Many people are curious to start photographing the night sky. Maybe you are one of them, and in that case you have come to the right place. I will guide you though what it takes to get started, even when you don’t have any technical knowledge about pixels, lenses or tracking.
It’s alright, because you need none of that to get started. My best advice is that if you want to enjoy the night sky (and photograph it) you have to make the experience enjoyable for yourself.
What You Need – And What You Don’t Need
The usual questions involve gear, and they typically revolve around which telescope to buy and how much equipment you need to get that beautiful space shot. That’s probably also why people often look at me with suspicion when I tell them, that they need none of that to get started.
Equipment is expensive, but in return it’s complicated to use. If you already now do not spend too much time star-gazing I would bet that chances are that time will not go up if you at the same time have to battle technical puzzles and expert manuals while setting up the newly bought gear that likely emptied your bank account.
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Here’s your checklist to get into night sky photography.
- A clear sky
- A smartphone (or better yet: a camera)
- A warm sweater
That’s it. Preferably you choose a location that is not too polluted with light, but if you live in a big city and don’t have the option to leave then you have to work with what you have.
I will bet you any day that the main reason people don’t stargaze or photograph the night sky has very little to do with equipment or light pollution. I think it has more to do with making the experience enjoyable.
Stars are beautiful, yes, but I believe the reasons for why we don’t look at them are way more practical and not related to finance or technique. For instance, if you have to stand with your neck bent backwards for more than a few minutes, it gets painful for you. Or if maybe you have to get up at 5.30 am, and the thought of being outside at midnight (maybe even in the cold!) isn’t really tempting. Or maybe you stand there alone and after a while it gets a bit boring. I mean, where is the fun in looking at dots?
The best way to get started is by making the experience enjoyable. Make it something you look forward to doing, rather than something you look forward to have a photo from.
if you want to enjoy the night sky (and photograph it) you have to make the experience enjoyable for yourself.Astronomicca.com
Bring a cup of tea, a blanket, some music, whatever makes you look forward to going out. That way you are much more likely to actually get it done.
During winter time I bring a woolen blanket to sit on and some tea in a thermo-cup. That makes it nice for me, but you might prefer something different. (You also don’t have to put tea in the thermo-cup, wink-wink).
Now, it’s time to look at what you can actually do with the equipment you have available to take a photo.
If You Have A Smartphone And No Camera
This is probably the most likely scenario if you are just getting into night sky photography. Most of us have a smartphone and all newer models have an amazing camera that can even do long-exposures up to 10 seconds in dark environments.
You can just aim your phone at the sky and see if you can get a nice shot. Try to turn your camera away from any ground-based light source as this light would make the camera decrease the exposure time. If your camera doesn’t have adjustable exposure, then direct your camera to where it is darkest and take a photo.
If you want to level up then bring a set of binoculars. Have the binoculars rest on a steady platform, be it a rock, a table or whatever is in your vicinity. Place your phone’s camera at the eye-piece and photograph through the lens. It takes a bit of micro-adjustments because of all the lenses that need to line up, but if you aim it at the moon then you have a good clear object to focus on. This way of photographing is how I got into night sky photography. It’s fun and easy and you get really nice shots of the moon, if you are patient enough.
If You Have A Camera
If you have a slightly advanced camera then you are probably already familiar with the basic settings you need to shoot a photo in manual mode. ISO, focal length and exposure time are necessary to know in order to maneuver the camera. It’s a bad idea to use automatic mode for night sky, because the camera will have difficulties figuring out what you’re trying to shoot and hence adjust the settings so you just get a dark photo.
Forget about using automatic to shoot the moon! You will just get a bright ball without any features, because the camera averages the light over the entire sensor and hence overexposes the moon to compensate for the bright moon.
Summary: You need to use manual mode and if you don’t know ISO, focal length / aperture and exposure time, then you need to google or use the values I listed below as your starting point.
I use a Nikon D7100 to photograph to night sky, and I always use manual mode. It can be a bit tricky in the beginning, but it doesn’t take long to get a hang of it. Only rule I would say is a hard requirement is to try and keep the ISO below 3000, because otherwise you will see sensor noise in the dark areas of the sky and that can be difficult to remove in post-processing because you don’t know what is a star and what is a noise-dot.
Oh, and the last thing to remember: Always shoot in RAW. If you shoot in JPG the camera will apply some adjustments to the photo, and you would want to do that edit yourself. At least if you like me appreciate having the ability to make your photos go from plain to sparkling.
The Raw Photo Before And After Editing
I recently took the photo you see below. This photo has ISO 2000, f/3.5 and a 20.0 second exposure time. The raw output from the sensor is the photo shown to the left. As you can see it is not rich in detail and color. That is because this output is basically just a 2 dimensional plate with buckets full of photons. This means all information you need is in the photo, but it doesn’t resemble what you see on the night sky because our eyes have different sensitivity to different colors. Your RAW photo doesn’t have that. To put it simple, it is just a plate with photon counts.
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As you can see above, I have edited the RAW photo to the left so it looks like the photo to the right. I use Adobe Lightroom to edit my photos, but there are probably other and cheaper ways, too.
I always start by using the auto-adjustment and from there I apply the edits that I think make my photo look nice and to bring out the mood I want the photo to convey. You can download the photo above in full resolution on my Patreon-page.
I wish you plenty of good luck in your new nightly adventures!
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