Peering into eternity


Look up into the heavens. Who created all the stars? He brings them out like an army, one after another, calling each by its name. Because of his great power and incomparable strength, not a single one is missing.

— Isaiah 40:26 (NLT)

There’s a reason photos like the one above, from Zion National Park in Utah, take your breath away. Even when not technically perfect — and my shot here certainly isn’t — star photos deliver a God’s-eye perspective that’s become all too rare.

If you live or work in a place with low light pollution (or skyglow, if that sounds less political), your view of the night sky looks very different than it does for most Americans or Europeans. The American Great Plains and parts of the Mountain West still have some dark-sky areas, but most people can see only a tiny fraction of the stars our ancestors saw. Check out this light pollution map to see how your area of the world rates.

If you find yourself someplace with bright stars — most of Africa and portions of Asia come to mind — you have an opportunity for photos that will wow your audience. Starscape photography takes practice and patience, but the results feel almost magical because the camera “sees” stars that the human eye cannot. It seems like you’re looking into eternity. In a way, you are.

Star photos from a cellphone won’t look like much, but if you have a DSLR camera, a tripod and a lens that stops down to f2.8 or wider, you’re in business. You’ll also need a flashlight to see what you’re doing and, ideally, a remote shutter release button that you can hold open manually.

The best time to shoot star photos is on a clear night during a new moon. The stars shine brighter because there’s no competing moonlight. Set up in the darkest place you can find that has a clear view of the night sky, along with a terrestrial landmark to give the photos a sense of place. But choose carefully, because any bright lights will overpower the photo.

Mount the camera to the tripod. Set the lens on manual focus, because autofocus won’t work in pitch dark. Turn off any destabilization features.

Start with these settings: ISO 1600, f2.8, 25 seconds. Use the “B,” or bulb, option for the shutter speed. Some cameras will meter correctly; others you just hold the shutter open remotely and count the seconds. With exposures longer than 25 seconds, the stars start to look like dashes instead of dots because the Earth is rotating. That’s why f2.8 is necessary; it lets in enough light for a short-enough exposure.

Then, just experiment with slightly smaller exposure times, higher ISO, even lower f-stop if your lens allows. By the way, this doesn’t require an insanely priced lens (though the results definitely do improve). I shot the above photo with an old Canon 50mm f1.8 lens that cost me $50 a few years ago and still can had for under $125.

My Zion photo was shot with a Canon EOS 7D at ISO 1600, f2.8 and 22 seconds, about 11 p.m. The Watchman mountain looked like only a black shadow to my eye, but the long exposure allowed the camera to catch the just-rising half-moonlight, barely there, and orange because the moon was still catching sunset light.

In other words, I either got lucky or God gave me a gift. It’s all in how you look at it.

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