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Shoot for the stars: how to make stellar prints of the night sky

Landscape and night sky photographer Drew Buckley reveals how to produce the best possible prints of astrophotography images.
A night sky showing the twinkling Milky Way over the sea, with rocky outcrops on both sides.

The Milky Way and a starry sky over Church Doors Cove, Pembrokeshire, Wales. When selecting night sky images to print, landscape photographer Drew Buckley says: "I'm always looking for something that's not been done before, images that are fresh and a good addition to my portfolio." A composite of images taken on a Canon EOS R5 with several different exposures at f/2.8 and ISO16000. © Drew Buckley

Drew Buckley is a landscape photographer who also loves capturing spectacular images of star-filled skies. "Including the night sky pushes the genre a bit further, and I like the fact that it's a different take on the world around us," he says. And conversely, in astrophotography "I prefer to include a landscape or landmark as part of the frame. I sometimes think it helps put things into perspective and show how small we all are."

Drew, who is based in Wales, has been photographing the night sky since he became a full-time professional photographer in 2010. He says the quality of images he has been able to produce has improved enormously as camera technology has advanced.

"Night sky photography is all about capturing as much light as you can in a short space of time," he says. "Faster lenses, and the advancement of camera sensors in terms of high ISO performance, have definitely made a difference. Also, the noise in shadow areas, and the ability to pull detail out of the shadows of RAW files in post production, have vastly improved. If I compare my first astrophotography shots with the ones I'm shooting now, they're a completely different quality."

For Drew, making photographic prints of his night sky images is the ultimate way to view them. He produces prints to showcase his work and also sells them via his website. "In this day and age when we mainly see images on screens, seeing an image in a physical, tactile form is a different experience. For me, it's what photography is all about. It's something I'd recommend everybody does."

But how do you create prints that look just as good as the images you see on your camera or computer monitor? Here, Drew shares his top tips for getting the best prints of your astrophotography images, from preparation to final output.

Landscape photographer Drew Buckley, dressed in winter clothing, standing on a grassy cliff with the sea behind. A Canon camera is attached to a tripod beside him.

Drew, on the Welsh coast, with his Canon camera. "It's crazy how far Canon has pushed technology in recent years, in terms of performance," he says. © Drew Buckley

A selection of astrophotography prints surrounding and emerging from a Canon printer, next to a pack of Canon printer paper.

One of Drew's night sky images emerges from the Canon PIXMA PRO-200, printed on Canon's Pro Luster photo paper. This is a professional paper with lustre texture that offers outstanding colour reproduction and excellent fade resistance. © Drew Buckley

Choosing a camera for astrophotography

Drew recommends using full-frame cameras for night sky photography. A full-frame sensor, with over 2.5 times the area of an APS-C sensor, offers better image quality, low noise and a broader dynamic range that captures every shadow, highlight and mid-tone in the night sky. Examples in the Canon range include the Canon EOS R3, EOS R6 and EOS 5D Mark IV.

Drew himself uses the Canon EOS R5. "The sensor in this camera is better than ones I've used before, and I can shoot at a much higher ISO," he says. "My previous limit would have been ISO3200, but now I'll quite happily go to ISO8000 or more and get similar results, if not better. Those two or three extra stops of light you can capture in the same length of exposure make a huge difference."

Composing night sky images

When framing his astrophotography shots through the viewfinder, Drew is always thinking about the final aspect ratio or dimensions of the image. "I tend to always shoot with a 3:2 ratio, matching the full-frame sensor, but I always allow some leeway for balancing the composition so I can trim the image down to suit various crops.

"In recent years, it's always been on my mind that if I get a good shot and want to post it on Instagram, I'll need to trim it to the 4:5 ratio. Generally, I try to allow for different layout options, depending on what the client wants or whether I'm sending images to be used in magazines or stock photo libraries."

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A night sky filled with bright stars above a chapel and old graveyard.

The Milky Way viewed from the graveyard at Flimston Chapel in Pembrokeshire, Wales. When creating these night sky photographs, Drew shoots separate exposures for the sky and foreground elements such as this chapel and blends them at the post-production stage. A composite of images taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) with several different exposures at f/2.8 and ISO1600. © Drew Buckley

A pink and purple night sky filled with stars above Carew Castle in Pembrokeshire, Wales.

The Milky Way over Carew Castle in Pembrokeshire, Wales, with the constellation Orion pictured, together with a starry reflection in the castle's tidal millpond. Drew has spent years honing his technique, camera settings, post-production and printing process to ensure he achieves maximum clarity and detail in his night sky images. A composite of images taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III at 14mm, 30 sec, f/2.8 and ISO3200. © Drew Buckley

Exposing night sky images

When choosing an exposure setting, Drew uses the same principles for night sky or daylight photography. "Whenever I expose I'm normally aiming to get the best out of the situation and to have the most flexibility when I come to process the RAW files," he says. "I tend to expose to the brighter end, as long as I'm not clipping any highlights, because this means there are fewer shadows and less noise."

