Shooting for the stars

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Basic tips and tricks to astrophotography

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  • Katie Lyons
    Katie Lyons

With a new year on the horizon, some artists may want to take advantage of the long nights and clear, cold skies and try something different.

Luckily, the Gunnison Valley offers plenty of landscape and starlight from which to draw inspiration.

Gunnison-based photographer Katie Lyons realized this when she first began learning the basics of landscape photography. It didn’t take long for her to learn that astrophotography was also worth taking a shot.

“I was excited to try to capture the incredibly dark skies we have in addition to the panoramic scenery, and after a few camping trips and late-night drives to take photos of the stars I was hooked,” Lyons said.

Crested Butte-based photographer Eric Phillips said a long fascination with the night sky inspired him to delve into the world of astrophotography.

“I love looking at the stars, and a camera can see more stars than the human eye can,” Phillips said.

Phillips said his first attempt at photographing the stars was surprising, being “blown away at how much more I could see.”

Photographing the night sky may be intimidating for those new to the method, but Lyons and Phillips have offered astrophotography novices a few tips to get started. Lyons and Phillips said all it takes is the right gear, basic knowledge of camera settings and utilizing the right resources.

They recommend the basics: a camera, tripod and, ideally, a wide-angle lens.

To set up the photo, Phillips said to keep aperture, or f-stop, as low as possible to take in the most amount of light. Setting the camera to manual focus, and turning the focusing to “just before” the infinity symbol helps to get a crisper image.

Lyons said when she manually focuses, she focuses on an additional source of light, like the moon or lights from a distant home, as a base.

Phillips said the shutter speed should ideally be set between 25 to 30 seconds. Anything more than 30 typically results in a blurred image, due to the stars moving in the sky.

Lyons and Phillips say any area away from town, a short drive for most in the valley, is the best place to capture the night sky. They said Hartman’s Rocks, Ohio Creek Road or Gothic Road are some of their favorite spots.

Having a basic handle on astronomy can also help in getting an ideal picture.

Lyons said she keeps track of the moon cycles to inform her shooting. As an example, Lyons said shooting during or around a full moon is great if one wants to illuminate the surrounding landscapes but should be avoided if the stars are to be more visible in the image.

Phillips said his favorite time of the year to shoot at night is during the Milky Way season, when the core of the galaxy rises above the horizon line. The season lasts from mid-April through October.

Phillips said his favorite part of the astrophotography experience is the anticipation between the click of the shutter button and the final reveal of the image.

“It’s so exciting to wait for it,” Phillips said. “There are so many more stars in the sky than the naked eye can see. It’s crazy to look into the camera and see that image.”

Lyons said night sky photography has given her a deeper connection with the natural world.

“Being the only person around for dozens of miles looking up at thousands of stars really makes me pause and consider my place in an exceptionally vast universe,” Lyons said.

(Roberta Marquette can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or at roberta@gunnisontimes.com.)