Are you looking for a new and fresh way to view the night sky? Astronomy and Astrophotography are highly enjoyable hobbies that allow you to gain new insight into the inner workings of the galaxy.
Astronomy has, for centuries, captivated the human race and given them childlike curiosity into the inner workings of the universe.
Everyone has, at some point in their lives, looked up and viewed the night sky with awe and amazement. If you’ve ever looked at the night sky with a telescope, even better!
Many people enjoy taking in the night sky and its associated stars by gazing at it with a telescope in addition to photographing what they see. Even though the stars and the moon look absolutely incredible on their own, if you are able to record your findings, it brings a whole new dimension into your hobby.
A lot of photographers look for new ways to capture beautiful images and astrophotography is often the natural and next best step for them.
It is understandable if you believe that astrophotography is quite overwhelming or daunting but the good news is that it is easier than it sounds!
So, how do you begin with your astronomy and astrophotography journey? This beginner’s guide to astronomy and astrophotography will explain everything you need to know!
Getting started with astronomy.
Many folks who take up an astronomy hobby have no idea about the various names of stars, constellations, etc. If you are a complete novice, we recommend buying a star map showing the major constellations. These are available at most big box stores or you could order one online.
A good star map will give you a clear indication of what you see when you gaze upwards.
If you have time, try and read a book that tackles the basics of astronomy as this will help you to understand what you see.
After you have understood the basics of astronomy, you should be able to take it to the next level and continue with astrophotography.
The basics of astrophotography.
Your first question will obviously be around the camera you need. Before you think about getting a camera, we recommend spending some time outdoors at night and becoming familiar with the night sky.
If you live in a big city, you may want to find a spot that has less light pollution as this can improve your view.
It may be worth traveling some distance to a place that has less light pollution as you will see so much more.
Once you have found a spot that you like, regular visits there at night will get you acquainted with the various stars. Remember to take things slowly and to simply enjoy what you see when looking up.
Finding a good camera.
Unfortunately, if you have a basic “point and shoot” camera, this is not going to help you at all to take decent photos of the night sky. Your smartphone camera (no matter how advanced it is) will also do a poor job.
This is the only drawback to astrophotography as a good quality (i.e. expensive) camera is essential. When shopping for a camera, there are certain characteristics that you need to pay attention to but we will touch on this later on in this beginner’s guide to astronomy and astrophotography.
Different styles of astrophotography.
Did you know that there are different ways of photographing the night sky? The style that you ultimately decide to go with will all depend on what you enjoy the most.
In short, astrophotography can be divided into 2 main types: long exposure shots and short exposure shots.
When it comes to astrophotography, the shutter speed (or exposure time) is very important. This relates to the speed at which your camera’s film or sensors are exposed to the light. Another way of looking at this is how long the shutter remains open.
Your camera’s shutter speed can be incredibly fast and can reach speeds of up to 1 thousandth of a second to several seconds.
When you take pictures of objects in normal light and under normal conditions, you would usually use quite a short exposure. For example, if you want to take a picture of your dog running around in your yard during the day, you will use a short exposure.
This results in a clear and crisp picture, despite the movement of your dog. Short exposure works to “freeze” the object in time so that you have a clear image.
If you are taking pictures of the stars in the night sky, using a short exposure for your shot will also result in clearer and crisper images.
Longer shutter speeds are normally used to capture images in the daytime. However, because the night sky is naturally very dark, it is better to let in as much light as possible with a longer shutter speed. This will give you better-looking pictures.
Long exposure is also regularly used in astrophotography. This creates a special effect and the stars that you capture look as if they are swirling around in circles. Such photos can look incredible and if you want to create these “star trails”, you would need to use a long exposure.
Of course, how you use your camera is down to your own, unique photographic style and what you prefer.
For best results, we advise thinking about the kinds of images you want to produce and adapting your photographic style accordingly.
One thing’s for sure, once you have captured your first few images of the dark night sky, you will be tempted to improve your technique and go one step further.
As mentioned in this beginner’s guide to astronomy and astrophotography, you will definitely need a good camera to take decent photos.
You will need a DSLR camera and possibly also a good telescope. Fortunately, you don’t have to spend thousands of dollars on a new camera as there are some great and affordable options out there. Just make sure that your camera is a DSLR model, even if it is an entry model.
Generally speaking, you should be able to pick up an excellent DSLR camera for well under $1000.
Astrophotography experts normally recommend that beginners look at reputable camera brands like Canon, Sony and Nikon.
When you look at an object in the night sky, it is usually just a faint speck and if you want to photograph this object, you need to use a special technique so that your picture turns out well.
Even though humans can easily spot the little specks of light that are stars, cameras have a more difficult time and, if not done correctly, will capture them as a solid black object.
What this means is that your camera needs to compensate for the darkness. You can do this by using the correct shutter speed. The slower that your shutter speed is, the more light it will admit into the camera, and the better your pictures will turn out.
Knowing how your camera’s aperture works is another important aspect of understanding how to take great photos of the night sky.
