Q&A with Michael C. Shaw, author of "The Complete Guide to Landscape Astrophotography"

Dr. Mike Shaw discusses his newly published book, The Complete Guide to Landscape Astrophotography, as well as tips and new developments in the field of nightscape photography.  Enjoy a few of Mike's amazing nightscape images too!

EternityWhy did The Complete Guide to Landscape Astrophotography need to be written?

You’ve seen dozens, if not hundreds of images of the Milky Way, star trails, meteor showers and the full moon rising; and now you want to create your own. Maybe you’re taking a trip far afield where you’ll know you’ll have perfect conditions for capturing a total solar eclipse, the Aurora Borealis or the Aurora Australis but you don’t know how. In fact, if you own a modern digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) or mirrorless camera, it’s most likely capable of making stunning images like these, collectively known as landscape astrophotography images, or nightscapes. Do you also own a tripod? If so, you’re all set!

The craft of landscape astrophotography, also known as nightscape photography, is easy, once you know how. But learning the techniques can be frustrating and time-consuming, as there are many new skills to be mastered. Among them are knowing how to manually focus in the dark, knowing the best camera settings, using other specialized equipment, understanding how to create compelling compositions in the dark, battling dew and frost – to name just a few. But these are technical issues that are readily overcome. The single, biggest challenge to newcomers to the landscape astrophotography is simply not knowing what night sky objects will be visible at night on any given day, or in what direction; or how the appearance of night sky objects changes during the year. How can you prepare for a night photography session if you don’t know if your subject (i.e., a specific night sky objects) will show up for the shoot?

The Complete Guide to Landscape Astrophotography (CGLA), addresses these and many other challenges head-on. Indeed, the primary aim of the book is to help you quickly conquer the necessary key skills so you can easily begin creating expert-level landscape astrophotography images. The information in the book is designed and laid out in a way that allows you to shortcut the slow, trial-and-error method of learning. This approach is especially helpful since many night-sky shooting opportunities only present themselves literally once or twice per year!

How is it different from other books in the field? Fire in the Sky

The CGLA integrates the key concepts of astronomy, photography and field planning in a single source. It is the first of its kind to include a comprehensive review of the key astronomy principles necessary to properly prepare for a session of night photography. It includes a detailed description of the science behind the phases of the moon, the presence or absence of the galactic core of the Milky Way, the origins and colors of the Aurorae, the colors of twilight, the reasons why different constellations are visible throughout the year – all in one highly readable and understandable source, richly illustrated with images and helpful schematic diagrams.

The CGLA is also the first in the field to identify the concepts of “sky-priority” and “foreground-priority” landscape astrophotography images and distinguish their important differences. This new understanding is the key to successful planning of nightscape images.

Another distinguishing feature of the CGLA is its worldwide, collaborative nature. A highlight is its “Distinguished Guest Gallery,” where nearly twenty of the world’s top landscape astrophotography pioneers have graciously shared a spectacular landscape astrophotography image representing their work. These recognizable and inspirational images are sure to provide motivation for anyone.

The CGLA also includes images from other eminent landscape astrophotographers from around the world; images that highlight a unique natural feature or phenomenon. There truly is something in it for everyone!

Finally, the CGLA is exhaustive. Over 440 pages of text, well over 250 images and drawings and links to abundant external resources, the CGLA has everything you might need during your landscape astrophotography journeys.

Glacier LagoonWhat do you hope readers will take away from this book?

Readers of the book can expect to learn everything needed to create trophy landscape astrophotography images. Specifically, you will learn the “Why?” behind the motion of the night sky, the presence or absence of the Milky Way, the different phases of the moon and why they’re so critical, the occurrence of meteor showers, solar and lunar eclipses, the Aurora Borealis and Australis, and so much more. This knowledge will enable you to confidently predict the appearance of the night sky, and the best time and date for your shot at any time, tonight or even months or years in the future. The book has global coverage: there is material for readers anywhere in the world.

Furthermore, you will also learn the photographic exposure science necessary to create the best nightscape images. What are the best ISO settings, aperture and shutter speeds? Which lens should you select and why; in fact how do you determine the best lens in the first place? How do you deal with the limited depth of field at wide-open apertures? You will learn the answer to these and a myriad of other questions.

Finally, you will learn how to create a detailed, personal plan for your night shooting expeditions. Your plan will include information on date(s) and time(s), tripod location, camera equipment and settings, compositions, sequences and timings of shots, and sequences of lens/camera body selection. You will learn how to field scout the shooting locations during the day, and what apps you can use to help you pinpoint your tripod location with confidence. Armed with this plan, you will be able to return to the field at night, knowing you are in the right place, at the right time, with the right equipment and knowledge to get your shot right, the first time!

Are there any key messages you’d like to highlight? Magic Island

There are two main types of landscape astrophotography images: sky-priority and foreground-priority images. The CGLA is the first in the field to clearly identify and distinguish between these two inherently different types of landscape astrophotography images.

The main subject of a sky-priority image is a night sky object: for example, the rising full moon, the galactic core of the Milky Way, a vivid set of concentric star trails. For sky-priority images, nearly any foreground will do: a lake, mountain range, or building. In contrast, the main subject of a foreground-priority image is a very specific, particular foreground subject: for example, a certain lighthouse, a specific vantage point of a mountain peak or view through a rock window. For foreground-priority images, any night sky object will suffice: a simple constellation, perhaps the band of the Milky Way – it doesn’t matter so much.

Patterns of the AncientsWhy are these two differences so significant?

Understanding the type of nightscape image being planned is crucial since it dictates how to properly plan the shot. Without this understanding, nightscape planning can be an extremely confusing exercise in circular logic! Or worse, the photographer simply ventures into the night without a plan only to quickly realize that the night sky conditions are such that the image being sought is literally impossible to make on that date and time.

