This was billed to be one of the best meteor showers ever as the Perseids swept through Earth’s orbit last Sunday. Even the weather was clear for a change.
I had never done star photography before, but I studied up like mad — and made a number of poor decisions that resulted in two useable photos out of 320 exposures. And no meteors captured!
So here’s my Top 10 list of ways to screw up a star shoot.
10. Choose the wrong place. I went to Stone Lick State Park, the location used by the Cincinnati astronomer’s club for their shoots I went to where there was a large parking lot and a beach, but it turned out to have a honking great security light that no one arranged to swtich off. Scouting the location that afternoon I’d spoken to a park employee, but he just shrugged….I can’t imaging the astronomer’s club hasn’t dealt with that problem, but this wasn’t an official function, so…
9. Too much ambient light from distant shopping centers. Even out in the boonies, there was enough light on the horizon to make things a little murky. Dark means dark, baby, and don’t settle for anything less.
8. Have no way to deal with dew. The sky was clear, but the air was moist, and it all condensed on my camera lens. Had to interrupt my shooting sequence to wipe lenses, and even so a light mist of condensate kept creating a hot spot (and not too clear) in the center of many shots. There are expensive lens heaters available, and then there’s this arrangement which I used a couple of days later. Don’t anticipate crowds, and don’t overestimate the common sense and good manners of said crowds. You’d be amazed how many people cruised in around 1:00 AM, lights blazing, car stereos blaring. I should have chosen a spot with less ease of access, but no crowds. Just not easy to find such a place.
6. MIsplace your red light night-vision headlamp (very helpful that is). Of course with the zoo out there on Sunday evening, they weren’t so essential. A lightning trip to Walmart solved this problem for me on my way to the location.
5. Think you understand your camera’s intervalometer, when really you’re not so sure. (An intervalometer calculates how many exposures the camera makes, how far they are seaparated (the interval between exposures), and when the camera starts shooting). My problem was not being sure whether the start-time clock was time from NOW or actual local time. (Turns out to be local time, but I was slow figuring this out).
4. Don’t have a good method of focusing in the dark. Autofocus is useless in these conditions. There are a couple of techniques that can help, but even so it’s an iffy business. One way is to focus using the video or live-view function, at the highest ISO your camera can manage, then switch off live view and go back to the ISO you are using for the shoot. The other is to have practiced during daylight and making a note of just where the “magic spot” is for true infinite focus. There’s a little indicator on your lens . When you’re really in focus, note where that mark is relative to the ∞ (infinity) sign engraved on your lens. Then you can come really close to accurate focusing just by aligning the mark with your remembered spot along the infinity sign. You’ll need the flashlight and maybe a small step stool to do this at night.
3. Underestimate the power of the moon. Local moonset was 10:55 pm, but even 45 minutes after that there was a powerful glow in the West; actually, it enabled me to get one of the only useable pictures from this night time folly.
2. Don’t locate with a suitable foreground object. If you don’t have one, you have pictures of the sky without something to give them a purpose and depth. You can get into trouble be being too close or too distant (too close is more of a problem really, because you want both the foreground object and the stars to be in focus).
1. Don’t install fresh batteries and forget an alarm clock. Even with fresh batteries, you may run out of juice before the shoot is finished. That’s why you need the alrm clock,, so you’re awake to change batteries while the camera does its automatic thing. I was OK on battery power due to my “shootus interruptus,” but in a subsequent shoot my batteries died after 3 hours 15 minutes, and they needed to go 3 hours and 45 minutes to do the whole sequence. I didn’t know because I was asleep. Grrr.
NOW THE GOOD NEWS
Having committed all of these blunders, and having missed my chance at the Perseids per se, I set up for another go around at star track / time lapse photography two days later.
Here’s what I did differently.
1 Did not use my f 1.8 28mm lens. Wide open this lens sucks in plenty of light but is just a whisker soft, and soft you cannot afford in this situation. Used the f2.8 24-70 instead. Practiced during daylight until I was sure I could find the infinity focus point by referencing the index and lens marks correctly.
2. Read and watched another tutorial on the D800’s built-in intervalometer.
3. Rigged a hairdryer on a lamp stand to waft warm air over the lens to counteract the dew. It looks ugly, but it worked well.
4. Framed my shot during daylight.
5. Tested the shot around 10:30, made sure the focus was right, set the intervalometer and went to bed. Exposure was f2.8, 13 seconds (to reduce individual star tracking, little commas on every star), ISO 640. Next time out I will use ISO 800. Noise was not an issue with this camera at ISO 640, but the exposure needed to be bumped a bit in Photoshop. I think this camera will be OK at ISO 800, and I really don’t want to lengthen the exposure.
6. Went to bed. Got up at 5:15 to find the camera was no longer shooting; the battery life ended 15 minutes before my shoot was scheduled to end. But it had completed 777 exposures, with results you can see below. Now I know that external batteries or a brief excursion to change batteries are vital.
Here’s a single shot (number 534 as it happens)
And here’s the time lapse movie:
So here’s the tip of the day — do your homework and practice before you get to a one-time-event. You can get invaluable advice from