As little Calvin once said: ‘If people sat outside and looked at the stars each night, I’ll bet they’d live a lot differently. When you look into infinity, you realize that there are more important things than what people do all day.’ If you have ever been under a starry sky on a clear night, you’ll know just how right Bill Watterson’s character was. There’s an indescribable feeling that engulfs you the first time you stare up at the Milky Way, something that everyone should experience at least once in their life.
For shutterbugs, there is a question that might feel just as overwhelming as that feeling: how do I capture an image that gives justice to this out-of-this-world beauty? As we sense that question is eating you alive, we have put together an introduction to astrophotography with everything you need to know to get started. Follow these tips learn how to take pictures of stars that will leave your photography website’s visitors speechless.
What is Astrophotography?
Welcome to the exciting world of space! Surprisingly, some Earth rules do apply here, with the most important one being patience. Capturing stars might seem easy on paper (or screen) but in reality most of the astrophotographs you see have been carefully planned for weeks, months, and even years.
There are various types of astrophotography. Namely:
Deep space – objects beyond our solar system captured with a telescope.
Solar system – planets, moons, and the sun usually photographed with telescopes.
Wide field – images taken with a digital camera and a wide angle lens.
Time-lapse – video that combines numerous wide field images captured over a period of time.
We will be focusing on the wide field images, as it is the most accessible form of astrophotography. Ready to start your journey into outer space? Sit down, get comfortable, and prepare to take notes.
Planning for the shooting
Planning before a shoot is always recommended. Finding the location in advance will help you get ideas of what you want to photograph and what equipment you will need to do so. When it comes to astrophotography, these preparations are absolutely mandatory.
Scouting for a location
Find a pitch-black place. That field just outside the main road that passes by your house may seem dark enough since you see so many stars from there, but if you want to capture a stunning starry sky, you will need to find a place away from light pollution – which actually makes up for only 20% of the whole planet. Yikes.
Luckily, there are online sites where you can access light pollution maps and find the nearest or more convenient location for your shoot. For example, check out Light Pollution Map and Dark Site Finder. We recommend visiting your chosen location during day time, as it will be almost impossible to find your way and inspiration there at night.
Picking a date
Remember what we said about patience? That includes waiting until conditions are optimal before getting out there no matter how excited you are about trying out these tips, unless you are not afraid of being disappointed and frustrated. So what are some things should you take into account when choosing the shooting day?
The weather: Make sure the temperature allows you to stay outside for most of the night and that the sky will be clear enough to see the stars.
The moon: On its brighter phases, moonlight can wash out fainter stars and even keep you from capturing the colors of the Milky Way. To avoid this, shoot during the new or crescent moon.
The season: Keep in mind that the perfect time to capture the stars really depends on the time of the year, varying from right after sunset to a few hours before sunrise.
Packing the right gear
Essentially, you only need three pieces of equipment to shoot for the stars: camera, lens, and tripod. Easy, right? However, not just any gear will do. Here’s what you need to look for:
Your camera must have good low-light capabilities, as you want to capture as much light information as possible. Ideally, you want to use a full-frame sensor camera. If that is out of your budget you can still get good results with new crop sensor cameras that allow you to shoot at high ISO without compromising on the quality of the image.
Since we’re talking about wide field astrophotography, it’s probably quite obvious that you should go for a wide angle lens. What we define as wide angle varies depending on the type of camera you are shooting with. If you are using a full-frame camera you want to go with 35mm or shorter, for cropped sensor it should be 24mm or shorter, whereas for mirrorless cameras – stick to 16mm or shorter. You will also need to be able to capture as much light as possible for which you should use an aperture of at least f/2.8. If that is out of your range you can also get reasonable results with f/4.
Yes, there are also special requirements for the tripod. Because you will be shooting long exposures, you will need a really sturdy tripod to keep your camera perfectly still for 10-30 seconds at a time. Take into account that you might be dealing with wind and unsteady grounds, so you’ll need a camera anchor you can completely trust in order to avoid blurry shots that could ruin all your efforts.
