What is Astrophotography: A Beginner’s Guide

Are you a photographer who’s ever gazed up at the night sky and wished you could capture it in all its glory? Perhaps it’s time to experiment with this exciting and rewarding genre of photography. What is astrophotography?

This guide will take an in-depth look at astrophotography. We’ll explain what it is, what camera gear you’ll need, and describe the best camera settings to get you started. Soon, you’ll be shooting your own amazing astrophotographs.

Photo by Yuting Gao from Pexels

What is astrophotography?

Astrophotography can be defined as taking photographs of astronomical or celestial objects. That might include anything in the night sky from the stars, meteors, and the moon to objects deeper in space like the Milky Way or distant planets. 

Different kinds of astrophotography:

The term “astrophotography” actually covers a wide range of sub-categories — many of which require specialized equipment. This guide will focus on Wide Angle Astrophotography, which is the least technical and requires a minimum amount of equipment. However, we’ll briefly describe the different styles below:

Wide Angle Astrophotography

This is astrophotography that is shot with a DSLR or mirrorless camera and a wide-angle lens. Among the many different types of wide-angle astrophotography you might shoot are:

Milky Way Photography

One of the most popular subjects to photograph in astrophotography is the Milky Way. It can often be seen with the naked eye, but its true beauty can only be brought out when it’s captured with a camera. That’s because your sensor is capable of seeing much more than the human eye.

Milky Way
Photo by Jeremy Thomas on Unsplash

Landscape Astrophotography

Landscape astrophotography combines landscape photography with astrophotography. You might see a mountain landscape with a milky way in the sky, or trees combined with star trails. Landscape elements add visual interest and give a sense of place to the image.

Landscape astrophotography
Photo by Dominika Roseclay from Pexels

Solar System Astrophotography

This includes photographs of the moon, the sun, or planets that orbit the earth. This type of photography is very common during events like solar and lunar eclipses.

Photo by Hossam M. Omar on Unsplash

Deep Sky Astrophotography

This type of photography involves shooting into deep space and capturing objects like other galaxies, planets, solar systems, and nebulae. While these photographs are spectacular, they are highly technical and require specialized equipment, such as astronomical telescopes, laptops, and dedicated cameras.

For the sake of this beginner’s guide, we will not focus on deep sky astrophotography. However, it is a natural progression for those who become involved in astrophotography to eventually invest in deep sky astrophotography equipment, too.

deep space
Photo by Bryan Goff on Unsplash

What is the best camera for astrophotography?

A DSLR or mirrorless camera with great low-light capability is ideal for astrophotography. A full-frame sensor is preferable, as you want to be able to capture as much light as possible. A great choice would be a Canon 6D Mark ii, a Nikon D850, or a Sony a7R iii.

However, you can still take impressive astrophotography with a crop sensor camera, like a Canon 7D Mark ii or a Nikon D500 if that’s all your budget allows. That said, you will not be able to shoot astrophotography with your mobile phone or a point and shoot camera. They simply do not have the capability required to capture all the detail necessary.

What is the best lens for astrophotography?

When it comes to astrophotography, the lens you choose is extremely important. You’ll need to consider two things: aperture and focal length. For astrophotography, you need a wide angle lens — 24mm or less — with a wide aperture — f/2.8 or larger.

Some great lenses for astrophotography are the Rokinon 14mm f/2.8, Sigma 14-24mm f/2.8, Tamron 15-30 f/2.8, or the Samyang 14mm f/2.4. The good thing about lenses for astrophotography is that you’ll only need manual focus. So, if you are shopping on a budget you can look for manual lenses that are significantly lower in cost but still good quality.

What other camera gear is needed for astrophotography?

When shooting astrophotography, besides your camera and lens, there are a few other accessories you will need. Without a doubt, you will need a tripod since you’ll be shooting long exposures of 10-30 seconds or more.

You’ll also want to invest in a remote trigger or shutter release cable, a red flashlight or headlamp so you can safely see at night, extra batteries, and, if you get into deep sky astrophotography you’ll need a telescope, star tracker, and more.

star trails
Photo by photo-nic.co.uk nic on Unsplash

Planning your photoshoot:

Astrophotography is one genre of photography that takes quite a bit of planning to pull off. Before you grab your camera and head out into the darkness, be sure to consider the following:

  • Find the darkest possible location. Light pollution is caused by artificial lights from a populated area. While it may seem dark outside, if you aren’t in an area with low light pollution, your images will suffer. Websites like lightpollutionmap.info will help you find dark sky locations nearby.
  • Consider the moon phase. Unless you’re planning to photograph the moon itself, the sky will be darkest on or around the new moon. Believe it or not, a full moon can be bright enough to ruin a milky way shot. So, check the phase of the moon before you go out.
  • Check the weather. Don’t forget to check the weather to make sure your night sky isn’t going to be concealed by clouds!
  • There’s an app for that. There are numerous paid and free smartphone apps available for astrophotographers that help you locate specific objects in the sky and even suggest exposure settings. Apps make your job much easier, so use them! Check out PhotoPills, SkySafari, and Stellarium.
  • Location, location, location. Especially important if you’re shooting landscape astrophotography, make sure the area you’re shooting as the foreground is as interesting as the night sky above it.
  • Safety first. Most dark sky areas are very secluded, away from people, towns, and often cell service, so always keep your personal safety in mind and be prepared in case of emergency.
school bus night sky
Photo by Jake Weirick on Unsplash

Best camera settings for astrophotography

Taking photos of the night sky can be challenging. The object is to capture as much light as possible so you’ll need to set the camera’s exposure settings to allow as much light as possible to reach the sensor.

To do that, you’ll need to set your camera to manual mode and make the following adjustments:

  • Shutter speed: This is the length of time your camera’s shutter is open. When shooting astrophotography, you’ll use a very long shutter speed, usually 10-30 seconds. Due to the earth’s rotation, if you leave the shutter open too long, you’ll start to get trails, or streaks, from the stars moving across the sky. The length of time you can leave the shutter open will depend on the focal length of your lens. To figure that out, use the “600 rule” which is 600 divided by the focal length of your lens. For example, if you were using a 24mm lens, 600 divided by 24 is 25, so you can use a 25-second shutter speed. Any longer than 25 seconds and you’ll see trails or oval-shaped stars in your image. If you’re using a crop sensor camera, multiply your focal length by 1.6 first and then divide 600 by that new number.
  • Aperture: Aperture describes the opening in your lens that allows light to enter. Remember, we recommend a lens with a wide aperture so it will let in the most light. When shooting astrophotography, you will usually shoot “wide open” which means you’ll set your lens to its widest available aperture. For example, if you are using the Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 lens, you’ll set your aperture to 2.8. Astrophotography can be shot at smaller apertures, like 4, but you’ll have to compensate by using a higher ISO, which will introduce noise into your image.
  • ISO: Your camera’s ISO determines the sensitivity of the sensor. This is when a camera with a high-quality sensor comes in useful. Modern full-frame cameras perform really well in low light and are known to handle higher ISO’s without introducing a lot of noise, whereas cheaper cameras may not fare as well. If you’re using a Canon 6D Mark ii, for example, you can easily set your ISO to 3200 or 6400 without any problems.
  • Always shoot in RAW. Most genres of photography recommend shooting in RAW simply because you have more options when it comes to post-processing, and astrophotography is no exception. You are pushing the limits of your camera’s capability when you shoot astrophotography, so you’ll want to preserve every bit of data and detail you captured by recording the RAW file. It will come in handy in post-processing.
northern lights astrophotography
Photo by Simon Migaj from Pexels

How to focus your camera at night

Focusing can be difficult at night because it’s hard for your camera to see something to focus on. The solution is to set your camera and lens to manual focus and do it yourself. Here are three methods to try focusing your camera at night:

  1. Focus to infinity. Adjust your lens ring to the infinity symbol (∞). This is usually a good starting point for shooting stars and the milky way. 
  2. Focus using Live View. Turn on your camera’s live view, point your camera to a bright star in the sky and magnify it in live view so you can see if you’re focused on it. Adjust your focus ring until you get it focused where you want it.
  3. Focus with your flashlight. If you’re shooting landscape astrophotography, you might prefer to focus on something in the foreground, while the sharpness of the stars isn’t as important. In this case, you can use a flashlight to light up the scene to make it easier for your camera to focus.

Tip: Once you’ve got your lens focused where you want it, use a piece of gaffer’s tape to lock it in place so you don’t accidentally knock it out of focus!

Post-processing  for astrophotography

Use software like Adobe Photoshop to edit and enhance your astrophotography. With this program or others like it, you’ll be able to bring out the details, contrast, and colors you captured to bring your image from good to great — especially if you shot your images in RAW.

A single shot straight out of camera might look somewhat disappointing but the magic truly happens in post-production. Making adjustments to white balance, contrast, saturation, shadows, white and black point, and reducing noise are necessary to make an average shot look extraordinary.

One great way to learn how to edit astrophotography images is to watch tutorials and study how other photographers edit their images. Use that as a jumping-off point to develop your own editing style.

Final thoughts

Astrophotography may seem complicated, but with a bit of planning and practice, it is also one of the most rewarding genres of photography. The beauty of astrophotography is that the universe is literally endless — and there is no shortage of things you can photograph!

With the help of this guide, you now have the basic tools to get outside and shoot your first images of the night sky. 

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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