Can you offer some basic guidelines for nighttime shots?

The CGLA offers a host of tips, tricks, suggestions, and solutions to common obstacles. Scouting your shot during the day, beforehand, is perhaps one of the most important. In-field day scouting, when you can actually see the surroundings, lets you get answers to basic questions relating to lens choice, depth of field, field of view, compositional tweaks, field hazards, the amount of time needed to set up, focusing opportunities, and so on. Dealing with these issues can be extremely time-consuming and tiresome at night. After a successful daytime reconnaissance scout, all that remains is to return at night, plant your tripod, set up your camera and start creating images!

What are some of the misconceptions of ISO settings in relation to landscape astrophotography?

As just one example of a common misconception that is laid to rest in the CGLA, consider the ISO setting that you select when you make an image. We all know that high ISOs are to be avoided whenever possible, right? Wrong! Landscape astrophotography benefits tremendously from routinely shooting at ISOs of 6400 and 12,800. The CGLA clearly explains the science behind this recommendation.

What are some of the controversies surrounding landscape astrophotography?Peeking Through

“Perception is Reality” – Lee Atwater.

A common discussion surrounding landscape astrophotography images is based on the indisputable fact that they generally do not literally represent what the human eye perceives. Controversy can arise from a line of thinking that this lack of literal accuracy renders nightscape images “invalid.” In other words, since the camera captures images that the human eye cannot, the images are thus disqualified from consideration. For example, most images of the Aurorae show vivid greens, purples and magentas, owing to the highly sensitive sensors of modern cameras. Yet except for the most intense displays, the Aurorae appear to the naked as a dull gray, and sometimes not at all!

The opposing side points out that human vision involves a 35 to 50 mm focal length lens operating at a 1/20 second shutter speed, with an aperture in the range of f/2 - f/11, at variable ISO, and in color. Consequently, any photographic image made with a different focal length lens or a different shutter speed; or with an aperture outside this range, or in black and white is therefore inconsistent with human vision, and by the same logic should be rejected. For example, long-exposure images of waterfalls, telephoto portraits with blurry backgrounds, black and white images, in fact all cellphone shots with their extremely wide-angle lenses – all of these images would be similarly considered “invalid.” In fact, if we restricted all photography to be literally reflect what we " see", the vast majority of all photographic images would be invalid. Hence you can appreciate the controversy!

Wheels of TimeHow is the field evolving?

Landscape astrophotography is a highly dynamic field. Each year brings major developments in mirrorless cameras, increases in base sensor sensitivity, new and enhanced augmented reality planning tools and multi-image blending capabilities, especially in-camera. The fundamental concepts of photography, astronomy and field planning articulated in the CGLA are the foundation for taking full advantage of these and other developments as they occur.

What got you interested in landscape astrophotography?

One afternoon many years ago, a friend and I were returning from an astronomy and camping trip in the California desert and we stopped off at a bookstore. Browsing through the magazine rack, I picked up a publication that included an article on how to use your DSLR to take photographs through a telescope. The basic message was, “You can do this too!” It was as if a light bulb had switched on in my head, and I was hooked! My sincere hope is that the readers of this book will take away the same message, “Yes, you can do this too!”

What experience led you to write this book?Yosemite Explosion

After pursuing deep-sky astrophotography for a few years, I recognized my interests really focused on images that included interesting foregrounds, in other words, landscape astrophotography images. Based on my academic background and experience in optics, imaging and astronomy, I realized that there wasn’t a single source available that included all the necessary information needed to efficiently learn how to plan, create and post-process nightscape images. Finally, having spent a great deal of time outdoors exploring the wilderness, I understood the need for a field guide to planning such excursions. Together, these experiences converged and led to the creation of this new book

A final note from Mike…

Are you interested in photographing the upcoming North American total solar eclipse in August 2017? Do you want to be prepared for the next Perseid meteor shower, also in August? Are you ready for this summer’s display of the Galactic Core of the Milky Way? Would you like to create stunning images of the next Supermoon as it rises in December 2017? All these subjects and so much more are treated at length in the CGLA.

Purchase your copy today!

  • The Complete Guide to Landscape Astrophotography

    Understanding, Planning, Creating, and Processing Nightscape Images

    By Michael C Shaw

    The Complete Guide to Landscape Astrophotography is the ultimate manual for anyone looking to create spectacular landscape astrophotography images. By explaining the science of landscape astrophotography in clear and straightforward language, it provides insights into phenomena such as the…

    Paperback – 2017-03-15
    Focal Press

About Dr. Mike Shaw

“Your Nightscape Professor!”

Mike Shaw Photography

WebMikeShawPhotography.com (Night Photography Workshops)

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Dr. Mike Shaw is an award-winning night and nature photography workshop leader, book author and educator based in St. Paul, Minnesota. Before his photography career took off, he was a physics and astronomy professor for over fifteen years. He also worked as an applied physics research scientist for over ten years. Yes, he IS a rocket scientist!

His new book, The Complete Guide to Landscape Astrophotography: Understanding, Planning, Creating and Processing Nightscape Images, Routledge/Focal Press, integrates astronomy, photography and planning methods to allow you to be at the right place, at the right time, with the right equipment and knowledge to get your shot right the first time.

Mike has traveled with his camera to remote wilderness areas around the world. He is known for his friendly, down-to-earth teaching style and enjoys collaborating with others. His work has appeared on CNN, CBS, NBC, ABC, Space.com, NASA, Minnesota Monthly, Destination Duluth, The World At Night (TWAN), PhotoPills, the Bryan Peterson School of Photography and in the US National Park Service.