I need my eight hours of sleep each day. So, when my brother-in-law Simon invited me on a night-photography trip starting at 1am, I had mixed emotions. Those emotions lasted about 5 seconds and I said yes. Simon arrived at my home just before 1am and we drove up to the Myra Canyon trestles. The trestles are the site of an old railway that wound its way through the hills above Kelowna. There are some great vantage points looking down onto the lights of the city, as well as the ability to hide from the same light pollution and get a good look at the night sky. Wednesday night was also reported to be a peak time for the meteor shower that occurs every August in this part of the world.
We arrived at the parking lot, donned our backpacks, and headed off down the old rail bed into the moon-less night. It really is amazing how much light a city of 100,000 people radiates. We walked confidently down the trail and over the trestles with no need for a flashlight.
Night photography has always been a bit on an enigma for me. Many of the rules of exposure go out the window and everything behaves differently. I first tried to capture the night sky using film years ago. Having to wait a week to get my film back from processing really made it a trial and error endeavor. Digital has certainly changed that, however, it is still not without its challenges. Mainly from noise introduced by the long exposures. But the biggest challenge is common to both mediums and that is the issue of focus. How do you focus on something when it’s dark outside?!! There are these little pin pricks of light in the sky, that are quite dim in the viewfinder, and I am supposed to focus on that?! The problem is especially bad when I am using a wide angle lens as the dots of light are even smaller.
So, here is what I do. First thing is to switch to manual focus. Look at your composition and find some object that is relatively big in the viewfinder and somewhat distant. This is going to be your infinity focus point. Zoom in on this object ( if you use a zoom) and place it in the middle of your frame. Then, rock the focus ring back and forth, narrowing in on what you think is sharp. Be careful not to activate the light meter, as the display in the viewfinder will affect your night vision. Once you think the subject is in focus, recompose the image and shoot. Depth of field will give you some wriggle room here, so choose your focal length and aperture thoughtfully.
For the image at the top of the page I used a 20mm focal length and was at ISO 400. Exposure was f 5.0 for 22.5 minutes. The lens is a 12-24mm zoom and so I did not have a lot of extra focal length to play with. I just concentrated on the tree branches in the foreground and the stars behind.
The image below was a little different. I used a 35mm prime lens, still at ISO 400. To focus, I placed my headlamp on the trestle and shone it at the railing about half way in. I could then go back to my camera and manually focus on the illuminated railing. Aperture was f5.0 – enough depth of field for the stars to be sharp. The shutter was open for seven minutes and during this time I walked down the trestle shining my headlamp on the railing on one side. I then walked back, shining the light on the other side. I think it adds a little interest to an otherwise average shot. The lights of Kelowna create the glow on the horizon.
So what about the meteors? They were out but not in the huge numbers promised–at least not to my eyes. Even though several of them streaked across my open shutter, they were simply not bright enough to show up. Was it worth the five hours of sleep deprivation? For sure! The riddle of night photography is a little more understandable! Thanks for getting me out there Simon!