Astrophotography – Shooting the Night Sky (An Introduction)

This is a simple tutorial on Astrophotography – Shooting the night sky. I was captivated by the shots I’ve seen online and thought, ‘I’ll have a go at that!’ I’ve listed my equipment at the bottom and it’s just a standard Digital SLR, Tripod and Lens – you don’t need any special equipment!

This is how I did it…

  1. Camera to Manual
  2. Wide Angle Lens
  3. Maximum Aperture
  4. Focus to Infinity
  5. High ISO
  6. Set shutter speed
  7. Take photos with a remote release or self-timer

Astrophotography – Shooting the Night Sky – How to do it

I have broken it down into 5 headings

  1. Equipment
  2. Planning
  3. Camera Settings
  4. Taking the pictures
  5. Post Processing

So let’s start at number 1

  1. Equipment:

A DSLR with Manual Mode or Bulb setting.

Either a remote control shutter or a self-timer feature on the camera. This is to stop camera shake when you press the shutter. If you don’t have a remote, use the self-timer. To be sure, I use the self-timer as it’s one less thing to forget to take! I set mine to 2 seconds so I could press the shutter and any movement created by that would pass when the shutter opened.

A Tripod.

Undoubtedly, this is essential. If it is windy, hang your camera bag off it to add extra weight and stability. The one thing you need with Astrophotography – Shooting the night sky is a steady camera. Mine has a little hook at the bottom of the centre column just for such occasions. If not wrap your bag strap around the centre column. But, do be careful not to exceed the recommended weight of your tripod.

  1. Planning your place to take pictures:

The darker the sky for Astrophotography – Shooting the night sky, of course, the better the results! So try to find somewhere away from all light sources. This is because the lights tend to make the stars less visible. There is a great website that shows light pollution and tells you the darkest skies around.

light poloution Europe
Dark sky location Tenerife
Western Europe light pollution
Tenerife, Canary Islands. Perhaps the darkest sky in Europe

Also, choose a time when there is no moon, or very little. You can look up moonrise and set times at this website. It also has a section which gives sunrise and set, useful if you are away from your home. the lighter the sky, the fainter stars will be washed out!

Moonrise and Set Times
Sunrise and Set Times

You’ll notice a column called astronomical twilight, this is when the light will start appearing in the sky from the rising sun or conversely when the light will disappear from the setting sun.

Stellarium – Astrophotography – Shooting the night sky

Also, I would also recommend the free Stellarium software, which lets you set the time, date and location of where you are going to take the photo from. As can be seen below, I have set it for the 22/07-2018 in Tenerife. And at 04:00 after the moon has set the milky way will be in the west.

stellarium

This way you know roughly where to point the camera. The Stellarium software can be downloaded here, along with the instructions of how to use it.

Composition

It goes without saying, you don’t always have to point the camera straight up. Try adding a little foreground interest in your photos too. The same rules of composition apply for Astrophotography – Shooting the night sky, a leading line or rule of thirds say. But, and it’s a big but, the composition shouldn’t detract from the main objective of the photo – to capture the night sky!

Astrophotography - Shooting the Night Sky (An Introduction)

Foreground interest can help balance the picture and give perspective

  1. Camera settings

Firstly, choose the widest angle lens you have. It will be more forgiving against star movement – see 400 rule below. Also, it will allow you to fit more into the picture.

Then set your lens to widest or maximum aperture.

This will be something like f2.8 or f3.5

To infinity and beyond!

Set the focus to infinity manually on the camera

Next, a high ISO setting. What I have found is that some people recommend ISO 3200 and some ISO 800 and everything in between! The answer is – it depends! Yeah, sorry about that, not helpful, I know.

But let me tell you about the variables. Depending upon how much light in the sky depends on your ISO. In a very dark sky location, try ISO 800, 100 or 1600. For less than a ‘properly’ dark sky use ISO 3200 or beyond. The higher the ISO, the more stars you get but also the more ‘noise’ you will get. The only way to know is to try lots of different ISO settings and exposures and see what works best for you.

Noise

I can hear what you’re saying! What? Noise? Photography is a visual medium, not an acoustic one! Eccentric Englishman is an idiot!

But let me explain! Noise is the name for unwanted light on your image. Also, let me show you what I mean in the photo below.

star trails
noise

The second photo is a zoomed in part of the first. When zoomed in you can see a lot of unwanted noise. The speckles on the picture.

It is not that noticeable when you see the first photo but if you want to enlarge it you would certainly notice it.

The exposure was 1 hour in bulb mode at ISO3200, Sigma 10-20mm lens at 10mm. I had the camera’s built-in noise reduction on as well!

