Astrophotography for beginners
Have you ever tried to take an image of the moon on your phone, and it doesn’t seem to do it justice? Whether you were aware or not, you just dabbled in astrophotography. Astrophotography is a fascinating and magical field in photography—it’s simply the art of capturing images of the night sky. With the help of specialized cameras and equipment (no disrespect to your phone), Astrophotographers can share clear and accurate glimpses of planets, distant galaxies, stars, and even astronomical objects that are invisible to the naked eye.
Astrophotography provides a unique opportunity to explore the cosmos and appreciate its beauty from the comfort of our own backyards. In this article, we explore the basics of astrophotography, including the equipment and techniques required to capture stunning images of the night sky. If images of the cosmos excite you, keep reading to learn more about the world of astrophotography and how to discover the beauty of the universe through the lens of your camera.
How to shoot the night sky
To take high-quality depictions of the night sky, you’ll need specialized equipment, like telephoto lenses and telescopes. However, there are beginner setups that can produce beautiful results without breaking the bank. A basic astrophotography setup can include an affordable yet sturdy tripod, a wide-angle lens, and a camera with manual settings. As you progress, you can invest in specialized gear like star trackers, equatorial mounts, high-end lenses, and telescopes. But you might be surprised that, even with a basic setup, you can capture stunning images of the night sky. You can get far (pun intended) by focusing on technique and composition rather than solely relying on expensive gear. With patience and practice, even beginners can capture the beauty of the cosmos above.
Plan your outing
Before setting off on your astrophotography adventure, preparing yourself, and your gear is essential. Here are some helpful steps to take before shooting:
- Check the weather forecast: Clouds and fog can ruin your shoot, so checking that the weather forecast is clear before heading out can help ensure you’ll get the shots you want. High elevations usually have clearer skies and less atmospheric distortion.
- Pack warm clothes: Nighttime shooting can get pretty chilly, so dress in layers. There are already a lot of factors that need tending to in astrophotography—don’t let clothes be the factor that ruins your shot.
- Bring a headlamp or flashlight: Since you’ll be working in the dark, you’ll need an extra light source to help you navigate and set up your gear.
- Bring extra batteries and memory cards: Long exposures are often necessary in astrophotography but can quickly drain your camera batteries. Bring extras to avoid running out of power or storage space during your shoot.
- Minimize light pollution: You’ll also want to find an area with minimal light pollution, an area without streetlights, buildings, cars, and light-up billboards. You can use a light pollution map and websites like Dark Site Finder to help you find a dark sky location closest to you. In general, you’ll want to avoid cities and towns since there tends to be heavy light pollution in urban areas. You’ll also want to keep the phases of the moon in mind. A full moon can wash out the visibility of fainter stars and deep-sky objects in the night sky. The nights surrounding the new moon phase are better for astrophotography since the bright moonlight is less intense during this time.
Set up your astrophotography camera equipment
Once you've found your location, it's time to set up your gear. The types of images you can make of the night sky will depend on your gear setup. The equipment needed to capture the entirety of the Milky Way is different than the equipment needed to capture close-up shots of the Milky Way’s core. If you have a basic setup with a DSLR and tripod, you’re slightly limited in the types of images you can capture. However, you can still capture things like night sky time lapses, moon phases, meteor showers, constellation composites, and the Milky Way. Below, we go over the basic equipment to get you started.
Since you’ll need equipment to capture high-quality images in low-light conditions, you’ll want a camera with a full-frame sensor and a high ISO range. Some good beginner options on the more affordable side include the Canon Rebel DSLR, Canon EOS T8i, the Nikon D500, and the Canon 7D Mark II. Next, you need to choose the right lens. A wide-angle lens with a low f-stop is ideal for capturing broad strokes of the night sky in a single frame—without the need to overlap images or assemble them into a panorama. Look for a lens with a focal length of around 14-24mm and an aperture of f/2.8 or lower to let in as much light as possible. If you want to shoot close-up shots of deep-sky objects like nebulae, star clusters, and galaxies, a narrow lens like a 50mm with an f/1.8 aperture is great. If you really want to zoom in on your subject, investing in a telephoto lens is great, but only if you have a tracker, which we’ll get into later.
Once you’ve chosen your camera and lens, you need to set up your tripod. A sturdy tripod is essential for astrophotography since it keeps your camera steady during long exposures, which can help capture faint light with less noise. Make sure the tripod is set up on a stable surface and is level. The sturdier the tripod, the better since your camera will need to be perfectly still for long periods of time. A remote trigger is also helpful because it can help you avoid the camera shake that inevitably happens by pressing the shutter button.
Camera settings for astrophotography
When shooting the night sky, certain settings will help you make better overall images. We cover some of the basics for you below.
Set the shutter speed: Generally, the longer your exposure time, the more light your camera will capture. A slow shutter speed gives your camera time to capture the faint and flickering lights in the sky. However, if the shutter speed is too long, it can result in star trails. Star trails are beautiful, but a very specific style of astrophotography. A star-trail image shows up as light streaks across the photo, sometimes appearing in large arcs if the exposure is long. If you want to avoid star trails, we recommend a shutter speed of around 20-30 seconds. Anything longer than 35 seconds with a wide-angle lens, and you might start to see those light streaks.
Use a wide aperture: A wide aperture will let more light enter your camera, resulting in brighter and more detailed images. An aperture of around f/2.8 or lower is best for astrophotography.
Set your ISO: ISO determines how sensitive your camera is to light. The higher the ISO, the more sensitive your camera is to light. However, high ISO settings can result in noise in your images. A good starting point for ISO settings for astrophotography is between 400-3200. Using a slower shutter speed will let more light in, which will enable you to use a lower ISO setting, ultimately creating less noise.
Focus your lens: Autofocus may not work as well in low-light conditions, so it’s best to use manual focus for astrophotography. Use your live preview view to zoom in on your subject, such as a bright star, and adjust your focus until it is sharp.
The best telescope for astrophotography
Now that you know some of the basics of astrophotography, you can start to experiment with specialized gear like telescopes and equatorial mounts. It’s important to remember that a telescope isn’t necessary to start out in astrophotography. That being said, it can take your images to the next level. There are different types of telescopes suitable for astrophotography, including reflector telescopes, refractor telescopes, and catadioptric telescopes. Reflectors and catadioptric telescopes are more popular for astrophotography due to their ability to gather more light and produce clearer images. Some great beginner telescope models include the Atlas EQ-G from Orion Telescopes & Binoculars, the Radian Raptor 61, and the Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro. When looking for an astrophotography telescope, key features include aperture size, focal length, and optical quality.
It’s also important to pair your telescope with a sturdy equatorial mount to keep it steady during long exposures. Equatorial mounts move in a single axis aligned with the Earth's rotation. This allows the mount to track celestial objects as they move across the night sky, keeping them in the same position in the telescope's field of view. By compensating for the Earth's rotation, equatorial mounts allow astrophotographers to capture sharp, detailed images of celestial objects like planets, galaxies, and nebulae. Mounts can be expensive, but they’re extremely important because a low-quality mount is more likely to have tracking issues that result in blurry images.
Time to explore
Astrophotography can feel extremely rewarding when you capture something as glorious as the Orion Nebula, the massive cloud of gas and dust in the constellation Orion. Especially after a long night out in the cold. Now that you know a little bit more about astrophotography, it’s time to explore the cosmos and all it has to offer. You might just end up with your own framed version of the Andromeda Galaxy.