Night sky photography
Top techniques for shooting stars at night, including time-lapses and star-trail images.
Austrian photographer Markus Morawetz is best known for his wedding photography but has long been inspired by a love of adventure. In March 2019 he decided to share that passion with his wife Carina and their 10-month-old daughter Fanni. Travelling by campervan from their home just outside Vienna, Austria, the family set out to witness and capture one of nature's most majestic spectacles, the Northern Lights, in northern Norway.
After spending the last few weeks of winter travelling through Austria, Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Norway, the trio of adventurers were rewarded with the marvel not once, but twice. "At that point we were staying at the beach in Norway, and the conditions were perfect – beautifully clear sky, no wind – and the Lights stayed for about an hour each day, just incredible waves of bright green and purple fringe dancing over us," says Markus.
"So many people said to us, 'You can't travel that far with a baby, it's too cold, it's too isolated,'" but Markus and Carina ensured they were well-protected against the elements and set out for an adventure. "One of our main goals in life is to give our daughter a real appreciation for nature," he says. "We knew it would be far, and we knew it would be cold, but March is the best time to see the Lights.
"You have this beautiful golden light all afternoon, and then after sunset 'the blue hour' with the most spectacular light. Even if the Northern Lights don't show, you have so many photographic opportunities during this period." Keen to travel light, Markus shot with the Canon EOS R, with an EF-EOS R Adapter so he could use some of his favourite EF lenses.
Markus Morawetz's top tips for photographing the Northern Lights
Knowing sunset would hit around 5pm, the family arrived at new destinations in the early afternoon to scout out the perfect location with a strong background. Markus and Carina would carry Fanni on a hike around the area to see what the place had to offer in terms of foreground subjects to add interest and scale, all the while keeping in mind a series of alternative spots should the lights move or look better somewhere else. "Look out for things such as nice stones, water, trees, or a cabin perhaps," Markus suggests.
One of the main problems facing photographers working in colder environments is the rapid depletion of battery life. Knowing that a prematurely flat battery could make the difference between capturing the Northern Lights and missing them, Markus always carried a spare when heading out. "I kept it close to my body, in my trouser or coat pocket, because the warmer the battery is, the longer the power lasts." He was shooting on the Canon EOS R, which has a recommended operating temperature range of 0 to 40°C. Markus knew no camera could be guaranteed to perform in the freezing conditions, typically between -5 and -10°C, and took care to avoid sudden changes in temperature – the condensation that can result is a notorious cause of camera failure. All environmental factors considered, "the EOS R was great," he says. "It performed for a very long time given the cold, and it was superb to handle and fun to be creative with."
You don't have to wait until you're out looking for the lights to start practising, says Markus. "The cold won't only zap your battery's energy levels, it will affect yours too, which means you need to work fast and know what you're doing, so it's a good idea to practise shooting night skies before heading north. Visit a nearby open space, away from light pollution in the winter, so you know how to work with gloves and a big jacket on, and practise using longer exposures. Stay out there for an hour or so, and once you get the hang of nightscapes, try some star trails or a Milky Way capture."
For the clearest results, Markus recommends mounting your camera on a tripod and using a low ISO with a long exposure. "I'm not afraid to push the ISO if I need to, but I prefer to use a tripod and use longer exposures, varying between one and five seconds, to capture the lights. I know from my wedding photography that it's better to get the shot handheld if necessary, say at a maximum of ISO 5000 if it's really dark, and have a little bit of grain that you can easily change in post, rather than miss the moment. But if you have time, it's better to lower the ISO, use a longer exposure and put the camera on a tripod to eliminate movement and get a sharper, clearer result."
Shooting on this trip often meant trying to capture detail in bright areas, such as snow or sand on a shoreline, as well as details in the darker elements, such as the sky or mountains. "It can be a dilemma to know what to expose for," says Markus. "I can't expose for too long or the beach will be too bright, and if I measure the brightness just on the beach, the sky will be too dark. You can try to lighten or darken in post, but you may get grain and not enough sharpness."
Markus' favourite trick is to shoot multiple exposures. "I'll take two identically composed pictures, one exposing for the light and one for the dark, and then merge them in post, where I'll also boost the colour a little. But there is an even simpler way using the Canon EOS R's HDR mode, which takes three continuous shots at different exposures and blends them into one image in-camera to create a picture with a wider tonal range." It's worth bearing in mind, however, that HDR is at its best when used in daylight. Another alternative would be to employ a Polarizing Filter that will enable you to enhance colour saturation in your shots.
Making sure your photos stand out from the rest means thinking outside the box when it comes to composition. "Often you'll find me lying on the ground or climbing into a bush because I don't want the 'generic' shots everyone takes," says Markus. "I want mine to be different – to tell a story – and finding different angles helps me achieve that. The Canon EOS R's vari-angle flip screen helped me to do this when photographing the Northern Lights, because there was a lot of snow and ice, so it was nice not to have to lie on the ground and get cold and wet, or risk climbing a tree when there are no hospitals for miles and miles. All I needed to do was lift the Canon EOS R up or lower it down and tilt the screen until I could see the shot perfectly."
"In the dark, it's hard for the autofocus to latch on, so I use manual focus and set the focus to infinity," says Markus. This is where a lens is set so that it can form an image of something so far away that it's beyond measuring distance – in this case the stars.
For this journey he mixed a zoom lens and a prime lens, the Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM lens and the Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM lens. "They are great landscape lenses with very wide apertures that still give a lot of depth and sharpness, and so were perfect for this trip."
Teaming the Canon EOS R with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM lens, Markus coupled longer exposures of several seconds with the lens' widest aperture. "For most of the shots I kept the lens open at f/2.8. That's the trick for star trail and Milky Way photography too, but you need a good lens with a really low aperture so you don't have to push the ISO too high."
Unlike traditional DSLRs, the full-frame mirrorless Canon EOS R allowed Markus to expose his images in real time, as he used the camera's electronic viewfinder (EVF) to evaluate how the final picture would look before pressing the shutter. "It's fantastic because you don't have to take a picture to find out if it's too bright or too dark – the EVF tells you. This can save so much time and stress, which is so important when capturing the lights as you never know how long they will stay and it's too cold to mess around. Once you have the exposure and composition right, unless the lights move or the overall light changes, you can just shoot again and again, which makes it a great camera for enthusiasts and beginners."
Markus, Carina and Fanni achieved their objective to get some great shots of the Northern Lights, but it was the moments shared with his family that made the trip worthwhile. "I'm all about capturing the moment, not creating it," he says, but when unexpected moments come, it's best to be well prepared.
Written by Natalie Denton
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