Astrophotography

Since the 1800s, many technological developments have allowed the art of astrophotography to become both a lucrative profession and a popular pastime for many. Being a subset of photography, it’s common for many traditional photographers to transition into astrophotography. Both areas share a lot of the same gear requirements and needed skills. 

However, there are a few things you need to know and acquire before photographers can jump into astrophotography. To really master the art of astrophotography, it will take time, studying and investment. It’s going to take even longer if you want to make a career out of astrophotography. Regardless of your intent, there are a few things you should know before venturing out to capture the night sky.

Definition

The definition of astrophotography is a type of photography that captures a celestial object or events. Essentially, if in space and you capture it with a camera, you’re engaging in astrophotography. Now, there are different levels of astrophotographers, ranging from amateurs to professionals working for the likes of NASA.

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History of astrophotography

Astrophotography has a long history, but it’s quite a new form of photography.

The first known attempts at astrophotography were from Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre (the father of the daguerreotype). In 1839, he tried to photograph the moon. Though the image turned out fuzzy, it helped form a new type of photography dedicated to capturing celestial objects and events.

Other early major achievements in astrophotography come from John William Draper (who took the first successful photo of the moon) and Léon Foucault (who took the first photograph of the sun). Additionally, in 1883, Henry Draper — an American doctor and an amateur astronomer — took the first photograph (daguerreotype) of an astronomical nebula (the Great Nebula of Orion)

The first image of the Great Nebula of Orion. Image courtesy: Henry Draper

Initially, astrophotography was primarily for scientific purposes and discovery. However, over the years, as technology’s become more advanced and accessible to the public, it has expanded its role. Today, you don’t need to be a professional with the most high-tech equipment to engage with astrophotography. Today’s hobbyist astrophotography market has grown into a formidable industry.

Professional vs. amateur astrophotographers

Astrophotography is a popular hobby for many photographers. While professional and amateur astrophotographers both capture objects in space, there are many differences between them. Typically, amateur astrophotographers focus on capturing aesthetically-pleasing images. They’re less concerned with capturing or recording the events for scientific purposes. This group of astrophotographers uses a wide range of gear, including anything from telescopes they bought online to homemade equipment.

While professional astrophotographers aim to capture a high-quality image, it’s for different reasons. Instead of aesthetic purpose, professionals want to ensure the images they’re capturing are clear and composed well to capture the celestial object or event. Later, they’ll use the information they capture for scientific research and data.

Education needed

To become a professional astrophotographer working for organizations like NSA, you have to spend a decent amount of time in college studying relevant fields. The most common degrees astrophotographers have are Masters or Ph.D.’s in science, computer science or engineering. Additionally, it would be best if you had classes in astronomy and advanced photography. Having a formal education is essential in this area of the industry because it’s very competitive.

Gear you need

When you’re starting in astrophotography, start slow. There’s a lot of gear you can get, but when you’re just starting out, a DSLR or Mirrorless camera and a sturdy tripod will suffice. As you learn the basics, you can start adding to your gear. Here’s a rundown of the equipment you can look into as you break into astrophotography.

Camera

Canon EOS Ra
Canon EOS Ra. Image courtesy: AstroBackyard

Typically, the standard types of cameras used for astrophotography are top-of-the-line DSLRs and Mirrorless cameras with manual modes. While you can use other cameras, such as your phone, the quality of the image won’t come close. You need access to various settings and specs that you can’t get without using a professional camera. Typically, you’re going to want a camera with an ISO that goes up to either 2000, 3200 or 6400. While an ISO of 800 or 1600 is acceptable, it will not deliver as much quality as the higher ISO levels. When working at a higher ISO, make sure your noise levels are in check as well. While higher ISOs generally deliver more picture quality, it can result in noise if you go too high.

Lens

The type of lens you use is just as important as the kind of camera you use. Opt for a wide-angle lens with a wide aperture — you’re going to need to welcome as much light into your camera’s sensor as possible. Having a wider aperture allows more light to enter the lens. Shoot for a 34mm aperture lens, a focal length of about 14 to 20 mm and an f-stop of f/2.8 or faster.

Star-tracker mount

Star-tracker mount
Star-tracker mount. Image courtesy: AstroBackyard

This mount is specifically for astrophotography. To capture clear images of objects in space, you need to have long exposure times. Since the earth is continuously rotating faster than any of us realize, you need to have this mount to ensure the image is clear. Otherwise, you’ll end up with blurry trails as the sensor isn’t moving along with the light as the earth rotates.

Tripod

Tripods are essential in astrophotography. They allow you to keep your camera steady for long periods, which lets your camera to take in as much light as it needs. If you don’t use a tripod (or if you use an unsteady one), you run the risk of your images coming out blurry. There are several good tripods out there. Ideally, you’ll want one that is portable and easy to transport because you’re going to be shooting outdoors. Check out our tripod buyer’s guide for some of our suggestions.

Tips from beginning astrophotographers

Use manual focus

No matter how good a camera’s autofocus is, it’s going to struggle to focus on stars. The only way you can ensure your image is in focus is to have your camera and lens set to manual mode. You’ll have to make the focusing adjustments yourself, but that’s the only practical way you can get the night sky in focus.

Consider you environment

The best time to shoot astrophotography is at night. However, the best time to scout out a shooting location is in the day. You want to pick out a place with stable terrain, so it would be as easy as possible to keep your camera stable throughout the shoot. Also, be sure to pick a place that’s safe to travel to in the middle of the night.

There are a few apps out there that can simulate the night sky. They can help you plan out your shot and determine if your location is a good spot.

Bring extra batteries and memory cards

Astrophotography takes up a lot of power and memory. Extra batteries and memory cards will save you from having to cut your shooting session shot.

There’s no better time to start than now

Astrophotography requires a similar skill set to traditional photography. It would be best if you had a basic understanding of compassion and know the settings layout of your camera. It also has its unique requirements, such as an understanding of constellations and timing. You also need the right kind of gear capable of capturing celestial objects at night.

That being said, if you want to pick up astrophotography, start slow and work your way up. Learn your gear and what settings work best. As you learn, your skills will improve and your images will follow suit.