Welcome back to another The Light of Night blog tutorial. In this blog I’ll be talking strictly about gear–my own gear set-up, cons and pros of gear, and reasons behind why we need specific gear.
Like every job or task, astrophotography has specific tools and gear that you’ll need to be successful. I’ll go over my own gear and set up, as well as talk about the reasons why you’ll need the specific type of gear.
If you’re brand new to astrophotography you can’t go wrong in investing in an entry level DSLR camera and kit lens. A lot of the camera equipment can be expensive, so starting with what you have is totally fine. As astrophotography evolves, more and more technology is available to us, but getting something that suits your needs and budget is super important. My advice is to start off with an entry-level DSLR such as the Canon rebel series (T6i/T7i) or Nikon D3400. As you advance in experience in astrophotography you can start to invest in other camera bodies that do well in low light, such as the Sony A7RIII, full frame Nikons (D610, D750, D850/810), or full frame Canons (5DMII, 6D, 7DMKII).
For astrophotography purposes I’ll talk about the advantages of a having a full-frame camera vs a crop sensor.
35 mm film
On 35mm film, the imaging area was 36mm (wide) by 24mm (high). There really wasn’t much more to it. You got a 35mm SLR and went about your business of taking photos. Full Frame is the equivalent of 35mm film producing an image with a 3:2 aspect ratio. The physical sensor size is 36 x 24mm, the same size as a 35mm film cell. Crop sensor, or APS-C offers smaller sensor sizes that are a “crop” of that. The physical sensor size is smaller than a full frame.
The size of your sensor determines 2 things – how much light it can capture, and how wide your field of view will be using the same lens. The sensor itself is covered in “pixels”. The individual light collectors on your sensor chip are called photosites. A 24 MP sensor will have 24 million colour photosites which collect the light focused on them by the lens. Like the sensor itself, the size of the photosites matter. On a full frame sensor, the individual photosites are larger to fill up the larger physical dimensions of the chip, therefore gather more light. And inversely, fitting 24 million photosites on a smaller physical chip requires making each individual photosite smaller.
One of the advantages of full frame sensors is their lower noise than crop sensors. This is because photosites will generate heat when actively collecting light. Larger photosites and larger sensors means that they’re able to dissipate heat better whereas the smaller, more densely packed photosites on the smaller chip are more sensitive to heat. Sensor heat is the biggest contributor to digital noise when using high ISO (gain) settings or doing long exposures – the 2 things that we do most in astrophotography. This is the reason why full frame cameras will have better noise tolerance and better low light performance than a crop sensor camera with an equivalent pixel count sensor.
The second effect of sensor size is field of view or viewing angle. This is where the term “full frame equivalent” comes into play. With an equivalent lens (a 20mm, for example), a full frame sensor will produce a wider field of view. Depending on the crop factor of the sensor, the magnification will be increased by the crop factor of the sensor.
So there you have it. Full frame cameras have two huge advantages: lower light tolerance/noise and wider view or angle.
So which is right for you? A lot will depend on your budget and the type of astrophotography you’re wanting to shoot. For deep space, you’ll probably want the narrow view crop sensors offer. For widefield landscape astrophotography, it’s hard to beat a full frame camera. The superior low light sensitivity and more robust noise of full frame sensors means you get cleaner, brighter images. For the sake of this blog, I would say that an entry-level DSLR or entry-level full frame if you’re experienced will be great for you.
When I first started I was limited not only by my experience, but by my budget. I’m a college student, so shelling out several hundred dollars for a camera and lens was A LOT. I had an entry-level crop sensor dslr, the canon T6i. As a beginner it fulfilled my needs as I shot and got me some great images.
With more experience and knowledge about astrophotography I decided it was time to upgrade to a full-frame camera that could perform well in low-light situations. I now shoot with a Nikon D610 camera body. With the full-frame sensor my images are cleaner and brighter, do well in low light, and collect great light and color data.
Lenses are about as important as the choice of your camera body. Depending on the type (landscape, deep space, tracking, etc) you’ll want certain lenses for those types.
It’s super important that you are able to have access to lenses that are fast. And what I mean by that is that it’ll allow you to shoot with low apertures (f 2.8). With night photography you’ll need that capability to shoot wide open to gather more light. In the sense of landscape night photography, wider lenses are the way to go. In the first year of shooting I started with an ultra wide 11-16mm Tokina lens with an aperture of 2.8. That lens is still one of my favorites to use and will always be one that I recommend to use on either a Canon or Nikon body. As far as lenses go, they’re pretty inexpensive. [show picture of 11-16mm lens]
The lens that I’m currently hooked to right now is the Rokinon 14mm f2.8 lens. Super fast and super wide, it does wonders on my full frame Nikon body. Because it is so wide, I do get lens distortion, so I fix whatever distortion I have in my images in Photoshop.
What’s an astrophotograph without its foundation? Having a sturdy tripod to set your camera is so huge. I trust Manfrotto and have purchased one of their lower end tripods simply because of my budget and it hasn’t disappointed me yet. If you’re shooting astrophotography there’s a good chance that you’re also on the go and need something lightweight but also sturdy enough to hold both your camera and lens. Sirui with a ballhead is such a gamechanger and has allowed me to shoot with some super low angles, giving me some great compositions.
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned from astrophotography is that you need to be prepared for any situation. Preparing your gear, composition, shots, and other miscellaneous items you’ll need. The things that I’ve found I needed the most in emergency situations or times when I wanted to try something new are:
- Halogen lights. Using external lighting to light paint a landscape scene is something that I love to do. With a cool WB, using a warm halogen light will pick up well in your photographs.
2. Another thing is not necessarily gear, but clothing you might need to bring. Regardless of what time of the year it is, you’ll most likely need some extra clothes layers while you shoot–unless you’re like in death valley during the middle of summer. That might be the exception. With the night hours, body heat can be scarce, and nothing is more dangerous or uncomfortable than being out in the pitch dark, in the middle of nowhere with no extra clothes to warm your body during the night.
3. Spare batteries and SD cards: Depending on the temperature and how many stills/videos you take in one night, you’ll need some back ups. Especially shooting in the cold and shooting timelapse/star trails, batteries wear down quickly, so extra batteries that you keep in your coat pocket with either a hand warmer or close to the trunk of your body are super essential. The same goes for SD cards. Shooting in RAW is SO KEY for astrophotography and with the amount of images you’ll be shooting, extras SD cards would be smart to have on hand.
4. Lastly, one of the best miscellaneous pieces of gear I’ve found to be helpful is a headlamp. It’s saved me from some potentially costly falls (both to body and gear), encounters with wildlife, and given me a spare external light painting source. You may think that your phone will be ok, but more often than not, luck has not been on my side and my headlamp has been my saving grace when my phone or maglite has failed.
With all that being said, the biggest thing to take away from this video is that your camera is just a tool. The camera is only as good as the photographer using it. A better camera won’t automatically take better pictures. It will just open up some possibilities you didn’t necessarily have before.