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Astrophotography for beginners: How to shoot the nighttime sky



(Prototype credit: Stuart Cornell)

The subject of astrophotography – taking photographs of the night sky – is such a wide one that information technology’s hard to know where to begin. We can assist. Hither, we’ve concentrated our cognition into a beginner’due south guide to astrophotography that will supply you with both basic techniques and creative means to capture the night heaven.

Every bit a hobby, astrophotography requires investment of two types. The first is fiscal: you’ll need a camera, at to the lowest degree 1 lens, and a few accessories, likewise as a warm coat for winter nights spent nether the stars. To get you lot started, we take a guide to the
all-time cameras for astrophotography, and a look at the
best lenses for astro
as well.

The second investment is fourth dimension and patience. This is something that’s hard to get correct the first time, and will take many attempts, iterating on the same ideas, to finally provide an paradigm that’s got some existent ‘wow’ gene.

Nosotros’ll encompass equipment in this guide, as well as planning your astro shoot and the camera settings you’ll demand to effectively image the night sky, as well equally tips on getting the almost out of the images yous capture including editing them in some of the
best photo editing apps
bachelor.

The first bit of advice, though, is a elementary one: have a get. Even if you don’t ain a flashy camera, utilise what you lot have. Use a cellphone if necessary, yous’ll exist surprised what they’re capable of, particularly using the night modes on more recent models. Y’all never know until you try.

Night sky image over circle of stones

(Image credit: Stuart Cornell)

Photographic camera bodies and lenses

If you’re using a DSLR or mirrorless photographic camera, put it in Manual way – that applies to both exposure and focus. We always recommend transmission focusing when shooting astro, every bit most sensors – fifty-fifty in low calorie-free AF – just won’t exist able to focus on the dark sky. Utilize the screen on the back of the camera (having one that flips out makes this easier) to focus advisedly and so that the stars appear every bit points and not circles. Stopping the lens at infinity isn’t enough, so zoom in if you tin can using the screen’due south controls.

Total frame cameras generally perform the best in low light situations equally they have a larger sensor and can take larger individual photosites that capture more lite. Yet, as megapixel counts increase (and photosites therefore become smaller) this advantage is becoming slimmer, and modern crop-sensor cameras are very capable for astrophotography.; They are too a more affordable option than total frame cameras.

As a rough guide, it will gear up you dorsum between $2000-3000 for a good full-frame mirrorless or DSLR with the ability to take sharp images at college ISO settings. More on that later. Crop-sensor or APS-C cameras are usually $400 and up, and are more than capable of capturing the nighttime heaven.

A wide or super-broad angle ‘fast’ lens in the 12-35mm range is best suited to landscape photography and astrophotography. Wide-angle focal lengths allow you to capture a good portion of the nighttime sky likewise as some of the landscape for foreground interest. A ‘fast’ lens is 1 that has a large maximum aperture – in other words, a small f-stop number. A lens with a maximum discontinuity of f/2.viii or lower is considered to be a fast lens, and is first-class for astrophotography.

A lens similar the Rokinon (Samyang) 14mm f/two.8 is a great lens to go started with, and is very affordable. If you’re prepare to spend a piffling more than, the Sigma f/i.4 14mm Art lens is superb. If you don’t have a fast lens just still, y’all tin yet use the kit lens that came with your camera. Simply make certain you operate at the maximum available aperture size (typically around f/4 on stock kit lenses).

A tripod is an essential accessory, as yous won’t be able to hold the camera still plenty by yourself for the long exposures involved in astrophotography, and resting it on a wall isn’t always possible. The tripod’south smoothly tilting head too allows you to position your camera perfectly to capture the bit of the sky you want. We take a guide to the best tripods for night sky photos, if you need information technology.

