If you’ve never tackled astrophotography, one of your first questions might be, “What camera settings do I use?”
The answer to that question is tricky and really depends on the situation. No two photography outings are the same, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be a set of suggested settings that give you a good starting point for your next astrophotography adventure.
Let’s explore a few essential settings that will get you going in the right direction.
Obviously, controlling the amount of light that your camera gathers is a crucial element of astrophotography (and all photography for that matter). The exposure settings will vary from one situation to the next and will depend on many factors, including the presence or absence of light from light pollution as well as light reflected off the moon. Having said that, a good starting point is as follows:
Shooting mode - Manual
Drive mode - One-shot
Aperture - f/4
ISO - 1600
Shutter Speed - 4 minutes
Since most cameras only allow a shutter speed of up to 30 seconds, you’ll need to shoot in Bulb mode. This allows you to control the shutter for minutes or even hours at a time.
In addition to the basic settings outlined above, there are numerous advanced settings that should be tended to if you are going to get the best results.
Focus - Set to manual. Your camera’s autofocus system will not be able to set the focus appropriately, and you might end up with blurry photos.
Exposure compensation - Set to zero. There is no need for exposure compensation because you will be setting your exposure settings (aperture, ISO, shutter speed) manually.
White balance - The daylight setting usually produces good results, though setting a custom white balance will likely be even better.
Mirror lock-up - Unless you’re using a mirrorless system, you might consider locking the mirror of your DSLR in place, especially if your camera mount isn’t of a high quality. Doing so reduces vibrations that result from the mirror moving. Minimizing these vibrations will get you images that are sharper and clearer.
Image quality - Set to RAW. RAW files contain all the data collected by the camera’s sensor, as opposed to JPEGs which compress that data. By shooting in RAW, you have greater leeway in post-processing as a result of the larger amount of data in the file.
Long-exposure noise reduction - Many cameras have this setting to help reduce the level of noise in the image as a result of using a higher-than-normal ISO. However, many newer cameras also have vastly improved ISO performance such that even at ISO 1600, 3200, or 6400, noise is not much of a problem. Additionally, long-exposure noise reduction increases the time it takes your camera to process the images, which is a problem if you’re creating a time-lapse video. Because of this, in-camera long-exposure noise reduction is not recommended. If you find that your images have too much noise, you can use noise reduction in post-processing to take care of the issue.
Good Gear Changes Things
As noted above, the particular circumstances in which you are shooting will necessitate changes to these recommended settings. For example, if there is a particularly bright moon, you might adjust your ISO from 1600 down to 400 to compensate for its brightness, or you might utilize a faster shutter speed, such as 2 minutes as compared to 4 minutes.
Another factor that will determine some of your camera settings for astrophotography is the mount you use. A subpar mount, for example, might require that you use mirror lock-up so your images aren’t blurry. However, if you use a high-quality mount like the Star Adventurer from Sky-Watcher USA, mirror lock-up isn’t necessary. But why?
Top-shelf mounts like the Star Adventurer give your camera an incredibly stable base so you can get clear, tack-sharp images every time. The mount supports up to 11 pounds and gives you a highly precise tracking platform so you can take stills, long exposures, and even time-lapses of your favorite celestial bodies. What’s more, the Star Adventurer allows you to track sidereal, solar, and lunar movements, opening up lots of options for subject matter for your photos.
Better still, the Star Adventurer has a built-in polar scope with illuminator, a built-in auto-guiding interface, and a DSLR interface that gives you automatic control over your shutter. In short, the Star Adventurer gives you the tools you need to get better photos of the night sky, each and every time. And, with tons of features, the Star Adventurer will help you take on more and more advanced astrophotography shoots as you learn the craft and acquire new skills.
So, grab yourself a Star Adventurer, head out to your favorite night sky viewing spot, dial in these suggested settings, and set about taking breathtaking images of the Milky Way and other features of the night sky. It will take some experimentation, but in time, you’ll be able to capture images like the sample images in this article.