Shooting celestial bodies in mountain ranges – stellar images

The Simple Guide to Photographing Big Mountains, Part 4 is now available.

A Basic Guide to Photographing Big Mountains, Part 1
The Right Light in Part 2
Part 3: Writing Advice

  1. Star Pictures
    Adding People to the Scene in Part 5

A terrific method to capture something special of the mountains is by taking pictures of the stars. It is now simpler than ever to capture photographs of the stars because to advancements in digital cameras’ low-light capabilities. Star photography still presents several difficulties, with sleep deprivation at the top of the list. Here are some pointers for taking pictures of the heavenly bodies.

Milky Way Campground in Wyoming’s Wind River Range
30 seconds at f/4.0, ISO 4000, Canon 5d Mark III 17-40mm Lens

Trails, Star
Star trails and star points are the two main types of star photography. Star trails are long exposures in which the earth’s rotation causes the stars to draw lines in the sky. When using film, all you had to do to get star trails was prop open the shutter and return a few hours later. It is a bit trickier with digital photos. It is not a good idea to leave the shutter open for long periods of time since the picture would become uselessly noisy as a result. The sensor may get overheated and become irreversibly damaged if the shutter is left open for very extended periods of time. Using an intervalometer to capture several shorter exposures that are then combined in Photoshop is a workaround for this. Some cameras come with an intervalometer built in, but some don’t, so you’ll need to purchase a cable release with one.

Focus the lens manually or, if it is light enough, automatically to prepare the image. Then, adjust the aperture such that it is between f/6.3 and f/8.0 (I generally don’t). Select a shutter speed after increasing the ISO to a high value, such as ISO 800. My exposure times are typically between four and seven minutes. Finally, program the intervalometer to constantly trigger the shutter with a one- or two-second gap between each exposure. The movement of the stars will be the sole variation between a large number of the photographs you end up with. They will be automatically aligned when you load them in Photoshop and stack them into a smart object. With no negative side effects from having your shutter open for hours, you will get the whole length of the star trail.

Depending on how long you want your star trails to be, the overall duration may vary. I took the picture below over a period of around forty minutes, but I also spent more than eight hours photographing star trails. Keep in mind that depending on where you are in the globe, stars move quicker or slower. Additionally, stars will “move” across wide-angle lenses more slowly than telephoto lenses. The best method for determining the movement is to do some experiments and see how far the trails can go in an hour or so.

Chilean Patagonia, Cerro Castillo, Cerro Castillo National Reserve
40 minutes (10 4 minute exposures), f/7.1, ISO 640, Canon 5d Mark II 24-105mm lens

Finding the right lighting for your subject is the main problem when photographing shooting stars. There are several methods for doing this. You may simply make it a silhouette if the topic is vibrant enough. Artificial lighting is a suitable choice if the subject is tiny and near enough. The moon, however, provides the brightest illumination for mountains. Here, thoughtful preparation is essential.

You must be there at the correct point in the moon cycle to obtain a successful moonlight mountain. The landscape will seem to be illuminated by a full moon as if it were daylight, but the number of stars that can be seen will be reduced due to the surplus light in the atmosphere. A little moon will offer you plenty of stars, but it will be difficult to see the detail in the mountains since there won’t be enough light. A decent guess is often somewhere between a full moon and a faint moon, but then you have to consider when the moon rises or sets. You can easily find these times online or on apps like The Photographer’s Ephemeris. It’s crucial to remember that the moon affects the terrain similarly to how the sun does. This implies that if a mountain is wonderfully illuminated by a sunrise, it will also have excellent illumination from a moonrise.

I was aware that the 2/3 full moon will rise in the middle of the night when I took this photograph of Mount Fitzroy in Argentina. An hour before to the shoot, I began filming the stars in the pitch-black sky. I was able to photograph this beam of light on the Fitzroy headwall with star trails over the summit as the moon rose.

Argentinian Patagonia’s Fitzroy Star Trails, Los Glaciers National Park
70-200mm Canon 5D Mark II lens, 60 minutes (15 four-minute exposures), f/5.6, ISO 400

Sky Points
Star points are a bit simpler to capture than star trails. The most crucial factor in taking pictures of star points is acquiring enough light so that your shutter speed can be quick enough to stop the stars from moving. (In North America, you may expose your camera for a maximum of 15 to 20 seconds before the stars begin to streak. That period of time is closer to 10 seconds in regions like Alaska and Patagonia.) So I base my calculations for star points on the shutter speed. I opened the aperture and adjusted the ISO after setting it to 15 seconds. In order to prevent the picture from becoming noisy and grainy, I attempt to keep the ISO setting as low as possible. The moon is the finest light source in the highlands, as I said above. I waited for the moon to be bright enough to illuminate Fitzroy and allow me a short enough exposure to obtain clear star points before taking this photograph of it.

Argentine Patagonia, Los Glacier National Park, and the stars above Fitzroy
11 seconds at f/4.0, ISO 1600, Canon 5d Mark II 17-40mm Lens