Landscape Astrophotography

By March 9, 2013May 7th, 2013Landscape Astrophotography, Technique

What is Landscape Astrophotography?  Landscape Astrophotography is the discipline of photographing scenes that include both astronomical elements and terrestrial landscape elements.

The motivation for landscape astrophotography is a desire to depict the night sky, including stars, planets, comets, meteors, the Milky Way galaxy, space dust and our Moon among other elements, along with some recognizable piece of planet Earth. This approach differs from the classic “deep space” images that, for instance, NASA produces, since those typically show nothing of the Earth and are thus disconnected from the type of scenes we experience when we view the night sky ourselves. In my landscape astrophotography, I choose to use lenses and compositional choices that produce an image similar to what the viewer would experience with his own eyes.

The Milky Way galaxy arcs above Arch Rock, panoramic photograph, cylindrical projection.

The Milky Way galaxy arcs above Arch Rock, panoramic photograph, cylindrical projection.

A few details that characterize landscape astrophotography, both my work and the way I believe most photographers practice landscape astrophotography today. Landscape astrophotographs:

  • are made at night, or at the edge of night (dawn and dusk).
  • use exposures “long enough” to record relatively dim objects in the night sky. Almost all landscape astrophotography involves the use of a tripod.
  • sometimes employ artificial light on foreground elements in a technique known as “light painting”.
  • sometimes will combine, or “stack”, multiple images to produce a final image. Naturally, in this case the resulting image is not what one would have been able to see in person, but the image can serve to illustrate the passage of time (e.g., star trails) or a relatively infrequent phenomenon (e.g., meteor shower).
  • often use relatively high ISO settings. This is made possible by the recent technological improvements in the sensitivity and noise characteristics of digital camera sensor.
  • often will use lenses “wide open”, or at or near their maximum aperture, in order to capture as much light as possible.
  • use focus that is typically near or at infinity so depth of field is not an issue.
  • benefit from maximum corner sharpness and minimal coma distortion, at or near “wide open” aperture — two highly desirable lens characteristics for landscape astrophotography.
  • require considerable post-processing techniques in software such as Photoshop, Lightroom and Starstax to adjust white balance, contrast, exposure and especially noise.
  • often will push a digital camera to the edge of what it is capable of recording. This means that as the technological capabilities of our cameras continue to improve, new possibilities in landscape astrophotography continue to emerge.

Below are few of my favorite landscape astrophotographs, made during the last two years with both Canon and Nikon equipment, all in California, Nevada and Utah. If you like these, please see my landscape astrophotography limited edition prints for others.

Delicate Arch and Milky Way, lit by quarter moon, hiker's flashlight and the fading blue sky one hour after sunset.  Arches National Park, Utah.