I’d like to share with you, my best advice on astrophotography for beginners. I’ll tell you how I got started with DSLR astrophotography, and the basic equipment needed to get the job done.
Chances are, you appreciate the beauty of the night sky, and would like to take your interest to the next level by photographing it. If you love everything to do with space have started wondering how to capture your own deep-sky images, you have come to the right place.
How to get started in astrophotography
We all have to start somewhere. If your passion is strong enough, it will carry you through the steep learning curve involved in astrophotography. Early on, I did not have a lot of money to invest in this hobby, and my basic equipment reflected that.
One look at a typical deep-sky imaging setup may have you scratching your head. The good news is that you can slowly build your astrophotography kit to accomplish your goals over time.
I started with little more than a digital camera and a small (non-tracking) telescope. Over time, my imaging setup has evolved to a level where deep-sky imaging of galaxies and nebulae are possible.
The last thing you want to do is rush into making a purchase that you regret. Below, I will describe the gear that has provided me with actual results for a reasonable price. For a look at my most recent equipment in action, subscribe to AstroBackyard on YouTube.
Types of Astrophotography Images
First off, let’s cover the different types of astrophotography that await you. Some methods have a lower cost of entry and can be done with little more than a beginner DSLR camera on a tripod.
DSLR Camera and lens on Stationary Tripod:
- Starry Sky Time Lapse
- Meteor Shower Composite
- Milky Way Landscape
- Constellation Composite
- Full Moon Landscape
DSLR Camera and Lens on Tracking Mount:
- Deep Milky Way Photo
- Wide Field Deep-Sky Image
DSLR Camera and Telescope on Tracking Mount:
- Deep Sky Imaging
- Planetary Imaging
- Solar Imaging
- Detailed Moon Imaging
As you can see, astrophotography covers a wide variety of styles and photography subjects. The type of image you’re after is up to you. We all have our own goals and unique taste. Personally, deep sky astrophotography through a telescope is my biggest passion.
Astrophotography for beginners: How to get started
My very first steps towards deep-sky imaging were taking 15-second exposures with a Canon point-and-shoot camera through an Orion Dobsonian Telescope.
I did not yet know the necessity of an equatorial mount for deep sky imaging. However, I was thrilled with the modest results I was getting of the Andromeda Galaxy at the time.
I would aim my Canon Powershot point-and-shoot digital camera into the 25mm Plossl eyepiece that was included with my telescope. I had to stay completely still as the tiny sensor collected light on my object.
They may have been fuzzy, blurry blobs of light – but I knew that I was photographing another galaxy, and that concept absolutely blew my mind.
A Dobsonian telescope like this is fantastic for visual observing but useless for deep-sky astrophotography.
Early Results using a DSLR
My first few shots of the night sky were out-of-focus landscape shots of the summer constellations in my parents backyard. I didn’t own a tripod, so I would use a towel angle the camera just right for a lousy shot of the stars above.
These were taken using a Canon Rebel XS I bought on sale. I used the only lens in my bag, an 18-55mm Canon Kit Lens. I figured that 18mm was as wide a shot you could take with a camera, so I thought that was a good start.
As amateur as those first few shots were, I could already see how the camera could capture more stars in the image than I could see with the naked eye. I think beginners are often shocked the first time they see the amount of stars in the sky captured through astrophotography.
Fast Track your skills by joining your local astronomy club, I did!
The best way to learn astronomy basics meet new people who share your passion, and talk about the latest astronomy news, join your local astronomy club! This is a sure-fire way to fast-track your progress and expand your knowledge.
You’d be surprised how much easier it is to learn the art of astrophotography from a real person, as opposed to a YouTube video. But if you do like YouTube videos – I have a few videos from my backyard:)
Here’s an image I took from my backyard, it’s the Trifid Nebula in the constellation Sagittarius.
Deep Sky Astrophotography for Beginners
My passion lies in deep sky astrophotography using a DSLR camera and a telescope. The sensitivity and control of modern camera sensors are well suited for astronomical imaging.
The starlight is recorded on the camera sensor just as the light from a regular daytime photo would, it just takes more time. Also, you’ll want to use a higher ISO sensitivity than you would for a daytime photo. I usually shoot using ISO 800 and ISO 1600 with my Canon Rebel T3i DSLR.
