Montana Headwall » Head Light

Shooting stars

With night photos, the sky's the limit



In the last issue of Headwall, Joe Irons photographed the Equinox Challenge, a 24-hour race that draws cross-country skiers from across the country. While Irons took many compelling shots, one image really stood out—a long exposure of a head-lamped racer cruising past the camera in the middle of the night, a ribbon of light snaking behind him.

Fortunately, you don't have to be an expert to capture light trails, the moon, stars, comets, and other captivations in the night sky.

First, forget the flash. Flashes adequately illuminate subjects close to the lens, but they're simply too small and underpowered to light nighttime backgrounds or large scenes.

Get around this limitation by overriding some of your camera's automatic settings. Most cameras (both digital and film) have an ISO adjustment, a setting that controls the amount of light you need to record a good exposure. The higher the ISO, the less light required. As a rule of thumb, set the ISO to 100 or 200 in bright daylight, and jack the settings higher—often to 1600—for flash-less night shooting.

Using a higher ISO gives you a grainier, less detailed image, so experiment with your camera's ISO setting while keeping an eye on your viewfinder to see what best suits the situation. Next, adjust the mode to "Manual" and spin the shutter dial to its longest setting—most cameras today go to 15 or 30 seconds. Then shoot a test frame to see how well the camera captures the scene.

If you have a tripod on hand, use it; if you don't, set the camera on a solid perch. Compose your frame, and use the camera's built-in timer (or a remote shutter release) to prevent any shake when you hit the shutter.

Shoot lots of frames. Things like composition, exposure and focus are all difficult to execute at night, so even after you think you have the shot you want, shoot more and sort through them later.

For the image on this page, I used a timer and a tripod. The shutter was open for 20 seconds, just long enough to record a bit of star blur, a result of the Earth spinning. (To get the full effect of stars spinning, you'll need a remote release to keep the shutter open for hours.) In this case, a bright moon bathed the scene, but you can also use a headlamp to "paint" the landscape from behind the camera. Soon you'll stop putting your camera away at bedtime. And you'll wake up some new talents.

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