The aperture refers to the diameter of your camera’s lens (into which light comes through). The wider your aperture is, the better quality your photograph will be.
Unfortunately, cameras with wider apertures tend to be more expensive and can be heavier to carry around with you. The key here is therefore balance and it would be a good idea to buy a camera that has a larger aperture but a slower shutter speed. This will result in more light being captured in your nighttime images.
ISO is an important factor to consider when buying a camera for taking photos of the night sky. The ISO of your camera refers to how sensitive to light your camera is.
This concept can get quite technical but all you really need to know is that the higher the ISO of your camera, the better and brighter your images will be.
On the flip side, as the ISO of the camera increases, there will be more and more clutter originating from ambient light and light pollution in the background. Again, balance is key but if you are just starting out with astrophotography, we recommend getting a camera with a longer shutter speed, a higher ISO (preferably anything between 400 to 1600 and beyond) and a wide aperture.
Using your new camera.
Once you have purchased your new camera, as boring as it may sound, read through the user manual carefully to fully understand how it works!
Each camera has its own intricacies and adjusting the settings will be different on each model. If you are still confused after reading through your user manual, there are plenty of YouTube tutorials online showing you how best to use your camera.
In addition to a really good camera, you will need some other accessories to help you along with your astrophotography journey.
Here is a list of some of the basic accessories you will need:
- suitable lenses for your camera
- a wide angled wide aperture lens
- a good quality tripod
- a headlamp or a well-constructed flashlight
- some hiking gear if you plan on hiking to your astronomy spot
Every camera comes with working lenses but for astrophotography, you will definitely be needing a wide angled wide aperture lens. This improves the quality of our nighttime pictures and is well worth the investment.
Spend a bit of time picking out the most suitable tripod for your camera. A great tripod is vital for astrophotography as it helps to keep your camera perfectly still while taking photos so that they don’t turn out blurry.
A tripod is even more important if you think you will be using slower shutters speeds.
If your camera happens to move even a fraction during the exposure process, your images will be less than adequate. A tripod gives the camera much-needed stability.
Don’t worry about the tripod being cumbersome if you need to walk to your photography spot because there are some excellent lightweight ones out there. Look for one that is made from carbon fiber as this material is particularly light and easy to carry around with you.
Many cameras move a tiny bit when the user presses the shutter button. To combat this movement, you may want to use the timer on your camera so that it takes pictures when it is as still as possible.
There are some great tripods on the market but always be sure that it will work well with your camera and consider trying it out before you make a purchase.
Headlight and a flashlight.
The function of a headlight or flashlight is self-explanatory. You will need one of these as you’ll be working in the dark and you need to see what you’re doing!
Obviously, if you’re busy taking photos, try and not use your headlight or flashlight at all. If you really need to use it, set it on the lowest possible setting so that it doesn’t ruin your camera’s exposure.
Another factor to consider with a head lamp or flashlight is to get one that has a red light setting. If you continuously use a white light, this will eventually destroy your body’s night vision! Red lights illuminate your way and don’t ruin your night vision.
Hiking gear and equipment.
Many astrophotography enthusiasts live in big cities and have to travel to places where there is less light pollution.
Very often, this involves a long hike to a great photography spot and this means that you will inevitably need some hiking equipment. Not a lot is required, but you would definitely need a good pair of hiking boots or shoes and a decent jacket.
In addition, we recommend a lightweight backpack to carry your astrophotography equipment and possibly a hiking stick and a water bottle.
Using light sources to experiment with astrophotography.
As you learn more about your new astrophotography camera, you will naturally want to experiment with more techniques and different styles for taking better photos of the night sky.
One of the most popular techniques in astrophotography is to use the light painting technique. This is achieved by introducing small sources of light into your photography for a more illuminated and interesting effect.
If you would like to try light painting out for yourself, you could shine a dim light into the object you are wishing to capture (or anything that you are keen to highlight in the picture).
In astrophotography, light painting focuses on mainly stars, but you could experiment beforehand by illuminating everyday objects, such as buildings, trees, boulders, etc.
When is the best time to take photos of the night sky?
This may seem like a silly question as laypeople believe that any time that it is dark is the best time to take pictures of the stars. However, what they don’t realize is that the moon is continuously going through phases and it is better to take pictures when the moon appears dark.
When the moon is in a dark phase, it naturally emits less light, making other objects in the sky (i.e. stars) much more visible and clear.
It is always a good idea to check when the moon is in its dark phase (a new moon) and venture out on these nights.
But what about when you want to take pictures of the moon itself? Well, in this case, you would definitely choose a night when there is a full moon and it is clearly visible.
The key is to always be aware of which phase the moon is in as this will have a huge influence on your photography.
Tools for checking the phase of the moon.
There are various tools that you can use to check on the current moon phase. Many of these tools are handy apps that you can download and consult regularly.
The following are some of the best moon phase websites and apps currently available:
- Moon Giant.
Moon Giant is an easy-to-use website that lets you know what phase the moon is in at the moment. You can enter any chosen date and it will tell you which phase the moon will be in that night, in addition to the sub-phase (e.g. waning gibbous). It will also tell you how illuminated the moon will be on any given night and this is expressed as a percentage. Obviously, you will want to photograph the moon when it is well lit and you will capture photos of the stars when it is not.
