How You Shot It: Dreamers – Shooting the Stars with an Astrophotographer

How To Shoot It April 4th 2014 10:39 AM 10 Comments

How You Shot It is a series where you show us how you shot an image. Many who use our presets love to share their special processing recipes. You can join the SLR Lounge Textures and Presets group on Facebook and share your favorite images and recipes as well!

Today’s post comes from Jack Fusco. He’s an astrophotographer with a number of publications including National Geographic and several different Jersey Shore magazines. While most photographers struggle to escape the light pollution of New Jersey, Jack has built a stunning portfolio of time-lapse photography and beautiful photos that grace the walls of galleries across the state. It’s not out of the ordinary for Jack to invite his friends out for a 3am shoot. With the temperature barely breaking 10 degrees F on the night that he shot this, he was on his own.

Inspiration

From the moment I took my first photograph of the stars, it quickly became a passion of mine. The amount of pre-planning that goes into each shot, driving in the middle of the night, time spent shooting before arriving at the final image really makes taking each photograph a journey in its own way. Light pollution on the East Coast can often render this type of photography impossible. It’s a difficult obstacle to overcome, but it makes each photo that much more rewarding. Continuing to find creative ways to shoot the stars, in locations that most people wouldn’t think possible, makes all the work that goes into each shot well worth every second.

How You Shot It

In order for me to explain how I shot this, I’m gonna have to start off by explaining everything I did before even taking my camera out of my bag. To shoot the Milky Way, no matter where you are, there are a lot of conditions to factor in. First, you need to find a location with a dark sky that’s as unaffected by light pollution as possible. Bright city lights will wash out the stars and make photographing the Milky Way literally impossible. You can find areas with dark skies by searching sites like ClearDarkSky.com. You’ll select your state which gives a list of suggested sites or you can switch to a light pollution map that will help you plan out your location.

My home state of New Jersey generally isn’t an area associated with dark skies, so careful planning is crucial. My favorite places to shoot are usually small seasonal towns along the Jersey Shore, like Sea Isle City, during the off season when no one is around and nothing is open. Along with a surprisingly great view of the stars, there are also a lot of interesting options to work into my shots, such as lighthouses and sand dunes.

For this specific shot, I had already been to the exact location, so I knew it would dark during this time of year so my planning started with timing. Timing my shoots is just as important as finding a good location, and shooting during or near the New Moon will ensure the skies are at their darkest. Once you see when the New Moon will occur, you can plan a few days before and after as long as you’re there before Moonrise or even after it has completely set. After marking the appropriate days on my calendar, my next step was planning the exact time of the night I needed to be on location.

The Milky Way rises at different times of the night, during different times of the year. I use an app for my smart phone called Star Walk which helps me plan out every last detail of my shoots to make sure I’m prepared. You enter in your location, potential date(s), and begin scrolling through the time on the clock to watch a simulation of the night sky. An illustrated version of the Milky Way rising above the horizon around 3AM meant I wanted to get there a bit earlier so I could be set up and ready to go when everything lined up. After you I had the time and potential dates marked off, I was left with one of the most frustrating steps, watching the weather. To get a great shot of the stars you’re going to want the skies to be as clear as possible. You can keep an eye on the weather a few days in advance, but as the time draws closer the hourly forecast will be your friend. Unfortunately, like some bad friends, the hourly forecast often lie to you. Make sure to keep an eye on the temperature, too. It was about 10 degrees F while I was shooting this, so dressing appropriately was also important. If you’ve done all you’re planning properly and the weather cooperates, you’ll be all set to get the shot, just as I was for this one.

Exif Info

16mm
f/2.8
25s
ISO 3200

Post Processing

Getting the final shot to look like this first relies a large part of getting the shot right in camera and then using Photoshop to fine tune it. While shooting, I used a custom white balance of 4000k to try and get a more natural color in the sky. In post, I added a bit of contrast and adjusted the levels to help add a bit more pop to the Milky Way. I used a flashlight to briefly light up the foreground of the image. In post, I masked off the beach area and brought down the brightness to a more natural level.

