A beginner's guide: Capture the wonders of Orion with these top photography tips from award-winning astrophotographer Kat Lawman
How to photograph the constellation of Orion
The constellation of Orion is named after the hunter in Greek mythology and is one of the most recognisable constellations in the night sky. Orion is a beautiful and majestic constellation of the winter night sky, and you can photograph it at its best from December to April in the Northern Hemisphere, and summer in the Southern Hemisphere. It is best located by finding Orion's belt, which is the 3 stars in the centre of the constellation, (as pictured in the above).
There are a whole host of useful apps available to help you navigate the night sky such as 'Stellarium' and 'Sky Safari' to name just a couple.
The first thing you will need to consider before heading out to photograph Orion is the weather, in particular the cloud cover. You will need to have crystal clear cold winter's night skies for optimal viewing. As well as the main weather forecasts, a useful app is 'Good To Stargaze' (see below) which gives you information on cloud cover, light pollution and visibility in your location.
Equipment you will need for photographing Orion:
- DSLR/Mirrorless camera/modern camera phone with pro mode
- Sturdy tripod
- Wide angle lens (ideal for capturing foreground elements into your shot. See example below for an idea of what you might see in your field of view at different focal lengths)
Composition and focusing at night
Once you have decided on a focal length of lens, have a think about composition. To make your image interesting and unique I would recommend you make use of your foreground surroundings, like trees, buildings and mountains....positioning Orion overhead. You could even try to capture the reflection of Orion in a still, tranquil lake.
So you're now in your location, ready to take your first shot of Orion...but it's dark! You will not be able to use the auto focus function on your lens, so you will need to focus manually. Also if your camera has a live view LCD screen , make sure this is on.
Set the lens to infinity focus. You should be able to see a picture of the figure of 8 infinity symbol marked on your focus ring. This is a good place to start. If you have a live view screen , pick a bright star that is visible and you should be able to zoom in and out. Luckily Orion has a few very bright stars so this should be fairly simple. Manually adjust the focus ring until the star is sharp. It is in focus when it is at its smallest point.
"...you can photograph this constellation at its best from December to April in the northern hemisphere, and summer in the southern hemisphere."
A couple of other useful options and techniques for focusing at night are Focus peaking or using a torch. If your camera has focus peaking turned on, it will display a number of red dots on the live view screen. When you manually adjust the focus ring, the focus peaking dots will aid you with the depth of focus quickly & efficiently. Which saves a bit of faff and fumble in the dark. If you have something in your foreground, you could always use a torch light to shine on it, and use your live view screen to zoom in and adjust focus on the subject.
If you are an owner of a Sony a7iii (and other later sony models) like myself, then you have a further option called 'Bright Monitoring' - this option is a game changer for composing your shots at night and will allows you to increase the light gathering capabilities and render a super bright picture on the live view screen, all at the press of a button! Magical.
Set the ISO, Aperture and Exposure length for Orion
You want your lens to be at the widest aperture setting, to allow as much light in as possible. An aperture of f2.8 or lower is ideal for night photography. To make sure you have set your focus correctly and you are happy with your composition, you can take a high ISO test shot. To do this I normally set my ISO to around 25,000 and take a shot of a few seconds. Just long enough to show a bright picture of what I'm looking at on my live view screen, so I can adjust focus and re-position if needed.
An ideal guide for ISO settings at night would be between ISO 3200 & ISO 6400. The higher the ISO the more noisy (grainy) the shot will be. Try exposure times from 5 seconds up to 25 seconds. The rule of 500 explains how to determine the maximum amount of time you can expose for before you start to see star trailing, caused by the earth's rotation. However, you can zoom in on your photographs on screen to check that your stars are still sharp.
Have fun and experiment with ISO and exposure length's until you are happy with the look of the shot.
Post processing your image
If you wish to make edits to your image then using programs like Lightroom and Photoshop will be extremely useful. When you shoot your image at night, it is essential that your camera is set to RAW format. This will enable you to correct white balance and improve other aspects of your image in post processing. One of the main challenges when photographing at night is noise, due to the use of high ISO settings.
There are programs out there such as 'Sequator' and 'Starry landscape stacker' that will allow you to stack multiple images of the same scene , giving you an improved signal-to-noise ratio, meaning your final stacked master image will have a 'smoother' overall look.
While that option may seem a little daunting, there are easier options available to be utilised. Adjusting the luminance sliders in lightroom will apply noise reduction to your image, but go steady with it, as the more luminance you add, the more detail you risk losing. There is now also an AI option in lightroom for noise reduction, i find this works well if not set to high (between 20 and 50). Worth playing around with the different options until you like the look of your photograph.
If you have shot your image in RAW format you will also benefit from adding some contrast and saturation to your image. Perhaps a little increase of the exposure of your foreground will make it more visible and bring out some further details.
HAPPY STAR GAZING!
More of Kat's photography:
See more of Kat's spectacular astrophotography in hr Picfair Store.