Practice, Practice, Practice
I am frequently asked for tips by both photographers just starting out and experienced ones who want to try the night sky thing. I usually point them to some YouTube tutorials, recommend some gear and a couple spots to try. The one tip I really WANT to give them but I know they don’t want to hear is that the best way to get images like the ones I regularly share is to practice, practice, practice. The tutorials are a nice start and you really do need to get the basic concepts that most of them explain. Specialized gear is neat but most of the time I leave my bag in the truck and just carry my camera and a tripod. Practice however, the simple act of going out and just taking pictures over and over again is the one thing that has really gotten me from where I started, the image below, to where I am now, the image at the bottom.
In the almost three and a half years since I started shooting night sky I estimate I’ve captured over a quarter million images. I spent a lot of nights setting the camera up in the woods behind my house and letting it shoot for a few hours. I’ve ended up with tons of missed focus, missed exposure, neighbors lights coming on and casting a glare. You name it and it happened to me. I just kept shooting.
I learned how to use every camera body that I’ve had by feel so that I don’t need to turn the lights on every time I need to change a setting. I’ve done the same with my lenses, tripods, triggers, heaters…whatever. If I used it a night I practice with it at home before I ever take it out to shoot for real. When I go out now I’m usually setup and shooting within minutes of finding a spot or a composition. This allows me to explore a bit and find better shots or help other photographers that might be with me. Focusing has become like second nature and I’m usually pretty close with exposure on the first try.
Operating a modern DSLR, in the dark, on a beach at near freezing temperatures is one of the more complicated things a photographer can try to do. If you don’t practice enough for it to be second nature you will struggle to produce consistently good images. It’s not exciting, it’s not quick and easy, it involves putting in time and effort but the REAL key to night sky photography is practice, practice, practice.