In the last few years, there has been a surge of beautiful night sky images popping up all over the web. You've probably seen them on Instagram or 500 Pixels. These mind-blowingly beautiful shots of our natural world are so different and so vibrant that they make you look twice. In a day and age, when many of us live in large cities and many people have never even seen the Milky Way, these photos bring to life a part of the world that has nearly been lost.
What is Astrophotography?
Astronomy is a popular hobby in its own right. Perhaps you own a telescope, or you participate in local star club events on dark evenings. If you haven't, these are great ways to get a feel for what astronomy is all about. There are, quite literally, a universe of possibilities out there.
Many astrophotographers start with a basic telescope and a desire to share what they find so captivating when they look through the eyepiece. Others have seen beautiful night landscape images online and in magazines and want to try their hand at taking their night photography to a new level.
To put it simply, astrophotography is the art of shooting astronomical or celestial objects. Subjects range from merely using the night sky to make landscape pictures pop to taking super sharp and close up images of distant galaxies.
Types of Night Sky Photography
You can divide this type of photography into two basic classes. Long-exposure photography captures star trails or very dim objects with the right equipment. Night landscapes and star trails are an easy and fun way to start out. Modern digital SLR cameras, with their outstanding low-light capabilities, have enabled photographers to use short-exposure photography to shoot amazing nighttime landscape images. Think of those glamor shots of the Milky Way or the Aurora Borealis that pop up on your Instagram feed occasionally.
They can also be used for brightly lit objects that can expose the image frame quickly. Examples include the sun, moon, and sometimes even the planets of our solar system. If you want a quick recap of lighting for photography, read this article.
Long exposure photography of deep-sky objects like distant galaxies and nebulae can be much trickier. For one thing, you need a lens of the appropriate focal length. Standard telephoto lenses are fine for the moon and planets, but a large aperture telescope is the key to shooting deep-sky objects. Telescopes, like cameras, range from super basic models to advanced computerized contraptions. You can attach a camera to a telescope fairly easily, but as you will see below, it's not always that easy to get deep-sky photos.
For beginner astrophotography, star trail or nightscape images are the best places to start. For one thing, these forms require equipment that you probably already keep in your camera bag. For another, they are a fun way to get out at night and enjoy some time away from the city. Here are a few tips to take to take outdoor photos at night.
The first step to getting started is to find your darkest sky. You've got to get away from city lights, and nights with a new moon are best too. Because of the immense amount of light you are going to let into your camera, even the distant glow of a city will show up surprisingly bright in astrophotos. A bright full moon can wash the night sky out completely.
The next thing to understand is that the Earth's rotation is going to cause you problems. While long-exposure photography of the night sky is relatively straightforward, any time your shutter is open, you are also going to capture the relative movement of the stars and other objects.
You can solve this problem in one of three ways. The easiest thing to start is to shoot short-exposure, very wide-angle photos like landscapes. For closeups of the moon, planets, or deep-space objects, you will need special equipment on your tripod to move the camera smoothly at precisely the same rate as the Earth spins. These devices are commonly called star trackers. The final technique is just to embrace the movement and capture it in your photography. Star trail photography is a captivating art form.
Equipment and Camera Considerations
The best cameras for night sky photos are the ones that allow full manual exposure control and have excellent low-light performance. Typically, this means a full-frame DSLR or mirrorless body. Crop sensor cameras will work fine too, but be aware that you will be losing some of your field of view on your widest angle lenses.
Some camera bodies have a reputation for being great for night time photography. There is even a special Canon EOS 60d made specifically as an astrophotography camera, dubbed the 60da. These cameras have higher infrared sensitivities than standard models that enable them to pick up faint details in deep-sky objects better. If you're attaching your camera to a telescope and going after deep-space nebulae, these are worth checking out and researching more.
