I’ll openly admit that my first attempt at Astrophotography was an amateur effort. On a whim of adventure I set out on a summers evening, rigged my camera to a very basic tripod, set the longest exposure my camera was capable of and hoped for the best. I remember looking at that first image and realising it looked as if it were shot at 11 AM rather than 11 PM. The Moon could have easily been mistaken for the Sun, producing enough energy to light up the entire campground. I do still have a special place in my heart for that shot, but it certainly wasn’t the epic galactic shot I was expecting. From that point, I knew I was going to have to put in a little more effort.
After browsing the internet, I found hundreds of articles on your typical camera settings for capturing the Milky Way and gathered the ‘Ideal’ formula reasonably quickly. A lot of Photographers will boldly state the exact manual settings their camera was set to each time they share an Astro image. I realised there has got to be more to it! If we all used the same settings and pointed our lens at the sky as soon as the Sun’s set, I guarantee you would see distinctive variations in each person’s image. Simply because there are so many more factors to consider when planning an Astro adventure.
Location – It may seem obvious, but this was my first lesson. I don’t suggest you shoot in the city or anywhere near it for that matter. You will likely be wasting your time as light pollution will always be dominant. The amount of artificial light illuminating the sky is so distracting that it blows out the visibility of almost all stars. If you’re struggling to decide on a location, a great visual is the Dark Site Finder Map, as it clearly shows the earth’s illuminated areas as soon as you open up the browser.
Light pollution – When you’ve decided on a location and are there, ready to shoot, remember to angle your camera away from any city. I’ve been on shoots before where I’ve been able to clearly capture the Galactic Core in one direction, and only a blur of light pollution in the other, the difference is a make or break!
Moon – Next, get to know the Moon. You’ve probably heard how essential the Moonlight is to a Night Photographer, as it’s their only source of natural light. Well in an Astrophotographer’s case, it’s quite the opposite. Have you ever gazed up to the Moon and noticed there aren’t many stars situated around it? It has a similar effect to light pollution. But not to fear, as beautiful as the Moon can be, it does set. Just like our Sun. Meaning when planning on shooting stars it’s best to work around these times i.e. before Moon Rise or after Moon Set – this may result in having to wake up at hours such as 3 AM, or waiting it out for the New Moon phase to arrive when it does not show its face at all.
Season – If you’re serious about getting an aesthetic foreground in your shot, the Milky Way’s positioning is going to be yet another element to consider. You may have an excellent scene composed in your head of a snowy mountainscape under the galaxy, and when it comes to shooting, you realise the galaxy can’t even fit in the frame. Thankfully we have evolved some substantial technology over the years, and there are now Apps that can help show you what time your desired Milky Way position will be. A well-known and commonly used App for this is StarWalk2, but there are few others out there. If you’re determined to capture the Galactic Core, you will only be able to do so during the ‘Milky Way Season’. Because of the curvature of the Earth, this is the only period that the Core is actually in range. The season is from March until October, and a little longer in the Southern Hemisphere because of the angle of Earth’s axis. You don’t have to let this put you off shooting out of season, you can still see the Milky Way, just not it’s most vibrantly intricate part.
Weather – And if you thought those weren’t enough elements to juggle, wait until you find a crystal clear evening with no clouds. Unfortunately, this is something out of anyone’s control, so we can’t get too wound up about it. Partial clouds can still look nice when doing something like a time-lapse, as they help add a familiar perspective to compare against the rotation of the earth.
Camera – Ideally a full frame camera, as they allow the most light to be recorded. However, I’ve still had some pretty satisfying results using a cropped sensor. I would suggest starting off with whatever is most accessible to you, and assess from there whether you want to make any further investment.
Lens – This comes down to what you want to capture. At the moment I’m focusing on Wide Field Astrophotography, so I’ve been using wide angle lenses which allow me to fit both an intriguing foreground as well as a large portion of the sky. Anything from an 8mm to 24mm should do the trick! If you have the choice, you’re going to want a fast lens with a low f/stop. Personally, I’ve been using Canon’s EF 16-35mm f/2.8 lens along with the occasional fish-eye. As for Deep Sky Astrophotography, it’s a whole new ball game that requires a lot of modified and specialised equipment. It’s something I’d love to learn more about further down the track.
