Astrophotography Guide for Beginners

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Astrophotography of star field in outer space.
Quick summary

Astrophotography is a wide-ranging topic, encompassing all the celestial bodies and space events in the Universe. From eclipses to the northern lights, black holes to the Moon, astrophotography requires as varied a skill set as it does equipment. This astrophotography guide will acquaint you with the astrophotography basics you need to know as a beginner.

Whether it’s a far-flung galaxy, the nearby orbiting Moon, or a once-in-a-lifetime astronomic event, astrophotography has a certain magic. Since cameras were invented, astrophotographers have been there to capture its beauty and movements — from eclipses to conjunctions.

The earliest known attempt at astrophotography was a photograph taken of the Moon in 1839 by Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre — the inventor of the daguerreotype process. Of course, astrophotography and photography equipment and technology have come a long way since then!

As a lover of the topic, I’m here to share my top tips on how to fine-tune your astrophotography — from camera settings to the ideal equipment to pack.

Astrophotography Equipment Recommendations

Astrophotography — at its core — requires only three general tools: a camera, lens, and tripod. However, equipment quality, functionality, and efficacy do vary. So be sure to look out for the specialized camera equipment listed below to ensure your astrophotography stands out!

A Professional Digital Camera Body

A modern DSLR or mirrorless camera can capture incredible astrophotography images. New technologies and features — such as focus magnifying, image stabilization, and larger image files — have given them the edge.

However, if you can afford it, a full-frame camera body makes the best astrophotography camera — not an entry-level DSLR camera. Since full-frame cameras feature a larger sensor than your average digital camera, more detailed astrophotography images are guaranteed.

Many typically feature a higher set optical resolution, too — generally of 50 MP or 4K and up.

Astrophotography of the Milky Way with rock fomation in front and person holding a torch.

A Powerful Lens

Most digital cameras can sufficiently capture the night sky. So, if you’re limited to the mirrorless or DSLR camera body you already have, you can focus on upgrading your camera lenses instead. However, in order to attach different lenses to your camera, it needs to be an interchangeable lens camera body.

There are three particular lenses recommended for shooting night sky photography and astrophotography — the fast, telephoto, and wide-angle lenses.

  • When using a wide-angle (16-24mm) lens, you’re able to capture a wider and more realistic field of view of the vast night sky.
  • A fast lens features a particularly large aperture — typically from f/2.8 to f/2, but some can even go up to f/1.4.
  • Whereas telephoto lenses are particularly good at zooming in, as they feature longer focal length settings (85mm<).

Magnification Equipment

Typically, astronomers observe the heavens with a telescope — not the naked eye. Though a lens certainly can magnify these happenings, even the best is unlikely to compare to the view from a professional telescope.

Luckily, you can attach a telescope directly to a camera body — just like you do a lens! All you need is specialized equipment — particularly a t-ring adapter — to attach your camera body to your telescope eyepiece.

Photograph of a telescope used for astrophotography.

A Tripod & Stabilization Equipment

Even the best photography equipment and settings for astrophotography will do little to help your long exposures if your camera is unstable. To avoid the dreaded “camera shake,” ensure yours is stabilized with a sturdy tripod and activate settings like mirror lock-up.

To properly ground your camera properly, you must make sure that the tripod itself is sitting on relatively even and sturdy ground, as well. For deep-sky astrophotography, a telescope mount or equatorial mount — which can attach and stabilize your telescope on your tripod — is a must.

You can also pack a remote shutter release cable in your camera bag (or use an app) to ensure sharp images.

Using a Telescope to Capture Deep-Sky Objects

For deep-sky astronomical imaging — the photography of deep-sky objects and phenomena like galaxies and nebula beyond our solar system — using a telescope is a must. However, it’s still possible to shoot most deep-sky objects without one, as long as you photograph on a clear night sky with minimal light pollution.

Deep-sky astrophotography of a galaxy.

The Best Camera Settings for Astrophotography

Correctly adjusting your camera settings for astrophotography will dramatically impact the final result. Though there’s no one-size-fits-all setup, the settings below are a good starting point.

ISO Settings

For night photography, a high ISO (around 400-1600) is generally recommended to brighten the exposure. However, higher ISOs also come with noise — an unattractive graininess that can ruin detailed images.

So, it’s important to balance ISO with your other exposure settings —and try a few astrophotography techniques — to get the best results. Some cameras also feature a high ISO noise reduction function and dual-gain image sensor — both of which can lessen noise at higher ISOs.