Pale night sky in background with rock formation in foreground

(Image credit: Stuart Cornell)
  • Related:
    How to photograph meteors and falling star showers

Additional equipment for astro

Remote Shutter Release (recommended)
A button on a cable that volition allow yous to trigger your shutter while minimizing the risk of introducing vibrations. If you don’t have a remote shutter release, apply the timer delay on your camera to ensure there is no movement of the camera during an exposure. Some DSLRs have a mirror lockup function that prevents the move of the mirror inside the photographic camera trunk from inducing vibrations, but this isn’t necessary for mirrorless cameras.

Intervalometer (optional)
If you’re meteor trails, and need to take sequences of shots, then an intervalometer is an essential accessory. Still, this is quite an advanced form of astrophotography, then nosotros wouldn’t necessarily advise y’all head out to get one right abroad. When you feel you’re fix for star trails, nosotros have a guide to the all-time intervalometers on site. Many modern cameras have them built in, so spend some time with your camera’s manual figuring out how it works.

Headlamp
Keep your hands free to operate your camera past using a headlamp at night and, if possible, use the red low-cal mode (if it has one) to preserve your night vision. A headlamp is besides helpful for ‘lite painting’ objects in the foreground of your images. Alternatively, a flashlight with a scrap of reddish plastic over the finish can reach the aforementioned affair.

Finally, if you’re going to be shooting in cold temperatures, information technology might be worth investing in some kind of lens heater. These tin prevent condensation from creeping into your lens and ruining your shot.

Astrophotography image taken at beach

(Image credit: Stuart Cornell)

Planning your astro shoot

Location

Light pollution is a serious problem facing astrophotographers. You’ll need to be in a night heaven surface area to exist able to capture detailed images of the dark heaven, then head abroad from urban areas and street lights. Useful websites such as
Dark Site Finder
and
Light Pollution Map
will assistance you to find a suitable location to shoot, only if you desire to become weather reports, and guidance on where to point your camera when y’all shoot, the best stargazing apps only cost a few dollars/pounds, and they’re extremely helpful when it comes to selecting your location and letting y’all know when the best time to shoot is.

Subject

The dark heaven changes constantly throughout the year, and knowing what you are likely to see and exist able to photo is a cardinal component of astrophotography. There are excellent apps like Stellarium and Starwalk 2 which allow you to visualize how the night heaven will look at any time and date for a specific location, only call back things like falling star showers are unpredictable, and the weather tin easily close in and spoil everything.

Two people and a camera under a starry sky

(Image credit: Yuting Gao from Pexels)

Astrophotography settings for your photographic camera

There are no catch-all settings that will give you a perfect exposure for every situation. Unfortunately, photography merely doesn’t work like that. However, in that location are a handful of basic rules you can follow to maximize your chances of nailing that astro shot.

Camera Shooting Style
Put it in M, or Manual. You volition demand to prepare the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO manually.

Aperture

You want your aperture as broad every bit possible, in nigh all situations, and so fix it to an f-number of f/four or lower. We recommend f/two.eight or lower, but use the maximum your lens is capable of. Many DSLRs and mirrorless cameras use a cycle on the photographic camera torso to prepare the aperture, just manual lenses and some fabricated for Sony mirrorless have an aperture ring on the lens itself. Lower F numbers ever mean wider apertures and greater light-gathering ability.

Image File Type

Set your camera to record raw image files. Astrophotography tin can be broadly split into two separate areas – photography and post-processing. In lodge to process your newly acquired astro images back at home, y’all volition need to shoot in raw and then that you capture and retain equally much data every bit possible. A raw file is a dump of the data from the camera’south sensor with no processing applied. Capturing JPEG images volition give you lot smaller files, simply the compression process throws away data you could apply. If necessary, buy a larger retention carte du jour rather than shoot JPEG.

Shutter Speed

Unless you’re deliberately trying to
create star trails, the aim of astrophotography is to capture as much lite as possible while at the same time avoiding noticeable star motion in the image. The longer the focal length of your lens, the shorter the shutter speed will need to be in order to avert star trails.

