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.

When it comes to photography, space is more than the final frontier – it’s totally unexplored. That’s because astrophotography, which is photography of the night sky, requires special equipment, planning, and patience. But with the right attitude and the right gear, you can capture some incredible celestial imagery.

How to Do Astrophotography

  • Invest in the Right Equipment
  • Plan Timing and Location
  • Decide on Astrophotography Type
  • Determine Camera Settings
  • Edit Your Astrophotography Shots

Everyone is a photographer these days, since pretty much everyone has a smartphone. Photography allows us to capture an image, whether it’s to preserve a memory or show off an artistically beautiful scene or moment. That said, certain types of photography are more difficult than others. Perhaps one of the more elusive forms of capturing a photo is capturing subjects that are millions or billions of miles away from your camera lens.

What Is Astrophotography?

Many different types of photography allow photographers both professional and amateur to capture images of topics that interest them, whether that’s nature photography, travel photography, or portraits.

Astrophotography is the practice of photographing the night sky.

The first photographic image of the night sky was a daguerreotype of the moon captured in 1840 by John William Draper. Since then, millions of pictures of the cosmos have been captured, including stars, planets, nebulae, galaxies, comets, moons, northern lights, eclipses, and other celestial bodies and phenomena. While you might think it requires a satellite to capture images of outer space, that’s not necessarily true. Regular everyday people like you can also capture images of the night sky with the right equipment, planning, and skills.

How To Do Astrophotography

As you may have seen from your social media feeds, capturing the night sky is becoming an increasingly popular photography trend around the world. If this interests you, perhaps it’s time to go boldly where no one has gone before – without having to actually leave the earth’s atmosphere.

Invest in the Right Equipment

The first piece of equipment you’ll need is a good DSLR or mirrorless camera. A digital single lens reflex camera is different from a traditional camera because instead of displaying what the camera sees through a viewfinder, it shows you on a digital screen.

If you’re wondering why you can’t just use your iPhone or Android the same way, it’s because the sensors on a DSLR camera will facilitate much better quality images. This is something that can be especially hard to achieve photographing at night. DSLR cameras are noted for their low image noise – undesired variations in brightness – and high ISO – greater ability to capture images in low lighting. For taking pictures of bright pinpoints of light in the night sky, these attributes are simply a must-have. Some DSLRs can attach to a telescope lens, which can also vastly improve the precision of your photographs.

Other pieces of equipment can include lenses that can be attached to your DSLR. Lenses that are good for astrophotography are fast lenses with apertures of f2.8 and wider, which allow for as much light to reach the camera as possible. A tripod is often also a must-have so that you can keep your camera stable while photographing the night sky.

Some photographers like to use a remote shutter release, which allows you to trigger the shutter without touching the camera so you can minimize vibrations that could disturb your photograph during exposure. If you are going to be taking photos of moving objects like a comet or shooting star, an intervalometer will be a useful piece of equipment if one is not built into your camera. Some photographers also like to use a headlamp with red light so they can make sure their hands are free while they are setting up their shoot. If you’re photographing in cold weather, a lens heater can prevent condensation from ruining your pictures.

Plan Timing and Location

Most Americans live in urban or suburban areas that are heavily impacted by light pollution. But there’s a decent chance that just an hour away from where you live (or closer) there is a place with much less light pollution. You can use an app or site like Dark Site Finder or Light Pollution Map to locate a dark place near you for photographing the wonders of the celestial realm.

Timing is also an important consideration, because the stars and constellations move throughout the night, as do other heavenly bodies such as the moon and planets. Additional considerations are seasonal, as certain constellations, stars, and planets move across the sky throughout different times of the year, as you might be vaguely aware of from discussions of the zodiac and your horoscope. NASA, the U.S. National Park Service, and the Weather Channel can all be good resources for planning out astrophotography shoots of particular events in space like the alignment of planets, an eclipse, comet, or high visibility for the Milky Way.

Decide on Astrophotography Type

There are many different things to photograph in the night sky, and this will influence some of the investments you make in terms of time and money into astrophotography. Stars and the surface of the moon are relatively easy to photograph, and some aspiring night sky photographers are even able to capture decent images with a smartphone.

