Are you ready to take your travel photography to the next level with our guide to astrophotography for beginners? Dive into the world of astrophotography and open up a whole new world of options for your travel photos with this easy to follow guide.
Ever since I first picked up a camera I’ve always loved shooting the night sky. Travelling has only heightened this obsession, especially since we’ve been travelling in New Zealand where there is very little light pollution.
It seems silly to say, but the sky feels massive on this side of the world. I want to share that passion with you through this guide to astrophotography for beginners. Hopefully, by the end of this post, you will have a stronger understanding of how to take photos of the stars. Your travel photos will never be the same!
Our motorhome and first attempt at Astro with our EOS R
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The most important thing for astrophotography is understanding your camera and its settings. Here are a few key things to know about your camera;
This might be one of the things you come across when looking at your camera, but what does it mean?
Having a camera with a cropped sensor rather than a full sensor simply means it has a smaller (or ‘cropped’) sensor inside the camera.
This equates to the camera being able to take in slightly less light than a full-frame camera and creating images that might appear slightly zoomed in compared to an exact replica on a full-frame sensor. This isn’t a negative when it comes to astrophotography, it just means you’ll get a slightly different outcome to someone with a full-frame.
Astrophotography might require a little more knowledge about your gear (and patience) than your average travel photography but don’t get disheartened just yet.
A guide to help you visualise crop vs full-frame sensors
Manual vs Auto
Unless you have a very basic point and shoot camera that only has automatic settings, you’re going to see an option for ‘manual setting’ somewhere on your camera.
This means you are going to have complete control over your settings, compared to ‘auto settings’ where the camera does all the work for you. This is great in the daytime but for nighttime shots and astrophotography, you’re going to need to make some adjustments.
MF vs AF
Most cameras with manual settings will also have manual and autofocussettings. These are separate to the main settings and only control how the camera focuses.
With AF on, the camera will continuously look for an object it can focus on until you press the shutter. With MF, it is down to you to change your focus whenever you move the camera.
TIP – Don’t forget to check your lens too – sometimes they have their own MF/AF settings too which can override the camera.
RAW vs JPEG
Another difference you might find with your camera is whether it shoots in RAW or JPEG format. This is the difference between how much data is being stored in your photo.
We recommend shooting in RAW wherever you can, especially if you want to get into photo editing and printing.
The RAW format will give you the ability to get more information out of your photo when it comes to editing your astrophotography. JPEG is still manageable but you might not get the end result that you’re hoping for.
One of our more recent attempts at Astrophotography
Every camera is different, you need to know what exactly it is you have, in order to get the most out of it and manage your expectations.
For example, if you have a simple point and shoot camera with mostly automatic settings you’re going to get ok photos, but they’re unlikely to be the same high-quality crystal clear photos like those taken with a DSLR that is fully manual.
Take a moment to go through your camera’s manual and all of the menus on the camera itself. This will give you a better idea of what your camera is capable of and also where some of the things are that we’ll be discussing a little further in this post.
We also highly recommend doing a quick YouTube search of your camera make/model, there’s often brings up some in-depth tutorial about how to set up your camera and where everything is.
What you need for astrophotography
Guess what. When it comes to basic astrophotography, I’m a firm believer that you don’t need a lot.
Unlike landscape or portrait photography that requires a whole host of filters and gadgets, astrophotography keeps it simple. There are only three things you will definitely need to take photos of the stars;
Now you’ve looked through your camera settings and gathered your gear, it’s time to start planning your first ever astrophotography shoot.
If you’re planning a special trip to shoot the stars, the first thing I would suggest doing is checking the weather.
There’s no point trying to photograph the stars on a cloudy day. Even a small amount of cloud will ruin your shot as they’ll show up as a blurred spot across the image, it really does need to be a clear day.
We love the app clear outside as it gives us a pretty accurate prediction of how heavy the clouds are going to be. We also use metservice.com to check the weather forecast.
Take light pollution into account when planning your photo. Street lights, lights from nearby houses and even car headlights will all pass light pollution into your photo and reduce the number of stars that you capture.
For the best possible outcome, you need to be somewhere with little to no light pollution. If you ask me, it’s the perfect excuse for a camping trip to the countryside!
The darker the sky (less light-polluted), the more stars you’ll see. You can use websites like Light pollution map for finding locations near you that have minimal light pollution.
Below is a side by side light pollution comparison of New Zealand and the UK. I can see now why the sky feels a lot bigger here – we can see more stars!
