One of the benefits that today’s photographers reap is more advanced photography gear that makes astrophotography a much more accessible type of photography to undertake.
But, there’s always been different types of astrophotography, some that are relatively easy to do and accessible for beginners with nothing more than a DSLR and a tripod. Others are more advanced and require a lot more gear.
In this primer, we offer up a quick and simple description of the most common types of astrophotography, and offer a few recommendations in terms of high-quality gear that will allow you to take stellar photos of the night sky.
Night Sky Photography
Night sky photography is the most simple and straightforward type of astrophotography. Essentially, as long as you have a camera that has a bulb setting, a good tripod and mount, and a good view of the sky, you can take on night sky photography.
But night sky photography isn’t just limited to photos of the stars. In fact, in night sky photography, you can capture constellations, star trails, the northern lights, and the Milky Way itself. Just how much detail you get in your photos depends in large part on your camera. For example, with higher end cameras and lenses, you might be able to see the colors of stars, capture meteors or nebulas, and even see planets, albeit as very small dots in the sky.
Perhaps a bit more complex than simple night sky astrophotography, the piggyback method involves mounting your camera to a telescope. Doing so allows you to track the movements of the night sky with the telescope, thus avoiding having any sense of movement in the image, like star trails, that occur during long exposures when the camera is mounted on a tripod.
The procedure for astrophotography using the piggyback method is more or less the same as with the simple night sky technique. You simply align the telescope mount and begin its tracking procedure, mount the camera to the telescope, acquire focus, dial in the appropriate camera settings, and compose the shot.
Prime Focus Astrophotography
Unlike piggyback astrophotography, the prime focus technique does not use the camera’s lens but instead uses the telescope as the lens. You can add a focal reducer to lengthen or shorten the focal length of the telescope, where increasing the focal length magnifies the subject and decreasing the focal length gets you a wider field of view.
The advantage of prime focus astrophotography is that any object in the sky can be photographed, including those that cannot be seen with the naked eye. Planets are still very difficult to capture as more than a bright spot in the sky, but nebulae, like the Great Nebula in the constellation Orion (shown above), is an ideal target. Of course, no matter what the subject, this technique takes some practice to get high-quality images. And because you’re shooting at such a long focal length, a stable mount is an absolute necessity to stave off camera shake and blurry images.
Afocal astrophotography might sound really complicated, but it’s actually straightforward. Quite simply, afocal astrophotography allows you to photograph the sky through an eyepiece mounted on a telescope. Typically, this method is best used to photograph large bodies, like the sun and moon, as well as planets that tend to be brighter in the sky.
To get a photo, you center the desired subject in the telescope’s eyepiece, using your eye to compose the shot. Then, focus the lens to infinity. From there, simply select the appropriate camera settings, then hold the camera lens over the eyepiece and take the photo. The resulting image will be of what you saw in the eyepiece with your own eye. Though you can get images by merely holding the camera above the eyepiece, you can also get adapters that allow you to securely mount your camera to the eyepiece for more stable photos.
Eyepiece Projection Astrophotography
Similar to afocal astrophotography, the eyepiece projection method uses an eyepiece on the telescope to zoom in on the desired subject. However, in this technique, the eyepiece joins the telescope and camera, so the image is essentially projected onto the camera sensor.
Though it might sound like a more efficient method of photographing the sky, you will likely find that objects in the sky are more faint than if you use the afocal technique. This is due in part to the fact that the image is projected onto the camera’s sensor. Another difficulty is that it can be very hard to find the objects you’re looking for, let alone composing the shot and focusing the image effectively. Nevertheless, you might find that this technique works for you in certain situations. The key, no matter which type of astrophotography you try, is to experiment with different gear (i.e. varying focal length lenses) and try varying exposures and camera settings to see what works best for your particular goals.
Get Outfitted for Astrophotography
Of course, taking on astrophotography requires some specialized gear, and for us, Sky-Watcher USA is the place to get outfitted. They have a complete line of equipment, from telescopes and telescope accessories to specialized mounts that make tracking celestial objects vastly easier.
One of their best products is the Star Adventurer mount, shown above. The Star Adventurer has several pre-programmed speeds, meaning you can create stunning time-lapse videos with your DSLR. With sidereal, solar, and lunar tracking rates, you can follow just about any object in the night sky. The Star Adventurer has a built-in auto-guiding interface, a DSLR interface for automatic shutter control, and an 11-pound payload, so you can mount your big full frame DSLR to it without issue.
In the end, diving into astrophotography requires a lot of time, patience, and late nights. But to get the very best results, you need the very best equipment as well. That’s why we highly recommend Sky-Watcher USA to all our friends that seek to create stunning photos of the night sky. Head over to Sky-Watcher USA to see what products they have for your astrophotography adventures!