Astrophotography for Beginners: A Complete Guide

When the sun goes down, most photographers pack up their gear and quit for the day. This guide is for the photographers who show up when the light grows dim. Those who want to take photos of the night sky, the stars, the Milky Way, or even galaxies far away. 

Astrophotography requires a different process than daytime photography. This guide will describe the different types of astrophotography; the best camera, lenses, and other gear you’ll need; explain the camera settings for taking a great astro shot; then, give you tips for astrophotography.

By the time you finish this ultimate beginner’s guide, you’ll have all the information you need to be able to take your first great astrophotography photo.

What is astrophotography?

Astrophotography is photographing objects in the night sky. This might include the stars, the moon, and the planets. Or, it could mean taking pictures of the Milky Way, nebulae, or other celestial objects in deep space. There are many different types of astrophotography, and this guide will explain them in greater detail.

Photo by Usukhbayar Gankhuyag on Unsplash

History of astrophotography

The first-ever attempt at astrophotography was by Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, the inventor of the daguerreotype process, who attempted to photograph the moon in 1839. Tracking errors in his telescope during the long exposure meant that his image came out as a fuzzy blob.

One year later, on March 23, 1840, John William Draper managed to take a successful photo of the moon with a 20-minute long daguerreotype image, shown below.

first ever photo of the moon
First-ever photograph of the moon, By John William Draper, 1840

Types of astrophotography

We mentioned above, there are several different types of astrophotography. Depending on what you want to photograph in the night sky, it might even require specialized equipment. Let’s explore each type in detail:

Wide Angle Astrophotography

If you’re just dipping your toes into astrophotography, this is the best place to start. It’s the least technical and, if you’re already a photographer, you can most likely get started with minimal investment and the gear you already own.

landscape astrophotography
Landscape Astrophotography

Some of the types of photos you can capture with wide angle astrophotography include:

  • Milky Way: It’s 25,000 light years away and you can’t usually see it with your naked eye but your camera can capture it! These are some of the most popular astrophotography images for beginners.
  • Landscape: Photos that include a mixture of the natural surroundings and the night sky.
  • Time-Lapse: This requires taking many (often hundreds) of images over a period of time and then combining them to create a video.
  • Star Trails: This type of photo uses a very long exposure to capture the motion of the stars in the night sky due to the rotation of the earth.
star trail astrophotography
Star Trails

Solar System Astrophotography

Solar system astrophotography includes photos of anything within our own solar system — the moon, our sun, and the planets that orbit around it. You might use a telescope with this type of photography, but you can often get by with a super-telephoto lens.

Solar system astrophotography
The moon

Deep Space Astrophotography

Deep space photographs are taken with a telescope of objects very far away — distant galaxies, their planets and solar systems, and nebulae. This style of astrophotography is by far the most complicated and technical but often yields the most interesting and beautiful results.

Besides being technically challenging, deep space astrophotography requires specialized equipment that can get rather costly. This equipment includes a telescope and a star tracker that moves your camera in sync with the earth’s rotation to prevent star trails in your photographs. 

Orion nebulae
Photo by Arnaud Mariat on Unsplash

Since deep space astrophotography is advanced, we’ll keep the focus of this guide on how to take wide-angle astrophotographs, like shots of the Milky Way and star trails and leave deep space photography for another guide.

What’s the best camera for astrophotography?

No matter which type of astrophotography you choose to do, you will need a DSLR or mirrorless camera with manual mode. Nighttime photography requires long exposures, so the ability to extend your shutter speed is absolutely necessary. 

Full-frame or crop?

It doesn’t matter if your camera has a full-frame or a crop sensor, but full-frame cameras are typically more sensitive to light, so that makes them better adapted to this type of photography. Though, if budget is a concern, crop sensor cameras tend to be less expensive and will definitely get the job done.

If you’re shopping for a new camera specifically for astrophotography, look for one that has a reputation for performing well in low light. In the mirrorless market, the Sony A7SIII or the Nikon Z6II are top choices. If you prefer a DSLR, check out Canon’s 5D Mark IV, the Nikon D850, or the more budget-friendly Canon 77D.

What is the best lens for astrophotography?

The best lens for astrophotography depends on what you’re planning to shoot. To take wide-angle shots, like Milky Way and landscape astro photos, you’ll need a wide-angle or ultra-wide lens with a wide maximum aperture of at least f/2.8 but the wider the aperture, the better. Some fantastic options include:

  • Canon 16-25mm f/2.8L III USM
  • AF-S Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8G ED
  • Samyang 10mm f/2.8 ED AS NCS HSM
  • Sigma 12mm f/1.8 DG HSM

If you’re photographing the moon or other solar system astrophotography, the opposite holds true — for these shots, you’ll need a telephoto lens unless you have a telescope. And for the sake of this beginner’s guide, we’ll assume there’s no telescope involved. Choose any telephoto with a focal length at or above 300mm. Luckily the moon is bright, so a wide aperture isn’t necessary. 