However, nebulae, galaxies (like the arm of the Milky Way in which we are located), northern lights, and images that are deeper into space will require more advanced equipment. It might be best to start with some simple types of astrophotography before investing money into cameras and lenses for capturing trickier imagery. That said, there are different types of astrophotography. Piggyback astrophotography involves mounting a camera to a telescope, whereas prime focus astrophotography involves using a telescope as a lens.

Afocal astrophotography is similar but involves taking a picture through the eyepiece of a telescope. And eyepiece projection astrophotography involves merging your camera and your telescope into one piece of equipment with a particular type of eyepiece on the telescope.

Determine Camera Settings

The main challenge with astrophotography is getting enough light in the shot since you are photographing elements surrounded by darkness. Some of the best practices for night sky photography will include using the manual or bulb mode on your camera. Fast apertures of f2.8 to f4 are better for capturing better images.

Setting your white balance to daylight or automatic may seem counterintuitive but also produces better results, as does manual focus and RAW image format. Shooting in RAW basically means your image will not be compressed into a JPEG, which is not only going to come in useful in terms of image quality, but in terms of the photo editing that you will be able to do. An ISO of 400 to 1600 is best, and some photographers recommend using the 10-second delay drive mode.

One standard rule that many photographers use is the 500 rule, which is basically as follows: divide the number 500 by the focal length of your lens to determine the longest amount of exposure (in seconds) before stars will begin to trail on your image. Keep in mind that the night sky is actually moving, so even just that small amount of time can result in a picture with star trails instead of clean pinpricks of light.

Edit Your Astrophotography Shots

Of course, as any photographer knows, capturing a shot is just half the battle. The other half needs to be waged in the Lightroom, or digital Lightroom if you are working with a DSLR camera. Knowing your astrophotography Lightroom presets can go a long way towards having a professional palette of options to choose from in terms of editing your final photograph.

Even if the colors, lighting, and focus were not 100% to your liking as captured during the night time shoot, you can use your digital Lightroom to make changes to the photograph and bring to fruition the night sky as you wish to present it.

Mastering the art of photo editing is one of those skill sets that really set great photographers apart from those who dabble. You can invest in the best equipment out there, but if you do not have editing skills or the right tools for that, then you won’t get to enjoy the full experience of capturing the night sky. And don’t think that capturing the night sky in remote locations means you have to forgo the editing experience, either due to logistical constraints (the weekend ended) or lack of mobile access… because there are also Astrophotography Lightroom mobile presets.

If you need some motivation to determine the importance of editing, browse through some of the social media posts that astrophotographers are putting up, using related hashtags (#astrophotographers, #space, #stars #nightsky), and see for yourself how many of the most standout images have been edited.

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.

Astrophotography and Shooting the Night Sky

Amateur astronomers don’t need much to share a beautiful image of an intriguing or inspiring celestial object, whether it’s the andromeda galaxy or the north star against a clear sky. Although you might think it takes something like the Hubble Space Telescope to capture deep sky objects, all it really takes is a digital camera and maybe a few extra pieces of equipment like a wide angle lens and a tripod to prevent camera shake.

If you have more experience and want to go beyond the images that can be seen with the naked eye, deep sky astrophotography may require some additional pieces of equipment like a telescope for deep sky imaging. Generally speaking, a good astrophotography camera is able to overcome the challenge of low light and a dark sky, whether you are looking to capture a meteor shower or use some planetary astrophotography to capture your favorite planet. Once you’ve captured your image, it’s off to the digital darkroom where tools like Adobe Lightroom can help you really bring the work of your astrophotography camera to life.

Beyond camera equipment, you will also need to learn about the weather and the patterns of the night sky, so that you will know the best times and locations to engage in night photography. Learning the name of each and every star cluster and the layout of the solar system can also become one of the most rewarding parts of putting an astrophotography camera to work.

It can be very rewarding to share an image of lunar eclipses or a star trail with friends and family members, perhaps inspiring them to enjoy the wonders of the night sky as well. Many astrophotographers will tell you that one of the best parts of this hobby is being out in nature at night, with nothing but quiet and no light pollution… just the stars and celestial objects above to remind you that the universe is vast and inspiring.

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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