Want to really “shoot for the stars” as a photographer?
Thanks to advancements in camera technology, even novice photographers can turn their lenses toward the magic of the night sky. Astrophotography is a fascinating field with a lot of potential for taking unbelievable shots. And to get started, you’ll just need a few must-have pieces of equipment—plus a basic understanding of astrophotography camera settings and the fundamentals of taking stellar photos (pun intended).
Here’s what to know so that you can start exploring astrophotography and the stars, galaxies, nebulae, and more that inhabit our skies.
What is Astrophotography?
Astronomical imaging, or astrophotography, is the practice of taking pictures of the night sky and its various elements, many of which are unable to be spotted by the naked eye, or even by traditional cameras.
If you’re interested in astrophotography, then you probably already have at least some appreciation for the unbelievable celestial objects and events that occur in our sky. Possible subjects for your photos include stars, planets, and galaxies, as well as passing comets, eclipses, and other rare astro occurrences.
Types of Astrophotography
There’s more to astrophotography than just taking your camera out at night and aiming up. You may decide that you want to focus on a specific subset of astronomical imaging, in which case you’ll have a variety of types to choose from. These include:
- Landscape astrophotography
- Milky Way astrophotography
- Planetary astrophotography
- Star trail photography
- Time lapse astrophotography
- Solar system astrophotography
- Deep space astrophotography
- Wide field astrophotography
Depending on the type of astrophotography you’re drawn to, you may need to invest in certain types of equipment or modify your techniques. Do some additional research beyond astrophotography basics if that’s the case so that you can be sure you end up with great results.
Astrophotography Equipment: Essentials
Your smartphone camera can do a lot, but it’s not enough for this type of work. You’ll need a high-quality camera for astrophotography, and you may decide that you want a specialized telescope for astrophotography too (though it’s not totally necessary—more on that below).
Start with these essential pieces of astrophotography gear, then add on to your list as needed.
Choosing the Best Camera for Astrophotography
When choosing an astrophotography camera, you’ll want a manual DSLR or mirrorless camera with strong low-light capabilities. These types of cameras are key for any type of night sky photography, and especially when you want to photograph the stars and other elements that can be easy to miss without proper light adjustments. Look for cameras with a full-frame sensor too, which will further sharpen your photos in low-light conditions and give you an uncropped image with a lot more interior detail.
You’ll want a large aperture lens (f/2.8 is ideal) that will pull in as much light as possible. Your lens should also be wide angle so that you can be sure to capture the full scene in front of you.
Filters for Astrophotography
Using filters for astrophotography can help you overcome a lot of issues. For example, light pollution filters and graduated neutral-density filters can block light wavelengths and darken the night sky in brighter environments like cities and suburbs. Meanwhile, diffusion filters can provide you with more saturated colors in the sky, while solar filters can optimize your lens for the sun.
Choose a filter based on what you want to achieve, and play around with different filters as you get more experienced to see what sorts of effects you can create.
Picking Out a Tripod
It might not be the most glamorous piece of photography equipment, but a tripod is a must for astrophotography. This is particularly true for star trail and time lapse shots, which require significant long exposure times and a constantly steady frame.
You don’t necessarily need to splurge, but do get a sturdy tripod that’s lightweight and easy to travel with. This is photography gear you’ll use all the time, so it’s important not to cut corners.
Deciding if You Want a Telescope for Astrophotography
Should you be doing astrophotography with a telescope or without? That all depends on what you’re trying to capture. A telescope is pretty much just an even more advanced lens, meaning it can enhance the magnification in the frame and get you deeper into the sky. But it’s not always a must, and you can still see plenty with smaller (and more affordable) camera lenses.
Before deciding if you want to do astrophotography with telescope enhancement, get familiar with various camera lenses and their capabilities. Then you can decide from there if you want to invest in something more advanced.
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Basic Astrophotography Settings
Settling on the correct astrophotography camera settings is just as crucial as having the right equipment.
You will want to manually set your aperture, exposure, and ISO. As mentioned, f/2.8 is an optimal aperture for astrophotography, though anywhere under f/4.0 should work.
Aim for an exposure time (i.e. shutter speed) of about 15 to 30 seconds for stationary shots, since any longer and the stars will start to trail. As for ISO, the darker it is outside, the higher you’ll need to go. Start at ISO 3200 and work your way up based on current light conditions.
The 500 Rule
A useful trick for choosing the right shutter speed is to use what’s called the 500 rule. This rule states that your ideal exposure length is 500 divided by the focal length of your lens. For a wide-angle lens of 24mm, that would be 500/24, which gets you 20.83. You can then round to 21 seconds.
The NPF Rule
If you like your math a little more complex, use the NPF rule to calculate your optimal shutter speed.
Under this rule, N = aperture, P = pixel density (also known as pixel pitch), and F = focal length. Then use this formula to calculate your shutter speed: ((35 x N) + (30 x P))/F.
If you want to include more than just the sky in your images, try out landscape astrophotography. This subtype of astrophotography highlights both land and sky in a single dynamic composition. The sky is still the standout feature, but the elements on land help anchor it in place and give more context to the photograph.
As with all types of nature photography, make sure to properly balance out the elements in the frame and choose a focal point. Your focal point can be on the ground (such as a structure, tree, or mountain) or in the sky (a bright star, the moon, the Milky Way, etc.). This focal point tells the eye where to look when there’s a lot going on. It also gives you a central location from which to build out the rest of the frame.
Astrophotography Tips and Tricks
Make the most of your time under the stars by following a few quick astrophotography tips and tricks.
Don’t Shoot During a Full Moon
The best nights for photographing stars are usually those with a new moon, when the sky is at its darkest. If you go during a full moon, you may have trouble finding a dark enough spot, even with a low-light camera.
Have an Objective
It helps to know in advance what you want to capture in the frame. If you want to take pictures of the Milky Way, for example, you’ll be able to use weather apps and location data ahead of time to be sure you choose the best night and location for viewing it in the sky.
Use a Remote Shutter Release
This isn’t a necessary piece of astrophotography equipment, but it could be a big help. Remote shutter release allows you to take a series of long exposure shots without ever touching the camera. The result is no shake and no risk of blurry photographs. If you don’t want to buy extra gear, you could also experiment with using your camera’s built-in delay timer.
Jaw-dropping photographs of stars, nebulae, and planets aren’t going to happen with every click of the shutter. Take your time planning, composing, and exposing each shot, and keep in mind that not every shoot is going to lead to something magical (though you never know which one will!).
Planning Your Astrophotography Shoot
One thing that many successful astrophotographers have in common: they plan out their shoot well in advance of actually setting up their camera.
Choose your location wisely, and visit in the daytime to get a feel for the terrain and various compositional elements that you might want to include in your frame. Equally important is to use an app like Astropheric for advanced weather forecasting and clear sky predictions before heading out on the night of your shoot.
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