Photographing the night sky is always fun and magical as we can capture the light with our cameras in a way our eyes cannot. So it was on this evening that my good buddy and professional photography instructor Matt Granz joined me for yet another popular Darkside class with a wonderful group of budding astrophotographers. We met within the inspirational Aperture Academy Gallery classroom to begin a short session as the first part of this workshop getting to know each other a little, the gear our students brought with them and anything in particular each student wanted to work on, aside from learning to shoot the stars, of course. Matt and I then led everyone through a PowerPoint presentation outlining the techniques we would be using throughout the evening including setting white balance, shutter speed, aperture, and ISO, all in manual mode to give everyone complete control over their cameras and optimize the opportunities for this night of shooting.
As we all gathered in our 13 passenger Aperture Academy van, there was a bit of concern from our students as some monsoonal weather had come into the area rather quickly that afternoon and threatened to hide our stars. Matt and I had seen plenty of holes with blue sky and were feeling quite positive that our students would get the added bonus of streaking clouds in their starry night shots. While driving to our shooting location south of San Jose, the sunset began going off with the most incredible color of red, orange, and pink. The van filled with audibles of oohs and aahs from out students as we all got to witness the sunlight shining through virga and even got a double rainbow to keep us company on our way. In fact, the show was so exciting I made a right turn when I should have made a left and our students had a good laugh at me joking that I had decided on chasing the sunset!
Not to worry as I quickly realized my mistake, making our destination with plenty of time for everyone to set up and capture the colors still present in the western sky. This was also a great opportunity for our students to get their lenses focused on infinity before it got too dark as focusing at night is probably the most difficult part of shooting the stars. Matt and I then went about helping our group set up on the hillside we would use, with a group of oak trees as our foreground bathed in the ambient light of a surrounding neighborhood. When everyone was ready and tripods steady, we started with instruction of 30 second shots to test for focus and balancing out compositions for each particular set up. Matt and I were absolutely delighted to see some wonderful long exposure shots that brought out the last bit of the sunset's color as the clouds reflected some lovely pinks just as the stars began to show though streaking clouds in the darkening blue sky.
With everyone dialed in on their settings, we worked on using a cooler white balance to keep the sky looking blue while toning down the warmer ambient light absorbed by the oak trees. Then it was time for a succession of 30 second shots over 5 minutes which would give our students a sample of images to learn the layering technique for creating star trails. One of my favorite parts of the workshop is to do some light "writing" with just a flashlight to show our students how easy it is to incorporate some fun light painting into their shots. Everyone enjoyed getting a shot with the word, "STARS" in their resulting images with this simple technique. Next Matt and I helped students in adjusting ISO and aperture to do multiple minute shots in bulb mode while using their shutter release cables. From 2 minute to 10 minute shots, our group had a variety of exposures to show the difference these shots can make in lengthening the light of the stars as the earth orbits through our solar system all while maintaining a properly exposed foreground.
As we were nearing the end of our evening together, Matt ran before our line up with a colorful iPhone app light painting a couple of swirling designs before everyone's cameras. It was great to see so many different shots, even though we were all in the same place, simply because of the angle, composition, and focal length of each of our student's particular set ups. With just a few final 30 second shots, including one where I did some light writing with the word, "DARKSIDE," our budding astrophotographers had some last bit of fun exercising their new skills for capturing the starry night sky. At last we took a little time to get a couple of group shots to commemorate the workshop before packing up the van and returning to the gallery. Armed with their new experiences and a hand-out to reinforce and reference the basics on photographing the stars, we all said our good-byes on what turned out to be quite a lovely summer night.
Until next time,
Jean, Matt and the entire Aperture Academy team!
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