The image you see below is the Andromeda Galaxy. I took this photo in July 2012 from a dark-sky site on the North shore of Lake Erie. This photo includes over 3 hours worth of total exposure time.
Professional deep-sky imagers tend to use sensitive CCD cameras with a set of narrowband filters, but a regular DSLR camera is the perfect entry point into the hobby. There is some incredible work being done with DSLR cameras that rival much more expensive dedicated astronomy cameras.
Astrophotography with a DSLR and Telescope
The term “Deep-Sky” means distant objects in space, often millions of light years away from Earth. This includes:
- Globular Star Clusters
- Open Star Clusters
These photos also capture a lot of interstellar dust, reflected by the stars around it.
To capture these deep sky objects we need to use a telescope to bring these objects in for a closer view. The telescope acts as a super telephoto lens, with typical focal lengths ranging from 400mm to well over 2000mm.
The focal length you are using will depend on the size and design of the telescope. I use a small refractor telescope with a focal length of about 700mm. Multiplying this with the crop factor in DLSR camera I use, this brings my focal length to about the 1000mm range.
Use a Refractor Telescope
An 80-100mm refractor telescope is considered a “wide field” instrument in terms of deep-sky astrophotography. Using my ED102, I can capture most of the largest deep-sky objects (or DSO’s) within a single frame. Certain nebulae, such as the North America Nebula are massive in apparent size, and take up the entire frame (and more).
A wide field telescope has many advantages, and it’s what I recommend for beginners. A wide field telescope with a modest focal length is much more forgiving when it comes to star tracking.
Wide Field Views
The downside to a wide field telescope is that small objects such as most galaxies will appear quite small within the image frame. Here is Messier 51 – the Whirlpool Galaxy. It’s a stunning face-on spiral galaxy, but it appears quite small at the 1000mm focal length.
However, there are some large galaxies such as the Andromeda Galaxy and the Triangulum galaxy that fill the frame nicely.
Best for beginners
In general, when it comes to deep sky, it’s better to shoot wide and short in the beginning. Meaning shorter exposures through a small refractor telescope. This will increase your chances of success, and hopefully, inspire you to keep moving forward.
Unfortunately, many amateur astrophotographers will start with a large telescope that provides deep views, only to find that this method has a steep learning curve that only the most dedicated imagers will overcome!
Astrophotography: Taking your first shot
Do you own a digital camera or DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) Camera? Have you noticed that stars begin to trail when taking long exposure photographs of the night sky?
Specialized astronomy and camera equipment are needed for long exposure, deep-sky imaging. Yet with a simple tripod and DSLR camera, you can take incredible photos of:
• Stars and Constellations
• The Milky Way galaxy
• The Northern Lights
• The Moon and Planets
• Meteor Showers
• Lunar and Solar Eclipses
• Star Trails and More
Through astrophotography, we are able to record even more detail than you can pick up with the unaided eye alone. In this tutorial I will explain the basic techniques and camera settings needed to start taking wide-field landscape astronomy images using only a digital camera and a tripod. Some of the most amazing astronomy images in the world were shot this way. If you are ready to dive into long-exposure astrophotography, you can check out the details of how I take those types of images further down the page.
What equipment do you need?
Digital Cameras for Astrophotography
First things first, you will need a Digital SLR Camera (DSLR) with manual settings to take impressive night-sky images. I always recommend the Canon brand, as I have owned several models and can highly recommend them based on experience. I left out Canon’s official camera designed for astrophotography, the Canon EOS 60Da. I would love to own one of these bad boys, but they are increasingly hard to find. Here are some example camera choices from entry level to pro:
Some compact digital cameras, or Point-and-Shoot cameras, have manual settings as well, but are much more limited in terms of performance and quality. One of my first long exposure night-sky photographs was a 15-second exposure taken with an 8MP Canon Powershot Point-and-Shoot, sitting on top of a fence post in my backyard.
It was a shot of Saturn, Mars and the Crescent Moon setting in the West. If you are starting out with an entry level DSLR and kit lens, you’ll do just fine. Stunning astrophotography images are possible with any DSLR. I started with a Canon Rebel XS, and was blown away with my early results. Nowadays, I tend to use my Canon EOS 70D with Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM Lens.
