Star Photography Class at Bosque del Apache NWR.
If you remember, I took 4 classes at Bosque and one of them was Star Photography at the Very Large Array (VLA). I’m sure you’ve heard of the VLA, it’s a large complex of radio telescopes arranged in the high New Mexico desert southwest of Albuquerque. It was made famous in the Jody Foster movie “Contact” where she was working and received a message from an alien world.
The VLA is open to the public for tours, but nothing like this class had been done there in many years. I believe the main reason we were allowed to hold the class there is the instructor, Roman Kurywczak, has raised star photography to a very high art form and they believed he could do justice to the subject. The Project Director is a photographer and took the class with us. I’m sure he wanted to be able to take the incredible shots Roman does and what better way to do it than have Roman come to the facility and give a class?! Take a look at his night-time portfolio and I think you’ll be impressed as well! See it here: http://roaminwithroman.com/night/
This was the second class I took from Roman; earlier I had taken a macro class that was extremely helpful to me so I was very glad he would be teaching this one. He’s a natural teacher as well as an incredibly talented and skilled artist with a camera. I was so impressed with his abilities that I’m taking another class from him next month when I am in Florida visiting my mom. He’s teaching a Bird Photography class out on a pontoon boat in Sarasota, Florida. What’s very unusual about all his seminars is he never has more than 4 students at a time, so you get nearly his undivided attention. I’m saving my pennies now to be able to take one of his 10 day courses in the next few years. They’re expensive but will be worth every penny to me!
Photographing stars is difficult for two reasons 1) it’s very dark 2) stars are a moving target. So the class taught us how to set the camera to gather the greatest possible amount of light. Roman suggested using the widest angle lens you had and settings its aperture wide open for 30 seconds with the ISO set to 6400. I used my Canon 17-27L set at 17 mm and F4. Because I’m shooting with a full frame camera that’s the equivalent of 12 mm on a crop camera that most of you have.
The reason you shoot for only 30 seconds is that the stars are moving and any longer than that the stars won’t appear as points of light but as a bar instead. In these photos we are taking pictures of the Milky Way, later we shot Star Trails which is when you shoot for a long time and the line of the stars shows up as trailing lines behind the star. At the class we shot for 20 minutes which is about the shortest Star Trails you would want. Typically you shoot for 1-4 hours to get very long Star Trails.
But just a picture of stars isn’t very interesting, nearly every photograph is better with a good foreground. How do you get something in the foreground while it’s dark? Roman taught us a technique called “Light Painting.” In it you use a flashlight to light up the object in the foreground. It’s an art and not a science! You have to add the amount of light you think it needs but not too much or it will be overexposed. This is really what I had come to learn and actually see someone use a light at night to paint with. Roman has done it so much he can do it just by “feel.” In the picture with the Radio telescope he had a very powerful flashlight and painted it from a long ways away. Seeing him do it left me with a very good idea how to do it and I’m sure I can do it myself.
One thing I learned at the class was that if there is enough local ambient light, you don’t have to paint the foreground, the ambient light will be enough to light it up. I found that out for myself after I got back to my Ehrenberg camp from the class. I went out late one night and I noticed that there were a lot of shooting stars so I decided to shoot the sky and see if I could capture any. I used my van as a foreground object. My camp is located on a slight hill above Blythe, CA and there is a lot of light from the town. I tried shooting without painting and there was plenty of light, I didn’t need to paint at all. I was very lucky and got two shots of meteors, shooting stars!
At the class, when we were done shooting the Milky Way, we took one shot of Star Trails. By then there were clouds coming in and there was some high clouds that diminished the stars, but I still think the Trails turned out pretty well. This was a 20 minute exposure
I loved the class and learned a lot. There’s too much light-pollution here and not enough good foregrounds to get good shots so I’m already making plans for places where I’ll shoot the Milky Way and Star Trails. I’ll show them to you once I get them! If you’re interested in advanced photography, I highly recommend Roman’s classes, you’ll learn more than you ever imagined!
Check out his photographs and class schedule at his blog “Roamin With Roman” Find it here:
Oh wow, great pictures!
At Big Bend NP in Texas one of the ranger talks was about the night sky & how ‘good’ it was in the park.
