Autumn is the perfect time to shoot the Milky Way. So, wrap up warm, stick a wide-angle lens on your camera, and follow astrophotographer and Nikon Creator Göran Strand’s top tips to take amazing pictures of the galaxy
Göran Strand’s incredible images of the night sky have been featured on NASA, National Geographic and on a set of postage stamps in his native country Sweden, while his video work has been used by many global news outlets, including the Discovery Channel and by Coldplay for a performance of ‘A Sky Full of Stars.’ Nikon Magazine spoke to Göran recently to talk about the best things to shoot in the Autumn skies and his advice on how to take the perfect shot.
This autumn, what should people be looking for in the night sky to photograph over the next few months?
Göran Strand: Here in the Northern Hemisphere, this is a great time for the Milky Way and Northern Lights if you're further up north. Autumn is one of the best seasons to shoot the Milky Way since we see more of the centre region than we do during the winter months. Then in late winter/early spring we are able to see more of the centre region again.
What lenses would you recommend for someone who wants to get started with astrophotography and, why?
The easiest way to get started is with wide-angle lenses. They allow you to take longer exposures and capture far more faint light before the Earth’s rotation starts showing as star trails. As you move up in focal length to 35 and 50mm, you can’t do long exposure just as easily. A good rule of thumb is the so-called ‘500-rule’ that many astrophotographers use. The 500-rule says that to obtain an image without any star trails, take the number 500 and divide it by the focal length you’re using to get your maximum exposure time. For example, a 20mm lens would allow for an exposure of about 25 seconds and still obtain the stars without trails. If you want to be on the safer side, you can start with 400 instead.
Let’s talk settings. Are you fully manual for your shots? What are your ‘go-to’ exposure settings?
When doing night photography, I’m all manual. Regarding exposure settings, usually on a dark site I start with something like 10-15 seconds at ISO 3200 with f/2.8 just to see what I get. From there, I change my settings depending on what I’m shooting. Sometimes I’m all the way up to 20-30 seconds at ISO 12,800 if the conditions allow me to. I’m not that worried about noise in my images from using such a high ISO – that can always be handled afterwards in post processing. If I have the time and if the object I’m shooting allows me to, I usually take several images and stack them to reduce the noise. This is good for the Milky Way but won’t work on the Northern Lights since those are constantly changing.
Obviously, a tripod is a kitbag essential for long exposure astrophotography. What are other good things to have?
A tripod is essential, plus, a remote trigger or delay of exposure if your camera supports it. I only use the built-in exposure delay function on my camera and set it to 1 or 2 seconds depending on my focal length. For longer lenses, you’ll need a longer time, so the vibrations have the time to settle before the exposure starts.
How should someone prepare for a night shoot?
Warm clothes are your best friend! Standing still for a long period of time will make you cold and, if you start cold, it will affect your mood and creativity. My experience is that if you’re not moving, you can never have too many warm clothes on. I also recommend something warm to drink and maybe something to eat, depending on how long you will be out. As for shelters, it’s nice to be able to take cover from the wind, so either hide behind a car or, if you have a small portable wind shelter those are good, too. Then you can also cover your camera from shaking due to wind. Sometimes, I also bring a camping chair and a pair of binoculars just to be able to sit down and enjoy gazing at the night sky. It’s quite amazing what you can see through some regular binoculars.
How important is processing to your work? Do you do a lot or is most of it done in camera with just a few small tweaks on the laptop?
For me, post processing is perhaps the most important step. I usually try to do a first edit as soon as possible while I remember what I saw, to ensure the colours are right. Then, I can go back to an image a few days later to see if I’m still happy with my result. I’ve found that my feelings for an image change from day-to-day, but if I feel the same way after a couple of edits and run-throughs, then it’s probably right, at least for me.
Most people will start with the Moon as an introduction to astrophotography. What are your tips for shooting the Moon well?
The Moon is one of my favourite objects in the sky with its different faces and times of day that it’s visible. From my experience, the best way to capture a full Moon is to do it just when the Moon is rising above the horizon. Then, you get a nice balance in light between the foreground and the Moon. When the Moon is higher in the sky, it’s not obstructed as much by the Earth’s atmosphere and will be much brighter, giving you a really high contrast image. Also, try to shoot the moon the day before the full moon, then you have even more daylight in your foreground making the image even more balanced.
Composition is clearly important in your work. Can you talk a little about your approach?
Usually, when heading out I have a rough idea on what I want to shoot. Also, it’s good practice to scout a location during daytime to see how the surroundings look and what you have to work with; maybe an old tree, some interesting rock formation or whatever. I always try to find an interesting foreground to work with. The sky is what it is, and I can’t do anything about it, but the foreground is all mine to choose.
Do you use your monitor screen or EVF (or both)?
I tend to use both, maybe the EVF more than the rear screen, just because I’m more used to framing photos that way. It feels more natural. I use the screen when doing shots close to the ground though, where it can be difficult to look through the EVF. One thing to keep in mind is to turn the brightness down on both the screen and EVF when doing night photography, otherwise you will ruin your night vision, so I keep it low when working at night.
In some ways I miss an analogue viewfinder, mostly because I saw the same light and colours as with my eyes when walking about. But the EVF makes so many things easier at night so I’m glad the technology brought us here. Starlight View – available on the Nikon Z 8 and Z 9 – is one of my favourite features. In my old viewfinder, I could barely make out the brightest stars on a wide-angle lens and now I can see the foreground and the stars, which saves a lot of time composing my shots at night.
And finally – what’s in your camera bag at the moment?
Currently, this is what’s in my camera bag, which is a Think Tank MindShift BackLight 36L Photo Daypack.
Leofoto LM-323C with HB-70 ballhead
Leofoto Mr. Q LQ-284C with LH-30 ballhead
NiSi Filter Natural Night 150X150mm
NiSi Square Star Soft 150X170mm
NiSi Filter Black Mist 1/2 77mm
NiSi Filter Circular Polarizer True Color Pro Nano 77mm
NiSi Filter ND-Vario 1-5 Stops True Color 77mm
NiSi Filter Natural Night 77mm