I was asked about using live view to focus on the stars after mentioning the issues I was having getting good focus the first night. Yuichi Takasaka mentioned using live view during a talk he gave at the Jasper Dark Star Festival and it certainly makes sense. Here’s what I ran into however.
When I switched my Nikon D800 over to live view at night I just got a red screen, basically lots of noise. This isn’t good and you certainly can’t focus this way. In fact it’s completely useless. I mentioned this to a few people and they seemed very surprised by the behavior. So am I! Why was this odd behavior happening became the discussion.
Perhaps the battery was a little low on power as I had been shooting all day. It was also very cold and we all know that batteries lose a little of their voltage in this situation but… no one else was having the problem. Perhaps it’s a Nikon issue? All the other photographers that first night were shooting with Canon cameras. I’ll of course be testing live view with a fresh battery the next opportunity I get. I really don’t think it’s a Nikon issue, more likely my brain not working well as I’m not a big fan of cold weather and part of the body has to shut down.
Our location for this second shoot was Lake Annette a few kilometers away from the Jasper Park Lodge. We arrived late as the fabulous dinner and keynote speakers (Peter McMahon and David Levi) had taken up much of the evening. Amazingly many visitors were still out looking through telescopes and shooting photos. I gather that earlier there were long lineups to look through these telescopes and talk to the experts about our solar system. Impressive stuff and it shows you how much interest there is in the solar system.
This second night of shooting I completely forgot about my live view issues and used the trusted focusing method of putting my lens at its’ longest focal length and finding a distant object. This is what we did in the pre-digital age and it works. A few bright stars were quite easy to focus on with my Nikon 24-70mm lens and my results were much better than the icefields shoot.
The sky wasn’t quite as dark as I would have liked as we were quite late and the moon was about to come up but there were some nice clouds forming at a high altitude and I’m very happy with the results. Staying later than most of the people, we had issues with cars turning on headlights and lighting parts of the scene, a little unplanned but it did make for some cool photographs. The moon did make its’ appearance somewhere around midnight and it was spectacular.
I found that a good starting point for exposures was about 20 seconds at f4.5 at ISO 4000. Shutter speeds any longer would have led to more elongated stars, basically what we think of as star trails. A solution of course is to buy a tracking device of which a few are specifically made for astro photography although by using this method you end up blurring the foreground slightly. Perhaps photographing the foreground separately and combining this with the star images would be perfect. It will have to wait however as it’s another expensive piece of equipment.