Astrophotography - A Beginner's Guide to Improving your Night Photography

The night sky has overawed the human race for millennia. Whether it was the Babylonians worshipping the stars as deities or Galileo studying them in science, the sprawling sea of endless stars has always had us craning our necks upwards.

It's effect hasn't dwindled with time either. There is nothing more humbling than staring up at the stars, and for those of us bitten by the photography bug this naturally this extends to capturing images of this wonder.

 astrophotography tips and tricks

Anybody who has attempted astrophotography will be fully aware of how different it is to taking photos in the daytime. There are new challenges that you must overcome, and some camera equipment that is an absolute necessity.

The rewards, however, are well worth it. That is something everybody will agree on when they capture a magnificent image of the Milky Way rising above a serene landscape. 

Now that I've captured your imagination, let's get into our beginners guide to astrophotography.

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Astrophotography Gear Checklist

Like all genres of photography, astrophotography comes with it's own specific gear requirements for those that are serious about it. I'm not going to overwhelm you with the dizzying array of star trackers and such, instead just focusing on some of the more basic photography gear that can vastly improve your night photography.

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Good Quality DSLR or Mirrorless Camera

Astrophotography, for the most part, is one of the few subsets of photography that requires a good quality camera. Smartphone cameras and point and shoots simply don't have the image quality required for shooting in low light, although there are a few exceptions.

A full-frame DSLR or Mirrorless is the ideal camera body, but any one of our beginner DSLR or mirrorless cameras is perfectly capable of getting some excellent shots. A full-frame sensor simply improves the image quality further, allowing you to boost the ISO even higher without the same degradation in quality.

If you're just getting started, a camera such as the Nikon D3400 will still be more than capable of capturing some great nighttime images when coupled with the right equipment.

Tripod

Tripods are useful in most walks of photography, but in astrophotography they're a necessity. You'll be using shutter speeds that far exceed those at which you can handhold the camera, so mounting it on a good, sturdy tripod is a must.

Which tripod you get depends on a number of things, such as how far you're planning on carrying it, how tall you need it to extend, and your budget. The link above has a variety of options, and I can also highly recommend the Vanguard Alta Pro 2+ if your budget stretches that far.

Lenses for Astrophotography

This is a section that could fill out an article all by itself. In fact, we've got one right here! I'll keep things short and sweet for now though.

Your 18-55mm kit lens will definitely be capable of getting some good astrophotography shots, but getting a wider angle lens will open up a world of possibilities for you. Combine a wide-angle lens with a wide maximum aperture and you have yourself a winner.

The wide angle will allow you to get more of that beautiful night sky in the shot, and the wide aperture means you can collect a lot more light in each shot. The Samyang 14mm f/2.8 is an old favourite in the astrophotography community, and it's fairly budget friendly as well!

There are plenty of other options out there as well, but we'll save them for a different article.

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Miscellaneous Astrophotography Gear

  • Flashlight - For obvious reasons. It's going to be dark when you're shooting.
  • Remote Shutter Release - This helps to eliminate any camera shake caused by pressing the shutter, and is also a necessity for star trail photography.
  • Extra Batteries - You can end up taking a lot of images in astrophotography, and the colder night air will drain your camera batteries more quickly too.
  • Warm Clothing - Nighttime can be deceptively cold, and standing around for a long time means that warmer clothing than you think you need is recommended.

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Astrophotography Camera Settings

Choosing the right camera settings is one of the main frustrations that beginners in astrophotography face. Many don't know why their photos are still coming out too dark, or why the stars in the sky are blurry or smudged.

All those questions and more will be answered here though!

 night photography tips and tricks

Focusing at Night

One of the major frustrations faced in astrophotography is focusing correctly. Autofocus doesn't perform well in the dark, and you can often find the camera continuously hunting for focus but never finding it. There are a few ways to approach this:

  • Manual Focus - Focusing at infinity on your lens will ensure that the stars are pin sharp, although on zoom lenses you may find you need a bit of trial and error to find the precise infinity focus point.
  • Focus on something bright - Search the sky for a bright star, or the horizon for a distant light. You can autofocus on this point, then switch your focus back to manual and recompose the shot.
  • Use Live View - By switching your camera to live view you can zoom right in on your image and adjust focus more easily than trying to decide whether something is sharp through the viewfinder.