UK Light Pollution
NZ Light Pollution
The moon is a source of light in the night skies so for reasons mentioned above, it’s best to choose a night where the moon is less than full. Anything under 40% is ok but no moon is better. Especially for milky way shots.
A night with a full moon should be completely avoided as it will completely wash out all but the brightest stars, making for some underwhelming shots.
Of course, these sites can also help you plan for those full moon photos you might want to take too!
Track the Milky Way
You’ve probably noticed that the milky way plays a big part in our astrophotography, so it only seemed right to include it in our guide to astrophotography for beginners.
Believe it or not, the Milky Way isn’t visible all year round. Or at least, the core- the brightest and most photogenic part of it – isn’t. Both hemispheres share the same milky way season, but the Southern Hemisphere has better viewing due to its long winter nights.
In the Northern Hemisphere, the Core can be visible at the end of January, but only for a short time as it’s rising just before dawn. Depending on where you are, you might have to wait until February or even March for optimal conditions. The Milky Way Core has longer viewing around May-July when it’s above the horizon for longer during the dark.
Visible; March – October
Not visible; November – EarlyJanuary.
In the Southern Hemisphere, the viewing months for the Milky Way Core are roughly the same but they experience better viewing conditions. This is due to the longer nights during winter and the core being above the horizon for longer
Visible; February – October
Not visible; November – Early January
We use apps like Stellarium and Photopills to see where the milky way is rising for our location as well as seeing other constellations around it.
Choose your location!
All the best astrophotos are of more than just the stars.
You need something to add to the atmosphere. Whether it’s a mountain, sea stacks or even an interesting landmark, you need something that adds interest to your image beyond the stars.
Be sure to use the apps we previously mentioned to make sure the Milkyway or your chosen constellation will line up correctly with your chosen location – trust me, there’s nothing more annoying than setting up for a photo shoot, only to realise you’re less prepared than you thought when the Milkyway pops up a little further over than you thought it would.
Choose your lens
If your camera has interchangeable lenses, as opposed to a permanently attached multi-functional lens, you’ll want to choose one that has a wide focal length and a large aperture.
It took me a while to get my head around this bit too! You’re basically looking for a wide-angle lens that will allow you to see the most within one shot.
Focal Length = How zoomed in your image is
The larger the focal length (the ‘mm’ number), the more zoomed-in your photos, the less you’re going to capture in one image.
Aperture = How much light you let in.
The smaller the Aperture (the F/ number or F stop), the more light you’re going to let into your sensor – and remember what we said about light pollution. We’ll cover aperture and the setting you need in more detail soon.
You ideally want to be looking for a lens with figures similar to these; 14mm f/2.8. The smaller both of these numbers, the better your image is going to come out.
However, don’t worry if it looks something more like this; 24mm f/4.5, as this is what we’re currently shooting with, on our Canon EOS R lens.
This is a good guide for getting your head around lens focal length
Astrophotorgaphy for beginners
What settings you need for Astrophotography
This is where things get interesting and complicated if you don’t understand, or aren’t used to, your camera.
The main objective when it comes to astrophotography is simple, we want to take photos of the stars. This can be hard when you consider how dimly lit the night sky is – especially if you have headed to an area with very little light pollution!
This is where the knowledge of our camera comes in.
Now we’re all set up and ready to take some photos, we need to make sure our camera is ready to allow as much light into its sensor as possible.
This is done in three different ways and when you combine them, they synchronise to create the perfect recipe for good astrophotography, even if you’re a beginner!
For all of the settings below, you will need to know how/where to make the right adjustments on your camera as it is different for every make and model.
We touched upon this earlier. Now we’ll go slightly more in-depth and help you understand what aperture settings are needed for astrophotography.
The aperture controls the hole inside your camera lens that lets in the light. Similar to the way the iris inside your eye adapts to different room lighting.
Remember, when it comes to aperture the number and the effects are opposites; The bigger F stop, the smaller the hole, therefore the less light gets let in. The smaller the F stop, the bigger the hole, the more light gets let in.
With astrophotography, you want to keep your aperture as small as possible to allow the most light to hit your camera sensor. Go as low as your camera lens will allow you to, if this feels too bright, don’t be afraid to close the aperture by making your F stop bigger.
Our F stop usually sites around 5.7 as this is what our camera operates best with for Astro.
Again, imagine the way your eyes adapt to being in a dark environment – the iris gets bigger in order to see more.
As the name suggests, this controls how long the shutter stays open for every time you press your shutter button to take a photo. The longer it stays open, the more light it’s getting into the sensor.
