2.1) Camera body
Photographing the night sky is not difficult, but it is one field of photography where the right equipment absolutely makes all the difference. Getting sharp photos of dim moving objects like stars and the Milky Way is a lot more demanding than well-lit subjects during the day or with artificial light.
Sensor technology continues to improve with every new generation, getting more sensitive with less noise at high ISOs. Generally, full frame cameras have an advantage over crop sized and smaller sensors due to the size of each pixel being larger and able to capture more photons in the same time frame. Sensor size, pixel density (number of megapixels), and in-camera processing all determine the quality of image at high ISO. You want a camera that can shoot cleanly to ISO 2500 at least, and preferably ISO 3200 to 6400 for very dark skies. Some newer mirrorless and crop sensor cameras are capable of this.
For my setup, I use an unmodified Nikon D700.
The wider the focal length and aperture the better for Milky Way compositions. A wide aperture of at least f/4 is best, preferably f/2.8 unless your camera is capable of extremely high ISOs. Not every lens is sharp at f/2.8, and many f/1.4 and f/1.8 primes are not sharp enough until stopped down to at least f/2. Many lenses produce oblong and pear shaped stars in the corners at wide apertures, this is known as coma and is not easily fixed in post-production. Distortion and vignetting are much easier to fix.
A few notable lenses are exceptional at wide apertures with very little coma, particularly the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8G, Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 (manual focus), Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art, and Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 AT-X116 Pro DX II (for crop sensors). Generally speaking, lenses with an aspherical lens element have better coma control.
2.3) Camera support
A sturdy tripod is a must for long exposures, particularly in the dark where you are bound to bump it or knock it over. Pay close attention to those shooting around you and give them space, both for this reason and to avoid stray light from ruining their shots. I recommend not raising a center column at all if you can avoid it to keep your center of gravity low and your tripod less likely to get knocked over, especially if you are leaving it for a while for a timelapse.
A good ballhead is easier to compose with in the dark than a geared video head, where you might not be able to tilt high enough very easy or use in portrait orientation. Panning/gimbal heads on a leveling base also work very well and are my preference as I often shoot panoramas of the Milky Way.
Whatever you use, it’s a good idea to be comfortable using it during the day before struggling with it at night and turning the wrong knob, throwing a camera or lens off balance and damaging something. Everything is more challenging in the dark, particularly if it’s cold and you are wearing gloves!
2.4) Dew / Frost
The bane of night photography: dew and frost! Without getting too scientific, dew forms when an object radiates heat faster than it can absorb it, causing water vapor in the air around the object to condense on it. If the dew point is below freezing, you get frost instead. Practically speaking, the front lens element of a wide angle lens is the perfect candidate! Dew and frost will form on your lens before you see it on anything else and you won’t even notice it until you see your photos starting to get fuzzy and dim later at home. If you live in a very dry, arid environment this might not be an issue for you, but if you live near the coast it’s a constant struggle!
The best solution is to keep the lens warmer than the ambient air around it so dew can’t form in the first place. Hand warmers rubber-banded to the lens barrel and close to the front lens element are a good solution, as are electric dew heaters like astronomers use. Once dew has formed, it is hard to wipe it off or get the lens warm enough to dry out off with just a hand warmer.
UV and “protective” filters make matters worse as you are adding another very thin layer of glass with an air pocket behind it. They dew up faster than your lens will. I recommend taking them off at night to avoid dew and glare, unless you are shooting near sea spray or in ocean fog, in which case a filter is sometimes easier to clean afterward.
A lens hood will also help prevent dew on longer lenses. Many wide angle lenses have a fixed lens hood already.
2.6) Battery power
Long exposures will eat up battery life quickly. Don’t be surprised if you get far fewer shots than you would normally get during the day before your battery dies. Cold temperatures make batteries even less efficient. It’s a good idea to carry a couple spares in your pocket or inside a coat near your body to keep them warm. During the winter you can swap out batteries more often and you’ll find an almost dead battery has quite a bit of juice left over after it has warmed up again. A vertical grip with a second battery makes a big difference at night, particularly when shooting long timelapses.
An intervalometer allows you to shoot a photo in regular intervals to speed up later as a video, a.k.a. timelapse. Most Nikon cameras have a built in intervalometer in the menu, but it’s limited to 999 frames on all but the most recent models. That should be plenty for most scenarios.
Canon users can try out Magic Lantern firmware, if you are brave and your model is supported. There are also many external remotes that offer an intervalometer feature, too many to list here in detail, from simple to complex.
Promote Control is one of the more popular complex remotes for HDR bracketing, focus stacking, timelapse, and bulb ramping and is my personal choice.
2.8) Outdoor equipment / safety
Obviously a flashlight or headlamp is a necessity for night photography shooting. I recommend one with a red LED mode to preserve your night vision. Spare batteries and an extra flashlight are very wise precautions.
Here are some more recommendations for extended night photography:
- Whistle (many headlamps and camera backpacks have one already)
- SOS and slow blink modes on flashlights (cell phones don’t always have service and batteries die)
- Map and compass if you are driving off road or hiking, GPS units can fail or lose battery power
- Walkie-talkies for groups to stay in contact
- Bug spray, I always regret it when I forget this! That and a handkerchief always seem to get left behind in the truck when I’m hiking!
- Personal protection such as mace, pepper spray, bear spray, etc. (check local laws obviously)
- Trash bag, plastic bucket, etc. to set your backpack on or in to prevent dew, mud, mist, etc. from getting your gear wet
- Rain jacket during the summer or scarf / small blanket during the winter to wrap around the camera and keep dry / warm during long timelapses
- Extra layers as it can get very cold at night: boots, hat, gloves, extra jacket, etc.
- Water, snack, and a first aid kit are always a good idea to have nearby, or on you for a long hike
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