Photographer Ben Canales shares his techniques for incredible shots of the night sky. Bring coffee
The southern view is what you want. The northern view looks very messy. It looks like someone spilled a salt shaker into the sky. The southern view has that globular glow. So, when you're picking a location, you want it to have a non-light-polluted view of the southern half of the sky.
How about the weather?
Over the years, I've learned to interpret the cloudy descriptions on weather websites. If it says mostly clear, then you're fine. Passing clouds are fine. Partly cloudy is usually the tipping point and once they say mostly cloudy, then it's usually not worth trying. You're going to go anywhere between 45 minutes and three hours, so there's a big commitment to these efforts.
What kind of shutter speed are you looking at if you want to keep the stars in place rather than having them form trails across the photo?
Thanks to new cameras with great high ISO performance, you can get a static shot of the stars in under 30 seconds. And that's really only happened in about the last three or four years. When I first got into this, everyone was doing star trails, but it was mostly because they couldn't get their camera's ISO up high enough. Now, because of these insanely high ISOs, people are getting cleaner 30-second shots that freeze the position of the stars.
What if we actually want the trails? What's the best way to go about creating them?
There are two methods for creating star trails.
The static method is where you take a 30-second exposure and keep repeating it over and over with something like an intervalometer. Then, in Photoshop, you just combine them all as layers into one file. You switch the blending mode to lighten and Photoshop will progressively overlay the stars so you get trails. This is getting popular because it also gives you the files you need for a time lapse video all in one effort.
Then there's the old-school method where you attach a cable release to the camera and you do single exposures of anywhere from 30 minutes to three hours. So, instead of using ISO 3200, you're going to ISO 400 and instead of F/2.8, you're using an aperture like F/8. You just have to do the math to compensate the extended shutter time.
Both methods have their own distinct look.
Your shorts are very much landscape photos, do you always use a wide angle lens?
I do enjoy a wide angle lens. You always want to see more of a scene. But, I'm realizing that my particular desire is for a 24mm lens. A slightly tighter shot brings more attention to whatever I choose to be in the foreground. If I want to get a really wide shot, I'll do an 8-10 shot panorama that will give me a really wide view, but without the distortion.
What kind of gear do you need to bring for a night shoot?
You need a tripod, obviously. An intervalometer is also nice if you're going to be doing star trails. One thing I found out about was those little hand warmers that you put inside of gloves or boots. I bring some of those and tape them around my lens barrel because as the night goes on, there tends to be moisture condensation. You'll set up a star trail or time lapse shot and everything will be fine. Then, later in post, you find out that the lens fogged over at 2 AM or something. A hand warmer on the lens will keep the temperature high enough for that moisture to build up.
A lot of people don't realize how cold it gets shooting stars. It's not that people have never done anything at night before or have never been cold, but usually all our activity outdoors is actually active or you're sitting around a campfire. When shooting stars, you're standing by a tripod for 30-seconds to five minutes at a time. The only motion you're doing is to push the shutter. We're not generating any heat, so dress like five times as you think you should because there's nothing worse than shivering through the whole night and not being able to concentrate on the shots. I dress like the marshmallow man out there.
What do you use for a light source when it comes to painting the objects in the foreground?
I use a headlamp as a light source in a lot of my shots. Everyone thinks you need a bright light source, but they forget you're trying to balance your foreground with starlight. A headlamp is plenty. Sometimes I'll bring a little lantern. Those constant light LED panels are fantastic if they're dimmable. I'll put them on the lightest setting -- it's barely turned on -- and that's usually enough light to blast a whole scene. I never bring a big giant mag light or anything like that.
Do you go through a lot of batteries over the course of a night shoot?
It really depends on the generation of your camera. With my old camera, I had to bring like five batteries with me and I'd burn through all of them in one night. Now, I've gotten to use the Canon 1D X and one battery will last the entire night. I would generally say everyone should go out with at least two batteries, though. It sucks when you're camera dies and it ruins a night of shooting.
Can you offer some specific camera settings that will give a good starting point for a star shot?
The go-to settings are 30-seconds at F/2.8 or whatever the fastest aperture your lens offers. Then set it to ISO 3200 or higher. Shoot raw because you want all that data to push and pull in post. I generally set a white balance of tungsten or fluorescent. If you do auto balance, you'll likely get this ugly orange night sky. With time lapses, white balance can also change as the night goes on. The more that you can get right in camera, the easier it is when you get home.
How much post-processing goes into the images?
I do a ton of post work. I don't think a lot of people realize how much work goes into the final images. We're pushing the cameras to their limits. This is not the area in which the cameras were designed to operate. So, the images that they give us aren't going to be high quality results we're used to getting. Someone recently sent me an email asking how to get their night shots "tack sharp." That's a term that we use for regular photography. It doesn't necessarily apply to night photography.
I use Lightroom 4 for noise reduction and post-processing. The highlights and shadows sliders are very useful for bringing out the detail. Out of the camera, the image is going to look dark. You have to amplify the elements you want to show in the final product.