Now, you can see the joys of noise in a long exposure, high ISO photo! 

Remember, shoot your astrophotography pictures in RAW format. That way you can push them more in post-processing compared to jpg format.

A quick example. Below, was one of my many mistakes. I had the ISO set to 100 at an aperture of F3.5 and a shutter speed of 15 seconds. Using Adobe Lightroom I was able to push the post-processing to return a reasonable image. I only got away with the mistake because it was an extraordinarily dark sky and I could push the exposure in post-processing because it was a RAW file

small post processing astrophotography

ISO 100 F3.5 15 Secs – Astrophotography – Shooting the Night Sky

As you can see above, because it’s ISO 100, the grain to the image is really tight. I may experiment next time with ISO 100 if the sky is truly dark. But, if you start at ISO 800 head up to ISO3200 this will cover most skies.

Shutter

Finally, don’t have the shutter open for too long. If you have a longer exposure of 20 seconds with a standard 28mm lens, you’ll start getting star trails. These can look great in the right photo but we want a sharp night sky to take a picture of the milky way.

There is a rule called the 600 rule. Divide 600 by the focal length of the lens. Example 600/28 = 21 seconds rounded down. However, it’s not all that great! This will still produce some streaking and when you print the picture out large, you will see the streaks. However, if the photo is just for your own pleasure, it won’t matter. But, I think I know you by now. 

You want the sharpest, clearest photo you can, don’t you?

My advice is to use a 400 rule instead of 600. 400/28 = 14 seconds rounded down. Of course, if you are using a wider angle lens than 28mm you can have a longer shutter speed.

Even at 30 seconds with a 10mm lens you can see the start of star trails forming in the photo. It is not that noticeable yet that is why I have used a magnified part of the photo. But, it is still undesirable! The way to avoid this is to keep the shutter speed fast.

In theory, with my 10-20mm Sigma lens, I can have 20 seconds to 40 seconds. But I would never go that long but you get the idea of the 400 rule.

The longer the shutter is open, the more noise you’ll get. My advice is to start at 15 seconds and adjust accordingly. Take sets of photos of at least 5 in each position using the same settings. Then try another 5 or more with some different settings. You can check the results on the back of the camera.

Remember to try lots of different settings and combinations.
astrophotography tips
Astrophotography Hacks
ISO-2000, F3.5, 15 secs, 10mm
ISO-3200, F3.5, 30 secs, 10mm

 

TL:DR Astrophotography – Shooting the night sky

Camera to Manual

Wide Angle Lens

Maximum Aperture

Focus to Infinity

High ISO

Set shutter speed

Take photos with a remote release or self-timer

  1. Taking the pictures

Set up the camera and tripod in one position and take at least 5 pictures with your settings the same. We’ll call that a set. I’ll explain why at least 5 later! Use the 400 rule to determine your exposure time and check the results on the camera. It’s a good idea to take as many photos as you can with as many different exposure settings and ISO combinations as possible. Keep the camera on the widest aperture

After every set of photos (at least 5), put the lens cap on the lens and take another photo. Unsurprisingly, the black frame is in amongst your sets of 5 or more, but this will help tell you when the set ends.

I tend to use sets of ten photos. This gives me more to play with when I am editing. It is difficult to see the light and stars in the set below, the thing you can see is here I have painted with light, the rocks in the foreground. Painting with light is a technique of shining a torch on your foreground interest so you can combine it with any ‘dark’ frames to produce a finished photo. 

Because you know the beginning and end of your sets you can sort them into folders on your PC. The picture above shows a screenshot from my PC showing a collection of 10 sequential shots.

The only difference being is in two of them I have used a torch to ‘paint’ the rocks with light. This is so I have options when I am post-processing the photos. I can have foreground interest with the light rocks. I’ll show you what I mean below.

Astrophotography - Shooting the Night Sky (An Introduction)

Painting with light – Astrophotography – Shooting the Night Sky (An Introduction)

  1. Post Processing

Deep Sky Stacker

The reason I said to take sets of photos is so if you needed to you can use Deep Sky Stacker. This is a stacking piece of software that puts all your images on top of each other to produce a single image with more stars. The final image the software produces will be a large TIF file. YouTube has several tutorials on Deep Sky Stacker. Then use your favourite photo editing software to adjust the image. 

DeepSkyStacker – 6 images stacked into one picture

However, sometimes you will get a usable single image from one of your sets. I tend to use Adobe Lightroom to enhance the natural colours and increase the exposure. I find that Lightroom is a tremendous help in Astrophotography – Shooting the Night Sky.

