Astrophotography is about as close as most of us can get to being Astronauts. Our eyes focused on the skies above, pondering all the strange and wonderful things out there.
Being among the stars would be a life-changing experience. But, so would a perfect photograph of a blood red moon.
Photographing the night sky and all its wonders is as close as many of us will get to being out there. A helmet is unnecessary and you won’t need a lot of fuel, but you will need a little training.
But What is Astrophotography?
Simply put, it’s a specialized kind of photography. One comprised of concepts and techniques that involve the photography of astronomical objects. These might be the moon, planets and stars, but also nebulae and The Milky Way.
Types of Astrophotography
There are several types of astrophotography you can pursue. Our article will go through all of them.
Photographs that were taken with a telescope of objects far away into the night sky. These are the beautiful images of interesting nebulae and distant galaxies. This style would include the most complicated and technical aspects of astrophotography.
Here, you need to think about star trails as a challenge to overcome. Also, having to think about telescopes, light pollution, editing software and other pieces of equipment.
Everything within our own solar system, such as our moon, our sun and the planets that circle around it. Here you can use a telescope, but you can also use a multitude of telephoto lenses to get stunning results.
Wide Angle Astrophotography
This is a type of astrophotography that uses a wide field of view, such as wide and super wide lenses. These images include night landscapes with the Milky Way in the background, adding definition into the sky. Capturing star trails is also another great subject. This area is very accessible and the least technical.
Time-lapse is an extension of the wide angled astrophotography. This requires you to take many exposures over a period of time and then combine the images to create a video. This is also a great technique for star trail images.
There are many different camera types for every different kind of photography. Astrophotography is no different. There are the standard DSLRs, either full-frame or cropped.
The mirrorless systems and even your smartphone could give you some great shots. There are even specialised Astrophotography cameras designed to capture the skies.
Each camera has its benefits, so try using what you have before you think about other systems.
This article will give you a great idea of what to look for, to capture those stunning images.
A CCD (charge-coupled device) is an integrated circuit, etched onto a silicon surface. This forms the light-sensitive elements pixels. Light as photons lands on this surface and generate an electrical charge. An analogue-to-digital converter turns each pixel’s value into a digital copy, creating an image.
There are many reasons why you should choose a CCD camera for astrophotography. CCD cameras can be up to 50 times more sensitive to light than DSLRs. This allows you to photograph at a lower shutter speed to better eliminate unwanted stair trails. Their dynamic range is much better and they can have built-in guide chips to help you navigate the stars.
Read this article to see if your astrophotography can benefit from a CCD camera.
When it comes to the sensor, is it better to photograph the sky with a crop or full frame? There is no simple way to answer this, as both have benefits and downsides.
A crop sensor magnifies the full-frame lens you are using. If you photograph using a Canon 7D (crop sensor) with a 300mm telephoto lens (full-frame), the magnification of the focal length is 1.6 times.
The 300mm lens is actually 480mm with this DSLR. The benefit here is that you are now closer to the object you would like to photograph. This could be a problem when paired with a telescope.
You might even be too close to photograph the subject in one photograph.
With a full frame sensor, the quality is higher and the digital noise will be lower. Yet, these cameras are very expensive compared to their sibling, the crop sensors.
This article goes into great depth on what you should think about on these two systems. Read through it before you run out and buy a 5D Mark III.
You would think that since planets, stars and nebula’s are so far away, it would be best to use a telephoto lens. In a physical manner, it makes sense.
The problem is in capturing these objects without light trails. The sky is moving due to the earth’s rotation. An image you photograph will be moving, and a telephoto lens makes this more obvious.
Due to the focal length, the telephoto lens needs more light for correct exposure. This means that the shutter needs to stay open longer, compared to that of a wide-angle lens. This is what shows more of the movement in your photograph and shows the stars as blurred blotches.
A wide-angle lens lets in more light so it cuts down the exposure time. The other benefit of a wide-angle lens is that the crop magnification will be smaller. This gives you more content in your astrophotography.
If the camera has a crop sensor using an 11mm focal length, it will effectively be (11×1.6) 18mm. This isn’t as drastic as a 300 mm telephoto lens having a focal length of 480mm.
Choosing to use a telescope over a telephoto lens might have benefits. It comes down to what you want to use it for. A telescope is an extra piece of equipment, which is an extra expense if you don’t already own one.
