Being Successful in Astrophotography
In the last year and a half, I’ve had to learn, through trial and error and research, how to photograph the night sky. I read, watched, and researched lots of information on astrophotography, but actually putting into practice what you hear/read is a whole different story. Here are some of my main tips, tricks, and answers to frequently asked questions when starting astrophotography.
- Plan ahead. After my first outing to photograph the stars, I was immediately hooked and wanted to go again. Me and some friends went out about two weeks after my first experience with the stars, and I was so stoked. I was so hellbent on having another fantastic experience, just like my first, that I never really took into consideration what it took to re-create those awesome shots I got on my first try. The group of friends and I went out one weekend and our timing and planning was just awful. It had been raining all weekend, planning rides, where the Milky Way was going to be, finding gear, was just an absolute mess. And the experience itself kind of left a bad taste in my mouth for a while. I honestly thought that my first experience was just a fluke, and that I wouldn’t be able to continue to photograph some awesome night landscapes. I almost gave up, but my determination to learn from my mistakes was stronger than how disappointed I felt after not planning well. There’ll be several things you have to consider to plan, such as: transportation, moon phase, weather, location scouting, composition, gear, lighting, and emergency/safety measures. Always be prepared!
- Focus, Focus, Focus. This is the number one problem I’m faced with, not only in my own astrophotography, but with questions from other people. How do I get those tack sharp stars? Each lens is different, but having a lens that focuses on infinity, will make your experience in focusing a whole lot easier. Sometimes your lens doesn’t have that focus, so here’s a tip that I give to those who are just starting off. With any kit lens, you have the option of zooming and locking your focus. With an object about 40-50 feet away, set your camera and focus your lens on that object with autofocus. Once you have that locked, switch that autofocus on your lens AND camera, to manual. What happens next is sooooo important. DO NOT MOVE YOUR FOCUS RING. From the time you focus to arriving on location and shooting, a lot can happen to bump your lens. Using tape, lock that focus and ensure that that focus ring does not move.
- The 500 Rule. This tip is also related to getting your stars tack sharp. Someone smarter and more brilliant than me has created this formula that will allow you to calculate the correct exposure time on one single exposure for the type and focal length you’re using. If you’re looking to do star trails, ignore this, but here’s how it works: SS=500/(FL*CF) SS stands for shutter speed, FL stands for focal length, and CF stands for crop factor. So let’s take my own camera setup as an example. I currently shoot on a Nikon full-frame (d610) and typically use my Rokinon 14mm f2.8. On a full-frame, the crop factor equals 1. So the formula would go as follows: SS=500/(14*1). The highest shutter speed I could get on this camera/lens combination would be 35.7 seconds. Now on most cameras the longest shutter speed you can find will be ~30 seconds, and if you want to go any slower, you’ll have to shift it to BULB mode, where you can manually hit the shutter, on the camera or with a cable shutter. If you’re shooting on crop sensor camera bodies, the crop factor will vary between brands. For Nikon it’s 1.5 and for Canon 1.6.
- Expectations. One common question I hear from friends, family, and people who see my night landscape photographs are, “did it really look like that when you took it? It looks amazing!” And I have to begrudgingly tell them no, because the stars/landscapes in fact, do not look like that straight out of camera. I’ve found that astrophotography is 40% planning/composing, 20% gear, and 40% post-processing. Although proper planning and in-camera shooting is the foundation of astrophotography, post-processing is ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL.
- SHOOT IN RAW. The last tip, and I can’t even stress how important it is. I don’t think I’m the only photographer that has to advise that shooting in raw is one of the number one rules in photography. Astrophotography is no exception. Shooting in raw will allow you to capture greater light/color data and allow you to be more flexible when editing your photos.
Thanks for stopping by and reading some of my tips and tricks when it comes to photographing the night sky!
Here’s to clear skies!