4. Do your research…
There are a multitude of amazing apps and websites to help you plan your shoots. The first one I’d recommend is called PhotoPils. This app helps you plan everything to do with the sky – it’ll tell you sunsets, sunrises, where the galactic centre is, which orientation it’ll be, and loads and loads more. It’s genuinely one of the most powerful photography apps I’ve come across. It’ll even calculate all the “rule of 500” calculations you’d need for any lens and camera. Cool right!? Here’s a link (it’s worth every penny and no, they don’t sponsor me):
The Glendale App is another really powerful app for all aurora chasers. It’s run by a man in Scotland and will tell you when you can expect to see the aurora, where, how powerful it is, and loads more. It’s free and amazingly interesting:
After this, it’s kind of just a question of practice. Don’t be afraid to get it wrong. Try using torches to “light paint” the foreground. Or get someone to stand with a head torch on. I’m not an expert with night time photography but it’s such a treat to see when you get it right. It requires a good understanding of how to use your camera too, even for veteran photographers (which I am not…)
Here’s a few of the night shots I’ve got… ranging from awful to okay! Thanks for reading!