Lightroom for Astrophotography

Lightroom is something I was not sure about purchasing but now I couldn’t live without it. Check it out on Amazon. You can bundle it with Photoshop too! I don’t just use it for astrophotography, it’s useful for all aspects of post-processing. To be sure, it’s my most useful photographic accessory.

I’ll cover Lightroom and the free photos program in Windows 10.

I’ll use screenshots and step by step instructions to show you exactly how I did it. Firstly, this is how I do it in Lightroom

Firstly, open Lightroom and get the photo to develop mode.

Then it’s time to start moving the sliders

Lightroom will adjust the preview accordingly so you can see exactly what you are getting. Remember, each photo will be different so only use my settings above as a guide.

Next, I click on the radial filter and drag it into an oval across the milky way. Then click on invert the mask. The Invert mask is below the exposure contrast settings box, as can be seen below

Then I adjust the sliders to suit.

Finally, I’ve adjusted the clarity and colours and saturation a touch. Remember, it’s all personal taste!

Then export your image as a jpeg or picture format of choice. I often do several different version of the image depending on what it’s for, as pictures displayed for Instagram on phones look different on the computer.

ISO 3200, F3.5, 30 Seconds, 10mm lens
Same image after Adobe Lightroom

Undoubtedly, the shooting star in the picture was just luck! In the finished image I increased the brightness of the stars and upped the saturation, but nothing foreign to the picture was added.

Windows 10 Photos

If you have Windows 10, you will have the free photos app that comes with it. Yes, it’s the right price, free! Open your unprocessed JPG image in Windows 10 photos, I’ll use the same one as before. I have right clicked in the image below to open it;

Click ‘Edit & Create’ then edit

Then click on enhance your photo

Then watch the image change in front of your eyes!

To tweak the image, click adjust on the right and then click the little arrow next to the word light

Now you’ll see some sliders for contrast, exposure and highlights. Finally, you can tweak these to change the image to your liking.

Unprocessed
Windows 10 processed

And that is how to do it for free in Windows 10 photos.

Astrophotography – Shooting the Night Sky – Conclusions

On-site Check List;

  • Camera to manual or bulb
  • Wide Angle Lens
  • Maximum Aperture
  • Focus to Infinity
  • High ISO
  • Set shutter speed
  • Take photos with a remote release or self-timer

 

A stitched panorama of about 6 photos – Astrophotography – Shooting the Night Sky (An Introduction)

For this adventure, we stayed at the Parador de Las Cañadas del Teide. Check out my blog A Hotel on Mount Teide Tenerife for all the details. Undoubtedly, it is the best-placed hotel for astrophotography on the island! And, for the full trip report check out this link, Mount Teide Tenerife.

My Equipment

All of the photographs on this page I have taken with a Nikon D7200. For all of these Astrophotography photographs, I have used a Sigma 10-20mm lens. I love the way the lens, being so wide can fit as much of the landscape in the frame as possible.

Below is a selection of the actual gear I use. Also, for the full list of equipment I use to take all these photos check out My Travel Camera Bag  

For all my tips and tricks see my Photography Tutorials page.

Photography Tutorials

To see all my gear, check out What’s In My Camera Bag.

Definitive Guide to the Basic Essentials

Below is a list of my most popular blogs on photography.

They form the Basis of  My Top 10 photography Tips

How to Blur water

How to Photograph Seascapes

Composition – Learn the rules of composition, then break them.

Shutter Speed – Slow Shutter Speed Tips and how to avoid Camera Shake.

Use a Polarising Filter – Take away reflections and boost colours.

Fooling your camera’s internal light meter is easy! – Bracket your shots.

Light changes dramatically with the time of day! Know what’s best for your shot.

Know Your Camera –  Know where all the buttons are for when the perfect shot comes.

The Depth of Field – What’s in focus in your picture and what’s not.

Backup and Memory Cards – and spread your trip out over them.

Plan your Photographs – Spend time on Google street view getting to know the area.

Take your time  For less time editing – Walk around the subject and try from different angles.

How to Add presets to Lightroom

How to Photograph Sunsets and Sunrises

Camera settings for Night Photos

Click here for my Photography page with all the links on.

Disclaimer: In short, some of the links on this site are affiliate links. These means that if you click on the link and buy the item, I receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. The money, of course, helps go towards the upkeep of the site – so it’s a win-win for both of us! Any videos used on this site if not my own, are, of course, used within Youtube’s sharing guidelines.

Astrophotography - Shooting the Night Sky (An Introduction)

Astrophotography – Shooting the Night Sky (An Introduction)

 

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