How to Astro (a starters guide to Astrophotography)

Do you gaze up at the night sky with wonder? What about looking up at the stars and thinking, how old that light you are seeing is? Maybe you watch as day and night morph into one, and the stars come out to play. This guide is going to cover off everything you need to know to start capturing  amazing single shot astrophotography and a few extra bits of helpful advice. The learnt basics of capturing a single frame will form the building blocks of your astrophotography journey. Think of this guide as your first step on that journey or for those who have already started maybe a road sign. Astrophotography looks amazing and packs a real punch, however, you do not need to spend a fortune to partake. Does gear make a difference, the simple answer is yes, but it is not the deciding factor when it comes to astrophotography. This guide will look at planning your session, camera settings, required equipment and basic editing. I want this blog to help you maximise your current gear to get breathtaking images.

Where do you start? (planning your session).

Plan, plan, plan and plan some more. The very first thing to do when planning, is get to know when astrophotography or galaxy season starts. This is when the Milky Way is the highest in the sky and most visible. The time of year when this occurs changes based on your location, in Australia this tends to be the cooler winter months starting around May and running to October. In America it tends to be around February to August. Chances are if you are in or get into astrophotography, you will be sitting outside in the cold at some point. If you are after just a star filled sky, knowing the season becomes less important, but still relevant.

Now that you have the wide window, you will need to get to know the moon cycles and, like a mask crusader, get comfortable with the darkness of night. Darkness is your friend with astrophotography and the darker the better. You want to plan your astro as close to a moonless sky as possible, once the moon is fuller than a waxing or waning crescent, you are back to playing the waiting game. Maximise the plafaria of technology and smartphone apps that track the moon cycle. I would recommend selecting a date range that gives you an element of flexibility, normally I use the date of the moonless sky and give myself a week or so either side of that date. Once you have decided on your date range, you need to find a location.

Finding a location can be challenging. You will want to find a location that is as free from artificial light and light pollution as possible, but offers a clear view of the night sky, whilst also points of interest in the foreground (for the purpose of this guide, we will ignore the foreground and focus just on the sky). As darkness is your friend and things look so different at night, I would recommend scouting the location during the day or arriving in the late afternoon. You want to get a good lay of the land when you have light, your gear setup and scout for potential compositions.

You now need to get a little bit more familiar with the Milky Way, even if you don’t necessarily want it in your photos (personally, I find astro with the Milky Way the most striking). Just like the sun and moon, the Milky Way has a time where it rises, peaks over the horizon and sets or is no longer visible due to sunlight. The Milky Way also has a centre or core, which will become more important if you want to capture the deepest, most intense colours, or capture star trails with the Milky Way in them.

I recommend that astrophotographers maximise the use of 3 types of apps on a smart device or computer: a reliable weather app, an accurate maps app and a good tracking app. What is a tracking app? It is an app that tracks the location of the milky way and moon cycles. A good tracking app alone, will help your planning and composition exponentially. I use an app called “PhotoPills” (https://www.photopills.com/), you will find a number of options online and in the respective app stores. The ability to track the milky way will allow you to start to set detailed plans with times and composition notes.

The Gear (What is in your bag?)

Do you remember in the intro when I said you don’t need to spend a fortune to start capturing astro? Well like anything in photography, you can spend as little or as much as you like.

I am going to provide a gear list below of what I would consider to be the minimum required to shoot some astro. I am going to break the list up into 3 different areas and then explain each.

Camera and lens

Camera – It doesn’t matter if you have an old camera, new camera, full frame, micro four thirds, crop sensor, one inch sensor, or.. well you get the idea. As a minimum, you are going to require a camera that allows manual focus, the use of completely manual settings and a shutter of at least 20 seconds. Ideally, I would recommend a camera that has interchangeable lenses, however, you can use a compact camera with a fixed lens, as long as it meets the above requirements. You can get some great results from compact cameras, especially some of the more premium models. As long as you can take complete control of the camera you will have success.

