In this piece, we talk to pro photographer Scott Stulberg about this uniquely amazing photograph of The Big Dipper being reflected in a lake in Maine’s Acadia National Park.
The Big Dipper After Dark Caught my eye. It seems like so much has to go into capturing this. Really still water, low humidity, the stars lining up over the water and being framed by the hills. Could you give us some background on taking this photo?
I was on a workshop with friends that lived in Acadia National Park. It was actually my first time there, but my friends lived there and knew the area really well.
I went to this one particular lake with the intention of shooting star trails. We set up and did some great photography before it got dark, which was spectacular. Then, we set up to shoot star trails and settled on the shoreline in this small grassy area. During the hour and a half of shooting star trails, I watched as the Big Dipper began to descend to what could be an amazing location over the lake. I envisioned the perfect shot of the Big Dipper with its reflection in the water. When I felt it was in the perfect spot, we stopped shooting star trails, recomposed and then just concentrated on single shots of the Big Dipper over the lake. I took it as a 30-second exposure and gave it my own touch with the starbursts. Interestingly, before that, I had rarely shot the big dipper as the main subject. Keep those creative juices flowing by trying new things as it often pays off!
I completely agree. Do you have any tips for beginners in astrophotography?
If you’re getting into astrophotography and shooting the night sky, you want a fast lens, f2.8 or faster. Otherwise, you’ll have to push your ISO and you’ll end up losing a lot of contrast. If you don’t want to or can’t afford to buy a fast wide lens, you can still rent one.
Also, you need a good camera. Astrophotography is one of the most taxing types of photography so I’d recommend a high-end body. You’re using shutter speeds of 20-30 seconds and pushing your camera to the max.
For any night sky photos with a shutter speed over 8 seconds, I typically use long exposure noise reduction which helps tremendously. When I focus after dark, I focus at different distances usually around 75-200 feet from my camera, using my laser. An ultra wide-angle lens like a 14mm or 16mm has so much depth-of-field that typically from about 30ft to infinity will be in focus. Some photographers like to focus right on the stars, but then the foreground can end up being a bit soft. I like sharp foregrounds as people's eyes do not like blur and you do not want a soft foreground. You can use any depth of field calculator app to see how this works. Of course, with image stacking, bracketing, lightpainting, exposure blending and so many other methods, the sky is the limit for shooting after dark!
I never would have thought of the laser trick. I’ll have to keep that in mind. Do you have any favorite apps for tracking the stars?
I live and die by Photopills. I also have all the other night sky apps in addition to all sorts of other photography apps. But, Photopills is what I swear by. It helps me design my workshops because I know where the moon and sun will rise and set as well where the Milky Way will be. It has augmented reality features where you can stand in a position, hold up your phone with the app and see what time or day in the future the Milky Way will be in the perfect position right where you are standing. It is a game charge for all kinds of photography and incredibly addicting too!
What kind of camera setup did you use to capture the Big Dipper over the water in Acadia National Park?
I believe I was using the Canon 5d MK IV body and I rented a Zeiss 15mm f2.8. That Zeiss lens is critically sharp and an incredible wide-angle lens. I’m actually switching over to the Canon RF system soon, so next time I go out, I’ll have an EOS R5 and the RF 15-35mm f2.8.
That R5 looks like a pretty exciting camera. For astrophotography, I’ve been seeing many photos with these perfectly exposed rocks in the foreground and other times as in this photo, there’s a little more mystery. How do you make decisions on that?
There’s no “one size fits all” for these kinds of things. You have to know what you want to capture. I plan on all my night workshops around the Milky Way and around the Moon. When you go somewhere to shoot after dark, like the Southwest for example, your shooting techniques can include light painting, car headlights, different light sources such as mercury vapor or even my favorite, moonlight. My workshops are often designed around the moonlight and the Milky Way. When I can, I’ll go between a small crescent moon and then all the way up to a 30-35% moon. I also have to decide if I can get it in one shot or if I need to combine multiple shots. In short, there are all these techniques and I have to imagine how they’ll look and decide what I want to do which is largely based on how powerful the moon is or how much I want to lightpaint.
I actually wrote an extensive article for Really Right Stuff called Afterglow: Shooting After Dark where I discuss all these options and techniques for those who want to know more.
It seems like a lot goes into astrophotography. How many attempts did it take to get the stars the way you like them in this photo?
Well, since we were shooting star trails, I knew I had the right exposure and composition. But typically, when I set up for a shot after dark, it does not take more than one or two attempts to nail the exposure and framing. You get used to knowing what to expect and it feels great to nail it on the first attempt setting focus and dialing in my exposure. Other than that, I might just tweak the composition a little. After I took this photo, I realized how cool it is to get The Big Dipper as the main focal point in a photo. Since then, I haven’t been as successful though as the right location and timing are crucial!
Since stars move, how much of a margin for error did you have here?
The Big Dipper Moves slowly so there’s no rush. Whatever it is you’re going to shoot, as far as stars, you generally have plenty of time except for October with the Milky Way, when the Galactic Core will only be out for an hour and a half. Conversely, if you shoot the Milky way in the month of June, the Galactic Core will be on display for around 6 hours and you can also capture a stunning Milky Way panorama.
That definitely takes some pressure off me for when I try astrophotography for myself. Did you have to do any focus bracketing for this one? It’s so sharp from corner to corner.
No. This is one single shot. The Zeiss has so much depth of field that it just wasn’t needed.
Scott, those are all the questions I have for you today. It’s been such a pleasure talking. Thanks for sharing so much information about this photo.
Thanks! Let's talk again soon.
Follow the Gura Gear journal for upcoming features from our pro team and other photographers as we discuss the process of taking their most iconic photos.
Looking to improve your nighttime photos?
Scott Stulberg has in-depth workshops covering all of the techniques he discussed here.
Scott carries all of his equipment in our Kiboko 2.0 which you can shop here.