Shoot the Stars

When I was a kid, one of my dad’s hobbies was astronomy. We were fortunate enough to have a meadow near our house that allowed for some decent star viewing on a clear night. Although I opted to sleep through most of his early morning forays to view meteors, satellites, and constellations, I have wonderful memories of accompanying him on a couple of different occasions. One such viewing was the aftermath of the Shoemaker-Levy asteroid impact of 1994 when I was ten years old. Through the telescope – angle carefully set up and calculated via Dad and his star charts – we could see the dark, round scars left on Jupiter by the asteroids. Another night, we looked at Saturn and I was amazed to see its rings. It almost looked fake, but the beautiful marble world floating in the viewfinder wasn’t a static image, painting, or special effect. The planets, the stars, even the space station in orbit – all these objects were no longer an abstraction, and idea. They were real. I was amazed – how could one not be?

These days, with more advanced telescopes and high speed internet, the need for a telescope and complicated star charts is no longer necessary to appreciate the night sky. On our family’s recent beach trip, my dad introduced me to the Sky View app, which you can point at the sky and show in real time what stars and constellations you’re viewing, and even where the milky way appears. Our family’s discussion around the stars came about because as it happened, our beach house and vacation timing combined to make a few nights of stellar viewing (ok, I had to throw in at least one star pun!). And for the first time I can recall, I saw the milky way with my naked eyes.

The milky way, it turns out, is best viewed in the summer months when facing south toward the constellations Sagittarius and Scorpio (that is, if you’re in the Northern Hemisphere). Our rented beach house on Oak Island had the perfect view. Positioned at the far west end of the island, the house only had a couple of neighboring houses nearby, making it darker and quieter. Our week of August 8th-15th also corresponded perfectly with a new moon and the Perseid meteor shower. All in all, a perfect combination for night sky viewing – and astrophotography!

I never imagined that a entry-level DSLR with a basic kit lens could capture the milky way, but with the aid of my dad’s tripod, and lots of hands-on help from him, my husband, and my brother, we were able to take a few shaky photographs of the night sky. Here is our best shot – still shaky with visible star trails, but pretty nifty for a first try.

The milky way

Our best first attempt at a milky way photograph

In the photo above, taken with my Canon Rebel SL1 and basic 18mm-50mm lens, you can make out the dim shape of the milky way on the right, as well as part of Scorpio. The Ptolemy cluster is the small, bright formation of tiny stars inside the milky way. We could not see this cluster with our naked eye, but of course it shows up in this photograph since the camera can take in more light than our eyes.

The following night was cloudier, but we tried to get a little more creative with composition. The next house over boasted an impressive telescope on their porch. We pointed our camera their way and got the following shot.

View of the night sky and the upper porch of a house with a telescope

A more “composed” attempt.

Lastly, my mom surprised us by coming out onto the upper porch of our own beach house. She obliged us by standing still for about 5 seconds for this last shot.

A figure stands on the porch with the night sky above.

Since returning home, I’ve done a good amount of reading and youtube viewing on astrophotography. Turns out shooting the stars is completely do-able with a fairly inexpensive equipment. I’m not sure the next time I’ll have the perfect opportunity to try it, but needless to say I’m eager to give it another shot!

Posted by Lydia Roberts

I'm a web designer living in Asheville, NC with my husband. I like to get away from the glowing screen by gardening, hiking, and traveling when we can. Our goal is to visit all 59 National Parks.