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An astrophotography guide packed full of all the information you need on gear, approaches, techniques, tricks, and post-processing magic
Is there anybody who has never been amazed by the mystery of a starry night sky? That stunning beauty composed of a luminous spheroid of plasma evokes thousands of emotions – and, of course, an urge to grab a camera and catch it in a photograph.
But unfortunately, the result is mostly awful – the picture is totally dark, and some overexposed objects appear in the foreground and ruin the whole view. This bitter experience makes people forget about astrophotography forever.
But the reality is not that cruel – anyone can acquire the skills to become a space photography expert. All you need is access to helpful information, adequate gear, and post-processing software. And any camera can become an astrophotography tool in your hands! In this overview, we’ll uncover the secrets of astrophotography – basic types, effective tips and techniques, the best cameras and equipment for shooting, and interesting ideas for post-processing.
Under the category of astrophotography, photographers determine an area of particular interest to shooting distant planets, stars and the moon. And depending on the subjects you decide to capture in the starry night sky, there are several types of night photography.
Let’s catch ’em all.
For shooting deep space/sky night photography, you’ll inevitably need a telescope. The capturing itself is simple, though – attach a camera to the focus draw tube of the telescope. This approach to astrophotography allows you to take pictures of distant planets and galaxies. And awesome pictures of star trails are also the result of mastering deep space photography.
Solar system astrophotography concentrates on capturing all the elements we can see in close proximity to earth – the sun, the other planets, the closest and brightest stars and the moon. To capture them all, you can also use a telescope (we’ll recommend the best telescope for astrophotography later) or attach a telephoto lens to the camera.
Wide angle astrophotography got its name because it adopts a wide-angle lens. With its help, you can capture the Milky Way with a marvelous landscape in the foreground. In addition, this style uses the easiest and cheapest astrophotography tool compared to other styles – all you need is the proper lens.
Finally, time-lapse astrophotography is great for recording videos and capturing sky images. Being an extension of the wide-angle approach, this type of night photography is based on making as many exposures as possible.
Wondering how to start practicing astrophotography? Among the best recommendations that a beginner can receive, prepare in advance.
An iPhone can hardly be called an astrophotography tool – so get ready to buy a new camera for the photoshoot. Even though some people manage to make nice shots on mirrorless cameras and phones, at the beginning it’s better to start with more comfortable and easy-to-use gear.
All you need is a DSLR (Digital Single-Lens Reflex) camera, the ability to change lenses, and manual mode.
A tripod is also a must-have astrophotography tool. Though a tripod generally guarantees the needed stability for a photographer’s work, you’ll need even more accuracy in case of space photography. In particular, the stars and the moon are so far away that any slight movement will lead to total destruction of the composition. Therefore, anything that brings more stability to your astrophotography camera is welcome.
To get the maximum out of this camera, lens, and tripod combination, follow this useful guide on how to photograph the Milky Way that we recently published on our blog. And try Luminar 3 to process your images ideally!
In addition, get a compass to start making mind-blowing astrophotography images of the North Star. In the future, this astrophotography tool will help you get oriented to the position of the stars and constellations in the night sky.
Moreover, don’t neglect the potential of mobile apps for enhancing your night photography. For example, SkyView is an awesome app that can replace a compass and provide all the information about star positions in the sky. Furthermore, Moonphase is a useful app for chasing the state of a starry night sky to reveal the best time for astrophotography. At the beginning, the darkest place is your best friend. A cold temperature outside actually works great for night photography, as the sensor moves slower and enables you to shoot with longer exposures. Generally, the rules of shooting night sky photography resemble the basic principles of low-key lightning and aerial photography – so feel free to use your knowledge from these areas!
Finally, prepare lots of coffee! The night is long, and space photography is a rather tiring activity.
We’ve already mentioned the need to buy a DSLR camera for space photography. But how can you make the right choice in the shop?
Most experts recommend the Canon Rebel series – any model in this line of DSLR cameras supports switching lenses and will let you adjust astrophotography settings. In their overview on astrophotography cameras, AstroBackyard recommends starting with the Canon Rebel 450D or Canon Rebel T7i – these products support all the needed lenses and additional tools for astrophotography.
Popular Mechanics recommends paying attention to the Fujifilm XT-1. The iOptron SkyTracker Pro is the best camera for astrophotography for professionals in the opinion of AstroBackyard. However, a Canon Rebel is still the best choice for your astrophotography tool – this astrophotography camera offers the greatest range of functionality and has a nice price.
Professional CCD imaging equipment also answers the question of how to take pictures of stars. The best camera for astrophotography according to Expert Photography, a CCD camera offers much higher sensitivity to light and more accuracy while shooting at slow shutter speeds. With more light captured in CCD imaging, your space photography will gain more accurate exposure. And the result is marvelous: you can capture the movements of stars and the moon! This opportunity is worth investing some extra money in an astrophotography camera.