Shutter Speed and the Rule of 500

It won't come as a surprise to you that the Earth is always rotating, but what you may not have realised is that this causes the stars to seemingly move across the night sky. It happens slowly, but not slowly enough to ignore from a photography standpoint.

 Choosing too long a shutter speed introduces star trails to your image.

Choosing too long a shutter speed introduces star trails to your image.

The movement of these stars can cause them to appear smudged on your images, so it's important to use a shutter speed that is fast enough to 'freeze' these stars in the sky. This is known as the Rule of 500.

It's a simple calculation that you can use to always ensure that your stars are pin sharp. Note that this is for full frame sensors, so if you're using a cropped sensor you will have to multiply your focal length by 1.5 for Nikon and 1.6 for Canon:

500 / Focal Length of lens = Longest exposure in seconds before the stars begin to trail.

So, for example say that you're using the Samyang 14mm f/2.8 lens on a full frame camera. You divide 500 by 14, which comes back at just over 35 seconds. You now know that you can use a 35 second exposure before the stars begin to smudge.

On a cropped sensor body you would first multiply 14 by 1.5, giving you 21mm effective focal length. Now it's the same again: 500/21 = 23.8 seconds.

So there you have it; you'll never have to worry about trailing stars again. Although, as you will see later, sometimes you want to make star trails.

Aperture - Wide Open or Stopped Down

Obviously the wider your aperture is the more light your sensor collects, but by shooting with your aperture wide open you decrease depth of field, and sometimes even image quality. 

 Sometimes, such as when creating a moonburst effect, a narrower aperture is preferable to shooting wide open.

Sometimes, such as when creating a moonburst effect, a narrower aperture is preferable to shooting wide open.

Choosing an aperture in astrophotography is all about compromise. If everything you're shooting is far away from the lens then you can afford to shoot at the largest aperture possible, but if you have subjects close to the lens as well then depth of field becomes an issue.

You can get around this by focus stacking your images though - Taking one shot wide open to get the best of the night sky and another where you have focused on the foreground subjects. You can then blend these in Photoshop (tutorials coming soon.)

You just have to decide how much depth of field is required and then figure out what aperture would be the best compromise between exposure and depth of field.

ISO - Is Lower Always Better?

In ordinary landscape photography we generally aim for the lowest ISO possible, but when the lights go out and the stars come out this isn't a possibility. We need to start jacking that ISO up to ensure a bright enough exposure, but by how much?

This all depends on what camera body you're using, and it's really where full frame sensors come into their own. The Nikon D810, for example, can happily shoot at ISO-6400 and produce great quality images, but cropped-sensor bodies generally need to be kept at lower ISO values to maintain image quality.

 This was shot at ISO-4000 on a Nikon D800 to ensure enough light was collected but without introducing star trailing.

This was shot at ISO-4000 on a Nikon D800 to ensure enough light was collected but without introducing star trailing.

As a rule of thumb, start at ISO-3200 and then work your way up or down depending on exposure and the amount of noise present in the image. Remember: Editing suites such as Adobe Lightroom have phenomenal noise reduction capabilities now, so you can afford to push the ISO a bit higher than you think you can.

Always Shoot RAW

I don't hide my preference towards RAW files in any genre of photography, but in astrophotography it is truly essential. We're pushing our equipment to the limit here, raising the ISO as high as possible and extending the shutter speed for as long as we can to try and capture the minuscule amounts of light available.

Do you know what shooting in JPEG does here? It undoes all of that hard work.

 Shooting in RAW instead of Jpeg gives you much more flexibility in post processing, which is important when pushing our photography equipment to the limit of it's abilities.

Shooting in RAW instead of Jpeg gives you much more flexibility in post processing, which is important when pushing our photography equipment to the limit of it's abilities.

If we're pushing our gear to the limit we want every bit of data and manoeuvrability available to us in post processing. A RAW file has higher dynamic range and is a lot more flexible in post processing, not to mention the fact that we can tweak the white balance (something which can make or break a night sky image.)

Always Shoot RAW.


Planning and Composition in Astrophotography

Planning your shoot ahead of time is often a wise idea, but in astrophotography it's even more important. A daytime scout of your chosen location goes a long way to finding promising compositions, not to mention highlighting any potential dangers that may be missed under the cover of darkness.

Planning an Astrophotography Shoot

The first thing you will want to do is find a suitable area for conducting your astrophotography ventures. So what do you need for a successful night sky image? Stars.

