Ever pointed your camera at a gorgeous star-filled sky, clicked the shutter and then checked the shot to find nothing but darkness and a nagging sense of your own foolishness?
There’s an art to photographing scenery backdropped by the Milky Way. It’s not impossible, but it takes planning, the right gear, a little luck and a lot of patience.
Some thermal underwear is useful, too.
Dutch landscape photographer Albert Dros is one the world’s undisputed masters of the night shoot.
On a recent road trip through the spectacular canyons of Kyrgyzstan, he shared with CNN Travel some of the secrets of capturing that perfect 3 a.m. moment on camera.
Here are the essentials:
Mobile phone cameras get better every year, but this is a job for a quality digital SLR or similar. Even a decent compact camera will struggle to shoot through the darkness.
Dros typically uses a Sony AR7III, equipped with a fast lens capable of taking in every morsel of light when it’s in short supply.
He gave us a tour of his compact MindShift Backlight 26L pack, which contains everything other than a tripod that he uses on day and night shoots.
For day shoots there’s a Sony 12-24mm f/4G lens and a Sony G-Master 100-400mm — a combination which allows him to shoot wide angle and also long distance. “I like to shoot complex landscapes and these two lenses offer me the most creative possibilities,” says Dros.
For shooting in darkness, Dros mainly uses a Sony 24mm f/1.4 G-Master lens. “It has a very fast aperture, 1.4, that lets in a lot of light so I can get a lot of clean images without having to put up the ISO, which causes more noise.”
He also shoots at night with a Sony 50mm f/1.4 lens.
Awake at 2 a.m. and hit by the sudden urge to run into the night without a plan? You might as well stay in bed. For Dros, the key to a good darkness shoot is mapping it out in advance.
Preparation for trips like his recent exploration of Kyrgyzstan begins weeks before with some scouting on Google Earth to find likely locations.
There’s some advance checks on weather to gauge the likelihood of clear nights, and also a look at lunar phases — for Milky Way shoots it’s best to have no moon.
Once on the ground, the legwork begins to look for interesting landscapes to foreground the night sky. Once a likely spot is identified, Dros uses an app called PhotoPills, which plots the time and direction the Milky Way will appear from.
An essential factor in daytime scouting is getting a feel for the landscape. Dragging gear up a steep ravine or mountainside in pitch darkness can be risky without knowing the terrain.
Once the plan is in place, it’s a matter of setting an alarm, crawling out of bed in the wee small hours for a quick check of the sky and, if it’s all-clear, hitting the road.
You’ve picked the spot. You’ve navigated your way there in darkness without breaking an ankle. You’ve set up your tripod and attached your camera. Here’s where it gets technical.
Dros advises breaking out a fast lens that lets in as much light as possible, one with an f-stop of about F1.4 or F2. In Kyrgyzstan, he mainly used his Sony 24mm f/1.4 G-Master.
ISO, which governs how light the shot will be, is pushed up to 6400.
For starry skies, keeping the shutter speed as quick as possible is key. Dros highlights one image he took of a rock he names “The Iceberg,” backdropped by stars.
“This was also shot at 24mm and is just a single shot, ISO 6400 wide open at F1.48,” he says. “It’s very important to use a higher ISO and a very fast lens, because if you shoot for longer, then these stars will become streaks because of the rotation of the Earth.”
Dros uses auxiliary lighting to illuminate the foreground. Sometimes just the pale glow from a mobile phone screen is enough to pick out the detail during a long exposure. Other times, a head torch or lantern are used during multiple exposures which are later combined.
Other times he uses multiple shots over a period of 30 minutes to track the motion of the stars, which are then merged using software to create a “comet tails” effect.
To figure out what’s in the frame, Dros advises taking a test image using the highest ISO the camera has.
“Why? Because then you can take a very quick shot with a very short shutter time to quickly frame your shots,” he says. “I usually shoot this around 52,000 ISO, maybe even higher. It depends on what the camera can do.
“You take a bunch of shots on a very high ISO and then you try a bunch of different compositions and when you have the proper composition, you turn down the ISO and use a normal shutter speed.”
Pressing the shutter is rarely the end of creating the perfect image. Oftentimes, Dros works on his images on his computer to maximize the wow factor.
He doesn’t digitally manipulate the content or cut and paste foregrounds onto Milky Way backgrounds (one of Dros’ pet hates), but he does “stack” together multiple exposures of the same shot in Photoshop to ensure every single detail is captured.
One benefit is eliminating “noise” in the night sky, in other words, the scatter of different colored pixels that appear instead of true darkness — a byproduct of shooting with high ISOs.
“What you can do is take 10 or 20 shots exactly from the same position and then use software to stack them together,” says Dros. “Every shot has a different noise pattern and the software will average out all the shots and in the end you will get a shot with much less noise.”
This isn’t a technique typically approved of in photojournalism. News images published by CNN, for instance, are single shots usually edited only for light or color balance.
Dros says his photos clearly represent a different view of the world.
“It’s very important to have just good images, clean images,” he says. “So I have no issues with doing some stuff in post production to make the shots good — as clean and as good as possible. Because I want to show the frame in the best way.”
Night photography is clearly a lot of effort. So why bother?
Dros’ images speak for themselves, but the Dutchman insists the pleasure is not so much the finished result as the experience of shooting them — particularly in Kyrgyzstan.
“We’re driving on this dirt road, actually it’s a dried up river, arriving to the location and we have to spend hours and hours in the cold with maybe minus 10 degrees Celsius,” he says.
“But in the end it’s all worth it when we get the final shot. We are always having a good time during the night, it’s always fun. And when the result is good, everyone’s happy and it’s just a beautiful experience.”