But more than anything else, the lens you choose is going to have the biggest effect on your star images. For short-exposure landscape photos, the widest and brightest lens you can find will be your best friend. Consider f/4 lenses to be the minimum. The ideal lens is between 10 and 20 mm with a 1.4-2-8 f-stop. Such a wide lens might not be in your kit, but there is some good news. Autofocus is nearly useless for night sky photos, so you can save some money and find manual focus lenses at value prices. A lot of astrophotographers are using lenses made by Rokinon or Samyang. This company sells new lenses that are super wide-angle, fully manual, and priced very attractively. They make lenses for all of the popular mount systems, including Canon, Nikon, and Sony. The Rokinon 12mm f/2.0 is a popular choice and produces surprisingly sharp photos for its price.
The next must-have item is a trusty tripod. You need something easy to set up and carry around, depending on how far you plan on hiking. But first and foremost, it must be sturdy and hefty enough to hold your equipment. If you're shooting with a hefty Canon 1D and a big, bright lens, you're going to need to get a pretty beefy tripod. Remember, it needs not only to hold the camera but be heavy enough to eliminate any shake from wind or even accidental bumps. Many tripods include a hook where the photographer can attach a weight, like their gear bag, to add mass to the setup. This works great, as long as the load is not swinging around.
Another handy piece of equipment to have is a remote shutter release. These are cable controllers that allow you to set up long exposures or multiple exposures without touching the camera itself. Even on a beefy tripod, you touching the camera introduces shake into the image frame. By using a remote shutter release to take the photos, you can keep your picture shake-free. Here is an article on the must-have travel accessories that you should carry along to begin your photography career like a pro.
Astrophotography Tips and Techniques
Plan Your Trip to Find Dark Skies
Unfortunately, one of the hardest parts of night sky photography for many people is finding dark skies. Light pollution is nearly everywhere, so much so that society, in general, has lost its appreciation for the night sky. Many photographers feel that this is one of the most important reasons for seeking out dark sky preserves and taking images. These spectacular images raise public awareness of a type of pollution that many have never considered: light pollution.
Often, getting in your car and driving away from the city isn't enough. Cities and communities now sprawl hundreds of miles. One of the best planning resources is the website of the International Dark Sky Association, which not only provides locations of dark sky preserves but also has information about light pollution, including its causes and effects.
Let Your Eyes Adjust
Did you know that the human eye has its own ISO settings? Ok, maybe that's not exactly how it works, but dark adaptation is an important concept to understand if you're going to go shooting at night.
Have you ever walked into a dark room like a movie theater and not been able to see a thing? After a few minutes, your eyes adjust, and you can start to see much better. In a nutshell, this is your eyes adjusting to the dark environment. Your irises open fully, and chemical changes in your retina allow the photoreceptors to work better and to receive more light.
Your eyes gradually get better and better at seeing in the dark. The full process takes up to 30 minutes, and once complete, your eyes capture many thousands of times more light than they did before. But there's the catch. After your eyes have adapted, just one glance at a bright light, like the headlights of a car or a bright flashlight, will ruin all the work your eyes have done. And the process of dark adaptation will have to start again.
Astronomers know this, and they work in dark environments. Using red filters on your flashlight can help since this low-energy light is less likely to affect your eyes than white light. Keeping bright light away from your shooting location is also good for your pictures. Lights will show up with weird glows and lens artifacts if you aren't careful.
Shoot in Fully Manual Mode
Even the best cameras cannot deal with the low-light levels you'll find when shooting the night sky. Even the autofocus is baffled by the lack of light. As a result, it's all on the photographer. Of course, it's impossible to know exactly what's going to work one night versus another. Many times you will start shooting only to realize that there is more light pollution in a place than you realize. In short, your camera is going to reveal an entire world that you cannot see with your naked eye, and it's always a bit of a surprise.
Start by setting your manual focus to infinity. Note that this is not full-stop on one side of the lenses focus barrel, it's usually a few notches away from the stop. In other words, many lenses focus beyond infinity, and it's up to you to fine-tune that.
The next thing you'll want to do is set the exposure control and ISO settings to manual. All three variables in the exposure triangle can be experimented with here. The camera's meter is likely to be of little help, so the best technique is simple trial and error.
Play With Your Exposure Triangle
With the lens focused to infinity, there is no depth of field to worry about. The only exception is if you are very close to a landscape object in the foreground, like a tree or other interest subject. Otherwise, the wider your aperture is, the more light it will let in.