To achieve lower image noise and allow for a range of exposures when including both the landscape and night sky, Drew usually takes several shots of the same scene. "If I've got an interesting foreground I'll generally shoot 5-10 images of the sky at around 30 seconds each," he says. "Then I'll set the camera to Bulb mode and shoot an exposure of 4-6 minutes to really claw in all the ambient light on the landscape in the foreground. Then I process the images separately and bring them together in post using layer masking."

Adjusting night sky images for best results

Well-exposed astrophotography images will show countless stars, so an image is likely to need adjusting at the post-production stage to bring out every point of light. "When I'm working on an image of the Milky Way, for instance, I'll always aim to bring out as much detail as possible in the stars and nebulae using Levels," says Drew.

"In Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, I'll also use a touch of Clarity, without going overboard, and make sure the sharpness settings are adequate. I might do some local dodging and burning, and I'll adjust the white balance and do some noise reduction if it's needed."

A twilight sky showing the Milky Way above several tall stones emerging from the sea.

Elegug Stacks in Pembrokeshire, Wales, captured at night with the spiral arm of the Milky Way streaking across the sky. The part of south Wales where Drew lives offers lots of dark sky locations that are great for astrophotography. A composite of images taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III at 30 sec, f/2.8 and ISO3200. © Drew Buckley

A night sky showing the Milky Way above a thatched hut on the Welsh coast.

The Milky Way glitters above the seaweed drying hut at Freshwater West beach in Pembrokeshire, Wales. The hut was built by the Pembrokeshire National Park Authority in recognition of the area's rich history of laverbread production and provided Drew with the perfect rustic foreground for his image. A composite of images taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV at 30 sec and ISO6400. © Drew Buckley

Choosing a printer and paper for night sky images

To print his latest batch of night sky images, Drew tried out the Canon PIXMA PRO-200, which offers vibrant, high-quality borderless A3+ printing, as well as panorama and fine art options. "It's compact, really nice to use and super-easy to set up," he says. "The beauty of this printer for astro images is that it has an eight-colour dye-based ink system. The more ink colours you've got, the more you can really pull all the richness of the colour range out of the image."

Drew generally prefers printing on papers that have an intermediate finish somewhere between a glossy and a matte surface. When printing with the PIXMA PRO-200, he chose Canon's Pro Luster Photo Paper, which is optimised for PIXMA PRO printers and offers a smooth lustre surface and excellent colour reproduction. "It's a nice bright white paper that's great for astro prints because it makes a bright print which gives you a lot of star detail," he says.

Eveline Eisermann, Marketing Communication Specialist at fine art paper manufacturer Hahnemühle, recommends the Hahnemühle Photo Rag Metallic paper for astrophotography prints. "Astrophotography images usually look fantastic on it because the paper gives a surreal look and makes the stars and night sky pop," she explains.

However, Eveline says, there's no right or wrong when it comes to your choice of paper. "It always depends on the taste of the artist or photographer and, of course, the intention. Some might think that the night sky or stars have to sparkle and thus need a glossy paper, while others prefer their work on a matte paper. Our experts have printed astrophotography on various papers, such as Photo Rag, Photo Rag Ultra Smooth, William Turner, and Photo Rag Baryta."

Whatever paper you choose, Eveline recommends test printing beforehand to evaluate different finishes. "Different textures and gloss levels can add to an image on various levels," she says. "Printing the same image allows comparison, and helps you decide which paper is your favourite or most suitable. Hahnemühle offers Sample Packs in A4 and A3+ with either Glossy, Matt Smooth, Matt Textured or Natural Line papers."

Canon Ambassador Joel Santos sits on the floor surrounded by photographs he has printed on a Canon PIXMA PRO-200.

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A close-up of the paper selection settings in Canon's Professional Print & Layout software.

Canon's Professional Print & Layout software plug-in works on its own or as a plug-in within your image editing software. With it you can fine-tune your images to get the best possible results, including selecting the correct ICC profile of the paper you're using. © Drew Buckley

A close-up of the Soft Proofing option in Canon's Professional Print & Layout software.

Soft Proofing in Canon's Professional Print & Layout software allowed Drew to evaluate the results before printing. © Drew Buckley

Printing night sky images

To get the best possible print, and one that's as close as possible to what you see on your computer monitor without a lot of wasteful trial and error, calibrate your monitor and adopt a colour-managed workflow. The correct screen colour temperature to match a Canon printer is 5000K (D50).

Drew recommends using Canon's free Professional Print & Layout (PPL) software, which works on its own or as a plug-in with image editing software including Canon's Digital Photo Professsional (DPP), Adobe Photoshop and Photoshop Lightroom. For optimum results, select the printer model and the individual ICC profile of the paper you're using.

Drew says, "I also always use the Soft Proofing option in PPL, which gives you a comparison of your computer image and how that image will look once it's printed. At that stage, you can do some extra image adjustments to really fine-tune the print so it looks exactly as you want it to look."

*Adobe, Lightroom and Photoshop are either registered trademarks or trademarks of Adobe in the United States and/or other countries. Photo Rag and other product names are either registered trademarks or trademarks of Hahnemühle FineArt GmbH in the United States and/or other countries.

Skrivet av David Clark


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