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DSLR Astrophotography – A beginners guide to the stars

DSLR astrophotography is gaining popularity year over year.  Have you ever looked up at the stars and wondered if you were capable of taking pictures of this beautiful scene?  The Milky Way and the stars above have a way of captivating people from all over the world.  Yes, it is possible to capture this wonderful dance of starlight with your camera lens.  The art of DSLR astrophotography is a rewarding hobby taken on by amateur astronomers and photographers alike.

 

DSLR Astrophotography
Landscape astrophotography image with a Canon DSLR camera

 

Start taking amazing pictures of the night sky

 

The key is to have the right camera settings to achieve the best possible results.  There are some DSLR Astrophotography basics that need to be understood before you set up your camera under the night sky.  These simple steps will help you understand the process of acquiring an image that accurately portrays the starry night sky.  In the beginning, capturing a photo that clearly depicts a constellation in the sky is a victory!

For starters, you will want to use a camera lens on the body of your DSLR with the widest field of view possible.  This is indicated by the lenses focal length, and somewhere around 18mm or wider is ideal.  This will take in a large area of the night sky, and will also help to hide star-trailing that will inevitably take place during long exposures.  A tripod is also a must.  Chances are that you already own one of these photography essentials if you have gotten this far.  The steady support that a tripod provides is necessary for long-exposure night photography.  The slightest nudge to your camera during an exposure will result in a blurry image.

 

Orion constellation
Orion the hunter

 

Beginner DSLR Astrophotography Tips

 

Use a high ISO setting

The reason you want to use a high ISO setting is because it increases your camera’s sensitivity to light.   When you are in the dark, this is a very important factor.  By using a setting of ISO 1600 or greater, your digital camera will be sensitive enough to record starlight.  Yes, this will increase the amount of noise in your image, but that can be subtracted later during post processing.

 

 Use a “fast” aperture

The lower the F-number your camera is set to, the wider the aperture. A wider aperture allows more light to hit the camera sensor and be recorded.  Again, astrophotography is all about capturing faint light from the night sky!  Some lenses are capable of very wide aperture settings such as f/2.8 or even lower.  These make great astrophotography lens options.  However, the focal length of these lenses must also be considered. For example, a Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 lens may seem like an attractive option at f/1.8.  The problem is that a focal length of 50mm on a crop-sensor DSLR such as a Canon Rebel Series DSLR is much too long for a tripod-mounted night sky photograph.

 

Use a sturdy tripod

Not only do you need the tripod to hold your precious camera pointing upwards in a rock-solid state, but you will be using it in the dark!  A shaky tripod that slowly loses its position will become very apparent in your first attempts at astrophotography.  A weak or lightweight tripod that can easily be kicked over is an accident waiting to happen.  Tilt your camera towards an open area of the night sky.  Make sure that you have locked the camera in place on the release plate, and that the plate itself is locked into position.

 

DSLR astrophotography tripod

 

Use manual focus

Point your camera up towards a neighborhood streetlight or any other bright source of light you can find.  You can either use live view on the camera screen or look through the viewfinder.  Use manual focus to confirm a sharp shot of the stars.  If that streetlight in the distance is sharp, your stars will be too.  You can later tighten this up even further by making small adjustments after each exposure you take.

 

Use Manual Mode

See that little “M” on the dial of your camera?  That’s manual mode, and it can be used it for a variety of interesting photographic opportunities.  The reason this mode is so important for astrophotography is that you can set your exposure length anywhere from less than a second to a full 30 seconds.  With a remote shutter control device, you can expose even longer.  For our purposes, an exposure length of about 20-25 seconds will yield the best results.

 

Shoot RAW!

Shooting in .RAW format has its advantages for all types of photography, but it seems to be extra handy when shooting night sky photography.  When you shoot in RAW mode, you can adjust the white-balance, reduce noise, increase saturation and much more – all after the photo has been taken!  The noise-reduction feature of Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) in Adobe Photoshop is extremely useful when processing a DSLR astrophotography image.

Advanced Astrophotography Tips

For advanced DSLR astrophotography tips, read this article:  5 ways to improve your astrophotography

 

Recommended settings for night sky photography

 

Focal Length: 18mm
Focus: Manual
White Balance: Auto
Aperture: f/4
ISO: 3200
Exposure Length: 25 Seconds

 

Landscape astrophotography
Stars over a cottage lake in Ontario – Photo by Trevor Jones

 

Because we kept the exposure to a length of 25 seconds, at this focal length the stars do not trail in the image.  Star trail photographs are images where you combine multiple long exposure frames into a single composite photo.

