Preparation helps bring first-time astrophotography success

A little planning goes a long way!

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Lower half of the constellation Orion.
Photo by Benjamin Pecka

Astrophotography is not the easiest subject to shoot, but some preparation helps improve the success of the beginner’s first session. While we’re not yet experts, we learned quite a bit from our first foray. We plan to continue exploring the subject and sharing the results with our readers.

For this article, photopigs traveled to rural North Dakota but unfortunately worked in less-than-ideal conditions. The temperatures were double digits below zero with a fierce and persistent wind that made it feel like 40 to 50 below.

Planning successful astrophotography shoots

The most important aspect to achieving success with capturing stars is preparation. There are a multitude of apps and websites aimed at helping astrophotographers find locations that produce the best results. There are also additional gear and exposure considerations. Here are some of the best tips and lowest investment options that we found to help beginners get started.

Finding suitable times, locations and lighting conditions

Screenshot of Light Pollution Map for iOS

There are many websites and apps that help the astrophotographer find the right times, locations, and lighting conditions. Though a few come at minimal cost, free options produce the same results with a little extra work.

  • Darksitefinder.com is a website designed for desktop viewing and initial planning of a trip. It’s also interesting to study the magnitude of light pollution across the world. A quick glance shows that the eastern United States and Western Europe have few light pollution-free areas for shooting stars.
  • Light Pollution Map has free apps for both iOS and Android and uses GPS to display light pollution in the current location. LPM includes additional features such as “aurora borealis maps, meteor shower alerts, super moon alerts, lunar eclipse alerts, moon phases and info, aurora and magnetic field information, international space station tracker, and a lot more!”
  • The National Park Service provides useful tips for general stargazing and lists United States national parks that have dark skies programs, including those certified by the International Dark Sky Association.

For this article, we focused on photographing Orion, which is one of the easiest constellations to find in the sky. There are additional tools to locate other constellations, the Milky Way’s arms, and other celestial objects that advancing astrophotographers can also use.

Stellarium is a free and open-source desktop application. The Photographer’s Ephemeris ($2.99 – $8.99 for apps, but free for desktop) helps visualize “how the light will fall on the land, day or night, for any location on earth.” Starwalk ($2.49 – $4.99) offers real-time tracking, augmented reality, and works with Apple Watch. We’ll discuss some of these options in greater detail for future articles.

Proper equipment and camera settings

Horizontal star trails streaking across the southern sky.
The photographer erroneously used a 50mm lens, which resulted in dotted star trails because they appear to move faster through longer lenses. Photo by Benjamin Pecka.

Essential and useful equipment for astrophotography

Screenshot of Dark Skies app.
Screenshot of the Dark Skies app.
  • Since astrophotographers must deal with exposures that reach in the tens of seconds, a sturdy tripod is required to stabilize the camera enough to capture stars.
  • While it’s not completely impossible to perform astrophotography with less capable gear, a camera with manual controls is essential for good results. For this article, we used a Nikon D7100.
  • A wide aperture lens helps cameras collect enough light to capture stars. Generally speaking, astrophotographers want to stay around f/2.8 but lenses that goes as wide as f/5.6 are also acceptable.
  • A shutter remote is extremely useful for more than nighttime and star photography, but the camera’s self-timer produces similar results.
  • An astrophotographer might be able to get along without after their eyes adjust to low light, but a flashlight is extremely useful. Including additional lighting in the foreground also adds interest to the image when using a wide-angled lens.
  • Dark Skies is an app that quickly calculates how long of an exposure an astrophotographer can use to avoid star trails. It is available on iOS and Android. This can also be calculated manually by using the 500 rule. Multiply the lens’ focal length by the f-stop and then divide the product by 500 to find the number of seconds.

How to find proper settings to obtain correct exposure and focus

Out of focus astrophotography shot of the constellation Orion.
Obtaining the proper focus is sometimes difficult, depending on the gear, because the subject is very distant. Photo by Benjamin Pecka.

There are no hard and fast rules because shooting conditions are never the same, so building familiarity with nighttime photography does much to cultivate an intuitive sense. There are some additional tips that work to produce optimal results though.

  • Like with most nighttime photography, astrophotographers should use a combination of high ISO, wide apertures, and long shutter speeds. Using ISOs higher than 2000 increases noise, so avoid them whenever possible.
  • Always focus the lens on infinity to keep everything in focus. If the lens doesn’t have an indicator that makes it possible to set manually, focus on the farthest possible object during the daytime. Once that’s complete, set the focus modes on the lens and camera to manual. If the focusing ring moves easily, affix a piece of masking tape so that it doesn’t move during transport.
  • If it’s a feature of the lens or camera body, turn off image stabilization. Image stabilization tends to reduce the sharpness of stars.
  • Turn on long exposure noise reduction to reduce grain from using a high ISO, if it’s available on the camera.

Astrophotography is a complicated subject that can’t be fully covered in one article. Although shooting conditions didn’t allow much experimentation, this information should help beginning astrophotographers get started. Considering growing interest in space exploration due to SpaceX and the X Prize Foundation, photopigs is excited to cover the topic as much as possible.

Have you experimented with astrophotography? What were the results? What went wrong the first time? Did we miss any essential tips in this article? Let us know in the comments!

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