For this to be worth it, you will have to use it quite a few times. Try to borrow one first to see if it fits your astrophotography needs.
If you are looking to capture deep space subjects, a telescope is a perfect tool. You will need an adapter to be able to connect your camera. This also means you can photograph the moon with your smartphone.
Yet, if you own a crop sensor DSLR and 300mm lens, the 1.6x magnification will give you 480mm focal length. This is the same as most telescopes, and they even work on an f/6 aperture.
This article will help you understand its limitations and decide if it is right for you.
This is a portable solution for photographing the night sky. The keyword here is portable, meaning you can escape that light pollution and get into the wild.
A Skytracker is a device that follows the rotation of the earth. This enables your focus to stay set on the star systems without any trailing or blurriness. They sit sandwiched between your tripod and camera and can be set up in a matter of minutes. Perfect for astrophotography where technical challenges could become extensive.
This article gives you the complete guide to the iOptron SkyTracker. From initial setup to final review .
A tripod is an obvious accessory for photographing the night sky, but what else? A compass could be a great addition to helping you find the north star.
Due to long exposure times, your images will also benefit from a remote control. An intervalometer will capture many images in succession, so you can keep your hands warm.
Something that you shouldn’t overlook is a headlamp. This enables your mouth to be free of a torch or your smartphone, and your hands to be free for holding hot tea. Everyone needs hot tea when completing an astrophotography project.
Depending on the season, gloves and warm clothing could be essential. If you are planning to hike long distances to get these shots, then your feet will thank you for good hiking boots. Even a sleeping bag might come in handy to keep you warm for those hours where your DSLR is doing all the hard work.
The gloves are perhaps the most important choice. Do you want to keep taking them off to use with your gear? No, I didn’t think so. Get gloves that can work with your smartphone and are thin enough so they allow you to tinker with gear. Your astrophotography will improve greatly.
Look after yourself and the photographs will look after themselves. Or at least the intervalometer will look after them.
Filters can really help you get great photographs of the sky. City Light Suppression (CLS) help to eliminate the light pollution from cities found in the sky. Light Pollution Suppression (LPS) filters cut down the extra light in the sky. LPRO Max filter is designed for wide angle landscape astrophotography and produces more natural looking star colours.
This list is not exhaustive – there are a lot more than these three. They do, unlike most other filters, fit in-between your camera sensor and your lens, so you will need to take the lens off to fit them. They are a necessary part of capturing stunning images of the skies above.
The camera can be set to many different combinations. These allow you to photograph a multitude of subjects. With Astrophotography, you want the camera to do as little as possible.
Manual mode will give you the most amount of control and will stop your camera trying to work out what to do on its own.
Manual mode is a must, and that goes with your focusing too. You need to do it all yourself. The last thing you want, during a 105-second exposure, is for your camera to decide the scene isn’t sharp enough and tries to re-focus.
Shooting in raw is a must, as that captures the most amount of information for post-processing.
Another benefit that is often overlooked is ‘mirror-lockup’. This is a setting on most DSLRs that stops mirror shake. The mirror flicks up and down at the start and end of each photograph. This can really create problems in your astrophotography.
Set your white balance to daylight for easier tweaking in post-processing, saving you time.
When photographing the Milky Way, you want to expose for the sky, not the foreground. By placing the emphasis on this area, it will help you find the best settings to shoot with.
The aperture should be set to f/2.8 or something similar. This allows the most amount of light to enter the lens. It also cuts down the exposure time and chances of seeing unwanted star trails.
The ISO can be whatever you like but remember this. Low ISO gives the best quality, high ISO adds grain or noise. After you use the 500 rule to work out your exposure length, I would look at ISO last.
This is a simple rule to try and minimalise unwanted star trails in your astrophotography. The basic idea is 500 Divided By the Focal Length of Your Lens = The Longest Exposure (in Seconds) Before Stars Start to “Trail”.
For example, if our focal length was 24mm then our longest exposure would be (500/24) 20.8 seconds. If the focal length was 480 mm, our crop sensor using a 300mm telephoto lens would give us (500/480) 1 second.
This is a general guide, but it will save you time in trial-and-error.
How to Shoot Powerful Astro Photographs
Photographing the sky sounds easy. You take your DSLR with a wide-angle lens out somewhere in the wilderness and plonk it on top of a tripod. With everything set to manual, you point your camera/tripod combo at the sky and fire off a few photographs. You use the settings you worked out with the 500 rule.
