Chances are, you appreciate the beauty of the night sky, and would like to take your interest to the next level by photographing it! First things first, if you love everything to do with space and all of those beautiful NASA photos taken with the Hubble Space Telescope, chances are you have caught the astronomy bug like I have.
Start capturing the night sky
We all have to start somewhere. If you have a strong desire to photograph galaxies and nebulae from your own backyard, you have come to the right place.
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? My very first steps towards deep-sky imaging were taking 15-second exposures with a Canon point-and-shoot camera through a 4.5″ Orion Dobsonian telescope! (I loved that old scope) If you can believe it, I was actually satisfied with the results I was getting of the Andromeda Galaxy at the time. 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.
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 recently, it’s the Trifid Nebula in the constellation Sagittarius.
How can I get started right away?
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. My first long exposure night-sky photograph 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 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. Noise looks like little colored grains in your photo. The trick is to find the right balance between detail and noise. A modest amount of noise can be removed during post-processing in Adobe Photoshop, a heavy amount can make your photo a real mess. I suggest shooting in the 1600-3200 ISO range to limit noise, yet pull out some serious sky-detail.
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 inexpensive shutter release cables I found on eBay. 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.
Ready to start taking Deep-Sky Astrophotography Images?
You’ll need a basic setup that includes a tracking mount and a telescope.
There is some additional equipment required to image Deep-Sky Objects such as nebulae and galaxies. Hop on over to the equipment page to see a breakdown of everything I use to photograph the night sky from my backyard. I have also recorded a short video going over everything I use with explanations.