After seeing a few incredible star photos on Instagram I decided to do my research and give it a go. I’m not a professional photographer and have not taken any courses for photography and have taught myself everything I know so far from the internet (which is actually not that much in a technical sense). BUT I have done my fair share of research on photography including astrophotography and hopefully this post will help those who don’t know where to start.
There are two main types (that I know of) of astrophotography: Regular star photos and star trails. I haven’t attempted star trail photos yet but when I do I’ll be sure to add my experiences with it to this post.
EQUIPMENT: You don’t really need the fanciest camera for star photography, but there are a few essentials that I would recommend:
- A DSLR Camera with an ISO setting that goes up to 6400 at minimum.
- A lens that goes down to around 12-15mm and f2.8 aperture at least, with f1.4 being the optimal aperture.
- A tripod.
- A large memory card and a full battery.
- A spot to photograph – there are some dark sky websites that are useful to get an idea of how far out of the city you need to be for optimal star viewing.
- A clear night (ideally no clouds and no moon).
- Editing program (e.g. Lightroom)
If you have all of the above, you should be able to produce some pretty good photos. Something I would also recommend, but is not essential, is a constellation app which gives you a better idea of which way to point the camera to be able to capture the milky way. If you don’t have the app, you should still be able to get a good idea of where it is once you’ve adjusted your eyes in the dark for a few minutes.
TAKING THE PHOTO: Once your camera is setup on the tripod, adjust your settings to the following: ISO – 3200, Exposure – 10 seconds, Aperture – as low as your lens can go. Take a test shot and check to see what the lighting is like. The exposure is usually the first thing I change if the photo is too light/dark, if it’s too light adjust the exposure to 8 or 6 seconds. If it’s too dark, increase it to 15 or 20 seconds. ISO can also be adjusted up to 6400 if it needs to be much lighter, but be mindful that the higher the ISO the more noise there is in the photo (i.e. the photo will look more grainy). The maximum exposure that can be used for star photos is 30 seconds, as anything longer than this will take into account earth’s movement and your stars will be blurry. Do a bit of trial and error to figure out what the best lighting is for the conditions and for your camera. Every camera is different so what works for my camera may not work as well for yours.
Once you have your ISO, exposure and aperture set up, if you are not capturing the milky way you can move your camera and take a few test shots until you have the right frame. If your frame is 12-15mm you should be able to capture a large portion of the milky way like the photo below.
After you are happy with the camera direction, you will need to adjust the focus on your lens. This part is pretty tedious; my method is to set the focus on infinity, take a test shot, if it’s blurry then slightly change the focus by 1mm or so with a test shot each time until your stars are no longer blurry. Here is an example of focused and unfocused so you have a good idea of what you should be aiming for. The second image was also enhanced in Lightroom (see editing section).
Shot using Sigma f2.8 12mm fisheye lens, one of my first attempts at astro photography. Stars are blurry in this one; exposure is too long but ISO is not high enough as there is not enough light in this pic. Before editing.
Similar photo as above with shorter exposure, closer to 10-15 seconds versus 30 seconds, and higher ISO. After editing in Lightroom.
Now that you have your lighting and focus set up, you can have a play around with the white balance to see what effect it has on the photo. You can also change to a ‘vivid’ setting if you have a Nikon (I am not sure what the Canon equivalent to this is), and this usually brings out some stronger colours in the milky way.
EDITING: Once you have some pictures you are happy with, it’s time to edit! Adobe Lightroom is my favourite editing software, although it does require a monthly subscription. If you don’t have Lightroom or prefer editing on your phone, there are a few great apps that I recommend for quick and reasonably good quality editing on your phone. These are my top favourites:
- Facetune – good for adding more detail which gives the illusion of more stars
- Afterlight – basic lighting and colour changes
Left: before editing in Lightroom. Right: after editing. You can see some clouds got in the way in this one. It’s good to look for some kind of foreground like this tree to give some perspective to your shot.