Beginners guide to astrophotography
Shoot for the stars with our beginners guide to astrophotography.
This beginners guide to astrophotography will show you everything you need to know to start photographing the night sky, from which camera and lenses to use, finding the best locations, and which celestial objects to look for.
While astrophotography can be one of the most rewarding styles of photography, it’s also one of the hardest, and most frustrating and time consuming. You definitely need to do your research before you head out into the field, so we’ve put together this guide on everything you’ll need to know to get you started and get the results you’re hoping for.
In this guide we are going to cover what to look for in a camera, which lenses suit astrophotography best, what settings to use to get epic results, as well as other must-have accessories. We’ll also offer tips on finding a good location and recommend good targets for beginners to look for in the night sky, plus handy apps and software to use to be able to find them. You may also want to check out the best astronomy books to learn more about the cosmos.
My first attempt at astrophotography was, in short, a complete disaster. After speaking to other photographers, it turns out that a bad astro shoot is a bit of a rite of passage. So, don’t get disheartened if it doesn’t quite work out the way you want at first. On my shoot I’d left the quick release plate on a different camera at home, which rendered my tripod completely useless, and I had to balance the camera on a blanket on the ground. We also didn’t scout our exact composition beforehand, so we got lost on a golf course and ran into a herd of cows in the dark, and, as it was a coastal location, I ended up with half the beach in my shoes.
Thankfully, the shot turned out well despite all of that, but it’s often the small things you tend to not think about which end up having a big impact, so it’s best to plan for all scenarios if you want a successful shoot. With that in mind, let's dive in and run through our top tips for astrophotography.
Choosing the right camera
When it comes to choosing equipment for astrophotography, generally speaking, the lens is usually more important than the camera. The main factors to consider in a camera when it comes to doing astrophotography is its ISO sensitivity, sensor size, and megapixels. The camera’s size and weight should also be something to consider if you’re going to be hiking to certain locations.
ISO can be a tricky one here, as you need to be able to crank the ISO up high enough so your shots aren’t completely dark. However, setting it too high can result in too much noise that will ruin your shot. Finding a camera that has a good ISO sensitivity and performs well in low light situations is a big advantage for astrophotography – take a look at our guide on the best astrophotography cameras for some top recommendations.
Full frame cameras are preferable for astrophotography as they have the bigger sensor and a higher megapixel camera will give better quality, more detailed images, but they are obviously at the pricier end of the spectrum. If you want to take a lot of shots and stack them to create more detailed images, choosing a camera that has “interval shooting” will save you a lot of time and stress when you’re shooting.
Lens choice is an important one for astrophotography, and you really do get what you pay for here. What lens you choose Your really does depend on what kind of astrophotography you want to do, because that will determine which focal length you should go for. If you want to do deep sky photography of nebulas, galaxies, planets, etc., then a longer focal length is better for that, but for milky way shots with a bit of foreground, you want as wide as possible. Sadly, there isn’t a lens out there that can do both well.
Aperture is also important when choosing a lens, as you want as wide an aperture as possible (aka a lower f number). Prime lenses with a fixed focal length are usually preferable for astrophotography because they have wider apertures than zoom lenses, and you can get more detailed shots with them. For wide prime lenses, Sony’s 20mm f/1.8 is a very popular lens for astro, or if you have the budget for it, the Sony 14mm f/1.8 is also fantastic. For longer lenses, anything above 200mm will perform well – you can also attach them to a telescope if you have one. Sigma and other third parties also do some great lenses for astrophotography if you don’t have the budget for native lenses.
It’s all well and good having a great camera, but it won’t be of much use if you don’t know which settings to use for astrophotography. There is a certain degree of trial and error involved here depending on what you want to capture, plus the light levels in your chosen location will also have an effect. You’ll want your shutter speed to be long enough to let as much light in as possible, but not too long where everything starts to trail (unless star trails are what you’re going for).
How do you figure out where the sweet spot is, you ask? By using the 500 rule: you divide 500 by the focal length of the lens you’re using, and that will give you the amount of time you can have your shutter open for before everything starts to trail. So, if you’re using a 20mm lens, 500 divided by 20 is 25, so your shutter speed can be up to 25 seconds.
For aperture, you generally want it as low as it can go to let as much light into the lens as possible – this is why prime lenses are better for astrophotography as they generally have lower apertures. With ISO, it largely depends on your camera’s capabilities and the ambient light levels – somewhere around 1,600 is usually a good place to start, then you can adjust it as necessary by taking a few test shots.
Locations and how to find them
While you may be thinking that the location for astrophotography is, well… the sky, there’s a little more to it than that. Particularly if you want some sort of landscape or vista in your shot as well as the starry sky, you’re going to need to pick your location wisely. You want to select somewhere where there’s as little light pollution as possible – think national parks and big natural spaces, far away from towns and cities.
To get an idea on good dark sky locations in your area, check out this light pollution map and dark site finder before you plan your trip so you can make sure your shot isn’t ruined by excessive light.
In terms of finding a composition in your location, try going there before it gets dark to work out a composition you like, then once its dark you’re already in the right place. You can also check out Google Maps to scout a location before you go to give you a general idea of where you want to be.
As I found out the hard way, a tripod is pretty necessary for a successful astrophotography shoot. As the shutter needs to be open for anywhere up to 25/30 seconds, it’s simply impossible to use it handheld, and even my blanket-on-the-ground method involved a certain amount of problems. As the camera needs to be as still as possible, a sturdy tripod is your best bet, or one that has a weight hook on the central column so you can hang your camera bag on it to weigh the tripod down.
Having a remote shutter release also makes life a lot easier when shooting the night sky, as you eliminate the risk of moving the camera slightly when pressing the shutter button on the body. These are very affordable and easy to keep in your camera bag, although you can just use the timer on your camera if you don’t have one. Once you get a bit more advanced you could also invest in a star tracker, particularly if you want to take a lot of shots to stack them, as it will be able to track and follow the stars as they move without you having to readjust your composition.
Targets in the sky
Now that you’ve got your gear and your location sorted, you can start finding things in the sky to photograph. If you’re wanting to shoot wide angle, shooting the milky way can be a great way to hone your astro skills. For longer focal lengths you could try the Orion Nebula, Andromeda galaxy, or even just the moon and other planets.
This aspect of astrophotography is what takes planning, as you need to know when a certain object is going to be visible in the sky, and at what time of night (or even what time of year). There are a ton of great smartphone apps out there that are good for this, such as Stellarium (free), The Photographer’s Ephemeris (sign up for free), and PhotoPills ($10.99, but jam-packed full of handy features) to name a few.
Once you find an object you want to shoot, these apps can show you where exactly it’s going to be over the course of the night, so you can plan your composition accordingly to get it in the right place in your image. Milky Way season is usually somewhere between late February to late September (weather you’re in the Northern or Southern Hemisphere), so make sure you check how high in the sky it’s going to be in your chosen location.
In general, you want to make sure you’re shooting on a clear night, at either a new moon or when the moon isn’t visible in the sky as that will create more light – unless the thing you want to shoot is the moon! So be sure keep tabs on the upcoming phases of the moon so you can get that perfect picture.
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Kimberley Lane is a landscape & seascape photographer living in South Wales. Originally using photography as a way to cope with health issues, she aims to portray a feeling of calm and peace through her images. Her work has been featured in a number of national photography magazines. She writes camera reviews and articles for Live Science and Space.com.