Photographer Ben Canales shares his techniques for incredible shots of the night sky. Bring coffee
Growing up in New Jersey, photographer Ben Canales didn't have a lot of stars to look at. Now, however, he spends many nights out in the cold with his camera pointed towards the horizon, capturing the heavens and the land below them. He shared with us some crucial tips for getting amazing shots of the night sky.
What do you look for in a location for shots of the stars?
One of the first things you have to do is get away from the city. Whether you're traveling or at home, you have to go somewhere without light pollution. Ideally, you can try to get at least 50 miles from a big city if you want really clean skies.
After that, I typically look for a landscape feature I can key on. Is there a mountain on the horizon or a lake that will provide reflections of the stars? I often look for a human element like an old barn or a ruin or something like that to include in the foreground.
One of the trickiest parts of a shot like this is balancing the foreground with the light of the stars. How do you go about it?
I try to make everything completely dark. If I start with complete darkness, then it's up to me to add light. I can add it at any level I want to. On a moonless night, the stars set a certain light level. Then, I'll have a headlamp or some small LEDs I can position in order to light paint onto the scene. I can choose what I want the viewer to see. I'll take anywhere between five and 25 shots of a certain scene using different motions with the headlamp until it starts to look right.
How do you manage the light of the moon?
You can go out when there's no moon -- what astronomers call a new moon -- up to a half moon phase or less. Once you get more than that, the moon becomes so bright that it can actually make the sky look like daytime. On a full moon shot, you have to peer into the sky to see the stars.
No moon gives you the most clarity in the stars and the brightest milky wan and all that stuff. Once you start factoring in the moon, you can use it to illuminate a really big landscape scene. It's always important to be aware of the moon phase. When is the moon rising or setting and what angle is it coming from? You don't want to be surprised by it.
You have to have a pretty good understanding of the night sky to get shots like this. How do you track where the stars will be?
There's a fantastic online program called Stellarium. It's kind of like Google Earth for stars. You punch in the location at which you're going to be and the time you're going to be there and it takes you to that spot and simulates the star field, the moon phase, and the brightness of the location at that time. You get a 360-degree view that you can scroll around and look at.
Darkskyfinder.org is useful as well. It uses population densities to try and guess about light pollution levels. It's a good way to research where you should go.
Does the time of year during which you're shooting make a huge difference?
It has taken me a couple years to learn something that astronomers know by heart. In the summertime -- from about June to October -- the milky way is particularly vibrant. One reason is that it's standing vertically until about August and that's what's really going to make it show up in our shots. And for us northern hemisphere folks, there's a particular bright section of the milky way that only rises above the horizon in the summer months. In the winter months, it lays perpendicular to and never crests the horizon. It also gets more lost in the light pollution.