An awesome side trip for anyone going to the Big Bend area is McDonald Observatory in the Davis Mountains. http://mcdonaldobservatory.org/
And if you’re wandering in south central Arizona, there’s Kitt Peak Observatory. http://www.noao.edu/kpno/
Thnaks Alan! I’m looking forward to getting up to Flagstaff which is an International Dark Sky City. But it’s too cold there yet!
That makes sense Rob, you are a long ways away from the nearest big city.
Cool stuff. Hard to find dark sky here in the midwest, but I’d love to try some of this. Makes me realize how much I need to learn. But that’s true of any worthwhile pursuit.
Great shots Bob! How exciting! Can’t wait to see some bird photos. Have fun in Florida.
Thanks Yolanda. How was Baja!!?
Baja was great! Learned a lot and can’t wait to go back. Recommendation #1 don’t cross the border at Mexicali on a Saturday afternoon.
Yolanda, I’m glad you had a good time, and learned the lessons for the rest of us!
Irv, that’s the great thing about photography as a hobby, you can expand it so there is always something new to learn and shots to take wherever you are or what time of the year.
I like the way light pollution defines the horizon and gives the shot extra dimension and color. Now, I just need to get a tripod so I can experiment with this.
Thanks Al, getting a good foreground really is key to star photos. Roman leads a tour in Arches NP and some of the shots are at Delicate Arch. I’m saving up to be able to do that.
Great photos of the stars. Thanks.
Thank you Kathy!
Wow digital cameras have made astrophotography easy! In the film days to get the milky way like that would take several minutes of exposure time and careful tracking to keep the stars sharp. It looks like you have captured the Orion constellation and the Orion nebula, very beautiful.
Kevin, the big difference is how they handle noise. I shot these at ISO 6400 which you could never do with film. With film I would have used 800 at most and that would have required a 4 minute exposure which would have left a blurry star trail. ISO 400 would mean an 8 minute exposure.
Bob , have you ever tried to take a picture without a lens just the open shutter and maybe a cardboard to partially close the shutter. It produces some weird, ugly even nice pictures.
Opa, I’ve never tried that. With digital SLRs a big fear is having the lens off because the sensors attract dust which then shows up on your photos. Then you have to clean the sensor which is a pretty sensitive process I try hard to avoid. I try to always have the lens on and switch between lenses as fast as I can
Fantastic photos! I live in Alpine Texas near McDonald Observatory and people out here help keep the skies quite dark. Also the closest big city would be Midland which is 150 miles away. Bob, thank you so much for your site, your posts are a wealth of knowledge and very interesting.
lovely photos and wonderful how-to! You inspire me to get out and do some night photos! Mind you, I’ll need to buy a better camera first, that will give me a B setting and high ISO’s. Will you be experimenting with pointing the lens at the north star and getting star trails on purpose?
Ming, yes!! I’ll be taking star trail shots with the North Star in them, but I have lights to the north of me here and they would wash-out the shot on a very long exposure. When I move north I’ll start experimenting.
great, looking forward to them! I love night shots.
Wow, those pictures are outstanding. It sounds like you found a great class. I hope you get up to Flagstaff. I spent May 1 – Oct 31, there, in 2013. What a great town. It is beautiful. You can walk or ride your bike to pretty much everything you need. Make sure you stop by the Museum Club (Route 66 East) on Thursday evenings to take the free dance lessons.
I love that town.
Cade, I also love Flagstaff, it’s one of my favorite places. I usually pass through Flagstaff twice a year, once on my way north in the spring and then on the way south in the fall. I always look forward to it!
Hiya Bob. I’ve looked thru the entries for your visitto Bosque del Apache but I can’t find a mention of where you stayed. I’ll be going this year and could use a hint. Thanks for the great blog, your insights are a great help to us all. – Gary
Gary, I’m sorry I never put in a map to the camp, I should have. at the top of the page on the website is a menu button that says Find a Campsite. Go to that page and scroll down and you’ll see my campsites. At the top right is a button beside my picture that lets you take the map full screen. Do that. Once you’ve done that, you can go back and forth between the satellite and map view.
I just added the Bosque del Apache camp to it and it’s the only one in NM so it’s easy to see.