And yet, this is deceiving. Astrophotography is not, in fact, that simple. You need a great many more things to turn that photograph into a breathtaking image. Nothing good ever comes easy.
You need a good location, the right gear and an idea of what your subject is going to be. You need to research what is possible and look at many photographs for inspiration.
Even after photographing the scene, you need to edit the images too. Post-processing is another art, which will take time, effort and patience. But don’t get discouraged! Keep reading our article, stick with astrophotography and the benefits will come tenfold.
Here is a very helpful list of all the items and terms you might need for Astrophotography. Dip in and out of this to your heart’s content.
This article has 4 great tips on getting started with Astrophotography. One of the most important is to scout the location and research where you should be.
Go out in the daylight and scope out any potential dangers or problems. This is also great for finding interesting foregrounds when shooting the night sky.
By researching and using smartphone apps, you can find out where the milky way will be. This saves precious time. This is especially helpful in setting up a shot when you can’t see The Milky Way.
Think about what The Milky way will look like with your setting. The foreground could be perfect in a landscape orientation, but the galaxy might need a portrait.
Different to the more general astrophotography, deep sky photography needs a different set of tips to get you started. Deep sky photography takes you to the stars, the nebulae and beyond.
There are no landscapes or other objects here, only filling the frame with these celestial beings.
This article goes into depth of what objects you can find in the sky and photograph. One of the best tips for focusing on the stars is to use a small sieve. When used, the stars diffract through the sieve, making it easier to focus.
Michael A. Phillips
In this article, the author talks about how both astrophotography and night landscape photography have their own challenges. He goes on to say that astrophotography is easier, as you concentrate only on the sky.
Also, both post-processing and tracking devices allow you to stay clear of unwanted light trails.
With nighttime photography of the landscape, you focus on both subjects; the sky and the land. Due to this, you can only work with a fast shutter speed, otherwise, the light trails in the sky are visible. A tracking device wouldn’t work here, as the landscape would move where the stars stood still.
This article points out that photographing the moon is one of the least demanding areas of Astrophotography. It is a great place to start, as you will see the moon almost every evening. Unless your location stops its visibility or clouds make it impossible.
In the northern hemisphere, The Milky Way is only visible in the sky between April and September. The moon is a good starting point.
Try to capture this celestial being in all her glory in a night landscape or cityscape. She is a great addition to an image that needs some definition in the sky. Try using her and her ambient light to create stunning landscapes.
To capture the moon up close, a telephoto lens with a crop sensor will get you as close as possible. But, a full-frame sensor will be better at dealing with the digital noise. This makes the quality of the image better.
Photographing star trails is only one possible way to capture the night sky. These can add a breathtaking element to a landscape image, due to the definition in the sky. They look other-worldly due to the fact that we never see the stars in this way.
Some of the articles here are to help to cut-out the star trails as they can be distracting. Yet, doing them properly makes for a stunning image.
This article goes through all the steps to be able to create these images. You will need a little help with the use of smartphone applications and tips.
You’re already standing in the Milky Way right now. But for photographic purposes, the Milky Way is everywhere in the night sky. To begin with, for us to photograph it, we need a clear night and low light pollution.
The other thing to take into consideration is that the Milky Way moves. Actually, we are the ones moving due to the earth’s rotation, but it makes our galaxy appear to pass above us.
The time of year and our location is also very important. The Milky Way is only visible to us in the Northern Hemisphere from April to September. After that, it dips down to greet those in the south.
It can also change its orientation. It starts horizontally, moving to a more vertical position.
This article gives you the best information on how to find the Milky Way. It helps you organise and research.
The Milky Way is a very impressive detail in our night sky. Photographs of our galaxy, in all her glory, are bewilderingly breathtaking. She really has the ability to make us feel small yet significant.
Photographing her is not as difficult as you might think. You could also be joining the many people focusing on her in our night sky.
As our extensive article here shows, photographing the Milky Way is about 20% technique, 30% gear, and 50% preparation. Preparation needs to cover all your equipment; for your camera and for yourself.
Researching where to go based on the Milky Way location is very important. Just as important is scouting the area in the daylight, looking for the best setting.
The important thing here is to have fun and enjoy it – This makes it easier to try it again and again.
The hours of darkness can be such an interesting time to photograph. Everything changes. The landscape, the colours and the light all differ from the daytime.