Camera Lenses for Astrophotography
Many great lens options are available for night sky photography. It all comes down to your needs and your budget. In general, you will want a lens with a wide maximum aperture to let in the most light, in the shortest amount of time. Auto-focus and Image-Stabilization performance are less important factors for night photography than daytime. A wide-angle lens is also beneficial, as you have more options of how you can compose your shot, and include more in your image. For Canon bodies, you will have to make sure to keep the
A wide-angle lens is also beneficial, as you have more options of how you can compose your shot, and include more in your image. For Canon bodies, you will have to make sure to keep the camera mount type in mind. They come in the EF, and EF-S mount types. Here are some great examples from Canon:
Canon EF-S 24mm f/2.8
Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L
Canon EF 14mm F2.8 L II
Beginner Astrophotography Essential: Camera Tripod
You will also need a sturdy tripod to make sure that the camera does not move during your exposure. If you don’t own a tripod, it is also possible to get a crisp shot by placing the camera on a hard surface like a rock or on a fence. With long exposure photography, even the slightest movement will ruin the image. An external shutter-release cable is also handy, but you can also compensate for camera shake by setting your drive mode to include a “2-second delay” before firing the shutter. For all astophotography images, you will want to set your white balance to either daylight, or auto.
What is Aperture?
Just like the pupil in your eye, camera lenses can increase or decrease the amount of light they let in. This is known in the camera world as aperture. Because we are taking photos at night, we will want to let in as much light on our subject as possible. To do this, you will want to use your camera lenses widest possible aperture setting, or lowest “F” number, which for my lens is F/4. The photo below is of my old Canon Rebel Xs with a Canon EF-S 18-200mm f/3.5
ISO Settings for Astrophotography
A major component of beginner astrophotography is selecting the proper ISO setting. The ISO setting controls how sensitive your digital camera is to light. Selecting a higher ISO number will increase the sensitivity to light on your camera, and record more detail in a low-light light situation. The catch is, it will also produce more noise.
Long Exposure Photography
Night sky photography is considered “long-exposure” photography, but how do you know how long to expose the image? It depends on a number of factors, and one of them is whether or not you own a shutter release cable. If you don’t, your maximum exposure length will be 30 seconds.
A shutter release cable will allow you to set your camera exposure length on “bulb” mode, and take an exposure as long as you want. I’ve had success with an inexpensive shutter release cable I found on Amazon. In my opinion, without a tracking mount, an exposure of about 30 seconds is as long as I would go anyway. Any longer will start producing star-trails.
Achieving Sharp Focus
The next thing you will want to make sure of is that you camera lens is set to manual focus, and set to infinity. You will do this by switching your lens to the “M”, and adjusting the barrel to the infinity symbol. Once you have set your lens to this spot, take a few test shots to check and see if your stars are in focus. They will show up as tiny pin-points of light when a sharp focus is achieved. If your camera has a live-view mode like the 70D, you can zoom in with the LCD screen on the back, and focus on the moon or a distant object. Adjust the focus ring until the object is sharp, and then un-zoom, and return the camera back to your intended target position in the night sky.
Note: If you are having trouble seeing anything show up on the screen of your camera, make sure your Aperture (F-Number) is set as low as possible, your ISO is at 1600 or above, and your exposure time is set to 5 seconds or higher.
Ready, Aim, Fire!
Now, if the moon is up, it can be VERY bright, especially if it is more than half-illuminated. If you want lots of stars and even bright galaxies or nebulae to show up in your photo, you will have to take your shots during the nights leading up to, and after the New Moon when a thin crescent moon sets in the early evening or rises at dawn. A great idea for beginner astrophotographers is to aim for a pleasing landscape shot of a known constellation. If the moon is out, the moonlight can actually help light up the scenery below to create an interesting image.
General Night Sky Camera Settings:
Focal Length: 18mm
White Balance: Auto
Exposure Length: 25 Seconds
Get away from the city lights
One of the first lessons in beginner astrophotography is the light-pollution effect. You will start to notice all of the unnecessary lights left on all night long in your neighborhood, including your neighbor’s porch light that points directly into your backyard!
I like to get out into the country for shots like the one seen below because there is much less light pollution in the country than in the heart of the city. Astrophotographers will often travel great distances to get as far away from city lights as possible.
I hope you have enjoyed this how-to guide on astrophotography for beginners. With the right tools and a little patience, you too will be taking amazing images of our night sky. If you have any questions, feel free to contact me on the AstroBackyard Facebook Page.