Lens – The best bit of advice I ever received about lenses is “good glass is always good glass”, basically a good lens today will be a good lens tomorrow. Like your camera, you do not need the most expensive lens, but you are going to want to use the “fastest lens” you have. A “fast lens” is a lens that has a large maximum aperture, allowing the most light to pass on to the sensor or film. The larger aperture is represented by the smallest f stop number for example f 1.4 is a larger opening and faster than f16.

I would recommend starting off ideally with a wider angle lens that has an affinity marker. This will give you the best coverage of the sky and make focus a little easier. We will revisit focus in settings. Now it does not matter if you have a zoom, prime or kit lens, with a little adjustment to setting you can capture astro. Oh, If you have a lens hood, use it, this will help with light pollution / spillage and if you have vibration reduction make sure it is off.

A quick word on vibration reduction (VR), image stabilization (IS) and In body image stabilization (IBIS). When shooting astrophotography you are going to need to use a tripod and will need to switch your stabilization off. Stabilization looks for movement and corrects this, if no movement is present it can add movement. This movement will only be very very subtle, however, it will result in soft stars.

Accessories

Tripod – no way around it, if you are going to shoot astro you will need a tripod. Tripods have weight limits and you will need to adhere to this. You will need to ensure that a tripod weight limit can safely handle the load of your camera, lens and accessory combination. The tripod needs to be secure and sturdy, any movement will leave you with soft or streaky stars.

A good solid tripod is always the number one priority, how much this costs or what this looks like to you, really depends on your personal gear list and wider use. Similar to a good lens, a good tripod can last you forever. You should rest assured that spending on a good tripod is an investment, as long as it matches your needs. For example if you are not travelling or hiking, you will likely not need to invest in a super lightweight carbon fibre compact tripod and would be better off with something that is heavier, less compact but ultimately cheaper.

You will likely have noticed that I have not yet touched on tripod heads and quick release (QR) plates. For astrophotography, I don’t think the type of head or QR plate is important. What is important is your level of familiarity with the head and wider tripod.  I can not stress this enough, you need to know what tightens, loosens and releases what, or you risk your camera taking a tumble.

When it comes to a tripod for astrophotographers I normally recommend something that besides being super sturdy can extend quite tall, whilst also allowing you to get the camera near the floor. You will appreciate this ability to get the camera in a number of different positions whilst maintaining a sturdy base when it comes to composition.

A remote control – ok so technically you don’t need a remote control and it is possible to shoot astro without one, but you will need a way to fire the shutter without touching the camera.

Many modern cameras can use their respective smartphone app as the remote control. Using an app with a smart device to control the camera  is a great option, it is wireless, generally supports image transfers, you normally don’t leave home without your mobile and manufacturers don’t charge for the on brand app. The down side to the app however, is that they generally increase battery consumption and can be tricky to connect.

The self timer set to a short delay, can also do the job. Most cameras have this feature built in and it can be adjusted to different lengths of time. As you physically need to touch the camera to start the countdown, you do run the risk of introducing movement. Nevertheless a great budget or emergency option.

The use of a dedicated camera remote control or intervalometer, in my opinion, remains the best option. Yes, it does mean you are carrying an additional item with your kit, however, it minimises the amount of time you need to physically touch the camera once set up and this alone makes it a clear winner. The importance of minimising the contact with the camera will be highlighted later in setting. I find a simple wired remote is the ideal solution, they are normally cheap, simple, low power consumption and most importantly reliable.

Spares – Any good photography kit should always have redundancies, however, I find with astro kits it’s best to keep them simple, to limit the risk of shooting at night. You will need a spare battery, astrophotographers are generally most active during the winter months and cold kills batteries. Keep the spare battery in a pocket next to your body for best results. The next spare you will want with you is a spare card. You don’t want to go to all the effort of planning and have your night written off by a faulty or full card. If you are using the smartphone app to control your camera, I would recommend a powerbank to charge your phone incase is needs a little extra juice.

