- A DSLR or mirrorless camera with manual shooting controls. A full frame or a crop sensor camera will work just fine.
- A fast lens with a maximum aperture of at least f/4. If 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.
- 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.
- 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 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.
That includes the following:
Something else that will greatly assist you in making the most of your astrophotography pursuits is an astrophotography mount.
The Vixen Polarie Star Tracker Mount is an ideal choice.
Not only can you use it with any standard tripod, but you can also use it with any digital camera that weighs up to seven pounds. That includes your mobile phone (with a smartphone adapter).
The Polarie is incredibly easy to use, with an included compass to orient it to the north and a North Star Alignment Window that you point at Polaris.
You can even use a polar scope for alignment as well.
Once it's all dialed in, the Polarie will track the motion of the stars for you, thus eliminating star trailing in your photos.
Not bad, right?
Visit MrStarGuy's website to learn more about the Vixen Polarie and other astrophotography gear.
Though a pitch black spot to take your photos or videos isn't an absolute must, it's certainly easier 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 awhile.
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 sidenote, 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 Settings
The camera 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:
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.
Take the Photos
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.
Also look at the composition of the shot. It's a good idea to include elements in the frame like buildings, trees, or even a person, so there's some context and scale to the shot.
Process the Photos
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: