Easy Astrophotography Tips for Beginners
- Last Updated: Thursday, 13 January 2022 23:58
- A solid tripod. Look for something that has features that help stabilize it, like a center column hook to weigh it down and rubberized feet with retractable metal spikes. Any movement due to wind could render your photos of the night sky a blurry mess.
- A remote shutter release, that way you can operate the camera without having to touch it, again, in the name of preventing any blur-inducing movement.
- An astrophotography mount like this, which tracks the movement of the stars and enables you to capture photos without star trails.
- Focus - Manual, at infinity.
- Aperture - Use your lens's largest aperture or one or two stops below that for better sharpness.
- ISO - Try shooting at ISO 800 or ISO 1600 initially. If the results are still too dark, try ISO 3200.
- Shutter Speed - The shutter speed you select will be determined by the look of the shot you want (i.e., do you want sharp, pinpoint stars or star trails?).
If you're like a lot of other photographers, when the light grows dim, you pack up your gear and head inside.
It's a natural reaction - after all, it's hard enough to take a great photo during the day and trying to get quality nighttime shots is even more difficult.
Or so it would seem...
I was once scared of astrophotography, too. But once I finally bit the bullet and gave it a shot, I realized that it's not that it's more difficult, it just requires a bit of a different process.
Once you learn that process, astrophotography becomes a much more manageable beast.
So, if you've been longing to take photos of the night sky but haven't been sure where to start, let the following astrophotography tips serve as your guide.
First things first, you'll need to ensure you've got the kind of gear that will help you get your best chances of getting the best shot of the night sky.
This includes the following...
Best ASTROPHOTOGRAPHY Camera
A DSLR or mirrorless camera with manual shooting controls is an ideal option for astrophotography. Since you'll be working with long exposures, having manual controls to extend the shutter speed is an absolute must.
If you're wondering whether a full frame or a crop sensor camera will work, either one will do just fine.
On the one hand, a full frame camera like a Nikon D850 is better suited to low-light photography, but crop sensor cameras like the Canon EOS Rebel t7i are typically less expensive.
If you're not sure what features to look for in the best camera for astrophotography, consult this guide to cameras for beginner astrophotographers. There, you'll find details on essential astrophotography camera features as well as a few recommended cameras for different budgets.
Best Lens for Astrophotography
A fast lens with a maximum aperture of at least f/4 is a great start if you're looking for the best lens for astrophotography.
As noted in our astrophotography gear guide, as your budget allows, look for something with an even larger aperture like f/2.8, f/1.8, or f/1.4. The larger the aperture, the more light the lens can collect, and since you'll be shooting at night, you need a lens that can collect all the light it can.
Likewise, consider a wide-angle lens for astrophotography, something that's 35mm or wider so you can capture more of the night sky and the landscape below.
Be aware that if you have a crop sensor camera that the effective focal length of the lens you use will be extended. That is, a 24mm lens on a Canon crop sensor camera has an effective focal length of about 38mm. That being the case, you'd need to buy an even wider lens (say, a 12mm wide-angle) to get the nice, wide shots you want.
Honestly, the lens you use will have a greater impact on the quality of the photos you take than the camera you use, so put as much money as you can towards your astrophotography lens as you can.
When looking for the best astrophotography lens, pay attention to lens reviews, and in particular, the sharpness of the lens.
Getting clear, sharp photos of the stars is quite the process as it is, and you don't need an underperforming lens to get in your way of tack-sharp photos.
A great beginner tip is this: look for third-party lenses. Just because you have a Canon or a Nikon camera doesn't mean you have to buy Canon or Nikon glass. Rokinon, Tamron, and Sigma make some of the best lenses for astrophotography that can be much cheaper than lenses from major camera manufacturers.
Get more astrophotography lens tips in the video above by Apalapse.
Best Telescope for Astrophotography
A telescope photographer I am not, but I have gotten some decent images over the years with various telescopes.
What I will say is this - the best telescope for astrophotography is the one that you get the best results with. That being the case, what works for me might not work for you and vice versa.
Like with astrophotography cameras, you don't have to blow thousands of dollars on the highest-priced telescope you can find. Instead, you can get nice shots with a modest telescope and camera setup.
When shopping for an astrophotography telescope, bear in mind its usability and durability. After all, you'll be toting it around and don't want something that's too delicate to move.
Likewise, pay attention to things like the telescope's aperture (the bigger, the better), the type of telescope (i.e., refractor, reflector, or compound), and the telescope's mounting type (i.e., alt-azimuth or equatorial). Get details on all of these features in this guide on how to choose your first telescope.