Tripod – For me, portability is crucial, so I use a compact lightweight yet sturdy tripod. However, anything that keeps your camera still for the length of the exposure will work. If you have the option, mounts with a swivel ball head are also great, because they allow you to get your camera on practically any angle you desire. There’s also fancy computer generated mounts and rigs that open up a whole new range of possibilities which would be wicked to experiment with. I do still quite enjoy the idea of keeping it as manual as possible, though.
Remote Shutter Release – This will help ensure you don’t cause movement to the camera and are also responsible for some pretty epic selfies! But it’s not mandatory as you can always set up a self-timer.
Torch – Probably shouldn’t leave the house without one, as you need to be able to see your surroundings somehow! I find they make quite a good point of interest as a prop in the actual pictures themselves as well.
Extra Batteries – This style of photography will exhaust your camera, especially in cold temperatures. It’s always wise to have a spare battery or two up your sleeve. Even better, a Battery Grip that allows your camera to connect to multiple batteries at once.
Lens Hood – You’ve got to rug yourself up when going on an Astro shoot, due to the fact it’s the middle of the night. Same goes for your camera. A Lens Hood will act as insulation, and will slow down the process of condensation forming on the glass. I’ve even heard of people wrapping hand warmers around the outside of their lens in really cold climates.
Tape – Sometimes you can bump your lens out of focus without noticing. If you secure it in place with some tape, you won’t have to be so cautious.
Exposure Length – The Rule of 500 is a little formula which helps effectively determine the maximum exposure length you can use without getting star trails (unless however star trails is your desired effect). This is dependent on your focal length and only applies when using a Full Frame camera. The rule is as follows: 500 ÷ Focal Length. For example, if I were to shoot at 24mm I now know my exposure should be 21 seconds, or less because 500 ÷ 24 = 21. So theoretically, the wider your lens, the more light you can let into your shutter before causing star trails. When using a cropped sensor camera, you will need to alter the equation by multiplying your Focal Length by the Crop Factor e.g. If my sensor has a 1.6 Crop Factor the equation would now be: 500 ÷ (24 × 1.6) = 13 seconds.
Aperture – The lower the f/stop number, the wider the aperture. Resulting in more light collected from the dark night sky. We have to keep in mind that a wide aperture will often cause a vignette, so I’ve compromised and found my sweet spot is around 3.5.
ISO – In my opinion ISO comes down to personal preference. A lot of people will shoot at as high as 10,000+ to really help bring out the foreground. I find this quite extreme, as it can leave the image looking a little noisy, but works for some people as noise can be reduced in post-production. 3200-6400 has had fair outcomes for me recently, but it’s something you will test through trial & error. After taking your other settings and light conditions into consideration, you can then decide for yourself.
Focus – For a sharp image, the focus needs to reach as far as possible. If you’re not comfortable with manually focusing on bright objects in the dark, your safest option will be to set your focus to infinity. Be sure to analyse your shots as you go by zooming in on the image and checking the stars are sharp. Sometimes you’ll find just below infinity looks best.
Once you’re out there and have had a decent play around with the manual technicities of your shots, just let your camera do its thing. Sit back, and relax. Take a moment to enjoy the sky with your naked human eyes, and gather your very own perspective. Later, when you browse through your images, you will be amazed at how much detail your camera has picked up. The point of sharing this information is to prove there is a lot more to an Astro image then what meets the eye (quite literally), and ultimately, this is what makes the process that much more rewarding.
When you’ve been waiting for weeks on end for the perfect combination of elements to align in your favour, and you finally get ‘the shot’, words cannot describe your satisfaction. It takes time, it takes practice, and is takes passion, but I can assure you it’s worth the energy. Give it a go, and try it more than once! You will be forever fascinated by the possibilities.