When encountering the beauty of the night sky, the first thought is to capture that moment, to savour it for ever. So let's see how we can do that in simple steps.
- ANY camera that gives you the ability to control the shutter speed. This is non negotiable! Doesn't matter if it is full frame or crop, DSLR or mirrorless, or even your phone. All we need is to be able to control the shutter speed.
- A tripod. Pretty much self explanatory. We need something to keep our camera steady.
- Extra batteries, since we will be doing some long exposure shots, the battery will drain a bit faster.
- A headlight. We will be shooting at night. Light is essential to help us be aware of the surroundings while walking and if it comes with a red light will help us to fiddle with camera in the dark without blinding us.
Now this is the basic equipment that we will need to make some nice pictures.
As for the lens, i would suggest the wider the better. Of course you can use a zoom lens and try to capture some nebulas, but if stars and the galaxy is your goal then the wider angle will help. If you don't have one, it is ok. You can make multiple pictures and stitch them in a panorama later.If it comes with a fast aperture like f2.8 or f1.4 even better. Don't let that discourage you, you can get great results with the kit lens, at 3.5 or even higher. We will see how next.
Extra tools like a star tracker can definitely help, but is not a must. I will explain what this tool does later on and give you some tips and links.
The place and time:
When it comes to astrophotography, of course we are talking about taking pictures at night!
While sometimes this might be feasible from your balcony, in the majority of the cases this won't help. We will need to move far from the city to avoid the so called, light pollution. It is actually a thing. This yellow/orange overcast in the sky, comes from the city lights. It is the main reason why you can see all of the stars clearly and when you move to the wilderness you are getting amazed by the sky, cause there is no light pollution.
Do you notice the yellow/green layer? It is not smoke nor clouds. It is from the lights. So we need to move to a place away from that, so we can capture the clear sky as is.
We point our camera in the sky and capture the beauty of the sky. I know it didn't turn out nice when you just tried that.
Astrophotography comes with certain limitations.
The first one is the light. The stars themselves are quite small as light sources, for our camera's sensors to pick it up. So in order to combat that, we will use a SLOW SHUTTER SPEED (long exposure), in order to let as much light as possible to go in the sensor and capture the details of the stars and the galaxy. And this is why we will need the tripod. In addition to that we will use the lowest aperture that our lens allows, to let more light in. Last but not least we will increase the ISO to the point that it won't severely affect the quality of the image with noise. This can be from 1000 up to 6400, depending on the camera you have. I find the sweet spot around 3200 for full frame cameras and around 1000-1600 for crop sensors.
The next obstacle that we will encounter is the Earth. As you know the earth moves. As a result, when the shutter remains open for long, eg. 20sec, this movement will be recorded, since the place of the stars will change from the moment that you press the shutter button, until the shutter closes. Here comes in the game the star tracker. Although not necessary, it comes quite handy. I will make a parenthesis here to say a few words, but its is not needed to achieve a nice astro photo. All you have to do is keep your shutter speed lower than 15sec. The picture might seem dark. Either bump up the ISO, or leave it as is, take multiple shots and merge them later on photoshop or Lightroom. Either way you will have an amazing picture.
There is also the 500 rule. This ''rule'' basically gives you the shutter speed based on your focal length. To do so, you divide 500 with your focal length. So for example: you are using a 20mm lens you will divide 500/20= 25 seconds of shutter speed to not have any star trails visible. It is not that accurate , you can use it for a quick calculation and then adjust based on the results.
You can see in the picture on the right that the stars aren't showing like a single star, a single light point but more like a line, as if they were dragged . These are the so called star trails.
So the star tracker. It is basically a device, that you hook on your tripod and on on top of it you hook your camera. Then you have to find the polar star, no you don't need to be an astronomer, there are apps for that, and you set the tracker to ''0'' zero point. The this device will follow the movement of earth and move along with your camera. So the stars will always be in the same position in your camera's sensor and will not create the so called ''star trails''. Sometimes though you might wanna experiment and use the star trails creatively so keep that in mind as well.
The next issue we will need to deal with is the focus. If you have ever tried to focus in a dark place you should have noticed that the camera struggles, if not fails at all. The same thing will happen in the night sky. There is not enough light. Not enough contrast. So i will give you two ways. First of all you forget of autofocus. You set your camera in manual focus. If your camera comes with focus assistance (Sony users will have it) you can aim for a planet like Zeus or Venus which are the brightest and biggest in the sky and try to manually focus there. The next option is to light with your flash light away from you and aim with your camera and focus. Make sure it is more than 5 meters, which is considered the infinity focus point, because we will be aiming for the sky. You can either use auto focus, since there will be light and once the camera will lock the focus, you can turn the focus back to manual and the camera will keep the last focus point. Just be careful not to move the focus ring. Some times using live view to focus can help, i consider it more of a personal preference. I usually take a shot and zoom to 100% to check my focus and adjust accordingly. Takes a few tries but works for me.
Since we are using slow shutter speeds, we need to make sure that our tripod and camera are steady. Using an anchor weight in the tripod will help.
Also if you have a remote shutter release it will be a good idea to use it now. Although not necessary. You can use the timer and the shutter release delay in your camera to avoid unnecessary camera shake, or even a mobile app if your camera supports any.
Don't forget to shoot RAW. It is crucial to get as much detail as possible.
Most cameras come with a built in noise reduction for long exposure shots. I would strongly suggest to turn this function OFF, since the camera will detect the stars as noise and botch the picture. Also in post processing don't over do it with noise reduction.
Stacking and merging pictures will give more details in your final picture. There are software apart from Photoshop and Lightroom. You can try Sequator, which is free.
Experiment with star trails, it can be fun.
Time-lapses from night to day are always a nice idea.
Check the weather before you head out.
Dress up cozy and get enough beer and music if that is your thing.
To quickly sum everything up:
- Shutter speed: around 10 seconds
- Aperture: As low as possible
- ISO: 1000-6400 depending your camera
- Focus: Manual. Aim for infinity. Light up your car and focus there and keep that focus point
- Get your tripod.
- Get extra batteries.
- Check the weather before you head out.
- Dress well
- Go away from city lights
- Get your headlamp with you.
- Have fun!