- Moon Phase Calendar Plus.
Moon Phase Plus is a great app that also tells you everything you need to know about the phases of the moon. It will also tell you how the moon is expected to look on the date you enter and you can view each phase of the moon for an entire month, giving you a great overview.
This app will help you to find nights when the sky is at its darkest and clearest for excellent star photography and vice versa for taking photos of the moon.
- Weather apps.
We also recommend that you regularly consult a weather app. The reason for this is that clouds obscure your view of the stars and prevent you from seeing what you need to photograph. Try and only take photos when there is a clear sky as you won’t be wasting your time.
Of course, there are other amazing websites and apps that you could use to check on the moon’s phase but the above are considered to be the best at the moment.
Where do I go to take pictures of the night sky?
You can really take photos of the stars and moon anytime you want to, as long as you try and avoid places with a lot of light pollution.
This is easier said than done, especially if you live in a big city. Country dwellers can easily take great astrophotography from their own backyards but if you live in the city, you probably won’t be able to do the same.
The good news is that with a little research and a few tricks, you should be able to find the ideal place for your photography.
Most astrophotographers use specialized apps and websites to find the perfect dark skies in their area. The following are some of the tools that many of them use:
- Dark Sky Finder.
Dark Sky Finder is an innovative app that gives users a light pollution map of the whole world! This means that wherever you are in the world, you should be able to find an area close to you that is not as polluted by light.
In addition, it gives you information about several dark sky sites that are ideal for astrophotography and moon and star gazing. It also has some easy-to-understand clear sky charts so you can quickly tell how clear the sky is going to be in a specific area.
- International Dark-Sky Association.
The International Dark-Sky Association is a very highly regarded institute in the field of astronomy and astrophotography.
Their goal is to try and reduce light pollution as much as possible and to keep the skies looking dark and clear.
To view their helpful information on where you can enjoy some great stargazing or astrophotography, simply visit their webpage and check if they have a designated dark sky area near you!
- Light Pollution Map.
Light Pollution Map is another excellent website that you can use to evaluate the light pollution in you local area.
Using tools like the above 3, you should be in a better position to find a great dark sky location, no matter where you are located in the world.
What do I do if I can’t travel out of the city for astrophotography?
Many folks simply can’t afford to travel outside of the city to take pictures of the sky. Whether it is a matter of time and cost, don’t despair because there are ways around this!
If leaving the city is not an option for you, the best thing to do is head over to the tallest building in your area and try and gain access to the roof.
How To Be Successful With Astrophotography.
If you are committed to being successful with astrophotography and if you don’t want it to be just another hobby that falls by the wayside, then here are some useful tips to hep you along:
- Practice as much as you can.
When it comes to astrophotography, practicing and experimenting with your camera and different techniques is key. Remember that it doesn’t matter if your pictures come out blurry or unclear when you are just starting out. As long as you learn where you are going wrong and try different ways of photographing the night sky, you should be halfway there!
- Play around with the white balance function on your camera.
Every DSLR camera has a white balance function and this will allow you to change the sky’s color in your pictures. Playing around with this function can have some great effects. You might also want to experiment by taking pictures using the “sunny day” or “daylight” option for another way of capturing unique and beautiful images.
Messing around until you stumble upon something great is part of the fun of astrophotography!
- Don’t be afraid to ask for advice.
Fellow astrophotographers are a wealth of useful information. Don’t be afraid to ask them for advice and tips. Most of them would be happy to share their tips with you and could help you to set your camera correctly for the best possible pictures.
Alternatively, consider joining astrophotography groups on Facebook as you will find some incredible information there.
- Use the manual function on your camera.
Setting your camera to the manual function is another thing you could play around with. When doing this, focus on “infinity” as you will be focusing on objects that are really far into the distance.
A great way to try this out is to practice during the day when light conditions are better. You could take pictures of faraway objects and try and perfect this skill.
- Save space on your camera.
Astrophotography involves taking countless photos in order to get the perfect one. This inevitably takes up a lot of space on your camera. To avoid reaching your camera’s space capacity, why not shoot pictures in the RAW file format (instead of jpeg)? This will give you much more space on your camera.
Editing Your Photographs.
Editing your photos is one of the most exciting parts of astrophotography! Two of the most popular tools for astrophotography editing are Lightroom and Photoshop, but it will all be down to which one you personally prefer. Here, you can edit and manipulate your pictures so that the end result is spectacular!
Astrophotography editing can be quite time-consuming but if you are dedicated to the process, it will reward with images that are beyond your wildest dreams!
As you can see, starting a hobby of astronomy and astrophotography can be a little complicated and there will be a steep learning curve. However, if you stick with it and practice as much as you can, you will find that it is incredibly rewarding and highly addictive.
Finally, remember to enjoy the process of learning as the journey towards becoming an expert astrophotographer is even more enjoyable than being one itself. Have fun and involve your friends and family!