The shutter speed of your camera varies greatly, starting at somewhere close to 1/1000th of a second right down to 20, or even 30 seconds. If your camera has a ‘bulb’ option, this means your sensor will stay open for as long as your hand remains on the button.
However, we have to remember that the earth is constantly rotating. So while we’re trying to take photos of seemingly stationary objects in the sky, we’re actually on a moving platform. This means the slower our shutter speed, the more likely we are to start seeing blurred lines.
These blurred lines are known as star trails and can be a really nice ‘light halo’ effect if you have a prominent subject such as a church or mountain. If you’re wanting your Milkyway to stand out though, you need to find the right balance between too fast and too slow.
For sharp milky way photos, we recommend starting somewhere around 15 seconds and adjusting until you get the right effect. Remember every situation is different so while 18 seconds might be perfect one night, you might find you need 20 seconds another night.
It will depend on what camera you have to whether you will be able to change your ISO. A fully manual camera (like a DSLR) will have this option whereas a mixed auto/manual camera might not, or it might have restrictions.
Your ISO is a way of artificially adjusting the brightness of your photo. A bit like turning on a torch in a dark room.
For normal daylight photos, your ISO will stay around 100-200 but for an astrophoto, you will want to raise it slightly to allow your image to be bright enough to see the dimmest stars.
One thing to remember with ISO is the more you raise it, the more noise or pixels (or grain) you will see on your photo. This will ruin the aesthetics of your photo, so our top tip is to start off around 64000 and raise it gradually until you get the effect you want. Our ISO usually sits between 8000 and 10,000.
How much you need to alter your ISO will very much depend on what lens and camera you are using. What is good for some, might cause too much noise for others. We found this guide to ISO really handy when we were getting deeper into photography.
You have your camera on a sturdy tripod, you’ve got it all set up and your settings look spot on… but you keep getting slight blur on your photo. Why?
Well. Every time you press the shutter on your camera, you create minute shakes within your camera.
Setting the self-timer within your camera, or linking it to a shutter release button to control the shutter from a distance, will reduce this from happening. Most cameras these days have a self-timer built-in – welcome to the selfie era.
If you can’t find your settings or would rather use an external device we really like this one.
You’ll want a timer of at least 2 seconds – 10 is better – to allow the camera to stop shaking before it starts taking the photo.
Quick Settings Reminder
That’s a lot to take in, eh! So here’s a quick bite-sized reminder of the settings to help you on your way. Remember these are just baseline guides, raise and lower these settings – especially the shutter speed – to match the outcome that you’re imagining. Astrophotography for beginners is all about trial and error to begin with.
Shutter speed around 15 seconds
Aperture (Fstop) as low as possible
ISO around 8000
10 second timer
Basic Astrophotography Editing
By now I hope our guide to Astrophotography for beginners has got you feeling confident about taking photos of the night sky.
Before you get your hopes up – or get disappointed at your ‘final results’, you need to know that the photos straight from your camera will look nothing like the star photos you see online.
These photos, even ours, have had varying degrees of ‘tweaking’ within post-processing software, like photoshop or lightroom. If you’ve never touched post-processing before, we highly recommend Peter Mckinnon’s photo editing tutorials.
This isn’t to be deceptive or make the milky way look different to how it does in real life. Post-processing in astrophotography is almost essential if you want to have awe-inspiring photos or see the colours that hide within the galaxies.
There are endless amounts of options for processing astrophotography, from focus stacking to light painting and exposure blending.
Don’t worry, we’re not going into the complicated process now though – you’re probably already sick of me babbling. Today we’ll only look at the very very basics of bringing out the best of your photos. As always, these all vary depending on the look you’re going for and what you’ve taken a photo of (images of just stars need less tweaking)
Everything we talked about with shutter speed and aperture was acting as a base level for your exposure editing in post-processing. The better you get your setting in the camera, the less ‘work’ you will have to do here.
I find most star photos that include a foreground subject like a car or mountain, require the exposure being lifted slightly. This will make your stars slightly less visible but your foreground will become more clear.
Now you’ve brightened your foreground you need to reintroduce the contrast back into the sky. Dropping the contrast stops it from being so flat and brings back a bit of depth to the photo.
After you’ve played around with the exposure, contrast and perhaps even the saturation, you’ll probably notice a lot of noise in your photo that wasn’t there before. That’s completely normal and can be fixed within Lightroom. This is where shooting in RAW can be more beneficial than JPEG.
We really hope this guide to astrophotography for beginners has been helpful for you and given you the confidence to get out and take your own night sky photos! When you’ve captured some, we’d love to see them! Tag us on Instagram or Facebook and we’ll feature you on our page!
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