As for the best lens for astrophotography, try those made by Rokinon (with special attention to the Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 lens) and the line of 3 Canon L-Series. Photographing Space recommends using a 10–50mm fisheye lens on an APS-C sensor – in their opinion, it’s a nice option for capturing the Milky Way. However, all of these lenses are good for different things:
Nevertheless, you shouldn’t limit yourself to choosing a proper camera and a nice lens. As the most popular choice among astrophotography masters, getting a telescope is an amazing decision. But how to choose? The best telescope for astrophotography is one that has an adapter to connect to a camera. And experiment! This astrophotography tool works great for shooting planets in the starry night sky and enables you to take awesome pictures even on your smartphone!
According to AstroBackyard, the best telescope for astrophotography should have an 80 to 100mm refractor. With such a wide field of view, it adds an awesome focus and increases space photography potential tremendously. Also, professional night photographers use an intervalometer, a programmable remote that controls the shutter speed. Skytracker app tracks the Earth’s rotation and gently adjusts the focus of your astrophotography tool to get the clearest sky images.
Finally, don’t forget about yourself! Whether you’re an amateur or an experienced photographer, choose warm clothes for night photography projects. By all means, wear gloves – and choose ones that don’t interfere with working with all the gear you bring. If you have remote control equipment for a space photography session, consider bringing some things for your entertainment – a couple of interesting game apps for your smartphone or a sleeping bag to cover some hours.
To prepare your camera for an astrophotography session, follow these steps:
500/focal length of your best lens for astrophotography = seconds for the longest exposure (starting from 30 seconds normally).
(Some professionals have updated the 500 rule to the 600 rule to make sure that star trails won’t appear.)
Generally, the longer the focal length, the better the lens will work for night photography because it enables you to create an effect of star trails. However, the 500 rule allows you to adjust in-camera settings for any focal length and get nice results from a night sky photography session.
Here are combinations of settings for some space photography cases.
For taking pictures of moving stars in the sky, choose these settings:
For photographing objects in front of a starry night sky:
Among the basic approaches to making sky images are long exposure and short exposure.
In the long exposure style, stars look outstanding. Combined with the circles forming the stars and the Moon, a long exposure can reveal the outstanding background of night sky clouds. Short exposure photography is about traditional representations of the stars in the sky. It’s the best choice for entry-level photographers because it’s not that sensitive to tracking mistakes.
On the other hand, you can shoot astrophotography with a full-frame sensor or by cropping your sky images. Consider the specifics of each shot you want to take.
With cropping, you can appear very close to the starry night sky – and if you use the best telescope for astrophotography, you’ll get awesome images. In its turn, full-frame sensors guarantee the best panoramic pictures for night sky photography with much lower noise and higher overall quality. However, the price for getting this magic sensor in your night photography settings is higher – cameras that crop images are much more affordable.
In other words, start as short and cropped as possible, and, with time, move to a longer exposure and a wider frame. That’s the general path to mastering astrophotography.
All the mistakes connected with night sky photography have one root – impatience. The stars and the Moon move really slowly, and a photographer should train the relevant skills to actually feel the right moment for the best shots.
Just don’t stop trying!
Even though all the guides on night photography settings recommend choosing a manual mode before making any adjustments, this tip is not always taken seriously. As a result, the long process of capturing an image can be ruined in the last second with a sudden re-focus.
So don’t neglect the importance of manual changes – otherwise, even the best camera for astrophotography won’t help.
Moreover, even following this guide exactly doesn’t guarantee breathtaking astrophotography images that inspire thousands of people. The wrong location or lack of a strong idea of what you want in the image are the most common mistakes that lead to deep disappointment for night photography amateurs.
So don’t forget that space photography is an art – and reveal your creative thinking in it!
Another common mistake while practicing night sky photography relates to the illusory simplicity of composition. People just point their cameras in the direction of the night sky, press the button, and expect a masterpiece.
However, night photography requires knowing the same rules as any other type of photography. For the proper composition, consider the rule of thirds – divide an image into nine parts and put the most interesting objects on the lines. Another classic practice is to fill two-thirds of the shot with the night sky and leave the remaining one-third (or even less) for the foreground. Finally, use lines (star trails or the directions in the foreground) as the skeleton for your composition.
Most amateurs don’t mind the importance of chasing moon phases before doing astrophotography. But a wrong decision to go out when there’s a full moon will automatically ruin all your images and might even ruin your willingness to try night photography again.
So consider that learning how to take pictures of stars means accounting for all the factors – including the movement of the planets and the phases of the moon. And choose the darkest place possible as a photoshoot location!
For astrophotography, as for any type of photography, the post-processing stage is among the most crucial. All the colors and clarity you see in the best space photography are actually added at this stage.
Before working with images in Photoshop, make sure that you’ve saved them in RAW, not JPEG format. Though RAW files occupy more space on a memory card, they allow you to make more accurate changes by capturing more information.
These are some of the basic magic tricks you can do with your star images in Photoshop:
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