Beyond these three key elements, you might also want to include additional accessories such as a shutter release cable to avoid any kind of camera movement during the shot, and a headlamp to light up your way as you work in (hopefully) complete darkness.
Composing the image
The composition of your photographs are tightly related to all the research you will be doing about the location and date prior to the shoot itself. As you have probably noticed, the direction in which the sun and the moon rise and set varies depending on the time of the year, and so does the Milky Way. Knowing the position across which the stars will be moving during your shoot is essential to take impressive photographs. Thankfully, mobile apps like Star Walk allow you to easily track the Milky Way’s location in real-time.
Framing the shot
Finding the proper framing for your photos might be a lot harder than it seems. Even if you visit the location in day time, once everything goes dark you probably won’t have any idea where to point your camera. Tip from the pro’s: find an area where the sky meets the landscape in an interesting way, and take a few test shots moving your frame around it to see what you are capturing.
Being able to identify an aesthetically pleasing section where stars and land come together will play a major role in the outcome of your shots, so make sure you allow enough time to set up your composition.
Nailing the focus
Needless to say, getting your focus right is a must. Since darkness won’t allow you to use autofocus, there are two different ways in which you can properly focus your shot:
Set your manual focus on the infinity mark. Prior to the shooting, test the focus during daytime to make sure distant objects are clear.
Before it gets dark, use the autofocus setting to focus on a distant object and then lock it down by switching to manual. If your lens doesn’t have a lock-down option, you can use tape to make sure that the ring doesn’t move.
Use your camera’s live view to zoom in as much as you can on the bright zones of the image and make sure they are clear. Whatever focusing method you chose, this step will help you determine whether it works properly during the shoot. Otherwise, you might discover that your images are slightly blurry only once you download them to your computer.
Getting the right exposure
When the time to start shooting finally arrives, you’ll have to face the biggest challenge of the whole experience: nailing the exposure. Just like with focus, you won’t be able to use automatic settings due to lack of light, but on the bright side, using manual settings will create consistent results across all shots.
There are two main factors that determine the exposure of a shot: aperture and shutter speed. But before we go into more detail on how to control each of these settings, let’s quickly go over two things you must remember and one that you should keep in mind:
Shoot in RAW. You want your images to have as much information as possible once you get to the processing stage.
Don’t overpush your ISO. There’s a reason that we recommended you to test this setting beforehand, as you might be tempted to try and force it to get more light once you’re out in the field – this will likely result in images with noise beyond repair.
Don’t worry too much about White Balance. As long as you’re shooting RAW, you can easily neutralize the images’ white balance during processing. If you’re shooting JPEGs, please see two points above and set your white balance from 3200k to 4800k depending on the scene’s light conditions.
The Earth is moving at roughly 1,000 miles per hour (about 1,600 km/hr), so there’s a limited amount of time you can leave your shutter open before stars begin to look blurry. The longest exposure you can take depends primarily on the type of camera and focal length you’re using. In order to find your shots’ limit, use a formula known as the 500 rule. Math not your thing? No worries, it’s actually pretty simple and you can even prepare a ‘cheat sheet’ before you set out on your adventure.
The rule is as follows: 500 / focal length = longest exposure (i.e. before star trails appear). However, if you’re not shooting with a full-frame camera you will also need to take into account your sensor’s crop factor. To do so, simply divide the formula result by your camera’s crop factor (1.5x for most brands, 1.6x for Canon cameras).
Use the maximum aperture your lenses have. That’s it. No formulas or complicated preparations. Finally, right? Just keep in mind that, as mentioned before, you should try to stay on f/2.8 or lower, even though you can get fair results until f/4.
Processing the results
This section needs a full article of its own, so we won’t get into too much detail for now. It’s easy to fall into over processing astrophotos due to lack of practice and the exciting nature of the subject, but you should try to keep your images as natural and similar to what you saw as possible. Here’s what you should look for in brief: reach a neutral white balance, correct the exposure if needed, add some contrast, reduce the noise, and avoid pushing blacks too far.
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