Welcome back to another blog of The Light of Night! Today I’ll specifically talking about all things related to prep-work for astrophotography.
So one of the biggest questions I get from friends, neighbors, and other photographers who are interested in shooting astro is, “what do I need to do to prepare to shoot some astrophotography?” Here’s a short list of things that I’ve found super helpful in getting ready to go out and shoot.
Get out of Town/Location Scouting
In order to do astrophotography/nightscapes, you have get out town…literally. Cities produce a lot of light pollution that inhibits capturing some of those great nightscapes that are possible. Lightpollution.info is a great site to find places where light pollution won’t interfere with your night photography and show places close to you that have darker skies to capture some awesome nightscapes. Also, because you’ll be shooting in darkness, knowing where you’re shooting is key to reducing time spent looking for places to shoot. I’m super fortunate to live close to rural places and National Parks that generally have dark skies. If that’s not the case for you, do what you can to get to the darkest skies possible.
Depending on the time of month and part of the moon phase you go out to shoot, you’ll get very different types of photographs of the night sky.
In the Northern Hemisphere, April through September is commonly nicknamed MilkyWay season. The bright core you’re accustomed to seeing in a lot of photographs is only visible to people in the Northern Hemisphere during that time. To get the full view of the Milky Way, you have to consider what the moon phase you go out to shoot. I’ve found that the best time to go to get bright stars and dark skies are during new moons and two to three days before and after a new moon. During this time the moon will most likely set with the sun, meaning you have more time to shoot the Milky Way during the night. Here’s an example of a nightscape that I shot during a new moon. You see that the stars are bright and the moon isn’t there to drown out the stars.
Now during half moons–or a waxing half moon to a full moon and down to a waning half moon, you’ll be getting a lot of light during your astrophotography.
Because of your settings–which is a long shutter speed, high ISO, and low aperture, a lot of light will be coming into your camera sensor. The moon is a large light source, so using those settings during those half moon times will make your image more brighter and drown out a lot the stars that are in the night sky.
Another possible inhibitor and factor in deciding to go out to shoot is the weather. Most, if not all, astrophotography is at the mercy of what the weather will be at the location you’re wanting to photograph. Using a simple weather app on your smartphone will help you determine if you’ll be in for clear skies, or cloudy, crazy weather. In the time that I’ve had to hone my skills, I’ve found that using local weather forecasts and finding weather radars within the geographic area has helped me be more accurate in predicting when and where I should shoot.
Infinity Focus/Sweet Spot
Probably the biggest and most common problem that I’m approached about from people attempting to shoot astrophotography is finding that spot on your focus to get the stars in focus. Each lens is different, so knowing how to focus your lens beforehand is so vital.
On most manual focus lenses you’ll have the ability to move your focus ring to inifinity. Essentially what you’re telling your lens is that you’re attempting to focus the lens on a subject that’s infinitely away. Most lenses nowadays actually have a setting beyond infinity that makes it even more difficult in finding that infinity focus sweet spot. I’ve found that if I’m not using a lens with an infinity focus, I’ll set up my camera on my tripod, have an object that I can focus on about 40-50 feet away and autofocus on that object. Once the focus is locked, I’ll switch, on both my camera and on the lens itself, to manual focus. From there I DO NOT TOUCH THE FOCUS RING. I repeat, do not touch the focus ring after the focus has been locked. To prevent it from being moved or bumped, use tape to keep it locked in place. There’s nothing worse than being out in the absolute dark and having to focus your camera and most likely ending up with out of focus astrophotography.
The Right Gear
Using the right type of gear is so important. Like any job or responsibility, astrophotography requires certain camera equipment to be successful. Check out my blog, where I talk more about my gear set up and why astrophotographers need certain equipment. Using a full-frame camera with a wide angle lens (in most situations) will put you at an advantage and will allow you to make the most of the awesome technology that’s available on the market right now.
And lastly, one of the biggest and most helpful things in this list has to be the astrophotography planning apps.
The most dominant, and for good reason, app has to be Photopills. While using this app, you can plan out the moon phases, sunrise, sunset, twilight, depth of field with the lens you’re using, formulas for doing star trails, night AR, where the Milky Way will appear in the sky, etc. The list goes on forever. It’s such a powerful tool that allows you to take most of the information you need to plan in one place. Minus weather and gear, this app does it all.
I hope this was helpful! Prepping is so important and is the foundation of how your nightscape adventures will turn out. Let me know what you thought!
Here’s to clear skies!