Camera Mode: Manual Mode

Ideally, set your camera dial to manual exposure mode — typically denoted with an “M.” In manual mode, you can adjust almost all of your most important settings, including shutter speed, exposure compensation, ISO, and aperture. A must for astrophotography and night sky photography, where conditions can be tricky and vary greatly!

Shutter Speed: Slower

A higher ISO can let more light in, but a slower shutter speed does, too. Your chosen exposure time setting determines how fast your shutter opens and closes, affecting how much light is allowed into the lens.

Hence why you can compensate for a lower ISO or narrower aperture by adjusting your shutter speed to a longer setting, the best shutter speed for astrophotography is around 15 seconds up to 30 seconds — or more.

Longer exposures such as this will produce “long exposure” shots. Long exposures or time lapses are ideal for capturing very dim objects and barely visible light phenomena such as the Milky Way. The extra time allows enough light into the image sensor to capture or expose these details.

Pro tip: Keep in mind that at longer shutter speeds, the Earth’s rotation comes into play. It may create star trails in the night sky rather than detailed and focused images of star clusters. So, be sure to only use very long shutter speeds for shooting star trails or foreground objects and scenes.

star trail.

Aperture: Wide Open

When it comes to settings for astrophotography, lens aperture plays an important role. Your chosen aperture determines how much ambient light is allowed into your camera sensor. When photographing dark skies, you want as much light as possible coming into your camera. So do open your aperture to its widest (aka, the lowest — >f/4) setting possible.

White Balance Settings: Auto

White balance plays an important role in astrophotography, especially when photographing the Moon. Set your white balance to auto or daylight to start with to see if either fits your needs. If not, you can then play around with different white balance settings.

Quarter Moon astrophotography.

Focus: Manual Focus

Most cameras struggle to focus on any dark subject matter, including dark skies. So, it’s best to switch AF or any back-button focus off and manually focus using your focus ring instead when shooting astrophotography. You can use live view when with manual focus to more accurately focus.

Pro tip: If you still wish to use autofocus, limit your focus points to one (or just a few). Then, hone in on a celestial body in the sky — such as the Moon or a bright star or planet in our solar system — using it in your image frame.

Other Important Astrophotography Settings

Beyond your essential astrophotography settings, there are a few more functions that you should consider. Digital cameras feature many settings to change color saturation, clarity, image quality, and more. The name and existence of which may vary per camera and lens model and brand.

Astrophotography of the Aurora Borealis.

For example, take note of your:

  • Image type: Always choose the RAW + JPEG image file format to shoot in. The detail-rich RAW format allows more scope for editing later on. When shooting higher-memory RAW images, you’ll need to provide more space on your memory card, though.
  • Image quality/size: Choose the uppermost quality setting: Large, which limits image compression. Do bear in mind that, as with RAW files, you should use a higher-capacity SD or compact flash card to accommodate these larger files.
  • Delay self-timer: Select a 2-second (or more) delay to avoid shaking the camera when pressing the shutter button manually. Doing so will reduce the likelihood of blurry night sky images and is ideal if you don’t have a remote shutter release cable or app.
  • In-camera noise reduction: Though in-camera noise reduction can limit graininess, it can also reduce image quality. So use this setting wisely — and remember that post-processing your images is also a viable solution to reducing too much noise.
  • Color saturation: To capture as much color detail as possible, set your image color saturation to its highest in your camera settings. Do note those select picture settings like this might not affect RAW images, though. Making them appear plainer than your auto-adjusted JPEGs.
  • Red-eye correction: Switch this setting off to ensure your camera doesn’t adjust bright or red spots in the night sky.
  • Long-exposure noise reduction: Switch this setting on if you want your digital camera to take a dark frame and combine it with the initial long-exposure image. However, do note that the process may take longer, likely doubling your exposure time. A no if you’re photographing time-sensitive celestial objects or events, such as an eclipse or meteor shower! In this case, take a few dark frames after you’re done shooting instead.
Astrophotography of a meteor shower.

Can I use the same settings for all types of night photography and astrophotography?

When shooting astrophotography — be it night sky photos or deep sky astrophotography — your settings will likely vary. For example, you need to use longer exposures for Milky Way photography — but not so when photographing the brighter Moon.

Be sure to read up on the eccentricities of various types of astrophotography in our guides to ensure the best results!

5 Astrophotography Tips

Wondering how to take your Milky Way photography, deep-sky imaging, or astrophotography to the next level? Here are my top astrophotography tips to help you produce spectacular images!