 Light pollution is a real issue. The orange glow on the horizon in this image comes from a medium sized town over 20 miles away - The camera picks up much more than our eyes do.

Light pollution is a real issue. The orange glow on the horizon in this image comes from a medium sized town over 20 miles away - The camera picks up much more than our eyes do.

Finding a dark sky is essential, but as with everything these days - There's an app for that. And for everything else you might need for that matter. The below apps and websites are definitely worth checking out to help with dark sky finding, moon phase monitoring, location scouting, and finding specific night sky features (such as the Milky Way.)

  • The Photographer's EphemerisThis is really just an all round killer of an app for photographers, and they've recently added information on dark sky sites too, making it much more useful to astrophotographers. It also has moonrise and moonset times and the phase of the moon.
  • DarkSiteFinder.comAs you might have guessed, this is a wonderful tool for finding dark sky locations. It covers pretty much all of Earth in incredible detail.
  • StellariumThis free, open source planetarium has everything you could ever need for finding astronomy. You can find when and where the Milky Way will rise, visualise constellations, and much, much more. It takes some time and practise to get to know the software, but it's well worth it.

The weather is also a major player in whether an astrophotography shoot works out. Find a reliable weather forecast for your area and look for a relatively long spell of cloudless skies. Particles of dust and smog in the atmosphere can be a hindrance even then though, so a clear night following a period of rainfall is ideal.

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Astrophotography in the Field

So you've got the gear, scouted out a potential location and a crisp, clear night is finally upon you. Now all you need to do is actually capture some images!

I'll remind you now: Composition is king. Just because you're working at night it doesn't mean that you can make do without a solid composition to the overall image. No matter what genre of photography you're pursuing, the composition of the image always comes first.

 Never rely solely on a gorgeous night sky in your astrophotography. Composition is always important, no matter what the conditions.

Never rely solely on a gorgeous night sky in your astrophotography. Composition is always important, no matter what the conditions.

I'll be brutally honest - Working in the pitch black can be frustrating. A good headlamp is essential (if you cover it in a red gel it will preserve your night vision too) for setting up your tripod and camera, and then having a reliable way to focus your lens will drastically ease the growing pains of the beginner astrophotographer.

Here's a step by step guide to how I set up for a shoot:

  1. Headlamp on, I find the area for my composition. Preferably this is one I've scouted out by daylight.
  2. I set up the tripod, mount my camera, and attach the remote shutter release in this general area and begin looking more specifically for a shot.
  3. Once I've got a rough idea of the shot I want I go back to the camera and compose it roughly. There's no point trying to get it perfect first time, the chances are it will need adjustments.
  4. I set my ISO to the highest it will go and take a test shot. This is so I can reduce my shutter speed as much as possible, which means I'm not waiting around for 25 seconds just to see if my composition works.
  5. The resulting image will be poor quality, but it will give me a good idea on the composition. I then start fine tuning the composition until I have precisely what I want.
  6. One final test shot to triple check the composition.
  7. Lower the ISO to whichever value I deem best and take an usable image.
  8. Refine camera settings and focus if needed and repeat.

There you have it. My patented (not really) process for taking an image of the night sky. Of course this varies with each shoot, but it's a good process to follow loosely.

 astrophotography tips and tricks for beginners

Follow the steps above, double checking all your settings are correct and paying close attention to composition, and you're well on your way to capturing some good nighttime images.


Conclusion

So, you've dipped your toes into the world of astrophotography and come away wanting to swim. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on which way you look at it) there is an entire ocean out there for you to explore.

There are some more advanced techniques you can delve into with your current equipment, such as stacking and aligning multiple night sky images and blending longer exposures of the foreground in Photoshop. There will be a tutorial on this in the near future, but it allows you to increase the exposure of the foreground and reduce noise in the stars as well. Star trail photography is well worth considering as well.

 Star trail photography is a relatively simple advancement from the basics of astrophotography, and can be achieved with no additional photography equipment.

Star trail photography is a relatively simple advancement from the basics of astrophotography, and can be achieved with no additional photography equipment.

Then you can delve into the murky depths of advanced astrophotography. This can range from simple enhancements such as DIY star trackers (tutorial coming soon) all the way up to deep space photography using a telescope and special adaptor to mount your camera.

In astrophotography the possibilities are as limitless as the universe itself. 

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 Beginner's guide to astrophotography