Other Recommended Astrophotography Tools
In addition to a camera and lens, there are a few other items you'll need to get great shots of the night sky:
Beginner Astrophotography Tip: Find Dark Skies
Though a pitch black spot to take your photos or videos isn't an absolute must, it's certainly easier when we're talking about astrophotography for beginners if there's not a ton of light pollution to complicate matters.
If you want the stars in your photos to shine (pun intended!) it's advisable to head away from cities and find a location that has minimal lighting.
What's more, it's important that you find a spot where you can set up your gear and safely work for a while.
The easiest way to find a place to start your astrophotography adventures is by checking out something like Dark Site Finder, which gives you a visual overview of the light pollution in the area.
Once you identify a spot nearby that will be dark, it's recommended you explore the area during the daytime. That way you can find a safe spot to set up and identify potential compositional elements (more on that in a minute) without having to fumble around in the darkness to do so.
As a side note, make sure you have a flashlight or headlamp packed before you set out for astrophotography so you can actually see what you're doing!
Dial in the Astrophotography Settings
The astrophotography settings you use will depend on a lot of factors, not the least of which is the amount of light that's available and the effect you want to get in your final photo.
Nevertheless, to begin, try the following settings as a good base:
Get a detailed introduction to astrophotography in the video below by We the Curious:
If you want clear, sharp stars, you'll need to use the Rule of 600, which simply states that if you are to avoid photographing the movement of the stars as the earth rotates, you have to calculate your shutter speed by dividing 600 by the focal length of your lens.
For example, if you're using a 14mm lens, the longest shutter speed you can use without introducing star trails is 42 seconds. If you're using a 28mm lens, the longest shutter speed you can use is 21 seconds.
Naturally, if you want star trails, the inverse is true: with a 14mm lens, you'd need to exceed a shutter speed of 42 seconds by a good amount to get long star trails like those shown above.
Astrophotography Tutorial: How to Photograph the Stars
Once you've got your gear all set up and the starting camera settings dialed in, trigger the shutter using a remote shutter release. Remember not to touch the camera while the shutter is open, so you don't cause a blurry photo.
Inspect the results, looking at the exposure (is it too bright or too dark?) and making any necessary adjustments.
For example, if you find that the image is too dark, change the ISO by one stop to increase the camera's sensitivity to light. If at ISO 800 the photo is too dark, try the same shot again, but change the ISO to 1600.
Get more details on how to photograph the stars in the video below by Josh Katz:
Also look at the composition of the astro shot.
Using the rule of thirds is a simple yet effective way to add more interest to your night sky photos as well.
By placing your points of interest at the intersection of the rule of thirds grid lines, you get a balanced composition that's pleasing to the eye, as seen below.
There are other very simple and basic astrophotography composition tips that will help you create the best images.
For starters, make sure that you have a stick-straight horizon line. You can have everything else perfect in the shot, but if your horizon is off, the image will be off, too.
Many tripods have built-in bubble levels that will help you get things perfectly straight. If your tripod doesn't have a bubble level, you can get one that fits into the hot-shoe mount of your camera.
Additionally, think about how best to frame the shot - horizontally or vertically.
If you've got a scene that's got tons of foreground interest, as seen in the image above, shooting vertically is often the way to go.
Doing so allows you to highlight the interesting shapes and textures of the foreground, which makes for a more interesting photograph.
It's a good idea to include elements in the frame like buildings, trees, or even a person.
Adding these kinds of points of interest not only gives the viewer's eyes something to latch onto in the photo, but it also serves to provide a little context to the shot.
This is particularly important when photographing things like the Milky Way or the moon.
Though these celestial bodies are beautiful, they are often more beautiful if there are other elements in the image.
As seen above, following the Milky Way composition tips to include a person in the frame makes for a much more interesting photo.
Process the Photos With Astrophotography Software
Perhaps the most painstaking part of astrophotography is post-processing.
It can also be incredibly fun!
With programs like Photoshop and Lightroom, you can transform so-so images of the night sky into stunning photos that will knock your socks off.
Of course, the trick is learning how to do that, something you can do by checking out the video below. In it, Justin Majeczky gives a thorough overview of how to process an image of the Milky Way in Photoshop:
If you're into deep sky photography and need to stack your images, astrophotography stacking software is a must.
There are free options - like Deep Sky Stacker or RegiStax are viable options. Of course, you can stack astrophotography images in Photoshop or Lightroom, too.
The overarching theme here is that tackling astrophotography takes a lot of gear, a lot of time, a lot of patience, and a lot of practice.
Though you won't necessarily be ready to take magazine-worthy photos of the night sky tonight, this guide will certainly get you pointed in the right direction!
For even more tips and tricks, be sure to check out the Reddit astrophotography thread.