Even the same locations differ greatly. Photographing these settings can be a little challenging, especially if you are not used to it.
Your gear may change to different equipment that can handle low light conditions. Maybe a tripod could be useful or extra lighting and the techniques that come with it.
A wide angle lens or smaller aperture can also help. In terms of what to shoot, well, you are only limited to your creativity.
Have a look at our article for inspiration. It also gives you many creative possibilities to get you outside practising.
You are not alone. There are many places you can look for help to get you started. There are many smartphone applications that you can use to plan your trip. You can even access them when you are at your location.
One of the most important is Dark Sky Finder. Light pollution is a great hindrance when it comes to photographing the sky. This handy app helps you to find the darkest locations to photograph from.
The Photographer’s Ephemeris is another great application. This shows you how sun and moonlight will affect the area. If you wanted to photograph a specific place with a sunrise, this is the app that will tell you when this will happen.
Simple. You just have to get out there and photograph.
Different photography areas need different composition techniques. Some stay with us the whole time, others change and many can be broken. The rule-of-thirds is a good composition rule to use if in doubt, no matter the subject.
Leading lines is a good go-to rule too, as it helps draw the viewer’s eye into the frame. Ideally, these lines would point (or lead) to the most interesting thing in the frame.
Using movement to show speed always works as you are showing a 3-D idea in a static image. Weighted images and use of negative space can really be helpful. They show your audience what you find interesting and what they should pay attention to.
There are other creative compositions that you can use to take your images to the next level. In astrophotography, we spend most of our time trying to eliminate light pollution from our images. One compositional tool is to keep or add some extra areas of light to give the photograph a punch.
Also, try adding other areas of interest than just a landscape or a tree. Get creative in photographing the sky with something in the foreground that is unusual.
Adding colour is another great way to make your images stand out. There are hundreds of thousands of images already out there that have explored the skies above us. Show something different, or with a little flair and really make it YOUR image.
Post-processing an image is almost like photographing the scene again. You need to look at how to get the best from the image, looking at light, contrast and colour.
Using editing software like Adobe Lightroom for Milky Way photography is no different. You might find that these photographs will need a little more tinkering than other styles of photography.
Here, filters and presets can be your best friends. The dehaze tool within Lightroom works well as our sky is full of haze. Use this to make those stars pop. Graduated filters can help correct colour hues without affecting the whole image.
This article gives you a great guide on what can be down to get the best out of your astrophotography.
When it comes to editing, Photoshop is a lot more comprehensive than Lightroom. There is much more you can accomplish, but it’s a little more spread out and complicated to use.
This article goes through of each step what this astrophotographer does to his images to get the best possible end result. He’ll show you how even a few basic adjustments can really create something beautiful.
Neutralising the sky background and looking at the vignetting of the image are just two things he modifies in his work. Read for more information.
Astrophotography Editing Software
Stacking images is a great trick to use in photography. It can help with layering images to allow a subject to be 100% in focus. Here, it helps to cut down on the noise when photographing the night sky over long exposures. When you spend a long time outside photographing these beautiful scenes, you want the best out of the processing stage. Otherwise, you can end up with a very noisy and hazy photograph. I’m pretty sure that is not your aim.
Deep Sky Stacker is a free software, that can work in raw or other image types. It can work with photograph styles such as panoramas and wide angle shots of the Milky Way. A great tool to use to get the meaty part of the work done. The finer post-processing can be finished off in Photoshop.
This article really goes in-depth into how you could benefit from this software.
PixInsight is an all-in-one piece of software. It replaces all other pre- and post-processing software. It costs less than owning Adobe Photoshop outright and does more for Astrophotography than any Adobe package. If you can get past the basic interface and the $200 price tag, this is the go-to piece of software.
It stacks, contrast corrects, removes vignetting, colour balances, crops, deconvolutes and reduces noise. Phew. These aren’t all of its features either. Try it out, and since there is a 45-day money back guarantee, you lose nothing. It could be the best purchase to push your astrophotography to the next level.
To use Star Tools, your images need be of good quality and already stacked together. Deep Sky Stacker is something you can use for this, moving on to Star Tools for the processing. This program focuses heavily on the quality of the image by de-noising it multiple times. Contrast, deconvolution and sharpening are just a few ways this software really pushes your image to its absolute best.
Read this article for an in-depth, step to step guide of all the processes you can use to achieve a stunning final image. He has even provided his stack of astrophotographs to play around with.
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