 

Processing the image

 

The art of processing an astrophotography image is one that can be done in several different ways, depending on your artistic tastes.  Although everyone has a different idea of how their photo should look, there are some basic guidelines that apply across the board.  I highly recommend using Adobe Photoshop to process your DSLR astrophotography images, as it has advanced tools and features that can bring the color, detail, and clarity out of your photos.  This software is at the top of the list for many professional astrophotographers all over the world.

 

Noise Reduction

 

Noise reduction is necessary because long exposures at night will inevitably create noise in your image.  There are many ways to remove noise, but the most basic way to reduce noise is by using the luminance noise reduction feature in Adobe Camera Raw.  This is found within the “detail” tab in the dialogue box that opens up when you open a RAW image file in Adobe Photoshop.

 

astrophotography image processing

 

There are astrophotography resources available for processing images, that are specifically designed for night sky photography.  Many of them were created to even out the background sky and make processing images of the night sky easier.  Gradient Xterminator is a great plugin for Photoshop that can drastically reduce the amount of vignetting and gradients due to noise pollution.

 

Exposure and Contrast

 

Adjusting the exposure and contrast will make the background sky darker, and make the stars more prominent.  Depending on how much light pollution you are shooting in, the exact amount of exposure and contrast adjustments will vary.  Adobe Camera Raw has adjustment sliders for Clarity and Dehaze (found in the Effects tab) that can make a real difference in the look of your final image.

 

Vibrance and Saturation

 

A strong astrophotography image will have lots of star color, and a natural but cool looking background sky.  By adjusting the vibrance and saturation controls in either ACR, or within the layer adjustment controls of Photoshop, you will enhance the beauty of your subject and create a more dynamic image.  Use sparingly.  Over-doing it can leave your image looking unnatural and fake.

 

Winter constellations in the night sky
Winter constellations in the night sky

 

How to take pictures of the moon

 

If you are interested in how to take pictures of the moon, you can read a great post about moon photography on the DSLR astrophotography blog, AstroBackyard.  This is a great resource for anyone looking to moving towards deep-sky DSLR astrophotography using a telescope and a tracking mount.  The moon is a moving target, so you will need to use the proper camera settings to freeze it in its tracks, to get a clean shot.  A telephoto lens or telescope is needed to really capture the details of the lunar surface.By attaching an adapter to your DSLR, you can connect your camera to a telescope and use it as a camera lens.  Th

By attaching an adapter to your DSLR, you can connect your camera to a telescope and use it as a camera lens.  This is known as prime-focus astrophotography, and is how amateur astrophotographers take pictures of deep sky nebulae and galaxies.  The telescope rides on an equatorial mount that moves with the motion of the sky to allow the camera to capture sharp images of the night sky without star trailing.  The same concept works well for moon photography, as the moon will stay put, even at a higher magnification focal length of 400mm or more!

A great photo of the moon will include a combination of an interesting landscape, with a sharp, clear view of the surface of the moon.  This scenario can be hard to come by!  Even if you have found an interesting landscape with some foreground interest, the moon may not rise in the location you had planned.  Also, there may be passing clouds or other weather situations that interfere with your shoot.  This is all part of the fun!

Harvest moon
The 2016 harvest moon rising – photo by Trevor Jones

 

A special astronomy event such as the Harvest Moon, or better yet a lunar eclipse is worth some extra effort to get your shot.  Photographing astronomical events is a great way to share your passion for the night sky with others.  Everyone seems to get together and appreciate how amazing our planet is during these times, and that is a beautiful thing.  A Lunar eclipse offers a fantastic opportunity to capture the moon in a beautiful orange color, and even pick up the stars that surround it in the night sky in a single exposure!

 

lunar eclipse
A total lunar eclipse – photo by Trevor Jones

 

What about deep-sky astrophotography of nebulae, galaxies and star clusters?  Well, that type of photography takes a lot of time, patience, and the right equipment.  A German Equatorial mount capable of compensating for the rotation of the Earth is needed to capture deep-sky objects such as a galaxy or nebula.  For a sampling of the type of astrophotography equipment needed for this process, have a look at the video below.


 

In conclusion, the art of photographing the night sky is reserved for those who are passionate about our universe. The best part is, you can start slow.  The first step is to purchase a DSLR camera and a lens.  There have never been so many affordable camera options for beginner DSLR astrophotography.  I recommend an entry-level DSLR from Canon, such as the Canon Rebel series.  These cameras are reliable, durable, and are capable of producing stunning images.

I hope that this article has inspired you to appreciate nature and the night sky.  We all share the same night sky, and when we appreciate the beauty of it together, we become more connected with the Universe, and each other.  DSLR astrophotography is a rewarding pastime that will likely turn into a lifelong passion.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

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