Beginner’s Guide to Astrophotography

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  By Jonathan Ma
Beginner’s Guide to Astrophotography

Have you ever been out camping in the woods, far away from town, and spent the night stargazing? (I’d highly recommend it if you have not!) The overall feeling that one gets from stargazing is a feeling of celestial awe. In this beginner’s guide to star photography, we will discuss some tips on how to get started in this amazing field of photography.

To begin, let’s discuss a what kind of equipment is recommended for star photography. First of all, a full-frame SLR camera is highly recommended. Full-frame cameras have a higher image quality – a must for star photography. Higher ISO settings also look better in full-frame cameras than in cameras with smaller sensors. The second piece of equipment that is highly recommended is having a wide-angle lens such as a fisheye lens in your photography bag would be ideal. The wider the lens, the better view you will have of the sky. During night-time still photography, having a tripod can be a life-saver. This is the third item that every star photographer should have. A tripod will let the photographer have stability as they take 15 second or longer photos.

One thing to note: star photography doesn’t work well if there is a full moon out (a half moon can be an issue, too). Large light sources such as the moon will overpower the light from the stars. Also, city lights cause “light pollution”, which can interfere with the scene. It’s best to take star photos far away from the city and its bright lights.

Still Star Photography

Especially with star photography, setting the correct camera settings is pertinent. With this in mind, shooting on the Manual mode on an SLR camera would make the most sense. To start with, try these settings: 25-second shutter speed, f/2.8 aperture, and ISO 1600. By limiting the shutter speed at a maximum of 15-25 seconds, the photographer keeps the picture from becoming a star trail photo. (We will discuss the settings for star trail photos in a separate section below.)

If you are using a fisheye lens, likely the maximum aperture setting is f/2.8. For this reason, we recommend using a full-frame SLR so you can crank up the ISO setting without too many repercussions. Full-frame SLRs handle high ISO setting quite well and won’t have as much noise as the same ISO setting on an SLR with a smaller sensor.

Now that you’ve inputted the settings into the camera, it’s time to shoot the photo. To focus, use the camera lens’ autofocus (AF) and point at a bright star, or the moon. After setting the focus, switch the auto focus (AF) on the lens to manual focus (MF). This way, you can mount the camera and not worry about awkwardly trying to focus the camera while it’s on a tripod. Just keep in mind not to bump the autofocus or the zoom ring on the lens, as that can mess up the focus. After the camera is mounted (make sure to use a sturdy tripod, and brace it if it’s windy outside), set the camera on a self-timer or use a remote to take the photo. It’s very easy for the photographer to accidentally bump the camera or move it ever so slightly when they manually press the shutter with their hand.

Star Trail Photography

Star trail photos can look pretty impressive when taken anywhere, but they look even cooler when there is something in the foreground to add contrast or another dimension to the scene.

The equipment required for star trail photos is exactly the same as the equipment required for regular star still photos. A full-frame SLR camera, a wide-angle lens, and a sturdy tripod would be the ideal star trail photographer’s setup.

As for getting the stars to rotate around in a circular manner – that’s actually a normal occurrence. By pointing your camera approximately North or South, you’ll see the stars circling around the poles. A good amount of time to shoot is between 20 minutes – 1 hour, depending on the effect you are trying to achieve (a shorter trail vs. a longer trail). Mess around with different settings, and see what works best for you!

Happy shooting!

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Jonathan Ma

Jonathan Ma is a freelance writer and professional photographer. He grew up in the beautiful Pacific Northwest of the United States. The natural beauty that surrounds this area has helped him to learn to appreciate art and photography. Jonathan's favorite styles of photography are nature and sports photography. He enjoys learning and teaching others what he knows.

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