 I know we haven’t touched on the brand or types of batteries or cards and this is deliberate. I would always recommend using quality brands with both cards and batteries. Cheaper batteries and cards are definitely not worth the gamble. This is one area where spending money on quality brands is almost essential and will result in better performance.

Viewfinder blocker – a viewfinder blocker, is basically to stop light leaking through the viewfinder. Some cameras have these built in, some come with them as an accessory in the box and some cameras don’t require them (electronic or no viewfinder). Now this is one area where you go cheap, if you don’t have one you can use a square of duct or gaffer tape. It’s cheap, works and readily available.

Camera jacket / raincoat – now this accessory is optional and astrophotography is completely possible without a camera jacket. The purpose of the jacket is to provide insulation for the camera and lens. This can help limit fogging / condensation build up, however, it also risks bumping focus. Personally I find a loose fitting camera raincoat can be of benefit, but I find limiting unnecessary touching of the camera also extremely helpful.

Other Gear

A good torch and headlamp (red lamp) – I never head out for an astro session without both of these. Once I’m set up and the camera is in position, it is all about the red headlamp. Once you start shooting, put the light away and if you are desperate make sure it is the red light only. Your eyes will adjust for the night, each time you turn the torch on, you are prolonging the time taken for this to happen.

Warm clothing – pretty self explanatory, you are going to be sitting around in the cold of winter, a good jacket, beanie and gloves are a must. Astrophotography is awesome unless you are freezing cold and can’t get any feeling back in your hands.

Chair or stool – This is pure comfort, it is not a necessity and if you have a good walk or are limited on space, this would be the first thing I leave behind. Having somewhere to put your bum off the cold floor makes life more comfortable and a much better astro experience than the cold floor.

Snacks snacks snacks – Astro is something you want to take your time shooting, you have planned and executed the perfect shoot, don’t rush off because you are a little peckish or thirsty. I personally recommend some good quality lollies, nuts and a good size drink.

SETTINGS (Time to turn the dials)

Okay, I know a few people would have skipped straight to this section in the hope of finding the magic setting to capture amazing astrophotography.

Exposure

What I am going to give you is the starting point and you will need to adjust this based on the equipment you are using and the environmental conditions you are shooting in. You want to start at aperture f2.8, Shutter speed 20 seconds and ISO 1600. Dial these settings into your camera on the right night and you will capture something and from here you simply adjust.

The one setting that you don’t want to decrease any further is your shutter speed, let that max out at 20 seconds. Shutter speeds of any longer than 20 seconds and you will start to get movement in the stars. Ideally keeping the shutter speed faster would be ideal. If you are using a lens with an aperture of f4 instead of f2.8, you will want to increase your camera’s ISO a full stop from 1600 to 3200. Remember the exposure triangle if you are unable to change the shutter speed, the ISO is the only option. Remember these settings are only a starting point and you will need to adjust them depending on your results, just be sure not to go beyond 20 seconds.

Focus

Ok let’s talk focus and its importance to astrophotography. In my opinion it is every bit as critical as the correct exposure. So how do you nail the focus at night? It is not as hard as you would think. Let’s discuss three different ways of focussing our camera to get pinpoint sharp stars, oh, before we start make sure the camera and lens are both switched to manual focus.

The infinity marker – by far the easiest method, if your lens has an infinity marker. Turn the lens focus ring to the infinity symbol and turn slightly back off the infinity symbol. Each lens is slightly different and depending on your lens will depend how far off the infinity marker your true infinity is. Digital cameras allow the luxury of checking each shot and adjusting from there, however, more modern cameras will have a few extra little tricks. Live view and zoom focus, this will let you zoom in on the area of sky you are focusing on and adjust the focus ring, you can then zoom back out and confirm focus across the scene.

Peaking focus – this is not new, however it is becoming more and more common on the last generation of DSLR cameras and mirrorless cameras. Focus peaking will display on the rear screen and as you adjust the focus ring a colour hazy or outline will indicate what is in focus. When this is combined with a lens with an infinity marker it is almost like cheating. My recommendation is to combine a lens with the infinity marker and peaking focus, it really does make getting sharp stars so easy.

