Star Photography Class at Bosque del Apache NWR.
Today I want to share with you some of the photos I took at the Astro-photography class I took at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. For as long as I can remember I’ve been fascinated by taking pictures of stars and star trails. I’m sure part of that is having lived in Alaska for 45 years the night-time became a big part of my life; after all, in the winter its dark almost 18 hours a day. Plus, it’s so far north that there is much less light-pollution so the night sky can be incredibly awesome! Throw in a regular show from the Northern Lights and Alaskans tend to be in love with the night sky! I can be outside looking at and shooting it for hours no problem!
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: