Tutorial - Astrophotography - Part 1

Stars amongst trees

You’re out shooting. You see the shot you want. You bring your camera’s viewfinder up to your eye, dial in your cameras settings, set up your frame, and take the shot. A moment passes while your camera processes the photo, and then something very satisfying happens. Your camera’s LCD screen shows you a photo that looks even better than what you saw with your own eyes.

That feeling is definitely not one that I get every time I take a photo, and I imagine I’m not alone in feeling that way. However, astrophotography is one kind of photography that does offer that satisfaction pretty much every time you take a photo. When done properly, astrophotography will amaze you with how much more detail your camera can pick up in the night sky, compared to your eyes.

In this intro to astrophotography tutorial, I’ll walk you through my process for shooting the night sky, and explain in detail why each step is crucial for getting great shots in the dark.

Before I get to the steps, I should mention a couple things that aren’t necessarily crucial for good photos, but will help make the experience more enjoyable.

First off, bring a chair. A fold up camping chair works well for me, but any portable chair that won’t be a pain to bring along with you will work.

Secondly, bring a flashlight. I prefer the headlamp styles that keep my hands free. When you’re shooting the night sky, it’s going to be dark. In fact, for your photos, the darker it is, the better. So it helps to have a head lamp so you can see what you’re doing with your camera.

Third, bring a blanket and bug spray. This depends on where you’re shooting and what time of year it is, but it is important to keep in mind that you’re going to be sitting or standing still for the majority of the time. The stationary nature of astrophotography will make you feel colder than if you were moving, and also can make you an easy target for annoying bugs that might be in the area.

So, now that you’ve got your chair, flashlight, blanket, and bug spray; we’re ready to go through the steps I always take when shooting the night sky.

Check the forecast

This one’s kind of obvious, but if you’re going to shoot the stars, there can’t be too many clouds in the sky. Ideally, we want clear skies for shooting the stars. Also, check the lunar cycle. There are lots of Apps out there that track the lunar cycle. A new moon (where the moon is not visible) is what you would want for shooting the stars. As I’ll explain in my next step, light pollution will limit your ability to shoot the stars; and a full moon is really bright.

Get away from the light!

If you want great shots of the Milky Way galaxy, you’re not going to get them from the middle of downtown. The glow of city lights will drown out the stars and significantly reduce your ability to see and photograph them. Getting away from light pollution is crucial for enabling your camera to capture as many stars as possible. A good rule of thumb is to get at least 80 kilometres away from the nearest town.

Effects of light pollution while shooting at night

Use a tripod

This one really is a must for astrophotography. In order to photograph the stars, you need to take very long exposures so your cameras sensor can absorb as much light as possible. The only way to have a long exposure and get sharp images, is to keep your camera perfectly still for the duration of your shot. When I’m shooting the stars, I’m usually using around a 20-30 second shutter speed. If my camera moves a fraction of an inch at any point during that exposure, it can ruin the photo. Keeping your camera perfectly still is extremely important, and the best way to do that is to use a tripod. Using a tripod allows you to control your frame easily. If you’re out with your camera and forgot a tripod, you can always try using a table or a rock. This will limit your ability to control your frame, but the important part is that the camera is doesn’t move. If you are planning on shooting the stars; use a tripod.

Picking your lens

Ideally for astrophotography, we want to shoot a wide lens with a fast aperture. For example, a 24mm f/1.4 lens has been labeled by many photographers as the ideal astrophotography lens. Its wide angle of view allows you to capture a large swathe of the night sky. Likewise, the fast aperture allows what little light there is to pass through to your cameras sensor with ease. While a fast aperture, which allows more light to reach your sensor, has clear benefits, the focal length you choose to shoot the night sky with has an often overlooked consequence, which I’ll talk about in Part 2.

- Guest Author
Jared Heynen - www.venrayimages.com

Jared is a professional wedding and fashion photographer from Calgary AB Canada. When he is not out photographing people, he relaxes by shooting landscapes and the night sky.