The Universe and our own solar system have always been awe-inspiring subjects for those of us living on this little, blue planet.
Capturing images of what's "out there" is an undertaking that we've tried to perfect since the invention of the camera and we – as a race – have developed extremely sophisticated instruments and technologies with that in mind. We've even launched incredibly complex telescopes and cameras into near space and sent others to the outer reaches of our solar system to beam back photographs of our nearest planetary neighbors.
The field of astrophotography emerged as a result of human efforts to gather those images of the Heavens and what they hold.
Its definition is, simply, photographing astronomical objects and the night sky. That definition covers a lot of areas, and so does the field itself.
When you point your smartphone camera at the moon, you're practicing astrophotography, just like that lucky guy or gal with an observatory in the backyard. From wide shots of the Milky Way to close-ups of planets, comets and asteroids, all of these images fit into the field of astrophotography.
Because of its wide scope, terrestrial-based astrophotography is generally divided into three distinct categories.
This category deals with images of the night (or pre-dawn or dusk) sky and the stars, planets and other objects visible in it. This type of photography requires little more than a camera, tripod, and patience, though a star-tracking mount is a great addition as well.
Wide-field images often include atmospheric phenomena such as the Aurora Borealis or Aurora Australis as well as the moon and/or landscape or architectural features. Star trail images also fall into this category.
In our collection of astrophotography articles, we'll touch on wide field photography techniques and some of the specialized equipment available, such as astronomy DSLRs, which can greatly enhance your astrophotography images.
As the name implies, this category involves capturing images of individual planets. The reason it isn't referred to as planetary photography is due to the fact that images of planets and other celestial bodies are usually created from stills extracted from digital videos, then composited and enhanced.
As you might expect, this type of imaging requires a telescope with high enough magnification to let you locate a planet within the field of view, although many software applications exist that allow you to create stunning images from surprisingly small "blobs." It's also possible to adapt and use your DSLR to record the original videos, although specialized video recorders are available.
Deep Sky Astrophotography
Images of nebulae, other galaxies, and other distant bodies in outer space might be considered the pinnacle category of astrophotography. This type of imaging requires specific techniques, including extremely long exposures. As with the previous category, creating deep-sky images often involves stacking several long exposures to help reduce noise.
A good quality, powerful telescope, a stable mount, and a top-quality photo guider are, of course, a requirement for this type of imaging. A DSLR may be used to record the original images, with the proper adapters. Again, the use of an astronomical DSLR will greatly enhance images taken of distant celestial objects.
If you've ever dreamed of capturing those breathtaking images of what's hidden out there, beyond the range of our vision, keep exploring our astrophotography section to get tips on everything from composing your images to learning the right camera settings to getting geared up with astrophotography equipment.