Astro Photography: a fantastic guide to shooting the stars.

Planning:

The first thing you will need to go is find a dark site location. This map is quite useful, it can help you find a place near you which offers nice dark skies, but you don’t have to drive or travel for hours to reach.

Moon phase timing & Astro photography

You’ll need to bear in mind the current moon phase which will determine whether there will be a large amount of light reflecting off the Moon when you shoot. The fuller the Moon, the more it will hide the stars from being seen. By the next new Moon on March 13, the Core will be out in all its glory.

Timing of Milkyway

Another element is the rising and setting times of the Milky Way itself. In an early season like March, the Milky Way will be rising during the early hours of the night around 3-4 AM. The core will start to rise earlier and earlier with the middle of july being one of the best times to shoot the core. After that it will be visible after sunset and it will be seen throughout the night.

September, the core will set earlier and earlier and be visible for around less than an hour before dipping below the horizon. There will be no need to shoot just the Milky Way core though, the winter Milky Way is beautiful in its own regard, but we figured with Core season around the corner we would try to keep it focused on the milky way.

A final thing to consider before going out is weather. A open and clear sky is crucial for seeing the stars. Even the finest clouds can wash them out.

However, it’s not the end of the world if there are clouds. Clouds can still be good to work with, and as you can see in this picture below there’s an added an additional atmospheric element close to the horizon. Mainly, just keep an eye out the sky is mostly clear when you head out.

a photo of the stars at dusk

Tripods

Tripods are especially important when shooting because they offer stability and security when doing long exposure shots. Any movement will jog the camera when you’re taking a photo which can blur out the details.

Manual mode & White Balance

You will also need to set your camera in Manual mode and Set it to shoot in RAW for the best quality. You should also use the daylight white balance setting. Manual will give you full control of the camera, RAW will allow great quality and insane post-processing (as you all probs know), and a daylight white balance will help find a colour temperature that most represents a “true” night sky.

Another benefit to raw mode is that if warmer colours aren’t your thing, you’ll be able easily adjust it and post-process the photo to your choice.

Live mode – DSLRs

After, put your camera into live view mode (if you’re using a DSLR). This will close your viewfinder and make it so that you focus on a screen – helping you compose your images better.

Live mode – Mirrorless cameras

If you have a mirrorless camera, your camera is going to be in live-mode all the time. So you don’t need to worry about live mode.

ISO

Next you should increase the ISO – the darker it is the higher your ISO will be, we suggest a good range is from 1600 to 6400. Next you should open your aperture up to the maximum possible for your lens. The aim is to let in as much light as possible since everything around you is dim.

Discussing ISO is a whole topic, in a future guide we will break down in detail, but for now let’s keep it simple.

Camera focus

Set your lens to be in manual focus mode, and then try to vaguely focus by moving the focus ring to the infinity marking on your lens. If your lens doesn’t have that marking, try moving the focus slowly until stars are visible in live view.

Next, look for a bright star and use your tripod head to place it in the middle of the live view. Press the little magnifying glass button on your camera to digital zoom in till the star is as big as possible on your screen. Now, gently move the focus back and forth until that star is as sharp as possible. If you can’t find a star to work, try the nearest brightest object.

Shutter speed:

After having to focus your camera you will need to calculate your shutter speed. Why? This is because the earth rotates, so shutter speeds which are too long will blur out the stars. However, if your shutter speed is too short the photo will come out too dim. So we need to use a bit of math to calculate the right time to shoot.

The NPF rule used to calculate the right time to shoot. The NPF is more precise than it’s predecessor the 500 rule, it takes into account the many factors of your situation. This is where having a wider lens will help, something between 14-24 is nice for a widefield view. Remember it’s also important to take into account crop factor if you have a crop sensor camera.

A 70-200mm zoom is great for events or sports, but it will make your shutter speeds super short because it does not take much time for a star to move across the frame since everything is “bigger.”

Techniques & composing:

Once you dial in your shutter speed, start shooting! If you find the shot came out too dark, increase the ISO. If it was too bright, decrease it. Compose your shot by moving the camera on the tripod and when you are happy with a composition, turn on the camera’s self timer release mode, then let it rip. The self-timer will ensure there is no shakiness interrupting the shot after the shutter button is a pressed. A remote trigger will help with this too, but it is not necessary at first.

Another thing to consider when out shooting is image stacking. If you find your shots are super noisy, you can take 10-20 shots of the same composition all back to back and merge them using software which can average out the noise and thus mitigate it. I do recommend first trying out astrophotography with single images to get the grips with imaging the stars, then factoring in stacking later on. Again, something I may think about demonstrating in a future tutorial.

Processing:

Post processing can be done in most RAW imaging software. Lightroom, Photoshop, Capture One, etc… You should generally begin with sliders. You can also play with the exposure, contrast, highlights, shadows, white balance, etc, and see what works for you.

If you took a stack sequence, you can post-process that as well. There’s quite a bit of freedom with post-processing, so go on mess around and have some fun.

Conclusion:

You should bear in mind that photography is an art, it needs a ton of practice – so if you’re getting discouraged because a shot isn’t working or it’s difficult, that’s completely normal. Making mistakes is a part of growth which one day leads to success.


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