Your shutter speed is another variable you will want to think about. It might be tempting to leave the shutter speed open for several seconds to let as much light in as possible. But the longer you leave it open, the more relative movement it captures in the stars. The exact amount of time you can leave the shutter open will depend on the focal length of the lens. The more you are zoomed in, the less time you have. For example, if you set up your camera on a tripod with your longest telephoto lens and look at the moon, you'll probably see it more rather rapidly across the viewfinder. Wide-angle lenses give us enough time to work, and depending on the shot you might be able to get away with five or ten seconds. To keep images as sharp as possible, though, you'll want to limit your shots to around a whole second.
With such a fast shutter speed, you'll have to depend on the camera's ISO to get enough light for bright exposure. As you climb through your camera's ISO settings, at some point, you will reach a line where you are no longer happy with the results. High-ISO images are grainy and noisy with artifacts and aberrations. On newer full-frame sensor cameras, this line is at remarkably high ISOs that give us plenty of room to work. Whether your camera is a few years or the newest top-of-the-line DSLR, you'll want to experiment with it so that you have an idea where your line is.
Bracket Your Photos
Bracketing is a great technique when the dynamic range of photos is extreme. You may find yourself in a location so dark that even with the night sky appropriately exposed, the landscape and foreground are too dark. By taking multiple exposures, you can stack them together in post-processing to create a perfect image. This is something of an extreme night sky HDR process.
Once you get the hang of taking a basic nighttime landscape, you may find your creativity runs wild. By using photo lights or even flashlights, you can add a bit of light here and there to foreground objects to make them pop. It takes a little practice to figure out what makes them pop and what is too much, but it's an easy exercise that can quickly add interest to your photos.
Elements of light can also be used. Campfires add to the classic out in the wilderness look of the photo, as do tents lit from the inside. You can use cars traveling down roads to create light trails, which looks unique if you're in the mountains with switchbacked roads. Distant cities or towns also make great objects to frame your night sky image with. While we try to avoid light pollution, sometimes it can make a beautiful photo.
Search for Specialized Software to Help
The more that you shoot night landscapes, the more you will find your standard post-process lacking. This type of photography is so specialized and so different that you might wind up recalibrating every step of your workflow to accommodate it.
Luckily, you aren't the only photographer out there with that problem. There are many programs and apps available to help you in your night sky photography endeavors. Do a simple web search and try to find the solution to your problem. For example, star trail images are often made with many hundreds of sequential images instead of one long image. Doing do avoids noise and artifact problems in the camera. There are several apps to help you quickly stack your photos and control the process smoothly.
If you would like some help, here is an article on 30+ Top Lightroom Presets to finetune your astrophotography images.
Going for the Deep-Sky
Like all hobbies, you can dive pretty deep into night sky imagery. These beginner astrophotography tips are just a small foray into astronomy in general. If you find you're enjoying nights away from town, consider upgrading to a telescope and learning about deep-sky objects. Many communities have astronomy clubs that hold events on dark evenings. These are great places to learn more about astronomy and get some time on bigger telescopes. Once you get a greater feel for what you most love about astronomy you can sort out the best astrophotography camera and telescope setup to suit your needs.
Night sky photography isn't for everyone. You've got to enjoy getting away from town and bundling up for a long evening in the wilderness. More often than not, it involves a lot of travel and quite a bit of planning. But for those who love looking to the stars, astronomy, and photography go together hand-in-hand. Here are a few useful tips on how to blend your passion for travel photography with your profession.
Create your professional photography website
Even as you continue to learn and inculcate the skills of professional astrophotography, you must not forget to market your work. Build a professional photography website to showcase your photos. Curate your best work and regularly update your portfolio website by adding work from recent travels. Your website is your showcase window to the world and the first point of contact with potential clients and collaborators. Here’s a great article on how to create a photography portfolio website.
Pixpa is a portfolio website builder platform that is trusted by creative pros around the world. Have a look at some outstanding portfolio website examples. Pixpa offers an easy yet powerful drag-and-drop website builder and includes Client galleries, eCommerce, and blogging tools to enable you to manage your complete online presence through one seamless platform.
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