2020 WEEK 33: Astrophotography

This week we’re going to be looking up at the night sky. The night sky offers a plethora of photographic opportunities and in case you’re wondering, yes, you can accomplish the challenge from your backyard or balcony if you are on lockdown due to COVID-19 (or any other reason). I have enjoyed photographing the night sky for the past couple of years. In fact, some of my favorite photography experiences have been out under the night sky.

Star Trails during a Full Moon by Jeanie Sumrall-Ajero
Star Trails during a Full Moon by Jeanie Sumrall-Ajero

You might think that you can only take photos of the night sky in areas with no moon and no light pollution, but that isn’t entirely true. I took the above star trails photo under a nearly full moon! In fact, I would argue that star trails work best in light polluted areas because there are too many stars that all blur together when there is very little light pollution. (I wish the star trails were a bit longer in the above photo, but clouds spontaneously filled the sky after 20 minutes of shooting and covered up the stars, thus ending my star trail captures.)

There are plenty of options for city dwellers to photograph the night sky. Your camera will always “see” more than your eyes can see, so you might be surprised at what you can capture. I recently came across a video by Alyn Wallace, an astrophotographer in the UK, describing 10 Backyard Astrophotography Ideas for Lockdown which inspired this week’s challenge. (A couple of the ideas are dependent on the way the sky looked back in April, so if you want ideas for this month check out Alyn’s video What’s In the Night Sky August 2020.)

The Big Dipper in the Light of the Full Moon by Jeanie Sumrall-Ajero

I was out taking photos the other night in the same valley near my house and noticed the Big Dipper shining brightly in the sky. One of the challenges of taking photos of constellations is that the stars of the constellations often get “lost” in all of the other stars that the camera picks up. In this case, I added a slight glow to the stars of the Big Dipper in post-processing so that it would stand out more – similar to how our eyes see it in the sky.

Moonset behind Horsetooth Mountain by Jeanie Sumrall-Ajero
Moonset behind Horsetooth Mountain by Jeanie Sumrall-Ajero

Got clouds? You might be surprised at how interesting clouds are at night! If you live in an area with light pollution, the clouds can act as a huge reflector lighting up your foreground. If you have partially cloudy skies, the clouds can add a wonderful element to your sky if they are lit either by the moon or by light pollution. (Light pollution will often cause the clouds to take on a golden hue against the dark blue sky which is a beautiful color combination.) If you are totally socked in with clouds and have light pollution, consider a long exposure to show cloud movement in the sky. (This won’t work if you are in truly dark skies since the clouds will not be lit by anything and the sky simply looks like a blank slate, but I’m going to assume that most (all?) of us don’t live in an area with skies that dark.)

Perseids & Milky Way 2018 by Jeanie Sumrall-Ajero
Perseids & Milky Way 2018 by Jeanie Sumrall-Ajero

That said, if you are lucky enough to live near dark skies, you might want to try capturing the Perseids meteor shower which peaks this week (August 11-13). I captured the above image a couple of summers ago. It is a composite of photos that I took over the period of 2+ hours. I used a shutter release cable and locked the shutter button down to take one photo after another. I then went through and chose the photos that had meteor in them and combined those into one photo. Of course, you don’t need to go to this extent. The Perseids are famous for the pink/green streaks and capturing just one in your night sky image is a thrill.

Quick tips:

  • A sturdy tripod is key!
  • A shutter release cable is helpful, but not necessary. If you don’t have one, then setting your shutter to a 2-second delay works as well.
  • Don’t be afraid to increase your ISO higher than you normally would. It’s normal to do this for astrophotography when you have basic camera gear, i.e. you don’t have a star tracker.
  • Put the camera in Manual Mode! Don’t rely on your camera’s exposure metering – it doesn’t work well at night. And don’t rely on the LCD on the back of your camera because it will always look brighter at night (even if you turn down the brightness of the display which is also a good idea). Instead, start with these settings and adjust based on what your histogram shows. The following settings assume no light pollution, so if you have light pollution you will need to adjust. (I usually start my adjustments by lowering my ISO.) If you don’t have a fast lens then simply use the lowest f/stop you have and adjust the following settings to fit your situation.
    • Under a Quarter Moon (on Tues, Aug 11): f/2.8, 20 seconds, ISO 1600
    • Under a Crescent Moon (after Tues): f/2.8, 20 seconds, ISO 3200 to 6400

If you would like more details on how to capture a particular night sky subject, here are some links to videos that I’ve found helpful:


Stars, Constellations & Milky Way

Star trails

Meteor Showers

Deep space astrophotography
I’m mostly kidding here, but if you’ve already tried the other things in this list and are up for a crazy challenge, the information in this nearly 2-hour video applies to any deep space object:

To recap this week’s challenge:

  • Take a photo that includes the night sky.
  • This challenge can be accomplished in your backyard if you are not able to travel right now. (See discussion above for ideas.)
  • Post your photo during the week of Sunday, August 9 and Saturday, August 15.
  • Please remember to comment on at least FIVE photo submissions this week by answering the question “why?” in your comments. In other words, “why do I like (or not like) this photo?” or “why did this photo catch my eye?” Thank you!

The friendly community guidelines are pretty simple:

  • Take a new photo for the current weekly theme, not something from your back catalog or someone else’s image.
  • Post your photo each week to our active communities on Facebook or Flickr (or both). Tag the photo:  #2020photochallenge #photochallenge #tempusaura
  • Don’t leave home without your camera. Participating in the 2020 Trevor Carpenter Photo Challenge is fun and easy.

About thedigitaljeanie

I’m a self-taught photographer and way back when I used to love taking photos, but I allowed a business that I started in 2004 to take over my life and my photographic repertoire was reduced to quick product shots and how-to tutorials. When I joined the PhotoChallenge in December 2015, I was looking to rekindle my creativity and bring some joy back into my photography. I jumped in with both feet and have not looked back. I believe that photography can change the way we see and interact with the world around us. Some people may think that I hide behind the camera, but I feel that I experience the world in a much more intimate way when I am creating a composition in my viewfinder. In those moments distractions disappear, my mind focuses and I am fully present. It is just me and my camera capturing a moment in time that might otherwise go unnoticed. My background is as varied as the photos that I take. I’ve trained and worked as a software engineer, a massage therapist, an English teacher in Vietnam, a photo restoration artist (which is how I learned Photoshop) and for the past twelve years I have run a small software business with my husband where I have been published in numerous books and magazines, appeared on PBS television, created designs for fabric, quilts and machine embroidery and won awards for some of my quilts. It should come as no surprise that I am intensely curious about life and love to learn new things. I am blessed to live in the beautiful state of Colorado, USA in the Rocky Mountain foothills outside of Fort Collins with my husband and cat. You can find me online at: Photos: flickr.com/photos/the-digital-jeanie/ Day job: KaleidoscopeCollections.com Facebook: facebook.com/jeaniesa