What about if you have an older camera and the lens you are using has no infinity marker? Well you are in luck, focus is possible but you will need to arrive early. During the day, set your camera up on a tripod and allow your auto focus to find focus at infinity, this can be anything, as long as it is a long way away. Once your auto focus is focused at infinity, you will need to mark the lens to indicate this is the location of infinity. Now some people use tape to mark the lens, whilst others use a pen etc, this is all personal choice and whatever you’re comfortable with. Once you have marked the lens, switch everything to manual and test out how accurate the marking is. If you are happy with its level of accuracy, all you need to do is wait for the night sky. Nailing that focus is a critical element to any successful astrophotography composition, if the stars just aren’t sharp the image isn’t going to have the same impact.

Sit-rep

So at the moment you should have enough information to go out and start shooting astrophotography. Yes, you will need to adjust based on your equipment and environmental conditions, but you know where to start and will be able to capture something.

Editing (Photo beautification)

Now that you have the shots, what is next and where do you start? Editing is one of those areas in photography where people have a variety of strongly held opinions. Without question you can spend hours and hours editing your astrophotography, from stacking photos and black frames to painting in adjustments to get the galaxy core to burst with colour. Without a doubt you should go as far with your editing as you feel comfortable. I personally believe there is no wrong or right answer here, it is simply a personal choice.

This how to astrophotography guide has been focused on giving you the skills and confidence to capture a single frame, the building block for your astrophotography journey. So in continuing in this fashion, I am going to look at what I would consider to be really basic editing for astrophotography. I would probably consider these tips exposure or colour corrections rather than editing. You can actually complete these on a smart device using lightroom. Lightroom is great for quick fast edits of astrophotography and it allows you to copy and paste settings. Lightroom is so powerful for astrophotography and offers a fantastic place to start. Combined with a smart device, Lightroom is quick, simple and easy. Lightroom also offers the option to pick these edits up on a computer for more detailed editing.

My personal recommendation is to start with the “light” editing tab, playing with the sliders here will give you an initial indication if the photo is workable or not. The sample image below as you can see has way too much light and is just too white. The settings for the shot were 24mm, shutter speed – 10 seconds, aperture f1.8 and iso 800. I had already adjusted from my starting point settings
and this was the best balance I could get between the Milky Way and other stars. The shot was taken on the edge of the city in Sydney, with no lens hood (left at home) and a few other photographers around who unfortunately enjoyed using torches.

No matter the setting changes, I ended up with a level of white across the images or a washed out Milky Way. I was able to use the smartphone app from my camera’s manufacturer to transfer the image off my camera to a smart device and straight into Lightroom. A few adjustments under the “light” tab and I was able to take an unusable image to a very usable image.

The image is not perfect but it highlights a few different points, the importance of needing to continually check your settings and results, to get the best image you can. The importance of the environment and trying to get as dark as possible. The need to persist despite not the best of results and the power to recover an image through editing. Through adjusting a few simple sliders, I was able to turn the black tones and highlights down along with adding contrast. Yes you could spend some. more time editing the image and get it better, however, it gave me great comfort and assurance on the night to see what a quick edit could do.

Conclusion (that’s all folks)

As I draw this astrophotography guide to a close, I would like to provide you a warning, as you set out on your astrophotography journey. Maybe I should have provided you with this warning in the introduction, but you might not have read on. Astrophotography is highly addictive and once you start your journey, you will likely be obsessed with checking the weather forecast in the lead up to the next moonless sky.

You should now have the knowledge to be able to plan and execute your next or first astrophotography shoot. Once you master the capture of a single astrophotography frame, you have the foundations of your astro journey. That journey might be forever chasing the milky way across the night sky, capturing amazing compositions, shooting breathtaking time lapses or putting together brilliant star trails. This blog is all about helping you start that astrophotography journey, where you go after that is all part of that journey. Let me know in the comments section below if you are new to astrophotography or if you are already addicted and what drew you to it? Feel free to link any of your amazing astrophotos.

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