In that location’s a uncomplicated formula to calculate the correct shutter speed for whatsoever given lens, chosen the ‘500-rule’. In its simplest grade, this is 500 divided past the focal length of your lens. For example, if yous are using a 20mm lens, this would exist 500 / 20mm = 25 seconds. This, however, simply applies to full frame cameras. For a crop sensor camera, the crop factor needs to be taken into account, so in this instance I would recommend using a base value of 300 for APS-C type cameras, and 250 for Micro Four Thirds.

Offset with an exposure of 20 seconds, which is nearly the longest you lot can leave the shutter open before stars brainstorm to trail, and see how that looks. You tin can adjust as needed.

Camera focusing on night sky

(Image credit: Getty images)

ISO

The college the ISO, the more than the light signal captured by your camera’southward sensor is amplified. You will need to shoot at a loftier ISO for astrophotography, just there’s a trade-off. The college the ISO, the more noise (a blazon of digital degradation) you will begin to see in the image, and every camera increases racket in a different fashion. Some slowly ramp it up, others make a big jump afterwards a particular setting. ISO 3200 is a good starting point, though you may need to adjust downwardly to ISO 1600 if at that place is a lot of ambience light or light pollution or yous starting time to run across more than racket than stars. Very dark skies may crave you to boost the ISO to 6400, simply I wouldn’t recommend going higher than this.

Focusing in the dark

First, fix your camera to manual focus – autofocus volition non work in the dark. So use the ‘Alive View’ feature of your camera to display an image preview on the camera’s LCD screen. Identify a brilliant star or really distant calorie-free source like a streetlight on the LCD display and digitally zoom in to that point of low-cal. Once you take done this, adjust the focus ring until the star or afar low-cal source becomes as small-scale every bit possible. Your focus is fix!

Now all you have to do is to compose the frame, take the shot and expect for the image to pop upwards on the LCD brandish – there may be some time between the shutter closing and the image appearing, every bit the camera writes the file to the memory carte du jour. If your foreground is looking night, endeavour light ‘painting’ your bailiwick with a flashlight or your smartphone light during the exposure to assistance brighten the scene. Yous may need to adjust the ISO or aperture slightly to observe what works best for your location, but you are now firmly on your way to capturing your own images of the cute night heaven.

Tips and advice

Foreground

If you’re trying to balance low-cal between the foreground and the night sky, we suggest y’all take multiple exposures and merge the images when you lot edit, as they volition require unlike settings to get the best of each. You may even find that getting your foreground shots an 60 minutes or so before, during blue hour, will help as there is more light to work with for your foreground objects. This isn’t ever possible, though.

Reflections

If you’re shooting the night sky near a lake, and the conditions is still, there’s a not bad opportunity to reflect the stars in the water. There are several ways to practice this, depending on the conditions. Nosotros prefer to do the hard work in the shoot, so would propose changing your focal point to the water and taking an exposure, then setting your focus back to the night sky and taking the exact same shot. You lot can merge them later in edit. You may find y’all need to residue your shutter speed a trivial here, depending on the weather condition – a xx second exposure will capture the reflection of the stars, but yous may selection up motion on the water that reduces the clarity. You could try shorter exposures for your reflection shot, only may take to work harder to bring out the stars in edit. Something similar Lightroom’s linear gradient edits are perfect for bringing out the clarity and sharpness of reflections, and so give that a go.

White balance

While nosotros’d normally recommend setting your white balance to a slightly cooler temperature for astro shots, yous tin can experiment with either the manual WB settings, or the presets, to create interesting tints and variations to your shots. If you’re getting a little light pollution, adjusting the white balance can actually make it wait like a feature of the photograph (nosotros recommend cooling it correct down and seeing the effect that has), although you’d need a gradient filter to reduce noise if you’re closer to an urban area.

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Stuart is a landscape and night sky photographer based in Cornwall, Uk. Having always had a keen interest in photography and space, he has refined his photography skills in contempo years by combining the two passions to create a portfolio of beautiful landscape, night sky and drone images. Inspired by the rugged Cornish coastline, Stuart has had his piece of work featured in several national publications, including a forepart page photo credit in The Times.

Source: https://www.space.com/astrophotography-for-beginners-guide

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