1. Image Stack

Image stacking is a unique method used to create sharper, more detailed photographs. In order to image stack, you need to shoot multiple image frames to stack into a composite. However, though the vantage point must remain the same to align them later, your settings — including exposure times and focal lengths — should differ from image to image.

One way of capturing images in one go like this is to use burst mode — but with varying AF points. Called focal length stacking, multiple images — each with a different focal length — are stacked to achieve one sharp image.

You typically do the image processing in post-production editing software such as Adobe Lightroom, Photoshop, and Helicon Focus. You can read our guide on focus stacking to find out how to go about it.

2. Take Dark Frame Photos

Dark frame images are separate images taken while covering the lens, capturing just the noise emitted by your camera sensor. You can use these frames to precisely remove heat noise artifacts from your final astrophotography images using post-production editing software.

The heat noise patterns will be almost the same as those in your proper images. So, when you subtract these dark frames, you can make your final image considerably sharper and clearer.

3. Leverage Long Exposure Photography

Be sure to leverage long-exposure photography in your astrophotography to get the best results. Most astronomical imaging will require longer exposure times to capture — particularly deep sky objects and Milky Way photos.

You can also stack long exposures with other images taken at shorter shutter speeds for the best results. Multiple exposures can be melded into a composite to improve clarity, sharpness, exposure, and overall image quality.

Astrophotography of the silhouette of dark trees on a starry sky background.

4. Apply the 500 Rule

The 500 rule is a calculation used to find out the exact maximum exposure time you can set your camera to without motion blur. Naturally, it’s a particularly effective method for reducing the likelihood of star trails.

The exact 500 rule formula is 500/ (Crop Factor x Focal Length) = Ideal Shutter Speed.

Some suggest you only divide 500 by your focal length. However, to be more accurate, do factor your camera sensor’s crop factor into the formula.

Crop factor per sensor/camera type:

  • Full-frame sensor: 1x
  • APS-C sensor: 1.5-1.6x
  • Micro 4/3 camera: 2x
  • Compact cameras: 2.7x<

Example: 500/ (1.5 x 53) = 9.5

So, for a standard APS-C sensor DSLR camera set to 35mm focal length, your ideal shutter speed should be 9.5 seconds.

5. Avoid Light Pollution

Light pollution is the enemy of astrophotography — particularly Milky Way photography. At best, resulting in a hazy image — and, at worst, being unable to photograph at all! So, be sure to head somewhere more remote, where city lights won’t mess up your plans.

The Moon can also produce a lot of light pollution. So you’ll want to shoot on nights when it’s a New Moon or at the crescent phase.

Pro tip: Use dark sky or light pollution and Moon phase tracking apps to plan your shoot dates and location. Doing so will ensure you don’t waste time — and potentially miss taking the ultimate photo of a once-off astronomical event, of course! Oh, and don’t forget to cover your viewfinder, which can also emit light that will affect your images.

Stellar Astrophotography: Summarized

From photographing the brightest stars to unique astronomical events and formations, astrophotography is a diverse subject. The settings and equipment you use matter — as does having a deep knowledge of the various techniques used for astrophotography.

Hopefully, this astrophotography guide has given you a better grasp of the eccentricities of solar system astrophotography. So you can get out there and take some stunning — perhaps even award-winning — shots!

Astrophotography of the Milky Way in a camera live view viewfinder.

FAQ

How does polar alignment help with astrophotography?

Polar alignment is the process whereby you align your mirrorless or DSRL camera lens or telescope to the North or South celestial poles. Thereby ensuring you can rotate your equipment easily at the exact same angle as the Earth’s and sky’s natural rotation. You may need to attach a telescope or equatorial mount to your tripod to polar align your camera.

How can I capture star trails in astrophotography?

Use bulb mode, which allows you to keep the camera shutter open as long as you hold down the shutter button. While doing so for longer than the standard set camera shutter speed limit of 30 seconds, all the star clusters should move noticeably, allowing you to capture star trails. You can also use this setting for light painting photography.

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Caitlin is a professional writer and editor with a background in fine art, design, and photography, focusing on sustainability, climate change, equality, travel, tech, culture, and societal issues. She studies journalism with the NCTJ and has written for The Daily Mail, Durability Matters, CNN, Website Planet, PictureCorrect, and more.
Caitlin is a professional writer and editor with a background in fine art, design, and photography, focusing on sustainability, climate change, equality, travel, tech, culture, and societal issues. She studies journalism with the NCTJ and has written for The Daily Mail, Durability Matters, CNN, Website Planet, PictureCorrect, and more.
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