Welcome to the exciting world of astrophotography! Ok, exciting may be a stretch…in fact, I felt it necessary to run the idea of an astrophotography blog post by Ben first. I wasn’t quite sure if he wanted the Finch Photo blog to contain a post with this much nerdiness! Also, I (Alan) am not acting as part of “Alan and Jenn” for this blog; my wife wants nothing to do with this somewhat obscure niche branch of photography. However, I’ve actually had some requests for this blog (even some from our friends at Calling Glory), and we here at Finch Photo give the people what they want! So below I’ll share some insight into how I captured some of these images and some tips for you to start your very own astrophotography career.
Normally, you would think of astrophotographers as being a nocturnal bunch, but that’s not always the case. Since astrophotography is literally photographing the stars, you might as well start with the closest one to us! Experiment with exposure as aiming at such a bright subject is tricky at best. Also, consider a graduated neutral density filter which darkens the sky but leaves everything else normal. I carry around a 2-stop filter with a soft edge which seems to work well with sunrises and sunsets.
I have found that diffraction spikes, or star spikes, are a personal taste thing. I happen to like them though. To achieve this effect in camera, set your aperture as small as possible, aim at a source of light, and fire away. The above image was taken at an aperture of f/32. Any point of light in your image will have these characteristic “star spikes.” The brighter the light source and/or the longer the exposure, the larger the spikes will be. A few final tidbits: look for clouds that are high and thin. As the sun slips beneath them, you’ll be blown away by the color intensity. Also, check the internet for sunrise/sunset times. Look to shoot 15 minutes before/after each time.
Wide Field and Tripod Subjects
Shooting the sun is easy, with often spectacular results, but let’s be honest…the nighttime sky is where it’s at for astrophotography. Fortunately there are plenty of objects in the sky that don’t require complicated telescope set-ups. There is plenty to capture just using a tripod and normal camera lenses!
Taken just the other night, the moon and Jupiter won’t be this close again until the year 2026. Notice Jupiter’s characteristic red and white bands; these are clouds on the planet’s surface.
On the left is the Milky Way Galaxy photographed from Haleakala. Can you spot the Andromeda Galaxy?
Taken again on Haleakala, I love how the elevation lets you see the curvature of the Earth.
The constellation Orion, with the easily recognizable three stars of Orion’s belt. You can also easily see the Orion Nebula.
Star trail image above my house.
Here are some tips for shooting tripod images of the night sky:
- Make the moon your first subject. It’s bright, easy to photograph, and full of detail.
- After getting your fill of photographing the moon, avoid it whenever possible. It’s so bright that it will all but ruin your attempts to photograph the night sky. A Google search for “moonrise calendar” will let you know when a new moon is occurring in your area.
- Search out the darkest sky possible. If you’re in the East Tennessee area, the best place is on the Cherohala Skyway. The various overlooks along this road make excellent places to photograph the night sky.
- Shoot wide angle; 35mm or wider if possible. This will minimize the rotation of the sky. Speaking of rotation, you can shoot about a 20 second exposure before it starts to become apparent in your image. You can get by with as long 30 seconds if you are aiming north.
- Crank that ISO. You’ll be shooting INCREDIBLY faint subjects so the more light you let in the better.
- Stop down by at least one stop. I know I just said it’s all about gathering light, but lenses aren’t as sharp wide open. This is especially apparent during astrophotography as your stars can turn into blue blobs. Stopping down helps alleviate this.
- The combination of cold nights and long exposures is a battery killer; have fully charged spares on hand.
- Focus at night is difficult if not impossible because of the lack of light. To get around this, focus on a distant object while there is still daylight, and then make sure to not change your focus while shooting.
- The Milky Way is easily visible to the naked eye from a dark sky location. For best results, shoot it during the summer.
- Star trails (or time lapse videos) are super easy with some stunning results. You’ll need to pick up a Remote Timer Shutter Release to make these work. To accomplish this look, shoot a series of 15 second exposures over a couple of hours (these times can vary). Make sure there is no delay from the end of one exposure to the beginning of the next. Then combine the images in a free online program at startrails.de (link)
- For the very best in what can be done with star trails/timelapse cinematography, look up Tom Lowe’s Timescapes. His work is so good it will take your breath away!
Deep Sky Imaging
Instead of deep sky imaging, I should’ve called this section “how to spend tons of money” but I didn’t want to be discouraging. This is the part of astrophotography that most people envision when they hear the word. These are the types of images that capture nebula, galaxies, and other goodies that often aren’t visible, even with the use of a telescope. To get these images requires gear…and LOTS of it! I built up my current collection over a span of about 3 years. I can remember asking Jenn for a specific piece of gear for Christmas, unwrapping it, and then putting it in a closet not to be used for several years. I had a plan though, and I slowly put everything together piece by piece. Below is a cell phone pic of my setup.
The black scope is my imaging telescope. As you can see, it’s not the huge telescope most people picture in their minds. It’s about 4 inches longer than a 70-200mm lens and virtually the same diameter. The white telescope is a guide scope. When imaging deep sky objects, you’ll be measuring your exposure time in minutes and hours instead of seconds. Any movement, even something like walking too close to your telescope mount, can cause shaking that will ruin an image. Therefore, a guide scope is necessary. The small camera mounted on the back of it locks onto a single star. As the mount rotates with the night sky, that camera is making sure that star doesn’t move. If it detects ANY movement, it shifts everything to keep that star centered.
And that is only one of a whole host of things that must go ABSOLUTELY perfectly for an image to turn out. Then if you do happen to get an acceptable image, you have to edit it which takes just as long and has just as steep a learning curve. I spent about 4 hours editing the last image I took before I was happy with it. It’s not so much that you manipulate the image…you just have to go through painstaking means to tease out every last faint bit of detail. I could literally write for days on this subject, but instead I’ve condensed it to the following tips; follow them and you’ll be a world class astrophotographer in no time.
- Win the lottery.
- Marry an understanding spouse.
- Get used to failure…because you will…a lot! (As it stands now, I’ve stayed up all night 3 times and due to various equipment failures, come away empty handed.)
- Don’t enter your 30′s. Staying up all night becomes exponentially harder if you do.
Here are some of my favorites from the past few years. Hope you enjoy!
The Leo Trio
M45, The Pleiades
The Horsehead Nebula
M31, The Andromeda Galaxy (After MANY attempts, this was the first image that I was proud of. Taken over 2 year ago, it remains one of my all-time favorites to this day.)
NGC 7000, The North American Nebula
M42, The Orion Nebula (I feel this represents my best effort to date. This was my third winter trying to capture this target, but it finally paid off. Incidentally, if you do happen to purchase a telescope, this should be the first object you view after the moon if you are viewing in winter or early spring. It’s incredibly bright and easily viewable with even the smallest telescopes.)
So, if you’re still reading this, God bless you! You may also be wondering why I do it. Good question! After all, it’s difficult, time consuming, cold, and comes with a high degree of failure. Despite all of that, there really is no feeling in photography like viewing the back of your camera after a successful exposure. The heavens truly do declare the glory of God! I’m just glad I get to capture a small part of it from time to time. I’ll see you guys out there!