Gear

Nikon D800E
Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8
Feisol Tournament ct-3442 Tripod
Feisol CB-50dc head
Shutter release
Flashlight
Contigo Coffee Mug (arguably one of the most important items as it keeps my coffee warm for hours, 100% Kona coffee)

Conclusion

This type of photography is often regarded as being reserved for only those lucky enough to live near extremely dark areas. Areas far off the beaten path and miles from the faintest street lamp. While nothing will replace those areas and the unique darkness that they offer, I want photographers to realize that with the proper planning, it is a bit more possible than previously thought. Being out under a truly dark sky and chasing that starlight triggers a rush of senses and emotion. Unlike shooting a beautiful sunrise or sunset, the darkness of night moves a bit slower. You’re exposures are longer and you’re provided with more time to really take in what you’re photographing. Standing under what feels like an endless amount of stars is both exciting and humbling. It’s a moment where you can easily find yourself feeling lost and insignificant all while feeling completely at peace.

About the “How to Shoot It” Series

This educational series highlights amazing images from our writers as well as our community. The goal is to not only feature inspirational work but to provide valuable education for our photography community. If you would like to submit your work, please click here for more info on writing for SLR Lounge.

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J. Cassario

About

Jay Cassario is a photographer from South Jersey, and owner of the wedding, engagement, and portrait photography studio Cass Imaging. His true passion is his portrait work, but his love for landscape and star photography has earned him publications by National Geographic.

WEBSITE: Jay Cassario
Personal Facebook: Jay Cassario
Business Facebook: Cass Imaging
Google Plus: Jay’s Google +
Twitter: @JayCassario

10 Comments

  1. Michael

    Excellent article. I live in rural Pennsylvania and I am one of those lucky people that get very little light pollution. It was very interesting to me how you can get these types of shots in Jersey. I’m very impressed. I’ve been getting into astrophotography in the past year and I live about an hour from a place called Cherry Springs State Park. It’s regarded as a hotspot for astronomy enthusiasts. If you are from New Jersey, it might be a good alternative to spots out west. It’s supposed to be one of the darkest spots east of the Mississippi, on an airfield, so you get a 360 degree view. I’ll post a link. I haven’t been there yet, but I live on a 145 acre farm and try to get the best shots I can. One question I had was if you use anything to illuminate the foreground. Thanks for posting.

    Cherry Springs State Park
    http://www.dcnr.state.pa.us/stateparks/findapark/cherrysprings/

    https://www.flickr.com/photos/99924526@N05/13596715564/

    • Jack Fusco

      Thanks, Michael! It’s not easy in NJ, but I always find it worth the effort. I’ve actually been out to Cherry Springs twice and it’s absolutely awesome out there. That shot you got there is really nice.

      It’s been a while, but this was the shot I got on my last trip – http://www.jackfusco.com/Portfolio/Night-Sky/i-tF4gdJQ/A

  2. Cedric

    Amazing shot. How long is the exposure? Can you tell us how you adjust the focus point since it is so dark at night?

    • Jack Fusco

      Thanks, Cedric! The exposure was 25 seconds. Generally, you will be focusing to infinity for these type of shots. You can use a bright star or planet to help focus.

  3. Dave

    Thanks for tip on the app… been looking for one of those. I’m out in BFE in the country in ky but you can’t see it and the other apps I got are wayyyyy off.

    However, one big potential issue with the app… first I bought it on my crapdroid kindle hdx tablet… it’s offered in the amazon store but the main features don’t work on it but they don’t mention that, so i bought it again for my iphone and it worked great.

  4. J. Cassario

    Thanks everyone for reading. Cedric, his exposure for this shot was 25 seconds. Michael, he used a flash light to light the foreground.

  5. Jeri

    Thank you Jack for these tips. I love a starry night sky & didn’t think it was possible to shoot in NJ but just checked out your website & your photos are heavenly :) & shot in NJ….Yay! I’m gonna give it a try! Thanks again.

  6. Daniel Cselinacz

    Getting a shot of the milky way is something I’ve always wanted to attempt. Living in Jersey it’s obviously too bright, or so I thought. The question I have is, how long before sunrise is the best time to photograph the milky way? Especially around now where the sun is rising so incredibly early.

  7. Rich

    Nice article, Jack. Don’t you begin to get start rail after 17sec? How do you have such sharp images with a 23sec exposure without some kind of tracker on your mount?

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