Photo by Wilson Mallmann from Pexels

Other astrophotography gear

In addition to your camera and lens, there are a few other tools you’ll need when it comes to shooting astrophotography that you might not normally need as a photographer.

  • Tripod: This is absolutely necessary. Most of your astro photos will be long exposures, so a sturdy tripod is a must.
  • Remote shutter release: So you can operate your camera without having to touch it. Sometimes, during long exposures, even touching the shutter can cause a motion blur.
  • Red flashlight/headlight: This will protect your eyes in the dark and prevent bright light from disrupting any long exposures.
  • Extra batteries: Cold temperatures and long exposures can drain batteries quickly. Always keep extra batteries handy.
  • Extra memory cards: If you’re doing time-lapse photography, you’ll need lots of storage.
Milky Way

Camera settings for astrophotography

As is the case with every type of photography, the camera settings will vary depending on the situation, but the following settings are a good base to start at:

  • Focus: Change your lens to manual focus, set focus to infinity;
  • Aperture: Set to your lens’s maximum aperture to allow the most light to enter the lens.
  • ISO: This largely depends on your camera’s low light performance, but start at 1600. If the results are still too dark, change to 3200. Many cameras can go even higher without introducing too much noise, so use your judgment here.
  • Shutter speed: Follow the 600 Rule to shoot stars without trails.
  • Shoot in RAW: This will allow you to record the most data and will be extremely helpful when editing.

What is the 600 Rule?

To determine the shutter speed to shoot clear, sharp stars and avoid capturing movement, use the “600 Rule.” Simply divide 600 by the focal length of your lens. For example, if you’re using a 24mm lens, 600 divided by 24 is 25. So your shutter speed would be 25 seconds. If you used a shutter speed longer than that, you would introduce motion blur into your image — your stars would be oval-shaped or trails instead of dots.

Note, if you’re shooting with a crop-sensor camera, you’ll first need to multiply your focal length by your camera’s crop factor, then divide the new number by 600. 

6 Tips for astrophotography

  1. Find the darkest possible place to take your photos – There is a surprising amount of light in the atmosphere. While it might seem dark to you, it’s a good idea to look at a light pollution map. Locate the darkest area you can to set up your gear. Remember, you’ll be taking a long exposure, so your camera is going to pick up all the light in the area.
  2. Consider the moon phase – Unless you’re planning to shoot the moon, avoid any night when the moon is full. A full moon is bright enough to wash out nearly all the other stars in the sky. The ideal time to shoot astrophotography is during a new moon.
  3. Check the weather – It sounds simple, but this is often overlooked. Be sure the forecast calls for a clear and cloudless night. 
  4. Use apps to find the Milky Way – Not sure where the Milky Way is in the sky? There’s an app for that! PhotoPills and Stellarium are mobile apps that will help you find the Milky Way, constellations, and other celestial objects to photograph. These apps are incredibly useful for astrophotographers, as they are packed with features to help you figure out exposure settings, too. 
  5. Set up before it gets dark – This is especially useful if you’re doing landscape astrophotography, where the composition of your photo is more important. Get there when it’s still light out so you can compose your shot.
  6. Safety first – Many times you’ll be shooting in the pitch dark, in the middle of nowhere, in secluded areas. great for astrophotography, but also perfect for wild animals and other dangerous scenarios — and you’re often without access to cell service. Always make sure someone knows where you’ll be and when you’re expected to return. Keep your personal safety in mind at all times.
Photo by Dominika Roseclay from Pexels

Editing astrophotography 

You’ll get some impressive photos right out of your camera, but post-processing is when the beauty of astrophotography really comes out. You’ll use a photo editing program like Photoshop to reduce noise, remove light pollution and other distracting elements, sharpen details, and boost contrast and color.

Final thoughts

Astrophotography is one of the most technical and equipment-intensive genres of photography. But, it’s also one of the most rewarding. Go through all the trouble of finding a dark location, lining up the right moon phase and the perfect weather, and then hauling all of your gear out into the middle of nowhere. Get it right and you’ll be rewarded with a frame-worthy photo and an adventure you’ll always remember.

Brooke Arnold

Brooke Arnold is a writer and award-winning photographer specializing in cat portraits. She is an advocate for rescue animals and is best known for dressing up her cats as famous people like Bob Ross and Evel Knievel. Her biggest claim to fame, however, is being child #2 in an orange juice ad that hung in a mall in Miami at age 8.

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