Be Still – Photographing The Night Sky

This article was published in July, 2021 on EddieBauer.com via their content series: The Elements of Adventure with Matt Walker – the original piece can be found here

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The Night Sky

After countless pre-dawn starts to climb mountains all over the world, one night stands out above all the others. The night before, I had supported a rescue of an injured climber at 23,000 feet. We descended to 13,000 feet to conclude the rescue and I returned solo back to 23,000 feet immediately thereafter – traveling light, without shelter or sleeping bag, only a down suit to wear if necessary.

That night became the singular most powerful night of my life.

I didn’t make it back to high camp. Instead, exhausted and knowing I needed to preserve energy for the upcoming summit climb, I stopped to sleep. I laid down in my down suit with my legs tucked into my pack for warmth, hugged myself in the sub-freezing temperatures and stared at the stars. In awe at the expanse, our galaxy lay in front of me unobstructed, and in the inevitability of feeling my miniscule presence in the ever-expanding depth of the universe, I couldn’t sleep. I felt the weight of the moment – small, alone on the mountain, in awe, and vulnerable to the elements.

This is the experience I continue to seek in the night sky: in the mountains, around the campfire with friends and family, or with my camera as I learn and experiment with astrophotography to capture the beauty of the night.

Astrophotography intimidated me. At first, glance the images of the night sky, with radiant colors of the Milky Way and the Northern Lights or perfectly measured star trails over a dramatic landscape seemed next level, and frankly, nearly impossible for my skill set.

But there’s a whole spectrum of possibility and we each have to begin at the same place – the beginning. The place where learning is raw, clumsy, awkward, and uncertain. The same place that asks us to be open to possibility, vulnerable as we struggle to grasp concepts and create less-than-perfect pieces of work – the beginner’s mind.

I was encouraged by a close friend to approach astrophotography with humility and with a willingness to get it wrong. The result? I get it wrong – a lot.

I’ve discovered a unique and engaging way to create art in the wilderness. I take in the night sky and appreciate being outside after the crowds have dispersed and returned home, and connect with that feeling of awe and immense depth of awareness that can only come from pausing to take in the universe.

On one end of the spectrum, astrophotography includes the use of telescopes, intricate post-editing technique, and high-end gear. The other end of the spectrum is scrapy – a smartphone, a tripod, the native camera app or night-specific app and a willingness to experiment.

We’re going to focus on the scrappy side.

You need these 8 things to get started with astrophotography:

• Capture Device: Smartphone – explore the night setting capture mode on your device. On the iPhone 11 and 12, the “Night mode” feature will automatically become available in low-light environments (the mode is “on” when the moon icon turns yellow), and you can even adjust the exposure time to suit the darkness of your environment.

• Tripod: any device that can keep your phone or camera steady, still, and directed at the night sky. A traditional tripod or stand with a phone mount works great, otherwise look out for a solid and secure surface for your phone to rest on. In any event, use your phone’s self-timer (e.g., 3 seconds) to avoid any shake from tapping the shutter button.

•A view of the night sky – preferred with as much darkness as possible. The darkest night skies tend to be away from city light pollution, but find an accessible and comfortable spot wherever you can see the stars!

• Clear weather – the clearer the better. Needless to say, overcast or cloud-filled skies will make stargazing difficult, if not impossible, so check your local weather forecast beforehand.

• Low moon illumination – research the moon phase and timing of moonrise, I use the Lumos app [SK1] to track this. The PhotoPills app is also very popular for researching sun and moon positioning in map and AR.

• Download the NightCap app for more creative control NightCap app – download here: this app will kick-start your experience with a series of automated settings for capturing stars, star trails, and more.

• Compose with Imagination – frame a tree, a lake, a tent with lights, you name it – be playful. If you use an artificial light to brighten a subject in your foreground, and if the light is too bright, you can use your favorite Eddie Bauer Multidana or Multiclava to cover the light and “diffuse” it, so as to create more even lighting in relation to the stars.

• Take a test shot and check the sharpness of the stars captured in your shot! If the stars are blurry, you can try tapping the background on your screen to manually reset your focus, aiming for the sharpest stars that your device/phone can capture!

• A willingness to try and try again…and again after that. Fail forward.

 

“There is one thing the photograph must contain, the humanity of the moment.” – Robert Frank
 
This exercise in capturing the night sky offers us a unique opportunity; the nexus of humanity, nature, and the universe – all in a moment of pause and awe in the outdoors.Join me and the Eddie Bauer community, on August 7 for the second annual Sleep Under the Stars Night. And this year August 7 coincides perfectly with the opportunity to dip your toes into astrophotography. The moon will have a 1% illumination as it is in the smallest crescent phase. Not ideal for dancing under the moonlight…but perfect for night sky photos. Perfect conditions to grab your smartphone, set up a tripod with friends, family, and kiddos, and see what you can create!

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