After my values review it was obvious that I was neglecting the online courses I had signed up for, so I made an effort to reconnect with my night-time photography course I had paid for. It turns out that building computer servers is not only good for reading short stories but also for watching instructional videos. Now photography is one of those hobbies where one can get really obsessed with specifications often to the detriment of actually capturing a picture. Anybody that takes pictures on any regular basis will know that whatever your camera you are using, it will never always take the picture you thought you were seeing in front of you. Fundamentally cameras need to capture light and memorise it somehow, but they also need a way to focus the image.

Nowadays most (not all) people will capture pictures in a digital format so storage is relatively easy (compared with slides anyway) though it still needs to be organised (not my strong point). So that ticks off memorising. The focusing of the light is usually done by a lens and often cameras will automatically focus for you, though often they fail to focus on what you want them too, so manual focus is sometimes needed (directed auto focus using a touch screen is neat but can be frustrating particularly on mobile phones I find). So another tick, focus is covered.

That leaves how we capture the image. Again, nowadays most people will use a digital sensor as opposed to light sensitive film. One measure of a camera’s digital sensor is the number of dots the image can be made up of using in terms of megapixels (million picture elements). The average screen people have on laptops, desktops and televisions is known as Full High Definition or 1920 pixels by 1080 pixels which is about 1.98 megapixels. You’d be hard pushed to find a mobile phone let alone a camera with this sort of resolution (or pixels), the cheapest Nikon I could find on Amazon a Coolpix A10 had 16.1 megapixels.

So why the lecture on camera basics? Good question. Well the answer lies in the fact that night-time photography pushes cameras to their limits. By its very nature there is not much light around at night so taking pictures can be challenging. This means that to get good pictures you need a fairly modern (last five years) camera with a large physical sensor. Now I am not talking about sensor resolution here (as in pixels), I mean the physical dimensions of the sensor if you got it out of your camera and measured it with a ruler. A camera phone sensor will be around 5mm by 6mm whereas a DSLR (the kind of camera you’d associated with professional photographers) has a sensor measuring 24mm by 16mm. To put it another way, DSLs have sensors that can gather at least twelve times as much light as mobile phones.

It is this light gathering ability that makes larger cameras in general better at taking pictures in the dark.  It is in my nature to get lost in the specifications of cameras and choosing the best value all round camera for any particular job. Taking up a new form of photography renews my nerdish tendencies and part of the problem which this new hobby is deciding if I need a new camera or not. My main camera is getting on for ten years old now, and unfortunately the new camera I recently bought was to upgrade the compact camera (i.e. small physical sensor) so not particularly recommended for night-time photography (though better than my main DSLR it turns out), so the temptation is high.

What did I do? Well I did what I usually do. I spend many hours researching cameras and comparing them against my current ones. Having interchangeable lens cameras means though that I have invested in lenses that work on a particular make of camera (Nikon in my case) so the best camera I research may be a different manufacturer which means that not only a new camera might be bought but new lenses too, which in turns means more expense. Since the lenses I already own are good enough for night time photography, I decided to stick to Nikon cameras for costs. This means that in fact there are only two cameras for me to choose between, and it is the cheaper of these two that makes most sense for night-time photography. Simple then, well, no it isn’t. There is that sensor size issue niggling at the back of my mind, is this the time to invest in a full-frame (i.e. bigger sensor than I currently have)? Tempting, but that too needs new lenses so maybe not. But still, it would be nice.

Which camera did I buy then? Well to be blunt, I didn’t. I know myself well enough to understand that what may seem like the best solution can actually be a bit of a waste of money because in fact when you get down to it, the act of taking photos in the night-time might not be attractive as it first seems. This happened to me when I went from looking at star constellations with binoculars to buying a refractor telescope and using that instead. I spend so long trying to identify where I was in the night sky, that I lost that sense of a positive learning experience and wonder at the sky that I used to have. So I decided to have a go with the equipment that I had.

The first night I tried taking photographs of the stars from my back garden. Whilst I spent quite a while outside learning about light pollution in urban environments the one thing I didn’t spot was how out of focus the pictures were. This particular camera and lens has a wonderfully quick an accurate focusing normally but is hopeless when there is little light (to be honest all cameras find it impossible to lock onto stars) and the focusing ring was of the continuous turn type which means it is impossible to set focus at infinity (required for star sharpness) without looking through the camera lens. So what was the problem? The viewing screen is actually an electronic representation and was far too bright to use when pointing at stars as well as being too awkward to get my eye to. Disappointing is all I can say.

The next night I found myself in Perth and decided to take pictures alongside the river between the two bridges. I was lucky enough to have to be a few days past a new moon with Jupiter appearing close by it in the night sky. This probably wasn’t ideal, but I liked getting them in the pictures I took. Being buoyed up by the experience along the river, I decided to have another go at capturing the Orion constellation but this time I drove ten miles away from the conurbation. It was obvious to me that I could see far more stars out in the dark confines of the countryside but taking long exposure pictures soon revealed the issue with light pollution in night time photography. I am going to have to put a serious number of miles in to be able to capture truly black skies.

I am going to add in a few photographs now. These are from the JPGs the camera produced, the final pictures will be manually processed from the RAW camera data so should be better on exposure. That’s another challenge though. In the meantime, you can see the river Tay running through Perth and the Orion constellation through the haze of sodium vapour lamps.