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How To Photograph The Night Sky | Q&A With Astro Timelapse Photographer Alyn Wallace

Alyn Wallace, based near the Brecon Beacons, gives us his takes on the art of dark sky photography

Based near the Brecon Beacons Dark Sky Reserve in South Wales, Alyn Wallace is something of a master when it comes to night sky photography. Labelling himself an astro, lanscape, and timelapse photographer, Alyn captures otherworldly imagery at times when most of us are tucked up in bed.

Wanting to learn a bit more about his processes, his favourite shots, his top tips for the craft and what it is that he thinks makes Wales such a special night sky photography destination we got in touch and asked him some questions. Here’s what he had to say.

How did you get into night sky photography?

I’ve always had an interest in space and the night sky and even studied physics and astronomy at Cardiff University. It wasn’t until I had my first job that I had the income to acquire my first DSLR and some suitable lenses and the final push for taking the plunge was a holiday I had booked to a dark sky region of Turkey during the Perseids meteor shower back in 2015.

“Living in Wales I had dark skies on my doorstep”

But, of course, living in Wales I had dark skies on my doorstep and would seize any opportunity with clear skies. I think the reason I became so obsessed was that I’d finally found something that could amalgamate all the things that I love doing. So the technical and mathematical aspect of photography and exposure, the ability to express myself artistically, my understanding of the night sky and also my love for the outdoors.

Credit: Alyn Wallace Photography

What are your top tips for shooting the night sky?

There are a few barriers to seeing a beautiful night sky that you always need to consider. First and foremost, clouds. Then, of course, the man-made light pollution and the final boss, the Moon. If there’s a big bright Moon then you won’t be able to see and photograph faint objects like the Milky Way and there will be less stars visible in the sky.

“It’s like being able to see a world that’s otherwise invisible”

Once you do get to experience a clear dark sky it can be quite overwhelming but a little knowledge in basic astronomy, how the night sky moves, and where and when you can expect to see things will go a long way. I post monthly “What’s in the Night Sky” videos giving a general overview of the night sky in the month ahead as well as any special events to note.

From a photography perspective it also takes a little while to “see” like a camera. When you take a long exposure, you collect a lot more light than you see with your naked eye and it’s like being able to see a world that’s otherwise invisible.

Credit: Alyn Wallace Photography

From an equipment point of view, what are the essentials do you think?

Sorry to state the obvious but firstly a camera and preferably one that allows you to change the lens as the lens will have a big influence. Wide angle lenses allow you to include a lot of the night sky as well as some foreground interest to give your images a sense of place or story. Another important aspect of the lens is a wide aperture, which will allow you to collect more light and create a brighter image with more detail.

“Smartphones are becoming ever more capable of capturing beautiful images”

Then you need a good sturdy tripod as your exposure times will be in the 10-30 second range, sometimes even multiple minutes, so you need your camera to be held nice and steady so that there is no camera shake and image blur. The final essential is a headtorch so that you can see what you’re doing and where you’re going.

All that said, even smartphones are becoming ever more capable of capturing beautiful images of the night sky. Huawei phones and the Google Pixel range in particularly are pretty mindblowing. Just pick up a little tripod and give it a go. You may find it to be a gateway into acquiring more professional gear.

Credit: Alyn Wallace Photography

How much planning goes into your work?

A lot! I’m lucky to have a deep understanding of the night sky and its seasonal nature. I also spend a lot of time exploring remote and beautiful landscapes in the daytime, hunting for interesting foregrounds and stories to tell. I then map all my possible images in Google MyMaps and work out when I need to return to include the kind of night sky I want to feature in the image. Fortunately we live in a world where there is an app for everything. Some of my favourites include Stellarium, a night sky emulator, and PhotoPills, which helps me plan my Milky Way and Moon photographs.

Credit: Alyn Wallace Photography

On the other side of the process, how much post-production goes into your work? What do you say to people who think you need to be an expert in photoshop / lightroom to do nature justice?

Most of my post-production work involves putting the piece together to create an image of higher quality. For example, taking 10 images of the exact same scene at the exact same settings and then creating an average of those images helps to remove image noise and create a cleaner image with better detail. A process known as image stacking for noise reduction.

“The more you can get right in the field, the less you need to do in post-production”

From a creative standpoint, I like to harmonise the colours in my scene and fix things like contrast and sharpening. I also find that as the years go by I do less and less in post-production and my editing is becoming more subtle and more refined. The more you can get right in the field, the less you need to do in post-production.

Lightroom is a great place for people to start. It’s very straightforward and has a simple structure and workflow based solely around photography. On the other hand Photoshop is not just for photographers but also for graphic designers, web designers, composite artists and all sorts, so it can be a bit overwhelming. But at first you will just find yourself dipping into Photoshop to do things that you can’t do in Lightroom and slowly you become more accustomed to it. There are endless free tutorials online that anyone can pick it up these days.

What’s the photograph you’re most proud of, and can you tell us a bit about it? 

Oh wow, I always struggle to pick favourites. I guess my self-portrait with a total solar eclipse in Chile is up there. I started planning that over a year before the event and I can’t explain how nerve-racking it is to spend so much money to fly to the other side of the world, not knowing what the weather is going to be like all for a moment that lasted mere minutes.

“I must warn you, there’s a fair amount of nervous swearing in the moment of totality”

To top it off I was operating three cameras simultaneously and all of them required careful attention as the changing exposure of a total solar eclipse can be quite difficult to nail perfectly. I vlogged the adventure for my YouTube channel but I must warn you, there’s a fair amount of nervous swearing in the moment of totality. it was such an incredibly moving experience.

Credit: Alyn Wallace Photography

From a photography point of view, what makes Wales such a special night sky destination?

Wales is a world leader when it comes to dark sky protection. Over a third of Wales is protected against light pollution with designation from the International Dark Sky Association. We have the Brecon Beacons Dark Sky Reserve, Snowdonia is also a Dark Sky Reserve and the Elan Valley is the world’s first privately owned Dark Sky Park. And that’s before we’ve even mentioned all the Dark Sky Sites across the Cambrian Mountains.

“Long story short, no matter where you are in Wales you’re never too far from dark skies”

Long story short, no matter where you are in Wales you’re never too far from dark skies. Even if you’re in Cardiff, our capital city and most light-polluted area, you take a 30-minute drive to the Glamorgan Heritage Coast and see the Milky Way! You can even witness some incredible phenomenon such as the Northern Lights and even bioluminescent plankton. If only the weather was just a little bit better.

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For more from our Wales Issue 

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